Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Wading into the Wiki World

Since I first discovered Wikipedia about a year ago, I've been fascinated with the whole concept. If you aren't already familiar with it, you should be. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia maintained using the concept of a "wiki", which is to say that it is maintained by anybody and everybody. Articles in Wikipedia may be written, edited, or corrected by anyone who feels like they have something to contribute. Unlike a conventional encyclopedia, no particular authorities are sought out to write or review articles. On this surface, this may sound like a recipe for disaster, for all sorts of quackery and unsupported claims to be put forth. In practice, in turns out to be quite effective. (A peer-reviewed comparison of Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica conducted by Nature magazine on 42 science topics found the same number of major errors in both encyclopedias, and a moderately smaller number of minor errors in Britannica.) What makes it work is the ease of update, allowing it to immediately be corrected, plus what amounts to worldwide peer review. The more people who use it, the more people will be interested in maintaining it. (It's now in the Top 50 most visited websites.)

It occurred to me that this concept could be very useful for genealogists. At its best, genealogy is a collaborative endeavor, with multiple researchers looking into overlapping areas of interest, and double-checking one another's assertions. There is much room for such review. When one looks at the vast amount of family tree information posted on the Internet, one soon realizes how much of it is poorly researched, with legends and jumped conclusions being propagated too easily. That's where a wiki could really help. Turns out a number of people have had a similar notion, and I've already found several sites doing genealogy wikis. Just to get my feet wet, I figured I should give one of them a try. I've spent many late nights the last few weeks putting together my first Gen-Wiki page, on my very interesting ancestor, Captain William H. Dobbs, privateer and patriot. Do check it out, and if you happen to see any corrections that need made or new information to add, please feel free to do so. That's what a wiki is all about!

The Red-White-and-Blue Herring

I was relieved to hear today that the Senate did not pass the assinine flag-burning amendment, though the 66-34 vote was too close for comfort. Senator Frist's comments that our men and women in the service are fighting for the flag are misguided. What they are fighting for, actually, is all of our rights, including the right to burn a flag as an act of expression, as Senator Inouye correctly observed. Only three Republicans (Chaffee, McConnell, and Bennett) have the proper notion of the First Amendment. Regretably, Senator McCain was not among them. And far too many Democrats (including my own Senator Feinstein) joined the "yea-hoos". Off course it's all just another election year stunt. Most of these people aren't so concerned with waving the flag as they are with waving the Flag Amendment come November. Sad.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Marrying Snakes and other Pink Herrings

I'm late to comment on this, but it was a sorry sight indeed to see the die-hard Christianists in the Senate trot out their "pink herring" for its annual flogging. I forget where I read the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment tagged as a "pink herring", but it's apt. This may just be my own subjective impression, but the whole issue just seemed tired, and losing its magic to rouse the "base". I think even the base is starting to see it as just a transparent political stunt, a piƱata brought out of the closet only during election years. The attitude of many of the Senators seemed to be a collective eye-roll, here we go again, can we get back to business now?

Meanwhile, Daniel Henninger, a Wall Street Journal opinion editor, made a completely assinine comment about some woman in India marrying a snake, and if we allowed gay marriage then how could we prohibit people marrying snakes? (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) This just shows how some people of normal intelligence simply lose all grip of rationality when it comes to this issue. People just completely blur the concepts of making personal vows for religious or personal reasons, versus entering into a legal relationship pertaining to financial interdependency and joint agency. Here in America, the law simply has nothing to say about anyone's ability to make personal vows of lifelong loving devotion. If someone wants to enter the temple of some animalistic religion and make such vows to a snake, no US law will stop them. It's a free country. What is at actual issue is the government-sanctioned relationship that entitles a married couple to such things as being legally responsible for one another's support, being able to make one another's medical decisions, and other such practical matters. Nobody, not even practioners of bizarre animalistic religions, are talking about holding snakes financially responsible for debts, or letting snakes make medical decisions on behalf of incapicitated persons. There are perfectly obvious reasons why legalized gay marriage could not possibly lead to legalized inter-species "marriages". Get a grip already.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Higher Ethical Standard

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to remove Rep. William Jefferson (D-New Orleans) from his position on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, because of questions about his ethics. The voice vote indicated a strong consensus. However, a small number of Representatives criticized the action as being unprecedented (which is apparently true), noting that Jefferson has not yet been indicted (which is true), and Jefferson should be deemed "innocent until proven guilty". It's this last point where they're wrong. When it comes to institutions where people are invested with serious fiduciary responsibility, they must hold themselves to a higher standard. They must not only refrain from crime or impropriety, but even the appearance of impropriety. In this case, the FBI has found $90,000 in cash hidden in the Representative's freezer, and someone else has already plead guilty of the crime of bribing him. To call Jefferson's situation as having the appearance of impropriety is rather an understatement. The actions of the House in this matter are entirely proper.

The Congressional Black Caucus had the misjudgment to play the tired race card here, suggesting that Jefferson was singled out because he was black. This is utterly ridiculous. Jefferson was singled out not because he is black, but because the FBI has cold (literally) hard evidence showing him to be corrupt. (Likewise, Cynthia McKinney was "singled out" not because she is black, but because she has a bad attitude, no manners, and a tendency to violence. Someone should really explain to the Black Caucus that using their race as a bald excuse for inexcusable behavior does a serious disservice to those people who really do suffer discrimination on account of their race. Though in fairness, there were rumors of dissension within the caucus, which the lack of calls for a roll call vote would support.) Jefferson's own arguments -- that the House action is denying the people of his district of the service of their Representative -- are plain pathetic. If Jefferson cared about serving the people of his district, he wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. And if he cares about them now, he would resign Congress immediately and allow them the chance to elect someone honest to replace him.

Nancy Pelosi is entirely correct to say that "this isn't about proof in a court of law", and in her determination to "hold Democrats to a high ethical standard". (Some may argue or question her motives in this, but regardless, it's nice to see someone doing the right thing.) Pelosi went on to add "I wish the White House would do the same", a reference to the collective sigh of relief over in the White House at the news that Karl Rove would not be indicted by the special prosecutor investigating the Valerie Plame leak case. Apparently, at the White House, the standard of ethics is to avoid the appearance of impropriety. impropriety. criminal acts. getting convicted.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

If This Had Been an Actual Emergency...

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Daniel Henninger mistakes the recent Supreme Court decision Brigham City vs. Stuart as a license to dispense with the Fourth Amendment altogether in our post-9/11 world. (Hat tip: Andrew.) From a relatively pedestrian (and unanimous) Supreme Court case concerning police properly entering a house without a warrant when what they could see and hear through the window was clear evidence of imminent violence, Henninger makes the wild and reckless extrapolation that warrantless police action is justified pretty much anywhere and anytime because we're now in a permanent state of emergency. He writes:
The Supreme Court's purpose in Brigham was to clear up confusions among lower courts about "the appropriate Fourth Amendment standard governing warrantless entry by law enforcement in an emergency situation." I'd call the terror war an emergency. Brigham said the Court has held that officers can make a warrantless entry "onto private property" to fight a fire, investigate its cause, prevent the imminent destruction of evidence, and engage in pursuit of a fleeing suspect. Al Qaeda qualifies as all four. Yet another precedent cited for "obviating the requirement of a warrant" is "the need to protect or preserve life." That sounds like the point of the war on terror, but some may disagree.
The problem here is a conceptual "bait and switch" between the actual and the metaphorical. The court is being quite literal when they used the terms "emergency", "fire", "imminent destruction", "pursuit", and "protect or preserve life". Imminent destruction means that a terrorist is literally right in front of you with his hand on the detonator, and only immediate action can stop him. Fire means actual heat you can actually feel. Pursuit means actual running and chasing. Protecting and preserving life means pulling someone out of a burning building. Despite Henninger's overheated rhetoric, al Qaeda qualifies on none of these counts. While the plotting and scheming of shadowy transnational organizations like al Qaeda is cause for concern (and for investigative resources), it is not imminent destruction. Terrorist ideologies are alarming, but they're not the sort of "fire" you could turn an actual hose on. I hope that our government investigators are "in pursuit" of al Qaeda and their ilk, but that sort of metaphorical "pursuit" is not the kind that has anyone breathing hard and heart pounding right now. Al Qaeda per se is indeed life-threatening, but only in a very general way, with no specific threat to specific lives, more like cholesterol than like a particular ticking bomb.

It is only specific, concrete emergencies for which the Court finds it reasonable to suspend Fourth Amendment warrant requirements. Metaphorical emergencies, like the war on terror, do not apply. Most people, I think, have the common sense to tell the difference between a real emergency and a metaphorical one. Just in case, here's a test: are you running to the phone right now to call 911? If not, it's not an emergency.

Friday, June 02, 2006

From Passover, For Shavuos

Today was the Jewish holiday of Shavuos (pronounced sha-VOO-us or shah-voo-OAT, depending on where your grandparents came from), one of the three big festivals commanded in the Torah. This festival commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jews, after they had escaped Egyptian bondage and wandered in the desert for a while. Curiously, while the Torah specifies the month and day for all other feasts and fasts, Shavuos is only identified as being the 50th day after the Passover holiday. Observant Jews will actually perform a ritual counting of the fifty days from Passover to Shavuos, giving the festival a sense of anticipation. In a way, Shavuos is a fulfillment of Passover. Passover celebrates the exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. It looks back on where we were, what we came from, and how we got delivered from there. But having escaped from Egypt and become free, what were we free to do and what were we for? It wasn't until we received the Torah that we learned how to live with our freedom, and what to live for. That's what Shavuos is about. So while Passover is about "from", Shavuos is about "for". Notice that it's not about "to", the land, the destination. In fact, surprisingly, I don't know that there is a Jewish holiday that marks the arrival of the Jewish people to the land of Israel after the exodus. The Shavuos festival celebrates the giving of the Law to the people of Israel, which happened before we crossed the river and entered the land of Israel. For it is the Law and not the land that makes the nation of Israel. Customarily, it is always said that Shavuos is about the giving of the Torah to us, not the receiving of the Torah by us. The rabbis say that while it was given to us on that particular day, we are continually in the process of receiving it.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

European Passengers Right to Privacy Stops at Our Border

Europe has strong privacy laws, and it seems that a European Court ruling may block an agreement by European air carriers to provide personal identifying information of US-bound passengers to the US government. I agree that commercial entities should not be releasing passengers' personal information without their consent. However, it seems to me that the simple solution to the problem is to require consent to such release as a condition of passage. When you buy an airline ticket, you already consent to all sorts of boilerplate terms, the "fine print" that used to be printed on the back of paper tickets (when we still had paper tickets). Just add to the boilerplate something to the effect of "I consent for the airline to release my personal information as required by the government of my destination country." That should be sufficient to meet the requirements of even European privacy laws. The US is certainly entitled to know who exactly is flying into our country, and no foreigner has a "right" to travel here without providing required identification. Anyone who is not content to have their name, address, phone number, and credit card info transmitted to the US prior to their departure can simply choose not to come here. European passengers' right to privacy stops at our border.