Monday, April 30, 2012

Reason #186: Back On Top

One thing America will always be great at: pure, unadulterated symbolism.

And in only ten years' worth of easy steps!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Reason #185: Asteroid Mining

“It’s like computers. They used to be in clean rooms and handled by guys in isolation suits. Now they’re in your pocket and it’s no big deal if you drop it. That’s what we want to bring to robotic space exploration.”
- Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources
With the support from the founders of Google and James Cameron, among others, this week saw the announcement of Planetary Resources, the first private business with the goal of mining asteroids - for water at first, followed by precious metals like gold and platinum.

To hear them talk about it, though, they seem less interested in the end result--which they admit is at least ten years away--than in developing an overall infrastructure for off-planet commerce. And it's thanks to that outlook that the business is already running a profit; through long-term contracts with NASA and various other private interests.

That NASA is now contracting with private businesses says a lot about NASA's budget problems, but even more important is what it says about the current cost-effectiveness of private enterprise conducting its business in space. One of Planetary Resources' first orders of business is developing satellite technology that is both cheap to obtain and easy to modify - dubbed the Arkyd series.

Think of them as the iPod of space - they'll eventually function as telescopes for the mining operation, designed to track nearby asteroids and determine their compositions, but in the meantime NASA can use them to bolster its communications network, and private companies can install any other research equipment that might suit their needs.

The goal is for there to be "swarms" of these things eventually, because Planetary Resources is realistic about the kinds of failures that can easily occur in space operations, and it's actually a better business model to make a crapload of really basic models that are easily replaceable (again: iPods) than to put all your money into a handful of top-of-the-line models that could still end breaking on you.

Even if the mining thing doesn't ultimately work out (some have mentioned that flooding the market with gold, say, would only serve to lower its value and reduce your overall profitability), they're quick to say that their fundamental focus is "access"; in other words, "extend[ing] the economic sphere into the solar system".

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reason #184: Rick Scott Really Dislikes Weed

Way back in October, I talked about the fight against a law in Florida that aimed to enact drug testing for all welfare applicants in the state. A suit was brought against the law by the ACLU, and the law was blocked by a federal judge pending the case's results - while no judicial comment was made on the case itself.

Whether this is the same case or just a similar thing that's happening at the same time, I'm not quite certain, but another federal judge has just ruled as unconstitutional a law requiring the drug testing of 85 thousand Florida state employees, this one being the result of an executive order straight from Governor Rick Scott himself.

As I noted last fall, the results from the drug testing that did actually take place never came back positive more than two percent or so of the time, which meant that the money saved by denying those people welfare was actually less than the cost of implementing the tests.

Likewise, the ruling on state employees notes the low positive rate and points out that the government can only mandate drug testing in the presence of a "special need", like safety concerns, or at least "evidence of a drug use problem", neither of which appear to be the case.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reason #183: Risk Management

Remember when they caught Umar Abdulmutallab, the Underpants Bomber, a couple years back trying to blow up a plane over Detroit? A lot of hay was made at the time over all the circumstantial evidence that failed to raise alarms, like that he paid for his ticket with cash, and didn't bring a coat even though he was on his way to Michigan in December.

Kip Hawley, the former head of the Transportation Security Administration, has a new book out called Permanent Emergency in which he uses this kind of attack as the model for what airport security should really be focusing on. As ridiculous as shoe and underpants bombs seem on the nightly news, those are the things that could actually take down a plane, whereas pocket knives and bottles of shampoo cannot.

Hawley points out that not only does combing through luggage for shaving kits distract security personnel from more serious concerns, but even if a crazy person brought a knife on a plane, that's not that big of a deal in a post-9/11 world--where a dozen people would tackle him at the first sign of trouble, and even in the worst-case scenario he'd never be able to get into the cockpit.

He also suggests Israel's system of pre-flight passenger interviews as a good way of catching someone like Abdulmutallab, because let's be honest - if anyone had bothered to spend five minutes with that kid, it would've been clear what he was up to. Flying out of an American airport, though, he'd barely have had to say a word to anyone.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reason #182: Low Bars

In a rally at the University of North Carolina today, President Obama made of point of mentioning the fact that he and Michelle didn't finish paying off their student loans until eight years ago, at which point he was around 43, and had just been elected to the US Senate.

He also mentioned that in the first eight years of their marriage, they were spending more on student loans than they were on their mortgage, which is insane even compared to my own finances. Granted, they both had pretty illustrious educations, and they're certainly millionaires now, but compared to Mitt Romney and his car elevator, you have to admit that it's a fair contrast to make.

But how interesting is it that the bar has gotten so low for seeming economically relatable that the guy without a car elevator looks like a pauper in comparison to the other guy?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reason #181: Rent Stabilization

So it seems to a lot of people like the wind is blowing against the Supreme Court upholding the individual mandate in Obama's health care package. Even I have to admit that its constitutionality seems iffy, and at the very least, there should be pretty serious limitations on the government's ability to control what people are buying.

It's interesting, then, that the Supreme Court just rejected a suit against New York City's infamous rent-stabilization laws, which seem to me to be both utterly necessary and extremely socialistic.

For a second I wasn't quite sure I was prepared to defend the rent stabilization system, given that it was originally put in place around World War I and hasn't been updated since the 60's. But after reading up a bit and discovering that the rent limits are percentages, often based on the property owners' operating costs, rather than being hard numbers--and on top of that, the limits are only an option when the vacancy rate is a freakishly low five percent or less--it doesn't seem that bad of a system.

I'm not a rabid socialist, but I do think socialism is necessary exactly as often as economic conditions (like Mitt Romney paying a lower tax rate than me) make it - and preventing people from charging three thousand a month for a studio apartment is pretty fucking necessary.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Reason #180: So That's Where Baby Airplanes Come From

Last Tuesday, the Space Shuttle Discovery took its final flight, from Cape Canaveral to its final resting place at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

Not only did it take a couple quick victory laps around the Washington DC metro area, resulting in some awesome views, but it mounted a nearby 747 for one last roll in the hay. Hopefully we can put their offspring to use ferrying people to President Gingrich's Moon Colony.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reason #179: Task Forces

I mentioned just yesterday that if George Zimmerman were to be acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin because of the Stand Your Ground law, then that would be a fair way for the system to have worked - even if the law were later changed or repealed.

That yesterday's blog wasn't even related to Trayvon Martin should speak to just how big of a deal the case is right now, and how prominent it is in our thoughts.

In any event, a Task Force was announced today whose mandate is just that - to investigate what changes could, or should, be made to Stand Your Ground. If changes were then recommended, the goal would be to implement them in Florida's next legislative session (which apparently isn't until next year).

The panel consists of 17 assorted Floridians of note, including a former state Supreme Court judge, the author of the original law, and both defense and prosecution attorneys. it is also said to be "racially, regionally, and professionally diverse", though it notably lacks any members of the NRA.

Also notable is the fact that this article only seems to talk about changes to the law; outright repeal, apparently, isn't on the table.

This topic gave me a great idea for a poll, which I've never actually done on this blog before - what would be a preferable outcome, George Zimmerman being convicted, but Stand Your Ground staying on the books, or Zimmerman being acquitted, but the law going away? What's more important, justice for Trayvon specifically, or the potential for injustice inherent in the law? You can give me your answer on the right of the page.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reason #178: Retroactivity

Usually it's not that unreasonable to suggest that someone accused of a crime be tried and, if necessary, sentenced, according to the law as it existed when the crime was convicted. For example - however idiotic the Stand Your Ground law in Florida may be, if a jury determines that George Zimmerman acted within the bounds of that law in shooting Trayvon Martin, then it's fair for him to get off; even if the law were ultimately repealed.

But what if a law, or its sentencing guidelines, is determined fundamentally biased or unsound? Such is the case with crack cocaine possession, per the Fair Sentencing Act that was passed by Congress two years ago, and finally enacted last fall.

The Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court today that there could be as many as thousands of people currently working their way through the criminal justice system who were convicted of possession before the law was changed, but sentenced, or are scheduled to be sentenced, after.

Given that the Fair Sentencing Act pertains to the sentencing process specifically and not the criminality of the act itself, it seems fairly logical to me that the new guidelines would be the ones used, but this article suggests that it's unlikely, because "new provisions do not apply to old crimes, unless Congress says so clearly."

In other words, because the law didn't explicitly state that the now-legally-established-as-racist sentencing process should be disregarded for pending cases, we're going to go ahead and keep being racist just a little bit longer. Because, y'know, fairness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reason #177: Paying Taxes

No news item with this one, really - just figured that it would make sense for a blog titled "Why I Enjoy Paying Taxes" to actually address Tax Day itself.

Aside from the philosophical reasons that I'm cool with tax season, the many facets of which I've been detailing here for (checks calendar) over eight months now, there's another reason that everyone should be able to get their head around: pure reckless greed.

Sure, taxes being lower generally would result in more money in my pocket generally, but regardless of what rates the system involves at any given time, I make a point of only claiming one exemption with my employers, rather than the two (or three?) I'm legally allowed. This means that I technically pay a little more out of each paycheck than I have to, but not only does it virtually guarantee that I never owe anything in the event of an employer miscalculation (which has happened), but I can count on a big chunk of extra money coming back to me once a year - which I can then spend on something frivolous that I'd never have the patience to save up for, like a new computer or TV.

I mentioned this to a conservative co-worker once--in one of the primary formative moments of this blog--and he utterly balked at the idea of giving even a penny more to the government than I absolutely had to. It evens out eventually, I added, to which he replied that even if you wanted to squirrel a little money away throughout the year, you could get a much better return by investing it privately rather than trusting it with the government all year.

That brings me back pretty nicely to the philosophical argument, in that I'd rather give the government at least an opportunity to do something positive with the money compared to letting it sit in a portfolio, but even if you ignore that entirely - who has the time to figure that shit out?

I'd rather be watching my new TV.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reason #176: How Is This Even A Problem?

Pending the governor's signature, Maryland just became the first state to expressly ban the practice of employers insisting upon access--which is to say, login and password information--to their employees' social networking accounts.

Pointing out that it's the first place to ban the practice suggests that it's been raging across the nation unchecked, but I wasn't even aware that this was ever the case. There was, of course, a story last week about an employee of the Library of Congress who "Liked" a Facebook page related to same-sex parents, which was noticed by his boss and resulted in an alleged pattern of harassment and eventually dismissal. That kind of moral judgment by employers is highly questionable anyway, but at least the case could be made that Facebook has privacy settings and it's your own fault if you don't take advantage of them.

But for your boss to want your password? That's outright insane. I hope this is just an instance of the law having  to catch up to technology rather than a genuine debate about whether such a thing should be allowed - but then, a similar law regarding universities and their students was put forth a couple months ago and ultimately died in the legislature. We'll have to keep an eye on this one.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reason #175: Quantum Toasters (or something)

Many moons ago, I did a school project that involved, among many other things, creating an outline for a big-budget summer blockbuster action movie. The MacGuffin of my particular story was something called a Quantum Receiver, which a scientist invented in order to receive transmissions from a race of alien robots. Or something like that; it's been a while.

What exactly the device had to do with quantum anything, I couldn't tell you - it just seemed like a bullshit way of saying "this receiver is more advanced than an Earth receiver".

Apparently I'm a consumer science visionary, because researchers have begun developing semiconductor chips that generate entangled photons, which means they exist in a shared quantum state. I know the broad strokes of quantum entanglement, in that the state of one photon instantaneously affects the state of the other even if they're light-years apart, but what bearing that has on commercial electronics--including what this article awesomely calls "quantum computing"--I have little to no idea. I gather it would play a role in devices that normally use lasers, but how is beyond me at this stage.

Also, it isn't immediately apparent whether any US federal funding went into the research in question, but some of it was done in Canada, which is close enough for me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reason #173: I'm Glad We Got That Settled

I was talking to my mother about the pending Connecticut death penalty ban over the weekend, and she admitted to being baffled as to how Charles Manson could get life in prison--and actually receive the occasional parole hearing, as he did today--while many others could be given the death penalty for, in her view, lesser crimes than Manson's.

As much as I've picked the justice system apart on this blog, sometimes the most comforting thing it can do is the most obvious thing in the world. Like giving Charles Manson himself a fair review, then unhesitatingly flinging his ass back into jail.

Manson's next parole hearing isn't for fifteen years, which is another way of saying that--at 77 years old already--this was probably it for him. If ever there was an argument for executing someone, it's him, and I ask you - is this really that objectionable of an alternative?

Execution is just cutting a corner, and the second we cut corners for one person, it sets a precedent for cutting corners for anyone.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reason #172: The Ten Most Wanted

I'd always figured that the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list was just a qualitative thing - whomever had been on the lam for the longest time, or had the highest reward amounts, or something like that.

But apparently not just anybody gets to enjoy one of the top spots. After Bin Laden was killed last May, and Whitey Bulger was arrested less than two months later, no one moved into their spots right off the bat.

When someone from the list is captured or killed (or in some cases, demoted), the FBI's 56 field offices submit replacement candidates to HQ staff, who then select a candidate and forward them to FBI's Directors for approval. The selection is based on a handful of different criteria, sensibly including whether the individual's case would stand to benefit from the publicity boost that would come from being on the list.

How it was determined that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden needed a publicity boost, I couldn't tell you.

In any event, while Whitey Bulger's spot is still open, Bin Laden has now been officially replaced - by a guy named Eric Justin Toth, who's wanted for possession production of child pornography.

Not to diminish the ghastliness of child porn, obviously, but it's hard not to see it as some form of progress when the guys you most want to catch aren't terrorists, but good, old-fashioned pedophiles. Godspeed, you sick bastard.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reason #171: The Right to Remain Silent

I've seen numerous people, whilst discussing Trayvon Martin, attempt to cut through any and all anger by appealing to the justice system. They point out that none of us really know what happened the day Trayvon got shot, and not only do I agree with that point of view, I'm actually a ferocious advocate for it in most high-profile criminal cases.

The national media is indeed grossly biased, but not in favor of the left or the right - in favor of a good story. The second someone is even suspected of a crime in this country, the public is utterly convinced of their guilt, and human filth like Nancy Grace are only too happy to reinforce that conviction.

If a jury found George Zimmerman to have been acting legally in self-defense, chances are I'd have a thing or two to say about that; about the Stand Your Ground law, at least. But at least then the justice system would have been allowed to run its course, and I could see my way to accepting that the jury had an understanding of the events that was superior to my own.

What I have had to remind people, repeatedly, is that George Zimmerman has not been arrested.

Well, as it happens, we now have a nicely cut-and-dried case of white-on-black crime to talk about. Now when people complain that the Trayvon case is no worse than any of a million other murders, I can point to the arrests of Jake England and Alvin Watts--and their $9 million bond--and calmly explain to these people that this is what's different.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Reason #170: Yet More Kepler

While it feels to me like Kepler's exoplanet-discovery mission has just been getting started, its initial funding is scheduled to run out in November of this year. But after conducting a review of all its active operations, NASA has decided to continue its funding clear through to the end of 2016. Not too surprising, I would like to think, since Kepler only costs $20 million per year, or less than a third of one Super Hornet fighter jet.

Not only does more time mean more planets will be found overall, but the quality and variety of candidates will increase, because for something to even be classified as a potential exoplanet (of which it has cataloged about twenty-three hundred so far), it has to be observed passing in front of its star three times. In other words, if an exact clone of Earth were out there and right in Kepler's line of sight, the mission's original purview wouldn't have had time to pin it down.

Just imagine what we might find now.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reason #169: Another One Bites the Dust

I almost talked about Obama signing the JOBS Act today, but I think I've given it enough credit already, so it was with relief that I noticed that Connecticut is about to become one of the last states in the northeast to abolish the death penalty - at least according to the state Senate. The state House is even more heavily liberal than the Senate, and with Governor Malloy being the first Democrat in the office in two decades, it looks like the repeal is a done deal.

Connecticut is also the fifth state overall to ban capital punishment in the last five years. In fact, the death penalty seems to have been going through a sort of shadow revolution over the last decade or so, despite how little attention it's gotten compared to gay rights - while the vast majority of states still technically have it on their books (though way fewer states than currently outlaw gay marriage), the number of actual executions per year has decreased by more than half since 1999, and the number of death sentences has decreased by more than two-thirds.

Even Connecticut, which actually tried this a few years back only to fall before the previous Governor's veto, has only actually executed one person in the last 51 years. There are eleven more currently on death row in the state, and though the tricky issue of what will happen to them if the repeal goes through is one of the death penalty defenders' points of contention, half of those people have been on death row for more than a decade (if not two), so it's not like anybody's in a big hurry to do anything about them as it is.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reason #168: The STOCK Act

In today's why-wasn't-this-a-law-already department, President Obama today signed Congress' shiny new STOCK Act. The name stands for Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge, and sure enough, it bans any financial activity by members of the federal government relating to "non-public knowledge" - in other words, if you only know about something because of your position, you're not allowed to make money off of it.

This article admits in no uncertain terms that the act was put together in an effort to boost the public's approval of Congress - which currently stands at around eleven percent, so now we know exactly how bad things have to get before Congress will bother to pass an extremely obvious law that should have been on the books decades ago.

If this is what we get from an eleven percent approval rating, I wonder what kind of laws they'll start passing if it dips below ten?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reason #167: Impartiality

Every once in a while, it's nice to find stories that run contrary to the positions I normally take on this blog. Not only does it liven things up for me, so I'm not just rehashing the same opinions over and over, but it speaks to the complexity of modern politics, and the fact that even the most divisive issues are never completely cut and dried.

At the core of my feelings on illegal immigration is the fact that, deep down in my gut, I don't think I really believe in the concept of nations - at least not in the world as it is now. Where someone lives has no bearing to me on their value as a human being, and if someone in Mexico or Yemen or Japan or Iran wants to move to Albuquerque and become a plumber, I don't see the need to overly regulate that - keep track of it, sure, but requring all kinds of fees, tests, and waiting lists just seems bureaucratic and unfair to me. The tests in particular, since I doubt most normal American citizens could pass the naturalization exam on a moment's notice.

With all that in mind, though, forgive me if I don't weep for President Obama's uncle, who is being deported soon. He's been living here illegally since 1963, and only popped up on Immigration's radar after a drunk driving arrest last summer. Apparently he actually was ordered to leave once in 1993 and they just didn't bother to follow through.

Being the president's uncle doesn't seem to have done much for him financially--he was working as a liquor store manager at the time of his arrest--but I can't imagine there were no avenues through which he could've attained citizenship over almost fifty years now. And then to be kicked out on paper, and not bother going anyway?

Yeah, I'll admit it - at that point you're just asking for it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reason #166: Mass Devastation is Highly Likely

In the aftermath of the Joplin, MO tornado killing 161 people last year, one of the findings was that too many people were disregarding the warning system.

Apparently, three of of every four tornado warnings that have historically been issued under the National Weather Service's current system end up not resulting in, y'know, tornadoes, and so people get so used to them that they don't think to do anything about it until their houses start imploding.

As a result of these findings, a new three-tiered system is being tested this year in select areas of Kansas and Missouri (how'd you like to be the guinea pig for a disaster-warning system?) that utilizes more plain, yet deliciously overwrought, language for the most severe scenarios.

Example phraseology includes "Complete Devastation Likely", "Mobile Homes And Outbuildings Will Offer No Shelter", and what I hope to god is the most severe warning, "Unsurvivable".

The new warnings will be kept in place until November of this year, with possible further testing in other areas next year. So be on your best behavior, Kansas and Missouri, or you'll ruin it for the rest of us.