Friday, March 30, 2012

Reason #165: Boston Dynamics Will Kill Us All

It was only a few weeks ago that I highlighted Boston Dynamics' Cheetah robot, which broke the robot speed record and is faster than the average human, and now they've got one that can not only jump over obstacles more than 10 feet high, but is precise enough to jump through specific windows up to two stories up. They may be taking over soon, but if the last six months are any indication, it'll at least be fascinating.

BONUS: Check out this awesome Cassini photo of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Those things that look like spotlights pointed straight up are geysers of water ice shooting into space from cracks in the moon's surface. In other words: there's an ocean under there.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Reason #164: Oversight

In the midst of all this charming Trayvon Martin discussion, it's been easy to forget one key law of the universe - cops aren't crazy about minorities, either. This is rarely so true as it is in Seattle, where a string of violent incidents culminating in the shooting death of a homeless Native American wood carver (translation: he was carrying a knife), recently prompted a federal review by the Justice Department, fast becoming the central heroes of this blog.

The DOJ concluded that the Seattle PD was improperly training and supervising its officers with regard to minor offenses--like being black in the vicinity of a police station, or lying prone on the ground in the vicinity of a crime scene--and how not to thoroughly beat people when confronted with such situations.

Well, now Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has stepped in, and today announced a series of twenty escalation-countering reforms to be implemented in the future, including bold, outside-the-box ideas like not pepper spraying people who aren't attacking you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reason #163: Hoodies

I wasn't really able to think about Trayvon Martin for the first few days. Or rather, I was thinking about it--because the story was unavoidable--but I didn't really have any intelligible, complete thoughts about it for a while.

What I've settled on, more or less, is that what happened was nothing more or less than a lynching. Whether George Zimmerman was white is beside the point, and whether Trayvon was armed or not is beside the point. A racist saw a black person somewhere he didn't think he belonged, so he set about getting rid of him. The Stand Your Ground law is beside the point as well, in a way; maybe Trayvon would still be alive in Zimmerman had only had access to a tire iron or something, but the impetus is more troubling to me than the excuse.

In any event, even once my perspective on the case had been formed, it didn't seem likely that I'd be bringing it up here. There's nothing to laud about a law enforcement establishment that refused to arrest Zimmerman but decided to drug test Trayvon's corpse; that wouldn't fire the police chief but would leak "damaging" factoid's about Trayvon's school record.

That Congressman Bobby Rush wore sunglasses and a hoodie onto the floor today, in violation of House rules, doesn't really mean much to me in the grand scheme of things. As sound as the point it raises might be, it's feels kind of petty and beneath a member of Congress, especially since it gave others an excuse to ignore his speech in favor of shouting him down and escorting him off the floor. But I'm willing to concede that I like it in theory, so that's a good enough excuse as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reason #162: Ambiguity

As I first mentioned back in December, the Supreme Court is currently in the midst of three days of arguments regarding the constitutionality of Obamacare's mandate that all US citizens be enrolled in some form of health coverage.

Some health care reform is better than zero health care reform, so I'm not overly inclined to complain that the law exists as-is; especially because the list of exemptions is such that almost no one would actually be hurt financially by it at when all is said and done.

But frankly, in my opinion? The individual mandate is indeed unconstitutional; it was when the Rebpulicans wanted to do it in the 90's and it is now. You know what isn't? Single-payer.

Just saying.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reason #161: Parents Ruin Everything

Last year's children's Easter Egg Hunt at Bancroft Park in Colorado Springs was over in a matter of seconds. No real hiding places were readily available at the location, so thousands of plastic eggs (filled with coupons for local businesses! Yay Easter!) were basically just dispersed on a lawn for kids to pick up.

It doesn't sound extremely sporting, sure, but believe it or not, it was over so quickly not because it was too easy for the kids, but because it was too difficult--or at least numerous parents seemed to think so, and therefore insisted on jumping into the arena (would that be considered an arena, or would you have to give the kids battle axes or something?) and grabbing eggs themselves lest their young ones feel overwhelmed by the challenge.

Reporting on the incident, from what I've seen, leaned heavily on the "helicopter parents" argument, claiming that this is just one example of an entire generation of parents who can't help but hover over their children at all times and ensure that they enjoy every advantage possible. I take moaning over "parents these days" almost as un-seriously as that over "kids these days", but it's hard to argue against them having ruined this particular event.

The end result of the debacle, of course, is that organizers have ruled the event to be too big for its britches, and it was cancelled this year. One wonders if the lesson the parents will take from that is that it's better to not have your small child participate in anything, rather than risk unsatisfactory results. Leaving the house is, after all, the first step toward failure.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reason #160: Insert Dr. Evil Joke Here

Scientists in California have just broken the record for the most powerful laser ever fired by mankind. The National Ignition Facility's laser delivered 1.875 MJ of energy to its target (though at one point the beam was measured as producing 2.03 MJ, which confuses me - are energy production and energy output two different things?).

While firing, the beam generated one thousand times as much power as the entire United States uses in the same amount of time. But before you get too excited, that amount of time was 23 billionths of a second.

Now that they've set a new benchmark for overall laser power, the goal is to fire the laser at a specific target in order to produce the first artificial fusion reaction; technology which will then, I'm sure, get slapped under the wing of a fighter jet somewhere.

That sounds scary enough until you hear about Europe's pending "Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility", whose stated intention is nothing less than to "tear apart the fabric of space". I say "pending" because people are still bidding on the privilege of building it in their country. God, I love science.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reason #159: I'm Fired

Nicely echoing one of the first entries in this blog (which tells you how rare something like this is), the city manager of Keller, Texas announced Wednesday that after careful consideration, he has judged himself to be unnecessary.

In a move right out of the Ron Swanson playbook, Dan O'Leary, who has held the position since 2007 and appears to be fairly popular, took a look at the latest city audit, the pending budgetary process, and his two existing assistant city managers (meaning that Keller, population 39 thousand and change, effectively has three managers), then decided that maybe his own $176 thousand salary would be a good place to start cutting.

Even better, the 57-year-old O'Leary is qualified to receive a government pension if he retires, but plans to look for a job elsewhere instead. In the meantime, he recommended either of his assistants as obvious replacements, but I wouldn't personally rule out Keller's city council going ahead and hiring another third manager anyway, just for shits and giggles.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reason #158: Plea Bargains

Though I've talked about the American criminal justice system before, one thing I haven't brought up is plea bargains. Though we only tend to hear about the big, exciting jury trials, most people who are arrested end up pleading guilty and never getting a trial.

A lot of those people actually are guilty, I'm sure, but what's really going on here is that committing to a jury trial means committing to months or years of exhausting and stressful legal procedures, untold personal expense, and a fair chance that you're going to be convicted in the end anyway. And needless to say, if you're black or Muslim or covered in tattoos, the whims of an American jury are going to be an even scarier prospect than they would be otherwise.

So when prosecutors dangle a 30-year sentence over your head and say they can bring it down to five years if you plead guilty and save them a headache, what you end up with is a system in which 97% of federal convictions come out of guilty pleas.

This is all gruesome enough, but as it happens, a lot of defendants--Galin Frye and Anthony Cooper among them--either don't get competent advice regarding the plea deal in front of them, or are never told of the offer at all, and end up receiving lengthy jury convictions instead.

In the cases of Frye and Cooper, however, the Supreme Court ruled today that all defendants have the right to be fully and knowledgeably informed of any plea deals that may be available to them. That doesn't really change the broader issue here, but it's at least a sign of recognition from the Supremes that many American citizens are getting a raw deal.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reason #157: The Right Thing To Do

The Buffett Rule, bumping millionaires up to a minimum tax rate of 30%, was never really meant to be a deficit-fighting measure. Tax increases by their very definition, naturally, would do at least a little to close the budget gap, but the reason Warren Buffett brought it up last year, and Sheldon Whitehouse put it into a bill in January, was because it was philosophically a good idea.

Rather than revolutionizing the actual revenue stream, it sets a benchmark for how things should be done. It helps to prevent even worse disparities in the future, for one thing, but even more than that, it enshrines into law--or would if it gets passed--the moral premise that the upper class are at least as responsible for supporting our nation as the lower and middle classes. Like the Civil Rights Act, or the 13th Amendment, it could create an atmosphere that over time would result in other legislation furthering those broad strokes in even better ways.

When Congressional tax analysts, working at the behest of Republican Orrin Hatch, concluded recently that the implementation of the Buffett Rule as legislation would result in a revenue increase of only $31 billion (compared to the $7 trillion deficit), my first reaction was that it's crazy to hear anyone, in any context, talk about "only" $31 billion.

My second reaction was, so what?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reason #156: Passports, Please


Last November, around three thousand barrels of oil were spilled into the ocean from an offshore oil field in Brazil, operated by Chevron and Transocean. That amounts to less than 0.1% the BP oil spill of two years ago, which seems like not that big of a deal, right?

Tell that to federal prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro, who are pursuing criminal charges against seventeen executives and employees from the two companies. They must turn their passports in to authorities within 24 hours, and charges are expected to be filed by Wednesday at the latest.

The charges appear to allege that the companies cut corners on safety procedures, and suggest that that particular well "should not have been drilled" in the first place; they are also accompanied by an $11 million federal environmental lawsuit, a record amount for the country.

I'm hardly an expert in Brazilian environmental law--and I'll note that the Brazilian government previously okayed the well, and that much bigger spills in the past haven't faced criminal action like this--but isn't it refreshing just to see an oil spill being treated like a real crime for once?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reason #155: Space Cartography

Man, is there any word that can't be made cooler by putting "space" in front of it?

For two years, NASA's WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) satellite has been gathering extensive data on the entirety of the night sky. After producing more than 2.7 million images and 15 terabytes of data--and prompting around a hundred papers detailing its myriad discoveries--the total output has been boiled down into a relatively puny 18 thousand images that nevertheless encompass all visible space.

And as of this week, that data, essentially an atlas of space, has been provided for free online in the form of the 320-gigabyte-total "All-Sky Data Release". Included with the images is a searchable catalog of an unbelievable 563 million things.

I say "searchable" in the loosest possible sense, because while the data is totally open to perusal, it can only be downloaded in chunks, and the current website interface leaves a lot to be desired. Luckily, NASA is also providing tutorials and "application programming interfaces", which means that eventually someone who's not an astrophysicist will be able to turn it into something a little more user-friendly.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Reason #154: Release the Biden

The Obama administration began a "rollout" of Vice President Joe Biden today, which is another way of saying they want to get people used to him. He gave a rousing speech in Toledo, Ohio, focusing on the auto bailout and the administration's perception that it saved that industry and, more to the point, thousands of rust-belt jobs.

He went so far as to mention the Republican presidential candidates by name, which Obama has done a pretty good job of avoiding thus far - but with Romney's whole "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" thing, how could he not?

The campaign strategy is interesting to watch here, because they obviously want to use Biden's blue-collar average-guy energy to contrast with Romney's (and, let's be fair, Obama's) perceived aloofness and detachment from "regular" people, but they scheduled a speech with Obama for the same time - which is another way of saying they're afraid he might say something embarassing.

You can't blame them for trying to warm the guy up slowly, but I've been crazy about Biden for a long time now. Real people are messy and contradictory by nature, and any political figure who doesn't appear as such is a political figure whose public image is being carefully managed.

It's na├»ve to make character judgments about either of them based on public image, but as calm and reasonable as Obama can appear, it's reassuring to see someone like Biden standing at his side. Because only when someone occasionally says the wrong thing can you be sure that they mean it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reason #153: Everybody Poops

I'll be honest: there are days that it's hard to find a good topic for this blog. There's frequently more bad news than good where the federal government is concerned, and even on the good days, I can only say so much about gay marriage and immigration. But there are some days when the blog pretty much writes itself. Jew Pond yesterday was one of those times. And then today I came upon what might be the most perfect example of anti-spending lunacy I could ever hope for.

Last November, a $42 thousand spending request was presented to Trenton, New Jersey's City Council for a year's supply of paper products for government facilities. This, to City Council, seemed like a lot of money for paper products.

Upon looking over the request in what I'm sure was exhaustive detail, it was determined by some that the unit price for coffee cups was too high. The debate this determination set off rages on to this very day, some four months later.

But why is this news now, you ask? Well, because without a handy donation from PETA (long story), and an I-shit-you-not emergency appropriation of $16 thousand just this morning, the city of Trenton would have run out of toilet paper.

Well not, like, the entire city - just the government. Meaning the police and fire departments, senior centers, the local museum, and City Hall, among others. Detective George Dzurkoc was asked about the situation at the police department, and I'm going to quote his response straight from this article because it's fucking uncanny that someone working for a news service actually had to write these words:

"He said the men's rooms are completely bare and just a few rolls are left in the women's rooms."
While the potty emergency was ultimately averted and new supplies of toilet paper began arriving today, it's my understanding that the overall paper product crisis continues - because why pay four thousand dollars for coffee cups when you've already got plenty of those little water-cooler cone things?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reason #152: Jew Pond

Oh, you just have the love the purity of the electoral process.

Up for a vote today in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, population 2,409, is a proposal to rename a tiny manmade body of water in the town currently known as Jew Pond.

It's been known locally by that name since the 1920s, when a pair of Jewish businessmen, seen as outsiders, bought the property with the intention of bulking it up into "Lake Serene", which sadly never happened.

Ironically, the pond only existed in the first place because the original owners of the land wanted something to irrigate their golf course - a course on which Jews were decidedly not allowed.

With such rich cultural traditions as Jewless golf courses, I'm certain the good folk of Mont Vernon, who couldn't even see their way to spelling "Mount" correctly, will issue a strong condemnation of the offensive name now that they have the chance.

As for new names, maybe Rick Perry has some suggestions.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reason #151: Preclearance

Laws requiring voters to show proper photo ID are fairly well-known at this point as a major civil-rights wedge issue. While proponents of the laws, like SB 14 in Texas, claim to be fighting voter fraud, it is far easier to demonstrate a statistical lack of standard photo identification among minority populations (46.5 to 120% more likely, according to Texas' own data) than to demonstrate occurrences of serious voter fraud (recently measured as being as low as .0004%).

I thought I had a pretty good understanding of this matter, but in preparing to discuss today's blocking of SB 14 by the DOJ (love them), I came upon something I hadn't heard before. It seems that the only reason the DOJ was involved in SB 14 in the first place is because of something called preclearance.

Essentially, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 includes a provision that certain districts which have demonstrated problems with voter suppression or discrimination in the past are required to submit all their proposed changes to election law for Justice Department approval. In other words: civil rights probation.

Out of sixteen states with some sort of preclearance requirements, Texas is one of only seven whose requirements apply to the entire state. Also note that an eighth state, Georgia, is subject to preclearance everywhere except the ninety-thousand-or-so folks living in the town of Sandy Springs, who presumably are just plum crazy about them Mexicans.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reason #150: Two Words - Robot Cheetah

May I present the new fastest robot in the world: Boston Dynamics' Cheetah. Funded by the US military's DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) operation, the Cheetah can run up to 18 miles per hour, beating the crap out of the previous robot land speed record of 13.1 (set in 1989, for Christ's sake!).

Boston Dynamics is the same bunch of psychos who developed the equally-horrifying Big Dog a few years back. Their mastery of high-end robotic balance and movement control was impressive then and is even more so with the Cheetah, but would it kill them to give one of these things a head?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reason #149: The DOJ Strikes Again

As someone who is generally a fan of Apple yet also owns, and makes frequent use of, an Amazon Kindle, I have a special interest in the news that the Justice Department is officially planning to bring an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and a bevy of major publishers for allegedly fixing the price of e-books. This line from last year's incredibly-timed Steve Jobs biography sums it up very well:
"So we told the publishers, 'We'll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30 percent and yes, the customer pays a little more but that's what you want anyway.' ... So they went to Amazon and said, 'You're going to sign an agency contract or we're not going to give you the books.'"
The "agency model", basically, is one in which retailers are not buying the content outright, but buying the rights to resell it at a pre-approved price. The DOJ is accusing Apple of lauching the iPad amidst a deal with several publishers to keep e-book prices at a high enough level to offset the production costs that went into making the iPad in the first place.

They then told Amazon, whose bare-bones Kindles are presumably a good deal cheaper to produce and distribute, that they had to charge the same amount as Apple or the publishers would pull out of the Kindle Store altogether.

I appreciate that Apple is driving innovation, and having worked in the electronics industry (read: Staples and GameStop) for a few years, I can appreciate that new hardware of any kind is a giant money pit and it's not unreasonable to ask customers to pay a premium for content on said hardware.

But teaming up with the publishers to force Amazon to play ball is bullshit - the whole reason I got a Kindle is because I don't need a $600 e-book reader when a $130 one does the trick. Making Amazon punish its customers for their frugality is nothing short of bullying, and it should be beneath any company founded by a Buddhist.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Reason #148: Grading on a Curve

A few times now (notably yesterday), I've made a point of touting government actions that were of questionable, or negligible, practical benefit because of how they would be perceived. That's all well and good, but today I want to take a tiny step in the opposite direction.

Up for a vote in the House today is something called the JOBS Act. It sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is, at least according to many House Democrats, including Barney Frank and Steny Hoyer. Calling it the "Just Old Bills Act", Hoyer suggested that the bill is nothing but a handful of old Democratic ideas that happened to pass muster with Republicans, and therefore might as well get lumped together in a done-in-one kind of deal.

And sure enough, the bill seems to focus more or less entirely on relaxing regulations and SEC restrictions for small businesses, which is usually the Republicans' kind of thing. Though Obama gave the bill his blessing last night, and it will likely pass in the House with a healthy margin, a procedural vote this morning setting the terms of the bill's debating period only got 17 Democratic votes - in other words, we have no huge issue with this bill, but we're not done grumbling about it yet.

As you'd expect from a guy who's retiring after this year, Barney Frank was one of the more outspoken grumblers, saying that while it's "a perfectly nice bill", Republicans were trying to spin it as a bigger deal for them than it really was, because expectations for Congress are so low this year that any accomplishment is graded "on a curve" by the public.

That's all totally true, but we are talking about people's livelihoods here. I don't pretend to be so fiscally informed as to know which regulations are worth relaxing and which SEC rules are unnecessary or ill-applied, but even with Republicans having ventured so far off into the deep end this year, anything that both they and the Dems can get behind at this point is worth getting done - regardless of who gets the credit.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reason #147: Super What?

One thing I have to admit Obama's been doing really well lately is counter-programming.

On the same day as Super Tuesday, the biggest chunk of Republican primaries so far this year (indeed, the biggest one-day grouping altogether), the president this morning held his first full press conference since last year.

He used this "presser", a term I had never heard before this morning, to point out that 3.7 million jobs have been created over the last two years (with February likely the third straight month of positive job growth), to detail his mortgage relief plans (which honestly are hard for me to get my head around but apparently have something to do with veterans) and to subtly poke Mitt Romney a couple times, but I think the best thing he did, and maybe the biggest poke to Mitt Romney, was just him standing there and looking like he had his shit together.

The incumbent president always has the advantage of the "bully pulpit", as it were--to say nothing of the whole name-recognition thing--but with a haphazard Republican primary season like this one, and no one dropping out anytime soon, it's doubly good for Obama's chances for the American people just to see him working - whether they agree with that work or not.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Reason #146: Forced Medication

More than a year after his rampage in Tucson, and the subsequent medical evaluation that determined he was unfit to stand trial, an appeals court has ruled conclusively Jared Lee Loughner can be given antipsychotic medication against his will.

The matter of contention is that his mental status was determined prior to a trial taking place; indeed, he still hasn't been tried and probably won't be any time soon. Prior to a conviction, detainees normally have the right to refuse any medication they believe to be harmful (of course, if you're crazy enough, you could feel that way about anything), but the appeals court ruled that such rights are superceded by a defendant whose behavior threatens his own well-being or that of hospital staff.

It's clearly a good thing, ultimately, that he's being medicated, and I'll be interested to see if it's eventually determined that he can stand trial. But I also want to point out something that people usually cite as a complaint - that it took a year to resolve the seemingly simple matter of whether the guy needs to be medicated.

The justice system is infamous for moving slowly, and clearly this was the right thing to do, but it's right that the apparent obviousness of a correct course of action shouldn't affect the procedural aspect; Loughner still has rights (his lawyers actually had three different appeals in the works at one point), and it's heartening to see those rights being enforced, whether he's competent enough to recognize that or not. Here's hoping he gets his head together enough one day that we can send the asshole to regular prison.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Reason #145: Reality Checks


What's that, NASA? We won't even begin to know for sure until 2013?

It's only a 1 on the 10-point Torino Impact Hazard Scale?

The actual odds of an impact are only 1 in 625?

What's that, Mike? 140 meters is less than one-hundredth the size of the asteroid believed to have killed the dinosaurs, and would probably only smush some trees?

Oh, okay. Nevermind then.

(Side Note: for the next two weeks, I am conducting a survey of visitors to this blog. Whether you're a regular reader or this is your first time, I'd love to hear from you - just follow this link. This notice will accompany every post this month, with Saturday, March 3rd being the final day to participate. Thanks for reading!)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reason #144: Yet More Free Contraception

Health care reform's mandating of free contraception for all women who want it was one of the first things I talked about here, so I'm taking a special interest in the recent ongoing blow-up regarding that very issue.

The latest development: the Blunt Amendment, an attempt by Senate Republicans to add a personal religious exemption to the mandate for any employers who feel disinclined to support contraception. This article describes it as one of those rare moments where both parties are keen to have a matter voted on, because regardless of the outcome, they see their opponents' votes as something that can be used against them later in the voting booth.

Well, after four days of debate, the Senate voted this morning and killed the amendment 51-48, with one-foot-out-the-door Olympia Snowe being the only Republican to vote against it (especially interesting after what I was saying about her yesterday).

It is funny that they're all so excited to inject this matter into the national debate at the expense of jobs and the economy, but given how weak the Republican candidates are, they were bound to sieze on a wedge issue sooner or later. It's telling that this is the best they can come up with.

(Side Note: for the next two weeks, I am conducting a survey of visitors to this blog. Whether you're a regular reader or this is your first time, I'd love to hear from you - just follow this link. This notice will accompany every post this month, with Saturday, March 3rd being the final day to participate. Thanks for reading!)