Archives April 2009

Should There Even Be Hate-Crime Laws?

Congress is currently considering the
Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act,
also known as the
Matthew Shepard

On the face of it, hurting someone for being
gay/black/left-handed/whatever is a terrible thing, so it should be

But hurting people is already covered by other laws. And should
beating someone up for being gay be considered a worse crime than
beating up a random person on the street? It doesn’t seem so to me.
Yes, motive comes into play during criminal proceedings, but usually
it’s to determine things like whether the defendant is guilty of
murder or merely manslaughter. But being a homophobe isn’t a crime.
Just look at Fred Phelps. So why should a crime motivated by bigotry
be worse than the same crime, committed for some other reason?

The Human Rights Campaign presents
a possible answer:

A hate crime occurs when the perpetrator of the crime intentionally selects the victim because of who the victim is. Hate crimes rend the fabric of our society and fragment communities because they target an entire community or group of people, not just the individual victim.

In other words, the people who killed Matthew Shepard commited two
offenses: one against Shepard, obviously; but also a threat to the gay
community: “Look out, homos: you’re next!”

But that, too, would seem to be covered by other laws. If someone
killed a stockbroker — specifically sought out a finance worker
because he wanted to punish someone for the economic meltdown —
should that be prosecuted the same way as a hate crime? In both cases,
a person has been harmed, and a class of people has been threatened.
In fact, didn’t AIG have to take down the signs on some of its offices
because its
employees were being threatened
by people angry over the bailout? So why limit this sort of
legislation to those groups that have been discriminated against and
harassed in the past?

The Matthew Shepard act has some other provisions:

The Act provides the DOJ with the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions either by lending assistance or, where local authorities are unwilling or unable to act, by taking the lead in investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated, violent crimes resulting in death or serious bodily injury. The LLEHCPA also makes grants available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes committed by juveniles, train law enforcement officers or assist in state and local investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated crimes.

Why is this necessary?:

The Laramie, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office had to furlough five deputies in order to cover the more than $150,000 that it cost to investigate Matthew Shepard’s murder. Yet when Jasper, Texas investigated the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., it received $284,000 in federal funds because Byrd’s murder was motivated by race, rather than sexual orientation.

Human Rights First
Think Progress)

Providing federal assistance to state and local police departments
that don’t have the resources to investigate a crime seems like a good
idea. But the Shepard Act seems to be adding more special cases when a
more general solution is needed.

The problem isn’t that that the law addresses one unfairly-despised
minority and not another. The problem is cops not having the money and
manpower to do a good job and bring those responsible to justice. If
someone shoots up a post office in Smalltown, Indiana, and the
Sheriff’s department can’t conduct a proper investigation, will they
be denied federal assistance because no one thought to include postal
workers in this bill?

Maybe I’m wrong, but ultimately the Shepard bill seems to be trying to
solve real problems the wrong way. It’s not that I don’t think hurting
and threatening gays should be a crime. I just think that it shouldn’t
be limited to any one minority or handful of minorities; that it’s
just as bad to hurt and threaten anyone.

And if local police departments can’t bring criminals to justice
because they lack the resources to investigate properly, by all means,
let’s help them. But let’s not do this in a hate-crime bill simply
because the last time this problem came up, it involved a hate crime.

iReligion 2.0

The Telegraph
reports that

Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland’s Roman Catholics, has urged social network users to start sending daily prayers by text, Twitter or e-mail.

This, of course, could be the start of something huge: if tweeted
prayers are as good as spoken ones (contest for the comments section:
condense the Lord’s Prayer into 140 characters), then the sky’s the

Imagine: you add a dinner date on your PDA. When it gets added to your
calendar server, it sends a request to the Catholic church’s server,
with the XML equivalent of “forgive me, father, for I have committed
gluttony”. The church’s expert system analyzes this request behind the
scenes, and responds with something like “say five Hail Marys”
(properly encapsulated in XML, of course). Your home computer then
schedules a time to tweet five Hail Marys while you sleep.

At MyVatican, you can view your history confession, schedule
preemptive penance, friend saints and other intercessors, buy relics
at the online shop, and follow your favorite priests as they get
shuffled from one parish to the next.

What would be really cool would be if they wikified the
Catholic Encyclopedia.
Though I assume that [citation needed] would be
replaced by [must be taken on faith].

Hello, Playlist!

Because I haven’t done one in a while, and because I still have some
DJ cred to demolish.

  • Say Hello, Laurie Anderson
  • Hello City, Barenaked Ladies
  • Hello Radio, They Might Be Giants
  • Hello, Hooray, Alice Cooper
  • Greetings From A Dead Man, Eurythmics
  • Greetings to the New Brunette, Billy Bragg
  • Hello, I Am Your Heart, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
  • Hello, I Love You, The Doors
  • Chamber of Hellos, Wire Train
  • Hello, Goodbye, The Beatles
  • Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, Soft Cell
  • Goodbye, Gravity Kills
  • Goodbye to the Village, Killing Joke
  • Goodbye Blue Sky, Pink Floyd
  • Sigh’s Smell of Farewell, Cocteau Twins
  • Adios, KMFDM
  • Adieu, Sweet Bahnhof, The Nits
  • Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Led Zeppelin
  • 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Simon and Garfunkel
  • Bye Bye Love, The Cars
  • Leave in Silence, Depeche Mode
  • Leave Me Alone, New Order
  • Hello Again, The Cars
  • P.S. Goodbye, The Chameleons
Just A Little Bit of Planning

One thing I’ve noticed about my code is that an awful lot of the
comments are of the form

	// XXX - Error-checking

is an easily-grepped
marker for something that needs to be fixed.)

The proximate reason for this accumulation of “do something smart if
something goes wrong to-do items is that a lot of the time, the
function in which this appears doesn’t have a mechanism for reporting
errors, so I don’t know what to do if I detected a run-time error.

This leads to the other big problem, the one where I’m calling another
function of mine, which doesn’t report errors, so I can’t even tell if
something went wrong.

So if a() calls b() which calls
c(), all three are likely to have
XXX - Error-checking
comments; but c() doesn’t know what to do in case of en
error, and b() and a() don’t even know how
to detect errors. And so the XXX comments accumulate.

For me, this is often caused by the fact that experimental programming
and production programming are quite different: when I’m learning a
new system, such as a new graphics or math library, I want to figure
out which functions I’m supposed to call to get the results I want,
what the various data structures do, which one of multiple approaches
to the problem works best, and so forth.

If I set up a test environment (e.g., a database server so I can play
around with database-manipulation code), I’ll be keeping an eye on it
to make sure that everything is sane, so my experimental code needn’t
worry about checking whether the server is up. And if it can’t make a
connection, it’ll likely dump core; but since I don’t have any
precious data or users who’ll yell at me if things go wrong, it
doesn’t matter. It’s best to just set up a working environment and
hammer at the code until it works. I tend to accumulate a large number
of ad hoc modules, functions, data files with names like
foo, bar, foo2, and so forth.

In production, of course, this isn’t good enough: all sorts of things
can go wrong: servers go down, network connections get broken, runaway
processes suck up all available memory, users try to open nonexistent
files, viruses try to overflow buffers, and so forth. Code needs not
only to detect errors, but deal with them as gracefully as possible.

But if I’m working on a larger project, and working on adding new
functionality that I’m not familar with, the temptation is strong to
take the “learning” code that’s been hammered into some kind of shape,
and plop it in the middle of existing production code.

Neither approach is inherently wrong. Each is appropriate in certain
contexts. You want to keep things loose and fluid and unstructured
while learning, because by definition you don’t know what’s going and
what’s best. And you want to have things organized, structured, and
regimented in production, to make it easier to avoid and find bugs, to
ensure code quality and stability.

But this difference does mean that it can be hard to integrate new
code into production code.

Often, test code is so messy that there’s really no choice but to do a
complete rewrite. Neater test code is worse in this regard, since it
may trick you into thinking that with just a little bit of cleaning
up, you can use it in production.

So it’s important, when moving from test to production code, to ask
oneself how errors should be reported. This takes a bit more planning
ahead of time, but like security, it’s easier to build it in from the
start than to retrofit it onto existing code.

The thing that works for me is:

  1. Think of a function to add.
  2. Write a comment describing the function: what it does, which
    arguments it takes, what value(s) it returns, and what it does in case
    of error.
  3. Write the function.

In that order.

This may be more structured than you want in the playing-around phase,
in which case you should definitely consider using it during the
hammering-into-shape phase, after you have the basic functionality
working, and before you’ve started moving test code into production.
Over time, though, this kind of forethought may become automatic
enough that it doesn’t get much in the way of experimentation.

Open Thread

Particularly for anyone who wants to contact me after the The Case for Christ talk at UMD, but go ahead and say what you like. Unless you’re a spammer, in which case FOAD.

Why Gay Marriage Is Exclusionary

The reason I read Catholic League releases is that BillDo’s stage persona, that of the hypersensitive apoplectic paranoiac stamping his little feet is amusing. Lately, though, he’s been in a bit of a slump, his tirades not quite over the top enough to be funny.

So I was pleased to see this item from last week:

For all the happy talk about inclusion, gay marriage is positively exclusionary in its effects. How so? Next month we will celebrate Mother’s Day. How do two men tell their legally acquired children that they are excluded from celebrating this special day? How do two women tell their legally acquired children that they are excluded from celebrating Father’s Day?

Stop teh gays from marrying, won’t you? Do it for the children. And for the gay parents who don’t want to explain things to their kids.

NOM Ad Parody

$NOM_ad =~ s/gay/interracial/ ==


I think this perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with the
original NOM ad.

(HT Cyde Weys.)

(PS: Amusingly enough, the song that was playing when I got this link was Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is.)

Secular Bible Study: The Book of Joshua

I’m leading Secular Bible Study today, so here are my notes on the book of Joshua (org-mode version).

More details later, hopefully.

Update, Sat Apr 18 17:42:26 2009:

Well, that went pretty well, I thought. I didn’t get to give my presentation, just give out bits and pieces of it as they became relevant to the conversation. Then again, since I wasn’t really able to turn my disjoint collection of notes into a coherent presentation, it’s probably just as well.

I mentioned Iron Chariots, the counter-apologetics wiki (which is where I got the definitions of henotheism and monolatrism. (Consider this a plug for the site. All of you who attended had interesting things to contribute, so you might as well contribute to the wiki and share with the world.)

The topic of theologians tying themselves in logical knots to justify or rationalize things like the book of Joshua reminded me of this post by Greta Christina, comparing religion to fan fiction.

I’ve probably forgotten some references that I promised people. If so, please speak up in the comments.

Legal Markup Language

Today at work, I had to sign some legal papers. They were pretty standard “I have read the attached policy and agree to be bound by it” stuff that all of us Full-Time Employment Units have to sign once a year.

But I’m the sort of person who believes that if I sign an agreement, I ought to at least know what it says. But I have better things to do than to read legalese all day.

The same problem applies to a lot of commercial applications: every time you upgrade, you have to agree to a EULA for the new version. For a variety of reasons, most people just click through and get on with their lives. But it would be nice to be able to know that the vendor hasn’t just asked you to sign over your firstborn.

One possible solution would be a markup and revision system for legal documents. For starters, if your job requires you to sign an Acceptable Behavior Policy once a year, you could read it carefully once when you sign on, and save a copy. Then, the next year, you can compare the version you’re given with the one you signed a year ago. If there are no changes, you can just sign it without reading, on the grounds that if you didn’t have a problem with it last year, you don’t have a problem with it now.

Of course, a lot of documents include other documents by reference. These need to be archived as well.

It would also be nice to add comments: for instance, if the policy requires you to keep your cell phone number on file with your manager so that you can be contacted outsiide of business hours, you could add “Has my cell phone changed since last year?” in the comment area.

Since big chunks of legal documents are just boilerplate text, and since many legal documents (such as software EULAs, credit card applications, car rental agreements, etc.) apply to many people, it would be nice to look them up on the net. That is, the tool on your desktop could take the MD5 hash of a clause, send that off to the legal opinion servers of your choice, and see what they have to say. For instance, the EFF could have a repository that says that certain clauses aren’t as scary as they sound; the FSF could point out which clauses will forfeit your Free Software-loving soul.

This could be a commercial service: you could pay a legal firm for online legal advice. Yes, a lawyer would have to read and research the various documents, and that’s expensive; but if they can spread the cost around several hundred or thousand clients, it could become affordable.

You should be able to specify certain details about your situation. For example, a clause that affects US Government employees might be either important or irrelevant, depending on whether you’re a fed or not. You should be able to check or uncheck “I work for the US government” in the preferences menu, so that the software will look up the appropriate response. Ditto if you don’t work at a nuclear reactor, don’t deal in foreign trade, and so forth.

One interesting aspect of this is the coding theory aspect of it: there’s a level of distrust that has to be dealt with. If you sign the yearly policy without reading it because it hasn’t changed since last year, then you probably don’t want to leave your copy of last year’s document with your employer, in case they try to change it. And if you leave a copy on your employer’s computer, they might not be above rooting around in your files to change your backup to make it match this year’s version. So you’ll want to be able to cryptographically sign each document. And of course any sensitive information that goes out on the net needs to be encrypted.

Then there’s the question of giving away information by the sorts of questions you ask. For instance, you may not want the people running Joe Random Legal Server to know that you work for the military or at a nuclear power plant, but there are common clauses that affect people who do. So while the program on your desktop needs to know this in order to give you good advice, that’s not necessarily something you need to send out on the net. So when it sends out a query about a particular clause, the protocol should allow to specify as much or as little detail as you want: if you say that you don’t deal in trade with foreign nationals, the remote server can save itself the trouble of looking up what a given clause means for those who do; but if you don’t say whether you’re in the military, it’ll send both responses back and let your desktop software decide which version to show you.

Of course, you probably don’t mind letting your attorneys know whether you’re in the military, so the software should be smart enough to send this information only to some servers and not others.

I imagine that some of this already exists: contracts are already negotiated between parties that don’t trust each other. Presumably the law firms on each side already have software that’ll tell them that section 3, paragraph 10 hasn’t changed since the last round of negotiations, so they don’t need to check it again.

And of course laws go through many iterations from original inception to bill to committee to floor vote, and are often amended by people of other parties, who’d love to make life miserable for you. The staffs of legislators must have some system for keeping track of it all. Hopefully some of it is automated.

For software, there are already software-installation tools that include presenting a EULA to the user as a standard step. It shouldn’t be too hard to put in a hook that calls the user’s preferred legal document management system.

Subversion version control system has a “blame” subcommand that shows you when certain lines in a file were last changed, and by whom. Legalese is so structured and formal that it seems that a similar approach should be able to help there as well.

Discovery of the Day

The book of Proverbs
is funnier if you add “in bed
at the end of every verse.

For instance:

1:8 Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

12:18 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

13:4 The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.