Archive for June 2019

Well, Sometimes You Can't Pick Your Allies

The only thing more annoying in an argument than trying to have a discussion with someone who does not think logically is to have an "ally" pop into the discussion on your side who does not think logically.  Via the AZ Republic

One of the original leaders of the anti-light rail movement in south Phoenix claims God "judged" Congressman Ed Pastor for "bringing death" to the community by supporting light rail and punished him with a fatal heart attack.

At a City Council meeting last week,Celia Contreras told council members she was "coming in the name of Lord Jesus Christ" with a message: Stop the light rail or the "punishment" will continue

Well, to be fair, the guy knows his business is going to take a big hit, without any hope of a takings claim on the government, and I suppose he is pretty stressed out.

By the way, the presence of this story in the Republic is a tell as to which side the paper favors.  I have been to public meetings on Phoenix light rail and I have personally seen a number of insane claims by light rail supporters (at lot of wrath of Gaia stuff, for example) that never gets featured in the paper.

I Used To Be Excited by SpaceX and Private Space Flight -- Now, They Are Just Another Crony

I guess I should not be surprised at this in a company headed by Elon Musk, but this is just straight-up cronyism of the worst sort (emphasis added):

The U.S. Air Force, which leads Pentagon space efforts, has spent the last five years reorganizing how the military and intelligence agencies get their satellites into orbit. Pursuant to congressional mandates, it has had three goals: (1) stop using Russian rocket engines, (2) assure access to all key orbits by selecting two capable launch providers, and (3) foster competition between those providers to discipline price and performance.

The service has made good progress, sharing the costs of developing new launch vehicles with prospective providers and preparing to select two winners next year. But now comes Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, with a plan to overturn the Air Force’s efforts by arbitrarily giving up to $500 million to the one company that failed to win a launch services agreement from the service in competitive bidding last year.

The losing company was Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which failed to convince the Air Force it had a suitable plan for assuring safe and reliable access to space for all planned military payloads. Under Rep. Smith’s proposal, which is contained in the pending 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, SpaceX would get a huge windfall of taxpayer money so that it can continue competing against the three companies that won development agreements in last year’s awards. As reporter Sandra Erwin observed at SpaceNews.com on June 10, “Smith’s provision would give SpaceX access to government funds that it did not win competitively.”

Smith’s proposed language is Washington politics at its worst. According to the Air Force, if it becomes law U.S. access to critical national security orbits will be endangered, the military will need to rely longer on Russian rocket engines, and the cost of all national-security space missions will increase. As if that were not enough, the Air Force says Smith’s proposal would reward an uncompetitive offeror while punishing successful competitors who have been sharing the cost of developing launch vehicles with the government.

For instance, the Smith provision would require other companies in the race for launch contracts to turn over intellectual property they have developed to SpaceX in order to level the playing field. In addition, the Air Force says that the requirement in Smith’s language for early notification of Congress before future contracts are announced would create the perception that Congress influenced the outcome.

A Conservative Discovers Problems With Police Accountability. Sort of.

Scott Johnson of Powerline has been following the trial of a Minneapolis police officer accused to shooting and killing a totally innocent woman (in fact, the woman who called the police) seemingly without the least provocation.  Johnson has reported for months on all the frustrating barriers to bringing this police officer to justice -- the refusal to pin the officers to a story immediately before they had time to coordinate a story, the internal affairs investigators who acted more like cover-up artists, the complete unwillingness of the police force to do a quality investigation, and the incredible difficulty the DA had in pursuing this case or getting any cooperation with supposed law enforcement officers.  As he writes:

Prosecution of the Noor case by his office has been a tremendous strain on Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. He is in treatment for alcohol abuse. He deserves credit for assigning the case to Assistant County Attorney Amy Sweasy and sticking with it as it roiled relations with Minneapolis police. As it turned out, Sweasy had to convene a grand jury and issue subpoenas to secure the testimony of police officers involved in the case.

These are the kinds of issues I and many others have raised for years about problems with police accountability.  I believe bad police officers are a small minority of the force but this lack of accountability has been incredibly obvious for years, and has poisoned the view of police officers in certain communities that interact with them the most.  Black Lives Matter started with a police accountability agenda before the movement went off the rails.  So I am happy to see a prominent writer give it attention.

Sort of.  Because it is not clear to me that Johnson really sees the general police accountability issue.  For most of the last 10 years, Powerline bloggers including Johnson have been pretty skeptical of those who have critiqued police shootings. I would describe their default position as "the police are right, their critics all have agendas."  I refuse to claim to see into people's hearts, and really am reluctant to get pulled into intersectional finger-pointing, but it is impossible to ignore that the one case that seems to have woken him up is the killing of a pretty blonde white lady by a person of color.

Don't get me wrong, I think the jury was correct in convicting the officer, and respect their bravery as very, very few juries will ever convict police officers.  The prosecutor had to have done a heroic job in getting this conviction.  But I fear that Johnson and perhaps other Conservatives are reading the wrong causes into the difficult prosecution.  He writes that "Something is rotten in the city of Minneapolis," and my interpretation of this (from this series as well as other things he has written) is that he attributes the difficulty in prosecution not to systematic problems in holding police accountable but in the fact that the officer was ethnically Somali and that the city of Minneapolis is somehow reluctant to challenge the Somali community.  I guess after horrific stories like the non-prosecution of rapists in Rotherham, one has to consider this possibility -- I know Minneapolis has a large Somali community but know nothing of its dynamics.  But frankly after studying 100 candles that are burning through the oxidation of petrochemicals, I am skeptical the 101st will turn out to be phlogiston.

Iron Law of Unintended Consequences

From a very dedicated reader (and Boing Boing)

East West Market in Vancouver, B.C. had a terrific idea to get people to start bringing their own reusable shopping bags: design plastic bags with messages too embarrassing to carry. Unfortunately, while hilarious, it's backfiring. They made them too good and now everyone wants a set of them! Collect all three: the Colon Care Co-op, Into The Weird Adult Video Emporium, and Dr. Toews' Wart Ointment Wholesale.

The bags are great, I will let you click through to see them

As I Predicted 15 Years Ago, Indefinite Detentions at Gitmo Continue in the War that Never Ends

Sigh -- here is your update:  Human beings are still being detained by the US government in Guantanamo without any due process.  I was writing about this 15 years ago, but with the loss of some of my early content the earliest I can find is this from 2006.  The problem always was our using US POW rules from past wars in this very different war.  In the past, wars actually ran for what now seems like a limited time (though folks living through WWII would be surprised at that perspective).  POW's for most part were captured in uniform and on a battlefield (or floating in the water after their ship sank).  Nobody really had due process concerns as a) being in a German uniform in a Normandy pillbox on June 7 was pretty persuasive evidence one was an enemy combatant; b) the detained combatant was likely headed to Arkansas to harvest crops for a year or two, which was a FAR better place to be than where they were captured; c) when the war unambiguously ended, they went home.

But in our current AUMF and the "war on terror," where does it end?   There are no uniforms.  The battlefield as defined is the entire world.  The power to detain human beings for the duration of the war allows the Administration to detain roughly anyone they way, without having to defend that decision, and keep them however long they want because only the Administration (or perhaps Congress if it had a spine) decides when the "war" is over.

I had hoped that the Supreme Court would take the opportunity to review this practice after so many years had passed.  I think there were real reasons to ban this practice in 2004 when the Court reviewed this the first time, but at that time the war was relatively fresh and the detentions still shorter than other wartime POW internments.  But what about now?  Unfortunately, the Court declined to rethink their earlier position, despite hints in the original decision that matters might change if the "war" dragged on.

Today the Supreme Court declined an opportunity to examine whether it's still acceptable to hold enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay at a time when Washington's interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq no longer resemble anything the U.S. was doing in the direct wake of 9/11.

Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, a Yemeni citizen, has been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since January 2002, when he was captured in Pakistan fleeing Afghanistan. He was initially accused of being a veteran terrorist combatant and a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard. Much later, in 2015, officials concluded he was most likely not a former bodyguard; while he was affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it's unclear whether he was engaged in any sort of combat against the United States. He's one of 40 prisoners still detained there.

He's been sitting in Guantanamo Bay for 17 years, but the U.S. government has not charged him with any crimes. It doesn't appear to intend to charge him with anything, but it also refuses to release him, because the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to wage war in Afghanistan and against the Taliban and al Qaeda remains in force.

In 2004's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the AUMF authorized such detentions with an understanding that this authorization ended at the conclusion of the war. But even in 2004, the majority was cognizant of the possibility that this amorphous "war on terror" was likely to change over time. In the ruling, written by then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it notes: "If the practical circumstances of a given conflict are entirely unlike those of the conflicts that informed the development of the law of war, that understanding may unravel. But that is not the situation we face as of this date."

I find Conservative support for these detentions frustrating in light of recent events.  People across the political spectrum, but particularly Conservatives, were outraged that Harvard would terminate a dean merely because as a lawyer he chose to represent an unpopular client (Harvey Weinstein).  They rightly argued that due process demands representation of every client, and that to make that work an attorney's moral standing can't be conflated with that of his clients.  Or put another way, what a defendant allegedly did or did not do is irrelevant to  what we owe them for due process.  I think the same can be said of the folks left to die in Guantanamo.

But Coyote, they aren't American citizens!  We don't owe them due process.  Wrong.  We do.  Read the first words of the Declaration of Independence.  Rights belong to all human beings -- they are not grudgingly granted by the Constitution to US Citizens only.  There is nothing in what I call the extended Bill of Rights (including 13-15) that does not apply to everyone who walks the Earth and interacts with the US Government.  Otherwise, as an extreme example, grabbing Africans and enslaving them would still be Constitutional.

But Coyote, no one wants these guys.  Well, that is a different point and is NOT the current legal underpinning of their detention.  I do understand it is politically impossible, and perhaps even unethical, to drop these folks in the US.  If we free them all and no one will take them, then they may stay as our guests to try to live some kind of life at Guantanamo.  But that is not the status they have today.

But Coyote, one of these guys may kill again.  In general, the argument in favor of confining or keeping at a distance any group that probably contains future criminals is bankrupt.  The argument exploded in popularity on the Right a while back with the whole Skittles meme.  The meme said something like if you had a thousand Skittles and new one was poisoned, would you eat from the bag?  And if not, why would you let in immigrant populations that likely include some future criminals.  The problem with this is that if this argument really had moral weight, we would be equally required to ban sex or at least all births since some percentage of babies born will be criminals.  At a higher level, our whole legal system is based on the presumption that it is better to err on the side of not punishing an actual criminal than on the side of punishing the innocent (which we still do a lot of nevertheless).  This presumption of innocence is one of the key markers that separate us from totalitarian governments.

A Plea to Packaging Designers

Of late the design ethic for hotel shampoo bottles has led to 1) all text in 8 point or smaller fonts and 2) all text is printed in low contrast colors, something like cyan on a turquoise background.  Please designers, a lot of us are growing older and its unlikely I am going to have my reading glasses in the shower.  I shouldn't have to guess which bottle is the shampoo and which is the hand lotion.  There has got to be a way to make the packaging look elegant but still be readable.

Sarah Connor Wept

So When Did We Give the President So Much Unilateral Power on Tariffs?

As most libertarians feared, all those Republican concerns about Executive power under President Obama seem to have magically disappeared now that the President has an "R" after his name.  President Trump is set to put on his magic Thanos glove and snap his fingers and impose 5% Tariffs on Mexico.  The ostensible reason is to force Mexico to reduce immigration to the US, though I think it is becomming pretty clear that Trump actually thinks tariffs benefit Americans and he wants any excuse to impose them on our major trading partners (how about a 5% tariff on Canada if the Raptors win the NBA Finals?).  And all those Republicans in Congress who just 2 years ago nominally 1) were pro free trade; 2) were against raising taxes on Americans; and 3) were against expansions of executive power -- they are just going along meekly.

Scott R. Anderson and Kathleen Claussen attempt to explain what possible legal authority he might have to do so, and it turns out the decision rests on Trump's earlier declaration of a national emergency at the border.

By the way, I know a lot of readers really piled on me every time I tried to compare the border wall to the Berlin Wall.  Didn't I understand that it is totally different to keep people out than to keep them in.  I never thought that made much sense -- the wall blocks free movement of people and I am not sure its morality turns 100% on which side of the border built it.  Perhaps my point is now clearer.  What if Trump convinces Mexico to build the border wall, or at least use more aggresive policing to keep people in Mexico.  Isn't THAT now just the same as the Berlin Wall?

Facebook: Now You Know Their True Privacy Policy

From the Daily Dot:

A lawyer for Facebook argued in court Wednesday that the social media site’s users “have no expectation of privacy.”

According to Law360, Facebook attorney Orin Snyder made the comment while defending the company against a class-action lawsuit over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“There is no invasion of privacy at all, because there is no privacy,” Snyder said.

In an attempt to have the lawsuit thrown out, Snyder further claimed that Facebook was nothing more than a “digital town square” where users voluntarily give up their private information.

“You have to closely guard something to have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Snyder added.

Zuckerberg really is one of the most dangerous people on the planet.  He has taken well-founded criticism against his company, its failings, and its past misrepresentations and somehow morphed that into a campaign to gain totalitarian government regulation of online speech.  Incredible.

Charges Against Scott Peterson Yet Another Symptom of the Increasing Stakes of Partisan Politics

From Jacob Sullum at Reason

Former Broward County sheriff's deputy Scot Peterson has been widely vilified for failing to intervene in the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But did Peterson's failure amount to a crime? Although that is what local prosecutors argue, it seems like a stretch.

The arrest warrant approved by Circuit Court Judge Andrew Siegel this week charges Peterson with seven counts of child neglect, a felony, and three misdemeanor counts of culpable negligence as well as one misdemeanor count of perjury for allegedly lying to investigators about how many shots he heard while taking cover 75 feet away from the building where a gunman was murdering students and teachers. Only the perjury charge seems like a straightforward application of the relevant statute, while the other charges are novel applications of laws that are generally invoked in very different contexts.

To my mind, this represents another example of the escalation of stakes in modern partisan politics.  Conservatives invested a lot in the "it's all Scot Peterson's fault" narrative about Parkland, presumably as a foil to the gun control lobby.  I think this is similar to some of the flimsy charges levelled at Trump associates in an attempt to show that some kinda-sorta-maybe Russian collusion was going on.  If it were not Florida I would say that there can't be any way the charging authority thinks this can make it through trial, but it is Florida after all.

Omaha Beach: Not Just Bravery, but Intelligence and Initiative Won the Day

Like many commenters, the hell the soldiers faced on Omaha beach  when the ramps dropped on the landing craft is simply beyond my imagination.  Everyone talks about the bravery of the men that day, which is beyond question.  But the ultimate success at Omaha Beach, which was far from assured after the first hour, required more than bravery.

Virtually the entire plan for the Omaha Beach landing was moot from the first minutes of the battle:  the naval and air bombardment was completely ineffective, the tanks that were to support the landing never made it, and many of the landing craft landed in the wrong places.  But the carefully coordinated waves of landings were fairly robust to these sorts of problems.

In my mind the number one planning problem is that the whole invasion plan and all the training was geared to getting off the beach from a limited number of draws that led inland through the beachfront hills and cliffs.  These draws, however, were absurdly well defended by concentrations of troops and hard fortifications.  It was virtually impossible to advance through these draws as was planned.

The success at Omaha was based on a few (mostly junior) men, under murderous fire, having the brains to recognize the plan was bad and improvising a new plan on the spot.  Eventually, these men began to lead others up the steep hills to the top (most of the heavily defended draws were only taken later from the rear).

The participants in the (often unsuccessful) North Korean human wave attacks in the Korean War were undoubtedly brave.  But these men were not allowed to exercise any initiative or use their intelligence to formulate a better plan than being thrown uselessly in masses directly into the teeth of fortified positions.

So yes, its appropriate to celebrate the bravery of the troops.  But bravery alone would have led to slaughter with waves of men mindlessly trying to storm up the fortified draws.  Omaha Beach was ultimately won with intelligence and initiative of junior officers and enlisted men.

Postscript #1: If there was a failure at Omaha Beach, it again went back to the organizers and planners.  They spent so much time training men in the landing itself, they did not spend any time training or even planning well on what to do next.  As a result, instead of expanding the bridgehead, most of the troops stopped not far from the top of the beach escarpments.  In the following weeks, troops were to spend miserable days in the hedgerow (bocage) country, without any training or fighting doctrine of how to deal with this beautiful defensive terrain.  Again, it was often the initiative of the frontline troops, rather than the planners, that ultimately developed fighting doctrine to deal with the hedgerows.

Postscript #2: Tomorrow I will have my usual day-after-D-Day post on why the Normandy landings were magnificent but not necessarily what actually defeated Germany.

Postscript #3:  Americans, particularly after the movie Patton, love to dump on British General Montgomery.  But D-Day was essentially his plan, and for all that went wrong, it was a magnificent plan.  Montgomery caught a lot of flak from Americans then and now for being too slow and cautious at times when daring and speed were required.  But the flip side of this is that he was an undoubted master of the set-piece, highly planned major attack -- better at this than anyone I can think of on  the Allied side in Europe.

This One Weird Trick Helps Us Deal With Jetlag When We Vacation in Europe

Earlier this month, my wife and I spent a bit of time in Europe.  We started in France, which this time of year is 9 time zones ahead of Phoenix.  This time change is a problem for my wife, who really gets hit hard by jetlag.  To deal with this, we do something all of our friends think is crazy.

For the week before we go, we try to shift our lives as much as one time zone per day.  In reality, this means we wake up at 6am, then 5am the next day, then 4am to as early as 3am or even 2 on the day of the trip.  By the time we leave home, we are waking up as early as 11am in the time of our destination, and as a bonus we are ready to sleep when we get on the plane (Phoenix has a nice 10 hour direct BA flight to London in the evening).  The adjustment process to the new wakeup times is not totally effective because we don't have the sunlight signals at 3AM to get our brains thinking it is day time, but it has really been extraordinarily effective making the first 3-4 days of our vacations travelling east more enjoyable.

When we explain this to our friends, they treat us like the guy at parties who sings the praises of taking freezing cold showers every morning -- they sort of see the logic but can't imagine punishing themselves like this.

But here is our thinking: The value of a day on a vacation, almost anywhere, is way higher than the value of a random day at home.  Vacation days are rarer and require a much higher financial investment than days at home.  So doing things that make a few days at home less comfortable but that make a few days on vacation more comfortable seems to be a good tradeoff.

My Prediction of The Next New Thing: Rich Renting "Accommodation" Addresses to Boost Kids' Adversity Scores

Combine two recent news stories:

  1. The College Board is going to report an "adversity score" to colleges for each of its test-takers.  I believe that the woke intend this to be sort of the inverse of a "privilege" measurement.  This will almost certainly be based at lot on the child's address, since self-reported data on "adversity" would be too easy to game
  2. In the recent college admissions scandal, rich parents demonstrated they were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars not to just game the admissions system, but to outright cheat it.

The obvious hack for this is for parents to buy or lease an empty room somewhere in a high adversity zip code and report this as their child's address.  To get away with this, probably will need to have also given this address to the school, which might be hard for public schools but is perfectly possible at a private school.   "Ah, Ms. Huffman, what was it like growing up in Watts?"  I am sure there are already folks gearing up to sell this service.

Middle class kids in good public schools will likely end up with the worst adversity scores.

Why Transgender Athletes Dominating Women's Sports Is Great News For College Administrators

Apparently transgender athletes are starting to dominate in high school and college women's sports.  I don't have much passion on this issue one way or another.  My only intercollegiate competitive experience was in duplicate bridge, in which all human beings of any gender compete together in one division.

However, it does strike me that this is a godsend for college administrators as it solves one of two problems for them:

  1. If separate women's sports persist, college coaches of women's teams will increasingly seek to recruit transgender athletes.  This is a much more comfortable situation for college administrators, who have of late been embarrassed by the number of admissions spots that are given to athletes.  Now, they are not recruiting unwoke athletes, but super-high-intersectional point transgendered persons
  2. If this is taken to its logical extreme, it may well start to end separate women's athletics (though if we still have totally meaningless divisions for men and women in chess, who knows what will persist).  But women's athletics have always been a major pain for college administrators.  They seldom generate any money and it is hard to maintain enough participation in smaller schools to avoid Title IX problems (at least in terms of equality of outcome, ie pure athlete and sports team counts by gender).  A whole class of headaches could go away.