Saturday, July 25, 2009

Familial Outlier?

Almost everyone in my family is fat. Except my immediate family. Which I find somehow strange, but probably shouldn't. Let me explain.

They weren't always fat. Growing up, my mother and her three sisters were thin. My mother's youngest sister then wasn't thin (as I remember - I can't claimed to have looked back at all of her old pictures), but she wasn't fat - and then the other three sisters were still very thin.

My cousins were thin. All of them. My sister is the oldest cousin (as my mother is the oldest sister). Then there are two other cousins older than me, then there is me and one other cousin-we are the same age-then there are four cousins younger than me. My parents (and sister and nieces) came to visit last weekend. My mother brought with her some pictures. She had just visited my aunt in the hospital and had seen much of the family there too. (My aunt, sadly, has cancer, and the prognosis ranges from having a few weeks or maybe months, but certainly she will not have that much longer to live). I had not seen most of my relatives in many years. I can't recall when I saw most of them in person last. But what was immediately apparent was that they were all now fat. Very fat. All of my aunts. All of my cousins (at least the four in the pictures). Extremely so. And I wonder why that is. I mean, yes, I know there is genetics and that some people just are that way. But none of them were before - even well into adulthood. My dad made some comment about it and about lifestyle when my mother pulled the pictures out. I didn't say anything. Maybe it is genetics and lifestyle - after all, all of them are related.

But I'm related to them, too. And I'm not fat. I'm not rail thin, either. And I don't exercise and I eat like crap most of the time, though admittedly I also don't eat a lot and don't tend to eat junk food. I just don't like most of it. It makes me feel sick to eat chips or candy, generally. My mother also is still thin. As is my sister. But then my sister is very active - a real athlete - she just did a Tae Kwon Do tournament and won like seven gold medals (note to anyone who wants to be mean to me: my sister will beat you up). My mother also likes to get out and walk, but I don't know that any of my other relatives are any different (though none of them are anywhere near the athlete that my sister is - as far as I know).

So maybe it is genetics - after all, the only thin people in the "relative pool" are all closely related - my mother, my sister, and me. (My dad isn't exactly thin, but he isn't fat and he's not genetically related to everyone else I'm talking about here except for me and my sister). Now, there is another part of the equation - my uncles. But then I'm not sure about them. I think two of the three of them were thin - I know one still is. And the third, I just don't know, but I don't recall him being fat - he was in the military.

Anyway, this just strikes me as odd. I know people change as they get older, but for so many people to have so radical a change - I mean, it looks like my relatives have doubled or even tripled their weights since adulthood, and I don't think that is common. I wonder why it happened in a clinical sort of curiosity. I wonder if it is more common than I think it is.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wasting time with Diablo II

I've been wasting time the past few days with a very old computer game, Diablo II. I played it in its heyday, but then haven't for years. Then they announced Diablo III was coming, and I thought, what the heck, I already have II, why not try it again. I even have my daughter playing it, sort of - she likes to just click the mouse and occasionally, she'll click in the right place to kill some monsters. She loves it.

At first, it was a shock to play it again - it looks so primitive after playing so many newer games, like Fallout 3. But once I got into it, I forgot that and just really enjoy the gameplay.

There are probably more productive things I could do with my time, but what the hell - I'm having fun and it is as good as free. With two computers, I can play while my daughter also plays (in the same game, no less, online!) and now I'm trying to get my sister to play, too. She's down in Florida and has never tried it, but she likes games.

All of this just goes to show that even without flashy graphics, you can have a deeply absorbing game that holds up even almost a decade later. Sort of like X-Com UFO Defense. Another classic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Health Insurance Companies are EVIL

Reading this I can only come to one conclusion: Health Insurance Companies are evil. You are penalized with denial of insurance for the rest of your life for the selfless act of donating a kidney. What assholes. We need public health insurance. NOW.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Plea Bargain of an Innocent

Reading this article at Simple Justice, I got thinking about something that really bothers me.

Often, given the risks of trial and the way the deck is stacked against criminal defendants (beyond a reasonable doubt my ass...) an innocent person will plead guilty to a lesser offense simply to get a shorter sentence (and to end the uncertainty). As part of any guilty plea, generally the defendant is required to admit to doing the conduct, under oath, in court.

I was wondering how one can reconcile this with laws against perjury and against facilitiation of perjury (for a lawyer). If you know your client is innocent, but think he or she will still be convicted, or at least might be, how can you let them allocute to guilt under oath? How can the innocent person, in good consicence, commit perjury just for the sake of the plea?

If I were that innocent person, I would honestly tell the court that I was innocent, but that I was pleading guilty to a lesser charge because of the risks of not doing so being too great. If the court would not allow me to do that and plead guilty, then I would take that up to appeal and argue that it is a violation of due process to only allow plea bargains for reduced charges to guilty people while denying them to innocent people. Maybe I am just crazy, but it seems crazy to me that innocent people should get a worse outcome than guilty people under our system (of course, one could argue that innocent people will always get a worse outcome since they have so much taken away by the system, and all when they did nothing wrong).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thank you, Larry

Larry (aka Barefoot Bum) has closed his blog for good. Thankfully, he left his archives up, so we can all enjoy reading them still. I just wanted to thank him for the posts he has put up over the years, and even for his occasional odd comment here. I have always enjoyed his writing. Even if it is all useless bullshit (his words - I'm certainly not saying it was), it was at least enjoyable useless bullshit.

I also want to thank Larry for offering an explanation today. I was quite curious why he closed his blog. Upon reading it, I find that he decision to stop his blog is quite reasonable and makes perfect sense. I fear he may be right, that humanity is doomed to be done in by its own collective indifference to making things truly better. Yet I cannot quite be that cynical yet. Maybe I just am naive, but I still have hope - after all, many institutional things have gotten better with time, even if it did take far too many centuries for them to happen. Many of the people I admire would have been summarily executed for their views in a rather horrible fashion by local authorities, or by the local church (or both) just a few centuries ago. Still, I can't exactly say I'm holding my breath that things will get all that much better in my lifetime. And maybe they will even get worse. But I still have hope.

In any case, thanks again, Larry. I hope your remaining years do bring you happiness. I'm sure there are far better things you can do with your time than argue with f*ckt*rds.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cleaning Up

Today was a cleaning day for me. I cleaned my carpets with a wet carpet cleaner. This is cheaper than paying someone else to do it. I consider it somewhat of a waste of time since the carpet does not stay clean long with a one year old and a three year old loose. I guess you can't let things get too bad, but what will stains hurt?

It just kind of sucks to do all this work to clean the carpet only to see it covered with spills and stains within a few weeks. But oh well. I guess I'll just enjoy the clean carpet for however long it lasts.

I also did some other cleaning today. I cleaned up this blog. Specifically, I reduced the number of post labels. When I first started blogging, I would add a ton of labels to each post, figuring that would help someone searching on various key words. I've since figured out that you can search on post content anyway, so you don't need labels for that purpose. It is actually better to have fewer labels. I noticed this most starkly when I added the label list on the lefthand side of the page and saw just how many useless, used-once labels there were. Today, I went through and cleaned them up, getting rid of every label I think I'd never use again. Maybe sometime I'll go through and consolidate even more, but for now, I think it is fairly cleaned up. And this clean up won't be covered with toddler-made stains in a few weeks.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An Interesting Dungeons and Dragons Blog (4E)

I just stumbled across this blog, which is an interesting read. It is about 4E Dungeons and Dragons, which I don't (and won't) play (as I've mentioned before), but it is still fun to read, regardless. So I thought I'd share. Particularly interesting are the series of articles analyzing 4E modules (and the rules) bit by bit.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Your Social Security Number is Not Safe

Here's yet another reason your SSN is not safe: using statistical analysis and math, it is apparently pretty easy to guess if someone knows your date of birth and your place of birth.

It is sad that it is illegal to use your SSN for any sort of identification purposes, yet, despite that, it is basically universally used for it anyway.

Truly, what we need is an ID system based on biometric data. Though I wonder how that would work for online transactions, where it would be easy enough to send fake parameters instead of your own.

I already knew there were reasons not to share things like your birthday and even place of birth - which is why I generally counsel not to use your real birthday for things online unless you are legally required to. I certainly never do. So here's one more reason not to.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Seeing what Sticks

I don't know how many times I heard a professor say this in law school, nor how many times I've heard it elsewhere when talking about what legal arguments to raise. The story, as it usually goes, is this. A lawyer talks about some case they had where they raised what he or she thought was the two or three best legal arguments, then she throws in two or more arguments that really seem to have no chance, "just because" and then the judge rules for her based on one of the arguments that was a throw away. The moral the lawyer learns from this is "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" because "you never know what obscure legal argument the court may adopt."

I have my doubts about this strategy. It seems more like ass covering than actual good lawyering to me. If some obscure argument wins while the "strong" arguments don't, my first thought is that the lawyer really did not have a clue what the best arguments were. Sure, maybe the judge is just an idiot, which also happens, but then, if the judge is an idiot who won't follow the law, there isn't too much you can do about that but appeal to an appellate tribunal that will follow the law (as the intermediate appellate courts generally do - at least, much better than a circuit court).

The best approach is to only raise those issues you are strong on, and leave out the weak ones. They just waste the court's time (and yours), they reduce your credibility with the court, and they may annoy the court if they are so weak as to be almost frivolous to raise. I know they would annoy me if I were a judge (and I have been in the position where I had to think like one).

Obviously, it is important to really know which issues are strongest (and which are bullshit) - and if you are insecure about that, you are probably not qualified to represent your client and ought to either refer the client to someone else or seek a mentor to help you out (and of course, none of that gets charged to the client - the client pays for legal services, not your education).

But "throwing everything at the wall" and hoping something sticks is certainly not good lawyering. I think it tends to resemble what you get when a person, not a lawyer, tries to represent themself. They often just cite one irrelevant legal issue after another, and sometimes, perhaps by chance, one of them actually has merit. That is to be expected from a non-lawyer. I don't think it is acceptable from an actual member of the bar. But hey, I've only been a lawyer a short while, so what do I know?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More fun with finding a Nanny

As I mentioned last week, I am currently in the process of trying to find a nanny. Well, now I'm more in the process of trying to figure out all of the legal hoops I have to jump through to set up having an employee. It is not something I've ever done before, so I am starting from scratch.

At first, I was a bit annoyed at all of the various forms and things you have to keep track of and take care of. It seemed awfully burdensome to have to do all of this crap just so I can write a check to someone else every two weeks. I can understand better why some small employers get all flustered and upset at government and want to vote Republican (as if that would make any difference). But really, this stuff protects all workers, including me - and that I appreciate very much, since I am also someone else's employee, as is my wife.

So while it is terribly annoying and will cost us quite a bit of extra money, I know why we need it - too many employers are bastards and even with these protections, far too many workers get screwed over. Still, it is hard for us to afford. It costs hundreds of dollars upfront to get software and services set up for doing payroll. That will pay off in the end because it will automate things. I shudder to think of trying to calculate that stuff by hand each paycheck. And this does impact the nanny too, in that, we will have less money to pay her.

There are additional taxes of about 11-12 % on top of what we'll pay to the nanny in salary (and of course, she'll have money taken out on her end as well). This is to pay for SS and Medicare deductions and State and Federal Unemployment Insurance. Thankfully, we don't have to buy Workers Compensation Insurance. I have no idea how much that would cost (but I assume it isn't cheap) - it is only required if you have more than three employees, and we'll only have one.

Some things have been pretty easy. Getting a Federal Employee ID was easy. You can get that online and it is basically instant. You can then use that for setting up everything else. Michigan requires filing a new business form for tax purposes. 518, I think it is. I filled that out and will send it in Monday. You have to fill out I-9 forms (to prove the employee is allowed to work) and W-4 and MI-W4 for withholding. I remember filling these out for every job I ever had, so I guess I should not be surprised.

I went out and got binders to put all of the various supplements on Federal and State employment taxes. I got another binder to put all of the information for the nanny, including, eventually, copies of each pay stub. I'm going to have to file quarterly taxes for her, state and federal, in addition to an annual return. All in all, there is a whole lot of work on my end for this. I've already spent many hours looking this stuff up and getting stuff ready. I hope it will be relatively automated and easy once things are set up, but no matter what, I will be spending extra time on this on an ongoing basis.

I suppose on the upside, if I ever do form my own small business (like if I hang a shingle) I'll already have some experience relevant to that. Still, I'd think a real business would hire someone to handle HR matters who was an expert at it and so I really wouldn't need to know about that stuff anyway. Of course, hanging a shingle, I'd be a rather small business and the less overhead the better. Not that I'm planning on doing this any time soon, if ever. I like my job. But it is an interesting thought.

My big worry now is that I'm going to miss something important. I'm pretty sure I have all of the basics covered. I'm a little worried about getting the particulars right for the taxes, but I am fairly confident the tax software will handle it - that's what it is for, and it keeps updated as the law or rates change over time.

I never would have thought I'd be doing something like this when I decided to take the plunge and reproduce. Ah, the joys of parenthood.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hello, Senator Franken

It is about frickin' time that Franken got seated in the Senate. The courtroom crap was bullshit - it really was nothing more than a delaying action by Republicans.

But that hasn't stopped the true kool-aid drinkers from declaring (with the help of the Wall Street Journal) that Franken "stole" the election. Uh, no. They conveniently ignore the fact that the majority of judges who considered the election were GOP, and on top of that, the judicial determinations were unanimous. It wasn't like Bush v Gore, where there was a rather blatent attempt to stop the counting and where the verdict was split along party lines on the court. Not that that necessarily means anything legally, but it certainly could be evidence of politics over law. No such thing happened in Minnesota. Instead, we see the national GOP increasingly detached from reality. I was worried about 2010 - I am less worried now as I watch the GOP continue to self-destruct.

The only question is, will they self-destruct faster and more efficiently than the Democrats, who usually are pretty good at caving in and getting nothing done.

In any case, well done, Senator Franken. This makes me wish I had talked to him when I had the opportunity. I was sitting in Minnesota's main airport for a layover and happened to spy Al Franken sitting there with me, waiting for a different flight. He sat right across from me for about an hour. He was quietly reading a paper most of the time. He didn't talk to anyone. This was before he officially was in the Senate race, but it was obvious he would be in it. I wanted to say hello and that I'd vote for him if I had lived in MN, but I never did. I figured he did not want to be bothered, and in any case, I'm generally introverted, so I don't seek out conversation with strangers at airports, generally.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fox's 24 - My review of Season 7

I just finished watching this season's 24 on Fox. All things considered, I enjoyed this season. I haven't gotten to see all previous seasons. I saw 1 and 2, and I saw a few other seasons in there somewhere, though I'm not sure which they were. Some of them were really good. I'd rate this last one as good, too.

Before I get into what I liked, I just want to make perfectly clear. 24 is right-wing torture porn. The deranged right seems to think Jack Bauer is a real person and that his torture techniques really save lives. I want to ask those same people if they think "Alf" is a real "person." After all, Alf is also on TV.

This season, they did something interesting with that. They did an exploration of the whole notion of ends justifying the means. And they did it in a way that was dramatically consistent. Because Jack doesn't change his ways. Jack is Jack. It would be totally out of character for him NOT to be a right-wing torture porn poster boy. So the way they explore the notion is through other characters.

NOTE: Spoilers ahead.

The first character they explore this with is an FBI agent who in a way becomes Jack's protogee. She is a straight-arrow at the start, but as she watches Jack do what he does, she gradually starts to do some of the things he does. He has to really push her to do it at first, and she feels sick about it, but she does it, and apparently sees it get results. (Of course, this is contrary to the real-world experience of torture, which generally is useless at anything but getting the tortured person to tell you what you want to hear). But she never quite crosses the line that Jack has crossed. She feels badly about it and stops... until the end. More on that in a moment.

Jack's friend Tony is back from the dead in this. He seems to be on Jack's side the whole day, until it turns out at the end, he seems to be working for the big bad guys. He goes so far as to launch a biological warfare attack in a subway that would kill thousands, all to get in with the big honcho. But in the end, Jack finds out that he has no interest in anything except killing the Honcho for his having killed Tony's wife several seasons earlier. Tony is the ultimate ends-justify-the-means character. He fully believes that it was ok to sacrifice thousands to get to this guy. He is motivated by revenge, and yet really, he is just an even more extreme version of Jack - willing to break the law and kill people to get a "greater good" - taking out the man behind so many of the bad things on earlier seasons of 24.

At the end, Jack stops Tony from killing the Honcho. He is taken into custody and you see the Honcho "lawyer up." (Despite the fact that he was caught in the middle of a shootout with the FBI, meaning he'd rot in prison for the rest of his life, the show makes it seem like he'll get off somehow). The FBI agent has one last talk with Jack. He tells her he regrets nothing, but that also he has lost a lot. He asks her to consider that. I wish I had the exact conversation, but I can't recall it now.

Then Jack goes off to die. The FBI agent takes the Honcho and is going to question him. And when it seems like he is not going to cooperate, she pulls a gun on another agent (played by Jeanine Garofoalo - quite humorous that she is in this, btw, given her political views - which the character does stay true to, in that her agent refuses to violate the law) - anyway, Jack's understudy pulls a gun and then handcuffs the other agent and goes into the room - and that's the last you see of her in the show. It is clear she's gone over the line, the same as Jack. She's sacrficing her career, everything. She's gone to the dark side. Watching it, you get the sense that the cycle is just continuing - that Jack's immorality is spreading like a rot. That what spread to Tony has now infected her. At least that is the sense I got. Maybe that is just my take on it. I'm sure the right-wing zealots who worship Jack won't see it that way. They'll try and make some distinction between her and Jack and Tony. But really, I think the writers are cleverer than that. Tony really is just what Jack is heading toward becoming. Jack, in a way, senses this, and in the end, as he is about to die from the bioweapon, he asks for a Muslim Cleric who he ran into earlier in the day take what are essentially his last words. I'm sure the right-wing nuts went crazy about that - Jack going Muslim! Not that it was particularly muslim what he did, but there is certainly symbolism in it. Jack seems to be asking forgiveness for all the bad he has done.

So while I enjoyed the show as it was going - despite all the usual plot holes and ridiculousness, in the end, what I really enjoyed most was the comparison you see between the three different characters - Jack, the FBI woman, and Tony - and how they all were different versions of the same thing. It showed that once you crossed that line that Jack and Tony had crossed, it leads down a bad road - Jack makes some errors on that road that he finally sees are wrong - jumping to conclusions too quickly about an apparent muslim extremeist. Tony is clearly in the wrong. And then you see the basically decent (to begin with) FBI agent make more and more compromises with morality and the law until she finally crosses the line, where there is no going back, and she goes totally rogue. You know that can't end well for her.

What I get from that is that ultimately, that line into illegality can never be crossed - once you do, you are no different than Tony. You are part of the problem or will ultimately get there. Maybe that's just my wishful thinking, but I saw that in the show and I really liked that.