Friday, June 7, 2013

The Principle of Variety

The Principle of Variety says, "Any considered estimate of the relative total importance of the top N (for any constant N) elements of a complex system -- such as might be suggested by the Pareto Principle -- is biased upwards, because further examination/consideration will reveal a greater number of elements."

The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80-20 Rule) highlights the disproportionate importance of the most important elements of a system, set or list. Pareto first noticed this 100 years ago with respect to how much land (80%) was owned by the top part (20%) of Italian society. It has been applied widely as a general idea, as with software developers who were wise to really optimize the speed of the small part of their programs that did the vast majority of the work. Virtually everyone can understand the idea, "I spend 80% of time doing 20% of my job," even if the actual numbers are a bit off. Airport bookstores demonstrate this, as they carry very few titles, but because they are focused on best sellers they have decent total sales. In the figure below, that green part is quite a lot of the total area, even though it covers just a small fraction of the x-axis.

Pareto and Tail

In The Long Tail (2008), Chris Andrews explores how with online commerce and massive centralized warehouse retail, the massive back catalogs of book publishers are much more valuable than they used to be. In fact, the total sales of all the books that sell relatively few copies in a year are greater than the total sales of the top ten best sellers. There just are so many poor selling books that in the aggregate they can swamp the few at the top of the lists. He explains how this phenomenon is not just limited to the books, but rather applies to a much wider world of commerce. He dubs this large set of low sellers "the long tail." A major theme of the book is that the Internet enables a virtually unlimited potential customer base, a virtually unlimited catalog or selection, and the means to connect them. Netflix offers a far larger selection of films through its website than any local video store could, and streaming video makes delivery even easier than its original distribution system. Above, you can see that the long yellow tail can add up to quite a bit as the tail extends.

In many ways, the Pareto Principle or 80-20 Rule seems at odds with The Long Tail. The former focuses on the most common/most popular/most important ones, and the latter emphasizes aggregate importance of all the rest. The 80/20 Rule, however, cheats. As variety increases (e.g. the size of the back catalog, length a program, parts of your job, etc.), one cannot simply say, "Oh, I'm still going to consider only the top 20%." Your brick and mortar bookstore is of a set size and your employee evaluation form still only has room for your top three responsibilities. The top 20% remains incredibly important, of course. But the top 10 become relatively less important as one further considers the sheer variety.

My Principle of Variety points out why the Long Tail phenomena is more important than the Pareto Principle. That is, the more complex the phenomena or system is, the more we tend to overestimate the importance of the top handful of elements.

Schwartz and Ward's Paradox of Choice (2004) explains why the Pareto principle has such outsized influence. As complexity, variety and choice increase, people can get paralyzed and overwhelmed. Thus, the idea that we can simply focus on a fraction of the total selection makes an unmanageable system or decision appear much more manageable. Reliance on the Pareto Principle, even unconsciously, inoculates us against the paralysis and overwhelmedness that Schwartz and Ward describe.

While the Pareto Principle underlies a important coping mechanism for day-to-day decision making, my Principle of Variety points out that it is incredibly problematic at other times. When thinking about whole systems or rules for whole systems, we are virtually guaranteed to overestimate the relative importance of the most easily examined elements. We need to be informed by Hamlet's advice to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." We need to recognize that there often exist unaccounted for (or unknown) elements of the system whose aggregate importance is significant. The tail is often longer than we thought.

That matters quite a bit in education policy. There is enormous complexity and variety to the reality of accountability, but we have generally reduced it to test-based accountability. We have tried to increase the importance of test-based accountability by attaching sanctions to poor performance, by increasing publicity for performance, by standardizing tests more and more to ease comparisons, and sometimes (though rarely) trying to improve the quality of those tests. We also pay some attention to graduation rates, and perhaps to college preparedness. But all these remain a small fraction of the total number of accountabilities that schools and school leaders face.

The more one understands the breadth of variety of accountabilities for schools and school leaders, the better you see why tests and test scores have had so little influence on our schools. In fact, no matter how important we make some small set of accountability measures, they will be dwarfed by the long tail of the variety of real accountabilities.

The Pareto Principle suggests that we can deal with an outsized fraction of the total accountability, but we actually are addressing a far smaller fraction of accountability than we realize. The Principle of Variety points out that the long tail is far more important than we realize.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

GrokLaw is at it again

A friend of mine sent me a link to a GrokLaw article about the cyberbulling case. You know, the one where the mother of another child set up a fake friendster page and pretended to be a boy who was interested in a girl so that she could have the fake boy eventually crush the girl's spirit by breaking up with her or ending the fake friendship that had been nurtured online. That one. Well, she was found guilty of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) because she violated Friendster's terms of service (TOS). The GrokLaw piece depending heavily on an amicus brief (i.e. a third party brief).

The amicus brief overstates things, and the groklaw piece overstates things even further. 

The central issue in the case is the nature of the false identity assumed by Ms. Drew, the defendant. Was it fraudulent and in violation of the terms of service to an extent that might make fall under the CFAA?

First, it obviously was not her full and real identity. 

Second, it was not an obviously anonymized identity (e.g. Publius, the name given as the author of the Federalist Papers, or my identity as "ceolaf"). 

Third, it was not a partially obscured version of her identity. That is, the brief says, "child safety advocates like the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre of the British government specifically encourage children to protect themselves by providing misleading identifying information instead of real names on social networking sites." Obviously, children are not expect to creating entirely fictional identities in such situations, but rather the obscure and mislead on some particularly identifying details while allowing them to still have their own personalities in their interactions. 

Fourth, it was not done for satire or any LAPS (i.e. literary, artistic, political or scientific) purpose.  (The LAPS test comes from obscenity jurisprudence.)

The groklaw article assumes, quite without any justification, that US vs. Drew would make all violations of websites' TOS into legal violations of the CFAA, as though it would be a black and white issue with that clear line. It assumes that then entire history of first amendment jurisprudence would be entire inapplicable, that there would be not room for judgement as to whether a particular TOS violation rose to the level of a CFAA violation. 

I don't buy it. I don't buy it for a second. 

Ms. Drew's violation of Friendster's TOS were gross violations of a flagrent degree. It violated the TOS in multiple ways, all of which were obvious violations. No reasonable person could believe that this behavior would be condoned or even allowed. Ms. Drew's behavior was the sort that is only justified by the immature claim, "It's a free country; I can do what I want," the kind of thinking that says that people can do or say whatever they want without any regard to its impact on others. The kind of thinking that says because we have freedom of speech we can yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. 

As a matter of practicality, websites must be able to protect themselves with terms of service (TOS), or else they can be held liable for anything that users might put on their sites or use their sites for. I understand that the question here is whether such TOS violations could ever rise to criminal violations of the CFAA. That's the issue. 

But is not whether all TOS violations should be viewed as criminal violations. That law does not work that way in this country. Our courts recognize that many issues are NOT black and white, that there are shades of grey and varying contributing factors that must be taken into account when deciding whether something passes a threshold, and that there are human judgements to be made. 

Only small children and developmentally stunted adults cannot accept that. 

GrokLaw, it seems, does not.


I can see plenty of reasons why this might be a bad decision, or a bad precedent. Or reasons why TOS violations should be civil offenses and not criminal offenses. But I can also see the other side. More importantly, for the purposes of this post, GrokLaw's hyperbolic ranting entirely misses the the point. 

Saturday, July 12, 2008

iPhone 2.0!

While yesterday marked the release of the new iPhone 3G -- adding GPS and faster network access when away from WiFi -- the more important news was the new software that came on this new model. It it was freely downloadable for all owners of the the original iPhone. I was one of the people who dared to install the software a day early, and I've got to say that I love it.

New Features from Apple

The most important new features from Apple are not important to me. For example, with Apple has positioned
the iPhone to compete better with RIM's Blackberry by giving it full compatibility with Microsoft's Exchange right out of the box. But I don't have an have an Exchange account. So, this is a big deal, but not for me. Multiple language support is great for Apple, as it allows them to ship the same model around the world. It is great for other developers (see below), too, as they also can make just one version of their software available around the world. 

Other new features from Apple are relatively minor. The calculator, now doubles as a scientific calculator. Occasionally useful for some; frequently useful for few. The new stand alone contact application -- it had been embedded in the phone application -- is more useful for me, but the old one usually met my needs. Improvement support for viewing attachments is good, but rarely do I need to read them anywhere other than my computer. As the iPhone still lacks the ability to edit even the simplest Word and Excel documents, something that Palm devices have supported for nearly a decade. 

Probably the most significant new feature from Apple for people like me is that it can now automatically sync email, contacts and calendar data without needing to be plugged in to a computer, or even being anywhere near it. Subscribers to Apple's MobileMe (nee .Mac) service -- approximately $100/year -- can take advantage of this feature, which ends up acting much like the Exchange support that I cannot use. 

New Features from Others

The most important thing that Apple has done with its this new software is to open up all iPhones to third party software. Apple has made it easy to distribute their applications by making them available through the iTunes store -- both from a computer and directly from an iPhone. Apparently, the development tools are incredible, which makes it easier and fasted for developers with good ideas to get the software to me and  consumers.

Even before the new iPhone 2.0 software was easily available to most users, the App Store in iTunes was up and running with over 500 applications available. I grabbed a few of them quite quickly.

Lightsabers for Everyone The first application I downloaded was the free Phone Saber. A couple of years ago, someone write an application that would make a MacBook Pro or a MacBook sound like a lightsaber when you swing it around. There's something cool about about that, but it pales before awkwardness and geekiness of swinging around a laptop computer. Now, however, there's a similar application for the iPhone. Much less awkward, of course. More portable, surely. Even more secretive, if the user is wearing headphone. So, the iPhone is absolutely no doubt a better platform for this entire class of applications. Last night I showed this to a 4 year old who was not as impressed as I thought he should be. I mean, this kid is already really into Star Wars and known the entire Skywalker family genealogy. He grabbed his own lightsaber -- whose black is only about 12" long -- which I had to admit might even have been better than mine. The blade, little more than a plastic tube, lit up in many colors and made all the sounds that my Phone Saber did. So, until Phone Saber can project a blade, it's not necessarily the best platform for lightsabery.

Recording, at Last The one feature from my iPods that I have missed in my iPhone -- even needed from time to time -- is the ability the record audio. There are no less than six (!!) different audio recording applications available for iPhones. They vary quite a bit in price ($0, $.99, $.99, $4.99, $9.99, $9.99), but they all do the generally same thing, as best I can tell. The best of the bunch might be the $4.99 SpeakEasy Voice Recorder. But none of them can transfer their recordings to my computer, which is incredibly important to me. Given the power of the iPhone platform, I would also like the to record to an compressed format, rather than uncompressed (wav?) files. But even without those features, I am glad at least one of them exists. 

Let There Be... There are a few flashlight applications available, some free, some not. The all turn on the screen so that it can be used as a weak flashlight. myLite is one of the free ones, and it can also act as a strobe light and the user can change the color of the screen. 

Reading Without Network Access I grabbed two applications that would allow me to read online articles while on the subway. NYTimes is an application from the New York Times that grabs a whole bunch of articles from the day's paper, and stores them so they can be read later. I do not know exactly which articles it grabs, but it certainly includes the OpEd pages and at least the top stories in every other section. It has a an iPhone appropriate interface, and an ad appears under each article as your read it. I would have paid for this application, but it is free. 

A friend of mine told me weeks ago that NetNewsWire would save webpages to read offline, so I grabbed that one, too. I've not used a dedicated RSS reader in the past, but I've already been so impressed with this implementation on the iPhone that I am going to start use the full version for my MacBook Pro.

Fidgeting I needed something to play with while I listened to podcasts if I wasn't doing something else (e.g. walking, cooking, etc.). I decided to buy ($9.99) Cro-Mag Rally, a little racing game. It is as fun and as mindless as I wanted it to be. But critically, even if you turn off all of Cro-Mag's sounds, it stops whatever the iPod is playing. So I downloaded the free, and far inferior, Cube Runner.  It's graphics are slightly inferior to Tron, but the game is appropriately mindless. 

Other Applications I also grabbed a few other applications. Twitterific, Apple's Remote for iTunes, MLB's at Bat are the headliners.


I am incredibly pleased with the new software because it makes these third party applications possible. Once again, the iPhone is unlike virtually all other technology products because it is meeting the expectations that its developer and the press have set. Cro-Mag is a great game. NYTimes, Twitterific, and NetNewsWire are great apps, without having to make any apologies for being run a phone. These are, as best I can tell, no compromise applications. The iPhone truly is a mobile computing platform. 

But there are a few limitations. Because third party applications cannot run in the background, NetNewsWire and NYTimes cannot update their data unless they are launched and allowed to run. Even when push for third party apps is supported in the fall, NetNewsWire cannot get data that way because the application grabs data from multiple third party (fourth party?) web sites. NYTimes could use push to update data, but I cannot forecast whether or not they'll take advantage of it. 

Last, during my first full day using the new software, it looked like my battery was running down very quickly. Most of the day, the phone was just sitting on a table without being used. Perhaps I had left a network application running during this time and did not realize it because the screen had turned off. But the battery should be brand new, as Apple replaced by old iPhone just two or three weeks ago. If the original iPhone's battery  cannot make it through a whole day, even though it does not use the higher power 3G network, this is a huge problem that Apple must fix. If it is simply the result of a poorly written third party app, Apple should pull that app from the App Store until the problem is fixed. 

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Four Question About Babysitting

I have four questions that I use all the time to demonstrate how important our high school educations were, one for each of the four major academic subjects. Here they are, and the point I think that they demonstrate.

  • English: What is the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean (i.e. Elizabethan)  Sonnet? (Bonus: What is the meter?)
  • Math: log (A*B) = ?
  • Social Studies: What century was The Declaration of the Rights of Man? (Bonus: What century was The Universal Declaration of Human Rights?)
  • Science: What is the atomic number of Nitrogen? (Bonus: What is its atomic mass?)
I've been asking people these questions for at least 10 years, perhaps as many as 20, and I never expect anyone to get them right. In fact, in all these years, I've only met one person who got all four right. I don't think think that I've had even a handful get more than one right. The vast majority don't get any of them right, or think that they might get one of them right.

And yet, I always explain, we were all taught these things. The odds are they we were tested on each of them. 

So, if we don't remember these individual tidbits today, then why were we tested on them back in school?

Well, Ted and Nancy Sizer wrote, "Education is the worthy residue that remains after the lessons have been
 forgotten." I wholly agree with them. This, therefore, begs the question of what is the worthy residue that remains of those lessons, the one where you were working on the information I asked about above?

I think that the answer is, "None." The odds are that those lessons did not leave any worthy residue. And if that is true, the lessons were part of your education. Instead, they are part of your babysitting. If that is true, high school was about keeping you supervised and out of trouble, instead of about teaching you anything.

But this is not about condemnation of chemistry, poetry, logarithms* or Enlightenment Thinking. I think that all of those lessons can be geared towards meaningful education, can all contribute to a worthy residue. Unfortunately, they rarely are. 

*Actually, I would like to condemn  logarithms. I don't think that they should be part of the algebra
 curriculum anymore. We don't use slide rules, so it is far less important that we understand logarithm. Those weeks should be spent on something else. So, I suppose I should change my math question to, "What is the quadratic formula for? (Bonus: What is the the quadratic formula?) 

My point is that we know that students will forget today's lessons. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week, maybe in a year, but almost certainly in five or ten years. Knowing that, why do we bother? Are we making sure that for the thousands of hours that students spend in high school they are getting something that lasts? Are they learning larger lessons worth learning for a lifetime? 

Unfortunately, doing this requires an incredibly thoughtful approach to schooling. This is not compatible with the standardized testing the we do. It is not compatible with how we evaluate teachers (i.e. lessons taught in isolation). It is not compatible with short term evaluations of schools. There is so much about the American system of schooling that would need to be revisited if we were to making those lessons worth students' time.

But with doing that, isn't high school just about babysitting?



  • Engligh Elizabethan Sonnets: abab,cdcd,efef,gg & iambic pentameter.
  • Math Logarithms: log (A) + log (B). The quadratic formula is to solve quadratic equations (i.e. those with x-squared, but not cubed or higher, and only one variable), and is

Friday, June 13, 2008

McCain: Not Moderate at All

John McCain has a reputation as a maverick. That certainly used to be true. There are enough examples in his past to give such a statement a basis in fact. But he is not a moderate and never has been. 

You see, there is a difference between being a conservative and being a Republican, just as their is a difference between being a liberal and being a Democrat. While it is true that there is a strong correlation between the conservative-liberal spectrum and the Republican-Democrat spectrum, they are not actually the same thing. And someone like McCain -- who has been known to buck his party's interest -- might have an independent streak, even while being a very consistent conservative. 

I cannot think of single example of when McCain has gone against his party and gone against the conservative position. 

Conservatives don't like big government and they don't like taxes or spending, but they certainly don't like deficits. John McCain has bucked his party on spending -- likening his colleagues to a bunch of drunken sailors on shore leave. He wanted lower spending. In fact, back when he was against the Bush tax cuts, it was because they were not accompanied by the necessary spending to prevent deficits. 

He went against the Republican party to take the conservative position. 

Honest and clean government is not particularly a Democratic or liberal position. In fact, if I had to pick, I'd actually point to it as a conservative issue, if anything. Certainly, neither party has a great interest in losing the power or positions that is has. Efforts to clean up election spending is, therefore, not a liberal position at all. Of course, the GOP has long had a been money advantage under the old rules, so the party does not want a change in the rules. 

So, on campaign finance, he went against the Republican party, but not towards particularly liberal position.

It simply is not accurate to say that John McCain is a moderate. He is in favor of lower taxes. He is in favor of lower government spending. He is anti-choice/pro-life. All conservative position. He is in favor of states' rights on gay marriage, a conservative position, even if the religious right doesn't like it. 

I cannot think a single instance when his maverick streak pushed him to take a liberal position. I can only think of occasions when he stepped away from some of the insanity of his party to take a conservative or non-ideological position. 

This, actually, is something that I respect him for. He was not bound to his party beyond all reason -- at least not before he started running for his party's nomination for the presidency this cycle. When he feels it strongly enough, he stands up for what he believes in -- or at least he used to -- even when those beliefs do not match the interests of his party. 

But that doesn't make him a moderate, which is a statement about his liberal-conservative tendencies. He simply has no record of taking liberal positions on anything. Is sometimes went against the Republican position, but extremely rarely to a Democratic position. Rather, sometimes he found  anti-partisan position. 

At best, that made him somewhat independent of his party and his caucus. But still conservative. 

In fact, the only thing has has pushed him from his general conservatism has been his recent embrace of GOP positions. The best current rankings have him in the the most extreme quintile of the Senate, whereas Obama is in the middle quintile, even closer to the middle than McCain has been been across his entire career. 


The excellent Joe Posnaski wrote  a post this morning about hot streaks in baseball. As usual, it is an interesting read, one that shows Mr. Posnaski's personality and intelligence. Oddly enough, he entirely misses the obvious.

In writing about hot streaks, he settles on Ted Williams as having one of the most notable hot streaks in history. Ted Williams is often referred as "The greatest hitter who ever lived," and there's a decent case to made on that point. The problem with Mr. Posnaski's post is that he ignores Barry Bonds, who played the same position as Ted Williams. 

Bonds, who had four whole seasons that were better than Ted Williams amazing 38 game hot streak in 1957.
I admit it, I have always liked Bonds. And I like Kobe Bryant, too. I don't know either of them, so I can't vouch for their character. I don't know anyone who knows them, either, so there are real limits to how seriously I can take what others say about them. To my knowledge, their friend -- however few they may be -- have never come out publicly to explain what makes either of them tick or to explain why they act the way they do with the media or teammates. 

What I do know is that both of them have been the best in the world at what they do. Kobe is a top notch offensive player and a top notch defensive player. I don't mean "above average." I mean that he might be the best in the world at his position at each of them. Bonds has a record number of MVP awards, has broken records previously thought unbreakable and was perhaps the best player in the game many years before steroids took over. He won three MVP awards in four years -- and it likely should have been four straight -- in the early 1990's, all of this five years before anyone suggests he began using performance enhancing drugs. 

All I really care about with Mr. Bonds and Mr. Bryant is how they play the game. To me, they play sports. They are entertainment on the court/field. I know that I will never know them well enough to be able to judge them as people, or even as teammates. I just want them to be great in the only way I am in a position to judge them, in their performance on the field and court. 

So, what's the deal with Mr. Possnanski? Honestly, I think that he just overlooked Bonds. I think that he just took Bonds for granted.

But I want to defend Bonds. 

Bonds is the greatest offensive player who ever lived. He is in the same class as Ruth and Gehrig and  Williams. He had better seasons. He broke their records. 

Ruth was a better baseball players, because he was a good -- sometimes great -- pitcher before he turned to hitting full time. Ruth was a greater baseball player because he changed the game. Williams was a war hero.

But Bonds had more home runs. More walks. More total bases. He had slightly lower on base and  and slugging %s, but he more than makes up for that with his stolen bases. Hie peak was greater. His total was greater. 

Only some people disqualify him for the use of steroids. I think that there are many responses to this.

First, obviously, his accomplishments from before the steroids count, too. He was already a first ballot Hall of Famer, even with many more years to go in his career. 

Second, Bonds did not bring steroids to the game. He was not the first celebrated player to do steroids. He was not the first record breaker to do steroids. He was not not even first MVP to do steroids. Mark McGuire has gotten nothing like the condemnation that Bonds has received. One might argue that McGuire has been off the national stage, but Jason Giambi is still playing. Mr. Giambi won an MVP while using steroids and is still playing for the Yankees. 

In fact, if Game of Shadows is to be believed, it was McGuire's use of steroids and Major League Baseball's response that pushed Bonds to begin using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Barry Bonds looked at the game of professional baseball early in his career, one where both speed and power were important, and became the best offensive player in his sport. Then, in the middle of his career, he looked at the game of professional baseball and saw that power was important, speed was not and PEDs were were an accepted way to prepare, and he regained his position as the best offensive player in his sport. 

Moreover, Bonds was not the first all time great player to take advantage of the immoral rules of Major League Baseball. He was not the first law breaker to play the game. And there have been far more assholes in the game than just him. 

If you want to condemn baseball, that's fine with me. If you want to condemn all the alleged steroids users, that's fine with me.

But that is not what is happening. Bonds has been getting special condemnation. Bonds has been singled out, both in the eyes of the public and the media. He has been singled out by Major League Baseball. The greatest offensive player who ever lived, no doubt one of the top four hitters of all time, has been vilified and virtually excommunicated.

And I can only think of one reason. 

Newsflash: We have a constitution

Yesterday, in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that we do -- in fact -- have a constitution. 

I don't know why, but very few people understand why we have a constitution, or even what the Constitution is. Shockingly, this includes many politicians and political leaders. It is not really that hard to understand.

It is not hard to understand what laws are. They are rules. Of course, people have different relationships to laws and rules. Some think that they only need to follow them if they might get caught/in trouble if they don't. Some think that you always have to follow them, not matter what. Some think that they can flout them whenever they are inconvenient for them. Some think that they are bound to follow laws as part of social contract, even then they inconvenient. And some think very deeply about the morality of particular laws and feel morally bound to disobey immoral laws. 

Too many people think of the Constitution as simply a set of laws, albeit and old set of laws. That is not correct.

At its most fundamental, any state's -- in the sense of county -- constitution is the basic blueprint for its government. It defines the rules by which the government operates. It laws out the powers and authority of that government, and its limits. As such, it is supreme to other laws that are made by that government, and if any of those laws fall outside or violate the government's constitution, those laws are invalid.

The United States Constitution has a Bill of Rights -- the fist ten amendments -- that guarantee protections for certain rights. These are particular rights that the people are assured, that the government cannot violate. These are not the only right addressed by the Constitution, but they are the most commonly cited. (Actually, originally those were only protections from the federal government, but they were eventually extended to apply to states, as well.)

Not only is the Constitution supreme to regular laws -- and to states' constitutions, as well -- it is harder to change. In fact, it is intentionally difficult to change. The usual process is for 2/3 of each house of Congress to pass an amend, which sends it out to the states. If 3/4 of the states approve it, it becomes an amendment. However, it is not impossible to change; it has been changed seventeen times since the Bill of Rights was passed. 


To really understand the Constitution, you have to think about when it was written. The Founding Fathers -- certainly the elites of their times -- had recently broken away from a tyrannical king. They were afraid of the powers of the state, of the ways in which the state could overwhelm the rights of individuals and overstep what was appropriate. They also were going through the failure that was the Articles of Confederation (i.e. USA 1.0). They knew that the country needed a stronger central government than the Articles allowed. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights really recreated the country (USA 2.0), accounting for their fears of uncheck governmental power and concern about the dysfunctions of a confederation. The Civil War Amendments extended the protections of the Constitution to apply to the states, further centralizing power (USA 2.5?). 

Those who argue against the protections of the Constitution are not simply arguing with liberals or Democrats. They are arguing with the founding fathers. They are arguing against the lessons of the Civil War. And they are usually arguing to expand state power and limit individual rights. 


An example: No Religious Test Clause

Most people don't know this, but the Constitution expressly forbids any religious tests to serve in any office or position in the government. Jews can be judges. Catholics can be clerks. Muslims can managers. The government may not bar anyone from any position in the government because of their religion. 

It is easy to imagine some people saying that Muslims should not be allowed serve in the CIA, or that fundamentalist Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Department of Homeland Security. However, the fact of their religions cannot be used to keep them from a governmental position. This is not a problem because we are not at war with Islam or even Fundamentalist Islam. There are many fundamentalists Muslims who are not at war with the United States. Most do not actually want to kill Americans. And so, the the CIA can hire Muslims while not hiring the "death to America" crowd. 

And so, there are many who might bar follows of particular religions from holding many governmental positions. There certainly are some who would require a Christian faith, or even an evangelical faith. But the Constitution prevents the government from having religious tests for any office. Simply passing a law would not be enough to overrule that, and were such a law passed it would rightly  be quickly struck down by the courts. Changing that constitutional protection requires amending the Constitution.

(It should be noted that this prohibition on religious tests applies to the government, not to individuals. Voters can apply whatever tests they want when selecting among candidates for elected office. If you think that Muslims should not serve in Congress, you are free to apply that test yourself -- even though I personally would disapprove of your criteria.)

Obviously, there is something a little undemocratic about this. If a majority of the American people want to ban Muslims from the CIA, one might think that in a democracy this should be allowed. A constitution serves to limit pure democracy. It declares that there are certain areas in which a majority ought not to be enough to change things. It declares that there are certain rights and/or ideas that ought to quite difficult change or remove, and that it ought to be quite difficult add other rights/ideas to that group. 

Not only does our Constitution require more than a simple majority to change certain rights, it also prevents the passions of a moment from changing our government and our rights. The process of amending the Constitution takes enough time that even if the entire country wants a change at a particular moment, that popular will must remain long enough to see the entire process through. 


And so we get to this week's court decision, Boumediene v. Bush

The Constitution makes very clear that habeas corpus is very important. "The Great Writ" allows those held in custody by the government to demand that the government prove in court that it has the the legal right to do so. This right goes back at least 350 years in England, and perhaps as much as 900. The Constitution says that this right may only be suspended in cases of rebellion or invasion. We are neither in state of rebellion nor invasion. 

The Bush administration and the the compliant Congress keeps trying to declare that those held in Guantanamo do not have the right of habeas corpus. If they succeeded this this -- simply by executive order (struck down in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) or conventional law (struck down in Boumediene v. Bush)  -- then the Constitution would be meaningless. The rights of individuals would not be protected. The status of the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land" would have ended. 

Quite simply, the Supreme Court had to rule as it did. Disturbingly, four justices did not agree. In fact, the author of the dissenting opinion claims that he is an originalist who believes that the constitution means only what it meant that the time it was written. But the Constitution could not be more plain on this point. "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Fortunately, there is a still a majority of justices who believe in the Constitution.