Reading the emails I’ve received about my Boy Scouts Jamboree post two days ago, I think I’m going to need to start including a section in my posts entitled “Arguments you might notice I’m not making”. For example, that Boy Scouts bit would contain the following list of things that I’m specifically not arguing:

  • The Boy Scouts of America don’t build character or impress values on individual scouts.
  • The BSA exists as a recruiting arm of the U.S. military.
  • There should be no way that a cent of federal money should end up in the hands of organizations which encompass any element of religion.
  • The BSA shouldn’t be allowed to exclude athiests and agnostics from membership.

If you’re looking to drop me a line refuting any of the above arguments, you can feel free to, but don’t expect me to put up a huge fight!

The last 24 hours have been jam-packed with new arrivals. First, there’s our wedding rings — Shannon’s is platinum and matched to her engagement ring, while mine is white gold and big enough to swallow hers without even realizing it.

our wedding rings

Then, there’s our wedding invitations, on thick and comforting cardstock and (fantastically) already addressed! All that’s left for us to do is print out our information cards, slide ‘em into the envelopes, and put stamps on, and everything will be ready to drop into the mail.

our wedding invitations

And last (but certainly not least!), there’s Robbie, my brother and sister-in-law’s first baby! He tried to set a land speed record for time from “who knows if this will happen today” to “welcome to the world, little tiger!”, and everyone’s doing just fine.

welcome, robbie!

All in all, a great 24 hours — which is a good thing, since the next 48 hours includes one southward-bound flight, one night in south Jersey, a hundred million errands, one northward-bound car trip with my parents, one night in NYC, as much playing with Robbie as we’re allowed, one rental car, and a final northerly car trip to return home. Busy busy!

Reading about the fatal tragedy at the Boy Scout Jamboree, two things struck me. First of all, the death of four people in front of their entire troop really is a horrible tragedy, and given the way that it appears the four died, I can’t imagine it’ll be all that easy for some of the kids to recover from that. In an entirely different vein, though, I also realized that the Jamboree is taking place on federal land — the Army’s Fort A.P. Hill — which means that our government still feels it appropriate to give access, funding, and support to an organization that specifically excludes gay, athiest, and agnostic people. I honestly don’t understand how this can still be occurring.

Doing a little reading this evening about the state of our government’s Boy Scout support, I discovered a few interesting things. First, I learned that a judge in the Northern Illinois U.S. District Court issued a ruling earlier this month which bars government support of future Boy Scouts Jamborees. The decision is available (in PDF form) from the ACLU’s website; it contains a thorough description of how the Boy Scouts meet the standard of a religious organization, and as such, how explicit government support thus violates the Constitution’s prohibition of a link between government and religion. Seems logical to me, and would seem to put this whole issue to bed. Oh, if it were only that easy.

The other thing I learned tonight demonstrates why it’s not that easy; it revolves around an argument made by the government in the Illinois court case that has set the stage for at least one future attempt to maintain government support of the Boy Scouts. Essentially, the U.S. claimed that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — people who, as federal taxpayers, brought suit under their right to exercise oversight over the way their tax money was being spent — lack standing to claim harm because the money wasn’t spent pursuant to the clause of the Constitution dealing with taxation and government spending (Article I, section 8, clause 1). Instead, the Department of Defense claimed that their support of the Boy Scout Jamboree derived from the specific powers vested in Congress over military affairs (Article I, section 8, clauses 12-14), and as such, taxpayers wouldn’t have the same right to question the way the money is spent. The District Court judge found ample evidence that the money was spent at least in part under Congress’ taxation and spending authority, and dismissed the argument. The reason this is interesting to me is that it appears our Senate took note of this, and passed an amendment to the Defense Department spending bill yesterday, an amendment which explicitly allows the Secretary of Defense to support the Boy Scout Jamboree on the basis of it being required “for defending our national security and preparing for combat.” (To see the amendment, you can follow this link to the Congressional Record documents, click the link to page S8686, and then scroll down two or three screens to “SA 1342”, the relevant text.)

Now you see why I find this so fascinating? It’s clear that the Constitution forbids our government from supporting organizations that mandate religious faith (like the Boy Scouts), and it’s also pretty clear that there’s no way the Senate would get the country to amend that ban out of the Constitution. So in order to get around it, the Senate is trying to pass laws that aim to prevent ordinary taxpayers from having sufficient standing to bring suit — “what we do might be unconstitutional, but you don’t have the right to file a court case to demonstrate that, so we can do it anyway.” And as the final straw, they did all of it by declaring that the Boy Scout Jamboree is vital for national security.

Ignoring fundamental prohibitions built into our Constitution is pretty bad… but getting caught doing so, and then responding by passing laws which aim to restrict oversight of the unconstitutional actions, is worse.

Update: Hey, lookie there — via Rafe, I appear to have ignited a MetaFilter shitstorm. Fun fun.

sts114 launches into space

I got a happy email today from the people behind my new favorite magazine, Make, saying that the magazine is now available online in its entirety! It’s only for current subscribers, but the site provides high-quality proofs of every page of content, proofs that can be viewed, printed, and (cooler still) shared with non-subscribers via email. The archives are also available and searchable, which is a cool bonus. Just when I thought the magazine couldn’t get better, it did!

Tonight, I upgraded the works behind this website to use the latest beta of Movable Type, and I’ve gotta say I agree that it’s the easiest upgrade I’ve done. Here’s what moving from version 3.1 to version 3.2 beta 2 involved:

  1. First, I downloaded 3.2b2.
  2. Then, I upgraded my configuration file, and copied all the new files into place.
  3. After that, I hopped over to my regular Movable Type control panel, which gave me a cryptic message about an invalid DataSource directory. I remembered reading that this was a symptom of the old config file still being in place, so I went back and deleted it.
  4. Reloading the control panel, I was alerted that an updated version was in place, and that Movable Type needed to finish the upgrade. I OK’ed that message, and watched the upgrade info scroll by, a process that took about 2 minutes.
  5. That was it for the upgrade!

I really like what I see in the new interface — search boxes appear pretty much everywhere, and the control panel of MT 3.2 is much cleaner and more intuitive than its predecessors were, bringing MT a lot closer to TypePad in terms of usability. Since my site’s setup is anything but simple, I found a few small bugs (like a couple of errors that result from MT 3.2 using new defaults for the names of its archive files, and a trivial — and trivially solvable — problem with MT-Blacklist), but all in all, I’m impressed.

(By the way, I also noticed a wee little tease during the upgrade — a new field, “entry_atom_id”, in the database table which holds weblog entries. The field doesn’t get populated yet, for either old entries or newly-added ones, but it’s nice to see that the people at Six Apart are moving towards storing permanent IDs that can be used to create permanently-valid Atom feeds!)

Ever since the New York Police Department announced the beginning of random baggage screening in the subway system, I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on exactly what rankles me so much about the idea. Having anonymously ridden the subways of NYC for twelve years, the whole invasion of privacy aspect definitely gets to me… but each time I think of that, I remember that I basically submit to the possibility of a cavity search every time I walk into an airport. There’s my gut telling me I’d be naive to think that the searches will actually be executed in a random way, but it’s hard for me to hold a suspicion against the entirety of New York’s finest. Then, there’s the fact that the police have acknowledged that they’ll arrest people in whose bags they find things illegal but entirely unrelated to terrorism (i.e., drugs); there’s no “but” to this one, since blind searches resulting in incriminating evidence would assuredly be illegal if it weren’t for the overwhelming fear of terrorism gripping America, a fear that’s been magnified in the weeks following the bombs in London.

Tonight, I think I figured out the specific concern I have: every rationale that’s been given for why the searches are necessary is a reason that would equally apply to a plan for random baggage screens anywhere in New York City — on the streets, in Central Park, anywhere at all. The threat of terrorism applies equally to the subway system as it does to the Great Lawn, Times Square, and the sidewalk in front of the Today Show studio, and if we accept the idea that vague threats of insane actions justify the intrusion into our possessions without any warrants or suspicions, then we also might have to accept that that intrusion might have to occur wherever we might find ourselves, be it on the Westside IRT or strolling around Bethesda Fountain. I’m fairly certain that, as a nation, we wouldn’t accept an intrusion into our privacy that broad and baseless — which makes me wonder whether we should accept one that might be narrower in its geographical focus, but equally broad in its application, and equally baseless.

I could spend the next month delving into Science magazine’s “125 Questions”, a huge list of scientific questions to which we don’t yet have answers. From “How are memories stored and retrieved?” to Why do humans have so few genes?”, the people behind Science celebrated the 125th anniversary of their journal by coming up with a list of the big unanswered questions, and specifically, the questions to which science might finally be able to provide answers within the next 25 years. In the words of the editors, the list “is not a survey of the big societal challenges that science can help solve, nor is it a forecast of what science might achieve. Think of it instead as a survey of our scientific ignorance, a broad swath of questions that scientists themselves are asking.” Cool.

Go ahead and call me partisan, but I enjoyed Matt Alexander’s piece in McSweeney’s today.

google moon

In honor of the 36th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, Google has created Google Moon, an extension of the Google Maps interface to allow exploration of the surface of the moon. Unfortunately, it includes only the region in which the manned Apollo missions landed, rather than the entire visible hemisphere of the moon; apparently, NASA only gave them high-resolution images of that region, so they couldn’t provide anything beyond that. (Though according to Larry Schwimmer, the engineer for Google who is behind the moon project, we might just get to see more coverage sometime!) And while the resolution is certainly not good enough to see the flag we left behind at Tranquility Base or Edwin Aldrin’s famous bootprint in the dust, Google engineers appear to have tweaked the detail sufficiently to show what the moon is really made of!

In the past two days, the New York Times has had two fantastic articles on the problems that face New York State’s Medicaid program. Yesterday’s piece detailed billions of dollars of fraud that have been committed by unscrupulous medical service providers, including a dentist that billed 991 procedures in a single day in 2003 (100 an hour!), a doctor that wrote 12% of the prescriptions for a $6,400 a month AIDS drug that went to helping bodybuilders bulk up, and a school administrator that rubber-stamped applications to enroll 60% of her special education students in speech therapy (twice the national average), thus netting the Medicaid payments for the school district. And in today’s followup piece, the Times looked into the program’s ability to investigate fraud and found it in equally poor shape. In the past 25 years, the staff tasked with finding abuse has been cut to 25% of its original size, and the amount of money recovered by investigations has gone down 70%, all of which has let the abuses found in yesterday’s article go unchecked. After today’s piece, NY Governor George Pataki ordered a complete overhaul of the program — but of course, he’s billing it as “an effort to further enhance the State’s successful efforts to control Medicaid costs” rather than “an obvious reaction to getting his ass handed to him in the pages of the paper of record.”

Today’s much-linked news story about a guy who used Google Maps to beat a traffic ticket in Manhattan court is pretty interesting to me, but apparently not for the reason that it is to most people (that a guy was able to think quickly, whip out a laptop, and demonstrate the flaw in the ticket via an online map). To me, the whole story is interesting because there was a traffic cop who was willing to state, under oath of law, an outright lie (that West 110th Street in Manhattan is one-way), and likewise, there was a judge who seemed powerless to do anything but believe her lie until the quick-witted defendant proved her wrong using Google Maps. I mean, did nobody in that courtroom have even the slightest familiarity with Manhattan above 96th Street? It’s not like the double-sized width of 110th Street is somehow hidden, nor is it anything but obvious that there are cars driving in both directions on the street, separated by a yellow line. It boggles the mind.

Today is all about bone marrow transplant.

First of all, right now, I’m sitting in the bone marrow transplant fellow’s on-call room; it’s my initial foray into a new call system wherein the transplant fellow stays in the hospital all night, taking care of the patients on the transplant unit (instead of the prior resident-level coverage) and handling any hematology- or oncology-related emergencies that might pop up. Looking at the eighteen total calls I have this year, I can see how spending the night in this tiny, overheated call room might become a bit tiresome — but the service is behaving itself, so that means that tonight is also about finishing off Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price and catching up on some long-overdue email replies. No complaints there, really.

Second, I saw one of my bone marrow transplant patients in clinic today, and his family had a surprise for me: they brought the bone marrow donor along for the visit, with whom they had spent the weekend. When you’re a marrow donor, the whole thing is pretty much anonymous — if recipients wants to write letters to their donors, they have to do so via the National Marrow Donor Program, which redacts any identifying information before sending it along, and the same process holds true for any communication in the opposite direction. This is done to prevent ethical tragedies (like donors having to pull out of a commitment to donate and being harassed by their potential recipients), and is one of the few inviolable rules that both parties have to agree to up front. After a year, though, if both the donor and recipient agree to it, in some cases the NMDP helps both parties break the anonymity, and my patient and his donor agreed to that this past weekend. So while it was awesome to see my patient doing well (he’s a little over a year out from his transplant and is already back to playing hockey and baseball at the level he played pre-transplant), it was equally awesome to see the starstruck look in his (normally completely irreverent) eyes when he was in the presence of the person who donated his bone marrow to save a life. The donor had his two daughters with him, and the entire group was about as life-affirming as I’d imagine is possible. All in all, the visit was a fabulous reminder that as screwed up as the world seems sometimes, there are fundamentally good people out there who do the right thing and don’t think twice about it.

In today’s technology section, the New York Times confirms something that I’ve been hearing about from friends and coworkers for about a year now: rather than cleaning their computers of viruses and spyware, people are now throwing the machines away and buying new ones. At first, this struck me as completely odd, since I’d never had any problems using antivirus apps regularly, using spyware cleaning apps as needed, and practicing as safe computing as possible to prevent obvious installations of apps that’d break my machines. But I can’t deny the sense that adware is now embedded in far, far more apps, viruses are exploiting much more subtle holes, and the process of getting rid of unwanted or malicious apps is significantly harder now. (Hell, last weekend, it took me three antispyware runs and five reboots to get a single app off of my parents’ laptop, and I know what I’m doing!) When you add the fact that computer prices are dropping quickly (for example, you can get a fast Dell desktop with a 19” flat-screen LCD for $499 right now, and a more entry-level Dell with a 15” LCD for $299!), I can see why people are tempted to just trash their old machines and start over, even if it means figuring out how to get all their files moved over and set all their peripherals back up.

And worse still, looking at the situation from that perspective, why should computer manufacturers work hard to support their users by helping them remove adware or viruses, if the alternative is to convince them just to buy new machines? Seems like a no-brainer for them, which is all the worse for us end users.

harry potter and the half-blood prince arrived!

Happiness is when Amazon and the United States Postal Service keep their word! I love that Amazon got into the fun by putting together a special Harry Potter box, and shipped my copy separate from the rest of my order (despite me saying it was OK to wait and ship it all together) so that it arrived the first day it could. I guess I have a little reading to do tonight!

If you want to see how easy it is to upgrade to Movable Type 3.2 and hear the voice of überweblogger Anil Dash at the same time, go check out Six Apart’s one-minute webcast of the upgrade process. (And in all seriousness, the upgrade looks like it’s going to be the easiest yet.)

Probably around a year ago, I got fed up with being lazy and out of shape, and decided that I’d try to do something about that. A long, long time ago I swam competitively (seriously, I started back when I was able to express my age using only my fingers, and gave it up not long after I had to include a toe or two), and since the present-day me hates running, weightlifting, and most other forms of cardiovascular torture, I figured that trying to get back into swimming might be a bit more preferable. So a friend and I started trying to get to our neighborhood pool once or twice a week, but between the pool’s odd hours, my screwy schedule, his twin sons, and a Boston winter that was incompatible with human life much less with walking a half a mile to the pool, we never seemed to get into a sustainable rhythm, and gave it up entirely after just a few months.

About three or four months ago, I exploited a day in which I was again feeling particularly lazy and out of shape to motivate me to do something about that, and after a few emails I found a gym nearby that allows employees of the medical center to join up and use their indoor pool. It took me a few more weeks to get off my ass and join, but I finally dove back into the pool last month in an effort to find an exercise rhythm that worked for me. I’m happy to say now that I’ve kept with it thus far, and when I updated my unbelievably geeky Excel swimming spreadsheet today, I realized that I surpassed an in-pool marathon this past Tuesday. That’s oddly exciting to me, and I hope that I’m able to stick with this long enough to realize more and more weird little milestones like that, all in the name of keeping healthy and staying in shape.

powerbooks, ten years apart

This weekend, I finally got around to helping my brother get some files off of an old Powerbook Duo 230 that he’s been keeping in storage; I was pleasantly surprised that I was even able to get the laptop onto the internet. I’ve put a few photos up on Flickr, just for kicks.

upper west side building collapse

Holy shit: a two-story building collapsed this morning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, between 99th and 100th on Broadway. Apparently, an infant (whose mother was walking by the building with her when it collapsed) is in critical condition at St. Luke’s Hospital, and four other people are known to be injured as well. The building was vacant and was slated for demolition to make way for two enormous apartment buildings; police and firemen are apparently still sifting through the rubble looking for other victims, and bus and subway service is pretty much screwed through the area. The image at the right comes from WNBC’s slideshow of images from their news helicopter and photographers, images which do a good job of showing the true extent of the collapse. Shannon just forwarded me this image from Yahoo’s AP photo feed, which also shows the debris pile strewn into Broadway.

I lived exactly 1/2 a block north of that building from 1995 through 2003, and walked by it a half-dozen times a day. When Shannon and I were on the Upper West Side about two months ago, I noticed that the Gristedes supermarket inside that building had closed, and that the building looked like it was in terrible shape… I guess we now know that it really was. My thoughts go out to my old neighborhood!

It was interesting to me to discover today that the exact same Tour de France tracker is being used by almost every web-based media outlet I can find — Sports Illustrated and CNN use it, ESPN uses it, the New York Times uses it, and even Le Monde uses it. It’s a Flash-based applet that looks to be distributed by AFP, and it’s not too bad. In the past, with most major sports events, each news site has tended to develop its own little applet to provide results and information; I wonder what motivated everyone to jump on the same bandwagon for the Tour this year.

sts-114 on the pad at night

As those of you who know me might have predicted, I’m just a wee bit excited about the return of Space Shuttle flight today; I have the NASA TV feed playing on my computer, the countdown clock ticking away (well, holding right now) at the bottom of my screen, and the Virtual Launch Control Center refreshing in another browser window. It looks like things are currently on schedule for launch at 3:51 PM Eastern time! Good luck to NASA, and specifically, to the seven astronauts who are getting us back into space.

Update: Damn. “1:32 p.m. - Launch Director Mike Leinbach has scrubbed the launch for today. One of four low-level fuel cutoff sensors is not functioning properly.”

I’m jealous. Hopefully, my copy should be in my hands this weekend, since Amazon has their standard promise of delivering the new Harry Potter on the day it’s released (Saturday)…

A study that’s being published in this week’s issue of BMJ (neé the British Medical Journal) yet again demonstrates that using cellphones while driving increases the likelihood of being in an accident. (The full PDF of the article is also available.) The specific conclusions of the study were that use of a cellphone increases the likelihood of an accident by four times, and the risk is the same whether the driver was using the phone normally or using a hands-free set with the phone. In addition, nearly all accidents were associated with at least one injury, and nearly half resulted in two or more injuries, injuries which required visits to hospitals for care.

Living in a town like Boston, where the rules of the road have been demoted into weak suggestions, this is all the more frightening. I walk more than a mile and a half each way to and from work, and I’d say that nearly a third of the time that I’m threatened (in a crosswalk, at a driveway) by a two-ton hunk of metal on wheels, the driver of said vehicle is obviously chatting away on a phone and even more oblivious to the world around the car than the average Masshole driver. Unfortunately for me, if a driver’s use of a cellphone ends up involving me in an accident, I’m likely to be the injured one — I’m on foot, and the driver’s wrapped up in a protective cocoon of steel and plastic. That just sucks.

rach and syd

Hi Rachie! (In the picture to the right, that’s Rach, with her daughter Syd.)

So, here’s a funny little story. My little sister Rachel came to town last night, not to visit Shannon and me (completely understandable, since we spent all of the past two weekends with her!), but rather to see one of her best friend’s new baby. Apparently, she randomly ran into one of my oldest friends — the one who passed my apartment onto me here in Brookline — in the Prudential Mall today, and while they were chatting, he made an offhand reference to Q Daily News. And therein lies the bit of hilarity… because before that mention, the only people in my immediate family who knew about this site were my brother and his wife. So of course, that conversation led Rachel to Google and then to here — and then to a phone call from my brother telling me that I’d been outed. And as it so happens, my entire family not only lives in NYC but was hanging out in Rachel’s apartment when she got back to the city this evening, so they’re all in on the gig. Which means that my earlier greetings need to be expanded: hi everybody!

(In all honesty, there’s no huge reason for the secrecy. When I started things here back in 1999, I’m not even sure that most of my family regularly checked their email, but I was more sure that they’d think a weblog was a bit weird. As time went on, it became a little bit of a challenge to see when they’d all find the site; my brother came knocking back in 2001, and I’ve always had a suspicion that my Google-loving parents have known for a little while. But now it’s all out in the open!)

Since I’ve been gone for so long (almost a week!), a few quickies to get ‘em out of the ever-accumulating to-do bookmark list:

  • My parents gave Shannon and me our wedding present early — a Canon EOS 350D (also known as the Digital Rebel XT, reviewed here at Rob Galbraith’s awesome Digital Photography Review) — and this thing is just amazing. I’ve played quite a bit with digital SLRs, and this is the best of the prosumer ones I’ve used; the images (even the compressed JPEGs) are bright and crisp, it autofocuses fast even in low light, the shooting modes run the gamut from letting the camera handle everything to manually controlling every last detail, and between the in-camera memory buffer and the CompactFlash write speed, I haven’t yet found myself in a position where the camera prevents me from shooting in order to catch up. Shannon and I had a blast with it during the Fourth of July weekend, and I’ve started tagging all the Flickr photos I’ve shot using the new toy. Fun fun!
  • I’m with Jason Kottke on this one — Microsoft’s page explaining leetspeak to parents has to be a joke, or at least the result of a bet made by some Microsoft employee about whether or not he could get the article online without anyone noticing.
  • I totally dig these “Charles Darwin has a posse” stickers — they’re cool as hell, and come in a handy PDF version as well!
  • After more than a month of inundation with news about another missing American white girl, I’m pretty much on board with the sentiment behind this op-ed over at Kuro5hin. Arianna Huffington also puts it pretty well, and provides some pretty depressing observations on the media coverage of the Aruban Abomination.

Warning: the following text contains the spoiler to tonight’s Dancing with the Stars grand finale! Highlight the text if you’re OK reading it…

I’m embarrassed to admit that the first reality competition show I’ve gotten into is Dancing with the Stars — but I have to admit it to be able to then say that this is the most rigged piece of crap I could possibly imagine putting on television. I mean, nevermind that Kelly Monaco — who is pretty much a stripper out there — actually got to the finals, but then she got three tens (the only tens given in the entire competition) for her dance in which there were at least two obvious mistakes?!? And then they win it all?!?!? Total, complete horseshit, I tell ya’; they got their asses handed to them out there every night, and the finals were no different. But I guess the 50% of the votes that came from the viewers saw her breasts rather than her dancing. I guess that’s what I get for tuning into reality shows!