Friday, July 27, 2007

BIGBR: US, Europe to share psychological information about travelers

There is a disturbing story by Paul Lewis and Spencer S. Hsu, “Travelers Face Greater Use of Personal Data: Pact Covers Passengers Flying from Europe to U.S., on p, A1 in print, The Washington Post, Friday July 27, 2007, link here:

The story relates to the collection of personal and psychological data about passengers, such as personal or religious philosophies, even sexual orientation. It is unclear how such data would be known. Generally, airlines do not ask for personal information about passengers. Sometimes, travel information, such as the use of a king-sized bed (or the number of beds in a room) and the gender or other obvious circumstances about passengers, could imply other probably conclusions.

When I worked for Univac in 1972 and was assigned to Public Service Electric and Gas in Newark, NJ I wrote a program analyzing the log files for programmer processor use. It was named “BIGBR” and called “Big Brother” by the employees there.

Big Brother is definitely back.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More on lawsuit by imams against US Airways and passengers -- tort reform

The DC Examiner ( has an editorial today Tuesday July 24, 2007 “Threat of lawsuits raises terror risk”, on p 16, “Opinion” of the print version, which is distributed free in the Washington DC area and paid for by merchants. The paper tends to be conservative to libertarian (it supported the Circuit Court’s striking down DC’s gun control law), maybe not so conservative as The Washington Times (which is normally purchased on newsstands or is sent as subscription).

The most important quote is “The fear of legal retaliation will no doubt keep many people from reporting imminent dangers they observe. And if an impending terrorist attack is not reported, it can’t be stopped.”

Indeed. Not only US Air, but up to six passengers and or air marshalls (names not yet released) have been served papers for a lawsuit in federal court, for “civil rights violations” by six imams. Probably the individuals will get pro bono defense or be defended by the airline, and it is unlikely that a judge would really allow individuals to be targeted in a judgment, even the airline itself were held liable. Nevertheless, the idea that ordinary citizens are threatened with litigation for ordinary activities and reporting a law enforcement problem in good faith (even following the guidelines of Homeland Security or of the Transportation Security Administration), is shocking.

On March, the House of Representatives passed a bill to shield persons who “do their patriotic duty and come forward” to report unusual behavior to law enforcement, anywhere—at airports, in subways, trains, buildings, even cyberspace. But the final homeland security legislation that came out of committee did not contain protection for individuals.

It is because of lawsuits like this that many families take an insular attitude toward becoming involved in important public issues, fearing retaliation, even against other family members sometimes. This sort of this has also been an issue with SLAPP lawsuits, as discussed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This blog had reported this issue on April 1, an on May 2 there was more discussion of the need for “tort reform.” This incident does sound like a John Stossel “Give Me a Break.”

Update: July 26, 2007

Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times reports, on p. A4 in print on Kuly 26, "Legal Shield for tipsters advances: Agreement ensures floor vote for 'John Doe' anti-terror bill"

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Advanced Placement, IB and Honors Courses in High School Raise Questions

On Tuesday, July 17, 2007, Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews wrote a column on p A19, “Who Needs Honors Courses? Try Everyone.”

He goes on to discuss the schism between the content of regular courses and Advanced Placement courses in northern Virginia public schools, and the corresponding breaks between the students. For some schools, an intermediate solution has been Honors Courses.

Actually, often ninth and tenth grades (in Fairfax and Arlington) offer honors courses, and in eleventh and twelfth (sometimes tenth, too) the track switches to AP or IB (International Baccalaureate), with many schools offering one or the other. Teachers are supposed to have their course content externally certified (Erica Jacobs has written about this in the DC Examiner). Students can get college credits at many schools by completing AP courses with a sufficient grade and getting a sufficient score on the AP test, which always includes some free response (essays and problems) as well as the more usual multiple choice.

The Matthews problem discussed an innovation at TC Williams High School (with government teacher Jack Esformes) in Alexandria, VA where AP students and regular students share the same classes, but AP students get more work. When I went to high school (Washington-Lee in Arlington VA, graduated 1961), we had “enriched” physics, chemistry and mathematics. In the humanities, there was a tendency for students to mix, as regular courses (in Va and U.S. History and Government) were actually quite good, with teachers (stirring some controversy) giving exams that were mostly essay and tackling then controversial subjects like segregation as an outgrowth of Reconstruction (especially Brown v. Board of Education) in days before schools had made much progress in integration, as well as ideas like economic cycles, anti-Semitism, and the causes of fascism and communism.

When substitute teaching, I noticed a wide gap between AP and Honors (either) and regular classes. For example, in tenth grade Honors Chemistry is often taught. Students are often able to complete classwork assignments with the help of Internet searches for technical information (without abusing the privileges), and examinations often consisted of multiple choice with the caveat that students had to give a reason for each answer choice, and to “pass” each unit separately. In AP classes, students are quite aware of a kind of objectivistic self-interest: it pays to work hard now and get college credits at public school taxpayer's expense and tuition free, before worrying about student loans.

Curiously, this column did not show up on the Post website, but a related one is “College President Cautions Me About AP”, also Tuesday July 17, link here.
He presents a discussion with David Oxtoby, author of the paper in Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Rush to Take More AP Courses Hurts Students, High Schools and Colleges."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

DC will appeal 2nd Amendment ruling to Supreme Court

Multiple media sources report that Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C. announced that he will appeal the District of Columbia handgun law to the Supreme Court. The case is Parker v. District of Columbia. There is some question as to the deadline and timing, but during the appeal application, the law apparently will remain in effect, despite a three-panel Appeals court ruling turning down the handgun law, covered on this blog on March 9, 2007 (see blog archive links on the left); the Appeals Court turned down a subsequent appeal for an en banc rehearing (rare, but it happened in Joe Steffan's case in this Circuit in 1994 regarding gays in the military). NBC4 reports that it is not at all certain that the Supreme Court will take the case; if it dismisses it, the law will be vacated and the appeals court ruling will stand.

The Cato Institute offers a story here. A related story by Robert A. Levy “Should Congress or the Courts Decide D.C. Gun Ban’s Fate” is here. Even if the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court ruling, there are other practical difficulties. Levy maintains that Congress should allow interstate handgun sales when legal in both states. Apparently these are legal with rifles but not handguns, so even with a victory DC residents could still not legally buy handguns.

David Nakamura has a story in The Washington Post, July 17, 2007, p A01, “D.C. Wants High Court to Hear Gun Case: City Defending Restrictive Law,” here.

Generally, the ideological constitutional battle concerns whether the “right” is an individual right to own firearms, or applies collectively to “militia.” The legal arguments might be complicated by archaic statutes that name most adult males as members of an unorganized militia (never important in practice, but sometimes mentioned in arguments about restoring conscription). An underlying issue is that the 1791 Bill of Rights really was intended to protect individuals from the federal government (which governs the District, with the context of limited home rule – itself another potential constitutional controversy). The practical argument is that citizens believe that they should be able to defend their own property and families without waiting for belated response from law enforcement in emergencies. Residents in the DC area (often including GLBT residents in some areas of the District such as Capitol Hill) report that ownership of a weapon is often a practical deterrent against home invasion and burglary. DC law does not allow people to carry pepper stray, but some other cities do, and gay men sometimes carry it in areas near gay bars, as do many women in general. I am aware of some specific cases where District residents have been prosecuted for defending themselves. In one case, a man moved to Virginia to escape continued legal risks.

Wikipedia has an instructive article on the 1939 Supreme Court case “United States v. Miller” with the general impression left that the Court held that the 2nd Amendment applied on to organized militia and to weapons that a militia could reasonably use. Link is here: The Wikisource text of the 1939 Opinion is here.
There has been disagreement as to whether this is an adequate precedent now, and a feeling that the current Supreme Court is more geared to literal interpretations of concepts of individual rights, v. “collective” rights. Also, the DC law seems to apply only to handguns and allows their possession if disassembled or locked up according to certain specifications.

Here is my own slide show on fundamental rights:

Update: Nov. 13, 2007

The Supreme Court has yet to decide if it will take the case. It may be debating whether it is a jurisdictional issue (should the District of Columbia be viewed as a "state") or a fundamental rights issue to be incorporated to the states under the 14th Amendment (or just a group right protecting states from federal intrusion). The next opportunity for information on whether to take the case can come on Monday Nov. 27.

Update: Nov. 20, 2007

There was a surprise. The Supreme Court announced that it would take the case. The AP story is by Mark Sherman, "High court to weigh ban on gun ownership," here.

The Washington Post story Nov. 21 on p A01 is by Fred Barnes, "Justices To Rule On D.C. Gun Ban; 2nd Amendment Case Could Affect Laws Nationwide," link here. The Supreme Court specifically said that it would decide whether D.C. law would "violate the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes." It sounds like they are going to look at the grammar issue and may have a predisposition to look at self and familial defense as a fundamental right.

Update: January 5, 2008

The District of Columbia has filed its arguments in its appeal to the Supreme Court. Walter Dellinger was chosen to defend the law. The NBC4 news story is here.

The link for the brief is here. The most controversial argument starts on page 11: "The Second Amendment protects only militia-related firearm rights." Soon this sentence appears: "The Second Amendment does not support respondent's claim of firearms for self-defense."

Personally, this reminds me of another old chestnut and canard, "homosexuality is incompatible with military service." Libertarians see these ideas the same way.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Prince CD "giveaway" insults music industry

Music artist Prince (originally from Minneapolis, subject of the film “Purple Rain” – there is also a video called “Backstage Pass”) has angered music executives by agreeing to an arrangement where his CD will be sold as a covermount with a tabloid newspaper in the UK, the Mail, at HMV stores Sunday.

Record companies have worried that celebrity “giveaway” materials of CDs or DVDs will further depress sales in an industry reportedly hammered by piracy and even by downward price pressure from legal P2P and download purchases.

The AP story by Business Writer is “Prince CD Giveaway Angers Industry” by Jane Wardell from is at this link. The story was republished on CNN this morning, seemingly without the story author’s name.

Free content and giveaways, while entirely legal (because a copyright owner can always give away his own material or sell it at any price) have become controversial in some people’s minds because they can drive down prices and threaten the turf and livelihoods of people who got there in pre-Internet days. However, new artists often “give away” their material in order to be noticed.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"Gut Feeling" comment by Chertoff has an iceberg underneath

On July 9, 2007, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made his “Gut feeling” comment to the media, here. That stirred up a lot, and it seemed to be a reaction to the pattern in the past events in Britain two weeks ago, as well as the subway incidents in July 2005. Maddy Sauer has a story at ABC News here.

On July 11, 2007 Brian Ross, Richard Esposito and Chris Isham reported “White House, FBI Race to Disrupt ‘Summer of 07’ Threat” following increased Internet chatter overseas from al-Qaida connections, broadcasts from Zawahiri, and anecdotal evidence of tiny sleeper cell(s) in or on the way to the US. The link is here. Bin Laden is still believed to be sheltered in the tribal areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but he could have escaped through Karachi on the Indian Ocean through heavy contacts in the port city.

The Brian Ross “Investigative Team” has a Blotter for reader tips is here.

CNN covered this story on 360 tonight. Peter Bergen was interviewed, and Bergen tended to pooh-pooh the claims that anything organized would be going on the US.

President Bush expects to have a major briefing on this story Thursday. At the briefing, he had almost left the room before fielding a question on this matter, when he denied any really specific new information. Subsequently, responsible sources indicated that al-Qaida training seems to have stepped up in Pakistan with exporting to other undeveloped areas, but there is not much real activity as far as arrests in the U.S. The most complete story may be by AP Katherine Shrader of Edwardsville Intelligence, about the supposed classified Intelligence Report circulated today, "Intel Report: al-Qaida Takes Aim at U.S.", here.

Kathleen Day has a story in the July 11 Washington Post online (evening), “Undercover investigators obtain nuclear license.” Story is here. A sting operation (within the government -- The General Accounting Office (GAO), although it sounds like something Chris Hansen and NBC Dateline could do), checking out the security procedures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, rented a land-address box from a UPS Store in West Virginia and pretended to be a legitimate building construction company in order to obtain moisture-monitoring building construction devices containing americium-147, which is more toxic than plutonium. (Most states have their own inspection procedures for such corporate purchases, but West Virginia does not, and defers to federal procedures, which are obviously lacking.) There are stories of al- Qaida interest in americium. Polonium, as we know, was obtained somehow (perhaps from Russia) in the Litvinenko case documented on NBC Dateline Sunday July 8. Sam Nunn has organized attention to loose and unsecured weapons in Russia with his film “Last Best Chance” (link) and other commentators have spoken about leaks at the Tooele Depot in Utah, link.

Update: July 17, 2007

Major media reports discuss the unclassified portion of the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE 's) report.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

CFLs -- are they what environmentalists make them out to be?

A couple months ago, I bought my first box of compact fluorescent light-bulbs (CFL ‘s) from a local Rite-Aid. I tried one in a basement ceiling fixture, and it burned out in about the same time as a regular bulb. Maybe that was a fluke, but I certainly wonder if they are a major part of the panacea for lowering carbon footprint.

Today on CNN I heard discussion of the disposal problems. A CFL has a little bit of mercury – yes, quicksilver, Hg, one of the two liquid elements you study in high school chemistry, and the only fluid metal. As a liquid, it’s an amazing 13 times as dense as water. And schools have to be evacuated and cleaned by Hazmat teams when a student spills even a drop of mercury.

A CFL is said to have less mercury than a dental silver amalgam filling. (Yes, getting rid of mercury in dental fillings has become another cause for some people.) But clearly, there is going to be a recycling and disposal issue. I lay aside this one bulb in a safe place for the time being, and did not discard it.

Update: Jan 28, 2008

I've had another burn-out with a ceiling fixture, and another one that flickers. It seems that CFL's may not work well in old fixtures in old houses where perhaps the metal has warped slightly with time and where the contact is not perfect. CFL's seem to be more sensitive than regular bulbs to perfect contact and maybe to local surges. They may flicker in older fixtures, or be slower coming on. They seem to burn out quickly if inserted into old fixtures that have become warped slightly but that still accept conventional bulbs. If others have this experience, please comment.

On Feb. 20, Radio Station WJLA in Washington ran a story about the flickering of CFL's possibly triggering migraine headaches in some people. Sylvania claims that their CFL's do not flicker.


NBC4 in Washington DC reports that some CFL's can cause house fires when installed in fixtures controlled by dimmer switches. These bulbs are supposed to carry warnings.

The story is "Home Destroyed By Fire Caused By Compact Bulb, Dimmer," about a fire in Cumberland, MD, link here.

Liz Crenshaw discusses the mercury exposure if a bulb breaks here with a story in March 2008, "Cleaning Up CFL Bulbs".

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Parentless kids go to high school in New Orleans after Katrina

CNN this evening (July 1) reported on the New Orleans public school system and the view held at one time that the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina would give the school system a chance to start over.

Tonight's report included a story about significant numbers of minors who have returned to New Orleans without parents or legal guardians. In some cases, and older sibling is serving as the "parent." One family had a nineteen year old, with two minor siblings. The nineteen year old is an adult but not legally responsible for the siblings under LA law (that could provide an interesting discussion).

The school district has extreme difficult recruiting teachers and administrators. Half of the teachers were, according to the story, "rookies." It's not clear, with NCLB, what the licensing requirements would be or if they would hire people with the academic background (like mathematics) and retired but no teaching license. Others might wish to comment on this question.

Yes, this does lead to some thinking about "moral paradigm."

Related post: Oprah depicts kids raising kids, here.