Issue June 5, 2007

City Strobe

Tricky Mitch gets his very own billboard
When an obviously sarcastic I-65 billboard appeared last week, co-starring Mitch McConnell and a light bulb, curious commuters must have wondered what it was all about.

Does the incandescent bulb symbolize Mitch’s utter lack of ideas beyond those parroting Bush administration policies?

Is it meant to illustrate the senior senator from Kentucky’s scorn for the environment in the era of compact fluorescents?

Or maybe it was a transparency-in-government group trying to shame the senator out of his career-long efforts to keep campaign financing shady.
Ding! That is the correct answer.

The billboard — and its accompanying WhatsMcConnellHiding.com wording — are part of a campaign by ethics watchdog Sunlight Foundation to stop McConnell and another secret senator from derailing the Senate Campaign Disparity Act. That act would bring senators into the 1990s by requiring them to file campaign finance reports electronically, instead of by carrier-pigeon. Filing electronically would not only increase transparency, it would save money.

Senators who support the bill say McConnell isn’t trying to stop the measure, but is instead using a parliamentary trick to avoid unanimous consent, thereby opening an avenue to attach “poison pill” changes to other aspects of campaign finance law. The cleverly capitalist campaign winks at McConnell’s longtime money-equals-free-speech stance by offering to bribe citizens to capture him on video explaining himself.
Be the first to submit such a video and you could win $500. Seems like a slam dunk for Mitch to add a tiny bit of spinach to his coffers. Senator, we’ll loan you a tripod. —Jim Welp

Secret Senator tried to kill bill
Speaking of secret senators, last week a U.S. senator stopped a bill that would help ensure public documents are not kept secret. Which senator was it? Ironically, that was a secret for nearly a week.

It was eventually revealed that Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., put a secret hold on the Open Government Act of 2007, which would expand public access to public documents. It is a revamping of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA. Anyone from ordinary citizens concerned about their drinking water (think Erin Brockovich) to news organizations reporting on our public schools has access to public files, thanks to FOIA.

Even so, such requests are notoriously difficult to get filled. Government agencies have been known to take an unnecessarily long time responding to requests for documents, or to charge exorbitant fees for the copies. In the worst cases, requested files have suddenly become classified, or requesters with the means (or without) must sue to gain access.

A 2001 memo from former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to all heads of federal agencies was widely understood by FOIA advocates as a crackdown on filling requests.

Versions of the popular bipartisan Open Government Act, which addressed some of these issues, moved successfully through the House and the Senate, until Kyl’s anonymous hold. Journalists immediately began a national campaign to out “Senator Secrecy” by asking every senator if he or she were responsible. Kyl is known for his attempts to clamp down on public records. His choice of anonymity in this case, however, has proved counterproductive, highlighting the type of secrecy the bill’s proponents want to end.

FOIA use is widespread. A 2005 study by the Committee of Journalists for Open Government found that only six percent of requests came from journalists. One-third came from ordinary citizens, and the remaining 60 percent from “commercial interests.” —Jennifer Oladipo

Eye in the sky

Thinking of adding a new bowling alley onto the manse? Be prepared to close the skylight when you’re bowling naked. And be prepared to pay taxes on the addition. That’s because Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator Tony Lindauer just bought a new $200,000 “pictometry” software system that will use 3D aerial photography to make sure your house’s square footage is accurate for tax purposes. The additional property taxes could rake in $300 million for the county, once Lindauer gets a load of all the new room additions, garages, pools, cabanas, marijuana solaria, billiard rooms and meth lab add-ons.

The software examines aerial photos from a 40-degree angle on all sides, so don’t try to hide your new den behind one of those Wile E. Coyote painted landscapes, either. The system currently uses photos from March, when Big Brother snapped every building in the county using digital cameras and a Cessna.

If you think the spycams are a creepy invasion of your privacy, fuggadaboudit. Google, Microsoft and other companies have been documenting the planet from space for years. Last week, Google raised eyebrows with its new “Street View” tool, which shows photos of nose pickers and hookers in several major cities. (Check it out at maps.google.com.)

Proponents are quick to point out the many humanitarian benefits of pictometry, including firefighting, police and disaster-recovery applications. Say cheese! —JW

Easy for U to say
Last month’s item noting that Linux Ubuntu Christian Edition is now legitimized by the Ubuntu Counter Project inspired the observation that a Christian edition of the popular open-source operating system is bound to provoke more ecumenical variations. Sure enough, Ubuntu Satanic Edition — “Linux for the Damned” — has now crossed into legitimacy via an even more Mom-and-apple-pie route.

Dell will offer Ubuntu SE as an option on its Linux laptop pre-load, according to an announcement on the Ubuntu SE Web site. This is perhaps overstating, as Ubuntu SE is not an actual Linux distribution in itself, but a simple re-skinning (though an artistically superior one) of Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn (or “Fiery Fawn,” as adherents prefer). To implement Ubuntu SE, a Linux enthusiast should install the distribution of choice, then apply the SE upgrade.

As entrepreneurial developers scramble to be first with Ubuntu Southern Baptist, Ubuntu Illuminati or perhaps Ubuntu Wicca, it should be noted that there are humanist alternatives, including the noteworthy Scibuntu (http://scibuntu.sourceforge.net/), a version for scientists and students that adds broad utility to the operating system itself, in the form of math and statistics tools, simulation software, a reference manager — even a FORTRAN compiler.

Next up: We compare Ubuntu Left Behind Edition to Ubuntu World Government … —Scott Robinson