Open Source Development for Creating Laws – Introducing Wikilaw

Photo: Brian Turner

A couple days ago I posted about the intriguing notion that anyone can write bills, which with a little hard work and a lot of luck can become a law.

Open Source Movement
I just started reading the book “Drive” which examines the motivation for human beings to behave the way we do. The hypothesis is that a simple cost benefit analysis is not enough to explain human behavior – there are other factors that must come into play because we do not always act in our own best interest.

An obvious example of this is the current trend of open source software. Why would anyone spend 20+ hours a week of their free time to work on open source programs? THEY AREN’T PAID FOR IT! But they do feel challenged, get the feeling of contributing to something larger than themselves, and develop their programming skills. Sometimes this is enough to convince a software developer to contribute.

A Wiki For Writing Bills
Let’s take the whole concept of Wikipedia and apply it to laws. Anyone can contribute to bills on the Wiki and therefore the whole responsibility does not rest on any one person. A mother in Ohio may work on one section, a farmer in California another, and a retired lawyer in Florida can make sure the wording is correct. By combining our efforts we can accomplish much more than individually and hopefully patch up the holes in our legal system.

This is inherently more difficult than Wikipedia – whereas Wikipedia is based on facts, Wikilaw is based on opinion. But this could be the best part about it! Your goal should be to produce bills which both Republicans and Democrats support. This can best be achieved with a bipartisan effort working together online on the same bill. Once the bill is complete, the community can vote on it – if it passes it is time to find a sponsor, if not it is back to the drawing board. Continue reading

You Can Write Laws for the United States of America – How to Propose Bills in Congress

Photo: Hobvias Sudoneighm

Out of all the repetitive junk we were taught in school as kids, it is pretty interesting what actually stuck in my brain. One of the things I remember learning back in the day is that anyone can write a bill for Congress. This means you, despite never running for a political office in your life, have the opportunity to write laws for the United States of America.

Writing the Bill
Once you know the law you want to impose upon your fellow Americans, you have to put it down in writing. This is the easiest part of the process, and it isn’t exactly straightforward. Bills can contain hundreds of pages of lawyer language, making them very hard to understand for those who are not well versed in it. I don’t blame the members of Congress for not reading every single bill that comes to vote.

So the first step is familiarizing yourself with how similar bills are formatted and the language they use. Take a look at and imitate what you see – don’t worry, it’s not plagiarism. It is probably a good idea to have a lawyer take a look to change wording as necessary.

Introduction to Congress
This is where it starts to get difficult. Even though you wrote the bill, it must be formally introduced by a member of Congress. So the first step after writing the bill is to convince a Congressman to propose it.

Keep reading…

Translating a Free Online Education into a College Diploma

Photo: wohnai

Over the last couple years an exciting new trend has emerged amongst universities across the country – they are providing courses online for free! Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, Columbia, UCLA, and John Hopkins are just some of the schools that have lecture videos of entire courses online.

Why the heck are these schools doing this?
It is the free information movement. Just like there was a free love movement in the 1970’s, there is a similar free knowledge movement in the early part of the new century. Wikipedia is the epitome – its free information has become a part of the way we research just about everything. Another manifestation of this is the huge open source software movement providing free software to the masses. Examples are the Linux operating system, Mozilla Firefox web browser, and Android phone operating system. It is a cultural and economic phenomenon that deserves much more attention than a few sentences, but there is not room in this post so I will refrain – just be sure to take advantage of it!

What exactly are they offering?
It varies widely from school to school and even class to class. The organization OpenCourseWare currently has 200 schools with 13,000 courses offered online – some just have the lecture videos, while others also have the assignments and exams complete with solutions. Beyond what is posted you are on your own – there are no help resources such as teacher assistants or other class members to contact.

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Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies – A Warning that You’re in Danger of Being Compared to Hitler

Photo: MattGo74

In the early days of the internet, discussion boards were all the rage. These discussions took place on the Usenet long before chat rooms or blogs even existed. During this time Mike Godwin made a simple observation that people were being maliciously being compared to Hitler or the Nazis across a wide array of topics.

There are some discussions that practically beg for these comparisons – for example arguments pro gun control or censorship (both supported by Hitler). But no matter the topic, as the online discussions grew longer the participants resorted to attacking each others credibility. From there it is a only short and eventual hop to call someone a Nazi.

More generally, reductio ad Hitlerum (dog Latin term – made up Latin to make it sound official) extends this principle beyond the realm of the internet. Comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis show up in all types of debates – even if you think you are in a civilized discussion where such an immature comparison wouldn’t take place.

It was Godwin’s contention that these comparisons only serve to weaken the intended point and make the entire debate look like childish name calling. To quote the great Jay-Z – “A wise man told me don’t argue with fools cause people from a distance can’t tell who is who.”

Herein lies the problem: if you stay in the debate forever a comparison to Hitler will eventually be made and you will look like an idiot, even if you were not the one saying it. The takeaways: avoid YouTube comment debates at all costs, stick to areas of the internet where mostly intelligent people congregate, end the debate as soon as possible, and don’t be surprised if you still end up falling pray to Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.

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Second Order Effects Can Ruin Good Intentions

Photo: Punchup

First, what is a second order effect? I wanted to start this with one of those “Merriam-Webster defines second order effects as …” that you so often see in papers by freshmen in high school, but I refrained. Let’s start with a first order effect. This is the direct result of a change. Taking it one level deeper, a second order effect is the result of the direct result of the change. It is better explained by an example.

A new tax break is created to give an $8000 rebate to first time home buyers this year. A first order effect is that more people buy homes this year. A second order effect is that less people buy homes next year because so many just bought houses this year.

As you can see, the second order effect is often an overlooked consequence. Laws, rules, and regulations are often put in place to create a change in behavior. But what is the consequence of that change in behavior? All too often we lack the foresight to look this far into the future, but there also could potentially be third, fourth, or fifth order effects!

Title IX
Title IX’s regulation of college sports is an example that jumps out in my mind. The intention was to make sure women and men have the same rights. One area most effected by this is collegiate sports – women and men must be equal in both athletic scholarships and the male-female ratio of athletes needs to match the schools student ratio. This is a tremendous first order effect – more women get to play sports and receive scholarships.

But unfortunately the school’s economic situation comes into play. Football is the only sport that makes money and there is not a women’s sport with an equivalent number of players. So if the school wants to have a football team, they will also have to have 5 women’s sports teams before they can even add another men’s sport. A second order effect is that schools are (economically) forced to drop some of the less common men’s sports teams. A third order effect may be that the sport loses popularity over time (wrestling is an example). Fourth order? How about we start losing the Olympic medal count to China because they train their athletic children to focus on a specific random sport. Fifth order? Communism wins.

What does this have to do with communism?
Absolutely nothing, that was a stretch. The point is, it is extremely hard to predict the result of a result of a result of an action. The consequences of the action may outweigh the benefit of the initial goal – this is why Republicans often vote for less government intervention – it’s not that they don’t want better healthcare, rather they believe the unintended consequences outweigh any improvement.

Famous Supreme Court Cases and Interesting Tidbits

Photo: Ken McCown

One day my friend was cutting a piece of delicious cheesecake when it was proposed to do a “you cut, I choose” method to split it evenly. I took it a step further and told him to “Plessy v. Fergurson it” – meaning I wanted the pieces separate but equal. Of course no one understood what I was talking about, no one laughed, and I myself was not even sure I quoted the correct Supreme Court case.

So I went online to verify my dorky joke and found the Supreme Court information available to be quite underwhelming. You can find articles dozens of pages long about each particular case, but no concise summaries. Here are some of the famous cases ruled upon by the Supreme Court and a short description of why it was so significant to the United States.

Famous Supreme Court Cases

1st tier

  • Roe v. Wade (1973) — Outright abortion bans are unconstitutional
  • Marbury v. Madison (1803) — Judicial review (for Supreme Court)
  • Plessy v. Fergurson (1896) — Separate but equal (segregation)

2nd tier

  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966) — Rights to counsel and to remain silent
  • Regents of CA v. Bakke (1978) — Affirmative action
  • Tinker v. Des Moine (1969) — Freedom of speech of students in public schools
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954) — Segregated schools is unconstitutional
  • McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) — Constituation is supreme law of the land
  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) — Slave is not a citizen but property of his owner

3rd tier

  • Slaughter-House Cases (1873) — Limits privileges and immunities of state citizens
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) — Right to court appointed attorney if unable to afford one
  • Griswold v. Conneticut (1965) — Individual’s right to privacy
  • Mapp v. Ohio (1961) — Evidence procured by illegal search or seizure is not permissible in court
  • Greg v. Georgia (1976) — Death penalty in not unconstitutional

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