Begging The Question

Friday, March 25, 2005

Friday Spies
1. What blog, other than your own, do you read the most?

I'm not sure.

2. Are you a gadget person? Do you have the latest thingamajigs and whoozits and geegaws? What sort of gadgets do you own?

I am a gadget person at heart, but I lack the financial resources to implement my heart's desires. The last gadget I bought was an X-box. Before that, the last gadget I bought was a fly fishing rod (is that really a gadget? Survey says "yes") and before that it was scuba gear.

3. If I gave you $1000 on the condition that you couldn't spend it on something responsible (e.g., bills), or save it, what would you do with the money? (Can you tell that a Democrat is asking that question?)

I would pick up some gadgets and toys. I've been putting together a little wish list of goodies to remind me why I'm working night and day. A windfall of $1,000 would probably go toward: this, this, and this. Oh, and one of these.

4. What are your five favorite sitcoms of all time, other than "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons"?

Meh. Cheers was pretty funny, but I never watched it religiously. I dig Arrested Development, Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, King of the Hill, and Scrubs (because we had to list five shows).

5. Organize a film festival based on a theme. Choose a theme and a handful of movies with that theme, and tell us what you've chosen.

The theme is London. The movies are:

The Man Who Knew Too Little - This movie stars Bill Murray as Wallace Richie, a man who gets mixed up in an international espionage plot mistakenly believing that he is participating in "The Theater of Life." Features Fred Molina, Peter Gallagher and Joanne Whalley (explain to me why Val Kilmer left her?).

Dirty Pretty Things - Stars Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor. A story about the dark underbelly of London. Notting Hill it isn't.

About a Boy His performance in this movie redeems Hugh Grant for all his past indiscretions and sappy chick flicks. Oh, and this movie made me hate Toni Collette even more than after I saw "Muriel's Wedding." Man, do I hate her.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels Guy Ritchie before he and Madonna went all John-and-Yoko on us. A good story, full of great characters and many, many hilarious lines.

And for the finale, Shaun of the Dead. Quoth Tom in Lock, Stock, "There's no money, there's no weed. It's all been replaced by a pile of corpses."

Friday Spies
1. What blog, other than your own, do you read the most?

Probably How Appealing. Maybe not in terms of time spent there per visit, but I check it a lot to see the latest news and decisions. It saves me from doing a lot of work finding info on my own.

2. Are you a gadget person? Do you have the latest thingamajigs and whoozits and geegaws? What sort of gadgets do you own?

Not really. My cell phone is a little dated. I have a DVD drive on my computer, but I've never used it. Never burned a CD. Don't have an iPod. Don't have the satellite radio deal. Part of it is buyer's remorse -- as soon as I buy the latest thing, it's obsolete, and I wish I had waited. Part of it is that I don't like being encumbered by devices and cords and whatnot. I like it simple.

3. If I gave you $1000 on the condition that you couldn't spend it on something responsible (e.g., bills), or save it, what would you do with the money? (Can you tell that a Democrat is asking that question?)

The first thing that comes to mind is a little vacation. Nowhere fancy, just a long weekend somewhere I've never been. See the sights, eat some good meals, maybe see some friends, that kind of thing.

4. What are your five favorite sitcoms of all time, other than "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons"?

No particular order, and I'm disqualifying "King of the Hill" for myself too: "The Andy Griffith Show." "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." I liked "Family Ties" a lot when it was on. And the two that I watch all the time now, "That '70s Show" and "Scrubs." I'm surely forgetting something good, though.

5. Organize a film festival based on a theme. Choose a theme and a handful of movies with that theme, and tell us what you've chosen.

This is a really hard one. I feel like there are a lot of ways I could go with this. I decided on a theme based on a movie I was thinking about not long ago. I think the Milbarge Film Festival theme is going to be "Depressing Documentaries." (Don't take anything from that about my own mental health; it was just that I was looking for one of these recently.)

Anyway, my films are going to be: (1) Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. I used to have a poster for this one, from when the student union in college showed it and I knew one of the projectionists. It's about a triple child murder in West Memphis, Arkansas (note: not one of the swankier suburbs). Three teenage boys were charged with the gruesome crimes, and were convicted on some shaky evidence. For example, the prosecutor made much of the fact that they wore a lot of black and listened to Metallica. They were painted as satanists. The filmmakers seemed to be pushing the audience to suspect the father of one of the boys, so who knows what was going on in the editing room. Despite that, it puts the state's story in a new light. And it's so depressing whether they did it or not, because if they did, how could they be so lost so young, and if they didn't, how can we send them to prison forever?

(2) Blood in the Face. This is a film about white supremacist religions, and there are some scary folks. What's depressing about it is first that these people exist, and second, that they so firmly believe they're doing the right thing in the eyes of God. The title comes from their common belief that white people are the only ones who can blush ("show blood in the face") and therefore are superior, or even a different species from, other races.

(3) Capturing the Friedmans. This is a more recent and well-known film. The Friedmans were a Long Island family going along okay until the father and one of the sons are charged with molesting children the father taught computer skills to. The weird thing about it is how the family continued to record their daily lives on home video even as their world was crumbling. This is another one where the filmmaker was accused of having an agenda, but that makes it even more thought-provoking: Is there any way to know the truth here?

(4) Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. This is in a similar vein. Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute charged and sentenced to death for killing several men. This film tells Wuornos's story and has some interviews with her from death row. Again, maybe there was an agenda at work here, but it sure seems a lot more real than Charlize Theron's take. This isn't depressing in the sense that I feel a lot of sadness for Wuornos, but it's a downer.

(5) The Farm: Angola USA. This one is a depiction of life at the Angola state prison in Louisiana. It's called The Farm partly because they have an actual farm worked by prisoners, which immediately makes one think of plantation days. While most of the folks in Angola are certainly bad dudes, the conditions are pretty awful, and it's clear that some of these men have spent more time in the pen than would be necessary if the goal was rehabilitation. Then again, they wouldn't exactly be capable of being turned loose in society after the way The Farm changes them.

(6) One Day in September. This is the story of the 1972 Munich Olympic hostage situation. Palestinan terrorists took the Israeli team and coaches hostage. Even if you know what happens, it's compelling to see how it goes down. This was one of the real launching points for the modern age of terrorism, too. So it's depressing to see what lessons were learned (by the terrorists, who saw the effect they could have) or not (by those who would deal with terrorism the way the Germans did then). In a lot of ways, the Munich Games were an attempt to show that hope and good will could overcome hate (the Cold War and the legacy of Nazi Germany). It failed, miserably.

(7) Hoop Dreams. One of the best docs ever, and one of the two best sports docs along with When We Were Kings. The filmmakers follow two inner-city kids through high school in their quest to get out of the ghetto through basketball. It's so well done. The bright spot is that the kids do find a small measure of success in their dreams, although far from what they envisioned. But to know that this is their only way out, and to know what they're trying to get out of, is heartbreaking.

Okay, so maybe this ain't no Sundance. But films like these would keep the bars busy from all the people drinking their blues away. And hey -- at least there's no Michael Moore!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"King of the Hill" Quote of the Day
Hank: "Mr. Holloway is from Boston."
Dale: "Yeah, I know the place. That's in Taxachusetts, ain't it? Say hello to Willie Horton for me, he's teaching at your kindergarten."

Getting a Word in Edgewise
In the course of reading this post at Crime & Federalism (via Evan at Legal Underground), I couldn't help but linger over a gratuitous swipe at Justice Clarence Thomas.

I'm not going to get into the issue of whether Thomas is Justice Antonin Scalia's "understudy" beyond noting that those two don't vote together as often as some other pairs, especially Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall (whose notes for conferences were sometimes "Follow Bill").

But just why is it so awful that Justice Thomas doesn't ask questions at oral argument? To Thomas-bashers, the inference is, of course, that he's too dumb (and I don't mean dumb as in mute) to follow along or ask an intelligent question. I won't dispute that there may be the occasional case that a judge isn't as conversant in as others, but as an across-the-board accusation, it's bunk. Two "Thomas speaks!" moments that spring to mind are the questions he asked during oral argument of Apprendi v. New Jersey and Virginia v. Black, the cross-burning case. In both of those, his questions were perceptive and insightful and went directly to key issues. They were also fairly late in the argument, which gives credence to the Justice's explanation that he usually has a few questions in mind, but they are either asked by another Justice or addressed by counsel. In Apprendi and Black, his questions lingered unasked and unanswered, so he spoke up.

A few other thoughts I'm not sure I'll be able to tie together much better than in bullet-point fashion, which is why I'm not writing this for "The New Republic."

First, judges of all stripes say that oral argument is far less helpful in deciding a case than the briefs are. While this may be less true at the Supreme Court level simply by virtue of the general difficulty of the issues, there's a reason that argument sessions aren't as long as they used to be. (I had a professor whose first Supreme Court argument was interrupted by the lunch break.) And note that Chief Justice Rehnquist has been participating in cases this Term merely by reading the briefs and listening to the arguments after the fact. Whether he ought to be doing that is another matter, but my point is just that it's not as if one could only decide a case if one asks a question at oral argument.

Second, despite what Harry Reid thinks, it's abundantly clear to me that Justice Thomas knows what's going on. There's probably some sort of selectivity bias in my memory, but it seems like every time the Supreme Court issues a thick, complex ERISA or TILA or NEPA/FMCSA opinion, Thomas is the author. I suppose it's possible that he's not up to speed on these cases at argument and only bones up once he gets the writing assignment, but I find that highly unlikely. So why do these people want so badly to hear Justice Thomas speak? (I almost wrote "want to hear Justice Thomas speak so badly," but that would have been ambiguous because I write so badly.) I suspect they have in mind the old saw that it's better to keep one's mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. I think they drool for Thomas to speak because they think it will prove their suspicions correct. I'm sure they fantasize about able attorneys deftly parrying anything ole Clarence could mutter. But his opinions show that he's no dummy, and would be able to handle himself well in discussing the case.

Third, the rest of the Justices talk too much anyway. How many times have we seen lawyers or pundits complain that Justices Scalia and Breyer dominated the argument session, or lament that an attorney wasn't able to spell out a position without being hammered by questions. It's funny to read those rare transcripts when the Justices don't have any questions for a litigant. The lawyers are so prepared to do more listening than talking that they sometimes aren't able to talk about their own case for a half hour if the Court makes them. They get repetitive and loquacious and sit down before the yellow light even comes on. In all this complaining about how "hot" the bench is, do these folks even see the contradiction when they cry for Justice Thomas to chime into the cacophony?

Fourth, it is the rare case when Justice Thomas would be revealing something if he spoke up. (The recent Shepard decision is a possibility, though.) I say this not because Justice Thomas isn't an original thinker or is a mere parrot on Cap'n Scalia's shoulder. Rather, he has a pretty consistent jurisprudence -- why make him reiterate it every time? And besides, all one would get even if he said "I'm going to vote against you" is a prediction of what the result will be (when you add in the others, who often say that in roundabout ways). What is that worth? I suppose it would give the losing party a chance to resign himself or herself to losing. But would there be any real value if Justice Thomas telegraphed his every vote? By not doing that, at least an optimistic lawyer could imagine that he or she swayed the Justice with a wowzer of an argument.

Fifth, if my selective memory highlights the complex cases Justice Thomas handles, Thomas-bashers have selective memory problems of their own. They don't say too much when other judges don't ask questions. I've watched or listened to a couple hundred circuit court arguments, and I have never ever seen any news reports sneer that Judge Whomever didn't ask a question. It's rather common for appellate benches to be "cold," or for at least one judge not to speak up. Why do they hold this against Justice Thomas but not other judges? If they do note it at all, it's often seen as evidence not of the judge's doltishness but of the judge's Solomonic inscrutability and thoughtful consideration of the issues. A recent example: Dahlia Lithwick's report from the Roper oral argument, when Justice O'Connor was seen as the swing vote:
But O'Connor says virtually nothing today. She asks a single question of Layton: "Isn't there about the same consensus that existed in Atkins [the case about the mentally retarded]? Aren't we obliged to look at that?" That's all she says, folks. Read your tea leaves here.
Yes, I realize that Justice Thomas makes a practice of silence while, for others, it's rare enough to warrant a comment like this. But those talkative eight are seldom criticized for showing off or all but announcing how closed their minds are. The other Justices do occasionally play things close to the vest. I'm still waiting for their furrowed brows to be portrayed as confusion instead of contemplation.

Justice Thomas is no dummy. And casting him as one just because he doesn't speak during arguments only sends the message that he who yells the loudest is the smartest. (Do they apply that principle when comparing the fulminations of Rush Limbaugh to the mellifluousness of NPR?) For a body that in theory speaks only through the measured language of its written words, that's an unhealthy image. People who hold the Court in high regard shouldn't endeavor to create an expectation that to be a good Justice, one has to be half Daniel Webster and half Bill O'Reilley.

Coalition for Darfur: Humanitarian Workers at Risk
Last week, the United Nations was forced to withdraw its staff from parts of western Sudan after the Janjaweed militia declared that it would begin targeting foreigners and U.N. humanitarian convoys.

Yesterday, a 26 year-old USAID worker was shot in the face when the clearly-marked humanitarian convoy she was traveling in was ambushed in broad daylight.

It is still unknown just who carried out this ambush, but Sudan expert Eric Reeves reported yesterday that he had "received from multiple, highly authoritative sources intelligence indicating that Khartoum has ambitious plans for accelerating the obstruction of humanitarian access by means of orchestrated violence and insecurity, including the use of targeted violence against humanitarian aid workers."

If such a plan is truly in the works, it will have dire consequences for the people of Darfur. Last year, Jan Egeland, the UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned that as many as 100,000 people could die in Darfur every month if those providing humanitarian assistance were forced to withdraw due to insecurity.

Save the Children has already lost 4 of its aid workers in the last year, yet they continue to provide medical care, food, water, shelter, and protection to more than 200,000 children and families in Darfur each month.

The members of the Coalition for Darfur are working together to raise money for Save the Children and if each coalition partner can raise a mere $10 dollars a week, together we can generate $2,000 a month to support Save the Children's life saving work.

We hope that you might consider making a small donation.

BTQ Answer Man
Given his busyness, Fitz has temporarily ceded to me the honor of donning the hat of the BTQ Answer Man, helpfully answering the questions of browsers who stumble upon our site.

How to make silencers?

My favorite part about this question is that it comes via Google Canada, where I didn't even know they had guns. Maybe the chap wants it for his duck call. In that case, put a duck on the end of it and blow.

Monkey Prom Question

It's not really in the form of a question, but I got such a chuckle out of the idea of a monkey prom. So I tried to imagine the most obvious questions that would arise from a monkey prom. I think the number one query has to be "What color dress matches feces?" While that really depends on diet, I think the safe bet is to dress like a banana, which will guarantee your date peels that dress right off you.

In the episode where Kramer adopts a mile of the highway what did Newman run over at the end of?

Paint thinner. Hey -- sometimes the Answer Man actually has an answer!

What is begging?

Ask my ex-girlfriends! Zing!

How to walk to work?

I don't have much hope for this person finding the way there.

What gun should a young girl use to shoot deer?

I'm going to leave this one to Fitz, but I know one thing: I don't want to meet the author of this question.

Top 10 bad things that could happen to a girl?

Ask my ex-girlfriends!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

"King of the Hill" Quote of the Day
Hank: "Pass me some more of that cookie dough. Mmm! I never knew you could eat it raw. It's almost as good as ice cream."
Luanne: "You know, they make ice cream with cookie dough already in it."
Hank: "Damn, sister, get me my keys!"

The Tipping Point
A Twin Cities denizen sent me this fun story about pizza delivery guys and the adventures they run into. That article led me to this blog full of pizza tales and in turn to Tip the Pizza Guy, with way, way more thoughts than you'll ever need about tipping and pizza delivery generally.

These days, I always get my pizza to carry out, rather than delivered, for several reasons, but somewhere in the calculus is the fact that it saves me the tip (and the delivery charge, which TPG informs me does not go to the driver). I'm not a good tipper. By that I don't mean that I'm cheap but rather that I don't do it well. I always think about it roughly two seconds too late, and then sometimes I don't know how much to tip. Also, I didn't grow up in a big city or some other tip-heavy situation, so it never came natural to me: all those times when people like cab drivers and doormen and concierges and porters and paperboys and so on get tipped are relatively new to me. And then I went off to college and things got worse. At college, a lot of delivery places -- not just pizza but subs and regular restaurants too -- were part of our meal plan. So if you didn't want to go eat in the cafeteria, or saunter over to the Burger King in the student union (also on the meal plan), you could just have some food delivered. As a consequence of everything being paid for via our i.d. card, it became a cashless society. (Even vending machines were on the card!) You could probably find American dollars more easily in a Mexican prison than in my dorm at college. Also, on top of the ordinary delivery fee, the stores would charge higher for meal plan purchases, and usually had a minimum charge, in order to recoup the huge fees the schools charged them to participate in the meal plan. As a result of all this -- no cash, the sense it's coming out of the meal plan and not "real money," aggrievement at supposed gouging -- tips were usually pretty low. The standard tip was probably a dollar or two for the ordinary run of two or three pizzas to a few guys in a dorm room. I know, I know -- that's beyond shitty. I know that now. But we got accustomed to the norms of our isolated little enclave. To all those delivery guys I stiffed in the past, I'm sorry. But the overall experience in the days before I lived on my own led to two things: first, I just was not used to tipping, and second, I'm unsure of proper tip amounts in many situations.

I'm not one of those people who is against tipping for philosophical reasons. I would be happier if restaurants paid their employees a wage sufficient that tipping was a true gratuity rather than a chunk of their wages the employer has me pay directly. (An aside: I worked briefly once at the host stand in a restaurant. We got a percentage of the tips the wait staff reported to the management. My hourly wage was $2.50 plus this percentage. So as to not violate federal law, they had to promise that I would at least get minimum wage regardless of the tip percentage, but I wasn't guaranteed anything more than that. But the point is that the restaurant relied on customers' tips just to get me to minimum wage.) But I don't get worked up enough about to agitate for change, and I'm not foolish enough to think that a meager tip from me will "send a message" about the way things ought to be. On the other hand, I am against tipping people just for doing their job. Example: I'm not going to slip the cable guy a few bucks for coming out to install my cable. The pizza delivery guy is a convenience for me and saves me the trouble of going to the store if he comes out. I'm willing to pay for that, especially since I know he depends on tips as wages. The cable guy, on the other hand, doesn't save me anything -- it's not as if I could walk the cord from my place down to the office and hook it up to the satellite. The way it works is they have to come to you. I also don't like tipping in the jars at the end of a counter in a place where I order food, like an ice cream shop or the burrito place where I walk down the line and tell them what I want in it. I appreciate that they work hard (usually), but it's not like they brought the ice cream to me -- I went to them. I'll toss my coinage in there, and I wouldn't stiff them if the service is extraordinary or I have some huge or intricate order -- something above and beyond. But I hope tips aren't expected or relied upon in that situation, because they're not getting it from me. Also, I get confused about why and when tipping is expected. For example, I had a plane trip not long ago. When I checked in inside the terminal to leave, I was at the little kiosk and the agent printed out the tag and slapped it on my checked bags. No tip. But when I returned, the cab dropped me at the curbside check-in. I wasn't familiar with the airport, so I didn't want to try to find my way inside to check in. (And given the layout, at first it didn't seem like I could have even if I had wanted to.) So the skycap does the exact same thing as the inside agent -- prints the tag, affixes the sticker, and places my bags on a conveyer belt. I realized, again about two seconds too late, that I should have tipped him. But (a) in my defense, this was the first time I had ever used curbside check-in, and (b) what did he do differently from the inside agent warranting a tip that she doesn't get? I'm not asking in a rhetorical fashion to show my outrage -- I'm genuinely curious why a tip is expected at curbside but not inside. (And just to clarify: inclement weather was not an issue in any way.)

I was going to discuss some more my philosophy of tipping, but I got sidetracked and lost my train of thought. Anyway, I'll share a few tipping stories. I try to be generous once I know the convention, although in some ways I'm still a neophyte. But I'm not going to open my wallet and say "Take what you like." I remember one of the first times, maybe the first time, I paid for a cab myself. I was going from the Metro to a friend's house in the DC area. I might could have walked it, but (a) I only had an address and vague directions and wasn't familiar with the area, and (b) I discovered that getting there would have required crossing a major highway not conducive to pedestrian travel. So I got a cab, and the fare came to something like $1.85. The smallest I had was a five. Now, I know that there may be some minimum standard even for small fares, and if I had thought about it, I would have realized that the guy had opportunity costs to taking me such a short distance -- he might have missed the next guy needing a trip to the airport or something. But I still didn't think a 270% tip was appropriate. So I asked for some change, figuring I would give the guy a couple of bucks and keep a dollar. Suddenly, he seemed incapable of comprehending me, and he took so long trying to puzzle through what I wanted that I finally gave up and told him to just keep it.

My two favorite tip stories are from my Dad and a friend from college. When Dad was a high school football coach, he got a little bonus at the end of the season like all head coaches got. It was compensation for their extra duties. Well, Dad didn't want to just pocket it, so he always used it to take his assistants and their wives out to dinner, because they put in hard work too. So one year they went to a nice seafood place, and the waitress worked her tail off for the eight or ten of them. The bill came to something like $190 (this was a long time ago). Dad went to settle it and asked the assistant coaches to get the tip (this was an arrangement, not something he sprung on them), assuming they would recognize that she worked hard and they were there a long time. They gave the gal ten bucks. Dad had no idea until the waitress caught him as he walked out of the restaurant, shoved the ten-spot in his shirt pocket and laid into him about what a cheapskate he was. My Dad was mortified and severely pissed at his assistants. I don't know if the tradition continued after that.

My other favorite is from a time during college that four of us decided to get off campus and went to some place like Applebee's or Chili's. The service was as bad as I've ever seen anywhere. The waiter was curt and inattentive most of the time. But some times he actively ignored us -- we were in a booth at the end of a row, and he would walk to the next table, and then walk all the way back down the row rather than pass our table for the most convenient egress. We had to wait and wait for any service. We were all pretty steamed. Finally, he brought the check. We could have paid cash, but one of the guys was so upset about this shoddy treatment that he waited almost a half hour for the credit card receipt. His bill came to something like $9.96, and wrote in a tip of $0.04. He figured that would be even more annoying that just stiffing the guy, which is what the waiter deserved. Who knows -- maybe the guy figured we were college students and only expected a dollar.

Finally, to pre-empt Mr. Poon, I'll mention the old joke: Did you hear about the rabbi who didn't charge for circumcisions? He just took tips!

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