Friday, December 31, 2004

Dave's filter

Wishful thinking

From Judis and Tuxiera's election post-mortem:
The ability of the Democrats to match the Republicans in funds (in fact, the Democratic National Committee actually raised more money than the Republican National Committee, and Democratic and Democratic-oriented organizations spent more in support of Kerry than their Republican counterparts did in support of Bush) was largely due to the use of the Internet, a medium that Democrats and liberals dominate in the same way that Republicans dominate AM radio. [emphasis added]
I think this is where Mickey Kaus usually comes in and declares an instance of cocooning.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

On "You Can't Say That"

I've finished Bernstein's "You Can't Say That." I came away with depressing litany of attacks on First Amendment rights but also reason for optimism: antidiscrimination laws and their interpretation can be fixed by legislatures. We don't have to rely on constitutional amendment or the de facto equivalent of appointing/electing judges willing to overturn constitutional precedents we don't like.

Can this be achieved? The best chance is always with some particularly outrageous case whipping up public sentiment, but perhaps more "phlegmatic tolerance" by all citizens, as Bernstein advocates, is necessary if we want to go further than getting more legislative exemptions to antidiscrimination laws for political powerful groups.

Bernstein also hopes ACLU will redevote itself to civil liberteries. I hope so too, but I'm pessimistic. Personnel is policy, after all. I think the best one can hope for is a schism; a purge is not realistic. The resulting pro-civil liberties group would not have the same prestigue, but it would be more capable of forming coalitions with other civil liberties supporters on the right, and therefore might prove even more effective than the current ACLU, especially when Republicans control Congress.

In other news, I got "The Bell Curve" as a late Christmas present. Much good reading lies ahead.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


To me, the saddest part of this tragedy is its preventability.
In Los Angeles, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said U.S. officials who detected the undersea quake tried frantically to get a warning out about the tsunami.

But there was no official alert system in the region, said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Honolulu.

"It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get ... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia," he said. "You can walk inland for 15 minutes to get to a safe area."

"We tried to do what we could," he said. "We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."

Dave's filter

I thought I'd try something a little different today. Back in the day (June 2003), when I started this blog, it was all links. The only commentary was my choice of words to put between the anchor tags. Since then I've drifted to the opposite extreme. Lately I've only been posting when I wanted to say something somewhat original. I think there's a happier medium, and that a "filter" post would be a good way to amalgamate a day's unadorned links. So, here begins my experiment: a list (in no particular order) of links to things to which I don't currently feel I have anything to add (and/or am too busy/lazy to comment/summarize/excerpt), but that I'd still recommend reading.

Dave Barry's year in review
Affirmative action in South Africa
From fetus to baby
Excerpt of In the Red Zone ( 1 2 3 4 5 )


Eduwonk's recent post on charter schools includes a reprinting of an "end-of-year e-mail from the founder of the MATCH Public Charter High School." It gives a glimpse of an excellent charter school. On thing you probably won't discern from the email is that their academic rigor is coupled with strong discipline. I know this because I was a part-time tutor for them for a few months while I was an undergrad at MIT. They run a tight ship. For example, I wasn't allowed to wear jeans when I was there, presumably because the students also aren't allowed to wear jeans.


...was most enjoyable. Between my mom and my first two sisters, 15 and 19, there was (and still is) no shortage of delicious home cooking. This year, I wisely sent my family of list of books I'd like. The list was too long for me to expect them all, but I did get You Can't Say That!, Carnage and Culture, The Voluntary City, Bowling Alone, and The Ultimate Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I'm already two-thirds through Bernstein's You Can't Say That!, which I so far find to be a well assembled compilation of often outrageous First Amendment violations, the more recent ones already familiar to me thanks to law blogs. I'm dissapointed that there aren't nearly as many ideas new to me in his book as there are examples, though this is unfair to Bernstein, as I've read a lot of commentary on this issue of the last few years. Perhaps in the last third of the book....

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

No govenor for Christmas

I probably should have clarified my previous post about the WA govenor's race to say more about state Supreme Court's decision about which I linked. Previously rejected ballots may not be reconsidered, but the 561 735 ballots found in King County were "wrongly rejected because of mistakes by election workers." Why not? I'm not sure (IANAL).

Anyhow, the latest news is that Gregoire has pulled ahead (not yet officially) to a ten vote lead without the 735 disputed ballots. Had the Supreme Court ruled against counting these ballots, it would hard to imagine a Rossi victory. Alas, the court today ruled to count them, giving the Rossi campaign an excuse to jump on the "count every vote" bandwagon and go to court with every alleged uncounted Rossi vote they can scrounge up. Would the Rossi campaign have tried to do this anyway? Probably, but the court's decision makes it much more feasible from a PR standpoint.

Things can only get uglier from this point on. On might like to think of the repeated counts as converging ever closer the true result, but with margins this small, it's more likely that new errors, accidental or otherwise, are introduced at each stage are and drown out the sought-after signal in noise. The more revisions we make to the count, the more people will realize this. If it goes on long enough, a new election may be the only palatible option. However, my guess is that the courts rule against any further changes to the election and that the Democrat-controlled legislature will not support a rerun election. So if my guess is right, Gregoire wins and the Republicans feel cheated.

Update: I'd be remiss not to remind readers to check RealClearPolitics for the latest on this story.


William Saletan at Slate had an article on these strange things a while back; Ramesh Ponnuru followed up with two articles at TCS. Teratomas clearly (to me) have no moral status, but as Saletan noted, they raise the question of just how dysfunctional does an otherwise biologically human organism have to be before we can treat him/her/it as a thing, rather than a person. This question has actually come up before. Remember Terry Schiavo? At the beginning of life the argument is over the meaning of extreme developmental dysfunction. At the end of life the argument is over extreme brain dysfunction. What I find most discomforting is that we've don't know of any clear biological dividing line. At least in the abortion debate, biology clearly (to me) provides the dividing line of conception.

Friday, December 17, 2004

On Godel and time travel

It's time for more general relativity blogging.

I just read an interesting article about the Einstein and Godel, who were friends while concurrently working at the Institute for Advanced Study. The author touches on a lot of important ideas of physics and math, but I wanted to focus on his take on Godel's discovery of solutions to Einstein's equations of general relativy that correspond to universes with time loops (closed timelike curves in current technical jargon). Equivalently, Godel showed that GR does not prohibit time machines. The author suggests that Godel's results indicates that time breaks down, just as Godel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that Hilbert's program breaks down. But as Stephen Hawking noted, "we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future." I think it far, far more plausible that Godel's discovery of time loop solutions to GR provides additional evidence that GR is an incomplete description of spacetime, quantum physics already providing more than enough reasons to think this.

Take a look at Matt Visser's slides from a talk on the physics of time travel, skipping the parts you don't understand. The bottom line is that the physical possibility of time travel depends on how gravity behaves on quantum scales.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

One lawyer, one vote

The Washington governor's race is still not over. Now 561 improperly disqualified votes have been found in Democrat and urban King county. This could change the outcome of the race. From what I can tell, this is an honest mistake, but there is every reason to be suspicious.

Regardless of the legitimacy of these 561 votes, there's a fundamental problem: with an election this close, the number of fraudulant votes is much higher than the margin of victory. With tighter election laws, we could significantly reduce the level of fraud, but in this case the margin is so small that even that wouldn't be enough. (Fraud is particularly troublesome if you believe one party usually to commits much more fraud than the other, and that party's candidate wins by a very small margin.) Besides fraud are the many honest mistakes. With these facts in mind, the best we can do is strictly follow the rules as they were layed out before the election, for the legitimacy of the process is all that supports the legitimacy of the result. No one can plausibly say the result is the "will of the people" (whatever that means), and ex post facto changes to the rules, however democratic in intent, undermine democracy more than they advance it.

Here's what happens when we follow the Democrats' "count every vote" mentality to its logical conclusion.
The years since the disputed 2000 presidential election have brought more judicial scrutiny to elections; some judges appear concerned about what one legal commentator has called the increasing legalization of politics through litigation and court action in elections.

That seemed clear from an exchange between Burman and Justice Bobbe Bridge. Bridge asked him about the difference between recounting and recanvassing, and pointed out the problem if either side could continually ask for reconsideration of rejected ballots.

"How are we ever going to get finality in an election if that is the case?" Bridge asked.

Burman: "We are in favor of finality. But we are in favor of finality after it's done fully and fairly, accurately and civilly, and that is part of the manual-recount process."

Bridge: "Are voters supposed to take a lawyer now when they go to vote just to make sure everything" is done correctly?

Burman: "If they care enough, if they are worried enough about the errors, perhaps they should."
Fortunately, the state supreme court has just ruled against including previously rejected ballots in the ongoing re-recount.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Money can't buy me...

Many a time I've read from the Left that conservative blue collar workers vote against their economic self-interest. Thomas Frank wrote a book on it, focusing on Kansas as an example of this phenomenon. Funny thing is, Kansas has a great economy compared to national averages. Perhaps this is related to the fact that Kansas ranks #1 on Forbes' U.S. Economic Freedom Index. This and other interested facts are summarized by Nick Gillespie here. He notes that though New York ranks at the bottom, a great many people overwhelmingly prefer NYC to Wichita:
The simple fact is that many people—arguably most people—are ready, willing, and able to pay a premium to live in more densely populated areas where things cost more money and take more time, where there are more regulations, higher taxes, bigger annoyances, you name it.
Perhaps Kansan voters make their economic interests a higher priority than New Yorkers. But really, what's wrong with giving something you believe in higher priority than your pocketbook? Isn't that what we call a principled sacrifice? Even valuing something frivolous more than money isn't necessarily bad.

Update: incorrect link to Gillespie's piece fixed.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Flower power

Ingenious (hat tip: Daniel Drezner):
A Danish company, Aresa Biodetection, has developed genetically-modified flowers that change color when their roots come in contact with nitrogen dioxide in the soil. Explosives used in mines produce NO2 as the chemicals gradually decay. The company plans to sow fields of NO2-sniffing Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale or mouse cress) in areas riddled with long-forgotten ordinance from Angola to Cambodia.

Good news or gaffe?

That's what I'm wondering about what Mankiw said (hat tip: The Note.). NYT's first paragraph:
Calling the current system of Social Security benefits unsustainable, a top economic adviser to President Bush on Thursday strongly implied that any overhaul of the system would have to include major cuts in guaranteed benefits for future retirees.
Is this predictive of Administration policy or is it Mankiw speaking a truth the White House would rather not discuss, like when he praised outsourcing? Both?