Sunday, November 19, 2006

A bit of support for my hypothesis

A few weeks ago I posted about the unintended consequences of increased energy efficiency - namely, that increased efficiency (or low cost cheap power or fuels), while it would decrease consumption for a given task, would actually lead to greatly increased energy consumption overall.

I made a not-so-rigorous argument in a not-too-coherent manner, but I've just read a book (The Bottomless Well - The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy by Huber and Mills) that spends much of its pages making precisely the same point with much more data and rational than my mere conjecture contained.

I don't quite agree with all of its assertions. For example, it correctly points out that waste is necessary, that you cannot have perfect efficiency in, well, anything. According to the laws of thermodynamics, this is absolutely correct (and is also why only 2-15%, depending on how you measure, of the raw energy available in a gallon of gasoline actually gets converted into forward motion for a car). But because this inefficiency is unavoidable and a key side effect of extracting work from energy, they claim that waste is therefore "virtuous." That's a stretch to me - just because it is vital doesn't mean you want any more of it than you absolutely have to have.

But most of these disputes are quibbles; I thought that overall the book was quite enlightening in describing the history of human energy consumption, the importance of energy to our economy, and the importance of using energy to extract and refine energy itself, all using compelling data to make some rather counterintuitive points.

Happy non-denominational winter solstice event

Last week there was a funny segment on The Daily Show where Jon Stewart pokes fun at the whole "war on Christmas" thing. I think his satire here is spot-on; the whole "war on Christmas" (obviously a sub-battle of the whole "war on religion") is a farce by people who confuse defensive pushback with offensive attacks.

Let me start small with the Christmas angle. There was a big debate last year certainly (and in other years) about various stores trying to "banish" Christmas by having their employees say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Many people felt that this was political correctness run amock, or else saw larger anti-religion overtones in this, and thus felt not only offended by the use of the term "happy holidays" but also that the minority was again ("again" is a funny word to use here, since it presupposes prior legitimate examples) running roughshod over a majority.

But I think this point of view is erroneous for several reasons:
  • I have yet to hear a tale of someone taking offense or filing a lawsuit or a formal complaint or whatever because somebody else wished them Merry Christmas. (Heck, I'm Jewish and I have no problem with it, and I wish people Merry Christmas myself at this time of year.). Yet many people were proposing boycotts of stores for using Happy Holidays. This makes the notion of the minority oppressing the majority tenuous at best.
  • The stores that said Happy Holidays inevitably were filled with red and green inside; there was absolutely no evidence of Christmas being ignored or banished. (And I might argue that that such materialism alone, not the greeting used by the employee, is a far bigger and truer "banishment" of Christmas.) Best Buy this year provides a recent example of this.
  • If you are a shopkeeper know that many of your customers are Jewish or Muslim or whatever, why wouldn't you want to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible?
  • It's a free country, last I looked. Nobody is forcing anybody to say Happy Holidays, so why can't they choose to say what they want?

And at the same time, lots of folks say Merry Christmas. That's fine too. (Other than the fact that Christmas is a holiday that seems to last for a month and a half of the year. But I digress.) While we're on the subject: it's a Christmas tree, not a holiday bush or any other euphamism. The tradition of decorating a tree this time of year is essentially exclusive to Christmas, no harm in calling it that.

So how or why the Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas debate ever became an issue escapes me; it seems to me that it's only an issue, frankly, if you're a religious Christian who can't bear the acknowledgment that there are quite a few non-Christians in the country. Fortunately, most Christians know and behave better.

But there's the larger issue of the "war on religion" that I hear about a lot from my conservative friends who decry the lack of school prayer, or the display of religious symbols in public, or attempts to remove "under God" from the pledge of allegience.

This is an issue where perspective is everything, I think. Take organized prayer in school, as the most glaring example. From the perspective of a religious person, banning organized prayer may seem like outright hostility (rather than neutrality) towards religion. But to a non-religious person - or someone from other religions - such prayer clearly crosses the line to imposition of religion, or at the least a demand that government somehow endorse a religion in particular or religion in general. Yet the defensive pushback to that imposition is viewed as an offensive attack on religion.

School prayer may be the most effective tool in highlighting this, but I think all of the other "hostility to religion" issues fall into the same basic model.

As a side note, the whole notion of not displaying religion in public I think also reflects a subtle but critical distinction in meanings of the word public. "Public" displays by private individuals or groups has always been and (fortunately) continues to be perfectly acceptible. But "Public" can also mean "owned or operated by the public", i.e., government, and this is where neutrality towards religion must be enforced.

I believe in the first amendment. And I have no problem acknowledging that the founding fathers were all Christians, some of strong faith. But that doesn't change the fact that the country that they founded was quite deliberately set up to be a secular government in which religious people could thrive; the first amendment makes that abundently clear to me. And it's worked quite well to keep government out of anything religious.

Religion belongs in the home and in the heart, not in the government. For a perfect example of why, just look at almost any country in the Muslim world that has embraced Islam as a basis for its government. I say that not to slam Islam, but most off the governments that explicitly embrace religion are Islamic and collectively these governments and societies provide ample evidence that government and religion are not a compelling mix.

I have absolutely no problem with PDR (Public Displays of Religion). I have absolutely no problem with religious people of any faith practicing, embracing their religion, or letting it guide them. I have no problem with politicians being guided by their faith - quite the contrary, I think that's quite healthy. But there is a huge difference between being guided by faith and demanding that your government get out of the way of your practice of it, and demanding that government embrace your religion.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Jury duty and the presumption of innocence

I had the pleasure of serving on a jury a few weeks ago. As part of the jury selection process is something called voir dire where the lawyers try to suss out any points of view that the prospective juror might have that might make it hard for them to be fair.

In this particular trial, the defense's strategy more or less boiled down to trying to establish reasonable doubt (something they failed to do, as it happened) and thus the presumption of that the client is innocent played a large part in the defense's voir dire questioning.

To this end, at one point, the defense lawyer asked a prospective juror "is my client guilty?" The prospective juror gave the correct answer that no, because the case had not yet been proved (heck, it hadn't even begun). More specifically, the defendent is in fact innocent at this point because a guilty verdict has not yet been rendered, and he is not guilty prior to that point. This is, I suppose, what presumption of innocence is about.

But I would have answered this particular question differently. I would have said "most likely." I might have even added "I hope." Because while the defendent most certainly is entitled to the benefit of the doubt as to his guilt or innocence, the very fact that he sits in the defendent's chair is a result of some degree of vetting by the police and prosecutor and perhaps a grand jury as well. They believe they have a good case, or they wouldn't try the case.

In other words, a presumption of innocence very different from a likelihood of innocence, and the lawyer's question was ambiguous about which question (presumption or likelihood) he was asking about.

And it should be so. I'd certainly hope that a high percentage (80-90%?) of cases that make it to trial ultimately result in a guilty verdict. Much less than that and the prosecution is being indiscriminate about who it chooses to try, wasting a lot of time and money on anybody vaguely suspected of the crime. Much more than that and they're either not trying hard enough or the jury system itself isn't working. And ultimately the role of the jury can be viewed as keeping the prosecution honest (i.e., making sure they do the right thing and prove the cases) and making sure that none of the minority of cases where they put the wrong person on trial (or put them on trial for the wrong thing) gets through.

Does this view conflict with the objective role required of a juror? I don't think so, with one big condition: the fact that a defendent is very likely to be guilty must not be treated as a reason to think that the defendent is in fact guilty. Otherwise, you have circular logic creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby defendents are found guilty because they are likely to be guilty. It is for this reason that I believe jurors should ask themselves not only should they ask themselves if the case was proved, but also if this could possibly the exception case where the prosecution got it wrong.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Gay Marriage

I guess that now that the Dems have control of congress, this will be a big topic over the next two years. This is another one of those debates where I think a lot of people talk right past each other and miss the key points.

I think the biggest casualty in the debate is a subtle but critical point, which is this: marriage is a twofold institution. There is the social/religious/traditional side of it, and there is the legal side of it (inheritance rights, for example). The former is the domain of society, the latter the domain of government. The "protection of marriage" folks seem to focus exclusively on the former, while the pro-gay-marriage folks blur the two and want both the legal and the social recognition.

The New Jersey supreme court recently ruled on the issue, finding that the social side of this was a political question, but that the legal side of it was pretty clear. While this may seem like a "split the baby" decision that punted on the hard issue, I think that it was actually entirely the correct decision.

With the usual disclaimer that I'm no lawyer, I don't see how they could have ruled any other way. The 14th amendment to the US constitution says that no state shall make a law that would "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". In other words, a rule must apply to everyone or nobody, it cannot be selective. So if the rule is that anyone can enter into a lifetime contract with a single other person and get a set of benefits as a result of doing so, then that's OK - you can make that contract with anyone who is legally capable of entering into such a contract. This amendment appears (to me at least) to make it illegal to say that if you are white you can only marry another white person, for example, since that is not providing equal protection.

There are of course exceptions that do not violate the 14th amendment. 3 come to mind:
  • You cannot marry more than one person. But the "one other person" rule applies to everyone equally.
  • You cannot marry a minor. But marriage is a contract, and you can't have contracts for illegal behavior (e.g., you cannot have a legal contract to kill someone). Two strikes here: minors cannot legally enter into these sorts of contracts, and sexual relations with a minor are illegal, so this isn't an equal protection issue so much as a "legal contract" issue.
  • You cannot marry a close blood relative. Again, since those relationships are illegal anyhow, the marriage contract would be illegal.
Homosexual relationships were once illegal, and if they still were, then I think there would be a strong analogy with incest and underrage marriage. (Frankly, I think this is one reason that in our 230 year history as a nation, this issue has only come up relatively recently.) However, gay relationships are no longer illegal, so the analogy with illegal contracts evaporates. So I can no longer match up gay marriage with any of the exceptions above. And I can find no fundamental principle that separates gay marriage from interracial marriage, frankly. Interracial marriage bans are anathema, and if there is no principle to distinguish gay marriage, then I am forced to conclude that gay marriage bans - at least from the legal perspective - must also be anathema.

In other words, it seems to me that the decriminalization of homosexual relationships coupled with the 14th amendment has as a natural and direct consequence a requirement to offer gays the same legal benefits/protections/responsibilities that straight couples enjoy with marriage, whether you call it marriage or not.

The NJ supreme court probably used different reasoning (I'm assuming it was actually based on the law, rather than my arguments above), but seem to have come to essentially the same conclusion. They don't care what it's called, as long as the legal rights - i.e., what government actually has a role in - are provided equally.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."

--From Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The other side of the equation, of course, is not the legal side, it is the cultural/social side. If you provide equal rights, do you call it marriage or civil unions or something else. I think this is a silly debate. It's just a name, and Juliet was right. Have a referendum, pass a law, run a campaign - this is just a decision to make, but it doesn't really matter in the end.

There are other arguments against gay marriage that have been made including:
  • Procreation: gays cannot (naturally) conceive children. If this argument were at all valid, then you would also prohibit sterile people from marrying, people that don't want to have kids (or use birth control), or elderly people from getting married. Lame argument, doesn't wash.
  • Differing state laws: what happens when Massachusetts legalizes gay marriage and other states don't (or are forced to do so due to the full-faith-and-credit clause). Again, I think this argument is weak since the states already have to deal with differing rules on legal age to get married or closeness of relatives.

A lot of folks are very threatened by the notion of gays calling their union "marriage." Frankly, I simply don't get how this can possibly be a "threat" to marriage. I'm a happily married straight man, and I don't see how a gay couple that I don't know getting married possibly impacts my marriage. I can't imagine a single straight man now saying "I was going to propose to my girlfriend, but now that gays also have marriage, what's the point." This simply doesn't weaken marriage.

So despite being somewhat nuanced, I think that the NJ supreme court actually got it right.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Be careful what you ask for

Well, it appears that the democrats have made significant gains in the elections yesterday (as I write this, the senate is still too close to call). Congratulations are in order, I suppose. However, for most of the past 12 years, the party has been their own worst enemies. And if they're not careful, they will continue to be so.

In particular, Democrats risk interpreting yesterday's vote as an endorsement of them rather than a repudiation of Republicans. I think doing so would be a huge mistake. While the Republicans (for once) were the source of their undoing, the Democrats largely won because they weren't Republicans, not because they had any great ideas of their own.

Pop quiz: while we all agree that Bush has done a terrible job of conducting the war in Iraq, what serious proposal have the Democrats had for doing it better? Yes, congressional oversight and getting Rumsfeld out (looks like the latter just came true) help, but gosh, those are the conditions for a strategy to succeed (which admittedly have been lacking), not an actual strategy itself.

I also worry that the Democrats will waste a lot of time on vindictive investigations rather than productive policymaking. The Democrats have been out of power for a while now, they may forget that it's very easy to complain about the folks with power, much more difficult to actually govern.

I predict that if they step up to their new responsibilities, govern in a unifying manner, avoid the vindictive investigations and focus on positive steps for a successful resolution to Iraq, they will do very well in 2008 and have a decent chance of capturing the white house (unless they nominate another dud like Kerry).

However, I suspect that the more likely scenario is that they will revert to their default behavior, have no credible policy alternatives of their own, and when 2008 comes around the Republicans will have a field day saying "we told you so" and will run roughshod over the Dems.

It will indeed be interesting to see how it turns out.