Monday, March 22, 2010

Ron prognosticates: The Supreme Court will overturn health care reform

Before the ink even had time to dry, the state of Virginia filed suit to challenge the health care reform bill as unconstitutional. And I think they'll succeed on both the merits and the politics.

To be clear: I'm a strong supporter of health care reform. The current system is badly b0rken and absolutely needs to be fixed. But forcing people to buy insurance -- or any other product made by a private company -- is pretty clearly (to my unschooled eye) not one of the federal government's enumerated powers. So the current health care reform bill should be overturned on the legal merits. Of course, the legal merits seem to have precious little to do with how the Supreme Court actually rules nowadays. But the politics also auger in favor of overturning. The current Court lists heavily to towards the right, and the cynical part of me is convinced that John Roberts in particular is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to stick it to Obama after the State of the Union flap.

I wish things were otherwise, but I gotta call 'em as I sees 'em.

[UPDATE:] It has been pointed out to me (and I actually knew this but spaced on it when I was writing this post) that the bill doesn't really force you to buy insurance, it just taxes you if you don't. This makes it part of a long tradition of the government coercing people to behave in certain ways through the tax code that have passed constitutional muster. So when I wrote "the current health care reform bill should be overturned on the legal merits" that was my own personal opinion. (Some days I'm a liberal, other days I'm a libertarian.) That is how I think things should be. It is clearly not how they are.

Notwithstanding that there are ample precedents for the government to coerce behavior through the tax code, I still predict that the Court will overturn. This prediction is based purely on my cynical belief that the Court is politicized, and if the Right can muster any reasonable arguments that the law should be overturned (and I think they can) the SC will tend to view those arguments favorably. I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. Time will tell.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

We're doomed!

An orange dwarf star is going to collide with our solar system in about a million years, more or less. That's million, with an M. That's not very long in the grand and glorious scheme of things.

Oh wait...

The good news is that Bobylev says the chances of Gliese 710 penetrating further into the Solar System, inside the Kuiper Belt, are much smaller, just 1 in a 1000. So that's all right, then.

Keep calm and carry on.

What a relief.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Whoever writes the history books

Winston Churchill once observed that the history books are written by the victors in a conflict, but I sometimes wonder if even he appreciated the extent to which the causality can run both ways. Conservapedia has edited the Treaty of Tripoli to make it appear that the United States was founded as a Christian theocracy.

Why bother even to note this? Surely everyone knows that Conservapedia is a biased unreliable source. The bias is proudly heralded even in its very name. It would be easier to be blase about this if not for the fact that Conservapedia is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not out of the question, if current trends continue, that factual objective history will become more and more inaccessible. After all, I have never seen the original Treaty of Tripoli. The only reason I have to believe that it even exists, let alone that it says what it says is that I have never seen the claims of its existence and its content challenged.

Until now.

I can dismiss this challenge because I can remember a world where there was historical consensus about the Treaty of Tripoli. But imagine what it might be like for someone born today. They might well grow up in a world where half -- maybe even more than half -- of the sources available to them say that the Treaty of Tripoli says what Conservapedia says it says, and that any claims to the contrary are a liberal plot to undermine the foundations of the nation. How would a person growing up in such a world be expected to sort out the truth? (For that matter, how can we be sure that we ourselves are not growing up in such a world?)

Farfetched? Consider that the Texas State Board of Education recently decided to make some changes to the curriculum, including removing Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment from history classes, and placing more emphasis on "The strong Judeo-Christian influences on the nation’s Founding Fathers."

This is not some random right-wing web site. This is the State of Texas.

I fear that George Orwell may have been more prescient than anyone ever imagined.

Runaway Prius was (almost certainly) a hoax

Forbes has a thorough debunking.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Danger Will Robinson! Rackspace cloud stores your password in the clear.

I just had a very disturbing conversation with a Rackspace Cloud CSR. It went something like this:

CSR: Can I have your account user name and password?
Me: You want my password?
CSR: Yes sir.
Me: You know that's, like, security 101 that you should never reveal a password over the phone?
CSR: Yes sir, but in this case we need it to verify your account.
Me: OK, let me go change it to something I'm willing to tell you over the phone.
[Typety type type]
Me: OK, my password is now somereallylongbogusthing.
CSR (without any delay): Thank you. How can I help you?
Me: Wait, you must either be the world's fastest typist, or you can see my password on your screen.
CSR: That's right, sir, I can see your password.
Me: (The sound of my jaw hitting the floor.)

I am just stunned. I have used Rackspace for mission-critical servers in the past. They have always seemed reasonably competent, if not always 100% reliable. But this calls into question Rackspace's entire security policy. The first rule of computer security is that you do not store passwords in the clear. Never. Ever. No ifs ands or buts. You Just Don't Do That. And security is particularly critical in cloud computing, where your data ends up on hardware that can be reused by other people. If Rackspace is storing passwords in the clear, what else might they be screwing up? This really calls into question whether Rackspace can be trusted with mission-critical data.

Good grief, Rackspace, I really wanted to like you. But what were you thinking?

[UPDATE:] It really is as serious as I thought. WIth the account password you can change contact information and reset the root password on all your servers. So unless and until this is fixed you should not use RSC for anything mission critical. I hope they do fix this because other than that I really like RSC. Their UI is very well designed, and setting up a server was amazingly fast and painless.

I'm going to run out of ways to say "fishy"

Theodore H. Frank observes that Toyota vehicles apparently engage in age discrimination. Not Toyota the company mind you, the vehicles themselves. The age profile of people who have had runaway acceleration problems seems to be heavily skewed towards older drivers. Maybe this is a safety feature gone rogue? Has Toyota developed a sensor that can detect older drivers and installed the wires backwards? Hey, I'm just asking questions.

Freakishly accurate Toyota simulator

Allen Hartwig created this freakishly accurate Toyota simulator. It's even better if you have sound turned on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

More from the Toyota files

James Sikes, the driver of the runaway Prius in San Diego the other day may have had ulterior motives. Are we about to see a repeat of balloon boy?

And since I'm on the subject: I had occasion recently to rent a Toyota Corolla, with which I did a couple of experiments to see if the brakes could overcome the engine. I don't want to get too specific about my methodology, but suffice it to say the experiments took place on a wide open stretch of freeway where there was no danger. It should come as no surprise that the brakes were easily able to slow the car down even at full throttle. It wasn't even close. And, of course, shifting into neutral slowed the car down instantly.

But there was one very peculiar incident: on one one of my test runs (I did several) when I pressed on the brake with my left foot while holding down the throttle with my right, the brake did not respond normally. It felt much stiffer than usual. The brake pedal did not depress as far as it normally does. And the brakes did not seem to engage; the car continued to accelerate. I immediately took my foot off the gas, whereupon the car slowed down and the feel and operation of the brake returned to normal right away. I was not able to reproduce this, and in fact I can't be completely sure that I'm recalling the details correctly. The entire episode lasted only a second or two. But it surprised the hell out of me at the time.

This was a brand new 2010 Corolla. It had about 500 miles on it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Everything looks like it was designed... but of course that isn't true"

Just stumbled across this amazing video of an ant colony that was pumped full of cement and then excavated. I can hardly imagine a more striking refutation of the creationist claim that (the appearance of) design requires a designer.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Six down, 45 to go

Washington DC has become the sixth "state" to legalize same-sex marriage, joining Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The dominoes continue to fall.