Friday, June 30, 2006


I'll be on the NJ shore my annual July 4th party. So probably no posts until mid week. Enjoy the fireworks.

Unjust Sentences

The Politics of Crime points out two criminals convicted of illegal activities in the Katrina aftermath. Let's see how you do.

1.Three men convicted of looting "27 bottles of liquor and wine, six cases of beer and one case of wine coolers, six days after Katrina made landfall."
2. Two men convicted of "conspiracy to commit bribery of a federal official for allegedly making a deal to falsify debris removal documents after Hurricane Katrina."

Guess which ones got 15 years in jail and which ones got 1 year and a $5,000 fine.


The WSJ's Law Blog points to the Georgetown University Law Center Supreme Court Institutes 29 page overview of the 2005 term [pdf].

49% of the cases were decided without dissent. There were only 99 dissents this term vs 134 last term.

"Of the nine Justices currently on the Court, the Justices who voted the most often together were Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito(90.9%). Of those Justices who were on the Court for the entire Term, the alignment of Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas was most frequent (86.8%). Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia had a high percentage of votes in alignment (86.4%). Voting least often together were Justice Stevens and Justice Alito (41.2%). Justice Thomas voted with the frequency among those Justices who were on the Court for the entire Term equally with Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, and Justice Ginsburg (52.9%). "

Visual Complexity is a visual exploration on mapping complex networks. In other words, lots of pictures showing complex things.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

SCOTUS Rules Against Bush

"The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Congress did not take away the Court's authority to rule on the military commissions' validity, and then went ahead to rule that President Bush did not have authority to set up the tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and found the commissions illegal under both military justice law and the Geneva Convention. In addition, the Court concluded that the commissions were not authorized when Congress enacted the post-9/1l resolution authorizing a response to the terrorist attacks, and were not authorized by last year's Detainee Treatment Act. The vote against the commissions and on the Court's jurisdiction was 5-3, with the Chief Justice not taking part."

More at SCOTUSblog. The decision is 185 pages [pdf] so it will take a while to read.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Predicting the Supremes

In The Effect of Justice Alito SCOTUSblog looks at who is writing which decisions to try to discern the impact of Alito's votes vs O'Conner's.

In The Court's Remaining Opinions they use the same technique to try to predict the rulings on two remaining cases.

State of Bush's Signing Statements

Dan Froomkin gives a good summary of the news coverage of Bush's signing statements in Constitutional crisis or empty rhetoric?. He also includes questions that the press, Congress, and congressional candidates should be asking.

Scalia v. Alito (1-0)

Monday the Surpreme Court decided US v. Gonzalez-Lopez [pdf]. The facts of the case were straight-forward. Gonzalez-Lopez had a trial. His family picked a lawyer who began to represent him but he wanted a different lawyer. The judge for procedural reasons didn't let this second lawyer take the case. The first lawyer withdrew but the judge still wouldn't let the second laywer take the case so Gonzalez-Lopez hired a third laywer who represented him in the trial. The second and third lawyer wanted to work together but the court wouldn't let them. Gonzalez-Lopez was found guilty. He appealed and the District Court found the lower court had "violated respondent's Sixth Amendment right to paid counsel of his choosing." All parties seem to agree that the court was in error in denying the second laywer from trying the case. So the question is, how strong is the right to pick your own lawyer and if it's denied what happens?

The Supreme Court said he deserves a reversal. It was a 5-4 decision, but the interesting thing is that the very conservative Scalia voted with the liberals (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) and wrote the opinion. The conservatives (Roberts, Kennedy and Thomas) dissented and Alito, the new Justice and often viewed as in the mold of Scalia, wrote the dissent. So we get Scalia v. Alito.

First off, let's look at the 6th Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

It's doesn't actually say you get to pick your own lawyer (and yes defence is spelled wrong, or at least differently). It turns out we got that in 1932 from Powell v Alabama. In this case seven black men were given essentially useless lawyers to defend them. Powell's opinion said: "It is hardly necessary to say that, the right to counsel being conceded, a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice".

The government's case was that since Gonzalez-Lopez got a fair trial, he wasn't harmed by the fact that he didn't get his lawyer of choice so he doesn't need a reversal.

Scalia's opinion is that the right to counsel of choice isn't derived from the 6th Amendment, it is "the root meaning" of it. This came from a case in 1988 Wheat v. US where Rehnquist wrote the decision and Scalia joined. It does strike me as a bit odd than the original originalist seems to be adding a constitutional right by interpretation.

Alito agrees with the right of counsel of choice. He also quotes Wheat but to a different end, "It was not 'the essential aim of the ensure that a defendant will inexorably be represented by the lawyer whom he prefers'...There is no doubt, of course, that the right 'to have the Assistance of Counsel' carries with it a limited right to be represented by counsel of choice." The limits are such things as the counsel must be qualified and licensed, there must be no conflicts of interest, and possibly scheduling issues if the counsel of choice can't make the court date.

Alito begins by saying Scalia makes a mistake in his interpretation of the 6th amendment. "The majority states that the Sixth Amendment protects 'the right of a defendant who does not require appointed counsel to choose who will represent him.' What the Sixth Amendment actually protects, however, is the right to have the assistance that the defendant's counsel of choice is able to provide. It follows that if the erroneous disqualification of a defendant's counsel of choice does not impair the assistance that a defendant receives at trial, there is no violation of the Sixth Amendment."

This seems a bit weird to me. Scalia describes this as "a line of reasoning that 'abstracts from the right to its purposes, and then eliminates the right.'"

Scalia goes on to say "Deprivation of the right is 'complete' when the defendant is erroneously prevented from being represented by the lawyer he wants, regardless of the quality of the representation he received. To argue otherwise is to confuse the right to counsel of choice--which is the right to a particular lawyer regardless of comparative effectiveness--with the right to effective counsel--which imposes a baseline requirement of competence on whatever lawyer is chosen or appointed."

So they don't agree, but lets say they did agree that the 6th Amendment was violated in this case, what is the remedy?

Scalia says the court has found two forms of errors. Errors that occur during a trial can be judged if the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Structural errors affect the framework of the trial and hence cannot be reviewed to see if they were harmless because the effects on a trial are so large. These errors lead to reversal because the trial itself is unfair. Scalia says since any two laywers will try the case differently, "Harmless-error analysis in such a context would be a speculative inquiry into what might have occurred in an alternate universe." So this is obviously a structural error and must lead to a reversal.

Indeed Alito describes several hypotheticals where the second choice might be a better lawyer than the first and so on. "These possibilities would not justify violating the right to choice of counsel, but they do make me hard put to characterize the violation as "always render[ing] a trial unfair". His view is that defendant should have to show some harm from the denial of first choice of counsel.

Scalia's point is that there's no way to predict what might happen for better or worse. The one thing that we do know is that the defendant's choice, his right, is denied, so he's due a reversal. And he only held back a little. In a footnote Scalia wrote: "By framing its inquiry in these terms and expressing indignation at the thought that a defendant may receive a new trial when his actual counsel was at least as effective as the one he wanted, the dissent betrays its misunderstanding of the nature of the right to counsel of choice and its confusion of this right with the right to effective assistance of counsel."

So I gotta say I agree with Scalia here. Turning "the Assistance of Counsel" into "counsel of choice" doesn't sound like Scalia to me, but I agree with that conclusion. Alito's arguments scare me a bit. I remember his hearings when he kept saying it would depend on the facts of the case. But here he gives a lot of hypotheticals and says "Cases as stark as the above hypothetical are unlikely, but there are certainly cases in which the erroneous disqualification of a defendant's first-choice counsel neither seriously upsets the defendant's preferences nor impairs the defendant's representation at trial." Isn't this like tearing down a strawman? And even if true, I think Scalia's point is that figuring out whether it was fair or not is too difficult.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Planet Sizes

The Size Of Our World shows images comparing the size of planets in the solar system as well as the Sun and several other stars. Someone needs to sell real balls like these.

The Hoopla Over the NYT

Andrew Sullivan, as usual, is taking a rational view of the The Hoopla Over the New York Times.

US Supreme Court on Campaign Finance

The Supreme Court yesterday decided Randall v. Sorrell [pdf] and rejected Vermont's campaign finance law. First a little background.

Modern campaign finance reform started with the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1971, yep it was Nixon that signed it into law. In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled on it in Buckley v. Valeo. "The court in that case said contributions to candidates' campaigns could be capped without infringing freedom of speech but that spending could not be limited because it could improperly reduce discussion of key issues." Thomas and Scalia have wanted to overturn Buckley because they believe contributions and expenditures are both protected forms of speech and can't be limited and Kennedy mostly agrees with them.

In 1997, Vermont passed the nations strictest campaign finance law known as Act 64. It "stringently limits both the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute to those campaigns".

The District Court say the expenditure limits were unconstitutional according to Buckley. They found most of the contribution limits ok, but not the ones to political parties. The 2nd Circuit Court on appeal found all the contribution limits were constitutional and the expenditure limits were constitutional as well.

Yesterday the Supreme Court overturned the decisions finding all the limits were unconstitutional. The expenditure ones because they conflict with Buckley and the contribution ones because they were too burdensome. This wasn't one of Robert's unanimous decisions. It was 6-3 and there were 6 opinions written.

Breyer in the plurality opinion found the Act 64 limits unconstitutional because:
1. Act 64's contribution limits will significantly restrict the amount of funding available for challengers to run competitive campaigns.
2. The amount political parties contributing to campaigns was the same $200-$400 (depending on the position) limit that individuals could contribute was too low and threatens harm to the right to associate in a political party. Previously the court upheld Federal limits but they were much higher.
3. Including volunteer's expenses was too limiting
4. The limits were not adjusted for inflation
5. There was no special justification for Act 64's low and restrictive contribution limits.

There are some significant parts to the decision. First off, the new justices, Roberts and Alito, found that at least some contribution limitations are constitutional, even though the VT ones were not. This means they don't agree with Scalia and Thomas on this issue.

Breyer and Roberts in the plurality decision cited stare decisis and not wanting to overturn a ruling that has worked well for 30 years. Alito went further and said the respondents didn't even make enough of a case for the court to consider stare decisis. Both Roberts and Alito during their confirmation spoke of believing in stare decisis and precedent and in this case they are doing just that.

The decision seems to give some additional consitutional protections to policitical parties because they facilitate association. Parties could use this in the future.

Thomas and Scalia agreed Act 64 was unconstitutional and wanted to overturn Buckley. They don't like that Justices are the one to decide that some amount is okay and some other amount is too limiting, particularly without a specific line. Kennedy also agreed that the Vermont law was unconstitutional, but thinks all these laws are probably unconstitutional and that warrants further examination.

On the dissenting side Souter and Ginsburg thought Vermont might have come up with a good reason for expenditure limits (to overcome fundraising demands on candidates) and didn't think the contribution limits were too low. Stevens agreed with them but went further and wanted to overturn Buckley's expenditure limits.

All in all, a pretty interesting decision.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Extending the Desktop Metaphor

Ever notice that computers seem less innovative? Ever since the Mac first made the Desktop metaphor popular (and yes I know about Lisa and Alto) everyone else has been playing catch up. We get some pretty graphic effects or things like toolbars or docks but nothing really different.

The BumpTop Prototype is a new way to manipulate icons in the desktop metaphor. You owe it to yourself to watch the 7 min demo video. It seems tailored to a tablet computer to be use with a stylus. It's quite cool, though I'm not sure I'd want to use it. I am really happy someone is thinking about new ways to do things.

What I don't love about the demo is that it extends the desktop metaphor further to the real world. I found it bizarre to try to further emulate the messy desk. Computers offer ways to do things not tied to the boundaries of the real world. Why should a computer screen look like a desktop? Remember Michael Crichton's Disclosure? They were building a virtual reality infinitely long corridor filled with file cabinets that you could virtually walk through to find what you want. Replace a simple search with an endless walk, why would you want this? 40 years ago, in Star Trek, you just say what you want.

One of the reasons I love Quicksilver so much (sorry Mac-only) is that it replaces most of this garbage with just typing the name of something you want and some action you want to do to it. It's Star Trek with typing, but available today. No hunting through folders or menus or scrolling through tens or hundreds of icons looking for what you want. isn't this why Google (and search in general) is so popular these days? While browse has it's place, search is a lot faster.

Friday, June 23, 2006

World's Widest Web Page?

Trying to understand the scale of the atom, specifically how much empty space there is in an atom between the nucleus and the electrons, Phrenopolis put together a Hydrogen Atom Scale Model. The electron is 1 pixel. the proton is 1,000 pixels across. There are 50,000,000 pixels between them. On a typical monitor, that's 11 miles. Yes this web page is 11 miles wide, (and it loads quickly). "I recommend trying to scroll from here to the right a screen at a time, just to see how long it takes the little thumb in the scrollbar to move visibly."

They have other perspective projects where they set up physical scale models of the solar system. My personal favorite of these is the unrelated and permanent Community Solar System setup by the Boston Museum of Science

Ney (R-OH) Lied

"In the fall of 2004, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-OH) told Senate investigators that he was unfamiliar with a Texas Indian tribe represented by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Days later, evidence emerged that the congressman had held numerous discussions with Abramoff and the Indians about getting Congress to reopen their shuttered casino."

Ney's excuse as told by spokesman Brian Walsh, his testimony "was a voluntary meeting -- it was not conducted under oath." Nice.

This is all from a Senate report investigating Abramoff from the Indian Affairs Panel which is chaired by John McCain (R-AZ). "The report extensively details Abramoff's use of nonprofit charities and advocacy groups to advance his lobbying interests. The Indian affairs committee said the way such groups were used to move money around and evade tax liability raises questions about whether existing federal laws are sufficient. It urged the Senate Finance Committee to take up an investigation that it has been mulling for months."

7 Charged in Alleged Terror Plot on Chicago Tower

"Seven people were charged in Miami with participating in a terrorist conspiracy to blow up the Sears
Tower in Chicago"

If true, nice job. I guess we are fighting 'em over here too.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Latest 20th Hijacker

Alex Koppelman writes about the latest 20th Hijacker.

So you know the story. Three planes on 9/11 had 5 hijackers, but United 93 only had 4. People assume there was supposed to be a fifth but who is it? Well the government has had no shortage of suspects, or should I say false certainties.

The original 20th hijacker was Zacarias Moussaoui. He was just sentenced to life in prison for being involved. Remember everyone was so sure, and then not. And even though in the end Moussaoui was claiming he was, even he prosecuters didn't think he was.

Then there was Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, but no it wasn't him.

Then there was Mohammad al-Qahtani. "[E]vidence introduced at Moussaoui's trial, including testimony quoting 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, implicated al-Qahtani." Turns out al-Qahtani had been captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and has been held in Guantanamo, and of course interrogated. A year ago Time magazine described it after getting "an 84-page secret interrogation log" from November 2, 2002 to January 11, 2003. Yeah, people would call this torture. Oh and Rumsfeld personally approved many of the techinques used on al-Qahtani.

Now it seems the 20th hijacker was really Fawaz al-Nashimi. This Wednesday an AP Story reports "In a statement accompanying a new video, [al-Qaida]'s propaganda arm identified Fawaz al-Nashimi, ... as the operative who would have rounded out a team that ultimately took over United Airlines Flight 93."

Koppelman points out that the reporting on this leaves out all the context. And he's right, the stories on al-Nashimi barely mention al-Qahtani. Let me just quote the end of Koppelman's article: "Let's go over that again. The military, under the direction of the current secretary of defense, abused al-Qahtani to a degree that horrified at least one Army investigator, allegedly forced a confession out of him, and then government officials trumpeted him as the definitive 20th hijacker. Now it turns out all that -- the sleep deprivation, the humiliation, the 'degrading and abusive' treatment -- may have been aimed at the wrong man."

We tortured him.

Look, you capture someone in a war, you identify them as a "prisoner of war", you don't make up some new term and then say the rules of war don't apply. You think you found a guy involved with 9/11, you try and hopefully convict them in a court of law. There are reasons for laws and we tout the fact that we are a nation of laws. You don't follow the law, you get tried, and if convicted, you go to jail. Even if you're the President.

Warrantless Banking Surveillance

The New York Times that Bank Data Secretly Reviewed by U.S. to Fight Terror. "The program [is] run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department". No Congressional or Judicial oversight is mentioned. Of course it's limited to international transactions. Just like those phone calls, remember them? The Times says "Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database" which leaves the door open that some are.

"Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift." Swift is based in Brussels and stands for "Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication".

Some members of Congress were briefed. When officials learned of the NYT story, they briefed more members. I guess those folks didn't need to know about it unless everyone knew about it. Yep just like the Warrantless Phone Surveillance program.

Look, I want the government to go after terrorists. Just don't break laws while doing it. Oh, and don't start unnecessary wars. Oh, and don't violate the Geneva Conventions. Oh, and don't piss off the rest of the world. Really is this too much to ask?

Matt "T." Damon

Apparently there are some talks about casting Matt Damon as a young Captain Kirk in the next Star Trek movie (directed by J.J. Abrams of Lost and Alias and M:I:iii). Not bad. Maybe they can reunite the Rounders team and get Edward Norton to play Spock.

Welcome To I Dream Of Cake

I Dream Of Cake is a bakery in San Francisco that makes the most amazing looking cakes. Browse through the photo gallery, it's hard to believe they are all cakes. I wonder if they taste as good as they look?

Coulter v Hitler Quiz

I've been trying not the mention Ann but Give-Up Blog has a fun (but scary) Coulter v Hitler Quiz where you have to match the quote to the dangerous psychopath.

Bushenomics 102

I'm not an econmist and neither is Larry Beinhart, but his Huffington Post article Bushenomics 102: Reality makes a lot of sense to me.

Amazing Bird Formations

I knew about the Astronomy Picture of the Day but I hadn't heard of the Earth Science Picture of the Day before. Black Sun is an annual gathering of over a million European starlings (birds) in Denmark which fly in formations a half hour before sunset. Freakin' crazy. These pics are from April 5, 2006.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Joys Of Dual-Booting

TechWeb has a good article on The Joys Of Dual-Booting a mac between OS X and Windows. They guy's been running it for over a month and comments on the good and the annoyances.

TechWeb also has a good guide for Switching To The Mac.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Will Return Clock

Here's something bizarre It's a "Will Return" Clock. Looks just like a Will Return Sign but it's a clock. Set it 15 mins fast.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Scalia Goes to Far

The Washington Post has and editorial about last week's Supreme Court decision in Hudson v. Michigan. It was whether to exclude an otherwise legal search on a technicality. Scalia wrote the opinion but rather than write a narrow decision as Roberts says he likes Scalia went further and questioned the exclusion rule itself. Nevertheless Roberts joined in the 5-4 decision. The editorial makes its point very clearly.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Smithsonian Shenanigans

The Smithsonian removed the EV1 from an electric car exhibit to make room for a "high tech SUV". The EV1 was the first GM electric car from the 90s. A movie Who Killed the Electric Car? is coming out in a few weeks and it seems GM is a big investor in the Smithsonian. Yeah that might be just conspiracy theory coincidence but the given explanation sounds like removing the Wright Brother's plane to make room for a 737.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Quote of the Day

This is stolen from a friend who stole it from a slashdot posting.

The Internet: It's the place where men are men, women are men, and children are FBI agents.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tufte's 4th, Beautiful Evidence

I got back from the gym today and found Edward Tufte's new book Beautiful Evidence had arrived. Review when I'm done.

Carlin Wimped Out

He didn't say anything other than "I never thought when Ann Coulter came out I'd have to move to the right but it happened" as he moved over on the couch.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


If you're into this sort of thing Richard Stallman gave a speech in March about version 3 of the GPL. GROKLAW posted a transcript and I found it interesting.

Fareed Zakaria on Immigration

This is two months old but I just saw it. Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post To Become an American.

CNN Anchors Don't Watch the Simpsons

Someone figured out how to modify salt to make it stick less. Apparently they turn the square crystals in rhomboid dodecahedrons with an amino acid wash. Anyway CNN put up this pic and the anchor struggled to say "into rounder twelve sized crystals called, are you ready for this, rhomboid doi-de-ca-he-drons, say that three times, doi-de-ca-he-drons"

Then came Susan Lisovicz from the NYSE saying "it's been as scary on Wall Street as that name you just or whatever it was..."

They need those flash cards Lisa was teaching Maggie with.

George Carlin v. Ann Coulter

So Ann Coulter has a new book out and no I won't provide a link. There's been a lot of furor online over her comments to Matt Lauer on the Today Show against 9/11 widows. Honestly I can't stand her and wasn't going to mention her in this blog to avoid any promotion of her hatred. But this is to good to pass up.

The guests on >The Tonight Show tonight are George Carlin (who's promoting the movie Cars and Ann Coulter. I suppose Carlin could be polite and say nothing to her, but I suspect that's not going to be the case a new online viral video will be born.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

NSA Helps Choose Phone Plan

The Onion chimes in on the NSA Domestic Spying scandal: NSA Wiretap Reveals Subject May Be Paying Too Much For Long-Distance

Book Review: E=mc2

E=mc2 by David Bodanis is a biography of the equation. Oddly enough the book begins with an interview with Cameron Diaz. Yes that Cameron Diaz. Apparently in an interview she said she really wanted to understand what E=mc2 actually meant. The author says this book attempts to explain it to her and everyone else who's interested. Does it succeed? Kinda. I read it in a weekend while travelling. It kept my interest and went by quickly but it's pretty superficial.

The first section has a chapter on each of the five elements of the equation: e, =, m, c, 2. The next section is about early 20th century physics including relativity and the standard model of the atom. The longest section is about the development of the atomic bomb, and the last section is about later work involving stars and black holes. We get a bit of the science but mostly anecdotes about the scientists. I think this was done better in Bill Bryson's A Short History of nearly Everything.

While the paperback is 337 pages, the book is only 219 pages. The rest are appendixes, endnotes, and for further reading. Some find leaving the depth to the end is a good thing. I found it wasn't depth. The appendix is "Follow-up of other key participants" and the notes are sometimes interesting and sometimes chatty, but since they're at the end, they are a pain to read and I found I stopped doing so. 18 pages of For Further Reading felt like reading 18 pages of amazon comments.

If you think you're like Cameron Diaz, read this book. If you're more similar to me, try Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, at 928 pages it's a lot bigger, but it also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among other awards. Actually, either way, read Bill Bryson's book.

Horror Master Says See United 93

Entertainment Weekly has a regular column by Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King. In this week's column he says go see United 93. I agree. But the reason I wrote this entry is because of this line by Mr. King: "We're hypocritical from belly to spine when it comes to film violence, you know? When I hear critics warning audiences that United 93 might upset them--in the same year that Eli Roth's ferocious and bloody Hostel topped the box office--I can only shake my head in amazement." (I'd include a link but EW doesn't seem to have it online yet, morons.) I couldn't agree more. He even thinks it's a shoo-in for a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Movie Review: A Prairie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion is a Robert Altman film written by Garrison Keillor about his radio program, Prairie Home Companion. That should be enough to tell you if you're going to see the film. It's a huge ensemble cast with several oscar winners and follows the on-stage and off-stage goings-on of the last performance of the radio show before it's shutdown. It's......pleasant. There's almost more to it, like maybe some musings on the human condition and the nature of life and death, but not really. I'll demonstrate what that feels like by ending this review here.

Blogger Sucks

FYI, Blogger has been having problems the last two weeks and it's been very difficult to post. What's worse is that their customer support seems lame. It's difficult to even find status information about what's going on. If you're going to have a blog for status you should a) have a link to it from the help and home pages and b) post more frequently the, you know, status. If this keeps up much longer I'll probably move the blog someplace else.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Movie Review: An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary. I"m not sure if it's a documentary about global warming or a documentary about Al Gore who often gives a speech about global warming. Either way, it's interesting, and scary.

Most of the film is Gore giving a speech and if you remember the 2000 election that might be enough to put you off, but don't let it. He's very engaging, think Steve Jobs engaging. In fact I wish there was more of him. I suspect the creators were afraid that if it was just a speech it would scare people off, so interspersed with the speech are clips about Al Gore, mostly about him growing up on a farm that raised cattle and tobacco. However the speech is really good and these clips are uninteresting and redundant. The one about the 2000 election was particularly out of place.

The speech is has a number of pictures comparing current conditions with those of several decades ago. Glaciers that melted, mountains that are no longer snow capped, etc. He explains a bit of how scientists know these things but doesn't get particularly technical. He shows some scientists getting ice cores from antartica and that they can compute temperatures from the various kinds of (isotopes?) of oxygen. By far the most compelling bit of evidence was a very wide graph of global temperatures for the last 650,000 years. It covered a wide stage and he walked the whole length showing a repeated pattern of ice ages. Then at the far right was today, not only was it the hotest, it was by far and away the hotest, like 3 times hotter than it's ever been. There wasn't really a scale on it but the visual aid he uses to the make the point was very compelling. You can't see this and think there's nothing to worry about.

From what I understand his science is pretty good even if some of the details are a little fuzzy. E.g., while the snow a top Kilamanjaro is melting it's not clear if it's due to global warming or some other reasons. He does juxtapose some things and lead you to believe one thing without really saying it. Like talking about Katrina after talking about worsening storms (it's not proven that Katrina was a result of global warming). Though I'm not sure if this was Gore's intention or a result of editing the film. Apparently it's is clear to all reputable scientists that the climate is changing and we're the cause. He overlayed a temperature graph with a CO2 graph and it lined up very well.

The movie was good, well worth seeing. There's more info at the film's website. It made me want to see his lecture first hand. In fact I wish you could download the presentation from the website and not just some stupid desktop images. And oh yeah, Al Gore uses a Mac. Specifically a PowerBook and the presentation was done in Keynote not PowerPoint.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Movie Review: Cars

The latest Pixar film is Cars. It's a world of anthropomorphic cars of all shapes, ages, and conditions. Cars opens with a NASCAR-like race filled with camera flybys, whizzing cars, crashes etc. All great stuff and the animation is amazing. The TV announcers introduce us to the 3 leading race cars, the aging champion (voiced by Richard Petty), the always number two (Michael Keaton) and the up-and-coming hotshot. The star of the film is the hotshot, Lightning McQueen, who finds himself lost and trapped in Radiator Springs, a small town bypassed by the interstate and forgotten. Here he learns the importance of caring about others before the big race at the end.

The voices were really well done. Owen Wilson has this perfect boyish charm that almost made the hotshot sympathetic while he was still in the self-centered obnoxious phase. Paul Newman plays the wise old Doc Hudson. Bonnie Hunt did fine as Sally Carrera the Porsche love interest. It's odd, while she'd be too old to play the role in a live action film, she shouldn't be to voice it, but knowing that was distracting. Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, George Carlin, and John Ratzenberger all do well adding their distinctive voices to the cast.

It's a more predictable story than other Pixar films and at just under 2 hours (same as the Incredibles, 15 minutes longer than Finding Nemo and almost a half hour longer than Monsters Inc.) that makes for a long middle. I thought it was hurt by the fact that the lead is off-putting until the lesson is learned. Others I saw it with thought the fact that characters were cars made it harder to related to, though I didn't find it so. Ebert thought that without a child role it was missing something. Nevertheless there are some very funny bits involving tractors. As usual, there were a few times I was the only one laughing. On DVD I'll have to slow down a scene but I think they drive by the cast of the Oscar winning 2000 Pixar short For the Birds.

The 4 minute opening short One Man Band was a lot of fun. It was nominated for best animated short last year but lost to The Moon and the Son. You'll sit through the credits because they show extra scenes throughout them. They spoof other Pixar films and I think these were the funniest scenes in the movie. Cars is one of Pixar's weaker films, but that still makes it a fun.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Why a Google Spreadsheet?

There's been a lot in the press about the new Google Spreadsheet. It's in an limited beta now but there have been some reviews. It's a very very basic spreadsheet that works in the browser. The data lives on google's servers. It's obviously not going to displace corporate use of excel, certainly not in it's 1.0 release.

So what's it good for? Well a friend says it would be great when sharing a document and having people in different places update it. He gave the example of the seating plan for their wedding. Also it would be easy to access his home remodelling budget from home and the office. Those are two reasonable examples but I'm not sure they come up frequently enough to make it worthwhile for Google to create a new product for.

So what is Google doing? ars techinca thinks it's "about promoting open file exchange and, eventually, the ODF file format". I find this hard to believe. First, (as the article points out) the Google office products don't support ODF. If that format was the reason for the product, it would be in the first release. Second, they say that Google should support open formats since they are easier for them to index than closed proprietary formats. That may be true, but ars points out that Google Spreadsheet can already import .xls files. If they can import, they can index.

So what is Google doing? Google does want to index more information to make their search better (and improve their advertising). They've probably already hit the limit of what they find by crawling the web, so they have to get info in more ways. Borrowing from the magic of letting the users build the content (like amazon and ebay) it makes sense to have users give Google the info directly.

Google Video is a way for people to upload the video's they make because that wasn't so easy (though YouTube seems more popular now). Picasa is the same for photos.

The "SketchUp acquisition makes sense too. Imagine people augmenting Google Maps and Google Earth with accurate 3D models of places they're familar with. It might look like the accurate 3D wireframe maps of Japanese navagation systems. You might start getting models of the inside of buildings. Companies might even do it themselves to make it easier for customers to find them. Use Google Local to find a chinese restaurant when you're travelling and get a map with up-to-date landmarks entered by locals.

Google's database is a way to get people to enter items directly too. Some suggest it's so they can compete against Amazon and eBay by having sellers themselves enter the stuff directly into Google. I think they are a long way off from that, though it would be an improvment to the perpetually beta Froggle model where Google has to crawl and parse everyone else's web pages of items for sale. They did just migrate the froogle merchant info into Google Base for just this reason. How long until Google Catalogs goes the same way? With Google Base, Google gets the metadata entered by the users. Imagine if wikipedia-like projects start to add to a public free database all the plant species, dna sequences, various parts databases, cddb, etc.

People don't only search for where and what, they also search for when. Online calendars have been particularly weak and I hope Google Calendar can change that. What's going on in my neighborhood this month? What good jazz concerts are in my area? The problem with the current crop of these tools is there's either not enough info entered or some fanatic has entered too much info to sort through. Add some intelligence to it and it could be very useful. And of course they already had Gmail which gives them a way to personalize ads to what's in your mail (and therefore is something you're more likely interested in), so a calendar made sense.

If you think about the various ways people could add info to google you quickly understand their acquistion of Writely. If you're going to ask users to enter a lot of info you might want to give them more than a HTML text box. With Writely google can make it easy to enter descriptions, reviews, comments, events, etc.

So what about Google Spreadsheet? Here I think they went a little to far. Above I've justified a word processor, database, mail and calendar. All that's missing from an office suite is a spreadsheet, so why not do that? Forbes had an interesting article Who's Really Running Google? that talks about how difficult it is to rein in all those geniuses. Adding a spreadsheet is cool. There are lots of spreadsheets out there so wouldn't it be better if they were easier to enter into google too? I'm not so sure. Sales forecasts, customers lists and other businesss spreadsheets you don't want found by others. Same for most personal ones too. They also tend to have numbers and just a few labels so I don't see it easier to custom tailor ads (I see you have months in your data, how about these products for May, or these products also cost $39). I expect this will live in beta for a very long time.

iPod vs Beer

In the 18th year of a survey of college students of what's "in", more named their iPod than beer. Times have changed.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Specter writes Cheney

So apparently Specter (R-PA) didn't bail completely. Yesterday he wrote a letter to Cheney saying he won't give up on this. Maybe he didn't give up, but he is moving very slowly.

What Netflix Could Teach Hollywood - New York Times

The New York Times has an interesting article What Netflix Could Teach Hollywood. They stock 60,000 movies and it turns out, on any given day, 2/3 of them are rented out by their 5 million customers. American's tastes are broad, and apparently not well served by Hollywood's attempts at one size fits all blockbusters.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hypoallergenic Kittens

"US scientists claimed Wednesday to have bred the world's first hypoallergenic kitten, opening the doors and arms of millions of pet lovers for whom cuddling a cat has, until now, been a curse."

Some people already have talking cats. I had one in high school, but there's no video.

And for the really absurd there's Hitler Cats.

Shame on Spector, NSA Escapes

Arlen Specter (R-PA) bailed on his promise to get to the bottom of the NSA Domestic Spying program. Instead of Congressional oversight on the Executive Branch we get supposed backroom deals.

Brownback Hypocrite on Foreign Law

Here's a bit I don't get. Apparently people have brought up Norway where gay marriage has been legal since 1993. Last night the Jon Stewart showed a clip of Sam Brownback (R-KS) talking about this. Aren't these the same people who side with Scalia that foreign law should have no bearing on US law? Brownback even sponsored legislation so that "the Supreme Court would be prohibited from basing their opinions on the rule of foreign law". But it's ok to bring up Norway in the Senate on this topic?

The furor over the use of foreign law in Supreme Court decsions is from Roper v Simmons in 2005. The question was whether the death penalty applied to a juvenile was cruel and unusual. The opinion was 25 pages plus appendices, three and a half pages talk about foreign law. Some quotes:

"Our determination that the death penalty is disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18 finds confirmation in the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty"

"Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which every country in the world has ratified save for the United States and Somalia, contains an express prohibition on capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles under 18."

"only seven countries other than the United States have executed juvenile offenders since 1990: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China. Since then each of these countries has either abolished capital punishment for juveniles or made public disavowal of the practice."

"The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions. "

The reason this issue is usually associated with Ginsburg is that shortly after the Roper decision she spoke out in favor of the practice.

So what does looking at Scandinavia show us here? In 2004, Stanley Kurtz wrote The End of Marriage in Scandinavia and a few months later his claims were debunked.

Can we get back to real issues?

Jon Stewart Redeems Himself on Gay Marriage

Jon Stewart did a brilliant job on covering the gay marriage debate on Tuesday's Daily Show. He had Bill Bennett (he of The Book of Virtues and gambling addiction fame) on his show hawking his new book America: The Last Best Hope. Stewart took the interview and debate seriously and it was wonderful. Bennett had no chance but took it well and gracefully. Honest discourse indeed. Some of Jon's best lines:

"But every time we draw limits, and the country has done it, and you make that point and everybody knows that, starting with slavery, which was, I think, a big limit, woman's sufferage, all that, each time there has been a battle to not allow that freedom, each time that battle was lost, and for the good of the country isn't this the next progression in that very same battle?"

"So why not encourage gay people to join in on that family arrangement if that is what provides stability to a society."

"It's a debate about whether you think gay people are part of the human condition or just a random fetish"

"Then let's go slippery slope the other way, if government says I can define marriage is between a man and a woman, what says they can't define it of people of different income levels or they can decide whether or not you are a suitable husband for a particular woman."

"Divorce is not caused because 50% of marriages end in gayness"

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Jon Stewart: Funny but Wrong?

Kevin Drum writes about Jon Stewart emceeing at the Peabody awards on Monday. Read the two paragraphs there, they are typical Stewart biting commentary.

But I seem to remember him deriding congressmen for making constant comparisons to Nazis to make political points. Maybe I'm just bothered by something from Monday night's Daily Show. Stewart commented on the new DHS budget that supposedly cuts funds to NY and DC and increases them to smaller cities like Omaha. He showed some clips of Chernoff on News Hour with Jim Lehrer and made him look stupid. I saw the whole original interview and know that he took the comments out of context.

As best I understand it the whole DHS budget issue is flap is unjustified. It goes like this. It's been 5 years since 9/11 and we've spent hundreds of millions of dollars to increase security at vulnerable cities. No I don't think we're done, but I do think that more than NY and DC are at risk. DHS makes good points about power plants, food supply chains, chemical plants and other things being vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In prior years we've given disproportionately to NY and DC and other high risk cities as we should have. But I don't think these funds should now be counted as new revenue streams for the cities. It turns out out last year NY and DC got greatly increased funds through this program, the fact that they got normal funds this year really shouldn't be a cut. Also, NY still got more this year than every other city combined. Oh and DHS followed congresses mandated risk-based budget process.

Stewart and Rob Corddry made a point to skewer DHS for not ranking the Brooklyn Bridge or Empire State Building as National Icons. Lehrer asked Chernoff about that and he said in the rankings, "national icon" was a lower risk than other descriptions like "tall building with people" so that these NY sites got more funding by not being called national icons. Stewart and company obviously knew this since they watched the interview.

I know the Daily Show is a comedy show but they often manage to achieve hilarity while informing us of real things. I suppose I shouldn't be disappointed in their lax journalistic standards, they are not journalists and often say so. But dammit I want them to be, because they are usually more informative than other TV news sources. At least I thought they were, now I'm not so sure.

Does anyone else feel this way? Is their stuff not as funny if it isn't true?

Getting Spanked on Katrina

Arianna Huffington thanks Harry Shearer for spanking her on Katrina. Harry Shearer has been blogging about Katrina since it happened and is absolutely outraged that nobody seems care or cover the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers has taken responsibility for the worst natural disaster in American history. In the process she wrote a good summary of the facts and the political landscape of the issue.

Today's Washington Post has an editorial on what Congress wants to do about the Corps. Some want more regulation, some, unbelievably want less.

In Defense of Dan Rather

Mary Mapes was a producer for Dan Rather and in the Huffington Post defends him from a New York Post Page Six attack. She stands by the story that the documents used to question Bush's National Guard service were not forged. It's a biased but interesting read.

Stalking Points Memo

News Corpse is some site that's against the main stream media, with attitude. They've taken the best part of the Colbert Report, The Word, and used the same gimmick on Bill O'Reilly. I point you at: Stalking Points Memo, begin the laughter.

Happy Apocalypse

It's 6/6/06.

Bush Supports Torture Again

Andrew Sullivan is incensed at Bush over the fact that the new version of the Army Field Manual will not ban torture.

Here's the history based mostly on this article in the LA Times:

In the 1949 Geneva Convention Article 3 talks about internal conflicts, not international ones. Article 3 says really basic things like people who have not been hostile should not be tortured, taken hostage, humilated or degraded and should not be sentenced without a court. It also says the wounded and sick should be cared for and given access to the Red Cross.

"The old version of the U.S. directive on detainees says the military will 'comply with the principles, spirit and intent' of the Geneva Convention." After all, this is the kind of thing you want to be on the good side of and the US has always been a world leader in.

"But, in 2002, Bush suspended portions of the Geneva Convention for captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters."

In 2005, the McCain Amendment set the standard as a "prohibition against cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment." It passed Congress and Bush signed it so it's law. But Bush included a signing statement with it saying he could choose to ignore it.

Now the Pentagon is rewriting the miltary guidelines for detainees. "Military lawyers [JAGs] and other defense officials" wanted to restore the Geneva rules. However, Cheney's office and the intelligence arm of the Pentagon opposed them. So they got removed. The State Department "fiercely opposes" the decision since it means we lose the moral highground and other nations already think we torture people. It just fuels our enemies.

The title of Sullivan's article is "We Torture". He's right, this is our government doing this. And I think it sucks.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Lewis Black on HBO This Saturday

If you have HBO be sure to catch (or Tivo) Lewis Black's Red, White, & Screwed this Saturday at 10pm ET. I haven't seen it but have loved everything else he's done.

Scalia Puts the Smack Down on Alito

Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Zedner v. United States. Alito wrote the opinion, his second for the court. The case was about a counterfeiter and his right to a speedy trial. He waived his right "for all time" under the Speedy Trial Act but the court found that the act doesn't allow you to do that. It was unanimous so it must have been straight forward.

Not so fast. In Alito's 19 page opinion, one paragraph is about the act's legislative history, the debates about it in Congress. Alito foudn that that bolstered the opinion even more. But Scalia is opposed to using legislative history in helping decisions. He believes the law is the text of the law and nothing else should be used in deciding cases. So Scalia wrote a 2 page concurring opinion saying he agreed with decision except the paragraph on legislative history.

Legal Times has an article on this. Alito could have easily removed the paragraph, the rest of the opinion was clear, and he must have known that Scalia was bothered by it. But Alito didn't remove it and that act must be a statement in itself. The article says this shows there is "at least some daylight between" Alito and Scalia, and that maybe Alito is closer to Breyer than anyone guessed.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

State of Plan B

Steve Benen writes in the Washington Monthly about the FDAs efforts to keep Plan B off the shelves. There was an article in the Washington Post by an anonymous 42-year-old happily-married mother of two who couldn't get a perscription for it (her doctor didn't prescribe that drug!) and ended up having an abortion. It's sort of a tragic beaurocratic nightmare tale.

Apparently about 2 years ago an FDA panel voted 23-4 for approval, one calling it "the safest drug that we have seen brought before us." It was quashed by high ranking FDA officials for unstated reasons which Benen characterizes as lies.

Just a few months ago Pharmacy boards were debating if pharmacists who morally objected to it didn't have to fill prescriptions for Plan B. All this for a drug available in 102 countries, 34 of which don't require a prescription.

More Political Stunts

Brad DeLong writes Good News on the Estate Tax.... According to the LA Times the efforts to repeal it might not succeed. Makes sense, the government is badly in debt and the estate tax only affects estates of $4,000,000 or more. According to Robert Reich it only affects 1,200 families in the US. That number does sound small to me, maybe that's how many people die each year with a $4,000,000+ estate.

Free iPod Book 2.0

iPodLounge has put out The Free iPod Book 2.0. It's filled with tips and more accessory ideas than you could imagine. If you have an iPod, it's worth a look.

17 Arrested in Canadian Bombing Plot

On Saturday Canadian Police arrested 17 men for plotting to bomb sites in Ontario. Few details are known, government lawyers didn't present reasons for their charges but are expected to do so Tuesday.

It seems the 17 men (5 of which are under 18 years old, 10 are between 19 and 25, and one is 30 and one is 43 years-old) had acquired 3 tons of fertalizer (ammonium nitrate) which is 3 times what was used to blow up the Murrah building in OKlahoma City. They had no known affliliation with al Qaeda but some reports say they were inspired by them. While all the targets were in Canada, they did have contact with two Americans in Georgia who have been arrested.

The Toronto Star reported that in 2004 the intelligence agency began monitoring Internet exchanges, some of which were encrypted. More details to come and I'm really curious to hear how they were caught. It would be good to know what techniques actually achieve results.

Bush's Latest Political Stunt

Bush this weekend urged Congress to ban gay marriage by passing a constitutional amendment. Apparently Republicans in the Senate are bringing it up Monday and Bush is expressing his support. I've seen it mentioned in a number of places and on the sunday morning talk shows.

The amazing thing is that this time everyone is calling it a political stunt by the hurting Republicans to strengthen their base. Of course this was a big issue in the 2004 elections though politicians have done nothing about it since. It seems it's just an election year issue. Even Pat Buchanan has doubts. He says in 2004 it was an authentic issue because MA had just allowed it and it was on other ballots. Apparently it will be on 6 state ballots this year: ID, SC, SD, VA, WI, AL.

No one gives this amendment any chance of getting the 2/3 of the votes it needs to pass. I can also say that in MA it doesn't seem to have harmed the fabric of marriage in the slightest. It was legalized in November of 2003, two and half years ago. I haven't heard of any heterosexual marriage destroyed by a nearby gay marriage.

Fiddling while Rome burns.

Adobe Prevents Save as PDF in Vista

A great feature of Mac OS X is that whatever you can print, you can save as a PDF document. I do this often for web pages (particular receipts of online purchases). It's also a great way to take a document in a mac specific or proprietary format and convert it to an open one. Well kinda, only parts of PDF are being standardized by ISO. But PDF is appearing in more and more places. OpenOffice has the same capability as OS X, it can save any of it's documents as PDFs. Windows Vista was going to add this capabililty as well, after all, gotta keep up with the competition. However it seems Adobe balked and told Microsoft they couldn't include the capability in Vista for free, they had to charge customers extra for it.

There's no reason given but it just seems like greed. While Adobe gives away a PDF viewer for free, they charge for full Acrobat which can create PDFs. They probably let Mac and OpenOffice get away with having this capability because their market share is so small, but they'd lose money on Acrobat sales if Windows had the capability. That's my guess at least. If so, for shame Adobe, gotta be fair.

The horrors really are your America, Mr Bush - Sunday Times - Times Online

Andrew Sullivan wrote in today's Sunday Times (of London) The horrors really are your America, Mr Bush. Keying off Bush's statement after Abu Ghraib that "This is not America" Sullivan walks through why it is and in part how it happened. His summary is very clear: "What is so tragic about this presidency is that it has simultaneously proclaimed American goodness while dismantling the constitutional protections and laws that guard against American evil."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mentos and Diet Coke

Someone mentioned this to me a few weeks ago but I forgot about it. Then another friend sends me a pointer to this video. Truly amazing. It's even more fun if you've seen the fountains in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Though as fun as this is, I think my favorite part is that they're wearing lab coats.

Friday, June 02, 2006


KookyChow is a collection of absurd food products. "Most were purchased in the strange food section of the supermarket, ethnic groceries, or at the dollar store."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Buy a Castle

I'd never heard of Wistsbefore. It's "a free service that lets you visually bookmark any page on the web, then automatically create a small image, text summary and add set of keywords." So, a prettier You can of course search by tag and I found out about it because someone posted a pointer to a wist of Fantasy-Castles you can buy.

Wrinkle-Free Packing

Fodor's has 6 Tips for Wrinkle-Free Packing that look quite reasonable.