Thursday, June 30, 2005

Senator Coryn (R-TX) introduces "Protection of Homes" Bill

I first found out about this by way of WatchBlog. It seems that Senator John Coryn, of Texas, is introducing a bill called the "Protection of Homes, Small Businesses, and Private Property Act of 2005." It seems to be in direct response to the SCOTUS ruling on the Kelo vs. City of New London case, allowing cities to seize private property for economic development according to their "eminent domain" powers. The bill doesn't do much to protect most homeowners, unless the project involves federal funds (cities would still be able to seize private property in order to turn it over to private enterprise), but it does go a long way to start balancing things out, and returning us to the original intent governing seizure of property in the Constitution.

An interesting side note to all of this, Justice David Souter, one of the five Supreme Court Justices who supported the New London decision, may have a problem. Justice Souter owns a home in the Towne of Weare, New Hampshire, and an application has been filed by a private developer to build a hotel on it.

Monday, June 27, 2005

MPAA Wins, but Do We Really Lose?

This morning (June 27, 2005) the Supreme Court unanimously ruled (9-0) in favor of the MPAA in the MPAA vs. Grokster. Ltd. and Streamcast Networks case. After reading the Supreme Court brief, I'm left a little stunned, but not completely distraught.

The overall question was under what circumstances the distributor of a product that was capable of both lawful and unlawful uses could be held liable for acts of copyright infringement done by third party users. From what I can tell, the Supreme Court has come down in favor of both copyright protection and file sharing technology. The question of liability is not going to be the technology, but the intent of those providing the technology.

The brief sites several instances that clearly show that Streamcast knew that its target audience would be using their P2P software to share copyrighted material illegally. What concerns me is that the brief seems to hold Grokster liable because they were going after old Napster customers.

Essentially, Grokster is being held liable because the audience they were marketing to initially used a separate product for illegal purposes, and therefore their intent was to promote their product for illegal purposes. There may be other evidence against Grokster not mentioned in the brief, I don't know. But that argument's a bit weak for me. It's guilt by association.

I don't think this is the end of the arguments, or the lawsuits, though. In theory, I agree with the Supreme Court. I'm just not sure what this is going to mean in practice. The MPAA and the RIAA have traditionally used lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits, as a scare tactic to force what they want, over what is actually legal.

How many technology developers are going to stay excited about P2P file sharing technology (including Bit-torrent) when even working in it could now backfire for them? Could a technology provider be sued into the ground, just because Hollywood (or Nashville) is afraid of a new technology that could, or could not, be used for copyright infringement?

I don't think Supreme Court decision is all that . . . well . . . decisive. It alludes to intent, but then also leaves a loophole for how much evidence you need to determine intent. How is this going to play out in the thousands of court cases that are bound to be tried in response to this ruling? I haven't a clue. We'll just have to wait and see.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Supreme Court Rules that Property Can Be Seized for Economic Development

Just when you think it's safe to buy a home, the Supreme Court rips your porch out from under you. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that New London, Connecticut, can seize the homes and businesses owned by seven separate families in order to facilitate the development of waterfront hotels and other people's businesses.

New London claims that the project is designed to revitalize their very depressed local economy. Under the U.S. Constitution, city and state governments can take private property through their "eminent domain powers" in exchange for just compensation, but only when it is for public use. Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote for the court's majority opinion, said that the city's proposed disposition of the property at issue qualified as a "public use" under the Constitution. In his mind, and the mind of five other members of the court, the city's determination that the properties were distressed was good enough.

What a crock. The properties in question weren't considered to be "sufficiently distressed" before they refused to sell to the developers. If you look into the facts of this case, it's insane to think that this is nothing more than a money grab on the part of New London. According to them, it seems, higher tax bases, and subsequently higher city income, is more important than the rights of their citizens to own property and live in their own homes.

Normally "public use" is defined as something that benefits everyone, like a city library or needed power plant. Now it doesn't matter. "Public use" has become a catch phrase for city-wide fund raising as well. Who cares what lower income families think, as long as the city coffers are filled! Bah!

Here's what Justice O'Conner, one of the dissenting votes, had to say:

"Over two centuries ago, just after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Justice Chase wrote:
'An ACT of Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority . . . . A few instances will suffice to explain what I mean . . . . [A] law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it.' Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386, 388 (1798) (emphasis deleted).

"Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power. Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded - i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public - in the process. To reason, as the Court does, that the incidental public benefits resulting from the subsequent ordinary use of private property render economic development takings 'for public use' is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property - and thereby effectively to delete the words "for public use" from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Accordingly I respectfully dissent."

Me too.

Read the brief for yourself.

Say No to Flag Burning (Amendment)

It looks like the House of Representatives has, once again, approved a constitutional amendment allowing lawmakers to ban flag burning. It's going to the Senate for final approval.

Let's make sure we all know what we're talking about, here. This is not an amendment that bans flag burning; it's an amendment that lets state legislatures and the U.S. Congress ban flag burning. It overturns a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that protected flag desecration as free speech.

Personally I find desecrating the national ensign to be insulting. As someone who served my country in the USMC, I consider it vile. I love the American flag. It is a symbol of what I find great about this country.

I love the U.S. Constitution more. I don't like to see it mucked with.

This proposed amendment conflicts with the first amendment, which guarantees free speech, among other things. In other words, I can rant (or blog) about what ever I want (much like I do here) and the government won't haul me away to jail. There are darned few countries in the world where you can do that.

What concerns me is that, even though I think people who desecrate the flag are idiots (they're fighting against the same country that gave them the very right to do what they are doing without going to jail), what kind of a precedent does it set if we start limiting this kind of speech? What's going to be next? We're already fighting a losing battle over the freedom of religious rights (also guaranteed by the first amendment, ironically). Will we not be able to criticize our public leaders when they do things we don't like? Will it become against the law to blog about public policy that we find unjust? Will we have to start worrying about the legal ramifications of doing anything that might offend anybody? I hope not.

Just say no to this amendment, and urge your Senators to do the same. The U. S. Constitution, which I truly love, guarantees the right to freely voice our opinions without worry of prosecution. It doesn't protect us from ever being offended. Nor should it. Let's keep America Free.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

More NRC Stupidity

Here's an update on the ongoing battle to stop the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Private Fuel Storage LLC from dumping spent nuclear fuel rods in Utah.

This morning the NRC rejected the argument that the temporary storage might become permanent. The fear is that once it gets here, even though it's earmarked for the developing Yucca Mountain, Nevada site, PFS will leave it here.

What makes this so galling is that PFS is still planning on going along with their plans even though it turns out that the storage casks aren't compatible with Yucca Mountain's abilities. Yup! Rumor has it that even if they do end up being sent to Yucca Mountain, they can't actually store it there. So it will have to go . . . where? Let me guess. Skull Valley, Utah?

There's also talk about the length of the "temporary stay" being extended from say, 10 or 15 years, to 50+ years. It all depends on the NRC and what the Yucca Mountain site can, and cannot, handle when it is completed.

Now, we're not talking about a few rods. We're talking about 40,000 tons of depleted uranium. The fact that the states that this stuff is currently in don't want it is understandable. PFS claims that the 103 existing Nuclear Power Plants are running out of places to put this crap and if a solution isn't found soon, they'll have to return to coal and oil instead of "clean, safe nuclear power."

If that's not an oxymoron I don't know what is. If it was so darned clean and safe why would they need to get it out of their own states? Gimme a break, people! If you want to see more lies and dissembling look up the PFS website. (I refuse to link to it because links from other sites can increase your search engine ranking. They will get no help from me!)

If you want to find more really good information about the problem, you can go to KUED's site about the matter (a companion to the documentary they did here a few years back). Another good site to check out is the fact sheet over at Public Citizen. They even have links to help you find and email your local members of the Senate and Congress.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Who's really crazy?

The Science & Theology website reports on a New York Times article and government sponsored survey about mental health. It's an interesting article. They report that data from the survey suggests that more than half of all American's will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime.

It got me thinking about my own experiences with the mentally ill. When I was younger, and still an undergrad student, I worked as a CNA at a long-term care facility that housed both elderly and psychiatric patients. I saw some really weird things go on there. Some of it was terrifying, and mostly because of the practices of the nursing staff and doctors, not the patients.

What I would see happen is that whenever a patient had difficulty with the practices of the facility, and 'acted out' because of it, the nursing staff would call the doctor, get a prescription for some drug (generally an anti-psychotic) and immediately, and forcibly, begin administering it to these patients. What seemed to me as a minor rebellion on the part of the patient (hey, these guys just wanted to be treated like adults) was interpreted by the nursing staff as psychotic behavior. In two specific cases the patients were mentally retarded, having the intellectual and emotional level of 3-year-old children, and yet when they presented behavioral problems (i.e. throwing a tantrum), off to the medicine cabinet the nurses went.

To me, this was the truly insane behavior. A patient acts out because of perceived ill treatment, and the nurses sedate them. Not only do they sedate them, they get the doctors to sign off on the idea that this patient needs anti-psychotics such as haloperidol (Haldol). I'm not kidding here! An older woman, with the mental ability of a 3 year old, was given Haldol just to stop her from throwing a tantrum. Haldol has some nasty side effects, by the way. It screws up your peripheral nervous system. I've seen it put this patient (and others) into wheel chairs for the rest of their lives. And yet this stuff was handed out like candy.

I knew when governmental authorities were due for various inspections, too. Two or three of the nursing staff would show up on the graveyard shift and start rewriting the patient's medical records. How they knew the inspectors were coming is anybody's guess.

Is this really what mental health treatment is all about? I don't think so. I can only hope that my experience is the exception, and not the rule, for such places.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

What's the Deal with the Dems?

Recently I've been hearing more and more press about how several of the Democratic leaders, and other high profile Democrats, are pontificating against the Republicans. No news here. High profile Republican's rant against the Democrats as well.

What's got me shaking my head is that the latest party line is about the supposed abuses and human rights violations against the "detainees" at Guantanamo Bay. I think of them as prisoners and can't figure out why anyone would think otherwise. That's beside the point, though. What kills me is that even though several organizations have got involved, including Amnesty International, only a few of the allegations of abuse and mistreatment have proven to be true. In fact, most of the things I'm hearing being recommended by the Dem's, claiming that we've violated the detainees' rights guaranteed by the Geneva Convention, are just weird.

Here's the facts on the Third Geneva Convention in relation to the folks at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

In order to be considered a prisoner of war, and under the protection of the Geneva Convention, consider the following from Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention:

(Art 4) Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy.

  • Members of the armed forces
  • militias...including those of organized resistance movements...having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance...conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war
  • Persons who accompany the armed forces
  • Members of crews...of the merchant marine and the crews of civil aircraft
  • Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms

The folks kept at Guantanamo are thought to be members of the Taliban army, and Al Qaeda. Here's their problem.

Al Qaeda members don't satisfy the requirements of being armed forces members or members of a militia. Certainly there are leaders, but the Al Qaeda's cell structure contradicts the notion of a highly specific chain of command. Moreover, because of their deliberate attempts to blend into the civilian populace, they violate the sanction of having "a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance (that means they don't wear recognizable uniforms, separating them from the civilian populace)." Worse yet, because they attack civilians and civilian targets, they clearly do not follow the established "laws and customs of war." Therefore Al Qaeda prisoners are not considered to be prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, and are not "lawful combatants."

What about the Taliban fighters, though?

The Taliban resembled a more traditional army, but there are still issues. The Taliban was never recognized as a legitimate government by the United Nations, so that kills the "members of the armed forces" argument. Because they had a tighter command structure, it could be said that they were members of a militia, but they never wore a uniform to distinguish themselves from the civilian populace. That's a big deal, BTW. Besides being a good thing to fight in, uniforms identify lawful comabants and cut down on civilian casualties. The Taliban would also commonly hide military equipment in civilian population centers as well, further cutting down on that distinction.

Could they be considered to be "Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms?" I don't know. To me that implies that they were ONLY defending themselves from invasion, and were organizing themselves into militia groups at the time, somthing we've clearly stated they are not.

Just because they aren't POWs doesn't mean they don't have rights, though. They are required to be treated fairly and justly. They are not being treated inhumanely and, outside of access to the U.S. legal system, are allowed most of the same rights that prisoners in the U.S. do.

What I think the current administration needs to do, however, is step up the "trial by military tribunal" that they do have rights to. That's what the Geneva Convention says you've got to do with folks caputured who are not deemed to be legal combatants. Many of these tribunals must have already taken place. By my recollection, there are currently just over 500 detainees, but in the beginning, there were over 700. I'm not sure how many deaths there have been, but I think it was somewhere between 16 and 28. I could be wrong on the numbers. Regardless of that, though, the sooner the rest of them get tried, the better.

There Are So Many Things Wrong About This

A few weeks ago I came across some information about a new X-ray device that may be used in our airports as an additional screening tool for security. I dismissed it at first (hey, I had a lot more on my mind, okay?), but now that I've been researching it a bit more, I can't say I'm impressed. In fact, I'm disgusted.

What I'm talking about is Backscatter X-ray Screening. This is an X-ray device that works very quickly, and generally doesn't penetrate the body. It's supposedly safe. It's also vile. What it amounts to is the realization of the old "x-ray glasses" ads we saw in comic books when we were kids. You see, the backscatter device x-rays go through clothing, but not people. What you end up with is a picture of a naked person. (Link not safe for work, or young children.) It amounts to an instant strip search of everyone passing through it.

This violates so many privacy issues (let alone morale ones) I can't even think straight. It still doesn't address the problem of hiding explosives or other contraband in body cavities, because the device doesn't penetrate the body. From what I can tell, it doesn't really do much more than current detection methods; it just does it differently.

What's even worse is considering that most of these devices can save the images as computer files and have built in floppy disk drives. This opens up a whole new host of potential abuses by unscrupulous screeners. They could post images on the Internet. If used on a child it would violate federal child pornography laws. Some screeners may even use the device as an excuse to strip search someone they thought was attractive because they "saw something suspicious on the scan."

Improved security is one thing, but these devices don't seem to provide any substantial benefit over the methods used now, and are incredibly intrusive. I'm hoping that popular opinion will create such a backlash against this technology that not a single device will ever be installed. If airports start putting them in I'd dare to bet that the airlines would start to scream as well. I suspect widespread use would result in a massive reduction in airline ticket sales (and some lawsuits). I know I'd certainly refuse to fly. Then again, seeing me naked may be punishment enough.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Medicinal Marijuana

In a six to three decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has outlaws the use of medicinal marijuana. What this means is that states who have laws allowing it can no longer protect users of medicinal marijuana from arrest and prosecution. This article at KSL reports on it, and quotes several people who have been helped by medicinal marijuana. One woman involved in the case is quoted as saying, "I'm going to have to be prepared to be arrested."

The article is pretty fair minded in it's reporting, addressing an issue of state vs. federal law, and so on, but it misses one valuable piece of information. In fact, this missing bit of information (almost) completely diffuses the arguments for, or against, medicinal marijuana. It already exists as a completely legal medication called Marinol.

Marinol is already prescribed by doctors for most of the major problems that medicinal marijuana is recommended for, and it's legal. Even the U.S. Department of Justice mentions it on their website.

On the other hand, cost may be the biggest issue. I did some research and found that neither IHC nor Blue Cross Blue shield will cover it as one of their "preferred" medicines. In fact, I couldn't find it in any of their medicinal databases. I wasn't able to find any information as whether the University of Utah medical system covered it or not. The question then becomes, why not?

In the interest of fairness, I'm including a link to this article talking about the ineffectiveness of Merinol. I have issues with the arguments the article makes (it seems to commit a few logical fallacies), but I'll leave the final decisions up to you.

Basement Update

My daughter's got to move back into their room last Saturday. We lucked out in that we were able to salvage the carpet and pad after all. They had to be cleaned and disinfected, to be sure, but everything is back in place now. We used the mess as an opportunity (read: "much needed excuse") to go through the girl's stuff and get rid of things they didn't need/want/use anymore. Getting rid of clutter in their room is a good thing. Trust me.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Like I Said, It Could Have Been Worse

My last entry detailed my own experience with flooding, and a bit about its impact on my daughters. Like I said in the blog, though, it could have been worse. This California Teen had her life impacted on a far more substantial level than our simple basement flood had on my own daughters.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Water in the Desert Not Always Welcome

Tooele sits on the border of Utah's western desert, so rain is always welcome. Well, almost always. I've had to rethink that sentiment over the last few days.

Memorial Day was very memorable for me and many other residents of Tooele, Utah. We had rainstorms the likes of which I've not seen since we moved here five years ago. In a matter of just a few hours, we had received twenty percent of our annual rainfall. The ground was saturated and simply couldn't hold any more water, and flooding was rampant. Several homes in my neighborhood were affected, including my own.

With it raining so hard, my wife and I were checking the windows to make sure they were all closed. My wife went downstairs to check the basement windows, and noticed that our daughters' window wasn't closed enough that we could lock it. She opened the window slightly, and then hurried and shut it tight when water started coming through the window. It was dark down there, and my wife didn't think much of it at first.

Not long after, my oldest daughter came upstairs and said, "Dad, water's coming in through my window." Rats. We had a pipe burst a couple of years ago and her room had flooded then, so all sorts of remembered frustrations came to mind. I went downstairs, saw the water leaking into her room from around the window, and hurried and pulled the drapes down so I could figure out where it was coming from. I was stunned to see a good 12 inches or so of water in the window well, pouring in from around one side of the window casing.

We got several towels to help stem the tide, but it was pretty obvious they wouldn't be enough. She and her younger sister started pulling their stuff out of the room, to prevent further water damage. My wife, my son, and I ran outside with buckets and a wet/dry vac to try and bail/suck the water out of the window well. It was raining the whole time, and freezing cold, but we eventually got the majority of the water out of the well. Or at least we got it low enough that it was actually below my daughter's window.

After we got the water to stop coming in, we had to clean up the mess we had. Between the wet/dry vac and pulling up sections of the carpet, we did what we could to suck up the remaining water.

After we got our own affairs in order, we started calling around the neighborhood to check on everyone else. One of the people from our local church was organizing relief efforts for the worst cases, and my son trotted off to help with that. As a minor leader in my church, I continued calling the people I knew and felt responsible for. It was at that time I learned we were pretty lucky, all in all. Some of our neighbors in older homes had the sewer backing up into their basements. I was feeling pretty bad about mucking about with the rainwater. I can't imagine what it would have like to be ankle deep in raw sewage.

While I stayed home and held down the fort, watching my youngest children, my wife and two oldest kids went to volunteer and fill sandbags. My wife works as a crossing guard and the police department had called to encourage the crossing guards to come out. It turns out that the city was trying to divert the water flows down 700 south street, and the sandbags were being used there. The sandbags were also available to citizens that needed them, so my wife brought a few home. We had been told there was another storm on the way, and we didn't want to be caught with more water in the basement.

Now I have several fans going in my daughters' room, trying to dry things out. I'd take the carpet out to dry, but it was raining again when I left for work this morning, so that wouldn't have done much good. I'm afraid we're going to have to replace the pad at least, if not the carpet. We may need to replace parts of the sheetrock as well, we'll just have to see what the extent of the damage is.

The ironic part is that this isn't covered by my homeowner's insurance. They'll pay for water damage caused by a broken pipe, but not rain or ground water. In the meantime, my daughters get to have fun "camping out" in the living room. My wife and I, however, get to worry about trying to get everything fixed. I just keep reminding myself, "It could have been much worse."