Friday, December 31, 2010

Fix the filibuster

If there's a debate in the Senate and there's nobody talking, is there any noise? The US Senate has a long tradition of allowing unlimited debate but over time this tradition has been perverted: in today's Senate, Senators can filibuster without ever debating. And it's being increasingly abused: there have been more filibusters in the last 4 years than between 1920 and 1980.

The worst abuse of the filibuster is the "secret hold" where one Senator can secretly block the Senate from doing its business. This has been used to block legislation as well as presidential nominations from being considered. It has no place in a democratic society: if a Senator objects to a bill or a nomination but wants to remain anonymous, tough. They were elected to represent the people of their state and the people have a right to know what they're doing.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) is on the right track. The Senate should adopt rules that preserve the right of Senators to debate legislation and curb the abuse with two simple steps:
  • Ban secret holds.
  • Require actual debate.
Of course the details here matter, because if anyone is good at finding and exploiting loopholes, it's politicians. So I hope the Senate keeps it simple. Honest, constructive debate — yes; obstructionism — no.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Enduring Joe Barton

Texas Rep. Joe Barton (@RepJoeBarton) would like to be chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee. To promote himself, he prepared a presentation to the Republican leadership highlighting his credentials, including:

  • "Led Republican resistance to ObamaCare in Committee."
  • "Forced markup in Committee to take more than 17 days to complete."
  • "Forced the Democrats to endure a 4-day markup, with 300 prepared amendments and 47 offered amendments."

In other words, he stood in the way of healthcare reform, period. He didn't work to make it better. He didn't work to find middle ground. He didn't work to help Americans. And he's proud of it.

Rachel Maddow (@Maddow) and the Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) have more to say on Joe Barton and George Patton.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Don't ask, don't kill

The United Nations currently specifically condemns "extrajudicial" executions due to sexual orientation. Now, a UN committee has replaced the words “any discriminatory reason, including sexual orientation” with the words “discriminatory reasons on any basis” and it looks likely that this will be approved by the UN General Assembly.

The pretext for this change is that "there was no justification to highlight" sexual orientation (Benin) and selectivity accommodating "certain interests over others had to be avoided by the international community" (Morocco).

Perhaps there are sincere beliefs that there's no need to specifically highlight sexual orientation. For example, it is a reasonable argument that having a list of specific discrimination has "the danger of leaving some groups out" (St. Lucia). But the fact is that homosexuality is illegal in more than 70 countries including St. Lucia and Morocco, which is more than the 68 countries that have signed the UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity. So the sincerity of those arguments is dubious. And gays will remain the targets of violence around the world.

Which brings us to the the US "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Last June, President Obama extended federal benefits to same-sex partners, which he was able to do because he didn't need Congress to go along. And Congress has balked and stalled at taking action on don't ask, don't tell, despite many of our representatives having promised to do so.

But ... if you read the actual law, you'll see that we don't need Congress to go along to end don't ask, don't tell. They've already given the administration that authority:

"Nothing ... shall be construed to require that a member of the armed forces be processed for separation from the armed forces when a determination is made in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Defense that ... separation of the member would not be in the best interest of the armed forces." 10 USC 654(e) 

Given the ongoing combat operations that the US armed forces are involved in, all we need is a simple declaration by the Secretary of Defense that in times of war it is not in the best interest of the armed forces to discharge service members that want to serve, regardless of their sexual orientation.

And given the direction the United Nations is heading, a strong statement from this administration supporting gay rights would be welcome.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Just Vote No

(Updated with election results.)

I'm voting no on most initiatives this year. I've decided that the burden of proof is on the side of the initiative proponents and if they don't convince me, I'm voting no. The really sad thing about many of these initiatives is the large amount of money being spent on both sides misleading voters.

Here's the lineup in Washington:

NO on I-1098. I think income taxes are more progressive than sales taxes. I'd enthusastically vote for an initiative that abolished the sales tax and business and occupancy tax and replaced both with personal and corporate income taxes based on the federal income tax with very limited differences. But I-1098 makes our tax system more complicated not better. (Result: Failed)

NO on I-1100 and I-1105. Both of these initiatives privatize liquor sales in Washington. But they do this at an annual cost of $100 million. I'd support a revenue-neutral conversion to private liquor sales, not a giveaway to business. When a government uses eminent domain to take private property, it has to pay fair market value. Conversely, when government transfers property to private use, it should receive fair market value. You only need to look at the amount of money contributed by the proponents of these two initiatives to realize that they expect to make a lot of money from the private liquor business. (Result: Both failed)

NO on I-1082. The current workers compensation insurance system isn't broken and this initiative would transfer it to private business at a cost of $50 million per year. As with the privatizing the liquor business, we shouldn't be spending taxpayer money to enrich private insurance companies. And privatization needs guarantees that ensure that every worker and every business will be insured. (Result: Failed)

NO on I-1053. This requires that "legislative actions raising taxes must be approved by two-thirds legislative majorities or receive voter approval." We've seen the gridlock in the other Washington caused by a 60% supermajority on everything in the Senate. We don't need that here. (Result: Passed)

NO on I-1107. I support the sales tax exemption on food because it reduces the regressive nature of the tax as everyone needs to buy food. But restaurant food is not exempt and eliminating the exemption for candy and bottled water is reasonably along the same lines. Of course, if we replaced the sales tax with an income tax, this would be moot. The proponents of this have spent a lot of money misleading people about the law. They imply that the sales tax on candy also applies to granola and chili which is just not true. The truth is that this law closes a loophole that allows granola and chili manufacturers to claim the tax exemption that were intended for fruit and vegetable processors and meat packers. They also say the legislature picked a crazy definition of what's a candy bar, although that definition is from the Multistate Tax Compact(Result: Passed)

I am voting yes on one:

YES on Resolution 4220. I realize this is a knee-jerk reaction to a particular tragic case, but this is a rare case of getting the referendum right. This allows the courts to deny bail to dangerous individuals, subject to limits determined by the legislature. Hard to believe a referendum/initiative that gives power to the courts and the legislature rather than taking them away. (Result: Not surprisingly, passed overwhelmingly)

The results match my position with the exception of the anti-tax initiatives.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Today, we are all Chileans

Another little math problem: thirty-three miners trapped in a mine in Chile. Thirty-three men are ferried to the surface through a specially built rescue capsule. How many men remain in the mine? (Answer)

Some people view the rescue as a miracle. To me, the miracle is the human kind and the kind that can restore our faith in humanity. After 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde famously wrote "Nous sommes tous Américains" ("We are all Americans"). In that same spirit, today people are writing "We are all Chileans."

Here's part of the human miracle: the rescue started with a rescuer, Manuel González, going down into the mine. All the miners have been rescued, but González and five other rescuers, Roberto Ríos, Patricio Robledo, Jorge Bustamante, Patricio Sepúlveda and Pedro Martinez, also went down into the mine and, as I write this, are waiting their turn to come back out. Scientists say that altruism is in our genes, but still it's amazing and reassuring to see it.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Security update for Bing toolbar?

Windows Update is offering an important "Update for Microsoft Silverlight (KB2416427)" and says it "improves security, reliability, accessibility support, startup performance, etc." There's a helpful link to find out more information which takes you to the cited KB2416427 article.

But the article merely says "This update fixes an incompatibility issue between Microsoft Silverlight 4 GDR 1 (4.0.50826.0) and earlier versions of the Bing Toolbar." I didn't even know there was a Bing Toolbar.

But, really, don't the people at Microsoft talk to each other? Is the KB article just woefully inadequate or is Windows Update lying? Either alternative still undermines confidence in Microsoft security updates.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The way of testing

Even if you're not a software developer, you know what a software bug is. If you've ever wondered why those bugs made it into the finished product, here's a blog post that can tell you how they could have avoided them. And if you are a software developer, then here's some good advice.

Testivus, Testability and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Somewhat ironically, the blog post was originally published with the title Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hide, which proves that editing of blog posts is as important as testing of code.

While overall, I think this has some good advice, I strongly disagree with one part: The maxim "Think of the code and test as one" is a path to disaster. This leads to people doing things like sharing code between production code and test code and writing the same bugs into the tests that the production code has. Yes, tests themselves can have bugs.

Here's some advice that I think is better:

Think of code and test as two sides of a coin

You can't have a coin with just one side.
When writing the code, think of the test.
When writing the test, think of the code.

A coin with two heads is designed to cheat.
Don't copy from the code to the test.
Don't copy from the test to the code.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New controls in Google Talk

Check out the Google "Talkabout" blog for info about the new controls in Google Talk!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bowl Playoff Championship Series

Apropos of today's BCS "championship" game, check out my guest post on (UPDATE: PlayoffPac is now offline and I've reproduced the original post below the break):
Imagine that you were given the task of designing a tournament for more than 100 teams. The tournament should provide each team with a dozen or more competitive games and ultimately produce a champion by pitting the best two teams against each other. The obvious choice is a pool-play tournament followed by a championship bracket. If only we could do this for college football.
The full proposal is at

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