Obama vs. Cheney

Read Frank Rich today.  Great column.


Republican inanity reaches new lows

The Republican attack on Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor (you, too, can pronounce her name correctly), that she stated that Appeals court judges make policy is intellectually empty and risible, even by recent Republican standards.  Of course federal circuit judges make policy.  They do it everyday– it's part of the job.  That's why we care so much who is appointed to these positions.  I teach this every semester in Introduction to American Government (did Republicans sleep through that class?).  Anonymous liberal does a great job explaining this, so I'll leave it to him:

Her point, which is unquestionably true as a descriptive matter, is
that judicial decision making at the Court of Appeals level is more
about setting policy, whereas judging at the District Court level is a
more about deciding individual cases and disputes. And the reason for
this is obvious. Decisions at the Court of Appeals level don't just
determine the fates of individual litigants; they serve as controlling
precedent for all District Court judges within that circuit. Thus any
decision by a Court of Appeals becomes the policy of that circuit, at
least until it's overruled by the Supreme Court (which is rare).

is nothing remotely controversial about this. Cases get appealed to the
Circuit Court level for one reason: because the answer to the question
being litigated is not clear. When the law is clear, no one bothers to
appeal (because it's really expensive). A Court of Appeals grapples
with the difficult questions, the gray areas in the law, and ultimately
issues rulings one way or the other. These rulings then become the
policy of that particular circuit, serving as controlling precedent in
future cases. This is just as true in the ultra-conservative Fourth
Circuit as it is the more liberal Ninth Circuit.

But in
Simplistic Republican World, none of this actually happens. Good
conservative judges don't "make policy," they simply enforce the law.
The law is apparently always clear. Indeed it's a wonder that lawyers
even bother to appeal cases in the Fourth Circuit. After all, they
should know that the conservative jurists in that circuit will simply
"enforce the law" (because they wouldn't dream of "making policy"), so
the outcome should be very predictable.

This trope that liberal judges "make law" whereas conservative judges only "enforce law" is about as dumb as it gets and needs to end.  But it will keep going as long as the mainstream media is dumb enough to play along (presumably, indefinitely).

Who defines torture

I've got a lot to say about Guantanamo.  Maybe I'll get to it tonight, for now, I just could not less this pass by.  This image is from today's Washingtonpost.com

Get that, "Obama has labeled torture."  This is not a matter of Obama labelling these things torture.  By common understanding, i.e., the English language, and more importantly, domestic and international law, Dick Cheney's "harsh interrogation" tactics have been considered torture and have been treated as such.  The United States has prosecuted people for doing this stuff as torture.  There's just not a debate.  Cheney is arguing that torture is okay.  Enough pretending that there's some sort of debate on whether this is torture or not in some pathetic attempt at partisan balance.

Stopping bullying leads to gay marriage!

The North Carolina legislature just passed some anti-bullying legislation that, horror of horrors, explicitly mentions that gay teens may be bullied for their sexuality and that this should be prevented (as well as mentioning a number of other categories at risk for bullying):

State senators resisted pressure from conservative groups to
narrowly approve an anti-bullying measure that recognizes gay students
as potential targets for harassment.

The proposal would require
school employees who witness harassment or bullying, or have reliable
information about such incidents, to report them to school authorities.
The measure identifies more than a dozen reasons children are harassed,
including for their race, religion or disability. But references to
"gender identity" and "sexual orientation" drew the most heat.

Well, isn't it nice to know that the Catholic Church in North Carolina has tried to stop this legislation.  Heaven forbid some gay kids are protected from bullying.  

Two Roman Catholic bishops urged their followers to oppose the bill, saying it could lead to same-sex marriage.

Okay, in fairness they don't want kids bullied, but they are afraid that this will somehow lead to gay marriage in North Carolina.  Please!  The Diocsese of Raleigh explains themselves on their website, and let's just say I'm far from convinced:

We agree that bullying or harassment based on
gender identity and sexual orientation is reprehensible and should not
be tolerated. However, there is also a highly problematic consequence
to the inclusion of these two specific differentiating characteristics
should it become law. In three states that have a law similar to SB526,
the law was used as part of a lawsuit to persuade a judge or court to
mandate same-sex marriage. We believe the passage of SB526 into law
could be the precursor of actions by our legislature and/or our courts
to mandate same-sex marriage in our state because it has occurred
already in three other states. This would be contrary to our
fundamental teaching and understanding of marriage.

Got that?  In these other states, similar legislation was included in the legal briefs arguing for gay marriage.  No evidence whatsoever this had any bearing on what these courts decided, simply the fact that it was included in a legal argument.  It is just a huge leap of logic and (legal reasoning) to suggest that this would be the crack in the door allowing for gay marriage in NC.  And you know what, even if it was, I think that in the present economy the Catholic church has a lot more important things to be worrying about.  Jesus didn't have a lot to say about gays, but he sure had a lot to say about social justice.



Stop worrying about your kids

Really interesting interview in Salon.com this week with the author of a new book, Free Range Kids.  Take-away point: we worry way too much about our kids.  I definitely will not argue there.  Though, I actually think my own mom was a little lax– I swear I remember being left to wander through the Springfield Mall on my own when I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8.  I think her most important point is that our kids aren't in any more danger, we just think they are.  Much like Americans were completely obsessed with violent crime during the 1990's because of sensationalistic reporting all the while crime statistics showed consistent declines during this era.  Some of the interesting exchanges:

 I grew up in the Houston suburbs in the '70s and '80s.
Back then, we kids waited for the school bus without our parents. Now,
in that exact same neighborhood, parents always wait at the school bus
stop with their kids, although the neighborhood has not changed

This was a shock to me. Now, parents
wait at the bus stop. They wait in the morning to make sure their kid
gets on safely, and sometimes they wait at the bus stop in the
afternoon to drive the kid home, even if it's on the same block, even
if it's in a gated community. Sometimes they wait with those little
golf carts. It's the new social norm.

What do you think are the reasons that change has taken place?

When I was growing up, my parents were not watching those horrific
television shows that are on now like "CSI" and "Law & Order:
Special Victims Unit." They were watching "Dallas," "Dynasty," stuff
with maybe big hair, but that was the biggest crime. It wasn't all
these shows with really graphic, horrifying consequences for kids.

then, you didn't have cable, and cable has to fill 24 hours with the
worst possible stories, because if they filled it with stories about
kids getting home safely, you wouldn't watch. What's the most
compelling story that anyone has come up with so far? It's something
terrible happening to a child.

 What are the statistics about crimes against children? What is the news that we're not hearing?

crime rate today is equal to what it was back in 1970. In the '70s and
'80s, crime was climbing. It peaked around 1993, and since then it's
been going down.

If you were a child in the '70s or the '80s and
were allowed to go visit your friend down the block, or ride your bike
to the library, or play in the park without your parents accompanying
you, your children are no less safe than you were.

But it feels
so completely different, and we're told that it's completely different,
and frankly, when I tell people that it's the same, nobody believes me.
We're living in really safe times, and it's hard to believe.

Then again, it's one thing to know you don't need to worry so much about your kids, it is quite another to feel that way.


I never said she stole my money

There was an interesting article in the Times last week about IBM’s attempt to create a computer Jeopardy! champion, now that they have conquered the chess world.  Storing and retrieving all the information necessary is easy for a computer.  The hard part, is simply interpreting the English language as it is actually used:

Indeed, the creators of the system — which the company refers to as Watson, after the I.B.M. founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr. — said they were not yet confident their system would be able to compete successfully on the show, on which human champions typically provide correct responses 85 percent of the time.

“The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms,” said the team leader, David A. Ferrucci, an I.B.M. artificial intelligence researcher. “And we’re not there yet.”

The team is aiming not at a true thinking machine but at a new class of software that can “understand” human questions and respond to them correctly. Such a program would have enormous economic implications. Despite more than four decades of experimentation in artificial intelligence, scientists have made only modest progress until now toward building machines that can understand language and interact with humans.

The current program, “Watson” is quite hit and miss…

In a demonstration match here at the I.B.M. laboratory against two researchers recently, Watson appeared to be both aggressive and competent, but also made the occasional puzzling blunder. For example, given the statement, “Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide,” Watson beat its human competitors by quickly answering, “What is Lebanon?”

Moments later, however, the program stumbled when it decided it had high confidence that a “sheet” was a fruit.

Here’s my favorite part of the article, though, and the reason for the title of the post:

The way to deal with such problems, Dr. Ferrucci said, is to improve the program’s ability to understand the way “Jeopardy!” clues are offered. The complexity of the challenge is underscored by the
subtlety involved in capturing the exact meaning of a spoken sentence. For example, the sentence “I never said she stole my money” can have seven different meanings depending on which word is stressed.

“We love those sentences,” Dr. Nyberg said. “Those are the ones we talk about when we’re sitting around having beers after work.”

If you are like everbody else I know, you won’t be able to resist trying that out all seven ways.

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