Monthly Archives: October 2010

Illegal Aliens to be Welcomed in Denver

With all of the bat-shit crazy, radical fear mongering about how illegal aliens will destroy our great Christian nation, Denver may actually pass a ballot initiative welcoming them with open arms. Or tentacles, maybe. The Wall Street Journal has an article all about it. (Sorry, it may be behind a pay wall.)

Ballot Initiative 300 would require the city to set up an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission, stocked with Ph.D. scientists, to “ensure the health, safety and cultural awareness of Denver residents” when it comes to future contact “with extraterrestrial intelligent beings or their vehicles.”

Jeff Peckman (no relation to Walter Peck, as far as I know), who is the mastermind behind the initiative considers this to be a jobs program. Once the aliens (who he is sure have been visiting Earth for some time already) know they are welcome in Denver, they will show themselves and all of the great engineers and scientists of the world will come to the city so they can start to work out how the alien technologies function. Why is Denver the best location for this ambassadorial effort? According to Mr. Peckman:

The city is perched a mile above sea level, so why wouldn’t travelers from a distant galaxy stop here first?
But don’t worry, there is a voice of sanity led by the main opposition group to the initiative.
They face an impassioned opposition led by Bryan Bonner, who dismisses the unidentified-flying-object buffs as delusional if not outright frauds.
One thing about Mr. Bonner: He spends his spare time crawling through spooky spaces, deploying remote digital thermometers, seismographs, infrared cameras, electromagnetic field detectors and Nerf balls in pursuit of evidence of the paranormal. He is, in short, a ghost hunter.
And he has rallied his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society to fight Initiative 300 as an embarrassment to science–and to Denver.

Yes. The voice of reason and sanity is coming from ghost hunters who spend their time, when not fighting the alien hunters (the people looking for ET, not the Minuteman Project people, that is), taking pictures of EMF fields and trying to create lens distortions in their out-of-focus photos. The basic premise of their argument is that hunting for UFOs is obviously stupid while ghost hunting is obviously smart.

Mr. Bonner, the ghost hunter, is fighting back with his own website asserting that “Peckman and his ‘little green people’ are not representative of the people of Denver.”
“Little green people,” Mr. Peckman responds with outrage, is a “racial slur.”

You just can’t make up stuff like this.

Tanya Treadway – Enemy of the First Amendment

Can somebody explain to me what the hell is going on in Jacob Sullum’s latest post at Reason‘s Hit&Run blog? Here’s the background:

Last week Kansas physician Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, who worked as a nurse in his practice, were sentenced to 30 and 33 years, respectively, for painkiller prescriptions the Drug Enforcement Administration considered inappropriate.

Not everyone believed they were guilty, especially Siobhan Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network (PRN), who tried to draw publicity to their plight. For that, Tanya Treadway, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Schneiders, began her own campaign against Reynolds, only she used a grand jury.

Supposedly looking for evidence of obstruction of justice, Treadway obtained subpoenas that demanded, among other things, communications between Reynolds and the Schneiders, a PRN-produced video on the conflict between drug control and pain control, and documents related to a PRN-sponsored billboard in Wichita that proclaimed, “Dr. Schneider never killed anyone.” This investigation followed Treadway’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain a gag order prohibiting Reynolds from talking about the Schneiders’ case.

This is where it gets really weird. The AP’s Roxana Gegeman reports:

Siobhan Reynolds, president of the Pain Relief Network, has asked the nation’s highest court to quash subpoenas issued to her and her nonprofit group and make public the proceedings against her. The usually public court docket–which includes court documents, hearing dates and other case information–has been sealed in her case in a federal district court in Kansas and 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Even at the U.S. Supreme Court, there was scant public record showing her case existed until last week, when the court agreed to make a redacted version of her appeal available while it decides whether to take the case.

I know grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret, but I’m kind of shocked that the targets of a grand jury can be prohibited from talking about their attempts to fight the subpoena.

Reynolds’ attorney, Robert Corn-Revere of Washington, D.C., said the case is unusual because most secret proceedings involve some kind of national security and this one does not. Federal prosecutors have declined to talk about their reasons for pursuing the case in secret.

Well, I’ll talk about the reason: Federal prosecutors are colossal dicks. Oh, sure, they sometimes nail real bad guys, but that’s kind of their job description, and it doesn’t excuse this kind of bullshit.

Actually, one federal lawyer sort-of talked about it:

Acting Solicitor General Neal Kumar Katyal has opposed unsealing the case or even making her full petition to the Supreme Court available. The document contains confidential grand jury material, he said in a written response to the court.

Wait a minute. Reynolds, the target of the grand jury, has stuff in her petition that is confidential grand jury material? How did that happen? And if she already has it, who are they hiding it from? What grand jury confidentially remains when someone not involved in the proceedings has information about them? And when did Reynolds acquire a duty to protect grand jury confidentiality?

The only scenario I can think of that doesn’t offend the First Amendment is if during her attempt to quash the subpoena she somehow received grand jury materials under the condition that she keep them confidential. I don’t even know if that’s possible. And you’d think somebody involved with the story would have mentioned it.

One more twist. The Institute For Justice and the Reason Foundation filed an amicus brief on Reynolds’ behalf. You and I can’t see it, though, because this brief, filed by outsiders to the original proceedings, is somehow covered by the gag order:

Before I wrote this post, I checked with Geoffrey Michael, the lead attorney on the I.J./Reason brief, to make sure it was OK to make the file available here. He thought that was fine, since the brief did not contain any secret grand jury information. But he has since informed me that the 10th Circuit’s clerk says the brief should not be published, which is why it is no longer here. This instruction illustrates the ridiculously broad notion of grand jury secrecy at play in this case, since the amicus brief is based entirely on publicly available information. Scott Michelman, the ACLU attorney who is representing Reynolds, told me he was not allowed to share his U.S. District Court brief opposing the subpoenas, although he was free to reiterate the arguments it contained.

The War On Drugs has almost completely destroyed the Fourth Amendment, so I guess statist pigs like Tanya Treadway and Neal Kumar Katyal have decided to take a run at the First Amendment.

I’ll let Jacob Sullum have the last word:

I’d like to show you the Reason/I.J. brief defending Reynolds’ First Amendment rights, but I’m not allowed to!

Scholarship for a Nerd

Christie Wilcox writes one of my favorite blogs, Observations of a Nerd, and is hoping to win a $10,000 scholarship for her graduate studies. She’s an excellent blogger and scientist. Over the past week she had some great articles on evolution which you should check out.

Her competition looks lame, yet she was running behind in the polls when I voted for her. Please give her a hand and vote for Christie Wilcox! (Consider it practice for next Tuesday.)

Chicago Police Hold City Hostage

Two cops have filed a libel suit against the Chicago Police Superintendent, Jody Weis, because they were investigated for beating a handcuffed teenager.

Though Weis never identified Meuris and Vanna by name to the news media, he published their names in an internal communication sent to others in the Police Department, said their attorney, Daniel Herbert.

How is an investigation of officers to take place if no one is allowed to mention their names in any internal communications? This would be a laughable, frivolous suit if it weren’t for the message being sent by the officers.

Don’t investigate us, under any circumstances, for anything. Or else.
The cops here have been getting bolder in their reaction to being investigated for breaking the law themselves. Many have been threatening the citizens saying that they will not do their jobs, and will leave the city to the criminals if the investigations don’t stop. These are the cops who protested for their right to beat up people handcuffed to wheelchairs. Now they are suing the superintendent for nothing more than investigating brutality accusations.
No longer are they satisfied with simple cover ups and whitewashes. They never want an investigation to begin at all.
These are armed thugs, holding our city hostage, and I’m sick of it.
Rahm Emanuel has been running around Chicago asking people about issues for the mayoral election. He’s going to make education a key issue. I think he should make police reform a priority. If you happen to catch Rahm at an event, tell him you are sick of the Chicago police holding the citizens hostage. Tell him you want to see some real reform in the department for once.
There have been plenty of studies over the decades with good ideas, so it’s not hard to find out what needs to be done. There are two things I would like to see done right away to help.
All officers need to wear cameras that record any interaction with citizens. Richard II loves to go to Europe to find new ideas for Chicago. He liked all of the cameras in London watching the citizens there (despite the fact they were found not to be cost effective) yet never managed the courage to suggest we mount cameras on police officers as they now do in the UK.
I guess he was afraid of what the cops would do to him if he suggested such a thing. If every interaction was recorded by the police, the city could potentially save millions of dollars now spent in lawsuits over false abuse claims. As it is now, who wouldn’t believe a citizen who claimed they were abused by a Chicago cop? Apparently it’s hard for city attorneys to find twelve people at a time not willing to believe such claims.
Head-cams would quickly pay for themselves many times over, helping to balance the city budget. False claims would be minimized and bad cops would be more reticent to abuse their powers.
Another reform that often appears in independent studies is a requirement that all police have a bachelor’s degree. On one level, the systems used by modern police forces are complex and require a better educated person. Better educated police officers should be more effective police officers. Beyond this obvious advantage, though, are the studies showing that better educated officers are less likely to abuse their authority.
Other reforms would be welcome and needed, but, as a first step, these two changes would go a long way towards a better police force in Chicago.
Chicago citizens are being held hostage. I guess we need a hostage negotiator. I wonder who that could be?

How to Spin a Police Involved Accident

I just spotted an article about a women hit by a Chicago Police vehicle this morning. (This site often changes the text of their articles several times. Here’s how it reads as of 16:30 CDT):

A woman in her 60s was injured this morning after she was struck by a Chicago police vehicle in the Albany Park neighborhood, officials said.
The accident happened about 6:17 a.m. at the intersection of Kedzie and Montrose Avenues, said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Darryl Baety.
The police vehicle was responding to a “high priority” call involving a sexual assault in progress, Baety said. Baety did not know if the vehicle’s emergency lights were activated.
The woman sustained lacerations and bruises to her head and was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, Baety said.
The woman’s condition was not available.

Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Darryl Baety’s pants are on fire.

In Baety’s world, apparently, police officers never make mistakes or have accidents. So, how do you spin an accident to make it look like it was the victim’s fault? Just tell everyone that the officer was responding to a “high priority” call involving a sexual assault in progress. After all, who could blame the cop for accidentally hitting an elderly lady as long as he was rushing to protect a poor helpless women who, at that very moment, was being violently raped!
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened in the real world.
There was, in point of fact, a low priority call about a man exposing himself near a McDonald’s. Here’s a transcription of the call from the dispatcher to the officers who were to respond:
A sex offense 4546 Kedzie. 4546 Kedzie, at the McDonalds.
Caller says the police were out earlier for a male Hispanic who was naked and, uh, exposing himself out in front of the McDonalds.
The guy is back. He’s standing near the bushes on the side of the building, keeps coming back.
The caller, [caller’s name], would like to speak with you; says she can point him out.

A minute or so later the officer involved in the accident called in to report it and request an ambulance “ASAP”.

Accidents happen. People will want to place blame. Others involved will want to divert blame. Eventually, if someone wants to know, they will get official transcriptions and collect statements from witnesses. I’m pretty sure you can get a clear picture, eventually, of just what happened.
By then, however, the story will have blown over and most of the public will not care. For now, what is important to the Police News Affairs Office, is making sure that the CPD looks good. The police don’t make mistakes, and they will spin any and every incident to demonstrate that.
Can anyone remind me why many people don’t trust the police anymore?

That’s a Lot of Candles

Today, October 23, is a good day to celebrate the birth of the universe. The question is just how many candles do we need for the cake?

There are some competing theories about the age of the universe. One is based upon observations of, well, the universe.
Scientists have been studying the cosmic background radiation that permeates the universe in every direction and is a remnant of an explosion so large it created all space, time and matter that can be detected either directly or indirectly. Physicists have run the numbers to figure out just how hot that explosion was and have then figured out how long it would take to cool down to the temperature that we now see in this background radiation.
Astronomers have also managed to run tests using observations which show the universe is expanding away in all directions, and even still is accelerating, being pushed outward by a dark energy which can’t be seen directly, but which must exist to cause such an acceleration. The cool thing is that such an energy was predicted in the standard model of physics. When the scientists work backwards and calculate how long such an expansion has been going on for, they end up with a dating method for creation.
The age of the universe, as determined by looking at the universe, is approximately 13,750,000,000 years, give or take 170,000,000 years. With better instruments, scientists have been narrowing down the uncertainty in that estimate.
As PZ Myers reminded me this morning, the main competing theory to the age of the universe is not based upon looking at the universe, but instead confines all of its calculations to a single book written by nomadic sheep herders thousands of years ago. The great advantage to this method of dating (as calculated by James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland) is it’s accuracy. There is no give-or-take uncertainty using this method. He just took the current date and used the power of subtraction to work his way back through the events in that book to the moment the book says everything was created.
His answer was 23 October, 4004 BCE, 6013 years ago today.
There is no need to develop more accurate instruments to help narrow down the calculations since there are no observations of the universe involved using this method. Cool! As long as you never allow your eyes to waver away from the single book and actually look at the thing you are trying to date, all is well.
I won’t tell you which method I place my trust in since I wouldn’t want to influence your analysis in any way.
So go out, buy a cake, and celebrate the birth of the universe today! I certainly will. I should warn you, though, that if you are anywhere near Chicago you probably won’t be able to get your hands on any candles. I plan on buying a lot of them.

Amateur Historians

I really enjoy studying history. I’ve moved around time and the globe delving deeper into Mycenaean influences beyond Greece and studying the nuances of one particular commander who has been maligned in the Battle of Gettysburg. Every time I think I might find some historical event boring, I run into some fascinating element that grabs my attention.

I would never consider myself a professional historian. I would certainly never claim that I was capable of writing a history book for use in a public school.
Just for the fun of it, however, let’s say I did write an elementary school history book. No school board would be stupid enough to buy it, right? I suppose that would depend upon what the school board wanted history to be.
In Virginia, as in most of the country, school boards are popularity contests that have virtually nothing to do with academics. They were so eager to rewrite the history of the US Civil War, they adopted a school history book written not by a historian, but by Joy Masoff who wrote the “correct” history and backed the position up with links to something she happened to run across on an Internet website. She did no fact checking. She didn’t look into the claims to see where they got their “facts”. It’s on the Internet, so it must be true! (*If a student of mine tried something like that on a term paper, I would have them rewrite it.)
Then the school board, which managed to find the history it happened to like, didn’t bother to run it past any actual historians. After all, it’s written in a book, it must be true!
Since it looks like I’ll have some spare time away from Windy Investments, perhaps I should write history books. The first step will be finding out what some school board would like to hear. The rest is easy. Just Google for the information and quote the first source I find.
* The Internet is a poor to fair resource for scientific research, but has been getting better. Google Scholar allows me to find materials that, just a few years ago, would have required out-of-state trips to university libraries. No one in their right mind, however, would take a basic Google search and assume that all of the results are Gospel.

The Only Known Requirement

There’s an animated video making its way around the legal blogosphere in which a cynical older lawyer tries to convince an idealistic prospective law student not to go to law school. As a non-lawyer, I’m probably missing half the jokes, but it’s still pretty funny.

I was more fascinated, however, by the web site used to create the video,, which provides tools for anyone to make a video in a similar style. Once you register for a free account, you can use a simple interface to create the shooting script. You can change the characters and setting, and you can annotate the script with facial expressions, animations, sound effects, and changes in camera angle. When you’re ready to see what you created, the site can generate a low-res version of the video for you to preview. Once you’ve got something you like, you can re-render a high-quality version for downloading and publication.

I had to give this a try. In keeping with the theme of the first video, I made it about what I do for a living. I don’t know what the job market is like for a beginning software developer, but I’m not nearly as cynical about my job as these lawyers are about theirs. Still, there are some annoying surprises for people just out of school. After a few years, the surprise factor is gone, and only the annoyance remains.

So here’s my video of a conversation in which Mark, a software engineer, finds out about his next software project from Ted, the boss. My clients are too smart to waste my time and their money this way, but back when I was an employee at a mid-size corporation, I had a depressing number of conversations like this. You see, a lot of people launch software projects with almost no thought to the details, except for one curiously specific requirement…