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Archive for January, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

Manhattan at night by hsosa5150 on stock.xchngAngy Rivera came to the United States from Colombia when she was three years old. Today, she is a 21 year-old criminology student at John Jay College in Manhattan. She is also an undocumented immigrant. People who lack empathy might call her an “illegal alien.”

Like so many in America today, she cannot afford college on her own. She managed to get a few scholarships, and the state of New York allows undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition if they live, you know, in the state. She cannot, however, qualify for ant sort of federal financial aid.

Debate the relative merits of immigrant education policy on your own time. Today I’m here to talk about how awesome people can be sometimes.

With a tuition bill of over $2,500 per semester, she needed to raise some funds. She took the remarkably bold step of “outing” herself online as undocumented so she could sell handmade “education bracelets” for $5 a piece. She wanted to raise $1,000 for a reduced academic schedule.

As the New York Daily News reported on January 7, she only made $60 selling bracelets online. She took a more direct route, going on Facebook and Chipin and asking people to donate $5 towards her education. It takes a certain amount of moxie not only to expose your immigration status to the world on the internet, but then to expose your financial plight to the world and ask for help. It just seems so…..American to seek opportunity that way…

If only 200 people contributed $5 towards her tuition bill, she would be set for a part-time semester. That’s not what happened, though. Life has a way of doing unexpected things.

Luis Hernandez, a 59 year-old retired subway conductor living in Brooklyn, saw her story in the Daily News and saw an opportunity to do a good deed. On January 10, he walked into the John Jay bursar’s office and plunked down $2,500, which means she can take a full load of courses this semester. The Daily News reported on him, saying that he tried to shun any publicity. “I’m just glad I was able to help her,” he told them. He told Rivera over the phone that her tuition bill was paid in full. She took the call while at a Starbucks in Greenwich Village and reportedly burst into tears.

Beyond that, the two of them apparently have no plans to meet in person.

I hope that we can find a sensible way to help people like Rivera get an education. Our immigration system, it should come as no surprise, struggles daily with its own psychosis. The DREAM Act would have allowed students who came here “illegally” as children (i.e. through no volition of their own) a path to education and citizenship if they would be willing to work their butts off for it. It was sensible and compassionate, so of course it was doomed. New York state has its own Dream Act in the works, and the state’s education department even has a price tag for offering tuition assistance to undocumented students. Based on the best available estimates of the total number of undocumented students in the state who would want to attend public colleges and universities, it would cost the state just over $600,000 per year to provide full tuition assistance. In state government terms, that’s small potatoes. And it’s an estimate, which means it is negotiable.

For now, I do not hold out much hope for a federal DREAM Act, or even a New York Dream Act. Don’t even get me started on Texas.

For now, politicians will continue to compete to see who can take the biggest dump on the dreams of hard-working immigrants everywhere.

While that is happening, I hope there are more people like Luis Hernandez.

Photo credit: Manhattan at night by hsosa5150 on stock.xchng.


Many pets go missing in big Austin storm

Dog and ballIf it’s not a drought in Austin, it’s something else. Now the dogs and cats need our help.

Strong January storm floods animal shelter with lost pets
38 dogs, cats found; waiting to be claimed

Following one of the worst rain storms to hit the Austin area in five years the Austin Animal Center received a higher number of lost pets than normal.

On Jan. 25, the day after the storm, 33 dogs and 5 cats were found and turned into the animal shelter — the highest animal intake for the year.

These pets do not have identification so there is no easy way to locate the owners. Many of the pets found look like they have owners as they are well groomed and healthy. The dogs most likely got scared and ran away due to the thunder and lightning.

The Austin Animal Center asks residents to come to the animal shelter today if they have lost a pet. The holding period for a lost dog is three days before the pet becomes available for adoption. Additionally, people can view the website for pictures of lost pets. A sampling of some of the lost pets can be found on Flckr.

The center will offer free identification tags, collars and HomeAgain microchips to all pet owners who reclaim their lost pets.

The Austin Animal Center is at 7201 Levander Loop, off Airport Boulevard and U.S.183.

If a pet is lost, owners should call 3-1-1 right away and check the Animal Center’s website for a picture of the lost animal. Tips to locate a lost pet include placing fliers in neighborhoods; and posting information on social media outlets and on lost pet websites such as

The Austin Animal Center is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. More information about Austin Animal Services programs can be found at or by calling (512) 978-0500 or 3-1-1 for animal issues after hours.

Contact: Patricia Fraga, Communications and Public Information Office, (512) 974-2969.

Photo credit: Dog and ball by degreezero on stock.xchng.


Joe Paterno and Bernie

The Canadian band Lowest of the Low released a song in 1991 called “So Long Bernie.” I discovered the band through Pandora a couple of years ago, and this song stuck with me. It hides a very dark theme under a rather jangly rock beat, which may be what makes it so haunting. The video here is an acoustic performance where you can hear the lyrics pretty well. A full live recording is here. The song (not based on any real event – I checked) essentially asks the question “What if you found out that your friend was actually a killer?” The singer describes seeing his friend on television being arrested and pondering what might have caused him to commit such a senseless crime. The full lyrics are here, but the last verse is what stuck in my head (bolded for what I wanted to emphasize):

So, now your mind is full of blood
A simple scream in place of every single thing you’ve done
They found her in a field
And when they found you swinging, well no one shed a tear
When they found you dangling, well, no one shed a tear
Ah, when they found you hanging…
Why would they shed a tear?
Why shed one tear?

We don’t know who “Bernie” is. We don’t know what he did for a living, or if he and the singer were close friends or just acquaintances. Sure, it’s only a four-minute song, but the point of that first bolded line above is that none of that would matter any more anyway. Whatever Bernie has done with his life, whatever accomplishments he may have made, even whatever joy he may have brought to others, all fade away with a “simple scream.” Bernie’s past, and his future, have been erased by his crime. All anyone will ever remember of him is the crime he committed.

Not only has Bernie lost the right to claim his accomplishments because of his crime, but he has also lost his claim on our empathy, as the second bolded line says. No one will mourn Bernie when he is gone, because he is a monster.

We do not do well with ambiguity. We like our heroes noble and valiant, and our villains unabashedly evil. We let our preconceived notions color and shape how we perceive just about everything, and it is very hard to break free. When we very much want to believe something, we have evolved many tools to find a way to believe it. We can rightly condemn someone like Bernie, who committed a horrific crime (if you don’t want to watch the video, it involves an unknown woman and a “six-inch blade”). He is “the villain,” without much ambiguity. When others fail to fit the hero/villain dichotomy perfectly (and they always fail to do so), we struggle.

DSC_0430 copyJoe Paterno was not a murderer. Let me get rid of that part of the metaphor right away. What he undoubtedly was, to many people, was a hero. Perhaps even a capital-H Hero.

He was never charged with a crime, because his alleged actions or inactions were not criminal in and of themselves. The various actors in this affair have yet to have their full day in court, so everything is still “alleged.” Paterno allegedly knew about accusations against Jerry Sandusky. He allegedly knew that at least one person saw Sandusky in an act of, well, you’ve read the news. He reported the matter to the administration. And that’s it. No calls to the police, and evidently no follow up. His interview shortly before his death read as a textbook example of CYA. To those incensed by the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, it was unconscionable and unforgivable that this could have happened under the nose of the most legendary football coach in history. He claims he knew little, and he did little about it, or so we think. Standing by in the face of a crime can be as bad as committing the crime yourself. The truth is, we will never know exactly how much or how little he knew. In the fury of the scandal though, that didn’t matter. The Hero became one of the Villains.

Unless, of course, you were a Penn State fan. If JoePa was truly the Hero, it was exceedingly difficult to reconcile the Hero with such horrific crimes. Even if JoePa didn’t commit a crime himself, how could the Hero have let this happen so close by? No, it must be something else. He must have done everything he could. It was the administration’s responsibility. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. They were certainly too hasty in firing him! (Lest anyone think these are straw men, they’re not.)

Joe Paterno statue - Beaver StadiumNow that the Hero is gone, it is a natural human reaction to make him even more Heroic. Social convention frowns upon speaking too ill of the deceased too soon, when the deceased is the Hero. Those who viewed JoePa as the Hero want to use this time to laud his accomplishments: over six decades coaching at Penn State, and all that came with it. Yes, he accomplished much during his life, but social convention must not let the Hero overshadow the Villian. In reality, both can occupy one person. We can remember the good someone did without denying the bad, and we can condemn the bad without forgetting the good. We are just very, very bad at striking that balance.

That balance between Hero and Villain is never 50/50, and there will never be consensus about the balance. For some, JoePa will always be the Hero, and for others the Villain. The question that everyone should address as honestly and objectively as possible is this: which is more important? Phenomenal accomplishments on the football field, or protecting children entrusted to someone working in the space you control? Honor the man if you wish. Death is always tragic, and lives should always be celebrated by those who loved the departed. Some tarnish, though cannot, and should not, be wiped away.

The merits of college football–of athletics in general–is a debate for another day. The bottom line (for me at least) is this: none of his supposedly laudable accomplishments matter anymore. When faced with the possibility of such a horrific crime occurring under his nose, Joe Paterno did the bare minimum required of him. As I said before, he committed no crime. He was not legally obligated to go to the police. He went to his nominal superiors. Then he sat by while nothing happened. This goes beyond mere legal obligations. In the face of a possible crime on his watch, a truly atrocious one at that, he did the least amount required.

The Hero did the bare minimum. That is not heroism. It is cowardice. That simple cowardice replaces every single thing he’s done. For the legacy of Joe Paterno, why would I shed a tear?

Photo credit: DSC_0430 copy by jkahnpsu, on Flickr; Joe Paterno statue – Beaver Stadium by kerrycrow, on Flickr.


A (Very) Few Thoughts on Positive Rights

Internet access fundraisingI’m not about to go into some long-winded thesis on legal theory, but I have always found the question of “positive” versus “negative” rights very interesting. Put very simply, negative rights involve the right of freedom from interference in something, e.g. freedom of speech or religion, which really means the right to speak or practice without undue government interference. Positive rights are a tougher nut to crack. These are entitlements to some service, and they are not as easily asserted or enforced.

This is also not to be confused with legal positivism, which is a different concept that you should read about on your own.

Frank Pasquale has a post at Concurring Opinions where he addresses theories of positive rights as they pertain to health care and internet access. Interesting stuff around which I am still trying to wrap my head.

Photo credit: Internet access fundraising by HowardLake, on Flickr.


Ahlquist Case Update: RI State Rep. Peter Palumbo is a Bad Person

The case of Jessica Ahlquist, who bravely stood up against an entire town to defend the Constitution, has been a model of good citizenship (on Ahlquist’s part, at least). Many, many other people have not behaved in much of an honorable manner. Now we have her duly elected state representative, Peter Palumbo, playing to his baser political instincts (via JT Eberhard):

Peter G. Palumbo, the Democrat in the RI House from the Cranston district, has no rebukes for the Jesus-loving liars, bullies, or thugs. He has nothing negative to say about the people who felt they were above the Constitution and lied to subvert it. He did, however, have something to say about Jessica. Palumbo said, sarcastically, that she is “An evil little thing.” That may have bee said sarcastically (there is debate over whether or not that line was sarcastic, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt), but the line “I think she’s being coerced by evil people” was most assuredly not. She is not being coerced, and her cause is not evil.

He said this of the girl who sought to do right to the best of her abilities and understanding, agreeably to the Constitution, and laws of the United States. The latter half of that comes from the United States oath of office. It is a pity, though not a surprise, that Jessica is the one who feels abiding by that oath is not “evil”.

Palumbo’s email address is His office phone number is (401) 785-2882. Spread the word and inundate him. Our leaders should respect the constitution, not snipe at those who have been been confirmed to have fought in its defense. Palumbo has just sided with dishonesty and bullies. We should have higher standards for our leaders, but evil men with Jesus in their hearts and a populace of the same keep these kinds of monsters in power, and they keep noble women like Jessica standing between the monsters and the Constitution those monsters are sworn to uphold.

In a moral world, this man’s career would end with this. Let’s continue to pursue a moral world.

I can’t add much of anything to that, except this little aside to Rep. Palumbo: tsk, tsk.


My advice to people who use Twitter to send automated spam

Go die in a fucking fire.


Not Every Lawyer Can Bill 3,000 Hours in a Year. Most Lawyers Shouldn’t

A lawyer who got axed from his firm for allegedly failing to make his billable hour requirements has filed suit against his former firm, claiming they essentially required him to commit billing fraud:

A California lawyer who says he was fired from his law firm because he couldn’t meet a quota requiring 3,000 billable hours a year has filed an employment bias suit over his ouster.

The former associate, Richard Unitan, claims the unrealistic requirement forced lawyers to lie about their hours, the Los Angeles Daily Journal reports. Unitan, a Riverside litigator, claims he was essentially fired for not committing billing fraud.

A 3,000 hour billable requirement would require working about eight hours a day, every day of the year. Most firms require no more than 2,100 billable hours a year.

They say that for every hour a lawyer works, they can only bill 30-45 minutes of that time. To bill 3,000 hours would therefore require spending 4,000-6,000 in the office every year, or 11-16 hours per day. (I’m not sure who “they” are, but they talk a lot.)

Some lawyers can probably take to that lifestyle with gusto. Other lawyers might enjoy exercise, the arts, food, or having a family. Some lawyers might aspire to be an interesting human being outside of the context of their periodic review with the managing partner of their firm. Some lawyers might aspire to spending some of the waking hours of their day not tracking their time in 6- or 15-minute increments.

But then, most lawyers don’t get to work at the big fancy law firms anyway.


Jessica Ahlquist, Portrait of a Hero

Religious liberty (which includes both freedom of and from religion) won a big victory in Rhode Island this week, with a court ruling that a prayer banner at Cranston High School violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and ordering the banner’s removal. At the center of the case is 16 year-old Cranston student Jessica Ahlquist, who stood up for her (and everyone’s) constitutional rights and has endured an ongoing litany of abuse and threats in response.

It is worth noting that this case is so straightforward a law professor might balk at even using it as a hypothetical in a first-year constitutional law class. A public school, in 1963, put up a banner titled “Prayer” beginning with an invocation to a “Heavenly Father” and ending with an “Amen.” Does it get any more prayerful than that? Faced with an almost-guaranteed loss, the school board decided to roll the dice with the funding that should be used to educate children, using it instead to pay lawyers to argue that their prayer is not really a prayer. Not surprisingly, a judge who has actually read several decades’ worth of Establishment Clause jurisprudence ruled in favor of Ahlquist. Also not surprisingly (but disappointingly), the backlash has been prompt and furious. The above link to the abuse heaped on Ahlquist is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who wants to remain blissfully ignorant of how some people can be.

Ahlquist’s supporters, of whom there are refreshingly many, are conducting a college scholarship fundraiser for her to make her future brighter than her present. Contributions will go to a fund set up by the American Humanist Association (of which I am a proud member). I encourage my reader(s) to stand in support of this brave young person. The world needs more people like her.

Related link: Ruling (PDF), Ahlquist v. City of Cranston, et al

Photo: linked from here.


Bring on the Trolls!!!

I have added Disqus commenting to the blog. You may now troll me across multiple platforms.


Breach Ben Stein’s Contract (Allegedly)

Kyocera wanted a pitchman for some electronic product they are selling. They approached Ben Stein, who was in a funny scene in a movie 26 years ago, had a Comedy Central game show that launched the career of Jimmy Kimmel, and who has otherwise been a colossal embarrassment to all that is intellectually honest. They offered him $300,000 to appear in some commercials or something. Somehow, it took Kyocera three months to figure out that Ben Stein holds positions that are rather counter to the scientific mainstream (but that make him a darling, I’m sure, on the Republican cocktail party circuit) on the non-question of man-made climate change. So they withdrew their offer to him.

I have a few concerns about Kyocera here, in that they are an electronics company that apparently does not know how to Google someone.

The bigger issue is this: faced with the withdrawal of a proposed contract still under negotiation, Ben Stein sued, claiming not only breach of contract but violation of his religious liberties.

The complaint, filed on January 11, 2012, alleges that a valid contract exists between Stein and Kyocera because there had been both “offer” and “acceptance.” He claims that, although the parties had not signed a final contract, their agreement is nonetheless legally binding, in part because he had already changed his plans to accomodate Kyocera.

This sounds more like promissory estoppel to me than breach of contract, but that wouldn’t get him the full $300,000 value of the contract in damages. Still, any first-year law student will tell you that “offer” and “acceptance,” in addition to “consideration,” are fundamental components of a binding contract. (Second-year law students might tell you that it is a little more complicated than just that, but go with me here.) I therefore cannot categorically or snarkily dismiss a breach of contract claim in this case.

I can, however, snarkily dismiss his claim for “wrongful discharge in violation of fundamental public policy,” in which he claims that Kyocera’s withdrawal of their offer discriminates against him for his religious beliefs. He is basically asking the government to tell a business what to do on a matter (in his mind) of religious conscience. Don’t Republicans generally oppose that?

At least Stein has the honesty to admit that his questioning of anthropogenic global warming is based on religious doctrine and not any sort of scientific knowledge. I wonder if that was a deliberate admission on his part.

He throws in a claim for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” because adhering to basic scientific knowledge obviously hurts his fee-fees.

This case has the hypothetical potential to put global warming denialism on trial, given that Stein either has to demonstrate that Kyocera dishonestly discriminated against a legitimate difference of scientific opinion, or he has to come right out and say it’s a religious doctrine and therefore not subject to the court’s (or Kyocera’s) review. Either way, science is likely to have a good day.

(h/t PZ Myers for the story)