Archive for 2008


December 28th, 2008

Sarah and I got back from our two week trip to Nicaragua visiting my Aunt and taking in the sights. I’m hoping to get photos online soon, but am still waiting for a little DNS magic before the new photo site goes live.

In the meantime, just to make it even more internet official (as if posting it on Facebook wasn’t good enough), on December 20th I asked Sarah to marry me, and to the hushed surprise of everyone, she said “yes.” The engagement will probably be about three years, which we realize is a tad long… but makes sense given Sarah’s academic schedule.

Thanks to everyone who provided assistance and advice to the planning and execution of the proposal, I will see you at the wedding!

probonogeek Personal

No, amazon cannot decide you’re a felon, but…

December 4th, 2008

The Don–who came up with these names?–asked me if I would comment on the Lori Drew verdict. Instead of posting on his blog, I figured I’d post here and link from there, thus keeping all the juicy page views for me and my Google AdWords empire (I kid, I kid).

The general story here is that person did something most folks agree was bad, but since none of our existing criminal statutes really fit the action in question, the prosecutors in the case used the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to seek conviction for what amounts to a violation of the MySpace Terms of Service. The Don expressed understandable apprehension to the idea that a corporation like Amazon could wield their TOS in such a way as to make site visitors into felons. But first a little context might assist in seeing if this is really a sign of the end of the world, or just another day in America.

Let’s start with the concept of trespass law. Now, there are some folks who say trespass law is stupid and people should be able to go where ever they like. If you fall into this group, you can just stop reading now, because I can’t help you. But assuming you agree that trespass law is good and proper, you have to ask yourself some questions. Consider your personal dwelling. If someone comes into your house uninvited they are obviously trespassing. It’s a clear cut case and criminal prosecutors will have no problem getting a conviction. Let’s change the fact pattern slightly and say instead of a house, it’s a store with a large public area for browsing the merchandise, and an employees’ only area in the back. Now, if someone goes into the public space, they aren’t trespassing, right? They have been invited into the space by the owner and are what we in the legal business would call an invitee. But once the visitor goes into the employees’ only space, they move from the invitee column into the trespasser column.

The question then is what makes the distinction between the public space where you’re an invitee and the private space where you’re a trespasser? The answer is private law. In the case of the store it’s enforced by a little sign posted on the door to the employee area that says “Employees Only.” Two little words, perhaps, but two words backed by the power of the state penal system. Essentially what we’ve done is say in the law “we think there are some places you shouldn’t be able to go, but since we can’t specify all those places, we are going to empower private law to specify on a case-by-case basis.” Now, of course, there are limits, like clear notice and the moderating force of a jury. I realistically can’t imagine a jury convicting someone mistakenly entering into an employee area, no matter how well marked it may have been.

These same principles apply to the internet just as well as they do to the physical word. In fact, there is a rather famous example of this sort of private law backed by criminal law that is clear as day… it’s called the DMCA. I wrote a post years ago on this very topic, feel free to read it if you have a moment. Owners of copyrighted materials can seek federal criminal prosecution if you break a “technological measure,” which could really be just as simple as a little button that says don’t copy me. The slashdot crowd goes crazy over this… how can it be a crime to break such a stupid technological measure, they demand to know! To which I ask, is it any more or less of a crime if I break into a locker with a tiny pad lock instead of a huge deadbolt? I certainly shouldn’t think so.

Which brings us back around to the Lori Drew verdict. MySpace makes clear that you are an invitee into their online space so long as you conform to their Terms of Service. The moment you stop conforming to their TOS, you become a trespasser… just as if you had entered into the employees only area. This isn’t to say that every violation of an online TOS is going to result in criminal prosecution, because we have prosecutors, judges, and juries all in the business of continuously evaluating what is and isn’t worth prosecuting on a day-by-day basis. Just because you engage in felonious acts doesn’t make you a felon, or we’d all be in the slammer. What it does mean is if you engage in activity that you know is wrong–even if that activity is solely online–and it ends up with someone dying, you’d best get yourself a lawyer.

probonogeek Law


November 22nd, 2008

Seven days ago marked my year anniversary with Articulated Man, which Sarah and I celebrated with a bottle of wine we have been saving from her trip through the Champaign region in France. It was most delightful.

On Wednesday I flew into Chicago for a week long Development Sprint, which is serving as the kickoff for a large internal development project that will hopefully be the engine of the company for the next couple of election cycles. I had requested an annual review to go over whatever stuff I might be able to improve upon, and since I was going to be in town we figured we could just do it in person, which we did last night.

The good news is that I seem to be doing well and got positive reviews. The better news is that I am receiving a raise and a title promotion to reflect the job I actual do, as opposed to the one I was hired for. Which is not to say I don’t still do that job, which was “Developer”, but that I really do a ton more stuff on a day-to-day basis that Developer really doesn’t encapsulate. The cool part is that I get to select my own title.

The current list of possibilities include:

  • Lead Systems Administrator
  • Systems Director
  • Information Systems Director
  • Information Technology Director
  • Information Technology Manager

I’m not a big fan of the first, since “Systems Administrator” evokes images of a dude working in the basement… and while I don’t really have a problem with that image per se, it really isn’t the sort of title I would want to use as a platform to go other places. Don’t get me wrong, I expect to be with AM for many years to come, but someday I’d like to go into policy and sysadmin doesn’t exactly scream policy proficiency. But the term director and manager are certainly more sexy and can mean some cool things going forwards. I’m open to suggestions if there are others out there, otherwise I plan to make my decision in a couple of days.


I went with Information Systems Director.

probonogeek Personal

No Longer the Loyal Opposition

November 19th, 2008

Obama won… yay! But wait, wasn’t that like two weeks ago? Why am I just posting this now? Well, in part because I had wanted to wait until we had a solid electoral count against which I could compare my predictions, and silly Missouri is too close to call and the Obama campaign won’t just concede it, so folks who call things things are unwilling to put their ass on the line. Which is fine, except there are other things I want to write about, but not before my loyal opposition piece I’ve been writing in my head the past two weeks. So, here we are…

First, predictions. Let us first assume that Obama will not win Missouri, because the vote count is heading that way and it hasn’t changed since election night. Which gives McCain 173 electoral votes and Obama a whopping 365. I had predicted a 355/183 split, so I was only off by 10 votes… also known as Indiana. Silly Lake County broke more for Obama then I had expected. It was actually very surreal, after Ohio was called for Obama and the race was essentially over, that I started rooting for McCain in Indiana, because that was the one state that my prediction was heading the wrong direction. But, I suppose if I have to be wrong on a state, I prefer to be wrong in the way that gets more votes for my guy. Also, bonus points for having called the electoral vote coming out of Omaha, Nebraska for Obama.

Next, a little ethnographic film about that fateful moment when the polls on the west coast closed and the election was called.

Yes, that’s me in the white shirt and the American Flag tie. Exact same outfit as 2004. I think we have the start of a good little tradition.

And now, a special comment. I realized the day after the election that my relationship with my government had radically changed. Since my political inception, there has either been a Republican President or a Republican Congress… and for five years we had both! (And one crazy year we had a Republican President and a Republican House with a Democratic Senate.) This is the first time when my party is truly, and unapologetically in power.

That really changes how you relate to what’s going on in Washington. Until now, if something bad happened it was all too easy to say, yup, that’s bad… silly Republicans. It also meant that ideals I supported were generally in opposition to the majority ideals. In such instances you take up the mantle of the loyal opposition. You may object to the outcome, but as a loyal American you recognize the political process for what it is. Obama’s election and growth of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate change everything.

Now it’s not enough to just say, “silly Republicans”, because they aren’t the ones doing the bad things. It’s going to be us. And don’t give me the line about the Senate filibuster… by the time Alaska and Minnesota are resolved, I fully expect a 59 vote majority in the Senate. Even if we fail to pickup the runoff in GA, as I expect will be the case, it should be trivial to pick up a single republican vote on all manner of issues, assuming we have unity among the caucus.

And that’s the whole issue. Now that the Democrats are in charge, will be have unity? I’m not talking about the sort of unity where we all go jump off a bridge together, but the kind of unity where members vote as a governing coalition for the betterment of America, not just their own personal political prospects. What of us rank and file Democrats? Are we going to become the ditto heads of the Democratic party, walking around as if our newly elected leaders can do no wrong? Maybe we’ll swing the other way, and demonstrate that liberals really are never satisfied.

I honestly don’t know what happens next. I’m excited for change and I’m excited to have a voice that matters. But there’s a lot of scary stuff out there, and it will take more than just a really smart president (though that’s certainly a prerequisite). I don’t doubt Obama will rise to the task… but will we?

probonogeek Politics

Predictions: 37 Hours Out

November 3rd, 2008

Just spent some time on the Washington Post “Pick Your President” tool and put together my final predictions for tomorrow. Final tally: 354 for Obama / 184 for McCain.

<p><strong>><a href=''>2008 Election Contest: Pick Your President</a></strong> &#8211; Predict the winner of the 2008 presidential election.</p> <p>

Should be a fun night of watching the results come in.

probonogeek Politics

My First Rails Application

October 23rd, 2008

Last week Articulated Man launched my first solo Rail’s application, a voter’s guide for New England federal races. The site was sponsored by the New England Alliance for Children’s Health, whose site we did earlier in the year as just a standard site. The voter’s guide required a bit more functionality, thus the decision was made to develop in Rails and use it as my first stab at Rails development.

The site turned out great, mostly because we have outstanding designers who can make anything look good. I also learned quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of a Rails site, which is something you don’t really get from just reading the book.

While it’s still too soon to make any firm declarations about Rails, I will say it was very nice to have some provided structure when building the application. With LegSim, and pretty much any other project I’ve done, I had to build everything out of whole cloth… thus, LegSim is rather amorphous, having changed throughout the years and never following a clearly defined structure. With Rails you get that out of the box… perhaps more structure than I would prefer, but I think I’d prefer too much structure over too little, at least at my current stage as a developer.

Speaking of LegSim, the UW Congress course has started up again this quarter, giving me a boost of excitement to get developing again. Already some good stuff happening there as I integrate what I’ve learned since doing web development full time. Sadly, Archon and LegSim v5 have been put on hold until later, as I need to have a finished product well before either of those technologies will be ready for prime time. But some day–some day soon–LegSim will be rewritten and be better than ever!

probonogeek Technology

A Dutch Experiment

October 16th, 2008

While visiting The Netherlands earlier this year, Sarah introduced me to Bitterballen, a dutch snack food traditionally eaten with beer. They were so good that all of us visiting Americans insisted on ordering them at every meal where it made sense. After leaving the country, I figured I wouldn’t get to eat them again until I returned. But this weekend I decided nuts to that and went about researching how to make them myself.

After checking out several different recipes on the internet, I settled on the following:

  • 4 tbl. butter or margarine
  • 1/2 lb ground beef or veal
  • 1/4 cup carrot, finely diced
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • A grating of fresh nutmeg
  • 1 tbl. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tbl. parsley, finely chopped
  • 5 tbl. flour
  • 1 cup beef broth or milk
  • 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp. water
  • Oil for deep frying

Heat one tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat and cook the meat, carrots, and onions until the meat is browned and the carrots are tender. Drain the meat in a colander, then place in a mixing bowl. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, lemon juice, and parsley and stir to combine. Set the meat mixture aside. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over moderate heat and stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook this for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the beef broth or milk. Continue heating, stirring constantly, until the sauce boils and becomes quite thick. Combine the sauce with the meat mixture, stirring to combine them thoroughly, and chill this mixture for at least two hours in the refrigerator, until it has become solid. When the mixture has solidified, roll it into balls about 1 inches in diameter, using your hands. Roll the balls in the bread crumbs, then in the egg and water mixture, then in the bread crumbs again. Fry a few at a time in a deep fryer with at least 2 inches of oil at 375 degrees until golden (about 2 to 3 minutes). Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

I chose my friend’s final debate watching party as the testing grounds, hoping that a wide group of people could give feedback. Sadly attendance was far less than the previous debate parties, but overall the reviews were positive.

Preparing for construction

I made the constituent elements the day before. The green bowl there is a three times the recipe above and took several hours to prepare.

Ready for frying

Each of these balls has a double coating of breadcrumbs. In retrospect, I wish I had made them a bit smaller.

The deep fry!

It was not easy to keep the temperature constant. Poor Mike was constantly checking the temperature and adjusting the heat.

The first batch

I feel this was the best batch in terms of color. I didn’t have a proper timer to count the frying time, leading to uneven cooking.

Ready for muching

This is the first 16, but I would end up making 13 more, for a total of 29 delicious little balls. I also have easily half of the filling left over. Looks like I’m going to have to make more this weekend.

probonogeek Personal

These Voters

October 11th, 2008

During the end of the Democratic Primary, as Obama was narrowly loosing states to Hillary Clinton after a series of victories that put him so far in the lead it was virtually impossible for Clinton to catch up, the talking heads had a lot of fun declaring Obama was having difficulties with these voters. These voters were generally poor working white voters in West Virgina, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, but sometimes these voters referred to women, seemingly, in general. The “proof” behind these assertions was that Clinton had done better in those demographics, often by as much as 10 whole points! And so the conventional wisdom went that someone who supported Clinton must not like Obama… and thus electoral doom awaited him come the general election.

Here we are, less than a month away from November 4th, and Obama is leading nearly every contested state and in every demographic–except racists and the deeply conservative–and is on his way to an electoral landslide of 340+. Obviously all these voters didn’t end up having as many reservations about Obama as original prognosticated. Could it have been these voters just generally liked Clinton more, but in a race between Obama and McCain there really is no contest? Did anyone actually expect those traditional democratic voters to switch party? Honestly?

What strikes me is that for all the punditry’s willingness to advise the Obama campaign about these voters, you don’t ever hear similar advice directed at the McCain campaign? Where are the commentators mentioning that Obama has a mortal lock on voters with a college education and that McCain just isn’t connecting with smart people? Or that Obama has a huge lead among those worried about the economy, implying McCain doesn’t resonate with working people? How about his inability to persuade those who live by major bodies of water? (McCain’s message just isn’t hitting home with people who understand what it means to be really wet!) Why isn’t anyone being so blatantly condescending to McCain as was so in vogue with Obama just three months ago?

probonogeek Politics

Truer Words Never Spoken

October 8th, 2008

I read a lot of Washington Post stories, in particular their editorials, which is really the only way to get analysis these days since reporters are so afraid of being called biased they can’t just come out and say “so and so is telling a lie”. Today I read the first editorial I’ve seen of one Anne Applebaum, who is a native Washingtonian (not of the state variety) talking about the supposed “Washington” that we hear politicians claiming to represent middle America are always railing against. She’s got an all-star list of politicians who (a) run Washington and (b) are from middle American… and yet, Washington still seems to be this thing that middle America hates. She brings her editorial to a finish with the following paragraph that every one should read.

Washington, however stuffy it may once have been, is no longer in need of “a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street.” Washington is in need of expertise, management experience, long-term thinking and more political courage — from wherever in the country it happens to come. More to the point, Washington needs people who think like national politicians and not like spokesmen for the local business executives who fill their reelection coffers and the local party hacks who plan their campaigns. Let’s be frank: The “bailout” bill was passed last week not because members of Congress decided it would work but because it was stuffed with the pork, perks and tax breaks without which no piece of legislation, however important to the nation as a whole, can now pass. Maybe it’s unfair to call that “small-town” thinking, but it sure is small-minded. And small-mindedness, not snobbery, is the dominant mind-set of 21st-century Washington.

I wish I could write like that.

probonogeek Politics


October 2nd, 2008

While I wait for the Vice Presidential Debacle–I mean, Debate–to start, I figured I’d drop a quick post about Marked-to-Market, for those trying to make heads or tails of the bailout business up on the Hill this week. Let me start by saying I have not made up my mind about the bailout, and one of the big advantages about not being being a member of Congress is that I’m not required to. I once heard a Congressional Chief of Staff observe that Congress people are paid to have incredibly well informed opinions. And it’s true, with a staff of at least six people and all the time in the world to think about issues, I should expect their opinions to be infinitely more informed than my own… not that this makes them right.

Anyway, as everyone knows, the House Republicans killed the bailout bill on Monday saying that government intervention into the market is (a) always bad and (b) unneeded. I don’t buy (a), and that certainly makes me wonder about (b), but they seemed so darn certain… and seeing as how these are the people that Wall Street Fat Cats got elected for their “pro-growth” policies and thus should be first in line to give money to their corporate overlords, I wanted to know more about (b) before I dismissed it out of hand.

Members of the Republican Study Committee argue there are a set of non-interventionist options available to unfreeze the currently frozen credit markets. Besides ever popular policies like more tax cuts, their chief proposal is to abolish the Securities Exchange Commission’s Marked-to-Market rule. Here’s the rule in jist form:

When reporting assets, as all publicly traded companies do, assets must be valued at what they would fetch on the open market

Which is to say, if I have 10 head of cattle which I could sell today for $1000, then I report $1000 worth of cattle as my assets. It also means that even if I believe the cattle will be worth $10,000 in two months time, I cannot state that today… because it’s not the current fair market value.

The RSC argues that the Marked-to-Market policy is what has frozen the credit markets because there are no buyers, of any kind, for the toxic securities backed by foreclosed mortgages that started this mess. As a result, financial institutions holding these assets must report them as being worth ZERO dollars. Which, if you think about it, is absurd. Even if the mortgages are in foreclosure, there is a house underneath all that paperwork that is worth something. It may not be worth what it was originally sold for, but it’s sure worth more than zero. However, because the SEC requires assets be marked to the current market value, and no one is buying the securities, that’s exactly how it is valued.

So, the RSC has a point… maybe if we eliminated the Marked-to-Market rule, the banks could post healthier looking balance sheets, with higher capitalization, and things could start getting better. It just might work… but lest we forget, there was a reason the Marked-to-Market rule exists at all. If estimating the value of something based on some potential future sounds familiar, that’s good–means you are paying attention–because that is what Enron did. They valued their various energy trading deals based on a projected value of assets that didn’t exist. As a result, Enron looked great on paper, but in reality, it had nothing.

The question then for our well informed Congress people is this… how do you allow holders of these toxic securities to estimate their true value while avoiding Enron type behavior?

probonogeek Politics