Where are you going with this?

by Ted on January 3, 2006

Dwight Meredith:

Perhaps FISA is unduly restrictive. If so, let’s pass a better law. If, instead, we just let the President break the law anytime he decides to do so, we should not be surprised when some President decides to use that power in ways we find abhorrent. At that point, it will be nearly impossible to fix. No statute will be able to bind the President and both impeachment and constitutional amendment are very blunt instruments with long time lags. It is far better to decide what checks are needed before the fact.

Boy howdy. Other folks have used up most of the good points on the warantless wiretaps, but this point is absolutely vital. The White House has aggressively promoted the theory that the President can ignore the letter of the law if, in his judgement, national security would be better served by a different law permitting warrantless wiretaps, torture, etc. If the other branches of government give up the ability to constrain the President, they will likely never get it back again. Presidential campaigns don’t produce very many Cincinnatuses.

I’ve been a little surprised at the number of self-proclaimed small-government conservatives and libertarians who have stepped up to bat for Bush on this. The chasm between “Republicans” and “conservatives” continues to widen. I don’t see any way to reconcile the two. This country has had a pretty good run without subscribing to the theory of Presidential untouchability. The division of powers and rule of law seem to have paid some significant dividends. Letting them slip, even with the best of intentions, seems deeply, tragically unconservative. And yet the Pajamasphere seems intent on sneering at the press and cheerleading as the President jumps the rails.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve $3.5 million in venture capital“, apparently.

Matching sketches with photos

by Eszter Hargittai on January 3, 2006

Retrievr is an interesting experiment in matching up people’s sketches with photos on the photo-sharing site Flickr (granted, for now limited to a small segment of images on the service based on interestingness). There is definitely room for improvement, but it’s an interesting idea even if a bit off the mark regarding the matches for now.

I tried the service by creating some sketches of Christmas trees thinking there should be plenty in the recent Flickr pool.


Of these four, only the last one yielded any Christmas trees as results (only one of which was not itself just a drawing). The other hits were pretty random both in terms of shape and color depicting anything from cats and birds to close-up shots of flowers. One architecture image did make sense since it really does look like a tree (as noted by its creator in the photo’s title as well).

I played around with the system a bit more and realized that it may be most interesting for retrieving pictures based on color distribution. A blue-orange square yielded photos dominated by related colors.


It’s easy to find photos on Flickr based on topic (e.g. using tags or groups), but less obvious to find images based on color combination (there are exceptions, but these modes are less widespread). It is perhaps in that realm that Retrievr holds the most promise for now.

Mark Schmitt on abuse of executive power

by Kieran Healy on January 3, 2006

Mark Schmitt “provides some historical context”:http://markschmitt.typepad.com/decembrist/2006/01/our_long_nation.html for the current wiretapping scandal, and reminds us of the main practical reasons why allowing the President to circumvent the law is a bad idea:

Roughly speaking, there have been four great showdowns over abuse of executive power in modern U.S. history. … These episodes have certain themes in common. Yes, one of them is that they were all hatched in the first term of Republican presidencies and revealed only after reelection, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for. … First, all of them produced a backlash. … The lesson seems clear: In a constititutional system, those who want executive power to be protected and respected, should be especially wary of presidents who take it too far. … Second, all of them involved creating a zone of extreme secrecy in which decisions, and even the processes leading to those decisions, were kept secret not just from Congress and the Courts, but _within the executive branch itself_. … Third, in these zones of extreme secrecy, in which nothing ever has to be justified to anyone outside of the closed circle, all sorts of insanity flourishes. Personal obsessions take hold and are pursued unchecked. Ideas that would be too embarassing to explain to anyone seem to make sense and are carried out. This was true in every example, from the nutball Castro assassination schemes hatched in the CIA to the idea of firebombing the Brookings Institution in the Nixon White House, to the bizarre excesses of Iran-Contra, such as delivering a cake shaped like a key and a Bible signed by Reagan to the Iranian clerics. … Given what we know about these previous episodes in which the executive branch created zones of extreme secrecy, I think it’s quite likely that we will soon learn that the NSA domestic surveillance program involved much more than just tracking people who received calls from known _al Qaeda_ suspects, something that I certainly wouldn’t object to. I don’t know what it will be — some have speculated that it involved monitoring journalists — but whatever it is, it was something that couldn’t be justified even within the administration.

This is a good counterpoint to the detailed legal readings provided by people like Orin Kerr: the fine-grain of the legal issues is very important, of course, but the political sociology of executive/judicial relations is a much broader topic than the proper reading of particular statutes. Mark reminds us that we have historical cases to remind us what tends to happen to the institutions of American government when its officials want to throw the cloak of secrecy over substantial parts of it — not just to keep things from the public but, as Mark says, to hide things from other parts of the executive.