October 2010

You are browsing the site archives for October 2010.

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.

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!

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.)

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?

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?

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.

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.

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, xtranormal.com, 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…

Mark’s review of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine sounds interesting. I generally find finance and economics difficult to read about, but I may give the book a go.

From the sound of it, the author and I seem to have a couple of similar arguments about what is wrong with the efficient market. One premise I like to start with is that efficient markets require free and open knowledge of the marketplace. This is the reason corporations and, pretty much anything you can invest in, have reams of information regularly produced and distributed as mandated by the SEC.

In business school, intro finance courses spend most of their time explaining how to read all of these reports. (If they went beyond that, I must have fallen asleep by that point in the lectures.) In theory, this is what keeps everyone in the marketplace aware of what is going on, and allows the efficient market to work. I believe this system has been running into trouble for a couple of reasons.

One is touched upon in your description of what Lewis calls fraud. Even when it isn’t called fraud, fudging the numbers in quarterly and annual reports seems to be standard operating procedure these days. If you can’t hide the numbers anymore, just spin off a new corporation and hide the numbers there. Much of this seems to be legal, though I would still call it fraud. The purpose is to deceive investors and cloud the reality of the marketplace. You can’t do this forever, but people can become millionaires or billionaires in a very short time, so the deception doesn’t need to hold for too long. In this respect corporations, and to some extent the markets they are traded in, become like a game of musical chairs. The last investor standing loses. The last investor is often the one who thinks their investment is long term.

“Short term thinking” goes beyond simply not seeing that your investment isn’t good in the long run. Short term thinking can be a money-making trading strategy that investors can keep using in the long run. The concept of day trading is based upon catching (very) short term trends. Buy (or short) a stock in the morning, perhaps because you anticipate a reaction from a news item, then sell in the afternoon before the long term impacts can be digested by the market. This sort of very short term view, it seems to me, is starting to become more prevalent in the markets.

I don’t mean that there are more and more day traders, but that the entire market is now looking for shorter and shorter returns on investment. When you chat with traders and ask them about their long term investments, you often hear statements like “Sure this is long term. We may even keep it more than a year!” Technology, in particular computer networking, allows for the rapid dissemination of information and traders are treating every week, or even day, as if that were the day quarterly statements for an investment came out. The actual quarterly and annual reports are increasingly becoming nothing more than when you happen to update some of the numbers in your trading model instead of being an indicator of whether you want to keep the investment or not.

As the investment horizon is shortened, this way of thinking must start to become part of the corporate culture as well. After all, ultimately the management of a corporation is working for the investors as represented by the board of directors. Since wealthy individuals need to diversify their investments (to protect against the unpredictability mentioned by Lewis) very few individuals have controlling interest in any major corporation anymore. Large investment funds have replaced the individual and now have the influence to affect corporate management.

Something else I was taught in graduate business school, way back in the ancient mists of time, was that top corporate management was mainly supposed to concern itself with the far future of the firm. They were to think 10 to 20 years into the future, or even beyond. Wealthy individual investors in the past often shared this view and often hoped to maintain their investment for decades. This culture became so ingrained that business schools taught that top managers should shun any short term projects.

Do you think that there’s an investment fund out there today that is capable of thinking of a corporate investment beyond 1 year? Beyond 5 years? Probably not, and, under the free market, they are correct to focus on the short term. Any long term investment will wax and wane over time and anyone who is interested in becoming a millionaire this year will ask why the fund failed to sell before any drop and buy before any gain. The fund will only grow if they pursue a (winning) short term strategy, and the corporations will only get investment funds if they deliver on short term promises. The large-fund controlled board will hire management that can deliver. The market works, so to speak, just not the way that is best for the future.

So yes, I see the fraud (legal and illegal) as a major impediment to the efficient market, but I also see the market working against its own future by an obsessive (valid?) focus on short term returns and trades as enabled by modern computer networks and databases and encouraged by the efficient market itself.

I think we should become fund managers who get paid for transactions. You do have the windyinvestments.com domain reserved, right? The more transactions we make the more money we earn. We need to be sure to tell our clients to never hold onto an investment for more than a week or so…

Of course we probably don’t have the seed money for this. With the kind of money we could put together we wouldn’t be called fund managers, we would be called loan sharks. Charles Ponzzi had a way around that, but it’s only legal if you are deemed to big to fail by the government.

To my co-blogger Ken:

I haven’t seen you in a while, so we haven’t had time to talk about any of the usual stuff, therefore I’m taking this opportunity to submit a modest proposal for your consideration.

As you know, one of the areas where we disagree about economics issues is the subject of the efficient market hypothesis. I tend to believe those economists who say that the free market is efficient, that is, it makes the best possible use of materials and information.

Obviously, this isn’t perfectly true. In fact, it can’t be, because the reason for believing there are few inefficiencies is because people will spot them and take advantage of them for profit, which tends to eliminate them. Further, there are all sorts of inefficiencies caused by things like monopolies and asymetric information. Still, I usually believe the efficient market hypothesis explains much of the market.

You, on the other hand, seem to believe there are a number of persistent inefficiencies that aren’t being eliminated. In particular, you ascribe a lot of inefficiency to short-term thinking in the capital markets.

My response to this has always been to ask why the long-term players don’t just buy the stuff the short-term guys are undervaluing. Or why don’t they take a short position on the stuff the short-term guys are overvaluing? If the short-term guys are pressuring a company’s management into squeezing the company for short-term gains, why don’t some smart traders buy the company and make even more money by holding it for the long term? If short-term thinking is a problem, why aren’t the long-term investors picking up the money?

I’ve just been reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Everything in it could be wrong–I have no way to tell, but people I trust say it’s right–but I think it sheds some light on our conflict. The book is about the subprime mortgage crisis, as seen from the point of view of the handful of traders who took very big bets against subprime mortgage bonds. It’s a very good read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how we got into this mess.

If the subprime mortgage crisis is a representative example, the short answer to why markets are inefficient seems to be that you are right about there being too much short-term thinking. The major subprime investors were enjoying the cashflow from the mortgage payments (or from various derivatives) far too much, and this made it hard for them to see the dismal future ahead.

As to my question of why someone didn’t clean up with a little long-term investment, I think The Big Short sheds a bit of light there too. The natural enemy of long-term investment is unpredictability, and this unpredictability arose for three reasons:

  • First, there was a lot of fraud going on. Home owners, mortgage originators, rating services, and investment bankers lied like mad to create the subprime bond market. This is essentially a problem of asymmetric information. Who could invest long-term when you’re not sure what’s really going on?
  • Second, large amounts of money were controlled by relatively small numbers of traders, so it only took a few stupid people to invest billions of dollars in a losing proposition. This blew the economic assumption of rationality right out of the water.
  • Third, once a few people started making money from subprime loans, traders faced a lopsided incentive system: If they didn’t invest in the subprime market and it made money, they’d look like fools to their bosses and investors. But if they did invest in subprime bonds and the market went sour…well, nobody else saw that coming either, right?

In short, the market was inefficient due to fraud, stupidity, and cowardice.

According to Lewis, one surprising outcome of this mess is that most of the traders on either side of the subprime market made out okay. Win or lose, they earned millions in fees and incentives. Even Howie Hubler, who Lewis says lost more money than any other single trader in Wall Street history, took home millions of dollars and apparently landed okay.

Ken, I don’t know if Lewis is right, and I don’t know if I’ve correctly understood everything I’ve read, but if I’ve got this right, I can see only one inescapable conclusion: You and I need to become traders.

— Mark

All the way from Suffolk County, New York, I now present the newest trick for the legislature that has solved all other problems, the animal abuser registry:

Suffolk County has officially become the first county in the nation to pass a bill to establish a public animal abuser registry. Authored by the legislature’s majority leader, Jon Cooper, D-Lloyd Harbor, the bill creates the first publicly searchable database of convicted animal abusers, which Cooper said he hopes officially exists within the next few months.

It’s basically the same idea as a sex offender registry, but for people who are convicted of abusing animals. They will have to register for five years, paying a $50 fee each time.

I’m having trouble finding details about the registration plan, but based on how the sex offender registries have worked, I think it’s safe to make some predictions about the problems we’ll see if this dumb idea catches on:

  • The registry requirement will be retroactive. Thus, people who previously plead guilty to an animal abuse crime–e.g. to get out of jail with time served because they couldn’t afford bail–will find that the state has reneged on the deal–by adding the registration requirement and fine of up to $250. (The justification will be that registration is not a criminal penalty but an administrative procedure, which makes breaking promises okay.)
  • The premise will turn out to be false. I suspect that animal abusers, like child molesters, are mostly opportunistic, not predatory. They will mistreat their own pets, but they are unlikely to go hunting around the neighborhood to abuse pets. (That happens, but I’ll bet it’s not a typical animal abuse case, not by far.)
  • The definition of animal abuse used by the registry will turn out to be more expansive than people are expecting. You might think sex offender means a child molster, but there are people on sex offender registries for hiring adult prostitutes. (I’ve heard rumors of cases of drunks who pass out while urinating in an alley or a park. When they wake up, they’re being charged with indecent exposure, and they end up having to register as sex offenders.) Similarly, expect the animal abuse registry to include people who violate leash laws, miss vaccination dates, or fail to pay for pet licenses.
  • Reciprocity will be a nightmare. It’s bad enough for sex offenders, having to figure out whether a crime they committed in another state is registerable in the state where they live. I suspect it will be even worse for animal abuse, since the crimes and punishments are likely to be more broadly defined.
  • The information in the registry will be nearly useless. For example, according to the Chicago sex offender registry, there are four sex offenders who live within 1/4 mile of my house. There’s some descriptive information, but there’s no description of the nature of the crime, how long ago it happened, how long they’ve been out of prison, whether they’re under supervision, or if there were mitigating circumstances. There’s a difference between a predatory child molester who’s just been let out, a guy who raped a woman 25 years ago, and an 18-year-old guy who had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. It’s hard to imagine that the animal registry will be any more detailed or useful.
  • Animal fanatics will harass people on the list. You know it will happen.

Advocates of animal abuse registries think they have a response for that last point:

Other states also expressed concern over the fact that if these abusers’ names were readily accessible, members of the public would harass abusers. Otto disagreed with this statement.

“There is no right to privacy when it comes to criminal history,” [said Stephan Otto, the director of legislative affairs at the Animal Legal Defense Fund]. “There are other ways for people to find out this information if they really want to know it. This just makes the process more efficient.”

How can Stephan Otto be smart enough to become director of legislative affairs for the ALDF, and yet not see that making it easier for people to find animal abusers will consequently make it easier for people to harass animal abusers? I’ve thought about trying to teach Stephan Otto how this works by posting his home address and phone number right here. After all, it only took me a few minutes on the web to find it, so by his logic there’s no harm in publishing it, right?

Cooper added, “I think that the public has the right to know if their next door neighbor has been torturing dogs.”

As Stephan Otto has helpfully pointed out, they already have the right to do this, because their next door neighbor’s criminal history is a public record. So why do we need registration, again?

Another problem with Cooper’s statement is the explicit assumption that people arrested for animal abuse have been torturing animals. There are other types of abuse that are included in the animal abuse statistics besides torture. Many of those are equally repulsive, but some of the other categories include neglect, hoarding, smuggling, and theft, which are not the same kinds of crimes.

(Neglect, I should point out, is not always intentional cruelty. Sometimes people take on more than they can handle, or the animal caretaker gets sick, or they can’t afford proper care, or they simply don’t know how to take care of an animal with special needs. These are problems, but not necessarily the sort of sadism that might justify abuse registration.)

I’m especially concerned with how animal abuse is defined. People in the animal rights movement have some pretty broad ideas about what constitutes animal cruelty, and I’m guessing that these ideas are law in some counties and municipalites, which are likely to be the same ones that will pass animal abuse registry laws. For example, animal rights activists have been campaigning against breeding of pets, complaining about amateur breeders creating too many animals without homes and excoriating professional breeders for cruel breeding practices. So it’s conceivable that you could get busted in one town for letting your cat have kittens and then move to another town and find you’re now required to register as an animal abuser. (I don’t actually know of anywhere that criminalizes puppies and kittens currently.) 

The Suffolk County registration program also has an interesting conflict of interest, because it will be run by the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), with funding from the registration fees. In other words, the SPCA will be depending in part on a continual supply of animal abusers for its operating income. That can’t lead anywhere good.

Look, I have three cats, and I wouldn’t want to see them hurt, but this kind of law is just political grandstanding. If anyone seriously believed that criminal registries were really an effective crime fighting tool, you’d see them for other kinds of crimes. How come sex offenders have to register, but murderers don’t? I mean, wouldn’t you want to know if your neighbor was a murderer? Or even better, wouldn’t you want to know if someone in your neighborhood was an arsonist? That could really be a problem.

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced, as expected, that the Department of Justice will not let Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in California, stop them from waging the War on Drugs Which Are Less Harmful Than Alcohol and Nicotine in their never ending effort to fill up prisons across the nation. I expected that response from the Feds.

I’ve been browsing through some Tea Party sites and other forums in California and what I didn’t expect was the knee-jerk opposition to Proposition 19 from them. It seems an ideal issue for the Tea Party people. The federal government taking away the rights of the local people of California by imposing big government wasteful spending.
When the Tea Party people speak in generalities I sometimes like their ideas. When they get into specific issues, however, they are repulsive, hypocritical morons.

I’m guessing that many of you don’t know this, but 2010 was named The Year of Biodiversity by the UN sometime before the year began. I am hoping, though, that you at least know what biodiversity is. When asked to define biodiversity, a recent survey in England, a country known to be more environmentally aware than the US, the number one answer was “some kind of [laundry detergent]”.

I’m not a tree-hugger. Like most people I have a certain evolution-programmed empathy for any mammal that has a large head-to-body ratio (which helps members of the species care for babies instead of eating them for their protein), but I honestly can’t work up a great deal of empathy for a specific species of spotted owl. The old crying Indian and pictures of baby seals don’t cause me to become an environmental activist.
“Mother Nature” has been creating, then wiping out species since the Earth first could sustain self-replicating chains of amino acids. When the first complex lifeforms started to populate the planet, nothing resembling humans could survive. Early life thrived in the noxious atmosphere that would kill us and were so successful that they eventually drowned in their own waste products. They were so successful that they altered the atmosphere of the entire planet and became extinct.
If those early lifeforms had only started an environmental movement, perhaps they could have avoided disaster. They weren’t smart enough, however, and Mother Nature (aka The Bitch), allowed them to die off. But other species evolved to thrive in their waste. The ecosystem changed again and still more species evolved. Occasionally The Bitch threw an asteroid at them just for laughs and wiped out even more species, whose niches were quickly filled in with new species.
After one such ecosystem-altering fun ball of destruction from space about 65 million years ago wiped out the most successful species yet, some small mammals evolved to take their place and eventually produced someone capable of blogging about biodiversity.
The Bitch doesn’t care any more about us than she cared about the precambrian stromatolites who died breathing in their own waste. I don’t care about The Bitch anymore than The Bitch cares about me.
I do, however, care about humans. It goes beyond the instinctual empathy that prevents me from eating babies (despite that being a favorite pastime of atheists). I would like to think that future generations will be better than my generation. I hope that they will learn more about how the universe works, create better arts and literature, boldly go where no one has gone before.
I think you know what I mean.
Accomplishing that, however, requires that we don’t let The Bitch wipe us out, and that we don’t make the same mistake that those stromatolites made and end up drowning in our own waste. The Bitch doesn’t care if we do or not. She will happily fill in with new species who will thrive in the new ecosystem and go happily on her merry way. Damn, she really is cold hearted. I never could understand why so many artists and environmentalists portray her as a kind, motherly entity.
Biodiversity is key to our own survival. One species of spotted owl doesn’t matter to us, but wiping out thousands of species, altering entire ecosystems, and changing the environment of the planet we are stuck on does matter to the survival of humans.
Humans, like other species before them, have a bad habit of using up resources and altering their environment faster than can be sustained. Archeology has many examples of this happening in the past, and anthropology is rife with stories about human cultures which managed to destroy themselves with bad environmental policies (like the Easter Island culture).
You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to want to do something to help sustain the ecosystem we live in. You just have to have some concern over the future of our own species. We should also try to avoid anything nasty coming down the pike from that cold hearted bitch called Mother Nature.

It’s been a few years since I made any big design changes here at Windypundit, but I’m beginning to think it might be time for something different, and I’d like to ask for you, Gentle Reader, for some help.

The impetus for this change is the release by Six Apart of a new major version of the Movable Type blogging engine that powers Windypundit. I tried upgrading to it a couple of nights ago, but it replaced all my templates with the default template, so I undid the upgrade. I could probably figure out a way to prevent that problem (e.g. read the manual), but I’ve decided to take a different approach. I’m going to start with the default template that comes with the new version of Movable Type and build on it to recreate the Windypundit site from scratch. The result should be a whole new Windypundit the works correctly with all the Movable Type features.

Almost everything about the blog design is up in the air. I’ve started to make a list of changes I’d like to make: 

  1. Rebuild the site using the new Movable Type templates to make sure the site can use all the new features.
  2. Declutter the sidebars by removing some items and moving others to separate pages.
  3. Use a slightly more modern looking design. Windypundit isn’t supposed to look like the latest fad in web 2.0, but I wouldn’t mind a few more modern touches.
  4. Change the color scheme to be a little more vibrant, but without causing eyestrain.
  5. It might be time to change the logo. Logos with swoosh marks were a cliche long before I started using mine.
  6. I’d like to add a few small graphic accents, like bullet points or something, just to give the site a few unique touches.
  7. I want to keep the page SEO friendly. For example, if you check out the page source, the first big block of content is the text of the first post. The sidebars are placed at the end of the page, after all the text, and CSS positioning is used to place them to the left and right of the main text block.
  8. It’s time for a new banner image.
  9. With multiple authors, I think I need something more prominent than a byline to distinguish us. Perhaps it’s time to add avatars to the posts.

I’m expecting that I can re-use a lot of the same template code. For example, I’ll keep a lot of the CSS styles that control the look of blog entries, because I don’t want to have to go through all the posts to restyle them.

The Windypundit page uses the YUI Javascript framework to implement a few features. For example, to reduce the perceived page-load time, several of the third-party content areas–Google ads, Amazon ads, TTLB, etc–are actually loaded to the bottom of the page and then moved into place in the sidebars using some Javascript in a trigger. A similar technique is used with the main menu, which is itself implemented using YUI, to move it to the top of the page. I didn’t want the menu to be the first thing Google saw when it scanned the page, but CSS alone can’t do that kind of positioning.

The problem is that Yahoo is replacing YUI 2 with YUI 3, which isn’t ready yet and looks likely to break some stuff when it comes out, so I’m thinking of switching to a different Javascript framework, probably jQuery, simply because it’s one of the most popular frameworks.

Also, I need to change the way I handle photographs. I currently host them on Smugmug, which offers a few nice features such as on-the-fly resizing, but it’s a bad practice to rely so much on a single third-party service. I’d like to host the photos on the blog server, but I may have to write some software to get the features I want. More on this as it develops.

How I Could Use Your Help

Since I got a lot of suggestions when I asked for help finding protest songs, I figure it couldn’t hurt to beg a little more and see if any of you have some ideas about my site design.

(A) If you’re a regular reader, or even a passing reader, I’d like to hear your suggestions for improving the Windypundit web site design.

I’ve tried to make the Windypundit site design as simple and uncluttered as I can, in the spirit of sites such as Google, craigslist, or Facebook. (Yeah, the Facebook page is cluttered, but it’s cluttered because it offers a lot of functionality: There are very few purely decorative elements on a standard Facebook page.) There are very few design elements on Windypundit which do not serve a purpose. For example, the right sidebar is set off with a background color because otherwise the text in the sidebar is confusingly close to the main text in the center. Except for the logo and the banner image, almost every element serves a purpose.

Got suggestions? Got something that bothers you? Let me know.

(B) By tradition, I don’t use my own photography in the banner image, so the image has to come from somewhere else, and I’m taking suggestions. I’ve done two aerial photos and two skylines. I’m thinking my next one will be of some kind of Chicago landmark. Not the water tower, and not the friggin’ bean or anything else in Millenium park. More likely some characteristic buildings or infrastructure. Maybe the Michigan avenue bridge. Possibly just a traffic jam. With a pothole.

The banner image should not have distracting shapes, colors, or content, and it should have room for the Windypundit logo. It doesn’t need to have a blank area, but I have to be able to overlay stuff on the image without ruining the composition.

Since using an image in the page banner might not count as photojournalism, I’m a little more concerned about the legal issues. I’ll need to have the legal right to use the image, either directly from the photographer or else from a stock agency, unless it’s in the public domain. The image should not contain any identifiable people unless they have signed a release. The composition should not depend on any prominent copyrighted or trademarked content such as a sculpture, advertising, commercial signs, or trademarked buildings.

If you know of an image that would work, send me a link to it. If you created the image, I’ll credit you.

(C) If I decide I’m tired of this logo, I could use some help picking a new one. Suggestions? Thoughts? Designs? Same legal rules as the banner image.

If you think the site is perfect the way it is, that’s okay too.

[Update: Two more design goals for the site:

  • The site should generate code compliant with the XHTML 1.0 Transitional standard.
  • The site should meet general accessibility guidelines where applicable.


Now we know for sure. The Matrix was originally developed using Linux. Oh sure, it looks all loving and caring now, but plug that box into the Internet, let it read all about socialism and soon enough humanity will be hunted down in our sewer-submarines and end up plugged into Linux controlled wet squishy cocoons while we dream about hot chicks in black leather beating up cops and jumping from building to building.

You have been warned…