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Jonathan Pryor's web log

Definitions Matter

In much of life, definitions matter. Especially if the definitions are part of a law.

Which is why analysis of the definitional changes in Arlen Specter's surveillance bill is so interesting:

Specter's bill would mean that the NSA can tap every cell phone in the country of every US citizen, for entirely domestic calls, all without a warrant.

That's a pretty significant change in definitions...

(From Unclaimed Territory.)

Posted on 09 Aug 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

NSA Phone Call Database

The news was just released, and is making all the rounds.

The short, short version: the NSA has a huge database containing records of most phone calls made within the U.S. (only Qwest isn't handing over call records). Apparently the U.S. government thinks everyone is a potential terrorist, and the only solution is to breakignore every law in the book.

Because ignoring laws is the American way!

Posted on 11 May 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Defining Insanity

I got a couple of responses to my Criminalizing Nature entry, which can be summarized as "but 'abortion' doesn't mean that." In common context, this is true. What is also true is that the meanings of words change over time, which is why dictionaries are useful, and the dictionary does define "miscarriage" as a form of abortion.

Which shows that definitions control arguments. So we disagree on our definitions, and you can safely believe that I'm a loon who doesn't know what the correct definition of anything is.

Another comment was that abortion isn't about control, it's about murder (I'm possibly taking that out of context, due to my addled memory, and I'm without access to my email). Miscarriage isn't murder, so it isn't an issue, but abortion is murder.

Through the joy of definitions and taking things to extremes, I'll show that it is about control.

  1. Life begins at conception (according to South Dakota).
  2. That life is human (what else could it be?).
  3. "All men are created equal...with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." (From The U.S. Declaration of Independence.)
  4. Therefore, the fetus has a right to life.

So, if the fetus has a right to life, why should we let nature take its course and let the fetus die? In other words, why should we allow miscarriages? Yes, this is a silly question today, but consider 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years from now. With the probable advances in medical technology, it should be fairly easy to take a single cell and grow it into a human.

So, assuming we have this technology, wouldn't we have to grow the fetus into a child? It has the right to life, doesn't it?

So we have the moral mandate that every fetus is sacred. Since there's a ~70% chance of miscarriage before the woman even knows she's pregnant, wouldn't this require that she continually check for the presence of fetuses? At what point isn't this control? Is there a point?

But this is taking things to an extreme! It would never happen, right? Because humans never take anything to extremes.

Coming back down to earth, there are two more issues.

First, it was considered that this wouldn't ever be abused. We can quibble about the meaning of the word "abuse," but consider a different scenario. An elderly person dies. It's either natural, or its murder (or doctor assisted suicide, or something still equivalent to murder). What do we do? Assume it's natural, or assume foul play. The assumption depends on the circumstances; death in a hospital may raise more "red flags" than elsewhere, which may lead to investigations of doctors, which may result in medical malpractice lawsuits against the doctors. We know these happen; we can't say for sure if such lawsuits have ever been used as a form of abuse, but I wouldn't rule it out either.

So we come down to trust. Do we trust that the government, or whoever has power within some branch of the government, won't ever try to use and abuse any law at their disposal to make someones life difficult? Are we able to say that abuse never occurs? Which is why I said that this abortion law could be potentially one more law open abuse.

Law isn't usually concerned with nice behavior. If everyone were nice, laws wouldn't be needed. Laws are there for the exceptional cases, and any potential for abuse should be considered.

The second issue is the woman's rights. Not the woman's "right to choose," but the woman's rights to Life, Liberty, and the persuit of Happiness. The South Dakota law wouldn't permit abortions for rape or incest. So if a woman is raped, she must have the child. Is that fair? Isn't that punishing the victim? Is it fair to the child either, having no father around? (And would you want a rapist father around anyway? Perhaps the rapist should have to pay 100% of all child support for the next 18 years; perhaps economics would help prevent rape, and provide an incentive for more rapes to be reported.)

What is fair anyway? Too bad logic doesn't seem to actually help in tough questions like this, because everyone is using their own definitions....

Posted on 24 Feb 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Criminalizing Nature

I heard on NPR this afternoon about South Dakota's Abortion Ban bill. One of the points they mentioned is that the South Dakota legislature believes that life begins at conception, and thus all abortion is murder.

There's one problem with this definition: miscarriage. Miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion, and is fairly common, statistically; see these statastics. A pregancy is 75% likely to result in miscarriage within the first two weeks of gestation -- that's after conception and before the woman even knows that they're pregnant. Probability for miscarriage drops sharply after that, but this still implies that tens of thousands of miscarriages happen every year in this country.

If life begins at conception, and miscarriage is an abortion (by definition, even if it's spontaneous and outside of our control), then logically miscarriage would have to be illegal in the same way tha abortion is illegal. The result? Thousands of women would immediately be guilty, and they wouldn't know it. Anyone who had a stillbirth would be known to be guilty, and must have broken the law (despite having no control over it).

Does this make sense? Not at all. What South Dakota is doing, in effect, is trying to criminalize nature. Many will argue that this isn't what the legislatures intend -- and that's probably right. So the letter of the law will be ignored to follow the spirit of the law...until control freaks come to power and want to make some poor woman's life miserable, at which point they'll have one more law at their disposable for abuse.

Posted on 22 Feb 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

The innocent have nothing to hide...

A common phrase, which used to be a cliché, is this: "If you aren't doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?"

Slashdot, as usual, has a wonderful comment by SuperBanana with one possible problem.

(Un)Fortunately, we don't need to stick to theoretical arguments. As Lord Action says, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

So what happens when police believe that a bar is facilitating drug deals? Well, as TheAgitator mentions, the police take 70-90 SWAT officers to raid the bar, under the auspices of an Alcohol Beverage Control inspection (because that doesn't need a warrant), and find no evidence of drug deals...except for the drug deals that the police themselves were involved in (as part of undercover investigations). Can you say "entrapment?"

The innocent may have nothing to hide, but they also have rights, rights to live their live however they see fit (within the law), without needing to justify their actions to whoever requests them. The problem is that this "innocent have nothing to hide" meme shortchanges the rights of the innocent, subjecting them to life in a police state, including SWAT raids, when they have never done anything to deserve such treatment.

In short, this meme persists only to make the lives of the authorities easier, at the expense of everyone else, and eventually of everyone's respect for the law.

UPDATE: Bruce Schneier also discusses this meme.

Posted on 21 Feb 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Secular Societies

More humorous than my other wtf entries, The Brick Testament: Laws -- the laws from the Old Testament put to Lego.

See when you should stone your children, burn down an entire town, and try to kill all doves in the area. (OK, the last is for "Sexual Discharges", but it says that women needs to take "two doves or two young pigeons to the priest" 8 days after every menstrual cycle; the priest will kill both birds. Do this twelve times a year, for all women in a community...and that's a lot of birds.)

Aren't you glad we live in a secular society, where we don't need to follow such...archaic and immoral rules (at least by today's standard)?

Posted on 12 Feb 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Airport ID Checks are Constitutional

Airport ID checks are constitutional, as is apparently having secret laws that "mere mortals" are unable to read and understand. What you can't know can hurt you.

Slashdot provides coverage, and the standard host of decent comments (I suggest browsing at +5 to save time).

This does raise something I've been pondering for awhile. If "ignorance of the law is no excuse," does the law require that everyone be (a) clairvoyant, and (b) a super-genious? New laws are being created and changed every year (if not more frequently), so it isn't really reasonable to follow laws that you can't reasonably know about. Further, the law is so complex I'm not sure lawyers can keep it all straight. (I've heard that the first amendment of the Constitution now has several large tombs of case law restricting and expanding it, from "don't shout in a crowded theater" to campaign finance reform, and last I heard there were still questions about how political speach and campaign finance laws apply to blogs.)

How anyone is supposed to be able to keep track of all this is beyond me. Perhaps ignorance of some things should be an excuse, or perhaps our legal system needs to be simplified so that it can actually be comprehended.

Posted on 28 Jan 2006 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

The Security and Threat of Unchecked Presidential Power

When it was earlier discovered that President Bush had permitted wiretaps without a warrant, there was a lot of crying out as to whether or not this is legal. Apparently it isn't clear whether or not this action was legal, so we'll likely see this debated for the next year.

What is clear is that the scenario is clear as mud, with the NSA potentially using technology originally developed for Total Information Awareness (TIA), a program which would allow automated scanning of all electronic messages.

Meanwhile, the US Senate and Congress are trying to pass the USAPATRIOT Act.

Bruce Schneier chimes in with some wonderful quotes:

If the president can ignore laws regulating surveillance and wiretapping, why is Congress bothering to debate reauthorizing certain provisions of the Patriot Act?

What is clear is that the government wants an increasing role in our lives, even if computer-automated surveillance is a bad idea.

Posted on 21 Dec 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Male Human Rights

From Instapundit, do boys and men get equal human-rights billing as women?

That's a rather harsh question to ask, but when there are class assigments with the underlying assumption that all boys have attempted to rape a girl, and also that boys have never been abused and would lie about abuse, it makes one think.

Posted on 19 Dec 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Death Row for Self Defence

From Instapundit, the problem with no-knock police raids.

Short version: Police get a warrant for a no-knock police raid, raid a duplex, and enter the side of the duplex the don't have a warrant for (as they didn't know it was a duplex to begin with). The police either don't knock or don't provide sufficient reaction time from the inhabitants, enter, and one of the officers gets shot and later dies.

Perfectly understandable, actually -- you get woken up in the middle of the night, have people shooting at you, so you defend yourself and your family with the weapons available to you.

What isn't understandable is where it goes from there. The shooter was black, the officer white (and the son of the police chief), and the jury was white. The shooter was sent to death row.

What's deeply troubling is jury statements, in which they convicted because they didn't like the attorney's closing statement. has more.

Overall, this could be used as a reason to prohibit the death penalty -- innocent people have been convicted and will be needlessly killed.

Posted on 12 Dec 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink


From, PTO Eliminates "Technological Arts" Requirement.

Translation: "We don't need to restrict patents to just the 'useful arts,' the Constitution be damned! Bring on those patents covering algorithms to give managers raises!"

Groklaw also has some coverage.

Posted on 18 Oct 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

More on 'honor' killings

From Instapundit, more on the horribly mis-named 'honor' killings in Germany.

Posted on 10 Oct 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Found at

a group of French cleaning ladies who organised a car-sharing scheme to get to work are being taken to court by a coach company which accuses them of "an act of unfair and parasitical competition".

What is this world coming to?

Posted on 13 Jul 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Government Taking Private Land

Via Instapundit, A round of stories on government taking of private land.

<sarcasm>Who needs private property, anyway?</sarcasm>

Posted on 24 Jun 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Insane Patents

Just when I hoped that the scope of patents couldn't be expanded any further, comes this attempt to patent storylines and plots.

The end is nigh if this is granted...

Posted on 21 Jun 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Guns are a Human Right

Via Instapundit, how Zimbabwe is the posterchild for guns as a human right.

The short, short version: if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have guns. And if those "outlaws" happen to be controlling your country carrying out genocide... You're screwed, plain and simple.

Guns may have their problems, but the lack of guns is also problematic....

Posted on 10 Jun 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Death to the Public Domain!

From Groklaw... Ever get the feeling that major companies want the Public Domain to disappear? The Public Domain exists only to steal profits from mega-corporations, it has no real purpose. This is why it's gratifying to know that the state of New York has decided that when copyright expires, common law can be applied to assert the rights of the original owner. This means that no music can ever enter the public domain, assuring limited supply and greater profits for all "original owners" involved.

Satire is dead. I'll go cry now...

Posted on 14 Apr 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Patenting Medical Facts

From Groklaw, the patenting of medical facts, in particular patenting the knowledge that a vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency can be detected by measuring the patient's homocysteine level.

Is there anything left that can't be patented?

Posted on 30 Mar 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

TSA's Secure Flight

As Bruce Schneier mentions, making flying safe is a difficult problem. Making it immediately susceptible to feature kreep doesn't help.

Posted on 03 Feb 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Intellectual Property -- Not Just for Software!

From Instapundit... Many in the softare industry fear the problems that "intellectual property," particularly patents, can cause for entrepreneurs. Apparently it's also hitting the military model industry, where even World War II aircaft kits are being hit with demands.

What can a World War II aircaft be covered by? Patents should have expired by now, so I suppose it's trademark law that's causing problems...

Posted on 03 Feb 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Who Needs Health Insurance?

Illness and medical bills cause half of all bankruptcies according to the Harvard Medical School. More disturbing is the out-of-pocket medical costs: $13,460 for those with private insurance, and $10,893 for those without.

In other words, for this limited sample, you will owe more money by having medical insurance than you would without it. Though this doesn't say anything about the quality of life for those with vs. those without insurance -- those with insurance may have had better care, for example.

It also points out that medical insurance is primarily useful for "minor" health issues; anything major, and more importantly, major enough to keep you away from work long enough to cause loss of the job, and you might as well not have any insurance, as it won't help.

From the article:

Unless you're Bill Gates, you're just one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Most of the medically bankrupt were average Americans who happened to get sick. Health insurance offered little protection. Families with coverage faced unaffordable co-payments, deductibles and bills for uncovered items like physical therapy, psychiatric care and prescription drugs. And even the best job-based health insurance often vanished when prolonged illness caused job loss - precisely when families needed it most. Too often, private health insurance is an umbrella that melts in the rain.

Posted on 02 Feb 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink

Honor Thy Father... Or Else

Honor Thy Father -- Or Else. A Wonderful article showing just how screwed up the world can be. If people claim to be religious, and one of the 10 commandments is to not kill, how is it possible that any killing can be honorable?

Of course, this isn't a problem with religion, it's a problem of culture, of respect. What I can't fathom is why women receive so much repression. All I can guess is that the men are somehow scared of women, and thus do everything in their power to ensure that women will never do anything against men. It's sickening.

I do have to wonder how bad it is in the United States, though...

Posted on 02 Feb 2005 | Path: /wtf/ | Permalink