Moonbat in flight
Ticker 2013

10 August 2013 - What is the NSA Doing to Our Economy?

One question the American mainstream media is ignoring is the economic impact of the NSA spying. The Guardian's Alex Hern and Glenn Greenwald observe that Lavabit and Silent Circle have suspended operations while this affair plays out. The economic problem is that American-based cloud computing is clearly insecure - despite President Obama's recent appeal, paraphrased in the print edition of the St. Petersburg Times as Trust NSA, Obama Says - and cloud computing is a nontrivial part of the information economy. Meanwhile, political cartoonist Ted Rall observes, What a remarkable coincidence: just days after Congress came surprisingly close to banning the NSA from spying on Americans ... the NSA discovers a plot by Al Qaida against U. S. embassies ...; this may be hyperbole, but Obama and the NSA have been courting this kind of skepticism, and they will reap what they have sown.

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11 August 2013 - What Has Snowden Accomplished?

The Guardian reports that a component of the NSA's program allows them to pounce on communications by particular American citizens: NSA loophole allows warrantless search for US citizens' emails and phone calls : Spy agency has secret backdoor permission to search databases for individual Americans' communications. The Guardian quotes U. S. Senator Ron Wyden saying, "Once Americans' communications are collected, a gap in the law that I call the 'back-door searches loophole' allows the government to potentially go through these communications and conduct warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans." Wyden and U. S. Senator Mark Udall had been hinting for years that something was up, but the media and the political establishment did not follow up on the issue until Snowden went to Wikileaks. Contrast this revelation with statements by two people who have been in the know all along:

  • Senate Intelligence Chairperson Dianne Feinstein: "The intelligence community is strictly prohibited from using Section 702 to target a US person, which must at all times be carried out pursuant to an individualized court order based upon probable cause."
  • President Barack Obama: "Now, with respect to the internet and emails, this doesn't apply to US citizens and it doesn't apply to people living in the United States."
And now both Feinstein and Obama are talking about transparency and tightening up procedures. Feinstein and Obama publicly (if implicitly) recognizing that there is a problem is something that Wyden and Udall were not able to do, and it wouldn't have happened if Snowden hadn't gone to Wikileaks.

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31 July 2013 - A Point is Made

The Washington Times, a major cheerleader for what President Eisenhower called the "Military-Industrial Complex," reports that Bradley Manning verdict signals a stern warning against leaks, a view shared by many activists, according to the Guardian, which reported that Manning conviction under Espionage Act worries civil liberties campaigners. Meanwhile, it turns out that many political leaders have misled the nation about the scale of the NSA's activities, according to the Guardian, which reported that NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'.

Next on Mr. Holder's to-do list: Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

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19 July 2013 - The Problem with the Rolling Stone

The Rolling Stone has been the target of a lot of criticism for its cover featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The mayor of Boston sent a letter to the Rolling Stone complaining that the cover "rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatement." In response to the criticism, The Rolling Stone posted a editorial comment saying "The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stones long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day." But take a look at the cover, and what it says at the lower right hand corner:

[Image hot-linked from the Rolling Stone]

It reads, "The Bomber."

Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which may sound strange considering how overwhelming the case against him looks ... until we remember that practically all this evidence bouncing around the media came from leaks from law enforcement agencies. Like Mayor Menino, the Rolling Stone has prejudged the case and have found Tsarnaev guilty. Now, once upon a time, Richard Nixon claimed (before the verdict came out) that Charles Manson was guilty, which led to an uproar because, as we all know, responsible officials and newsmen do not prejudge cases prior to verdicts.

But that was then. This is now.

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9 July 2013 - The Latest on Corruption

Transparency International has just issued the Global Corruption Barometer 2013, and BBC concluded that Corruption getting worse, says poll, and BBC's nation-by-nation analysis listed the least corrupt nations as Denmark, Finland, Japan and Australia, with less than 1 % of all those surveyed reporting that they have paid a bribe. The USA was 7 %, which is a higher rate than Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea Spain, the UK, and Uruguay (for some reason, there was no data from many countries, including France, Germany, Iceland, and the Netherlands). We are tied with Switzerland.

Looking more closely at the USA, 60 % said that corruption has increased. 76 % said that the political system was affected by corruption, 53 % said that business was affected by corruption, 42 % said that the judiciary was affected by corruption (the same percentage that said the police were affected), 35 % said that religion was affected, 34 % said that education was affected, 30 % said that NGOs were affected, and 30 % said that the military was affected. When it comes to bribe reports, 7 % of USA respondents coming into contact with the police report paying a bribe (as opposed to 31 % worldwide) while 15 % of USA respondents coming into contact with the judiciary report paying a bribe (as opposed to 24 % worldwide).

Of course, this raises the question of what constitutes a bribe. A "donation" to a political candidate? The Supreme Court says not.

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4 July 2013 - The Military Must Think Soldiers are Stupid

The U.K. Guardian reports that US military blocks entire Guardian website for troops stationed abroad : Troops deployed to Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia have 'theater-wide block' to Guardian . The Guardian quoted a Pentagon explanation for Central Command's decision not to let soldiers visit the Guardian:
US central command is among other DOD organizations that routinely take preventative measures to safeguard the chance of spillage of classified information on to unclassified computer networks, even if the source of the information is itself unclassified ... One of the purposes for preventing this spillage is to protect Centcom personnel from inadvertently amplifying disclosed but classified information.
Of course, this is balderdash: whatever is on the Guardian's site is out there for all the world to see -- and all the world knows that the Guardian is posting it. The only reason why Central Command is doing this is the same motivation for the Great Firewall of China: the Pentagon does not want its soldiers to read to Guardian.

And what an ironic story this is for the Fourth of July...

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29 June 2013 - The Way the Wind Blows

The U. K. Guardian reports that US army blocks access to Guardian website to preserve 'network hygiene'. That means that military personnel surfing the net while using Department of Defense computers will find themselves blocked from some U. K. Guardian sites.

One of the Army's public affairs officers explains, "In response to your question about access to the website, the army is filtering some access to press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks." His rationale was: "The Department of Defense routinely takes preventative 'network hygiene' measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information onto DoD unclassified networks." But he assured reporters that the US military was not taking any steps to prevent civilians from visiting the Guardian, so at least the Obama Administration is not stooping to China's level.


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21 June 2013 - The Love of Money

"For the love of money is the root of all evil," wrote St. Paul to Timothy. "which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." This is not a surprising warning: in many "primitive" (and pagan) societies, wealth buys influence through regular and occasionally lavish philanthropy. But living in a society in which wealth is hoarded may do something to our heads.

Some psychologists at UC Berkeley conducted some experiments on the acquisitive instinct, and they told PBS that "... we're finding that lower class people just have a sharper sensitivity to need and to people who could use a little help ..." while well-to-do people need to have the need pointed out to them. Furthermore, they found that those Biblical admonitions about the haughtiness of the rich were true; see also the follow-up.

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15 June 2013 - Eric Snowden on the Hook - updated 16 June 2013

While we all admire the integrity of prophets, sages, and dissidents who stood their ground to face the music - from Socrates and John the Baptist to Galileo and Gandhi, it is quite common for troublemakers like Emile Zola and Karl Marx to go elsewhere (and recalling Andrei Amalrik and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn , sometimes the exile is involuntary). Indeed, some dissidents employed variants of Voltaire's policy of having a house near the border.

But gaining an asylum can have its price. Dissidents from Martin Luther to the 14th Dalai Lama have discovered that when a major power grants you asylum, that major power may expect you to play its tune.

It is not clear what led Eric Snowden to share data identifying computers in Hong Kong and China that the NSA had penetrated. But this was different from anything he had done up to then. Before then, Snowden had revealed that the NSA was invading the privacy of tens of millions of Americans as a matter of routine, invasions that high officials had denied in testimony before Congress. Before then, Snowden had technically violated the law in an act of whistleblowing, and the hysterical accusations of treason from the likes of U. S. Dianne Feinstein, Fox News commentator Ralph Peters, and others only show the moral decay within the beltway. What Snowden had done prior to his his revelation about Hong Kong and China computers was as much an act of patriotism as Billy Mitchell's bombing of the Ostfriesland.

But identifying NSA targets in Hong Kong and China was different. It isn't that he revealed that the NSA was targeting Chinese computers - everyone knows that - but that he revealed one sensitive secret: that an IT person in his position knew that the NSA was specifically targeting those particular computers. Not only did that identify specific targets of the NSA at specific times, but it also gave the Chinese valuable information about how intelligence about China is distributed in the NSA. And the intended audience was clearly the Chinese government, not the American people or the American press (and the international press, including the Guardian), which had been the primary audience up to then. And that pretty much puts him in the same class with Jonathan Pollard: not treason for the technical reason that China (like Israel) is not an "Enemy", but espionage all the same.

Whether or not Snowden volunteered the computer identification data or was pressured by Chinese authorities, he must have known that choosing Hong Kong as an asylum would come at a high price. He may not have had much choice: considering Sweden and Great Britain's lapdog behavior in the Assange case, and the outrageous treatment of Bradley Manning, both standing his ground or seeking asylum from a more respectable nation may have seemed suicidal.

So there it is. Espionage, pure and simple. Some will be quick to judge, but considering the ghastly dilemma Snowden faced, it takes a monster or a fool not to sympathize. And the architect of Snowden's dilemma, the man who signs off on these daily violations of the constitution, shows little sign of conscience - although he has called for ... dialogue ... , which he may or may not listen to.

And this whole story has just gotten a lot uglier.

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11 June 2013 - But is it illegal?

Two days ago, my post (below) stated that Snowden broke the law in exposing large-scale crimes by the U. S. government. But as I walked past a LaRouche activist handing out sheets denouncing the NSA's "illegal spying", I had to ask, were these crimes?

First of all, Snowden almost certainly broke the law. But contrary to House Speaker John Boehner's hyperventilations, Snowden is not guilty of treason. The U. S. Constitution itself defines treason: Article III, Section 2 states that "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Only a most dishonorable court - which may include the one Bradley Manning faces now - would claim that an act of whistleblowing that has a collatoral or side effect of assisting an enemy is an act of treason.

But there are numerous laws requiring that people granted access to secret information keep that information secret, so Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's demand that Snowden "be extradited, arrested and prosecuted" may come to pass. And there's the rub, for these laws are violated routinely, and the decision whether to prosecute or not - indeed, the decision whether to investigate or not - often depends on whether the publication of secret information was a leak (officially unapproved) or a plant (unofficially approved). Whistleblowers like Snowden have a few thin protections, but not much lately. Indeed, in 2006, the Supreme Court actually ruled that an official may be disciplined for complaining to his superiors about corrupt practices, so Snowden can't expect much from the courts.

What about the government? The NSA has been acting with what look suspiciously like the general warrants used by the British in American colonies to sweep up everything they could find. If Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Thomas are really originalists, then there are four votes flatly against the NSA on the U. S. Supreme Court - not a hypothetical point, given that the ACLU has just filed suit. On the other hand, Most Americans back NSA tracking phone records, prioritize probes over privacy, and as Mr. Dooley observed, "The Supreme Court follows the election returns." And as former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes observed, "We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is..."

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9 June 2013 - American Dreyfus

The United States may be facing what the Third French Republic faced a century ago - a sort of crisis that proud Americans used to think our country would never face because we and our government was better than that.

In 1899, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French Army was convicted of treason, specifically delivering secret documents to the Germans. This confirmed his prior conviction of 1894, but during the subsequent five years, the French military had found the actual spy and attempted an unsuccessful cover-up. It started with a sloppy investigation and a rush to judgment, but since Dreyfus was Jewish, the collapse of the cover-up led to a toxic controversy over Judaism in France, the role of the military and the Catholic Church and, ultimately, a collision between royalist and republican attitudes. When Dreyfus was ultimately vindicated and reinstated in the Army in 1906, it was seen more as a triumph of Enlightenment values than, say, exposure and rectification of an error of a misfeasant, malfeasant, and nonfeasant military bureaucracy - a bureaucracy that would display its incompetence and unreliability in two world wars, the second one disastrously.

The United States may be approaching a similar collision between royalist and republican values, and we should be clear what we mean by that:

  • "Royalism" is what Americans used to call bossism, that a single person possesses the virtues to be the Leader, and that it is the duty of every citizen to obey the the Leader.
  • "Republicanism," from the Latin "res publica" (literally "business of the public") is virtually synonymous with "democracy," which comes from the Greek "demos" ("people") + "kratos" ("power"). (Yes, I know that Right-wing pseudo-intellectuals claim that republics and democracies are different, but that's just their ignorance.)
The United States of America was established as, in Ben Franklin's words, "a Republic, if you can keep it."

Bill Clinton was probably the last president inclined towards a republican view of his job, probably because it was the people who repeatedly rescued him from the politicians after his frequent missteps. (Not that Clinton was at all open about national security matters, but at least he didn't dismiss critics with "I'm the decider" rhetoric.) Both Bush (Junior) and Obama talked the talk about democracy, but neither walked the walk. One result is the almost cancerous growth of the ... well, we might as well use the term: Special Branch. Like a European-style Special Branch, Homeland Security spies on American citizens, collects political intelligence, and keeps its operations secret. The latest revelation comes about the National Security Agency.

Unlike Bradley Manning, who was a naif with the best of intentions - and did his country a great service - but didn't really know what he was doing nor what the consequences to himself and his country might be, Edward Snowden clearly knew exactly what he was doing. And like Nathan Hale before him, he has every right to toss a guantlet at President Obama's feet and announce that he has but one life to give to his country.

And what will our brilliant, arrogant, and unwise president do with that gauntlet? He did, after all, swear (hand on the Bible) to uphold the constitution he now violates daily. His administration already prosecuted more political leakers than all preceding administrations combined. PFC Manning is already going through a trial worthy of Lewis Carroll. So...

  • It would be cowardice to bump off or rendition Snowden. And the word - coward - would certainly be used against Obama if Snowden is run over by a truck.
  • To do nothing would be an admission that the current policy was wrong, which would cost Obama credibility with a security bureaucracy to which Obama has devoted four years worth of political capital.
  • That leaves extradition and a trial. But Snowden is a formidable character and the issues are clear: Snowden deliberately violated the law (and probably his contract) in order to expose large-scale crimes that the NSA was committing against the people of the United States - with the knowledge and complicity of the White House, which lied about it all.

    Technically, Snowden is probably guilty of several crimes (but not, ahem, of treason, which requires specifically aiding an "enemy"). But like the trial(s) of Dreyfus, the trial of Snowden would summon the spirits of Royalism and Democracy, and no amount of legal jargon or high-minded rhetoric would change the role that Obama would play.
If this is what happens, then President Obama would be cast as a tragic figure in the classic sense, for the trial would be the natural outcome of his own actions. He spent four years building on George Bush's legacy, and as Bush's NSA director observed, Obama's national security policies are essentially extensions and expansions of Bush's. Like MacBeth, not all of Neptune's waters could wash Obama's hands clean.

Editorial comment. It probably is no surprise that this latest revelation comes from the world's pre-eminent progressive organ, The Guardian, which also played a role in the Wikileaks drama, and has provided a heroic amount of coverage of the War on TerrorTM spillover into pursuit of the press and routine rendition. Culture experts probably noticed that in comparing the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor with the 2007 film Bourne Supremacy, The Guardian has replaced The New York Times as the world's pre-eminent investigative news organ. And meanwhile, niether Conservatives nor the Right are interested in actually investigating, probably because just making stuff up requires less work.

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3 June 2013 - Betrayal

On the day before the 24th anniversary of the massacre on Tiananmen square - an anniversary featuring much moral posturing by the U. S. government - Bradley Manning goes to trial for embarrassing the government. For various takes, here are stories from Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, The Nation, The Times of London, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times.

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26 May 2013 - The Devil in Jackson County

Temptation is one of the Devil's most powerful tools. The stories of temptation resisted - by Frodo Baggins or Sir Gawain - or accepted - by Heinrich Faust or Jabez Stone - are among the most powerful in Christian literature. And given the propensity of Red State preachers to preach to Blue States while their own parishioners drink the kool-aid, it is not surprising to see Old Scratch in Jackson County, Florida.

The Faustian bargain is this. A rural county in the Florida panhandle sees the future leaving for the big cities. Family farming has grown increasingly problematic over the last century, so the local boosters are relieved, if not delighted, when Mr. Mephistopheles arrives with ... a penal institution. It might be a prison, it might be a reform school, it might be whatever, but whatever it is, it means jobs, a steady demand for supplies, and thus a reliable revenue stream for the county. And in 1900, Jackson County, Florida, became the home for an Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a "reform school."

During the last few years, the news media has been reporting that this penal institution was actually worse (and larger) than anything in any of Dickens' novels; some of things that happened there might well make Wackford Squeers' blood run cold. And now a team from my own University of South Florida is digging up unmarked graves. And what is the reaction of Jackson County?

The Reverend Dr. Billy Bruner - someone who really should know about the Devil - complains that "As to the 'treatment' of those who lived there, it is a fact that many of those who were inmates at Dozer were there because of very serious criminal reasons," and also that "... what is in it for all these who want to open these graves of individuals who were at the Dozier School because of some form of violation of the law, even taking the life of another?"

As the Reverend must know, Christ did address the problem of people in prison, but the presumption in the gospels is that inmates are human beings. But modern prison is primary an exercise in management and control, not unlike a factory farm, and to some employees in a rural county, a factory farm atmosphere - complete with an element of danger one doesn't find in factory farms - may encourage a tendency to regard inmates as less than human. As the U. S. Office of Naval Research discovered, almost all guards will exhibit this attitude towards inmates, and some will act on it. And after the fact, as the graveyards are uncovered, what then?

Jackson county residents do not claim that Dozier was just a farm, but they have difficulties with a charnal house being one of their major employers. The Tampa Bay Times reports that In Marianna, dig for truth encounters desire to keep past buried. A local Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year opposed the state's attempt to get permission to continue digging, and a local judge obliged, denying the state permission while muddying the water over what such a denial meant.

The problem with denial is that it entails embracing the temptation. The denial is itself a temptation, and once taken, leads one only further down the path paved with good intentions.

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5 May 2013 - Edmund Burke

First of all, Jesse Norman, Member of Parliament, is wrong: Edmund Burke was not The First Conservative. It isn't just that it's hard to imagine conservatism without Thomas Hobbes, but also that "first conservative" is a sort of oxymoron.

But the book may be a useful reminder, even if New Criterion reviewer Charles Hill fails to make the point: much of what is now called "conservatism" (e.g. the Tea Party) is actually a brand of radical populism.

For example, the Tea Party would agree with Margaret Thatcher that ... there is no such thing as society, and expression of individualism that serves as a retort to progressive quotes like Hillary Clinton's favorite African quote, "It takes a village to raise a child.".

But Thatcher's attitude is anti-Burkean; Burke regarded a society as an organic whole, and individual people were merely part of that society, not whole unto themselves. To a Burkean, the rugged individualism of Thatcher and the Tea Party -- and especially the ballyhoo around it -- bring to mind Burke's warning, as pertinent today for the Tea Party as it was two centuries ago for the National Assembly:

... when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, and the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people. If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traders; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper, and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

This, incidentally, is what a real conservative sounds like.

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22 April 2013 - Seattle

A total of five dead in Boston, with over a hundred injured. Shock, outrage, calls for stripping the surviving suspect of his constitutional rights. And today, five dead in Seattle. And the reaction is ...?

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21 April 2013 - Boston

While the 20 July 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado and the 14 December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut brought out the usual hysteria and conspiracy theories about James Holmes and Adam Lanza, the toxins pouring through the Main Stream Media over Boston seems to be at a different level.

As those of us who remember the mess the FBI (and the media) made of the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta, nothing is more dangerous than a police agency under pressure to solve a case it doesn't know how to solve, and everything such a police agency says should be taken with several grains of salt. And yet, there the officials were again, chattering on and off the record about the progress of the investigation while the main stream media faithfully reported rumors as news. And by now, we all know how the New York Post floated reams of fiction across their pages.

Potentially more dangerous was the response of the politicians.

Unlike James Holmes, Dzhokhar Tsarnaevis may be interrogated without prior reading of his Miranda rights, a move which even torture apologist Alan Dershowitz warned is constitutionally suspect. (Fortunately, even in this moment of fury, a narrow majority of Americans agreed with Mr. Dershowitz.) Meanwhile, Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain proposed denying Tsarnaevis his right to a trial. There is even a call to torture Tsarnaevis, to what end (for the heck of it?) it wasn't clear.

I do not recall proposals to torture Mr. Holmes, and of course, of course, Mr. Holmes will get his day in court - just like Charles Manson did, and just as Adam Lanza would have had he lived. So what makes Tsarnaevis different - other than the fact that the murder weapon was not a device dear to the NRA's heart?

The announcement that Tsarnaevs will be interrogated without being read his rights makes the position of the Department of Justice quite clear. Mr. Tsarnaevis was part of a conspiracy and his fellow conspirators are such public danger that Tsarnaevis cannot be permitted his constitutional rights. But there are two objections to Mr. Holder's paranoia:

  • The Boston bombs were homemade contraptions make of pressure cookers. This bombing fits better into the pattern of homegrown American terrorist with pipe bomb or fertilizer bomb in the rear. Terrorists are as fashion conscious as everyone else, and even the IED's that kill our troops are higher tech than this. This is a lot closer to the Oklahoma City Bombing, and McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier got their days in court, in accordance with the U. S. Constitution.
  • The nastiest organization in the vicinity of the Tsarnaevs is actually the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) - which Russian President / ex-KGB agent Vladimier Putin claims isn't a bunch of mobsters who go around murdering dissidents (yeah, right). In 2011, the FSB asked the FBI to check on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, because of Tsarnaev's Chenchyan connections. Chechnya is one of Putin's major longstanding headaches, and he has played very dirty in that conflict. As for Tsarnaev, the FBI didn't find a thing, at least nothing that the FBI could have acted on. If Holder was paranoid about serious things, the first question would be aimed not at Tamerlan Tsarnaev's brother, but at Mr. Putin: exactly what was it that the FSB wanted to know and why? Nevertheless, the Obama administration has apparently swallowed any suspicions and objections and working towards greater cooperation with Moscow.
Conspiracy theories aside, cynics will note that both Mr. Holder and Mr. Putin have ferociously anti-Muslim track records, and this tragedy is too good an opportunity not to be milched for all its worth. In addition, in treating an American citizen this way - and Dzhokhar Tsarnaevis is an American citizen - the Obama administration is making progress in one of its major goals: the evisceration of constitutional protections for individuals, including American citizens, who are accused or suspected of being terrorists.

And there is a reality check that people who remember Colorado and Connecticut will appreciate. The Tsarnaevs were apparently packing heat: there were two shoot-outs and there's a dead cop. Of course, the NRA thinks that everyone should be packing heat, but as of now, there are five dead, two because of the ready availability of guns.

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4 April 2013 - People Who are Different

In Quatermass and the Pit, Andrew Keir told James Donald that Donald had to be killed because "you were ... different." In this movie, Homo sapiens were the products of genetic engineering by ancient aliens who intended that we live as they lived, maintaining the purity of the hive (the aliens were arthropods).

There is a liberal notion that because social classes are themselves creations of society, prejudice itself is a product of society. But recalling how many of our primate cousins live in troops that compete with other troops - and therefore need some kind of mechanism for distinguishing between troops, not to mention between hierarchical levels within troops (social animals tend to maintain pecking orders) - it is also possible that while particular social distinctions are fabrications, the impulse to generate social distinctions may be inborn. Here are two bits of evidence supporting this pessimistic view.

  • A recent study at Yale suggests that Infants prefer individuals who punish those not like themselves. Yale News reports that "Psychologists have long known that people tend to like others who are like themselves," but they had wondered when this tendency arose. They introduced babies to a range of puppets, some of who shared their food preferences, and and who did not, and they found that babies preferred people who were mean to those puppets who did not share their food prefrences.
  • Meanwhile, BBC recently ran a column reminding us of the work of Henri Tajfel, who would divide people into groups arbitrarily, and have members of groups make objective decisions about people in their own or other groups. He found rampant favoritism, even though the groups were arbitrary.
Of course, just because this behavior is "natural" doesn't mean that it should be encouraged, or even tolerated: as Katherine Hepburn told Humphrey Bogart, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this Earth to rise above.".

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17 March 2013 - The Curia Unbowed

A lot has been made of the humility of the newly elected Pope Francis I, but a cynic might suggest that in electing a 76-year-old pontiff, the cardinals wanted someone who could keep the seat warm while they wrestle with problems that they are not quite ready to address. If such a cynic was right, then Francis would be a visibly humble figurehead while the Curia ran the show. It took less than 24 hours for the first vindication of the cynic's view.

The most problematic part of Francis' past is his conduct during the Argentine Dirty War, in which agents of the Argentine government started murdering dissidents in the late 1960s, then revved up to slaughter tens of thousands during the late 1970s and early 1980s, ending only when the government fell in 1983. In the comic book version of the world, there would be heros and martyrs on one side and deatheaters on the other; certainly there was some of that, but real life is more complicated. There are tightrope walkers and hedgehogs who try to stay alive without compromising their ideals too much. In his 1990 New Year's Address to the Nation, Vaclav Havel said:
We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all though naturally to differing extents responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.

In Argentina even more than Czechoslovakia - which had to keep the Soviets happy, after all - the junta had the consent of the governed, and only lost that consent because of its humiliation in the Falklands. So when the Argentines emerged from the nightmare and found themselves surrounded with the broken bodies of their neighbors whom their government had slain in their name, their greatest task was to face a mirror.

Certainly, if anyone would be aware of the extent to which a tyranny makes collaborators out of its citizenry, it would be a man ordained in the year the Dirty War sputtered into existence, served as Provincial Superior of the Jesuits during the height of the Dirty War in the late 1970s, and became rector of the seminary in San Miguel in 1980. By his own account, he had quietly rescued two of the junta's targets. If he was anywhere as perceptive, as empathetic, and as humble as the Vatican's public relations department makes out, then he must have been aware of what was happening, and he must have been miserable about how little he could do on his own, and perhaps even blamed himself for not doing more.

Shortly after Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis, embittered survivors of those years denounced him. He must have seen this coming, and it must have occurred to him that this was his first test as pope. If he had a duty to say anything, it would be to continue Havel's thread: whatever our ideals, we are all human - even a pope is human - and we must forgive ourselves and each other as we bind our wounds and work to build a better world. But instead, we heard not from him, but from one of the gnomes of the Curia.

Friar Frederico Lombardi gave a presumably prepared statement to the press, posted on the Vatican's website, and therefore representing the official position of the Vatican and thus, at least technically, of His Holiness. Friar Lombardi began with:
The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and dates back to many years ago. It has been made by a publication that carries out sometimes slanderous and defamatory campaigns. The anticlerical cast of this campaign and of other accusations against Bergoglio is well-known and obvious.

Lombardi then reminds the press that the future bishop of Buenos Aires did indeed rescue two colleagues, and he concluded with:
The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anticlerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected.

Whatever Francis may say to the crowds at St. Peters, the Curia's position is the same. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and those who presume to criticize him deserve nothing but contempt.

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10 March 2013 - Treason in an Endless War

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald's recent rant on Rand Paul's filibuster - and the establishment progressives' blathering responses - are an unpleasant reminder that many progressives and liberals are sitting on their hands while the Obama administration commits crimes that would have set them howling had they been committed by George Bush.

The drone issue Paul addressed is merely one of many - witness the recent Guardian story on torture centers set up in Afghanistan, under the direct authority of General Petraeus. And it is one of several programs continued or expanded by the Obama Administration. Obama fans bedazzled by all the talk of change and hope are now astonished or even in denial over their candidate stooping to the sort of policies that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt stooped to, and they stooped during wartime.

On 18 April 1943, American aircraft shot down a plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Imperial Navy. U. S. Aircraft were dispatched to shoot down that specific plane because Yamamoto was on board: it was a deliberate hit. It also occurred at a time of war, when - to be blunt - everyone wearing uniforms, from sailors to admirals, are fair targets.

The drone policy was initiated in the absence of a declaration of war. The United States is not at war with any sovereign nation; Congress has declared Al Qaida to be an enemy, and that is used to justify, say, prosecuting Bradley Manning for treason under a law (passed in wartime) on the theory that he was aiding an enemy of the United States. Under the U. S. Constitution, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Under this theory, Congress could declare La Cosa Nostra to be an enemy of the United States, and try Sicilian mobsters for treason.

Why stop there? Anonymous deliberately sabotages computers and networks in order to create chaos, don't they? They've even targeted national security systems, haven't they? That makes them enemies of the United States, doesn't it?

The Constitution is only a piece of paper: it does not enforce itself. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and so far only the Left, assorted liberals and libertarians, and various Right wing conspiracy theorists have been vigilant. That is probably not enough, and without more vigilance, the cancer will continue to grow.

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6 March 2013 - Politics and the Squeaky Wheel

The Atlantic just reported that a recent academic paper surveyed Los Angeles politicians and their constituents and found that politicians said their constituents were more "conservative" than those constituents actually were - or at least, claimed to be to pollsters.

In the academic paper, the authors observed that politicians don't know their constituents directly, and thus must rely on mechanisms like polls. But The Atlantic suggested that during the past few decades, the political Right has been better organized and thus more able to get its message out to the politicians (and the press), and this may have given both politicians and the press the impression that America is more right-wing than it actually is. This is a reminder that sheer numbers are not enough: organization and action is what matters.

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3 March 2013 - Manning's Statement - updated 12 March 2013

There is a certain sense of deja vu about the trial of Bradley Manning. He has just pled guilty to what are a sequence of crimes: repeatedly releasing classified information to unauthorized people. But the prosecution is under the Espionage Act of 1917, which was amended in 1918, and employed during World War II against socialists and pacifists ranging from Eugene Debs to Watchtower, the flagship of the Jehovah's Witnesses. (This was the act which inspired Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to compare handing out leaflets against the draft to shouting fire in a crowded theatre).

The shady history of the Espionage Act should have inspired an administration as allegedly highminded as Barack Obama's to steer clear. Yet the Obama administration is pursuing the case, complete with Nixonesque details, like refusing to provide reporters with an official copy of Manning's plea (the Guardian has posted an unofficial transcript that reads almost like an indictment of the Iraq war). (On March 12, the Freedom of the Press Foundation posted an audio recording of Manning's statement.)

Speaking of President Nixon, one wonders how much personal attention Obama is giving to the case: after all, on the case of Daniel Elsberg (also tried under the Espionage Act), Nixon told Attorney General John Mitchell:
The main ball is Ellsberg. We've got to get this son of a bitch. And you know, I was talking to somebody over here yesterday, I mean one of our . . . the PR [public relations] types, and they're saying, "well, maybe we ought to drop the case if the Supreme Court doesn't sustain and so forth." And I said, "Hell, no. I mean you can't do that. You can't be in a position of having," as I said this morning, "we can't be in a position of ever allowing, just because some guy is going to be martyr, of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it's going to happen all over the government."
While Obama certainly would use better language, his instructions to Attorney General Eric Holder were probably the same: put Bradley's head on a spike as an example to discourage others.

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18 February 2013 - This is an American Trial??!

The trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (or rather, the pre-trial hearing) is increasingly resembling the
Trial of the Knave of Hearts. The latest revelation is that just about everything - including the hearings themselves - were bugged, and the trial isn't scheduled to start before next year. Hopefully, this circus isn't a sign that the Pentagon can't conduct a proper trial (what have they been doing in all those court martials?), although constitutional curmudgeons (you know, conservatives -- seen any of those around anywhere?) will probably grump that this is what comes of letting the Pentagon try civilians. And now that President Obama has given the Pentagon the chance, the Pentagon is certainly making a hash of it.

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17 February 2013 - Op-ed About the Last Election

For several years, I have been writing occasional op-ed pieces for the Tampa Tribune. The latest one appeared in today's Sunday edition of the Tribune. Entitled Want to be major players again in Legislature, Democrats? Try showing up, it reviews the high points of the election analysis thus far (see column at left for more analysis).

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13 February 2013 - The State of the Union is ... dumber?

The Brits couldn't resist. After President Obama's latest State of the Union Address, the Guardian ran all state of the union addresses through the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which measures difficulty by word length and sentence length, and concluded that the state of the union has declined from George Washington's 17.9 down to George H. W. Bush's 8.6 (see the Guardian's graph).

The high was James Madison's 21.6, perhaps appropriate for the primary author of the U. S. Constitution, but he was followed by the notably useless Martin van Buren, at 20.7. Abraham Lincoln, our most eloquent president, measured in at 14.7, while that notable Man of the People, Andrew Jackson, clocked in at 19.7; compare that to the 15.6 awarded to the great, um, intellectual (that's not the noun H. L. Mencken used) Woodrow Wilson. Of course, state of the unions haven't been written by presidents for some time (let's not go into the awkward question of exactly how much of Kennedy's writings were written by Kennedy), and further recalling George Orwell's warning that a high Flesch-Kincaid index may be an indication of sloppy thinking or even deceit, perhaps the decline was not altogether bad.

The American response is ... has anyone applied the Flesch-Kincaid tests to the prime ministers' speeches to the House? Or the Queen's ...?

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6 February 2013 - Sam Wang on the Gerry Mander

Sam Wang, one of the leading
quants, has weighed in on the New York Times about how the Republicans won the U. S. House despite the fact that Democratic Congressional candidates got more votes. Congressional races are high-profile enough so that the lack-of-gumption problem noted here in legislative races probably does not have that great an effect. That leaves gerrymandering, but it may not be that simple.

Traditionally, gerrymandering was a device by which incumbents protect their jobs - occasionally at the expense of their party. In addition, the courts have imposed all sorts of rules on redistricting - race neutrality, natural borders, etc. - that interpretations of these constraints, together with the fact that groups of people tend to settle in clumps, make it difficult to determine what is due to happenstance and what is do to conniving. But when Republicans brag about their clever redistricting, one can't help being suspicious - and one can't wonder why grown-up politicians imitate Saturday morning cartoon villains. At least no Republican leader has indulged in a Simon-bar-Sinister-type cackle. Yet.

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27 January 2013 - Is Obama Liberal?

For four years, the Right has reviled President Obama as a liberal extremist - or as a Muslim terrorist from Kenya. The Left has had more mixed feelings about him: since America has shifted rightward in the last three decades, Obama (like Clinton before him) seems like a floating log to a drowning sailor. And (like Clinton before him), Obama tends to sink whenever liberals and leftists rely on him.

Obama's second inaugural address was a widely interpreted as a progressive paean: he held up equality and government care for the disadvantaged and for veterans - and praised Social Security and Medicare, which are are actually middle class entitlements. He said nothing about programs that would help the disadvantaged (or help veterans), and he said nothing about grass roots organizations (like unions) by which people can advance their own interests. This was essentially the view of 1960s era moderate Republicanism: the people are a passive recipient of sensibly distributed and monitored government aid.

The nation has swung so far to the Right since then that the Tampa Tribune justifiably argued that President Barack Obama wrapped his liberal agenda in the flag Monday in his second inaugural address .... Real liberals and progressives disagreed. Across Tampa Bay, Robyn Blumner complained that on two critical points, Obama is hardly a liberal, and across the Atlantic, the U. K. Guardian's Glenn Greenwald looked at Obama's increasingly Nixonian record on federal security and claimed The only official punished for the illegal NSA program was the one who discussed it. The same is now true of torture. Real liberals can't help but reminded of Obama's 2008 claim - echoing John Kerry in 2004 - that he would have done what Bush did, but more competently.

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24 January 2014 - The Problem with Neo-Liberalism

A new book on the Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, by Daniel Stedman Jones reminds us that what we see of economic libertarianism on the airwaves and in the blogosphere is the comic book version. Economic libertarians from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman were quite aware of the necessity of public expenditure for the public good. Hayek, after all, lived through the London Blitz (when Winston Churchill was putting Britain deeply into debt in order to fight the Third Reich) while Friedman proposed a reverse income tax as an anti-poverty measure. It was Ayn Rand who remained perpetually adolescent.

The problem is that since the market encourages players to act in their own self-interest (and all too often, in their own immediate rather than long-term self-interest), the market often fails to address major public concerns that everyone wants someone else to address. One example are anti-biotics. Microbes evolve so quickly that anti-biotics become obsolete, and what's more, users typically do not come back for more. Worse, many anti-biotics are specific to a limited range of microbes. Meanwhile, each anti-biotic costs a lot to develop and test; many anti-biotics are developed in academia (funded by tax dollars) and then tested by pharmaceutical companies, but even that reduces the profits to those companies so much that they would prefer to spend their money on improved cold remedies, which have a more reliable return. The result is that our inventory of anti-biotics has grown slim -- just as BBC reports that The rise in drug resistant infections is comparable to the threat of global warming, according to the chief medical officer for England. If we want to keep the death toll down, we're going to have to spend tax dollars.

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23 January 2013 - Is Life High School?

Bruce Springsteen saw them as our (bittersweet) Glory Days, Kurt Vonnegut thought that it is "closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of." High school is entering the radar range of developmental psychology, and New York magazine explains Why You Truly Never Leave High School. Being only a magazine article, it does not go much into topics like the difference between boys and girls (among many social mammals, adolescent males often wander in cliques separate from the main group, while females remain closer to home), but it is true that our age segregated junior/senior high school system is ... abnormal, but with precedents in previous urban cultures.

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15 January 2013 - The Florida House

The Florida House of Representatives is probably regarded with more contempt than any other body or agency in the Florida state government. Over the years, its antics have moved people across the political spectrum to say, "Thank God for the Senate." Yet the House has considerable power and influence, and any group that wanted to make a difference (like, say, the Democratic Party of Florida) would focus on the House - if only because the House is a source of much grief, and a major source of danger to the public interest.

The Florida House has 120 seats, and as of the last election, there are 44 Democrats and 76 Republicans. That is the outcome of the election, and the newspapers all reported the the Democratic party had managed to eke out a marginal gain, and now had (hold onto your hats) over a third of the seats. But newspaper readers may have asked how that was such a great victory in a state that had not only returned a moderate Democrat to the U. S. Senate, but also helped return a much vilified Democrat to the White House. Let's take a look at the election results.

First of all, while there are 120 seats, all up for election, there were only 75 races: 45 (38 %) of the candidates garnered no opposition at all and just walked into office.

  • Of those 45 who walked into office, 18 were Democrats and 27 were Republicans.
  • Of the remaining 75 who faced opposition, 28 did not face opposition from the other major party. 27 of these races consisted of a major party candidate versus either a No Party Affiliation candidate or a Write-In candidate or a minor party candidate - and one race consisted of a major party candidate versus a No Party Affiliation candidate and a Write-in candidate. While a few of these non-major-party candidates got respectable returns - the best was Christina Spencer-Kephart, who got 29,026 votes in the race for seat # 25 (versus 45,951 for the winner, Republican Dave Hood) - most non-major party candidates did not:
    • In all these races put together, the non-major candidates together got 0.2 % of the votes.
    • The most that any write-in candidate got was 504, and two got zero).
  • Of these 28 that faced only third-party (or no-party) opposition, five were Democrats and 23 were Republicans.
Putting this together, we have: there were 120 seats. For these 120 seats, the Democrats ran 70 candidates while the Republicans ran 97. In order to get a majority, the Democrats would have to win 87 % of the seats that they went for, while the Republicans only had to win 63 %. As it turned out, the Democrats won 63 % of the seats that they went for, while the Republicans won 78 %. But this last fact may not imply that Republicans have greater support in Florida, for after all, only 23 of the Democrats (33 %) faced no Republican opponent, while 50 of the Republicans (52 %) faced no Democratic opponent. The 47 races involving a Democrat versus a Republican tell a different story - but note that 47 seats are just 39 % of the total.
  • In 21 of the races, the Democrat won, while in 26 of the races, the Republican won.
  • In these 47 races, 1,649,270 votes were cast for the Democrat, while 1,542,213 were cast for the Republican. In these races, 51.6 % of those who voted cast their ballots for the Democrat, 48.2 % for the Republican, and 0.2 % for other candidates.
The naive computation would go like this.
  • For the 73 seats for which there was only one major party candidate, if both parties had run candidates and distributed the seats by 51.6 % for the Democrats and 48.2 % for the Republicans, then 38 of those seats would have gone to the Democrats while 35 would have gone to the Republicans. As it stands, 23 of these went to Democrats and 50 to Republicans. One could naively conclude that the Democrats lost 38 - 23 = 15 seats to lack of gumption.
  • For the 47 seats for which both parties fielded candidates, if 51.6 % of the seats went to the Democrats and 48.2 % to the Republicans, then 24 would have gone to the Democrats and 23 to the Republicans. Actually, 21 of these went to the Democrats while 26 went to the Republicans. One could naively conclude that the Democrats lost 24 - 21 = 3 seats to gerrymandering.
Of course, this is a naive computation. Still, one can't help thinking ... add 15 seats for gumption (maybe losing two to gerrymandering) and that makes 44 + 13 = 57 seats; then the Democratic party would be in a better position to cry foul over losing five seats (and thus the majority) to gerrymandering.

A more serious computation would have to consider things like:

  • For those seats for which a major party failed to field a candidate, was it hopeless? Was there something more sinister afoot (e.g. money)?
  • For those seats for which both parties fielded candidates, did those districts naturally incorporate clumps of voters who voted so that the results were not uniformly spread out over those districts?
  • And what was the effect of those voter suppression laws rushed into the books during 2012?
More serious analysis will have to wait for additional data that the Division of Elections is still working on. Stay tuned.

Postscript on human frailty. Ballotpedia put the election 2012 results for the Florida House parties at 46-74. Several others did too, like Governing by the Numbers. But some, like Cycle E-nalysis, put the balance at 44-76. Using Excel to count the number of Democrats and Republicans posted on the Florida House website, I get 44-76. I asked the House, and they say that the count is 44-76. Curiously, a manual comparison shows that Ballotpedia and the House list the same victors and the same party, so Ballotpedia's error probably came from an error propagated through the net and airwaves. It would be interesting to know where this anomaly came from.

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