Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Low energy II

From the same page of the New York Times as the Enron trial:

Exxon Mobil sets a profit record, with $36 billion. Hmmm... oil refineries destroyed by hurricaine Katrina, an ongoing war in Iraq, and oil company profits are going up? Enron executives on trial for manipulating energy prices? There seems to be some sort of connection, but somehow it keeps eluding me...

I love the sub-headling to the story about the $36 billion dollar profits:


How exactly does one "play down" $36 billion in profits? With fonts: $36 billion? Or adjectives: "a mere $36 billion"?


Low energy

Remember Enron?

The criminal trial of top Enron executives, former Chairman Kenneth Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling, began yesterday in Houston. They're being charged with several counts of fraud and conspiracy for their wild run in what turned out to be a sham money-losing company that fraudulently booked profits for several years, making Wall Street look very stupid and ruining lives of thousands of employees who lost their retirement savings. Oh, yeah, and Lay and Skilling sold their own stock just before Enron's collapse to the tune of $500 million.

I just watched The Smartest Guys in the Room, a feature-length documentary on the Enron collapse. While I was disappointed insofar as the film didn't help me understand the intricacies of how Enron's business worked and what the fraud was, the film did a good job of putting across atmospherics of the case.

Three things are clear to me, having seen the film:

1. The Enron collapse, and the hundreds of millions of dollars made in essentially a stock swindle by Enron executives while its company was losing money, is the corporate crime of the century.

2. Enron basically "raped" (the word used by a commentator in the film) California. (See here and here, for background.) In 2001, Enron traders made manipulative trades of power resources to move electric power out of California, and they pressured power companies to shut down plants on phony excuses. The resulting artificial power shortage caused the price of energy to skyrocket, at which point Enron traders sold the power back into the state of California at huge profits. (The one time the company actually made money.) In the film, you get to hear these Enron traders with Texas accents joking about stealing $1 million a day from customers like "Grandma Millie" and saying charming things like:
"Just cut 'em off. They're so f----d. They should just bring back f-----g horses and carriages, f-----g lamps, f-----g kerosene lamps."

3. Enron and Ken Lay were thick as theives with both George H.W. and George "w" Bush. Both as governor and as the boy President, younger Bush received huge campaign contributions from Ken Lay and pushed Enron's agenda to deregulate the power markets so they could do things like manipulate energy prices in California.

If 9/11 hadn't basically pushed all domestic news and policy issues to the back burner, I think Enron would have been more of a continuously powerful story that would have seriously tarnished the Bush administration. Just another way in which the Bush presidency has perversely benefitted from the fact that our country was victimized by a terrorist attack early in his term of office.

Monday, January 30, 2006


Chicago scenes: use of blues


Jetsons Towers from the House of Blues.



My favorite clock.


Blog of the Week

Is Blog of the Week back?

I've known several Canadians living in the U.S., and my impression has always been that they were not particularly into the expatriate thing, talking a lot about Canada and how much they missed it, or just showing how much they were staying in touch with current events. They invariably would seem to pass for Americans, and I'd only be reminded of their Canadianism when every few years I'd have this conversation:

Oscar: Who did you vote for for President/senator/governor,
Canadian: I can't vote here. I'm Canadian!

This week's Blog of the Week, Apples Over America, is written by a Canadian expat living in Massachusetts, but is full of expatriate consciousness. It's full of Canadian current events and perhaps some nostalgia for "he old country." (Can Canada ever be properly referred to as "the old country"?) But more importantly, Apples is very funny in a weird way, weird in a good way, extremely sardonic, and well worth a visit.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Our Lake: powder skating


Our Lake, less than two blocks from our house, offers many disappointments. Polluted by lawn runoff and a nearby power plant, the lake is no longer safe for swimming. In the summer, it is crowded with weeds and green scummy algae blooms.

Yet it fights bravely on, finding ways to display its beauty. Every winter, it seems to give us something different. A couple of years, when it froze solid before the first snow, it became a vast, glassy skating rink on which you could skate for over a mile from one shore to the other. Little trapped snow bubbles in the ice gave the effect of a black-and-white lava lamp.

Years when lots of snow has fallen as the lake was freezing, we could get an open plain for cross country skiing, with houses and trees so far off you could pretend you were trekking across the Russian step in Doctor Zhivago.

This year it froze without snow, and then last weekend a soft blanket of three inches fell on it. You could brush the snow aside with your foot.



A homemade skating rink on Our Lake. Above, my stick and shoes; below, my friends.


Winter has been mostly disappointingly warm this year, but for one glorious day, I had the experience of ice skating through fresh powder. I'll never forget that.



Saturday, January 28, 2006


The Oscar paradox

You've heard of "the French paradox" -- the magical way in which the French can eat metric buttloads of cheese, gallons of cream sauces, cartloads of jiggling bulbs of fat (foie gras), rich pastries and other exceedingly rich and yummy foods without getting obese and having arteries and cholesterol levels that look like they've ordered everything off the "heart healthy" menu.

Explanations include the suggestion that properties of olive oil and red wine, which the French consume in significant quantities, somehow break down these fats.

juices_concordgrapejuice_displayMy just-released cholesterol numbers were "great!" in the words of my doctor, and I promptly celebrated by making myself a fried-egg-with-cheese-bacon-and-ham sandwich.

I'm not saying that I eat like Homer Simpson, but perhaps you're asking "what's his secret"? Current knowledge on the subject says that there is a triad of factors -- heredity, exercise and diet. Maybe I have good cholesterol genes and that dominates the other factors. Or maybe it's hockey.

But maybe -- just maybe -- it's my version of the French paradox. I don't like red wine that much -- it gives me a headache, and I'm such a lightweight that I start getting a buzz after one glass. But, I thought, maybe it's the red grape tannins, and maybe you can get that from Concord grape juice. I drink 12 to 16 ounces of Concord grape juice every day. Not medicinally -- I just love the stuff, and don't get tired of it for some reason.

If you decide to experiment with the Oscar paradox, may I suggest: don't get the sweetened stuff. Grape juice is naturally very sweet. Stay away from the corn syrup!

Friday, January 27, 2006


Existential Friday: lessons

How many of you, like me, whined your way out of piano lessons as a 7-year old only to get all regretful as a grownup about how neat it would be to know how to play the piano?

Feel free to substitute lessons in any sort of skill for "piano" in the above question. The key point is that one of the primary ways that "youth is wasted on the young" is kids' resistance to acquiring skills that might give them joy or satisfaction as adults.

What could be more paradoxical? Kids are ideally situated for lessons, having not only the time, but also the forming, growing brain that allows them to soak up skills training. Yet don't they resist lessons, fail to practice? Aren't they constitutionally, developmentally unable to comprehend the trade-off of present wants and feelings for the promise of long-term beneifts?

And when the lessons seem to stick, how often is it that kids decide, as they reach their teens or 20s and gain autonomy and become able to distinguish their own desires from their parents' desires for them, that they really don't like doing that thing any more-- playing soccer or violin or whatever -- and let it drop?

Then there's the other piece of the paradox: now that I'm older, and I know what I like, and I have the discipline to practice, my ability to learn and soak up skills and knowledge is all stiff and shrunken compared to the supple and expansive learning capability of kids. What the f*ck!

Here's what I would do for lessons if I could:

1. Sports: ice hockey, hitting a baseball
2. Languages: French, Spanish, German and modern Hebrew. Oh, heck, and Yiddish.
3. Music: electric guitar and voice.
4. Hobbies: sailing, photography, desktop publishing and graphic design, web design, drawing, ballroom dancing
5. Work related: cool classroom technology
6. Other: self defense, screenwriting

And here's the kicker: Part of me believes that I can still take lessons and gain proficiency in many or most of these things. Oh, yeah, and I also "plan" to write a novel.

I have a very flexible job, good health and no kids. And yet if I can make serious inroads toward basic proficiency in even one or two of those things, I'd be doing pretty well. You can say that the desire to learn new skills, and the optimism to believe that you can do that, is proof that you're still alive. On the other hand, doesn't Buddha say that desire is the source of all unhappiness?

Are you taking lessons, or planning to? In what? If you have kids, do you channel your own desire to learn into lessons for your kids? How bittersweet is that? At the risk of saying "Harry Potter," I have to say that my theory about why so many adults like Harry Potter is because it resonates with that unfulfilled desire for lessons. Skills are a sort of wizardry, aren't they?

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Client makeover

High profile criminal lawyers supposedly coach their clients on their appearance, to help them win the battle in the "court of public opinion" and then, eventually, in the actual court.

Who the hell is representing Jack Abramoff?

"Black is the new black," says Jack Abramoff, pictured here
sporting his new line of "Thug Who Bribes Public Officials" outerwear.

Have you ever seen a defendant who was better dressed for the role of "guilty as charged"? Was this getup a requirement of his plea deal? If not, then counselor, for God's sake, get that man a beige overcoat, lose the fedora, and get him in front of the cameras so the media can make a new file photo!


Return to TV

I may have mentioned that, after more than a year without TV reception (cancelled cable service, and nothing through the old antenna), my household re-subscribed to cable service so that I could watch my favorite football team, the Redskins, lose their playoff game in agonizing fashion.

But now, of course, having a couple of hundred cable channels is itself an inexorable magnet to sit in front of the TV and surf through one menu guide screen after another in a neverending quest to find something decent to watch. Even for just a half hour -- just something decent.

And, of course, I'm once again astonished at the marvel of TV programming -- a couple of hundred channels, and not one thing I'm the list bit interested in watching.

There literally have been times when the best available program was "Classic Bowling" on ESPN Classic. This is a re-broadcast of a 1970s series called "Pro Bowlers Tour," something I used to watch as a kid. It's just pro bowlers in a sequence of four head-to-head games. And since they're pro bowlers, virtually everything they throw is a strike. It was boring then, but at least it was more or less live.

Yes, I realize there are good things on TV. But the notion that, at 9:30 on a weeknight, the best thing could well be "Classic Bowling" -- it's an incredible achievement, really.

Or is my astonishment the most astonishing thing here?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Traffic analysis

Comments are down, hits are up... what's that about?

In my never-ending quest to be popular, but not unreasonably popular, I wonder why there seems to be a dropoff in comments on this blog. Is it my new comment policy, in which I politely ask anonymous commenters to use a consistent handle or moniker? That doesn't seem too much to ask, nor was it ever intended to discourage comments from people who don't want to use their real names.

Or is it that I enabled the "word verification" feature? I suppose that could be annoying enough to discourage some comments. I have to say, I'm not wedded to it, ever since "Wendy" pointed out that comment spam may be more likely to come from live persons incentivized to post their spam-links than from "spam bots." I could be persuaded to disable that feature again...

In other news, the traffic to this blog has increased from about 150 to 200 hits per weekday, and 100 to 150 per weekend day. But I don't let this go to my head, because it seems like that difference in traffic is made up almost entirely by Google and other search engine searches, primarily image searches. Perhaps I've posted a critical mass of photos that creates that effect.

Looking at my "entry pages" on Sitemeter reveals that only about half my traffic, give or take, comes from direct hits to my home blog page or to recently linked posts. 10-15% of my traffic at any given time is attributable to my posts Big Butt TV, which probably picks up a lot of porn searchers, and "Do I look fat?" The latter, which is my most popular post of all time, is like a substantial investment that keeps throwing off dividends.

If you're reading this, you're probably not a porn, image or relationship advice searcher. Good for you. Except that now that the words "porn" and "big butt" appear in this post, maybe you are.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Dinosaur bones

Ford's elimination of 14 factories and 30,000, as reported in today's NYT, is bad news. Auto industry jobs have for decades been the archetype of secure, unionized manufacturing jobs whose salary and benefits could keep working-class households within the American middle class.

Yet the problem of a sustainable blue-collar middle class in this country is much larger than the auto industry, and it's hard to feel sympathy for the industry side of the American auto industry. First of all, it seems that, since the 1970s, they have relentlessly pursued one short term strategy after another while careening inexorably toward long term extinction. The recent return to marketing gas-guzzling beast SUVs is a prime example.

More puzzling to me is the automakers' fatal embrace with the oil companies, the other great 20th century dinosaur of capitalism, which is the only way to explain their massive resistance to developing fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly vehicles. It's not like they're owned by the same holding companies...

What was the most powerful industry was in 19th century America? The one that had the largest impact on the way the country grew and on the lives of ordinary people? The one that employed the largest workforce? The one that caused the most injuries and was involved in the most litigation? The one that had the most political clout?

Yup, it was the railroads. And look at them now.

In the 20th century, the railroads were eclipsed by the oil-automotive complex. In the 20th century, what was good for General Motors was good for the country; but in the 19th, what was good for the Union Pacific Railroad Co. was good for the country.

I think you get the point -- industries die, people suffer, the country moves on. It's that "creative destruction" of the capitalist system. I have a hard time imagining that the automotive and oil companies will still occupy their dominant positions in economic life 100 years from now.

I have to say, one thing that bothers me about the "creative destruction" concept is the way it so easily morphs into the myth of progress: "creative destruction is good; one set of corporate institutions is replaced by a newer, better one once it has outlived its usefulness." Creative destruction leads to different institutions, but better ones? Or even good ones?

Have the automotive and oil industries been good for the country? It's hard for me to say. Having a car is handy. I believe that winning World War II was close to an absolute good, and that was won on the strength of United States industrial power, which was built primarily on the internal combustion engine. On the other hand, we've got greenhouse gases and an economy that depends on unending suburban sprawl which, too, was built on the automobile. Ever since the oil-and-auto industry helped us win WWII, we've been fighting wars for them.

The first war was metaphorical. The oil-and-auto industries didn't drive railroads into obscurity because cars and trucks were a "better" product or more efficient, but because, unlike railroads, they got the roads for their vehicles for free: massive public subsidies were pumped into road-building after World War II, in something close to a conscious effort to transform the U.S. into a car-based suburban society.Capitalism is like that. Industries reach and maintain dominance, not by playing "free market" better than their competitors, but by playing political power better.

But there have been real wars too. Nations have always fought wars to promote their leading industries. One of the reasons the Iraq war is so stupid is that the oil-and-auto industry is so 20th century. If the Middle East had no oil, our government would be about as interested in that region as it now is in Africa. In 50 years, look for our wars to be fought on behalf of Microsoft and the pharmaceutical industry -- probably in third world countries that give sanctuary to intellectual property "pirates."

Monday, January 23, 2006


The morning after the snow: bikes

It snowed this past weekend. People make a big harrumph about clearing snow off their cars.


But what about their bikes? Are these going to get taken out for a spin any time soon?





Sunday, January 22, 2006


Our Lake

Yesterday around dusk, we heard squawking overhead.


Flight after flight of Canadian Geese swooped overhead, veering downward, in the direction of Our Lake.


We ran the block and a half from our house to Our Lake, and saw them landing on a large, glassy patch -- perhaps a mix of open water and wet, thin ice.

DSCN6747 DSCN6752

DSCN6753 DSCN6757

More flights kept landing.



The weather has been wishy washy, getting up over freezing enough to make us nervous about going on the lakes. But that's the function of the ice fishermen, or, here, just a group of kids (making a fire!) -- they're like the canary in the mine, letting us know it's safe, more or less.


A neighbor cleared away some snow, probably with a snow-blower, to make a small skating rink.


B checked it out.


Saturday, January 21, 2006


Dating your spouse

Much ink has been spilled on advice about how to keep long-term relationships fresh, often featuring "dating" tips. Wear sexy clothes, wrap yourself in plastic wrap, goop each other up with massage oils. Light candles, make quality time to stare into each other's eyes with the kids stashed away at grandma's house.

I don't have advice about this. My sense is that most of this stuff doesn't work that well. B and I, for example, have tried meeting each other at a bar and pretending we just met, but I found it too difficult to stay in role. It seems to me that the hot, chocolatey endorphin-rush of dating and falling for a new person is difficult-to-impossible to recreate in a long term relationship, and that couples substitute for that by setting up shared experiences that are inherently stimulating or exciting, like travel, hiking, theatre-going, or the high-tension world of competitive bridge.

Yet every now and then something just works. Last night we had a fabulous date. Generically speaking, it was dinner and dancing. But that doesn't really do it justice.

First of all, we did dancing before dinner. I find it much better to dance on an empty stomach, and I don't understand how anyone can do it the other way around.

And it was ballroom dancing -- mostly foxtrot to Glen Miller. We had something of a breakthrough in the boy-has-to-"lead" thing, which I've always found to be the most challenging aspect of ballroom dancing. We were so in synch that we deftly glided around a dance floor that was shaped like this:


The fact is that we were dancing at home, and had to navigate around furniture and walls.

This may sound weird, but I think I discovered the sexy in Glen Miller's big band sound. There's this throbbing beat, and then those trombones come in with their languid "whaah, whaah, w-o-w-w." Hot stuff!

Then we went to dinner. B likes walking places, and we walked a mile in the snow to (and from) the restaurant. A mile in the snow! Kind of a cross between a sophisticated urban setting and a country barn dance from a hundred years ago.

The restaurant was the Unbelievably Good French Place. Small plates of one delicacy after another. The home-made, thinly sliced deli meats looked like dark little communion wafers that allowed you to commune with the food gods as they dissolved on your tongue. And the foie gras -- which I can only describe visually as a jiggling bulb of fat -- seemed to have the capacity to transport you into another dimension of time and space, even as it quietly assaulted your arteries.

I said to B: "This is food is so good that -- if we had it in France, we'd say, 'isn't it great that we came to France so we could get food like this?' "

Okay, so I'd had some wine, but we were in the zone. The 20 minute walk back through the snow seemed like no time at all.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Existential Friday: break's over

I don't want to become one of those law professors who complains about how hard I work. Law professors have little cause for complaint in terms of work-life quality.

But I have to say that this recent Onion headline really resonated with me:
Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results
I do this every winter and summer break. I plan to straighten out my life. I come up with a reasonable to do list to get right on as soon as classes end:
1. Grade papers and exams.

2. Write a law review article.

3. Catch up on the last few months of Supreme Court decisions.

4. Plan my courses for next semester. I mean really plan the hell out of them. To the point where the course is brilliantly innovative and so carefully choreographed that I can walk in the classroom and it will teach itself.

5. Clean office. I mean really clean the hell out of it. To the point where every piece of paper in a file drawer and every book on the shelf is in a logical, easy-to-find place and, more importantly, has a good reason for being in my office at all.

6. Clean the home office. I mean really clean it -- like the office at school.

7. Read a book a week for pleasure.

8. Make a good start on learning a new foreign language.

9. Learn electric guitar.

10. Travel somewhere exciting.

11. Reconnect in person with most friends and family members who live in other places, so this means travel, not phone calls or emails.

12. Catch up on blogging and blog reading.
Well, since classes started this week, I can report on my accomplishments vis-a-vis this list:

#1: check!

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Floral crime scene

B has taken to growing flower bulbs in cereal bowls inside our house. I can't say I didn't warn her.

The flowers started out cute and pretty, and all.


But then things got out of control. We came home one evening to find this scene.


With the doors and windows locked, no sign of forced entry, and no pets in the house, the evidence pointed to a single suspect.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Update: Just in case you thought this was for real

... or just in case you thought bankruptcy experts lacked a good sense of humor

Maybe you didn't find it so funny, but my satirical post about a "bankruptcy gag rule" was linked by a subscription web-based clipping service called Daily Bankruptcy News, "The Source for Business Bankruptcy Information on the Internet." They put it under their "bankruptcy reform" category:
Bush Administration, Credit Card Lobby Push Bankruptcy Gag Rule (satire)
Good thing they knew I was kidding. Actually, wouldn't it have been so much cooler if they didn't?


To the tune of "Dead skunk in the middle of the road"

Icicles on a corrugated roof!




"I think I'll just go hang myself"

I watched the first 20 minutes of the 3-hour Lincoln biography Monday night on the History channel. According to B it had received some accolades by pre-screening TV critics. Though when I pressed her as we were turning off the show in bored distaste, she could only say, "It was reviewed in the Times!"

U.S. history is such a well-trodden path for academics and historical non-fiction writers, that the quest for something new to say tends to create fads in historical interpretation. For example, a current fad in "founding fathers" history-writing is to bash the revisionist historians who had made a fad of bashing earlier historians (and the founders themselves) for being insufficiently progressive on race and gender issues.

The Lincoln biography was basically a showcase for some current fad in Lincoln historiography, one emphasizing Lincoln's lifelong struggle with serious depression. One after another, talking-head history-writers -- many identified with lines like "author of Lincoln: the Melancholy President" -- got onscreen and talked about how miserable Lincoln was.

What lousy history! In its own way, this portrait of Lincoln was as one dimensional as the hagiographic ones that imply that Lincoln had no personality. Only it's far less interesting, because the historical context, the trajectory of Lincoln's life, the outline of his achievements in the face of this depression, were presented with maddening sketchiness. It might have been titled, "Lincoln: The Morbidly Depressed Man (Who, As It Happens, Led the Country Through It's Greatest Crisis)."

Even as a pyschological profile it sucked. The deepest insight was that "someone who's mother dies when he's a child is likely to suffer from depression unless his surviving parent is particularly loving. Lincoln's father wasn't." At times, some of the historians seemed almost stupid. Rather than listen to some droning congressional speech, Lincoln said "I'd rather go hang myself." This was presented as evidence of Lincoln's "frequent suicidal ideation."

If you want some insight into Abraham Lincoln the mortal human being, I strongly recommend Richard Slotkin's brilliant novel, Abe: a novel of the young Lincoln.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Bush Administration, Credit Card Lobby Push Bankruptcy Gag Rule

WASHINGTON -- The Bush Administration has endorsed the banking industry's latest attempt to scale back bankruptcy protection for debtors by trying to eliminate use of the "B- word" -- bankruptcy -- in financial counseling sessions.

Patterned after the abortion "gag rule," which denies U.S. funding to overseas family planning clinics that advise clients about abortion, the bankruptcy gag rule would impose stiff monetary penalties on credit and financial counselors who advise debtor clients about the option of filing for personal bankruptcy.

"People should pay back what they owe," said Ronald Stillborn, a banking industry spokesman. "But letting people know about bankruptcy procedure sends a wrong message that we condone bankruptcy filings."

Bankruptcy laws were formerly viewed as a humanitarian "last resort" to enable individuals to get a fresh start rather than trying to survive under crushing debt. But the banking industry, whose profits have skyrocketed due to the explosion of credit card debt in the U.S., have succeeded in making it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy.

Under a recent bankruptcy restriction that went into effect last October, debtors were required to obtain "credit counseling" before they would be permitted to file for personal bankruptcy. But early experience under the rule showed that credit counseling was not having its intended effect of deterring bankruptcy filings and steering debtors into voluntary debt-management plans.

"With the gag rule, our hope is that debtors will eschew bankruptcy because they don't know about it," says Stillborn. Banking industry leaders see the gag rule as a viable stop-gap measure until they can convince Congress to re-establish workhouses and debtors' prison.

Cap doff: Tom Bozzo


Pseudonymity versus anonymity: my new comment policy

Inspired by Nina, Phantom Scribbler and Paper Napkin, and uninspired by the "e-nnoyance" law, I hereby announce my new comment policy.

Henceforth, please do not comment anonymously. I respect your right to withhold your true identity, but if that is your goal, please comment pseudonymously.

In discussions of blogs and, more recently, the "e-nnoyance" law, I find a surprisingly common tendency to confuse these different concepts. "Anonymous" means withholding any and all names of the author; "pseudonymous" means providing a fictional name -- a "handle" to you email/ chatroom/ blog types.

So rather than posting as "anonymous," please use a pseudonym or "handle" if not your real name, and use the same pseudonym or handle each time you comment. This is really for the enjoyment of me and other readers -- consistent use of a pseudonym allows us to associate a personality with the comment. It's just nicer and more fun.

But there is a quid pro quo. I resolve from now on to be more interactive with you commenters -- comments on comments!



How many of you noticed the following irony?

Last week was "National Delurking Week" in the blogosphere, meaning that "lurkers" -- people who read blogs without posting comments -- were encouraged to come out and post comments.

Just the week before, on Thursday, January 5, "w" the Boy President signed the "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005" into law. This law contains an extremely overbroad "e-nnoyance" provision, making it a crime to annoy someone over the internet without disclosing your true identity:
Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Clearly, the intent of the law is to prevent cyberstalking, but it's written so broadly and vaguely as to make any annoying utterance over the internet illegal if it's anonymous or pseudonymous. So, for instance, if President Bush were annoyed by my reference to him as "the boy President," ....

Sure, you can say that the law is plainly unconstitutional as applied to most anonymous or pseudonymous comments, and that the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed the First Amendment right to engage in anonymous or pseudonymous satire, but still -- who wants to have to raise the constitutional defense to a criminal prosecution by some overzealous prosecutor?

Makes you think about that Alito guy, doesn't it?

Monday, January 16, 2006


Spam bots

Do you get many "spam bots" in your blog comments? I seem to get one every couple of weeks, usually in older posts -- where they're piling up, slowly but surely.

This one, which turned up in my December 29, 2005 post, struck me as kind of funny:
I read over your blog, and i found it inquisitive, you may find My Blog interesting. My blog is just about my day to day life, as a park ranger. So please Click Here To Read My Blog
"Inquisitive"?! I am strangely drawn to that use of that word. Inquiring minds want to know!

And what about the horrible chat-room grammar? Is that supposed to pass for folksy charm on the information superhighway?

Anyway, this is why I've decided to take corrective measures. It sounds like a command from the captain's chair of a starship in a sci-fi satire: "Mr. Sulu, activate word verification!"


Blog traffic query

What's a better way to troll for blog traffic: posting a picture of cute dogs?

Or a picture of a little boy in a snow suit?

snow suit1

snow suit2

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Angry, pregnant and chagrined lawyer

I'm glad to have the company of Angry Pregnant Lawyer in my deep disappointment over the Redskins' playoff loss.

I may have disappointed APL further by throwing cold water on her celebration of the new Maryland law
that required companies with more than 10,000 employees (in other words, Wal-Mart) to spend 8 percent of the company's payroll on health care benefits or give that money over to the state's health care program for the poor.
What a great law! Unfortunately, it strikes me that there's a good chance it will be ruled null and void in light of ERISA (the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974), the increasingly outdated employee-benefits law whose main effect may be to prevent states like Maryland from trying innovative solutions to eroding health care and pension protections.

How many of you have stopped reading? "ERISA preemption" is one of those subjects that makes lawyers' and law students' eyes glaze over. If there were a top ten list (what is that game show where contestants have to guess the top ten things based on an audience poll -- is it Family Feud??) for eye-glazing legal subjects the, top four would be:

1. Bankruptcy
2. Federal Income Taxation
4. Trusts and Estates


Getting ready for the Spring Semester

or, the secret lives of law professors

I'm not one for making an effort to "put myself together" on weekends. Today, for instance, I'm sporting a 3-days' growth of beard and wearing a thermal undershirt under a V-neck sweater. More importantly, the thermal undershirt is the same one I wore yesterday and then slept in last night.

But as contradictory as it may seem, this morning I put gel in my hair. It's a brand I picked up at the organic grocery co-op, and I haven't tried it before.

The thing is, spring semester classes begin Tuesday. Getting the syllabus together is all well and good, but I need to learn the ways of this new hair gel before my first class of the semester.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Football -- right in my own living room

B and I signed up for cable TV after more than a year without it. It's not like we never plopped ourselves in front of the television set -- just that we watched DVDs. But we did not have access to cable or network programming.

All this came to a screeching halt this Thursday with the arrival of the cable guy.

Why did I capitulate? Because the Washington Redskins are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and only the second time since they won the Super Bowl after the 1991 season.

Last Saturday, as the Redskins eked out a win over Tampa Bay, I watch from my neighborhood bar. I was quite lucky, actually, that the bar was nearly empty, and I was able to plop myself right in front of the big screen TV.

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I put away two beers, two baskets of pub chips and a bratwurst -- no so much because I really wanted these things, but so that I would feel some entitlement to occupy the table for three and a half hours.


Frankly, I pined for the comfort of watching in my own living room. Control of the sound environment, a more judicious selection of snacks, the opportunity to cuddle under a blanket, being able to multi-task, or go to the bathroom without worrying about my stuff getting stolen.

The fact that I'll have all this for this afternoon's Redskins-Seahawks game strikes me as pure luxury. It's funny how by the simple expedient of depriving yourself of something most people take for granted, you can turn it into a special treat.

UPDATE: The Redskins lose 20-10 to the Seahawks. It's one of those games where it seems like my team is never in it, yet they could and perhaps should even win -- the sports fan's equivalent of a slow, agonizing death. But at least I had good snacks!

Left to right: artisan sourdough rye, cable remote, tall glass of organic concord grape juice, cheese and sausage plate with glass of muffaletta, yukon gold organic salt-'n'-vinegar chips, Sports Illustrated.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Existential Friday: infidelity

Don't tell my old favorite coffee house, Grandma Moses, but I'm having an illicit affair with Coffee Trader. The new place is young, hip, sleek. It has cold brewed iced coffee, regular and decaf (Grandma Moses drops its decaf iced coffee in the cold weather). It has attractive new furniture, in contrast to Grandma's comfy-but-ratty second-hand stuff.

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It has sexy architecture, both interior and exterior, including a cozy balcony section. It has free wifi. It has real baked goods, as opposed to Grandma's inedible vegan bakery. It even has an ATM.


Coffee Trader is like the trophy wife of coffee places. It's way too young and attractive for me, but I'm infatuated with it. I want it. But not enough to marry it. I'm too attached to Grandma Moses.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Divine retribution

What would Pat Robertson say about my week?

We took our Christmas tree down today. It was a really nice-looking tree, all cute and friendly. You know how adventure novels where the hero has to sleep out in the woods will sometimes refer to a "soft bed of pine needles"? Well, that is not this tree. This tree was a porcupine. A cactus. The needles were needles. They poked through clothes and gloves, and really hurt.

Pat Robertson would say that this is divine retribution for my putting a Christmas tree in my home without accepting Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal savior.

And what about my haircut on Tuesday -- which turned out so bad that I wore a knit cap all day yesterday, even though that's not my style and it got really hot when I was meeting my friend for coffee?

Pat Robertson would call it divine retribution for thinking bad thoughts during the haircut -- bad thoughts about Judge Alito, who only wants to save all those unborn babies from being killed.


From the mailbag: the Alito confirmation process

Am I violating some blogging law by moving a comment thread from the comments into an actual post? Well, here goes.
[Question] Are you really a lawyer? Pardon the sarcasm, but do you really think Sen. Teddy's usual array of straw men could offer a primer on anything, other than being a demonstration of the Senator's excessive love for Chivas Regal?

I'm 46, and within my lifetime the "politics" of supreme Court nominees didn't matter. Only qualifications did. The idea that this has always been a "political" process is laughable.

What lefties, again and again, do is act as if fairly new practices are long-standing traditions; sometimes even people who are law profs do this.

[Answer] Are you really 46? You seem so much younger.

Name me one Supreme Court nomination process that was not political. Let's go back to your early years (1968-69): Warren Burger? He was one of the least qualified justices in the last 75 years, but Nixon knew he would make good on Nixon's "law and order" campaign promise. How about Lyndon Johnson's nomination of the highly liberal and super-qualified Associate Justice Abe Fortas to become Chief? The Republicans blocked the nomination with a filibuster. They went on and threatened to impeach him (and, after Fortas resigned, the liberal Justice Douglas), with Republican floor leader Gerald Ford saying that "high crimes and misdemeanors" (impeachable offenses) are "whatever Congress says they are."

How about Roosevelt's court-packing plan? Didn't the "politics" of the Justices matter then? How about the pro-slavery "politics" of justices between, say the1830s and the 1860s -- do you think Presidents and the Senate didn't think about that?

The only occasions when Supreme Court nominations don't seem "political" is when the nominees are too middle of the road to bother -- but then, the politics occurred behind the scenes, when the President was selecting the nominee precisely to avoid a political battle. Gee whiz, you can even pick that up from The West Wing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


This morning's clash of good and evil

Okay, so maybe I get a bit grandiose and too "in my head" when I play hockey. The Wednesday a.m. scrimmage is getting somewhat out of hand. There are no hockey moms playing, and even the younger kick-ass women skaters have mostly drifted away, to the point where it has become very playground. And I mean "playground" in the pejorative sense: a bunch of guys (only three women) one-upping each other and acting like the lesser players (e.g., me) aren't even there.

Example: Moe sees me wide open for a pass, looks around, passes in the other direction, where -- instant karma -- it is picked off by an opponent.

Example: racing for a loose puck, Jack skates up from behind and attempts to skate through me. I get tripped and slide on my backside into the boards.

But the worst of it is that these guys are very, very good players. I'd like to be that good, but for the last few weeks it seems as if they're pulling away from me rather than me catching up.

My finest moment today came as Jack and I both swatted at a loose puck that had dribbled in between us. It was one of those plays where whoever gets more force on his stick will win the momentary battle for the puck. Our sticks came together in a mighty crash, mingled with the sound of wood shattering. A blade from one of the sticks had snapped off!

I looked at my stick -- intact! -- and at Jack's jagged stump. He had to pick up his blade and skate off the ice to get another stick. Vengeance!

It was like an Arthurian legend -- a ringing clash of swords, one shatters, it was the bad guy's! We have to take our little triumphs where we can find them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The Alito hearings

I don’t have TV reception, and I hadn’t made any provision to watch any of the Alito confirmation hearings. But I caught some of it today while waiting for a haircut – a real throwback to the days when barbershops were hangouts for talking community gossip and public affairs.

Two haircuts' worth of the hearings – one for the patron I had to wait behind, and mine – was about enough. First, I saw Senator Kennedy’s segment: There was very little question-asking, and the test for Alito seemed to be whether he could keep a composed face while the liberal Senator pontificated. As a short primer for viewers about how a really conservative justice could screw up the law pretty badly given the constitutional issues in the news these days, it wasn’t a total loss as public affairs viewing.

I can’t say the same thing about Senator Grassley’s litany of softball questions, which was more “constitutional law for dummies.” He gave Alito one chance after another to say things like, “No Senator, I agree that the constitution does not give judges the power to rule the entire nation by themselves.” Alito dully parroted judicial-nominee slogans -- like “judges don’t make law, legislatures make law” -- that are so oversimplified as to distort matters. But the hearings are not a job interview – they’re just a chance for the candidate to avoid imploding publicly.

Alito is not imploding at the hearings, so the real question is whether the Democrats can mount filibuster purely on the basis that this nominee would push the Court too far to the right. Whether he will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade or not – and it’s really impossible to predict that with any certainty – I think it’s clear that he’s more of a conservative hard-liner than O’Connor and so will push the Court to the right.

Alito is clearly well qualified, but that’s not the point. If qualifications were all that mattered, then the constitution would perhaps have provide for Senate “advice” only. But the constitution requires Senate “consent,” and that means the appointment process is supposed to be political. Bush has played this game the same way he has played everything else in his presidency: as though the Democratic opposition did not exist. If the Democrats can prove they exist with a filibuster, that would be great – and well justified.

You might hear some liberals lament that my argument would also justify a minority Republican Senate blocking a very liberal nominee if the Democrats someday controlled the White House and the Senate. Giving up that fantasy strikes me as a small and reasonable price to pay for blocking a judicial nominee who would uphold, among other things, the President’s power to create secret military courts to try people with illegally obtained wiretap evidence.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Belated travel blogging -- North country


I spent the week between Xmas and New Year in the upper midwest. Here is a medly post from that trip, not in chronological order.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

We drove to our lakeside vacation condo in a snowstorm. The tough driving was reward with beautiful snowscapes.


I would like to say that with our footfalls muffled by the thick white, B and I found ourselves in a contemplative world of snow-softened sound.


Yeah, right. We happened to be staying in the self-proclaimed "snowmobile capital of the world." The snowmobilers whiz by in random swarms, belching blue smoke. The last snow-mobile engine cuts off around 2 a.m. each night.

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They look like huge mechanical cockroaches. I'd like to squash them.


Mall World

Is it just us, or should Minnesota's state motto be "the land of 10,000 malls"? I'm a guy who goes to an indoor shopping mall maybe once every six months. In our first two days in the state, we somehow hit two shopping malls. And it wasn't even to shop -- one was for a bathroom break and coffee; the other was for lunch. It just seems that, in suburban Minnesota, that's where you go.

I suppose the same point could be made about suburban anywhere. But as the home of Mall of America, the world's most visited shopping mall, Minnesota is certainly a national leader.

I really liked the twin cities. St. Paul has some beautiful old neighborhoods, and Minneaopolis has a cool downtown: an attractive mix of interesting new architecture and cool early 20th century commercial and industrial buildings. But there is a strange absence of street-level business in the downtown. Where are the coffee shops, the lunch counters, the small retail storefronts?


Why, they're all on the second floor in the Skyway. To deal with the cold winter months, they moved all that indoors, and blocks and blocks of buildings are connected by second-story skyways crossing the street.


You can walk for miles through Minneapolis's retail and commercial district without going outside. The overall effect, of course, is a great... indoor shopping mall.

Regional differences

New Years Eve day, at the grocery store. I buy a pecan Danish Kringle for Sunday morning. And for Saturday night -- New Year's Eve -- the shopping list includes pickled herring, a traditional New Year's Eve delicacy in this region. I manage to buy the last jar on the shelf. Where else does an American grocery store run out of pickled herring, ever?


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