Conspiracy

This week has been extremely hectic, so instead of gathering research, I will simply tell a personal story of mine.

In college, I was president of a national honor society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS.)  In 2008, we held our national convention at the Coronado Springs Hotel in Orlando, Florida.  It was here where I met Jeff Smith.  Jeff was a politician who, at the age of 30, ran against Russ Carnahan for the 2004 Missouri congressional seat.  The Carnahan family is synonymous with the Kennedy’s of Massachusetts.  The Carnahan’s are a very prominent political family.  Jeff entered as an unknown and throughout the campaign made a documentary titled “Can Mr. Smith get to Washington Anymore?”  Jeff ran against nine other candidates in this crowded race and built an impressive foundation of political support.  The end result?  He narrowly lost against Russ in the democratic primaries.

Jeff would later go on to win a state senate seat in 2007 and, in 2008, flew down to Florida to speak with members of my organization.  Jeff was a very nice guy and very charismatic.  Despite his loss in 2004, I really could see his political career flourishing.

Let’s fast forward to two night ago.  A friend of mine who writes for a national magazine contacted me.  He was looking for stories of politicians who really made an impact in their communities.  Instead of finding prominent politicians, however, he wanted to find people who are not nationally known.  The theme was “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

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Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 9:47 pm Comments Off on Conspiracy
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Breaking Ground on the New Green Deal

Guest post by Prof. Erin Ryan, Associate Professor of Law at William & Mary

Reluctant members of Congress, listen up. You’ve tried bailing out the past. It’s time to bail in the future.

Now that we’ve pumped trillions into failing industries that drove economic growth on little more than a ponzi scheme, it’s time to invest in an economic engine that will propel us toward real progress–creating 

real jobs and alleviating real problems. Recognizing the stakes for our economy, security, and leadership in the world, President Obama campaigned (and won) on a promise to invest $150 billion in a clean-energy economy. Now that his stimulus proposal follows through with billions for electricity industry remodeling and private investment in renewables, it’s time to fall in. The stimulus package you are holding hostage is the down-payment on a new deal with the American public that finally takes on the Gordian knot of climate, energy, and environment. Don’t blow this for us.

Like the old New Deal, this new Green Deal will rescue the free-falling economy by investing in infrastructure that creates jobs and repositions American industry toward new kinds of growth. In the 1930s, FDR built a national network of roads, bridges, and parks, connecting producers and consumers, enhancing national security, and protecting natural resources. Today’s mission is exactly the same, but this time the infrastructure that can accomplish it will enable alternative energy generation, storage, and transmission. Sure, you could pass tax cuts instead, but if they don’t work, we’re left with a fistful of nothing. Investing in infrastructure gets people hired to build it, and the worst case scenario at the end of the day is a tangible bedrock for future economic growth.

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Published in: on February 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm Comments Off on Breaking Ground on the New Green Deal

What to Do with Detroit?

Automakers this week went before Congress to try to convince them that they needed a $25 billion bailout to avoid a massive disaster that would result in the loss of millions of American jobs.  Congress remained unmoved.  Congress gave the executives of these companies a little under two weeks to come up with a plan for the proposed bailout that would inspire confidence that the money they’d receive would be used properly.  We’ll see if the executives are up to the task.

There are a lot of different viewpoints about how best to handle this situation.  There’s the approach advocated by free-marketers that say that letting Detroit automakers fail is the best thing for the economy.  Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy takes this approach, as does David Yermack at the Wall Street Journal.   Their basic contention is that the economic resources tied up in the American auto industry are being inefficiently used and have been since the 1970s.  They contend that letting these companies fail, while initially painful, would free up those resources to be used by more efficient firms in profitable industries.  This would create more jobs long term.  These arguments make intuitive sense.  However, there is a major problem with them.  We as a nation are already faced with the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.  Allowing the Big 3 to fail would result in the loss of MILLIONS of jobs.  Those millions of jobless people aren’t all going to be able to jump into new careers.  Many will need to be re-trained and most companies aren’t hiring right now because of the current economic conditions.  This solution doesn’t seem tenable given today’s economic realities.

Then there’s the solution offered by Robert Reich, an economic adviser to President-elect Obama.  He suggests allowing the Big 3 to reorganize with a bailout, but as a condition of the bailout, the Big 3’s executives, creditors, and shareholders take losses equivalent to what they would suffer under Chapter 11 and that the United Auto Workers take wage and benefit cuts.  The bailout and savings from the aforementioned conditions, he argues, would allow them to retool their production process towards the more fuel efficient cars that are in high demand and are produced cheaper and better by their competitors from Japan (Honda and Toyota).  Todd Zywicki at The Volokh Conspiracy advocates a similar approach, although he argues for an actual Chapter 11 filing and reorganization, and would only allow government funds to be made available after a good-faith effort was made to try to secure private debtor in possession (DIP) financing.

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Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 3:01 pm Comments Off on What to Do with Detroit?
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Confrontation in a Scientific Age

Fingerprints, DNA, CSI.  These terms are ubiquitous after the turn of the century and they are undeniable tools that the State and defendants alike can use to argue in criminal cases.  Behind the data lies a methodology and behind the numbers hides a face.  A decidedly modern question burns before the Supreme Court in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.  Does a defendant have the right to confront an actual witness when presented with forensic evidence in a criminal trial?

The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”  U.S. Const. Amend. VI.  The “confrontation clause” allows for a defendant to cross-examine witnesses to affirm or deny the validity of their testimony to the jury.  Massachusetts allows a certificate of analysis to stand in for testimony for the validity of the forensic results.  The Supreme Court will decide whether forensic evidence falls within the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of confrontation.

The underlying theory of the confrontation clause is that a defendant must be able to question the evidence presented to the jury to assess guilt or innocence.  A large component of the evidence presented in criminal trials is forensic evidence.  Defendants can use forensic evidence to obtain their freedom.  But the price of progress becomes obvious when society relies on this science without question.  Scientific methods can be limited, unreliable, or inexactChain of custody records can further muddle the validity of forensic results.  The Los Angeles Times has reported about conditions in the LAPD fingerprint lab that raise chain of custody issue as well as questions of sufficient funding and training for technicians.  All of these reasons together make a compelling argument that forensic evidence should not be exempt from the confrontation clause.

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Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 12:14 am Comments Off on Confrontation in a Scientific Age

From Garbage to Electricity: A Whole New Way to Recycle

Imagine that the banana peel you toss into the garbage can today help power your home in the near future.  It might happen sooner than you think, if it’s not already happening in the landfill nearest you.  Power plants fueled by methane gases from landfills are starting to pop up all over the country.  The I-E landfill in Kearny, New Jersey is one of 21 landfills in that state that pump the methane gas created by decomposing waste to use as fuel to produce electricity.  In addition to pumping methane to use as fuel for electricity, the I-E landfill’s owner, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, has plans to install solar panels in the landfill itself.  This way, space that would normally not be used for anything other than holding garbage can be more useful by providing yet another source of energy.  And New Jersey isn’t the only state that’s looking to benefit from its garbage.  The EPA credits 455 landfills that use methane for generating electricity, and is pursuing over 500 other landfills as potential power plants through its Landfill Methane Outreach Program.

So how does it work?  Landfills produce a significant amount of methane gas due to the breakdown of municipal solid waste by anaerobic microorganisms.  After the gas is produced, it can be collected by a series of connected wells that are drilled into the landfill.  Then, the gas is “dewatered” and cleaned of any trace elements, and after that process is complete, the gas is ready to be used to generate electricity in gas turbines and fuel cells.  Landfill gas can also be collected from small and old landfills no longer in use.  Instead of using huge turbines, microturbines (PDF) are emerging as a way to generate electricity from landfill gas at a much smaller scale, although long-term costs and reliability have not been assessed yet.  If these microturbines are found to be cost-effective, then they provide a great way for old and small landfills to reduce the amount of methane released in the atmosphere.  Because small landfills are not under EPA regulations to curb their methane emissions, they may be responsible for as much as 40 percent of landfill methane gas in the US.

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Published in: on October 27, 2008 at 8:45 pm Comments Off on From Garbage to Electricity: A Whole New Way to Recycle

Copyright Czar to Wage War on Pirates

When I first read about legislation proposing a “copyright czar” (PDF), my first thought was: why are we using ancient monarchical terms to describe a man in our democratic federal government?  The copyright czar will, of course, have to be a man, because the word “czar” is gendered – as far as I can tell from the definitive and authoritative Wikipedia, there’s never been a only been one woman czar(ina), so sorry ladies, you may already be out of the running.  And if we’re going to use fairy tale vocabulary (thanks, drug czar, for starting that trend), what’s next?  The Trademark Baron?  The Patent Troll?  (Actually, that one’s already taken).  Last time I checked, words still have meaning, and so I was puzzled by the choice of one which, as far as I know, means dictator (or, at best, Anastasia’s dad).

While copyright czar is not the technical term used in the legislation, the common usage of the title in the press implies that his function will be far-reaching and authoritative.  Using the title copyright czar seems to vest the holder with a certain power – one that comes with an illimitable reach, unquestionable authority, and, perhaps, free iTunes downloads.  The legislative title for the position is, in fact, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.  It’s IPEC for short, which when sounded out letter-by-letter sounds vaguely scatological, although it’s phonetically superior to its predecessor, the National IP Law Enforcement Coordination Council (NIPLECC).

The copyright czar will undoubtedly have the ability, established (again) by the drug czar, to “wage war.”  “War on Drugs”, meet “War on Pirates.”  Not a bad name for a cause, and one which certainly meets all the fairy tale nomenclature requirements.  All joking aside, IPEC is tasked with the fairly daunting task of preventing piracy and coordinating anti-piracy efforts across multiple government agencies both at home and abroad.  But with all the power imputed by his lofty title, how can we (as law-abiding students) be assured that we won’t all be prosecuted, for example, every time we give our girlfriend a mixtape of her favorite songs?

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Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 11:43 pm Comments Off on Copyright Czar to Wage War on Pirates

Darwin and Design in U.S. Public Schools

Intelligent design in school curriculum is a familiar topic for most of us after the media coverage of 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover Supreme Court case.  Dover dealt with a Pennsylvania public school board’s requirement that science teachers read a statement in biology class explaining evolution as “just a theory” and “intelligent design” as an option worth considering.  The United States Supreme Court decided that this requirement inserted religious theory into public education, and found it to be an unconstitutional practice.  After laying relatively low for a few years, this controversial issue resurfaced in recent months when one of the U.S. vice presidential nominees was reported to support the inclusion of intelligent design theory in public school curriculum.

This topic grabs my attention because at first glance it appears to be such a constitutional no-brainer.  Teaching religious theory in public school science classes is never cool, right?  This black and white line of thinking, however, gets a bit cloudier when dealing with intelligent design.  This isn’t God-made-the-world Creationism being introduced into schools, but it is close.  While the intelligent design theory asserts that the complexities of life on earth must have been created by a higher power, it doesn’t get specific.  The “intelligent designer” is not God, or any other named deity.  This is the (weak) leg that intelligent design proponents stand on, while the theory’s critics call it nothing more than repackaged Creationism.  If its supporters are correct, intelligent design is as valid a theory as evolution and, since non-religious in nature, could be constitutionally allowed in public schools.  If the critics and the United States Supreme Court are correct, the theory is inherently religious and has rightly been kept out of the public classroom.

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Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 2:32 pm Comments Off on Darwin and Design in U.S. Public Schools

Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun: Hacking and the First Amendment

Remember the movie Hackers?  In one of Angelina Jolie’s earliest film roles, she portrays an underground computer hacker, a.k.a. “Acid Burn,” with a (micro)chip on her shoulder and a penchant for creating chaos.  The year is 1995, and the internet is just coming of age.  She and her grungy troupe of Jolt-drinking, Cheeto-scarfing computer hackers combine forces to take down a company’s servers.  Basic message: hackers are subversive (and maybe a little dorky).  Fast-forward to 2008, and the public image of so-called hackers is not much better.

This August, students at MIT – as part of a class project – identified a major security defect in the fare card software for the ‘T,’ Boston’s subway system.  The defect allowed any person with a few easily available tools to ride the T for free.  The students wrote a white paper on the subject, and created a presentation for the DefCon conference, where they hoped to share their results with the research community.  Not so fast, said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

Rather than enjoying the ‘A’ they received on the project, the students wound up in the middle of a federal lawsuit with the T (PDF).  Even though the students shared their findings (PDF) with the MBTA a month in advance of the conference, a gag order (PDF) was issued and the students were prevented from disclosing any of their research to anyone.  Ironically, as a result of the lawsuit, their research became part of the public record, and thus available to anyone with a computer.  Ultimately, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a progressive legal fund, came to the students’ aid to get the gag order overturned.  But they shouldn’t have to.

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Published in: on September 9, 2008 at 8:57 pm Comments Off on Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun: Hacking and the First Amendment

AC/DC

Nikola Tesla

Improving energy efficiency in America is not just a matter of individual habit changes or policy shifts toward renewable sources. Our power grid is not currently equipped to handle the kind of energy innovations that could make us better, faster, stronger.

We’re still operating with a power grid conceived 100 years ago and based on power sharing in small regions. A member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently likened our power grid to interstate roads. What we have is a two laner with occasional stop lights. What we need is an LA-esque eight lane superhighway (without the congestion). Such a superhighway could efficiently deliver solar, wind, geothermal, and other types of renewable energy across the lower 48.

AC/DC

Energy policy makers may also have to revisit the War of Currents, an epic battle between AC and DC in which Nikola Tesla (Wizard of the West ) and Thomas Edison (Wizard of Menlo Park) determined the electrical fate of the country. We currently use AC power lines, which allow energy to dissipate over long distances. If we beefed up our transmission and added DC lines, the power grid could more easily send wind energy from the southwest all the way to the east coast. These efforts may take decades, but they will be worth it. It’s a long way to the top, so let’s rock and roll. (more…)

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 5:55 pm Comments Off on AC/DC

Telecom Spying– You Are Still Not Safe

You’re still not safe because there’s still no terrorism exception to the rule of law. That was the message from the Attorney General this week in his address to the Commonwealth Club of California. After his initial remarks (which were on the ongoing effort to fight public corruption) he solicited a question on the debate over retroactive immunity for the telcoms violations of the statutes protecting the privacy of their customers at the behest of the President.

I don’t write this because I expect to change anyone’s mind, this isn’t that kind of issue. I am writing this because I am tired of being talked down to by people who exude a sense of entitlement to conduct themselves as they see fit, the rule of law notwithstanding. We may see legal protection for the telcoms fairly soon – Congress will reconvene on April 14th – but it will be all the more tragic because we won’t be able to hide behind a claim of ignorance like we did with the Patriot Act.

The Attorney General began by explaining, from his perspective, why the telcoms are being sued:

“[The telcoms] are being sued … because they are believed to have responded to the direct assurance by those in authority that the President had asked them to help collect foreign intelligence against foreign targets – we’re not talking about domestic surveilliance … of targets located abroad, and that it was legal”

Wrong. The telcoms are being sued because they broke the law. This is one of the most offensive aspects of the rhetoric being used. What the Attorney General is trying to describe is a legal justification for what the telcoms did. If he is right, there is a good chance that they in fact did not break the law. Fantastic right? So why do we need to immunize them, just let them win in open court. In fact, if the claims are half as frivolous as the Attorney General suggests, the plaintiffs would have been thrown out a long time ago. Later on, he comes back to this, saying “we need and get court permission … to [conduct surveillance on Americans here in the United States],” again saying this is about foreign intelligence and foreign targets. Whatever planet the Attorney General is living on, the lawsuits here in the United States are brought by Americans who claim that THEIR rights have been violated.

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Published in: on April 4, 2008 at 11:48 pm Comments Off on Telecom Spying– You Are Still Not Safe