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Archive for 2007

Someone Has to Win? Really?

December 21st, 2007

One of my favorite political blogs is The Fix, a regular feature of www.washingtonpost.com, written by Chris Cillizza. On Fridays The Fix has a special feature called The Line where he gives a rundown of the horserace as he sees it. Today’s The Line is entitled, “Someone Has to Win the GOP Nomination.” So far, I’m willing to accept that someone must eventually win the GOP Nomination. Where I disagree with the esteemed political writer is:

What gets lost in all of the negativity about the Republican field is that in less than two months, someone will be the party nominee. Put simply: Someone has to win this thing.

Less than two months?! That’s just a bald-face lie.

Yes, it is true that a majority of delegates will be decided within the next two months, but if things go as they have been, there is no certainty that any one candidate will have amassed the number of delegates necessary to win the nomination. Granted, it’s been many a year since this has happened, but there used to be a time when the nominee was chosen at the convention by elected delegates doing more than just waving signs and clapping their hands. If a clear winner does not emerge from the pack to claim a majority, then the convention will once again reign supreme. All the political commentary about the split nomination race seems to miss the actual process of the nomination and how it functions in reality. The nomination is not chosen by an election where a plurality is enough. Strict rules govern the processes, and fifty years of not needing to use them doesn’t make them any less relevant.

This has an interesting impact on the decisions of the national party to strips delegates from states violating the nominating calendar, namely Florida and Michigan. Conventional wisdom says this is all positioning because the eventual nominee, who will control the Rules Committee, will seat the delegates anyway. But what if the Rules Committee seats are split among the candidates and thus lack the majority votes to change the rules? What then?

So no, no one has to win anything in the next two months. But if someone doesn’t, well, then we are in for some interesting times come convention time.

probonogeek Politics

The Court & The Public

December 6th, 2007

In the past week I have read no fewer than three different editorials about the need for the Supreme Court to allow cameras into oral arguments, or at a minimum release same day tapes of the proceedings. Most recently I read this anemic editorial by the Washington Post. The outcry is the same… people deserve the right to see the proceedings of the court because it’s a public institution. I couldn’t agree more with the objective, transparency of public institutions is paramount to good decision making… even courts, who are the least participatory of our political institutions.

Where these critics go wrong is in thinking that cameras make a difference… or that oral arguments are someone the “functioning” of the court. The events leading up to a legal decision are a complex web of filings and briefs, of which oral arguments is but one tiny piece. Lawyers generally agree that cases are won and lost on the brief… oral argument is just an chance to run through the briefs and address questions raised by the justices. But it’s not like the questions are unexpected and no Supreme Court practitioner worth their salt leaves an unanswered question in hopes the topic comes up during orals. It’s all there, in the brief, which are publicly available.

Yet, this isn’t even the most amazing part about how incredibly transparent our legal process really is. Consider for a moment the House of Representatives. On a given day the 425 members cast votes on a number of different issues. Now imagine if each of those members had to write down why they voted the way the did, had to cite previous votes by themselves and those who held the seat before them as justification, and had to provide a detailed step-by-step analysis of their thinking. Wouldn’t that be something? If the members of Congress had to publicly justify every single one of their votes! How would constituents feel if their member wrote they voted for a particular provision because they got a fat donation check!

Of course, House members don’t have to justify their votes… nor do Senators… nor do Presidents (except in the case of a Veto, which is a whole other can of worms). Two out of three branches of government may exercise their constitution powers without a single word of explanation and routinely do so. The Court, in shocking contrast, explains everything. Complete with citations, justifications, historical narratives, transcripts, finds of fact, depositions, and the decisions of the District and Appellate Court from which the appeal originated. It’s an overwhelming amount of information and quite frankly more transparency than your average Joe is really interested in. But, it’s the law, and the law isn’t easy… the law is complex, and no matter how simplistic campaigns may make governing seem, we should never allow the law to become a sound-byte.

So why then fixate on oral arguments? It is but one small (some might argue insignificant) part of the process. When a whole world of records is available to analyze, why are we getting all worked up over this? Lawyers, who have the most to gain from a transparent court, have never demanded it… so why suddenly is everyone else?

I don’t have an answer, but I fear it’s part of a larger trend to treat the court (federal or state, doesn’t seem to matter) as just another political body, whose officials should be subject to the whim of the electorate and the twenty-four hour media machine. It’s a bad trend that strikes a blow at yet another of our critical institutions designed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. What I do know is that someday I want to attend an oral argument, not for the knowledge, but for the singular experience. If I ever want to know what actually happened in a case, I’ll crack open a book.

probonogeek Law, Politics

State Quarter Quiz

November 27th, 2007

I’ve been a collector of state quarters since the first year they came out. In fact, just this year I collected the Washington State quarter, an event I’ve been anticipating for eight years!

I got a quiz in the mail a few days ago testing ones knowledge of the backs of the state quarters with the text removed. Go ahead, give it a try. I got 17 out of 20 right, but some of them are mighty tricky.

Seeing the quarter backs without the words made me appreciate the state histories and landscapes that we so often forget about. Divorced from my contemporary perception, I begin to remember that each of the states has their own complicated story of what it means to be from Utah or from Kentucky or wherever. Sometimes I wonder if our obsession with being “true” Americans has devalued our own state identities, which have a rich value in of themselves.

If you didn’t the first time, take the quiz and reflect, for just a moment, on how little we really know about our 49 other neighbors.

probonogeek Off Topic

Life is Sweet

November 21st, 2007

I realize it’s been an unforgivably long time since I last posted… and that post was some strange rant about the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which doesn’t exactly make for the most stimulating reading. I apologize and hope to do better in the coming months. But let me take this opportunity to tell you, my faithful readers, what’s up in my world.

First, I’m writing this post from the deck of my new apartment, sitting in my new deck furniture, overlooking palm trees and the pool, and only a block from the beach. The complex itself is sort of old, but it’s undergoing a lot of refurbishment, with new appliances, new landscaping, structural improvements, and a “purge” of sorts to remove members of the community who are not quite responsible tenants. The rent is a tad steep, but I figure if I’m going to live in a California beach town, I ought to live by the beach.

Sarah and I just finished a bit of a spending spree to decorate our new place. In addition to the deck furniture, we bought a sofa and this sort of mini-couch sleeper thing, a super cool “storage” ottoman, a side table, a “C” table (truly the most brilliant development in furniture production in the past 50 years), a table lamp and a floor lamp.

And how, you might be wondering, did I manage to afford all of this? No, not mail fraud, but that’s a good guess. No, it turns out that my skills as a webdeveloper are in high demand, especially when you have good customer relation skills. After founding Pro Bono Geek a few months ago I ended up earning way more than I had ever expected. So much I felt compelled to go on this orgy of spending I described above.

All this time I’ve been working at Evans Data Corporation. Things were going very well there, with a successful corporate site launch and a massive reorganization of their IT infrastructure. But 40 hours a week at EDC followed by 30+ hours a week doing consulting from home, I was finding myself a bit worn thin. And just around that time I got a job offer to come on full time with Articulated Man as a web developer, making a whole ton more than I was at EDC!

Of course, Pro Bono Geek and Articulated Man are/were essentially competitors, although we had worked on several projects collaboratively. But with my new employment came the end of my private consulting work. Which is great, because I’m still making good money, doing what I enjoy, and I don’t have to put in 70+ hours a week to do it. As a bonus — as in signing bonus — I was able to get a new car!

That’s right, as of this weekend, I’m an official car “possessor.” I say posses because I didn’t end up buying it outright, but instead I’m leasing it. Still not sure why I decided to go that route, but it felt right at the time and I haven’t been able to come up with a slam-dunk argument against it. So, I’ve got a three year lease and we’ll see where I stand at the end of it.

Oh, what kind of car is it? It’s a 2008 Magnetic Grey Prius (this is a photo of a 2007… couldn’t find a 2008 online). It has a start button, I kid you not, and so long as the key is in my pocket the door unlocks automatically and the car will start without having to put the key in the ignition. The thing is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It’s not the kind of car I would say is a blast to drive… not that it’s not fun, but it’s no sports car. What it is is the kind of car I won’t feel bad driving around town to do errands.

Now, the close reader may have been wondering, how was it I was able to move to the beach and yet still get to my old job downtown. That’s a good question, and if you didn’t think to ask it, you’re not paying close enough attention. Either that, or you didn’t know me well enough to learn my most closely guarded secret. As a child I never learned how to ride a bike. That’s right, never complete with italics and everything. So, when work became a 40 minute walk it was not just a simple matter of hopping on the bike. But with the help of some very dedicated friends I managed to teach myself how at the ripe old age of 26. Now I’m a regular speed machine, zipping up and down the streets of Santa Cruz on my new Trek hybrid bike. It’s a hybrid because it’s half mountain bike (good for hills and stability) / half street bike (good for going fast).

So, that’s the sum of things. I’m headed out now to attend my first Santa Cruz Obama organizers meeting to see if there’s something I can do to help with the campaign. Looking forwards to meeting some new people, since the new job is home based.

Thanks to anyone who kept checking during my hiatus, I promise to be better for at least a little while.

probonogeek Personal

Stupid Federal Appeals Court…

August 3rd, 2007

It’s been months, months, since I last blogged, which is really a shame because there are so many interesting things I could have blogged about. Supreme Court rulings, 2008 Presidential Primary shenanigans, new web projects, plans to move, looking at new cars, etc, etc. And yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t “pick up my pen” and it is my loss.

But today I read something that really makes my blood boil, so I’m back at the keyboard ready to take a stand. Feel free to read my primary source first, but if don’t have the time, here’s the summary. Pharmaceutical companies hold patents on drugs that give them sole authority over who gets to manufacture the drug. As a general rule, they elect to only allow themselves to make the drug, which means they have zero competition and without competition they can set whatever prices they want. Most non U.S. countries combat this by regulating the price of drugs, the result is in the United States drug costs are quite a bit higher than any where else in the world.

So, the District of Columbia, in their own effort to combat what they see as excessive prices, adopted a city ordinance that allows for a civil suit if the cost of a patented drug is 30% higher than in Canada, Germany, Australia or the United Kingdom. On appeal to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals–my least favorite court for a number of reasons I’ve previously blogged about–deemed this to be in violation of the patent laws and an illegal usurpation of federal power.

I say fooey to that. But D.C. Council member David A. Catania has a more nuanced responce.

It implies that patents would ban any legislation that affects the ability of patent holders to charge whatever they please, which is absurd. The Supreme Court has already upheld legislation that mandates price discounts to participate in Medicaid formularies. And no one has argued that states cannot enforce antitrust and other rules that limit monopoly prices of drugs indirectly — although the full logical thrust of the opinion would do just that.

I tend to agree. Patents only authorize the patent holder to control manufacture and use, it does not convey absolute pricing control, although absent regulation it is the natural result of a patent. But if this court ruling is correct, it means that if I obtain a patent on gun, which a state later decides to ban, or at least regulate, for safety reasons, the state would be in violation of the Patent Act and unable to do so. Essentially, anything patented is beyond state regulation! (The Congress, I presume, can still regulate under the ruling since they have the authority to trump the Patent Act.)

As is well documented, on the topic of patent law interpretation (as opposed to patent application) the Federal Circuit has a very poor record. If the Supreme Court accepts cert, and I pray they do, you can bet the farm they will overturn as they have nearly everytime the Federal Circuit has claimed its specialized area of law trumps all others.

When will Congress realize that giving an appeals court exclusive jurisdiction over a single area of law while denying them any jurisdiction over other areas ensures that the exclusive area will become paramount in all matters? Laws must be balanced with consideration to the competing interests and a specialized court like the Fed Circuit is tantamount to pressing down on one side of the scales.

probonogeek Law

A New Playbook in Dealing with the Internet

May 29th, 2007

Some of you may have read about the number which must not be named incident a few weeks back. For those who didn’t, there is this number that certain powers that be wish to keep secret. In so doing, issues various cease and desist orders which caused quite a stir and increased the spread of the number far more than if they had never done anything. A classic case of misunderstanding the reality in which you find yourself.

Today the Washington Post brings a story of a young girl from California who has found herself in the middle of a media storm. Due to her excellence in sports and attractive looks, her photo has spread across the internet on blogs and messages boards. Someone even setup a fake Facebook account under her name. The attention has often been sexual in nature and cause grief for the girl and her family.

What impresses me about her story is that she, or at least those who are advising her, have rejected the misguided approach of the copyright maximalists. Instead of sending out cease and desist letters to anyone who ever touched the photo, instead of threaten slander suits against those who speak her name, instead of crying to the media about how unfair it all is, this young girl has chosen to embrace the media storm. Not in the Brittany Spears, “It’ll make me famous” sort of way, but in the “okay, if you’re really interested, here’s my story” sort of way. I predict that by opening up, embracing the storm instead of fighting against it, the frenzy will die down much quicker than otherwise.

Of course, I could be wrong and this may end up stoking the fires, but my gut says that now that she’s obtainable, in that her life is not clouded in mystery, she’ll be far less of a target for those who obsess about the impossible. Nothing destroys a fantasy like a healthy dose of real life.

probonogeek Politics, Technology

My Green Thumb?

May 20th, 2007

I wouldn’t have believed it a year ago if you had told me, “Sean, you’re going to be able to grow living plants and keep them alive,” but, believed or not, it would appear to be true. As evidence, I submit the following photograph


My glorious impatiens

I planted these about a month ago in the planter pot I got Sarah for her birthday (technically these are her flowers that I grow on her behalf). When I first got them I expected two, maybe three, blooms per pot. But now, with some tender love, consistent watering, and the eclectic mix of music played by the neighboring spa, my little flowers are blooming all over the place. More than a dozen in some pots.

The bottom six pots have a mix of different color impatiens and are all doing splendidly. The top pot has a flower that Sarah purchased, so I don’t know the species, but it has had a tougher go of things. At first it started dying, dropped all of its flowers and the stalks flopped over the edge of the pot. But I kept watering it, trimmed away the dead bits, and slowly but surely the plant has risen once again.

Due to the nature of the porch it lives on, I have to rotate the pot with some frequency to ensure every flower gets roughly the same amount of sun. I haven’t decided if they do better in the sunlight or in the shade, but I know that not turning the pot leads one side to die and the other to do better, so rotation is now part of regular maintenance. In addition, I water my little plants with a trusty spray bottle, which I feel more realistically simulates rain water like the flowers long since forgotten ancestors must have known before cultivation and greenhouses forever changed flower production in the industrialized world.

Sarah is also trying her hand at flower care this season, having killed off her long lived green plant. Here’s a wide shot of our little garden.


Sarah’s plants are in the green planter and brown terracotta planter

She is also keeping a hanging plant which lives up in the rafters


I’m not quite sure how she gets up there to water it?

Sarah’s project is quite a bit more ambitious than mine, but since these are the first plants I’ve ever successfully grown, I’m happy with the results to date.

probonogeek Personal

A Tough Spot

May 7th, 2007

Recently Circuit City fired 3,400 employees who were earning above the defined pay range for the associate position at the big red store. Before I go any further, let me say that I know a guy who manages a department in the local Santa Cruz Circuit City, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk business with him on several occasions… so I have some sense of the nature of their business.

Stores like BestBuy, Walmart, Costco and Circuit City are in a all hands on deck battle for big ticket sales. The margins on computers and gadgets isn’t enough to warrant those big buildings and the flashy adds… it’s all about moving those TVs. And at the end of the day, a slick salesman only goes so far. You have to keep cost low if you want to compete. Consider Costco… I can’t say I’ve ever seen a salesman on their TV floor, but maybe I wasn’t looking. Certainly not as many as at Circuit City. So, when faced with the prospect of posting huge quarterly loses, Circuit City let thousands go, hired new younger workers with low pay, and told the old workers they could reapply 10 weeks down the road (at lower pay).

Not only were they upfront about the situation with the associates, they were upfront with the public. According to the Seattle Times, in exchange for their openness they are getting a boycott.

Which makes me confused as to what Circuit City should have done here? According to my manager friend, the best Circuit Cities are near colleges and have a healthy churn of college kids who take the associate jobs for a few years, work their way up the pay scale, then leave to make room for a new salesman. The churn ensures the pay never gets too high. But not every town that needs a Circuit City has a college, so some salesmen stick around for longer than is desirable. Strikes me as they have three options:

1) do nothing, post huge loses and file for bankruptcy
2) do what they did, get hit with a boycott
3) do what they did, but keep it private so the public never finds out

Now, of course, #3 is rife with risks for the company. Should they be found out, they would be vilified in the press and likely become the target of… of a… of a boycott?! Wait, isn’t that what happens under #2? Guess that makes it worth the risk then, wouldn’t you say? Is that what we want? I don’t think that having corporations make wide scale employment decisions without any public explanation is a very good idea, but we leave them little choice if this is the response they can expect for their frankness.

It’s just like the politician who lies to his constituency. If telling the truth leads to an assured electoral defeat, what possible reason would they have to be honest?

I don’t know if there is an easy solution to the problem. We could criminalize the lack of disclosure, I suppose. But that’s certainly pretty extreme. We could turn a blind eye to corporate mistreatment of workers… not much of an ideal situation either. I think, ultimately, the best idea is to accept that some stores opporate on a low pay worker model, and if we don’t like that we should avoid those companies all together, not just become morally indignant when they have to be a little more ruthless than normal.

probonogeek Politics

Doing Good Work

April 26th, 2007

I realize there are a number of items I haven’t really announced that are worth announcing, so here they are…

1) I am officially employed, full time, by the fine people at Evans Data Corporation, a small survey company here in Santa Cruz. (I would provide a link, but their site is awful… hence my employment.) While the job isn’t even remotely related to my law degree, it is an excellent opportunity to gain some real experience in the “corporate” world as well as get to know some regular folks beyond Sarah’s graduate friends.

2) Just as exciting, if not more exciting, is that today Planned Parenthood launched its Wall of Protest site, which is web response to the recent Supreme Court decision about the partial birth abortion ban. (Note to constitutional scholars: what is scare about this decision is not that Congress can limit choice in this particular way, but that Congress can regulate in this area at all because it paves the way for a complete Federal ban should Roe v. Wade ever fall. What ever happened to enumerated powers?!) Anyway, working on the site has been great as have the people who coordinated the whole thing. Another company did the flash stuff, but I put together all the submission mechanisms and administrative tools. If you are a supporter of choice in this country, go visit the site and post something… if you aren’t a supporter, prepare to be bested by my various security mechanisms :)

3) Sarah, my GF, started a blog of her own about stuff. Check it out. That photo of her, by the way, is from a moving San Fransisco cable car taken on our two day trip during Spring Break.

That’s all for now… in the future I hope to be buying a car, so there may be photos a comin’.

probonogeek Personal

The California Lawyers Say It’s So…

April 10th, 2007

Today, in the mail, I received two very important letters.

The first informed me that a settlement has been reached in the case of Rodriguez, et al. v. West Publishing Corp., d/b/a BAR/BRI, and Kaplan, Inc. For those following along at home, I’m “et al.” Turns out BAR/BRI has been engaged in a little anti-trust no no resulting in a class action. And since no class is sufficiently classy without me, I was asked to tag along. There is $47 million in an escrow account which the lawyers get first crack at (to all you class action nay-sayers… those lawyers are welcome to their share in my opinion. I didn’t have to lift a finger, will be getting some money back, and BAR/BRI is going to stop the antitrust behavior. Not a bad outcome for such an “inefficient” system). Then us plaintiffs get our share of the remainder, pro rated, based on the fee we paid. The pool includes all BAR/BRI customers in all states from 1997 – 2006, but since California’s bar is one of the most expensive and the fee increased each year, my pro rata should be exceptionally pro, if you know what I mean. The award can be as much as 30% of my fee… which would be nearly $1000.

The other letter, this one from a different group of lawyers, wrote to tell me I am a moral person. It’s strange to get a letter from lawyers saying, “yes good sir, you are moral enough to be one of us,” but there it is. I posted it on my refrigerator with my new shiny UW Alumni Magnet (it says I’m an Alumni by the power vested in the UW Alumni Board of Trustees… what power do you suppose that could be? The power to ask for money on a bimonthly basis?)

So, that completes the final hurdle to becoming a licensed lawyer in the State of California: Ethics Bar, check; Bar Exam, check; moral character evaluation, check; ridiculous application fee, check. The only thing left is for the Supreme Court to complete the paperwork and send me a form asking for dues. That’s right, my very first act as a licensed lawyer will be to pay yet more dues.

Now if only I had one of those fancy law jobs so I could afford to pay ‘em. I suppose I do have that settlement money coming…

probonogeek Law, Personal