Monthly Archives: May 2012

What the Nobel Peace Prize Winner is Up To These Days

Andrew Napolitano describes it this way:

The leader of the government regularly sits down with his senior generals and spies and advisers and reviews a list of the people they want him to authorize their agents to kill. They do this every Tuesday morning when the leader is in town. The leader once condemned any practice even close to this, but now relishes the killing because he has convinced himself that it is a sane and sterile way to keep his country safe and himself in power. The leader, who is running for re-election, even invited his campaign manager to join the group that decides whom to kill.

This is not from a work of fiction, and it is not describing a series of events in the Kremlin or Beijing or Pyongyang. It is a fair summary of a 6,000-word investigative report in The New York Times earlier this week about the White House of Barack Obama. Two Times journalists, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, painstakingly and chillingly reported that the former lecturer in constitutional law and liberal senator who railed against torture and Gitmo now weekly reviews a secret kill list, personally decides who should be killed and then dispatches killers all over the world — and some of his killers have killed Americans.

Read the whole thing.

Decoration Day

Memorial Day always makes me think of my father. He was a veteran of World War II and he was born on May 30, the traditional date for Memorial Day, although my dad always called it by its original name, Decoration Day. It was, in origin, a day for decorating the graves of soldiers.

Fortunately, the day doesn’t have a lot of personal significance for me. Other than veterans like my father who died of natural causes, all the soldiers I know are still alive and well. I don’t have any graves to decorate.

I’d very much like to keep it that way.

Fragment by Warren Fahy – Review

I like to browse through Amazon’s catalog of cheap e-books to see if I can find anything interesting. As you’d expect, many of them aren’t very good and probably wouldn’t have been published in the days before on-demand printing and digital distribution. However, I thought it might be fun to blog about some of the better ones. (My first review is here.)

This time I’d like to tell you about Warren Fahy’s 2009 novel Fragment. It’s a bio-horror story, along the lines of Michael Crichton, and it shares some of Crichton’s weaknesses, such as thin characterization. The bad guy is there simply to be the bad guy, and I’m not sure why we even need a bad guy, given the book’s setting. On the other hand, only a fool reads stories like this because he wants the characters to be complex and nuanced. Like most science fiction, this is a story about ideas. Scary ideas.

It all starts with a research vessel that stumbles across an apparently inhospitable Pacific island with an isolated interior area that turns out to be filled with abundant life that has evolved along a different path — a far more aggressive path — than the rest of the Earth. This is a somewhat common story, especially in movies and television, but Fahy provides much more of the biological story of why and how than we usually get.

In particular, it’s not just a story about the giant apex predators — although those are certainly rampaging over the island — but about the hyper-aggressive struggle going on at every level and in every niche of the biome. Fahy’s story is filled with creatures described in great functional detail. It seems well-informed and well-imagined, with a lot of attention paid to real evolutionary and biological sciences.

If you like this sort of thing, it’s a very good read.

in Book

Everybody Does It – Part 2: Relative Judgement

In Jack Marshall’s list of 24 unethical rationalizations for bad behavior, the number one rationalization — the king of all rationalizations — is “Everybody Does It.” Although I agree in principle, I find it interesting to explore the nuances and exceptions. In Part 1 I discussed cultural norms, and how sometimes ethical behavior is defined by what everybody does.

This time around, I’d like to talk about a much broader exception to the rule which occurs when you’re applying the ethical analysis not to yourself but to other people in a group.

Suppose it’s right before an election, and you read a credible news story claiming that one of the candidates for office used his official position to do small favors for friends. That probably counts against him in terms of gaining your vote. But supposed that the next day you read another credible story claiming that all the other candidates for that office also did small favors for friends. That kind of negates the information you had about the first candidate.

It’s not that “everybody does it” makes it better. It’s that your knowledge of one particular person’s bad behavior isn’t helpful if you know all the other people are engaged in the same bad behavior. When you’re making decisions about the relative merits of other people, the absolutism of rejecting “everybody does it” won’t help you. It would be irrational to hold one person more responsible than others for the exact same bad behavior.

Marshall himself uses this form of “everybody does it” in defending Mitt Romney over stories about his bad behavior when is was a very young man:

The Washington Post’s despicable exposition of ancient recollections of Mitt Romney’s mean-spirited and boorish conduct while being enrolled in that well-known cauldron of mean-spirited and boorish conduct–prep school–has caused me serial episodes of shock. […]

Guys in school assault each other, batter each other, punch each other, and do horrible things to each other that would get them arrested if they did it to a stranger on the street. That doesn’t make them “criminal,” and it doesn’t make them sociopaths. It’s called “growing up.” […] Why does Rick assume that Mitt Romney is different? Why doesn’t he see that it is unfair to assume that he is?

Obviously, if there are nuances to bad behavior, you can (and should) make judgements on those nuances. If all of your candidates are 35-year-old men who had sex with 16-year-old girls, it probably makes a difference if the relationship was a drunken hookup at a party, a teacher and his student, a client and a prostitute, or a father and his daughter.

But if the situations are identical (or at least somewhat comparable), then it doesn’t matter how reprehensible the conduct, nor how high the stakes, as long as you have to choose among a fixed group of people and there’s no way to postpone the decision or add other candidates. If it comes to light on election eve that all our presidential candidates are child molesters, then you’re going to have to hold your nose in the voting booth and choose which child molester you want to be President.

in Ethics

I’m Done With Movable Type

Yesterday, the folks at Popehat posted about cleaning out their blogroll. I checked to see if Windypundit made the cut, and it hadn’t, which perplexed me because I thought I got along with Ken and Patrick. But then I checked my own blogroll, and sure enough, Popehat wasn’t on it either.

Sigh. Maintaining the blogroll on this account is such a pain. I keep the list of blogs in an XML file, and I have an XSLT file that transforms it into HTML which I paste into the template for the blogroll. I used to use an XML editor for that, but now I keep it in a Microsoft Visual Studio project and generate the code by running the XSLT debugger command to generate the HTML. That’s a lot of work each time I want to update the blogroll.

It wasn’t supposed to be that hard. My plan was to write an extension to the Movable Type blogging engine that would read the XML and use the XSLT to generate the HTML for the blogroll. All I’d have to do was add an entry to the XML file and it would automatically pop up on the website.

I put that plan on hold when Six Apart announced they’d be releasing version 5 of Movable Type. I figured I’d wait for it to come out before I wrote the extension so I wouldn’t have to update it for the new version. When MT5 was released, however, I discovered that the upgrade process wasn’t working for my blog. If I wanted Windypundit to work on Movable Type 5, I’d have to rebuild it from scratch and import all the posts and comments. I made big plans to do that, but the more I looked into it, the more difficult it looked.

And then last spring Rogier, Rick, and I decided to launch the Nobody’s Business blog, which uses the WordPress blogging engine, not Movable Type, and I liked it a lot. It’s easier to use and just as powerful as Movable Type, and the WordPress development community is much more vibrant than Movable Type. There was new stuff coming out all the time.

WordPress also has a major architectural advantage over Movable Type: It’s written in PHP, not Perl. Actually, the Movable Type authoring interface is written in Perl, but the publishing side is written in both Perl and PHP, depending on whether you want static or dynamic publishing. And even though I used the PHP dynamic publishing system, parts of the site are still generated with Perl — previews and search results, I think — so every time I wrote an extension, I had to write it in both languages.

It’s time for me to unravel this mess. Some time in the next couple of months (I hope) I’ll be porting Windypundit to Wordress. That’s a lot easier said than done, about which I will probably say more in a future post.

VAC – A New Beginning

Well, my old nemesis ComEd has reared its head again.

Last night, I had another beep hunt. This was a steady, rapid beep, so it only took about 30 seconds to find the problem: The alarm was going off on the UPS protecting the television and TiVo. It’s a fairly dumb UPS, so there’s no way to tell what the problem is, but I figured it was just the battery. I shut it off and unplugged it, and I plugged our television gear directly into the wall. Problem solved. I could replace the UPS later this week.

Then, about 4:30 this morning, I woke up to more beeping. This one was a little harder to localize for a reason I couldn’t quite figure out, but I eventually traced it to the UPS protecting my work computer.

This was a bad sign. One UPS alarming is probably a battery problem or some other end-of-life issue. Two UPS alarms is a problem with the electrical power coming in to the house.

I had shut down that computer for the weekend, so I just turned off the UPS to stop the alarm…and I realized that something else was still beeping somewhare in the house. That’s why I had trouble figuring out where the beep was coming from! I was hearing beeping from two sources.

The other alarm turned out to be the UPS protecting my wife’s computer. It had tripped out and turned off the computer, so I just turned off the UPS to kill the alarm. This time it worked. Silence.

It took me a minute to find my DMM and another to find a pair of probes, but with the dial set to measure AC voltage, I stuck the probe tips into an outlet in the kitchen: 138 volts.

That’s high. American residential electricity is supposed to be about 120 volts, with houses closest to the transformer getting a slightly higher voltage, and houses farthest away getting a slightly lower voltage, plus some variation during the day due to the changing load.

So it was high, but how high is too high? Surprisingly, that’s not an easy thing to find out. The ComEd site has nothing about it that I could find, and the Citizens Utility Board site is useless: Lots of stuff about rates, but nothing about the power supply specification.

I eventually found what I wanted in the ICC regulations governing electrical voltage in Illinois (emphasis mine):

Section 410.300 Voltage Regulation

a) Standard voltage. Each entity supplying electrical energy for general use shall adopt a standard service voltage of 120 volts (when measured phase to neutral) and shall maintain the service voltage within the allowable variations from that value at all times.

b) Allowable voltage variations. For service rendered at the standard service voltage, voltage variations as measured at any customer’s point of delivery shall not exceed a maximum of 127 volts nor fall below a minimum of 113 volts for periods longer than two minutes in each instance.  For service rendered at voltages other than the standard voltage value, voltage variations as measured at any customer’s point of delivery shall not exceed 10% above or below the service voltage for a longer period than two minutes in each instance.

So it was definitely way too high.

While I was writing this, the lineman showed up. He was a friendly guy, and he seemed to take the problem seriously. (I suspect ComEd gets a lot of complaints about “the voltage” from crackpots, so I’ve been trying to act as sane as possible so they take me seriously.) I let him into the basement to check the voltage at the meter, and he measured it at 139 and 140 VAC.

The UPS on my main home computer is bigger and more expensive than the other three, and it has a voltage regulation feature, so that computer is still working, and I’ve plugged my work computer into it so I can do my job. However, I’ve got most of the household electronics shut off, and I also shut off the air conditioner, because I’m concerned that the compressor will overheat on the high voltage.

So now I wait. They’ve seen the problem. Now I just need them to fix it.

An Urgent Legal Question About Ladies’ Undergarments

Lawyers in the blogosphere are always complaining that having a presence on the internet doesn’t bring them more business, just more people asking for free legal advice. Today, while cleaning out a bunch of spam email, I discovered that somebody was asking me for free legal advice.

Since I’m not a lawyer in any way, shape, or form, I figured I’d throw it out to all my readers, some of whom I believe are actual lawyers.

I came across your site / blog and I thought perhaps you could answer a question.  My 23 yr old sister has started making extra money selling her used panties.  Is there anything illegal in Illinois regarding buying or selling used panties?  I worry about her safety, but also the legality.  Perhaps, this would be an interesting topic for you as well.  Thanks

Used panties are not really a very interesting topic for me, thanks for asking. Nevertheless, I’m throwing it out for my readers. Any takers? Anyone want to jump in here? If you’re an Illinois laywer, this could be your chance to own the state’s used-panty legal advice market!

I’ve learned from long experience that nobody ever contributes anything if you just ask. But if you write something yourself, everybody will jump in to correct it. So here are my NON-LAWYER bits of advice to young ladies thinking of selling their unmentionables:

  • Get advice from an actual lawyer.
  • Illinois law enforcement is probably not the problem. Federal law enforcement is.
  • Invest in a plastic bag sealing machine to keep in the freshness of that just-sweated scent.
  • Just because it’s kinky doesn’t mean you won’t have to do all the paperwork any other business would have to do. If local authorities discover your activities, this is an easy way for them to make trouble for you.
  • The limiting production factor is the time it takes to wear the panties long enough to impregnated them with the smell of a woman. To avoid idling the process, be sure to order new panties well before the last pair ships. Don’t forget you’ll need time for modeling and updating the web site before you can bring in new orders.
  • There’s probably nothing illegal about selling used clothing or shipping it through the mail. But when you model the clothing and send flirtatious messages to customers, it becomes a sex-related business, and the government gets a little weird about stuff like that.
  • Boyshorts are slower movers than you’d think. You’ll need them for completeness, but don’t let them build up in inventory.
  • There’s a world of difference between soiled and wet. Shipping bodily fluids through the United States Postal Service is probably a very bad idea. You say “soiled panties,” the Postal Inspection Service says “biological hazard in contravention of anti-terrorism laws.” I made that up, but the post office really can be dickish about things like that.
  • Including a “special” photograph and a hand-written perfumed note is a nice way to say “thank you” to a regular customer. Don’t put the note in the bag with the panties though, it ruins the smell.
  • Always follow Mark Bennett’s million dollar legal advice.

That’s all I’ve got. Anybody else have suggestions? Corrections? Angry and abusive rants?

in Legal

Truth in Capital Punishment

One of the bigger crimlaw news items these days is a report from the Columbia School of Law that claims Texas executed an innocent man in 1989. According to an AFP wire story by Chantal Valery:

The report, entitled “Los Tocayos Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution,” traces the facts surrounding the February 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez, a single mother who was stabbed in the gas station where she worked in a quiet corner of the Texas coastal city of Corpus Christi.

Forty minutes after the crime Carlos DeLuna was arrested not far from the gas station.

He was identified by only one eyewitness who saw a Hispanic male running from the gas station. But DeLuna had just shaved and was wearing a white dress shirt — unlike the killer, who an eyewitness said had a mustache and was wearing a grey flannel shirt.

DeLuna denied killing Lopez and instead identified Carlos Hernandez as the killer, but it appears police didn’t give his claim much credence. Prosecutors even accused DeLuna of making up Carlos Hernandez. DeLuna was convicted and sentenced to death, and six years later he was executed.

The Columbia report identifies an actual person named Carlos Hernandez who was in the area at the time. He looked a lot like Carlos DeLuna, and police knew who he was. He was eventually imprisoned for murdering another woman. He died there of natural causes, but not before repeatedly confessing to the murder for which DeLuna was executed.

I haven’t read the actual report, but from what I’m hearing, it makes a pretty good argument. I think Texas has probably executed an innocent man. He might not be the only one, if you believe the forensic argument that Cameron Todd Willingham didn’t commit the murder for which he was executed in 2004.

Regarding the DeLuna case, Houston criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett says we should shout it from the rooftops:

The position of most adherents of the death penalty is that there are enough procedural safeguards built into the system that nobody has ever been executed for a crime he did not commit, and that the probability that someone factually innocent could be executed is so small that it does not merit chucking the penalty altogether.

It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case–not one–in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.

Kansas v. Marsh (Scalia, J., concurring).

Prepare for that to change. Shout it from the rooftops: Carlos DeLuna, executed in Texas for the 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez.

Well, why not? I guess. I’m not really surprised by this news, though. Although some death penalty proponents have their heads in the sand, if we continue to have capital punishment, execution of an innocent person is inevitable.

About six years ago I got into an argument with a prosecutor who blogged that “the error rate for carried-out executions remains zero.” At the time, neither the Willingham nor DeLuna cases had come to light. Even if we ignore those cases, however, the prosecutor’s statement was misleading on two counts.

First, nobody knows the ultimate truth about the errors of our system of capital punishment. It’s not as if God comes down after the execution and tells us whether we got it right. We’ll never be able to rule out the excution of an innocent person with perfect certainty. The best we can do is talk about the rate of discovered errors.

There have been a number of cases where death row inmates had their sentences — or even their convictions — overturned because some error was discovered in the process that put them there. Proponents of the death penaltly say this is an example of the system working and correcting its mistakes. That’s true enough, the system corrected a mistake, but that doesn’t mean the system has corrected all its mistakes.

Imposition of the death penalty is a long road that starts with the sentence and ends with the execution. In between, there are a bunch of corrective measures, appeals and reviews, each of which reduces the chance of an erroneous execution. It’s a mistake to think that no innocent people have reached the end of the road just because we don’t know their names.

In response to a couple of comments along those lines, the prosecutor responded,

Nice try, but the issue is not what statistical probabilities tell us, since they after all are only educated guesses. The point I have made is that the known error rate for completed executions stands at zero. That is fact, not conjecture: there has not been a single case of an innocent person being executed who was thereafter shown to be factually innocent. It’s as simple as that, and all the statistical gymnastics in the world do not change that actuality.

This brings us to the second reason it’s misleading to look at the error rate for carried out executions. The prosecutor dismissed “conjecture” about the error rate, but that ignores the purpose of our argument. We’re talking about capital punishment because we are trying to make a policy decision: Should we continue to execute criminals? And if so, under what circumstances?

This is necessarily a decision about our future, and when it comes to our future, we don’t have the facts yet. Even if we could prove, with absolute and perfect certainty, that no innocent person has been executed, that doesn’t prove we won’t execute one tomorrow. When it comes to the future, conjecture is the all we’ve got.

We’ve got to make decisions about the future of our capital punishment system, and that requires us to understand how our capital punishment system behaves, for which the best evidence is its performance in the past. But the past is only a sample of the system’s behavior, not a complete description. We use past performance data to constrain statistical models that predict its future.

Suppose you flip a coin five times, and it comes up heads all five times. Would you be willing to declare that the coin is a perfect head-flipping coin? Probably not. What if you got 10 heads in a row? That should make you more confident, but is it enough? How many times in a row would the coin have to come up heads before you would be willing to bet something valuable on it? Something like the life of an innocent American.

Let me try to make this a little more complete with a very rough mathemetical model. Suppose we can approximate the decision to execute someone — from identification of a suspect to throwing the final switch — as a linear series of steps. If there are N steps in the capital punishment system, and at each step i there is a probability pi (where 0 <= pi <= 1) that an innocent person will slip past, then the probability pexecution of an innocent person slipping past all the steps and being executed is given by:

pexecution = p1 × p2 × p3 ×…× pN

Simple math tells us that The value of pexecution can only be zero if at least one of the terms pi is zero. That is, unless one step in the process is perfect, the whole process is necessarily imperfect. If any death penalty proponent really thinks the process is perfect, I invite them to identify the one perfect step so we can save a lot of time and money by dispensing with the rest of the justice system.

If that’s too abstract, then imagine our current policy extended into the distant future. Assume we execute about 50 people year, and assume we do it for the next million years. Do you really believe we can execute 50 million people without even one of them being innocent? No? Great, then we agree the death penalty isn’t perfect. Now we’re just arguing about the number.

Elsewhere in his concurrence on Kansas v. Marsh, Justice Scalia cites Oregon District Attorney Joshua Marquis’s absurd calculation of a false felony conviction rate of only 0.027%. However, assuming that DeLuna and Willingham were both innocent (as seems likely to me), and knowing that there have been 1295 executions since the Supreme Court decided it was constitional (again), we can set a lower limit on pexecution of (2/1295=) 0.15444%, more than five times higher than Scalia’s number.

The wrongful execution rate of 0.15444% is a lower limit because we can’t be sure there weren’t more innocent people executed. We’ve discovered two of them, but the total number depends on the probability of discovery pdiscovery of a wrongful execution, and right now all we can say is

pexecution × pdiscovery = 0.15444%

The smaller the probability of discovery, the more innocent people must have been executed for us to discover two of them.

In the end, Scalia did get it right:

Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly.

That may sound callous, but it has the advantage of being true.