01 August 2016

How an American railfan learned to hate commuting with @SW_Trains

I've always had a fondness for trains. This announcement should surprise no one who knows me, because if you know me at all, you know that I'm a geek - someone the Brits might call (with classic understatement) a bit of an Anorak.  And I'm a dilettante of an anorak at that - I rarely delve too deeply into any one geekish pursuit; instead, I skim the surface of many. But my love of rail is rooted a bit more deeply than my other hobbies. 

Growing up in the Bronx, I learned that train = special very early. Whenever we went anywhere different when I was growing up, a train was involved. Maybe it was just the D or the 4 into Manhattan for a day trip to the museums.  Maybe it was a walk down to the overpass at the end of 204th Street to watch the commuter trains run up and down the Harlem Line, or, if the four of us kids had been really good, to stand on the overpass and watch trains move around the MTA's Concourse Yard. But all of that paled to the real trains - the ones that belong to the decade-long summer vacations of childhood.

Every year, my hassled and massively overburdened parents would shepherd four kids and several massive bags to the subway, on and off the subway, and into the massive concourse of Grand Central Terminal to catch an Amtrak train up the old New York Central's famed Water Level Route, to the amazing, exotic destinations of Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo on our annual excursion to visit our grandparents. And when we got to Buffalo, and out to the cottage on Lake Erie, there would be long days sitting outside watching the trains and counting the cars - several trains an hour - along the double-track Conrail mainline. 

The romance faded, of course.  The summers got shorter. The mixed freights and cabooses were replaced by endless strings of intermodal containers with end-of-train devices at the rear. And I got older, and the fascination of trains was overtaken by a fascination with girls (occasionally at the expense of watching what was in front of me when I was on my bike). 

But that was enough to leave me with warm memories. So when we learned that we were moving to Andover this year, I took a look and saw that Andover is just over an hour by train from London, I considered that almost a bonus. My British friends might make complaining about rail a national pastime, but I just laughed. Regular service to almost anywhere in the country you might want to go? Multiple trains per hour to many, many destinations? Rail connections to the Continent? They didn't know how good they had it. 

And when we arrived, the first several journeys confirmed that for me. There were a couple of minor issues, but they seemed unimportant, particularly while I sat at the window, and watched the English countryside roll by. I sat and read, enjoyed my commute, even got to know the difference between the Class 159s I ride and the 450s and 455s that haul closer-in commuters on the suburban routes, and the 444s that run on the electrified long distance routes. The romance was alive and well. 

It was. 

Yet I now find that I spend at least as much time bitching and moaning about the service as any Brit I know. I routinely get off the train feeling much more miserable than I was when I got on, whether it's morning or night. I thoroughly dislike my commute. 

Over the next few days or weeks, I'm going to explore how that happened, and try to figure out what went so wrong. A bit of it is the result of natural causes - of reality not living up to the standard set by memory - but most of it isn't. Some of it will be down to failures of the company that operates the trains (the Stagecoach Group, which runs the South West Trains franchise). Other problems result from the system that gives the franchisee so little control over things that matter to the commute, and still more from privatization itself. 

I'll talk about the privatization first, in the next post. 

24 June 2016

Sorry, #leave , but you're all UKIP now.

Britain is out.

And now I find that I've got quite a few #leave friends who are suddenly anxious to make sure that I know that they aren't racists. That they did not vote leave because Nigel Farage made them afraid of mass rapes by migrants. That they voted leave for other reasons, such as the impact of undemocratically adopted Brussels regulations on the UK, or EU overreach into national affairs, or because they feel that the UK should negotiate its own trade deals. That they aren't, in short, racists.

And I believe them.

I don't think that voting to exit the EU was the best choice, but there's legitimate cause for complaint about the EU. So much so, in fact, that it's insane to think that the result of the vote was entirely driven by irrational xenophobia. I don't think, for example, that the Minister The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, joined the "out" campaign because he thinks that Nigel Farage talks good sense. I think that his motivation is much more likely to be tied to other factors, such as frustration with a Court of Justice for the European Union that seemed determined to overrule as much of the common law system as possible.

But I don't care.

Because the thing is, it was clear from the start that a victory for #leave wouldn't happen without the UKIP support. So while toxic Nigel wasn't part of the "official" Leave campaign, while there was an "official" distance placed between "official" Leave and UKIP, there were no efforts to place any actual distance between UKIP and Leave. When Nigel spouted off about mass rape, there was not loud condemnation; instead, there were remarks about the effect of Turkey joining the EU, and whether the UK could manage suddenly growing to 70-80 million. There was no condemnation, but there were many dog whistles.

The Leave campaign voluntarily got into harness with UKIP, because that's what it was going to take to get across the line. The Leave campaign does not get to cut those chains that easily now that the race is done.

"Mainstream" leave couldn't have done it alone, and nor could UKIP. They did it together, and together they remain.

Sorry, #Leave, but you're all UKIP now.

25 May 2016

The most important legal case of this year was published last week. You've probably never heard of it.

The title of this post seem a bit click-baity, but it's not an exaggeration. The case that I'm going to discuss has a direct effect on Australia's public health efforts to require plain-packaging for tobacco products, will have a similar effect on other such efforts in other countries, and will have downstream effects on regulatory efforts on public health, environmental, and human rights issues around the world.

But here's the thing: this case isn't a US Supreme Court case, it's not a case from any of the European Union courts, and it's not even a case from the International Court of Justice. In fact, it's not a court case at all. It's a decision reached by a panel of three arbitrators, which is subject to little to no appellate review, and which is enforceable around the world.

For clarity: yes, I did just say that the most important legal case of this year is the product of arbitration proceedings rather than any national or international court; and no, I am not exaggerating.

There's an obscure area of international law that permits corporations to force countries into arbitration when the corporation believes that they have been unfairly and inequitably treated by the country, or when they think the country has taken their property without paying fair compensation. Corporations have been using this area of law to challenge public health and environmental regulations. The decision in this case may make it a little harder, and more risky, for corporations to do this in the future.

The case is: Philip Morris Asia Ltd. v. The Commonwealth of Australia, and is part of Philip Morris' ongoing efforts to fend off increased regulation of tobacco products.

I'm going to do my best to explain this case, and why the case is so massively important, as clearly and simply as I can. I'm going to simplify the living crap out of everything, drop as many of the boring and obscure technical details as I possibly can, and I can promise you that this is probably still going to bore the everliving shit out of most of you. But please try to stay with me anyway.  It's one of those areas where there's a lot of scary stuff hidden behind all the boring.

10 December 2015

Legal Schadenfreude: An Epic Pwning of Donald Trump's Lawyer

"Should your client actually be elected Commander-in-Chief, will you be the one writing the cease and desist letters to Vladimir Putin, or will that be handled by outside counsel?" - Counsel for Republican PAC to Counsel for Donald Trump
Law can be fun sometimes, especially if you're willing to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude. And when the schadenfreude is at the expense of one of Donald Trump's cronies, it's doubly sweet.  As I'm sure you know, The Donald has been known to threaten litigation from time to time - particularly when he feels like he's been unjustly maligned. At least a few of the cease and desist letters threatening litigation on behalf of The World's Worst Hairdo have been signed by one Alan Garten, General Counsel to both The Trump Organization (the The itself) and Donald J. Trump. 

It seems that Mr. Garten's most recent experiment in the C&D genre might possibly not have worked out as well as he would have liked. He apparently decided that (1) he had correctly identified the Political Action Committee that funded an attack ad directed at Trump's campaign-trail activity; (2) there is a universe where it would be appropriate for Donald Trump's for-profit business enterprise to send a cease-and-desist letter in an attempt to halt that ad campaign; and (3) that he actually lives in that universe. Sadly for Mr. Garten, none of those things turned out to be true. 

As a result, Mr. Garten sent a cease and desist letter to the wrong organization. This has resulted in a (probably meritorious) Federal Elections Commission complaint against his client, and the publication by the Washington Post of his letter, their reply, and the complaint.  All in all, probably not Mr. Garten's best-ever day at work. 

Let's hit the highlights, shall we? 

Mr. Garten's C&D was sent on Trump Organization letterhead. It was also short, to the point, and clearly the work of a flaming asshole. In reads, in relevant part: 

"It has come to my attention that you plan on producing and disseminating certain [...] advertisements directly and personally attacking my client. Though we believe your decision is fool hearted [sic], please be advised that in the even your ads contain any false, misleading, defamatory, inaccurate, or otherwise tortious statements or representations concerning Mr. Trump, his businesses or his brand, we will not hesitate to seek immediate legal action to prevent such distribution and hold you jointly and severally liable to the fullest extent of the law for any damages resulting therefrom ... and will look forward to doing it. [ellipsis in original]
Please be guided accordingly."
That is seriously the kind of lawyer letter that makes people hate lawyers. It's also aggressive, obnoxious, and utterly classless - in other words, completely consistent with everything the Trump brand stands for.

Apparently, it was not well received. (Go figure.) To begin with, it was sent to the wrong organization. Trump's guy, it seems, directed the letter to the Right to Rise PAC, Inc. Unfortunately, Right to Rise, Inc. is Jeb Bush's leadership PAC, and leadership PACs don't produce ads. The ads are produced by "Super PACs," such as the independent pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise USA. If you're confused, don't worry. No, actually, do worry - this shows just how confusing and hard to follow the flow of big money into campaigns has become since Citizens United - but know that you're not alone in your confusion. To keep things simple, from here out I'll refer to Right to Rise, Inc. as "Inc." 

Of course, it's one thing for you to be confused about the difference between Inc. and Right to Rise USA. It's another for an experienced corporate counsel to make a mistake like that. It was, as the WaPo put it, a "rookie mistake" on Mr. Garten's part.  Inc's lawyers, Charles Spies and James Tyrrell III, begin by pointing the error out and helpfully (if condescendingly) point Garten to such helpful resources as the FEC website and the Citizens United decision. They then continue:

"[W]e are intrigued (but not surprised) by your continued efforts to silence critics of your client's campaign by employing litigious threats and bullying. Should your client actually be elected Commander-in-Chief, will you be the one writing the cease and desist letters to Vladimir Putin, or will that be handled by outside counsel? As a candidate for President, your client is a public figure and his campaign should, and will, be fact-checked. The ability to criticize a candidate's record, policies and matters of public importance lies at the heart of the First Amendment, as courts have repeatedly recognized. If you have the time between bankruptcy filings and editing reality show contracts, we urge you to flip through the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.  If your client is so thin-skinned that he cannot handle his critics' presentation of his own public statements, policies and record to the voting public, and if such communications hurts his feelings, he is welcome to purchase airtime to defend his record. After all, a wall can be built around many things, but not around the First Amendment.  
Lastly, in light of your confusion between Leadership PACs and Super PACs, we have to assume you may also be unaware of the FEC's prohibition on a federal candidate's use of corporate resources for campaign purposes. Although your client may think he is above the law and be accustomed to using lawsuits to bail out his failed business deals, the Federal Election Campaign Act and the FEC's Regulations nonetheless apply to him and his campaign. Perhaps the attached complaint, filed today, will serve as a reminder of your client's legal obligations under federal election laws. Just as your client is attempting to quickly learn the basics of foreign policy, we wish you personally the best in your attempts to learn election law.  
That's not the snarkiest response to a cease-and-desist I've ever seen, but it's up there. In addition to the amusement value, it's noteworthy for a few other reasons. 

First: The Eleventh Commandment has clearly gone out the window, and at a very early stage in the primaries. The letter itself is very negative to begin with, and then there's the fact that it found its way into the hands of the Washington Post. 

Second: There is a good chance that the few remaining "mainstream" Republicans hate Trump even more than the Democrats do. This shows, if nothing else, that they may not be entirely willing to admit their own role in creating the monster that is consuming the GOP. 

Finally: It's extremely likely that the Trump Organization's cease and desist letters are, in addition to being bullying and juvenile attempts at smothering dissent, violations of federal law. There are a number of statutes that could apply, most of which were cited by Inc's counsel in their FEC complaint, but they all go to the same principle: using your for-profit corporation to bully campaign opponents constitutes an illegal contribution of valuable services to a political campaign. 

The Trump Organization appears to think otherwise - they issued a statement claiming that they are just "zealously protect[ing] Mr. Trump's brand." That's not going to fly as an excuse. Setting aside the fact that the biggest threat to the Trump image is Trump, their cease and desist was directed squarely at Trump's political opponents. It will be interesting to see how thoroughly they get smacked down if they try to argue that point to the FEC. It will also be interesting to see how the notoriously thin-skinned Trump and his staff deal with the strengthening opposition from the Republican Old Guard. 

Yup. It's popcorn time. 

09 December 2015

Pernicious Right-Wing Nonsense: The "Donald Trump is no worse than Jimmy Carter" meme.

Apparently, there is nothing Donald Trump can say that is so outrageous that you will not find a right-wing apologist willing to defend it. Case in point: his call for a ban on allowing Muslims to enter the United States.  The idea itself is abhorrent to me, and goes against everything we stand for and believe in as Americans. And when that's what Dick freaking Chaney is saying about your plan, you really have gone off into the wilds of reactionary lunacy. So, naturally, justifications for Trump's remarks have started showing up in my Facebook feed. 

The one I've seen the most often, probably because it's the one that pretends to almost make an attempt at avoiding blanket bigotry, is one that goes like this: "Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims is just like Jimmy Carter's actual ban on Iranians." Actually, Trump's proposed ban on Muslims is almost completely unlike Jimmy Carter's actual ban on Iranians. Here's why:

Iran is a country. Islam is a religion. Those are two very different things, particularly when it comes to things like international law. 
It is absolutely a fact that Jimmy Carter issued orders barring Iranians from entering the US during the Iran hostage crisis. (Of course, it's also true that Carter's order contained an exception for "compelling and proven humanitarian reasons," while the frothing Islamophobia spewing forth from even the more respectably mainstream portions of the American political right - such as the elected government of the State of Texas - seems to be largely directed at keeping Muslims with "compelling and proven humanitarian reasons" to flee their homes from entering the USA, but let's put that issue to the side for now.)

During the Iran hostage crisis, the US Embassy was taken over and US citizens were held hostage. The new government of Iran was refusing to return the hostages to the US, despite (by the time of Carter's declaration) an order from the International Court of Justice.  (By the way, the Frontpage article I linked earlier asserts that "Khomeini didn't represent Iran as a country," but this is legally incorrect - the ICJ in fact found otherwise in their final order in the case.) Carter's acts were not taken against a religion; they were part of a series of steps taken by a nation against another nation during an international crisis. 

Carter's ban on Iranian entry to the US was one of several parts of the same order. The other measures included breaking off remaining diplomatic relations, imposing a ban on exports to Iran, and beginning to inventory Iranian assets in the USA (which had already been frozen). These are all fairly common trade embargo measures; trade embargoes have been one of the more common ways that nation-to-nation disputes play out for centuries.

A blanket ban against members of a particular religion, on the other hand, is not a typical part of national conflicts. Even if it is legally possible under US law to ban Muslims from entering the United States, it would violate any number of international obligations, including some that could easily lead to the US having to pay monetary damages. 

Barring citizens of a specific nation from entering the US at a time when we are at or near a state of war with that country: morally and legally acceptable. Barring 1.6 billion people from an enormous number of countries from entering the United States because they nominally share a religion with terrorists: not morally acceptable, not legally permissible, and bloody stupid by any reasonable definition. 

08 December 2015

*tap* *tap* Is this thing still on?

It's been a long time, baby. But it turns out that I actually miss blogging - even if I'm my only reader. 

I clearly haven't updated this thing for nearly a decade. I bailed from here to ScienceBlogs, from ScienceBlogs to Scientopia, and then wandered away from blogging altogether for a few years. But I still like to rant, still like to try to explain things, and still like to do both those things with text. Blogging might have become your father's communications method of choice since I walked away, but that's my demographic these days. 

Anyway. . .

This blog started around the time I first started grad school in 2005. That was in a Zoology program. I dropped out of that in 2007, spent a few years on a semi-involuntary tour of the South, got back to Hawai‘i, started law school in 2012, graduated this summer, passed the bar, and now I'm back in grad school again. (This time in law.) Feels like a whole circle of life kind of thing, but hopefully without the stampeding wildebeests.  

I'm making no promises on updates. My next steps from here are to try and get the various social media tools working - I'm playing around with ifttt.com and a couple of other things - and to look at how well (if at all) I'll be able to post from my phone. But I'm going to try to start moving at least my longer Facebook rants here, and may get a few other things up in the next few days.

Oh - and there are ads here now. I have no expectation that they will actually earn me anything, and will turn them off if they get too annoying (unless, of course, I'm actually earning something). I'm mostly curious about how they work. They're toward the bottom of the page now, but I'm likely to play with that a bit over time. 

09 June 2006

Moving day

Well, it's moving day here at The Questionable Authority. I've been picked up as part of the newest group of bloggers to move over to scienceblogs.com. I've been working on the new site for a few days now, and I've actually got several posts up over there.

You can find the new blog at: http://scienceblogs.com/authority/

The posts that are already here will stay here, but I probably won't be updating much anymore. Hope to see you all at the new place!