December 19, 2005


Tim Russert was recently grilling Condi Rice about Bush's authorization to surveil US Citizens without a court order. She claimed the administration acted lawfully under FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). It doesn't look like that act gives them that ability (see below).

Hey, I've got no problem with the government keeping an eye on potential terrorists. But how hard is it, really, to get a court order? The vast majority of orders are approved. Under FISA, they can even start surveillance and then apply for the court order the next day. So what's the real reason they stopped asking for court orders? Couldn't find a judge with enough free time to oversee the surveillance of the worst kind of criminals? I don't know, seems to me that there's something fishy here. Was the Justice Department doing something a reasonable judge wouldn't have approved of? Or is judicial oversight just too much of a bother?

This is an interpretation of the relevant sections of FISA from a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

18. Does FISA authorize surveillance without a court order?

Yes. In general, the Justice Department may engage in electronic surveillance to collect FII without a court order for periods up to one year. 50 U.S.C. § 1802. There must be no "substantial likelihood" that the intercepted communications include those to which a U.S. person is a party. § 1802(a)(1)(B). (emphasis mine)

Such electronic surveillance must be certified by the Attorney General and then noticed to the Senate and House intelligence committees. § 1802(a)(2). A copy of the certification must be filed with the FISC, where it remains sealed unless (a) an application for a warrant with respect to it is filed, or (b) the legality of the surveillance is challenged in another federal district court under § 1806(f). § 1802(a)(3). Common carriers must assist in the surveillance and maintain its secrecy. § 1802(a)(4).

In emergencies, the Attorney General may authorize immediate surveillance but must "as soon as practicable, but not more than twenty-four hours" later, seek judicial review of the emergency application. § 1805(e).

December 15, 2005


Well, it seems the Bush Administration has had a change of heart, and no longer strongly opposes legislation that bans US forces from torturing detainees... which we're weren't doing anyway... right?



Not that this is really news to anyone who's familiar with computer security and knows the most basic outline of how those voting machines are put together. Florida's Leon County Supervisor of Elections hired someone to try hacking a typical Diebold electronic voting setup. No problem, the hired hackers easily reversed the election results.

UPDATE: That same supervisor now publicly states that he thinks this hack was used in the 2000 presidential election.


Most of us think opinions are really important. They define who we are, who our friends are, what political party is the best, how the country should be run. But how important are they really?

There's an old story that goes like this:

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbours as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parent went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbours and everything else he needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"

I'm really not qualified to comment on this story, but I think it applies to a recent conversation I had on another blog (see my December 6 post if you're really interested, but I wouldn't bother if I were you). So this is just my take on the story, for what that's worth. My opinion, heh heh.

Why doesn't old Master Hakuin seem to care about his reputation? Well, my guess is that he had a very wide perspective.

When you think the ego is who you really are, opinions are everything. Your opinions are really, really important, and anyone who contradicts your opinions must be your enemy, because their opinions contradict yours, and they must think their opinions are really important too, so now you get into a fight over who's right and who's wrong. But when you realize that your ego (your opinions, thoughts, ideas, etc.) is just the tiniest fraction of who you are, those opinions don't seem anywhere near as important anymore. Master Hakuin knew his real being was a love and oneness with others, much larger than his ego. He knew that his reputation just wasn't very important in the big picture. He had perspective.

That's not to say opinions and reputation aren't important at all. I was watching Dr. Wayne Dyer's "The Power of Intention" on PBS last night. He said something like "The ego is the source of all our problems, and every spiritual tradition says we have to get rid of it." I'm paraphrasing, but it was something close to that. There are a lot of other "gurus" who say the same thing, talk about "ego dissolution" or "ego destruction." There was a lot of other weird contradictory stuff on that show, but I don't want to go into all of it here.

It's true that most of our problems come directly from the misplaced importance we place on our egos, but in my opinion :-), trying to get rid of it is misguided, and impossible anyway.

Opinions are important, we really do need our egos.

You can't make the simplest decision without an ego. But when you have a wide perspective, and you really open your heart and care about other people, you see that opinions aren't nearly as important as we usually think they are. A lot of the time, it's better to turn the other cheek, even if you're in the right. Sometimes you have to let the other person "win," just because your relationship with them is more important than convincing them that your opinion is right.

What's more important: being right, or being loved?

Recognizing that your opinions aren't really important doesn't mean you turn into a doormat either, because your opinions still matter exactly as much as anyone else's opinions. Respect others, and expect them to respect you. But if they're disrespectful, it means you don't have to get all worked up about it, because you know their opinion of you doesn't really matter much in the big picture. We're all human beings, we're all in this together, and we need to learn to find respectful ways of reconciling our differences. Or better yet, take a close look at whether this particular difference needs to be reconciled at all.

Is that so?

December 13, 2005

Holy splat, batman! This lady went skydiving, and her main chute failed to open properly. She pulled the reserve chute, and that failed to open too. Moving at 50mph, she hit a parking lot face first. After a little surgery, she's OK, and the baby she didn't know she was pregnant with is fine, too...

December 08, 2005


One of my wife's old friends recently got married, and we had dinner with the happy couple last weekend. She's a writer, and a he's a professional psychotherapist. He's an interesting guy, and a good part of the night was spent discussing a personality categorization tool he's familiar with, called enneagrams, which are based on some obscure Sufi teachings introduced to western culture by G. I. Gurdjieff. At first, I wasn't all that interested. Everyone's unique, and I figured the last thing anyone needs is yet another system for pigeonholing people into different "groups" to save ourselves the trouble of recognizing everyone's individuality and getting to know them as human beings rather than as a collection of labels.

As a society we have had tremendous difficulty with all the assumptions we make about different groups of people. We are slowly, slowly learning that we're all just people, but those who fit into certain categories are still at a big disadvantage in today's society. Whether African or Persian or fat or female or homosexual, it sucks to have people making assumptions about you based on some stupid label or group you happen to fit into.

Buddhism says that deep down we're all the same. When you get down to who you really, really are, your idea of self (your ego) doesn't show up at all. Ego's nowhere near as important as most of us think it is. As a society, we're still a long way from recognizing that. But the ego is still important. It's what's unique from person to person. It's our thoughts and habits, the way we make decisions and approach the challenges life presents us.

As my lovely wife pointed out, it can be useful to know that your ego is just a different system for dealing with the world. It's not that there's something wrong with you. It's just that you might have some bad habits, which can be really, really hard to break. Enneagram types are just common patterns that different people have developed to deal with the world. One article I read suggested that your enneagram type is usually imposed on you in childhood. So enneagrams just give you something to think about, some ideas about what might be motivating you in a given situation. They can give you some things to watch out for in your own behavior, and maybe some pointers to help you avoid the habitual pitfalls that you may have fallen into in the past. You may be so used to these pitfalls that you don't even realize when you've fallen into them. But when you read about your enneagram type, some of them may seem awfully familiar.

I think Zen sitting practice immerses you in your own sense of balance. Eventually you start to recognize when you're leaning off balance, and you can correct for it before you fall into your usual ruts and habits. This is a slow process, but it's the only way to really address the problem completely. Enneograms are a kind of crude tool for helping you recognize what your biggest and worst ruts are, and giving you some tips for working around them. Might help, might not. But I think it's interesting, anyway.

Here's a pretty good test for figuring out what enneagram type you are. You have to select Seldom, Sometimes, or Often as your answer to each question. Sometimes those answers don't make a lot of sense for the question, so in your head just substitute "a little" for Seldom or "a lot" for Often. Click HERE to take the test. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes.
After the test tells you your enneagram type, click HERE and take a look through the free articles listed there, especially the articles that mention your type. You might learn something interesting. Or it might not work for you at all. But I can say that my wife and I have had more than one "Wow!" moment each looking at this stuff. We're both "nines", by the way.

Just remember that these are just common habitual patterns. Your personality might fit one of them pretty well, or it might not. Even if it does fit well, that's not who you really are. It's just a collection of habits. We all have the power to choose our actions in every moment, we're all completely free. We just don't usually notice that.

December 06, 2005

Flamewars and Humility

reallynotimportant and michael have made a couple comments about being on-topic lately.

Jeez guys, I didn't mean to come off like the "on-topic police."

I'm really sorry I contributed to making Nishijima-sensei's blog a hostile environment, regardless of subjective opinions about who was right or wrong. So here's my own blog. If anyone would like to say anything to me (without clogging up other blogs with even more off-topic nonsense) this is the place.

By the way, if a blog conversation naturally strays one way or another, that's totally cool. It's to be expected, even. It's only rude if someone repeatedly attempts to steer every single conversation on a blog towards the same off-topic agenda.

Believe me, this isn't a phenomenon restricted to Nishijima's blog. It's pretty common, which explains why it's addressed in discussions of blog etiquette.

A typical comment-spam entry begins with a superficial attempt to appear like an interested participant in the conversation, and then the spammer casually mentions their product. "Oh, that's interesting, something like that happened in my kitchen just last week. Speaking of my kitchen, I'm selling turnip twaddlers, contact me if you're interested in picking one up cheap. They make awesome Julienne fries, too!"

Sound familiar?

But despite my aversion to comment spam, it would have been wiser for me to take that conversation elsewhere, or perhaps just to ignore the misbehavior and hope that the offending parties grow out of it.