Dec 31, 2009

2009, and the Year to Come

The New Year has always seemed a bit anticlimactic to me. At midnight, everything is pretty much the same as it was before: my job hasn't changed, the weather hasn't changed, my foibles haven't changed. The move from Dec. 31-Jan. 1 is little different than the change from Jan. 31-Feb. 1, Feb. 28 (9th...ooooh)-March 1, etc. However, I think it's a great idea to 'start anew' every once in a while, and Jan. 1 seems as good a time to me as any. This, in the public mind, marks the end of the 00's (actually, 2011 is the end, but whatever). When they began, I was an eighth grader, having just survived an epic battle with E-coli that (I learned later) almost killed me. Y2K was the big worry of the hour. I remember standing in my aunt and uncle's kitchen, watching the ball drop, and thinking "In 2010, I'm going to be 23 years old!"

Well, here I am, and here we are. 10 years older, two presidents (and two wars) later, hair growing on my face, high school and college degrees received, employment attained. Seems strange that 2000 feels like it was so recent. I guess that's what my grandpa is referring to when he discusses how sometimes he feels like he should still be in the 1940's.

Your 20's are supposed to be quite a time in your life. I suppose mine will be, too (though I have a three-year head start already). I welcome 2010 and the next ten years with anticipation. So, tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we pave hell with our resolutions (as Mark Twain so gently put it). Today, however, I leave you with this, courtesy of John Derbyshire:

Someone wants to know if there is anything interesting to say about the number 2010.

Nothing occurs immediately. 2010 has no entry in David Wells's indispensable Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers. Nor could I find a reference in Conway & Guy on a quick leaf-through.

It's a rounder-than-usual number, having sixteen factors, the usual number of factors for numbers of that size being about 4. (Note: the "usual" number of factors of a number in the region of n is (log n)log 2 — natural logs, please — which for n = 2010 comes to 4.081. See Hardy & Wright, The Theory of Numbers, §22.13.)

The OEIS turns up 154 entries for 2010, but none of them really made me jump out of my chair. It's nice that 2010 is the 16th 21-gonal number, and the 35th coefficient of the 6th-order mock theta function ρ(q), and the number of trees of diameter 7 (huh?), and belongs to the happy band of numbers which are the products of distinct substrings of themselves (2010 = 201 × 10, see?). I'm even willing to give a nod of appreciation to the fact that 20103 / 3 is the average of a pair of twin primes. On the whole, though, one is left contemplating the great universal truth that something has to happen, and that there is no number so benighted that there isn't something mildly noteworthy to say about it. (This latter fact can be proved rigorously.) We are all special!

Dec 26, 2009

Merry Post-Christmas!

Well, as was to be expected, I spent the last few days making merry with my family. Chicago/Indiana had a melting Christmas morning, though by afternoon snow was falling again, and it continues to do so, giving us a white Boxing Day.

Of particular note in the Sauerman household this yule was my father's first viewing of one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and my first viewing of Meet John Doe. Also, it was the first Christmas with a baby of someone from my generation--my cousin's six-week-old son, Nicholas.

What follows are a few thoughts on Christmas that I hadn't had time to push out before (which is a shame, given my family's obsession with the holiday).

A) Christmastime in Washington, DC is very neat

From my trip to the capital for work, I was able to see the National Christmas Tree and the Capitol and White House decked out for the holidays. I wasn't able to make it down to Mt. Vernon for their yearly yuletide clambake. It's the only time of year that you can visit the third floor of the building. That would've been neat to see. Anyway, I love Washington and I love Christmas, so the two together us almost too much for me to handle.

B) A Christmas Carol is worth reading, even if you hate Charles Dickens

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Enough said.

C) The Swedes really like Donald Duck, or Kalle Anka

Read this article and be amazed. I never knew the Swedes loved Disney. I think that it makes me like the Swedes even more.

D) Christmas is an excellent time for reflection

Unlike Love Actually's assertion that Christmas is the time you tell people what you really think about them, it is a great time to reflect on many things. No contemplation of the season can begin without thoughts on the meaning of the central Christian mystery: God entering the physical world as a child. Many gallons of ink have been spilled trying to understand that mystery, and I won't add my two cents to that here, but it is comforting to do what we did on Christmas Eve and remember the prophecies of the Advent, the birth itself, and the taking of the Eucharist. God didn't enter time and space simply to exist, but to die and to defeat death. It's worth remembering at this time, that while we commemorate the beginning, we celebrate the end of the story.

So, here's hoping you and yours had a Christmas Day full of happiness and merriment and that the upcoming year will be as refreshing as it is new.

Dec 22, 2009

The Oldest Christmas Carol Ever

The oldest known film version of Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol was made in 1901. The British Film Institute has the roughly five minutes of film that remain, including Bob Cratchit letting a customer out of Scrooge's office, followed by the ghosts of Christmas past and present. Here it is:

Dec 18, 2009

Best Disney Songs?

Over at Unreality, they've published a list of what they believe to be the 10 best Disney songs of all time. Though the list is pretty good, I would have to differ on a few.

Theirs is:

  1. Can You Feel the Love Tonight (The Lion King)
  2. A Whole New World (Aladdin)
  3. Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and the Beast)
  4. Kiss the Girl (The Little Mermaid)
  5. Circle of Life (The Lion King)
  6. Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid)
  7. You'll Be in My Heart (Tarzan)
  8. Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas)
  9. You've Got a Friend in Me (Toy Story)
  10. I Won't Say I'm in Love (Hercules)

OK--pretty good list (though I wouldn't count any Pixar songs, especially before they were actually bought out by Disney), though terribly biased towards the "Disney renaissance". There are some classic Disney songs being left out here, including:

Cruella DeVille (101 Dalmatians)

I Wanna Be Like You (The Jungle Book)

Best of Friends (The Fox and the Hound)

Why Should I Worry? (Oliver and Company)

Baby Mine (Dumbo; quite possibly the saddest Disney song ever)

Bella Notte (Lady and the Tramp)

Cinderella (Cinderella)

When You Wish Upon a Star (Pinocchio)

Whistle While You Work (Snow White)

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. There are so many other classic songs ("I've Got No Strings", "Heigh-Ho", "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes", "The Bare Necessities", "Robin Hood and Little John"...I could go on and on). There are also a few in the Disney renaissance that were left out, most notably "Go the Distance" from Hercules, "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast, and "I'll Make a Man Out of You" from Mulan.

I love Disney songs. Trying to come up with a list of the top ten ever would be near impossible. I'll stick with my 100 or so best ever.

Dec 14, 2009

Breaking: Journalist Mad at U.S. System for Working the Way It Was Designed to Work

In the Guardian today, a guy named Michael Tomasky has written an article about why Americans shouldn’t blame President Obama for the morass of a healthcare debate that has been going on for the last three weeks in the Senate, but instead should blame the ‘broken political system’.

Now, I’m only going to mention in passing the idiocy of the premise that if an American president (who, no less, until last January was a member of the Senate, so should presumably know how it works) can’t get a bill through Congress that it isn’t the fault of his inept leadership or the substance of the bill, but is instead ‘the process’. That’s too obvious.

No, instead, I’m going to pass that and go straight for the other reasons that Mr. Tomasky’s argument is illogical and ill-considered. It should be expected that someone writing to the British audience of the Guardian would have the ability to explain how, exactly, the American system is different than the U.K. Parliament. Parliaments are expedient, combining the legislative and executive branches into the office of the Prime Minister. If the PM can get a majority in the House of Commons, then he has a law. The U.S. doesn’t quite work the same way. There are four hurdles to pass in America: (i) the House of Representatives, (ii) the Senate, (iii) the final, post-conference bill in the House and Senate, and (iv) the President. Mr. Tomasky seems, on a cursory glance, to get that. He mentions that “the system has always ensured that the minority party has certain rights and that the executive branch cannot just muscle through Congress any old thing that it wants. Our founders wanted a system that moved slowly.” He thinks that now it’s at a standstill, and that’s the fault of the system. Perhaps he wasn’t around for George W. Bush managing to pass No Child Left Behind or the PATRIOT Act or Medicare Part D or the Iraq War Resolution or TARP. Perhaps he wasn’t around for Obama’s $787 Stimulus. It seems to me like Congress is doing a fine job of passing laws--just not the healthcare bill that he wants so badly.

However, let’s ignore his ignorance and take him at his level.

First, he goes on about the filibuster. Yes, it’s true-the filibuster was rarely used throughout most of our history, saved only for high-profile bills. In recent days, it is put forward all the time, making it impossible to get any substantive bill through the Senate without 60 votes. He tries to blame this on an intransigent Republican minority. However, the last time I counted, Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate, making any Republican opposition utterly meaningless. Even with every single Republican voting against a measure, Democrats should be able to get it through. If they can’t, that’s not a failure of the rules of the Senate; that’s a failure of the Democratic party. I’ll bet his tune would change if there were 51 votes for a bill destroying Social Security. Maybe then, he’d view the filibuster as the gift of the democracy gods, preserving the precious rights of the minority. That’s the problem with arguments against the filibuster; nine times out of ten, they simply come from people whining about the difficulty passing their pet bills. The hypocrisy is astounding. Of course, it’s unfair to indict Mr. Tomasky for something he didn’t say, but I’m sure if I went through the annals of his articles, I’d find nothing arguing against the Democrats’ use of the filibuster on Bush’s judicial nominees.

Moving on, Mr. Tomasky, does admit that “Obama’s problems are not limited to Republicans, of course.” He then bemoans the difficulty of getting the last few votes before 60 and how it is possible for a few Senators to “dictate terms in exchange for their votes.” Isn’t that what’s always been the case in both houses for all bills? Senators (and Representatives, for that matter) vote for a bill for two reasons. Those on the fence-especially in the case of this healthcare bill-are dictating their terms because they want to get reelected (Lincoln, D-AR; Landrieu, D-LA), they disagree with substantive portions of the bill (Lieberman, I-CT; Snowe, R-ME), or both (Nelson, D-NE). “But why won’t they just give it up and vote for a bill that they think is bad and that will cost them their seats?” Mr. Tomasky foolishly implies. Is the answer really that hard to understand?

Finally, he makes a huff about “the nature of the GOP opposition.” There are only ten real moderates in the GOP, he asserts. Now, even if we assume that Michael Tomasky’s definition of ‘moderate’ truly is moderate (which it most certainly is not), it’s a moot point once again. There are over 218 Democrats in the House, meaning that Democrats can pass anything they please without any Republicans. I repeat, Democrats also have 60 votes in the Senate, making them able to pass anything with nary a conservative vote. Any hardships President Obama’s bill is suffering stem fundamentally from his own party not being able to get itself in order. To claim that the American system is ‘broken’ because of that is just plain wrong.

Oh, and maybe congressmen are also against it because the public hates it. Imagine the United States Congress actually listening to the people! If we're not careful, some people might start to think that we live in a democracy...

Dec 8, 2009

The Supreme Court

WARNING: Long post on the law.

So, sometimes a job like mine can have its benefits. Yesterday, I was able to fly to Washington, DC in order to hear today's oral argument at the Supreme Court for two cases, Black v. U.S. and Weyhrauch v. U.S. Both involve 18 U.S.C. 1346--known popularly as "honest services fraud." First, a quick summary of them both.

Black v. U.S.

Conrad Black, former CEO of Hollinger Corp. (owner at one point of over 1,000 newspapers), was charged by the government for depriving Hollinger of his 'honest services' for allegedly hiding personal profit through non-competition agreements during the sale of newspapers. Black continues to contend that (a) no economic harm was suffered by Hollinger and (b) his transactions were a legal way to lower his personal taxes. His argument is that 'honest services' is too vague a standard and much also have as an element a contemplated economic harm to the victim.

Weyhrauch v. U.S.

Bruce Weyhrauch was an Alaska state legislator. When he had decided to not run for reelection again, he began discussions with Bill Allen, CEO of VECO Corp., about a potential job. However, there was still a tax bill directly affecting VECO before the legislature. Though no incriminating statements came to light and there was no state law requiring disclosure of his conflict-of-interest, the government indicted Weyhrauch. He contends that without a state law requirement to disclose, 'honest services' simply becomes a common law crime for the courts to create. This violates the common federal principle that all crimes be clear and unambiguous so that no defendants can engage in illegal activity without the reasonable ability to understand what they did and why it broke the law.

Argument Synopsis

Entering the Court through the ticketed door (on the north side, basement), we were led through a side entrance to the courtroom. At 10 a.m., about 40 minutes after we had sat down, the clerk called out the famous "Oyez, oyez, oyez!" and the justices entered from behind the massive, velvet curtains. Chief Justice Roberts called out Black v. U.S., and Miguel Estrada, the counsel of record (who, incidentally, had been nominated by George W. Bush for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals but was held up because he was too conservative for Democrats in Congress) stepped forward. He was able to get reasonably far into his economic harm argument before the justices began peppering him with questions. Then it began.

Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor seemed, at the outset, most leery of the economic harm principle, while Justices Roberts and Kennedy seemed to be asking him to flush it out a bit, though it was difficult to tell whether they support or oppose the provision. It was pretty uneventful--Estrada stumbled a few times (especially when Justice Kennedy asked him why there was no 'harmless error' in the appellate court's ruling), but he covered that in the remainder of his time, three minutes of which he saved for the end of the argument (though at one point, Justice Scalia did ask him whether he was presenting the issue of constitutionality, which he answered in the affirmative, beginning a snowball that only grew, as you'll see).

When he had sat down, Michael Dreeben from the Solicitor General's office stepped forward. Immediately, he was inundated with questions. It seemed the entire Court (except for the always silent Justice Thomas and a surprisingly quiet Justice Stevens) was arrayed pretty well against the government. Justice Breyer asked if the government felt it could charge a lazy worker who told his boss that he was doing work when he was in actuality reading racing forms with fraud, punishable by up to twenty years. Out of 150 million workers in the United States, he noted, probably 140 million would be committing federal crimes unawares. That was ridiculous, countered Dreeben--because that lacks materiality (that is, even though he lied, it didn't change the actions of the victim--the company). Justice Sotomayor then asked how it would change if it were someone who was supposed to be working (on a big account or something; she didn't specify), but instead chose to ditch work and go to a ball game. In that case, it was a material. Dreeben said that the government would never actually pursue a case like that. Justice Breyer would have none of it; it doesn't matter whether the Justice Department would actually pursue a case. What matters is that the crime itself might be unconstitutional.

That leads me into the other big issue the Court was dealing with. While both Black and Weyhrauch seek a method of interpreting honest services fraud so that the statute remains extant but less vague, the justices seemed prepared to declare the whole thing unconstitutionally vague right now. A problem in scheduling, however, means that the other honest services case, Skilling v. U.S., has neither been briefed (the initial briefs are due this Friday) nor argued (probably in late March). That case may deal with the overall constitutionality of honest services fraud. Justice Sotomayor, however, wanted to talk about that issue now, to which Mr. Dreeben continuously (and correctly) demurred.

The Weyhrauch argument was effectively a continuation of the Black argument. Mr. Dreeben was up again, but a new counsel of record (I don't have his name in front of me) was, too. Again, the justices seemed unconvinced of the ability of the courts to meld some focus out of the 'mess'.

Overall, it was incredibly interesting, though hard to follow at some points. The transcripts have been released (see here and here).

My bets? I'm guessing the votes come in as so (and these may change with the Skilling argument):

Roberts, C.J.: overturn as unconstitutional
Stevens, J.: keep as constitutional
Scalia, J.: overturn as unconstitutional
Kennedy, J.: severely limit
Thomas, J.: overturn as unconstitutional
Ginsburg, J.: severely limit
Breyer, J.: overturn as unconstitutional
Alito, J.: overturn as unconstitutional
Sotomayor, J.: overturn as unconstitutional

Now, some of these are just educated guesses. Neither Roberts nor Alito gave away their hands too much. However, they seemed to ask more questions and have more issues with both the remedies presented by the petitioners and the statute being upheld in the way the government wants it. Stevens wrote the dissent for McNally v. United States, saying that 'intangible rights' such as honest services were definitely constitutional, even without the current statute (1346 was enacted as a response to the Court's decision in McNally). Kennedy seems reticent to ever overturn anything, though he may come out against it, since he had a lot of issues with the fuzzy line of applicability. Sotomayor explicitly said that she didn't know how to apply it, Breyer came up with five or six hypotheticals of people who would be guilty of fraud under the statute but obviously shouldn't be, and Ginsburg didn't really seem to like any of the remedies posited. That leaves Scalia and Thomas. Scalia hates honest services fraud and has made that abundantly clear. His new goal seems to be to have it purged from the tomes of the law. Thomas usually agrees with Scalia, and a textualist (like me) hates this kind of law, which begs courts to create standards from vague legislative language, effectively creating law.

So--that's where I was today. What were you up to?


And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker's they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own; and basking in luxurious thoughts of sage-and-onion, these young Cratchits danced about the table, and exalted Master Peter Cratchit to the skies, while he (not proud, although his collars nearly choked him) blew the fire, until the slow potatoes bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled.

"What has ever got your precious father then.'' said Mrs Cratchit. "And your brother, Tiny Tim! And Martha warn't as late last Christmas Day by half-an-hour!''

"Here's Martha, mother!'' said a girl, appearing as she spoke.

"Here's Martha, mother!'' cried the two young Cratchits. "Hurrah! There's such a goose, Martha!''

Goose was a traditional dish in medieval times. In England, Christmas--for those who couldn't afford the larger and meatier turkey--meant goose. I, being a traditionalist, determined that I should hearken back to olden days and try one myself for Christmas. My grandmother--a wonderful woman--heard that I wanted to make a goose. So, for Thanksgiving, she surprised my by buying one for me to cook. So, I did. And here it is:

I used the recipe "Roast Goose with Oranges and Madeira", with the slight difference of sherry instead of madeira (which is--go figure--illegal in Alabama). After slicing off the excess fat (which you need to do, since there is SO much fat), you poke the skin with a fork. My goose was about 11.5 lbs., so, following the recipe, I put it into the oven at 350 degrees for a little over an hour. At that time, I drained the fat (once again, there was a TON of it). An hour and a half later, I drained it again, then left it in for a few more minute on a slightly higher temperature, which helped make it a little crispy. Then, my grandpa carved it using the method in the following video, which was helpful since the breast bone is so high, you can't cut it like a turkey:

In the end, it was delicious, and I would advise anyone to try it. The meat is all dark, and gamier than duck. I like that, though some people in my family didn't. The sauce has a strong alcohol flavor, which I also like, as did a lot of other family members. Next time, I plan to try the prune/chestnut recipe.

Well, It's Been A Long Day

OK, I haven't posted much lately, but that doesn't mean I've been idle, so I'm going to make up for it today by posting a bunch of things.

If you're interested in honest service fraud, Muppets, cooking goose, or the National Christmas Tree, then stay tuned...