Thursday, May 31, 2012

Reason #204: Race to the Finish

When I read this afternoon that a federal appeals court in Boston had ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, it required a little research. The ruling was being spoken of as the most prominent pro-gay decision in the nation thus far, but didn't federal appeals just rule Proposition 8 unconstitutional a few months ago?

Well, yeah, they did, but while both of these cases will probably end up in the Supreme Court, the Prop 8 ruling revolved around that piece of legislation specifically--meaning that it's much more likely that the Supremes upholding federal appeals' decision wouldn't have greater ramifications for the rest of the country.

DOMA, on the other hand, is basically the foundation of all federal anti-gay-marriage policy. The part that has now been deemed unconstitutional, its classification of marriage as involving one man and one woman (and therefore taking benefits away from gay couple even in states that recognize the marriage itself), applies to the whole country, so if that were upheld by the Supreme Court, that would seem to override any local laws specifically prohibiting gay marriage, like the new one in North Carolina.

In reality, though, the ruling is a double-edged sword, because the decision hinged not on the definition of marriage itself, but on the idea that defining marriage isn't the federal government's job. So while this is great as a sign of the overall mood the country is in on this matter, it's still hard to say exactly what effect this could have on gay couples in states like, oh, say, Alabama.

I, for one, am betting on a long slog still ahead.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reason #203: Hope - No, Really

Above you will find Fareed Zakaria's commencement speech at the Harvard graduation ceremony last week. Some excerpts:

"The world we live in is, first of all, at peace -­ profoundly at peace. The richest counties of the world are not in geopolitical competition with one another, fighting wars, proxy wars, or even engaging in arms races or 'cold wars.' (...) The number of people who have died as a result of war, civil war and yes, terrorism, is down 50 percent this decade from the 1990s. It is down 75 percent from the preceding five decades, the decades of the Cold War, and it is of course down 99 percent from the decade before that, which is World War II."

"...the United Nations estimates that poverty has been reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500 years. And much of that reduction has taken place in the last 20 years. The average Chinese person is ten times richer than he or she was 50 years ago – and lives for 25 years longer. Life expectancy across the world has risen dramatically. We gain five hours of life expectancy every day – without even exercising!"
It's very easy, and very fashionable, to bitch about the state of the world--especially in comparison to some mythical Golden Age.

I wanted this blog to be about optimism. And this is why.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reason #202: Ends

With today's Texas primary, and its apportioning of 152 delegates, Mitt Romney is expected to officially pass the 1144-delegate finish line in the Republican presidential primary. And so ends what has been easily the most fascinating nomination process I've had the privelege of witnessing (which, granted, only takes us back twelve years or so).

I earn nothing at this point by saying it, but it was clear to me from the outset that this was where we'd end up. I knew that Karl Rove would destroy Sarah Palin if she came anywhere near the nomination, and it's a testament to just how bad a candidate Mitt Romney is that the rotating cluster of idiots that has been running against him for the past year or so ever produced even one alternative front-runner, let alone one after another after another.

So good on you, Mitt. You fought long, you fought hard, and today the nation has finally learned what you no doubt knew all along: you are truly the sharpest knife in the spoon drawer.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Reason #201: Choosing Your Targets

Look, some soldiers are dicks.

Just like some school teachers, some lawyers, some farmers, and, lord knows, some hippies.

But as someone who witnessed firsthand--well, via television--the launching of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm never been able to get my head around the extent to which young men returning from Vietnam--many of whom were drafted and fought against their will, no less--were blamed personally for the idiocy of that war, and even harassed and assaulted for it. Not only was it an absurd leap of logic, but it probably has a lot to do with how even today, the drone-bombing, Bin Laden-killing president could be losing to a venture-capitalist challenger by more than twenty points among veterans.

Maybe opposition to the Iraq War wasn't strong enough to stop it from happening, but the fact that the anti-war movement's anger was directed squarely at the Bush administration and not at soldiers is a very strong sign that people actually can learn from history, and if nothing else, refine their arguments.

So even though it's Memorial Day, and even though the president would have to give that speech today whether he believed it or not, here's to Obama's remarks at the Vietnam Memorial, in which he called the troops' rough homecoming "a national shame" that "should have never happened", and went on to vow just that for those currently returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

Reason #200: Tort

One of the more surprising themes to emerge from this blog over the last nine months is, from my point of view, the overall efficacy of the judicial system; the fact that for all its lethargy, for all its biases and redundancies, the process itself is actually impressively reliable for producing results that, while not always ideal, generally stand up to broad moral scrutiny. And I say that as someone who's ranted more than once in this very space about the criminal justice system; the death penalty and mandatory minimums in particular.

I've also mentioned once or twice that I work at a law firm myself, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about that. The firm specializes in medical malpractice defense, which means that if a surgeon leaves a sponge in you, we're the guys who come in and say it was like that when he got there. That, combined with the fact that our actual clients aren't the doctors themselves but the enormous insurance companies the hospitals hire to cover them, means that my shorthand for explaining all this to people is that "we're the bad guys".

That's mostly just me being glib, but the fact is that it's written into my DNA to empathize naturally with whomever in a given conflict I perceive as having less power. Frivolous lawsuits--and believe me, I've seen a lot of them in my job--are absolutely a bad thing, and I recognize how they can be damaging to doctors, hospitals, and the entire medical establishment, but I've also been a patient; very recently in fact, and I know how scary that can be even without adding on the thought of something getting screwed up.

The thing that I like so much about the system is that it seems to recognize that it can never be perfectly balanced, and thus allows for a lot of wiggle room based on precedent and the particulars of any given case. Given that all law is human and therefore fundamentally imperfect, my method is to visualize each side's worst-case scenario, acknowledge that one or the other is inevitable--getting an abortion will always be either too hard or too easy--and decide which I'm more comfortable allowing.

Getting back to malpractice cases, I side with the patients not because having less power makes them inherently right, or because doctors, hospitals, and/or insurers are less deserving of a robust defense, but because I think the average doctor is more capable of recovering from a bullshit lawsuit than is the average patient from a botched procedure.

I see the delineation of the powerful's control over the powerless as the prevailing theme of not just the justice system but the entire American style of governance, and as precise as it is in some ways, it is genuinely impressive that the founding fathers built in as much flexibility as they did; especially in the courts, of all things.

Even a child can look at something like the famous McDonald's hot-coffee case and recognize that it's frivolous; indeed, it's very, very easy--and very, very common--to complain about how there are too many lawsuits. Tort reform is something that should absolutely be debatable at all times and in all contexts, but I draw a very important distinction between appreciating the existence of a complaint, and agreeing with it.

In other words, I may not always approve of your lawsuit, but I'll defend to the death your right to sue.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reason #199: Firsts

As I've spoken about before, one of the positive things about NASA losing a lot of its budget in recent years is that there's already a certain amount of infrastructure--for example, the International Space Station--that needs to be dealt with. So in place of a shuttle program, NASA is now relying on other countries (boo) and increasingly, private businesses (yay) to handle much of the day-to-day ferrying of junk into and out of space.

After a successful flyby earlier today, SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule will tomorrow become the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS, where it will be dropping off water, clothing, and other supplies, then returning to Earth with extraneous equipment.

As much as it would be nice to think that NASA could afford its own supply runs, this kind of thing is a great way to hasten commercial spaceflight in general, which means space tourism won't be far behind. And whatever money NASA does manage to tear from the Pentagon's clenched fists can be devoted that much more to research and development, which means more telescopes and rovers and Mars colonies...someday.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Reason #198: There'll Be An App For That

As part of a major effort to "make key services easily accessible to more Americans than ever", the Obama administration announced today a sweeping directive to make large amounts of government data accessible both to the public and developers over the internet in a "device-agnostic" form, with the intention of fostering the development of both public and private mobile apps for accessing government services. The administration specifically tasked every federal agency--and remember, there are hundreds--with the job of making two of its key services available in app form within a year.

Today's release specifically cited the example of San Francisco, where public transportation data being made readily available and app-friendly has resulted in more than ten citizen-developed apps for navigating the city's public transit system.

Here in Pittsburgh, the Port Authority is a privately held organization--and handing out schedules isn't even in their top ten list of big problems at the moment--so I guess I'll have to wait for that kind of bold new direction in my own life.

But hey, at least they're trying.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reason #197: Cory Booker Is Allowed To Be Wrong

In case you haven't watched the news this week--like, at all--Cory Booker, the popular Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey and Obama campaign surrogate, went on Meet the Press Sunday morning and said that Obama's criticism of Mitt Romney's experience with Bain Capital--buying up failing companies and stripping them for parts--was "nauseating". Bain is looking to be the backbone of Obama's anti-Romney narrative for the next six months, so the campaign was understandably displeased, and Booker has spent the last 48 hours being lambasted by Democrats and, worse, exploited by Republicans.

First, let me just say that a campaign is not the same thing as a public forum, and if you're an officially-designated representative of said campaign, then they have every right to insist that you stay on-message, and punish you if you don't.

That said, one of the reasons I could never get into politics is that I'm completely incapable of what I call institutionalized advocacy--being required to embody someone else's opinions and/or platform at the expense of your own. It makes my skin crawl, in fact.

I want Obama to win, and I recognize that dissent within his ranks doesn't present a helpful image to undecided voters, but when someone like Chris Matthews--who I like a lot, but is decidedly not an Obama representative--unreservedly rails against Booker personally for daring to say what he actually thinks (the same thing that a lot of people praised Joe Biden for during the remarkably similar gay-marriage incident a couple weeks ago) it gets my back up. Matthews even went so far as to say that a couple more moments like this could cost Obama the election.

It was also mentioned that the campaign is now going to the trouble of vetting its other surrogates to ensure that their personal opinions don't damage Obama's narrative in the future. That, rather than Booker's perceived misdeed, should be the takeaway from this: don't expect someone to go on TV for you and say things they don't agree with.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Reason #196: Judicial Restraint

I have issues with the concept of hate crimes. On one hand, I'm not sure that whether someone is thinking about my race or politics or orientation while they're murdering me needs to drastically affect the extent to which they're punished for it. On the other hand, that's the law as it stands right now, so if that person did  kill me because of a prejudice, well, fuck 'em.

I had an opportunity to chew this over a lot when 20-year-old Dharun Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, legalese for "hate crime", a couple months ago. What's known about Ravi is that he secretly filmed his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, in bed with some older man and posted about it on Twitter, which eventually got back to Clementi, who killed himself a couple days later.

The way I see it is that this is a bullying issue more than a prejudice issue - Ravi's a young and naïve guy, and harassing your weird roommate is an absolutely universal college thing to do. That doesn't make it fine--nor did it when Mitt Romney was in high school--but I think it would be better to step up anti-bullying laws rather than try to shoehorn things like this into the same mold as what happened to Matthew Shepard.

The judge in Ravi's case, as well as the author of this great article on Slate, seem to understand where I'm coming from, and I was very happy to hear that the judge eschewed the far more serious range of hate crime sentences--10 years in jail and possible deportation--in favor of 30 days in prison and a healthy dose of community service. That doesn't negate the bias intimidation conviction, but it's a far more reasonable punishment and hopefully will allow Ravi the opportunity to actually learn something from this, and eventually move on with his life.

The problem is, what will become of the next guy in Ravi's situation if the judge isn't feeling so understanding?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Reason #195: No Shit, Sherlock

Archaeologists from Boston University and elsewhere, whist investigating Mayan ruins, have discovered new astronomical tables that date back 600 years further than the oldest ones previously known to exist. Their findings appear to suggest the Mayans were using a wide range of dating schemes for their calendars, some with a base length of 935 years and others lasting as much as 6700.

This means that the calendar people have been using as a basis for claiming the world will end with it--in December of this year--is by no means their primary calendar, and while very good at predicting astronomical events, shouldn't serve as a predictor of anything one way or another.

This is obviously an enormous relief, because while there's no scientific reason whatsoever to think that the world would be ending seven months from now, if the Mayans had thought so, well, then it must have been true!

(Author's Note: I'm on vacation next week. Rather than half-ass it for a while like I did last time, I figure I've earned a week off after doing five entries a week for almost nine months now. I'll be back Monday the 21st for the final run-up to #200!)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reason #194: Subpoena, Please

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, is largely credited as instigating the current rush of "papers please" anti-immigrant laws across the south. Since 2006, his department has been unlawfully detaining people--traffic stops being the banner offense here--for failing to present proof to officers that they are legal residents of the US.

Naturally, if a cop in Arizona sees you drive by and gets suspicious that you're an illegal immigrant, odds are that you look less like Jerry Seinfeld and more like Jerry Garcia--and as such, many have alleged that what Arpaio and his posse are doing constitutes racial profiling. Once an individual is picked up by the cops, they are often then forced to respond to orders, and sign waivers, presented solely in English, or face even harsher consequences.

While making no secrets about its opposition to this state of affairs, the Obama administration helpfully and, I think, very reasonably, suggested implementing a training program for Arpaio's officers so that they could at least enforce the county's patently unconstitutional policies  as constitutionally as possible. Arpaio bristled at even that, taking offense at the administration "telling me how to run my organization", and has not only refused to play ball, but is alleged to have engaged in retaliation against local attorneys and judges who have spoken out against him.

Well, today, The Justice Department sued Maricopa County, the sheriff's office, and Joe Arpaio personally. Which, if I've learned anything about the government in the last year or so, means that at the very least he'll be too busy with court proceedings to harrass many immigrants from now on.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reason #192: Robo-Cars

Last year, the Nevada state Legislature became the first in the country to pass a law allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads. This week, the state's DMV issued the first-ever actual license to operate said cars.

While a number of competitors are working on driverless-car technology, Google appears to be far and away the furthest along, and it was they who received the license on Monday. Their fleet of around eight cars features red license plates an "infinity" logo, to go along with completely autonomous brakes, steering, and acceleration.

While state officials have gone on rides both in and out of Nevada--including on the Vegas Strip and the Golden Gate Bridge--and they were clearly convinced of the tech's value, the law still requires human beings to be present in both the driver's and passenger's seats, and overrides that allow the "driver" to assume control at any time by hitting the brake or moving the steering wheel. Ironically, though, the potential safety advantages of self-driving cars are one of the key selling points--assuming the sensors work.

Needless to say, these things will change everything in the next decade or two; which is good, because flying cars still need some work.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reason #191: Transitional Materials

Because wind-powered cars are still a ways off, I was glad to see that the Obama administration recently made a breakthrough in releasing natural gas from crystals, called methane hydrates, found below the permafrost in the Arctic.

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and doesn't solve the climate problem in and of itself (most obviously, it still requires drilling), but it is vastly cleaner than petroleum, and would utilize the existing infrastructure of big oil--which, let's face it, is a big part of industry's resistance to truly clean energy sources like wind and solar. Also, the new technique that recently met with success involved injecting carbon dioxide underground, which has the added bonus of isolating it and removing it from the atmosphere.

Even if all the oil dried up tomorrow, I think the history of capitalism has demonstrated quite clearly that we will do what we can with the resources we have, and those resources have pipelines running to them. An all-clean-energy economy would be great, and I do believe we'll get, well, something like that eventually, but fighting natural gas for not being perfect is cutting off the planet's nose to spite it's face - let's take what we can get.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Reason #190: Chondrite Zeppelin

On Sunday, April 22, what is being considered the most significant meteorite impact since the 60's occurred near the small town of Lotus, California. The object is believed to have been about the size of a minivan before exploding in the atmosphere and scattering its bits and pieces all over the area.

In an attempt to better locate the remains, scientists from NASA and SETI yesterday descended on the area in Eureka, the only zeppelin in North America (not to be confused with blimps, of which there are many). Eureka is outfitted with, and I'm just going to quote this, "a gyrostabilized, high-resolution video camera that can pick out a golf ball in the dirt from 1,500 feet", which is good, because the biggest piece that article mentions having been found thus far is only about five centimeters long.

They're also going to have to contend with local treasure hunters, because pieces are already going for a thousand bucks per gram on the collector's market. NASA is especially interested because the fragments are believed to be a substance called carbonaceous chondrite, the first solid material to have formed after the Big Bang. The chondrite is such a wealth of information that scientists are still studying the samples they retrieved from the aforementioned 1969 impact, more than forty years later.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reason #189: Ignorance Is Bias

I try to make this blog as funny as possible without resorting to outright satire, but it's hard when you're only talking about the good stuff. Like the bill currently floating around the Missouri state legislature that would ban schools from discussing the existence of homosexuality - that's just ripe for ridicule, but until (and unless) it's voted down or withdrawn, it's rare that anything happens in the story that's worth holding up as a good thing.

That's why I'm thankful for Republican Missouri state legislator Zachary Wyatt, who, at 27, was at last driven to out himself as a gay man for the sake of fighting the bill. According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, Wyatt is the only openly gay state legislator currently in office anywhere in the country, which is just astounding - and all the more reason to thank him for his bravery.

There are (I suppose) lots of honorable conservative causes out there, but stifling gay rights is not one of them. The stated intent of this bill was to combat bullying, but refusing to acknowledge the existence of a persecuted group of people needs to be understood as a form of bullying in itself.

It seems likely that the "Don't Say Gay" bill, as it's called, is going to be defeated regardless of what Wyatt does or doesn't do, which should make his decision even more powerful in the eyes of Missourians. According to him, “if I can save one kid from hurting themselves or taking their life, then I have done my job as a representative.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reason #188: 500,000 Hours

Beginning next year, New York will be the first state in the nation to require that law students complete pro bono work prior to passing the state Bar Exam. The new program, put forth by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, mandates at least fifty pro bono hours for each of the ten thousand annual bar admissions, which translates into 500,000 hours' worth of free legal services for the public.

Even some people working in the legal aid field are as yet uncertain how best to incorporate these students into their current operations--and as someone who works at a law firm, I can attest that 50 hours of one attorney's time doesn't always result in an abundance of progress--but most seem to welcome the measure, not only for the good it will do for people in dire need of competent representation, but for the aspiring attorneys themselves, in the form of a stronger focus on serving the public; potentially affecting the culture of the legal profession as well as the raw statistics.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reason #187: Thank You, Please Leave

Just a couple hours ago, President Obama arrived in Afghanistan after leaving the White House in secret last night. He's there to formalize with President Karzai the deal that will extend US aid to the country for a period of ten years beyond the official withdrawal of troops in 2014, and will conclude the trip with a ten-minute address to the nation (ours, I mean) this evening.

What's that? This just happens to be happening on the anniversary of Bin Laden's death? Why, what an interesting coincidence!

Anyway, while the deal is expected to include extensive security investments--estimates are in the area of $2 billion, or two Mars Rovers, per year--as well as funding for social and economic development, there are no actual dollar amounts attached to the plan, leading some critics to decry it as a symbolic gesture.

I, on the other land, want to laud it as a symbolic gesture. Afghanistan, it seems to me, is no more of a governable nation than is the rain forest, and Karzai is less a president than the region's premier bullshit artist. If a few billion dollars a year worth of empty gestures is the going rate for getting us as far the fuck away from there as possible, then hey, let 'er rip.

Also, can I just say that whomever the president is, it's always cool when they go somewhere in complete secrecy? They even had reporters with them, all of whom agreed not to tell anyone until they landed in Kabul, and it stuck. What did their families think?