Sweet land of liberty.

I just discovered NPR’s “Americandy: Sweet Land of Liberty,” a series of stories about regional candies from around the U.S. Some obvious ones make the cut—GooGoo Clusters, Valomilk, Idaho Spud, Cherry Mash, Nut Goodie, Rocky Road—but I’m excited to learn about a bunch of others that I’d never heard of. Chukar Cherries, Chewie Pecan Praline, Melty Bar, Chocolate Charlies, Red Coconut Balls, Needhams, Modjeskas, sponge candy…these are all news to me. Every time I travel someplace new, I scour corner stores for regional candies. Now I’ve got a bunch of new candies to be on the lookout for. 

Bush White House actively ignored September 11 warnings.

In an op-ed in the New York Times a couple of days ago, Kurt Eichenwald claims to have seen excerpts from presidential daily briefs from throughout 2001, and says that the lone declassified one (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”) is nothing compared to those in the months beforehand. He says that the White House actively discredited strong, specific CIA warnings that Al Qaeda was planning a big attack in the U.S. for some time in the summer. On July 9, hen it became clear that Bush was going to completely ignore their warnings, the CIA counterterrorism group even talked about all leaving en masse so that they wouldn’t have to take the fall for the attack. Note that this is an op-ed—presumably it hasn’t been subjected to the Times’ rigorous fact-checking. 

OpenCourt Wins Legal Battle Over Streaming Proceedings

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to expand their streaming video feeds of court proceedings beyond Quincy District Court. The WBUR project has been running since last year, allowing anybody to watch what’s going on in the courtroom. It’s been a success by any measure, but when they tried to expand to broadcasting jury trials, the county DA sued to stop them. The court ruled that there’s simply no legal basis to stop them—they have the same right as any other media outlet to film in the courtroom. This is a great project, doing the important work of opening up courtrooms. This is the second such legal challenge that they’ve faced, the second time it’s gone to the state’s highest court, and the second time that they’ve won. 

Request for Awesome.

I was lucky enough to spend last week at the Aspen Institute, attending the annual Forum on Communications and Society. Thirty-odd of us spent four days talking about how to make government more open and more innovative. The guest list will leave reasonable people wondering how I got invited—Madeline Albright, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (the President of Estonia), Esther Dyson, Reed Hundt (FCC Chairman under President Clinton), and Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google) were just some of the most famous attendees.

Aspen View

We broke into groups, and were assigned general topics on which to devise a proposal for how to make governance more open and innovative. I wound up in a group with Esther Dyson, Tim Hwang, Max Ogden, Christine Outram, David Robinson, and Christina Xu. We came up with some pretty great proposals, at least one of which I intend to pursue personally, but ultimately we settled on the need to overhaul the government RFP process, and to create a policy vehicle to bid out lightweight, low-dollar technical projects, and to attract bids from startups and other small, nimble tech organizations. The idea isn’t to replace the existing RFP process, but to create a parallel one that will enable government to be more nimble.

We call our proposal Request for Awesome, and it has been received enthusiastically. Two days after we announced our proposal, a half dozen cities had committed to implementing it, and no doubt more have rolled in in the week since. Max and Tim are particularly involved in pushing this forward, and I don’t doubt that they’ll spread this farther.

I was very impressed by the Aspen Institute and by the Forum on Communications and Society. I’ve probably been to a dozen conferences so far this year, and this one was head and shoulders above the rest, perhaps the best I’ve ever been to. The Aspen Institute enjoys a strong reputation, and now I see why. Here’s hoping I get invited back some day.

Hurt is failing his campaign promise of beating Perriello’s accessibility record.

With last week’s news that Rep. Robert Hurt was a no-show at the Senior Statesmen of Virginia’s candidates forum in Charlottesville, I think it’s time to revisit Hurt’s claim of accessibility two years ago, when he was running to unseat Rep. Tom Perriello:

Hurt was also asked if voters should expect him, if he is elected, to hold a similar number of town hall meetings as Perriello has over the last two years. During the run-up to the health care reform debate, Perriello held more town hall meetings with constituents than any other congressman.

Hurt declined to commit to holding a specific number of town hall meetings, but promised to listen to constituents.

“I can promise you this, I will certainly be as accessible if not more accessible than Congressman Perriello has been,” Hurt said.

Note the use of the word “promise.”

When I noted this at the time, I assumed that if Hurt won, I’d need to count his appearances to demonstrate that he was less accessible than Perriello, as he unquestionably would be. But now it’s clear that there’s simply no point—Hurt isn’t even in the same ballpark as Perriello was on this front.

Maybe Politifact can do the math on this one. I’m hopeful that the Daily Progress‘ change in ownership—along with the rest of Media General’s papers—might lead to an editorial board that will make endorsements and write editorials that perhaps vaguely align with the interests of the area. Perhaps they’ll see fit to revisit this claim.

63% of Republicans still think that Iraq had WMD in 2003 and that the president is not an American.

This should be a wake-up call to the grown-ups in the Republican Party. Fetishizing ignorance and demonizing education has led to two-thirds of the party’s members being morons. I can understand why some people are confused about global climate change and evolution—there’s been a well organized attempt to spread misinformation on these scientifici topics. But being wrong on these topics? It’s pure insanity, on the level of faking the moon landing or Elvis being alive. 

Muller concludes that humans are behind climate change.

Physicist Richard A. Muller was in the news last year after his Koch-funded study of global climate change concluded that it’s real, surely to the Koch brothers’ dismay. Now he’s penned an on-ed for the New York Times in which he says that his ongoing research has led him to the same conclusion as 99.9% of other experts in the field—that “essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.” Muller’s research shows that the UN and the IPCC actually understate the problem. He researched the climate change causes claimed by non-scientist skeptics (urban heating biases, cherry-picking data, faking data, solar activity, and global population), and found that none of them explained climate change. What did explain it perfectly was atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

New Virginia Decoded features.

Since March, my 9–5 job has been building The State Decoded, software based on my Virginia Decoded site. Although it would be fun to have spent all of this time adding new features to Virginia Decoded, most of it has been spent adapting the software to support a wide variety of legal structures. I released version 0.2 of the software earlier this week (3 weeks late!), and I’m on target to release version 0.3 next week. Which is to say that I’m finally getting to the point where I have a solid software base, and I’ve been able to start adding features to the core software that are making their way into Virginia Decoded.

Here are some of the new features that are worth sharing:

  • Newly backed by the Solr search engine (courtesy of the good folks at Open Source Connections, who did all of the work for free!), not only does the site have really great search now, but I’m able to start using that search index to do interesting things. The best example of that is the “Related Laws” box in the sidebar. For instance, § 2.2-3704.1—part of the state’s FOIA law—recommends § 30-179 as related. As well it should—that’s the law that spells out the powers of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. But it’s found clear on the other side of the Code of Virginia—somebody would be unlikely to stumble across both of them normally, but it’s easy on Virginia Decoded. This is just the first step towards breaking down the traditional title/chapter/part divisions of the Code of Virginia.
  • Several hard-core Code readers have told me that they wish it were faster to flip around between sections. I agree—it should be super easy to go to the next and prior sections. Solution: I’ve bound those links to the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard. Just open a section and try out your arrow keys.
  • The indecipherable history sections at the bottom of each law are being translated into plain English. For instance, compare the text at the end of § 2.2-3705.2 on Virginia’s website and on Virginia Decoded. It’s an enormous improvement. This certainly isn’t perfect, but it will be with a few more hours of work.
  • Amendment attempts have detailed information. Whenever a law has had bills introduced into the General Assembly to amend them, whether or not those bills passed, they’re listed in the sidebar. That’s not new, what’s new is a bit of Ajax that pulls over details about those bills from Richmond Sunlight when you pass your mouse over each bill number, showing you the bill’s sponsor, his party, where he represents, and the full summary of the bill. (For example, see § 9.1-502.) This is one step closer to providing an unbroken chain of data throughout the process of a bill becoming law (becoming a court ruling).

There’s a lot more coming, now that I’ve just about got a solid platform to add features to, but these few were just too good not to mention.

43% of Philadelphia voters lack photo ID.

Approximately 437,237 Philadelphia residents will not be able to vote under Pennsylvania’s controversial new voter ID law. Statewide, it’s 1.6M people, or one in five voters. This law was pushed strongly by Republicans and—damnest thing—it’s mostly Democrats who are disenfranchised by this law. It’s no wonder that the U.S. Attorney General is investigating whether the law violates the Voting Rights Act. 

There is no voter fraud in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is defending their voter ID law in court, and they’ve just dealt themselves a serious blow. In a filing, they’ve admitted that there “have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states,” as well as that “in person voter fraud is [not] likely to occur in November 2012 in the absense of the Photo ID law.” They’re preparing to disenfranchise 750,000 voters for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Well, not NO reason—those 750,000 folks are liable to vote for Obama.