Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 15th, 2013

Thanks to Edward Snowden, FISA court will publish secret decision

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Read Kevin Drum’s post.

I would say that Edward Snowden has helped the US, not harmed it. Tough love.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 7:11 pm

James Fallows on the Senate

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James Fallows has a good post on the “nuclear option” in the Senate—i.e., returning to Constitutional procedures:

For now I’ll skip the full parsing of why it is hysterical to use the term “nuclear option” to describe the rule-change Sen. Harry Reid says he will propose soon. Namely, allowing an Administration to have its nominations approved (or rejected) the way the Constitution specifies, through a majority vote, rather than being subjected to routine veto/delay by filibuster. For a quick refresher and antidote to “nuclear option” thinking, see this, by Jonathan Bernstein. Also an assortment of articles linked from here and here. (And this very good piece by Alec MacGillis in TNR.) Pay-off graf of the Bernstein piece:

[Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell, ever since January 2009, has treated filibusters as routine and universal. That’s brand new. There have been filibusters of executive branch nominees before, but only in rare cases. Almost all the time, under all previous presidents, the Senate had a simple majority hurdle, not a 60 vote hurdle, for executive branch appointments. Nominees didn’t have to get cloture; they only needed to get a simple majority.

That is the historical distortion that Reid’s move is intended to offset. But what else is going on? Here are two reader dispatches to tide us over until we see what happens. The first is from Mike Lofgren, long-time aide (now retired) to Republicans in Congress and author of the celebrated The Party is Over. He writes about the paradox of modern American government simultaneously being too weak and too strong:

Your posts go some way in explaining the current political situation, but by no means do they go the whole way. A more complete explanation has to acknowledge the paradox of the contemporary American state. On the procedural level that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly gridlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s; that is true. The objective of the GOP is, obviously, to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (and voter suppression laws in the GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish that result). As a consequence, Obama cannot get anything done; he cannot even get the most innocuous appointees in office.

Yet he can assassinate American citizens without due processes(Holder’s sophistry to the contrary, judicial process is due process); can detain prisoners indefinitely without charge; conduct surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant;  and engage in unprecedented – at least since the McCarthy era – witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called insider threat program). At home, this it is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal law enforcement agencies and their willing handmaidens at the state and local level. Abroad, Obama can start wars at will and pretty much engage in any other activity whatever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, to include just recently forcing down a plane containing a head of state. And not a peep from congressional Republicans, with the exception of an ineffectual gadfly like Rand Paul. Democrats, with the exception of a few like Ron Wyden, are not troubled, either – even to the extent of permitting obvious perjured congressional testimony by certain executive branch officials.

Clearly there is government, and then there is government. The former is the tip of the iceberg that the public who watches C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part is the Deep State, which operates on its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. The Deep State is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies, key nodes of the judiciary (like FISC, the Eastern District of Virginia, and the Southern District of Manhattan); cleared contractors, Silicon Valley (whose cooperation is critical), and Wall Street.

This combination of procedural impotence on the one hand and unaccountable government by fiat on the other is clearly paradoxical, but any honest observer of the American state must attempt to come to grips with it. I will note in conclusion that in order for the Senate to pass major “social” legislation like immigration reform, it was necessary to grant an additional $38-billion tribute to Deep State elements, i.e., military and homeland security contractors. Clearly the GOP wanted it, but the Democrats didn’t object; the $38 billion had been an internal “wish list” of the Deep State node called the Department of Homeland Security.

Next, from Mark Bernstein, head of the Eastgate software company and a former guest blogger here. He describes a different paradox: why one of the two parties supposedly competing for leadership of American governance seems indifferent or actively hostile to the idea of governance: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Congress, Politics

How the Snowden Leaks Are Leveling the Oversight Playing Field

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Philip Bump writes at the Atlantic Wire:

“We are overseen by everybody,” NSA Chief Keith Alexander lamented last year, reiterating, as he likes to do, that the agency’s surveillance is subservient to all three branches of government. Congress passes the laws, the judiciary evaluates them, and the executive branch implements them.

Except that Congress is generally kept in the dark on details. And except that courts have been stymied in assessing the constitutionality of the behavior behavior. Both thanks to the stinginess of Barack Obama’s executive branch that runs the show. Now, thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, that’s shifting.

Last week, we outlined the new, relatively modest push for reform in the legislative branch. Much of that reform centers on the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which is singularly responsible for assessing and approving the government’s requests for authorization to conduct surveillance activity. The government presents its case, no counterargument is heard, and almost always the request is approved.

Monday morning, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut made his case for reform public in an opinion piece for Politico. Blumenthal focuses on legislative reforms to the role of the FISA Court and its nearly universal acquiescence. “This has to stop,” he writes.

The FISA court serves a critical purpose in our national security apparatus, ensuring timely consideration of surveillance requests when seconds matter most. But the court in its current form—unaccountable, secretive, one-sided—is broken.

The FISA Court was established by Congress specifically to play that oversight role, but its secrecy means that its nearly impossible to evaluate its actual oversight. And it makes the reform efforts proposed so far, including the one supported by Blumenthal, incomplete. The Electronic Frontier Foundation detailed the challenges in a blog post Monday. “Unfortunately,” EFF writes, “legislators are trying to edit the statutory text before a thorough understanding of how the government is using key definitions in the bill or how the FISA Court is interpreting the statute.” Such as how the court defines “relevant.”

Much less how the court generally interprets the Constitution. It has clearly determined that the two laws used to authorize surveillance—the Patriot Act and the expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—are constitutional in the application the court itself allows. (Although the court has ruled that the surveillance violated the Constitution on at least one occasion.)

Over the weekend, writing for the Wall Street Journal, constitutional law professor Randy Barnett argues that the surveillance is a fundamental violation of the Fourth Amendment. He isolates the broad collection of phone metadata under the Patriot Act.

By banning unreasonable “seizures” of a person’s “papers,” the Fourth Amendment clearly protects what we today call “informational privacy.” Rather than seizing the private papers of individual citizens, the NSA and CFPB programs instead seize the records of the private communications companies with which citizens do business under contractual “terms of service.” These contracts do not authorize data-sharing with the government. Indeed, these private companies have insisted that they be compelled by statute and warrant to produce their records so as not to be accused of breaching their contracts and willingly betraying their customers’ trust.

The FISA Court disagrees with Barnett, of course, and it’s apparently the highest court that has considered the broader question of constitutionality.

Well, except the Supreme Court. In an article Monday, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 2:29 pm

Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II

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Megan Garber offers up a fascinating bit of history in the Atlantic:

It was the spring of 1943, at the height of World War II. Two pilots, members of the Soviet Air Force, were flying their planes — Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, built mainly of plywood and canvas — over a Soviet railway junction. Their passage was on its way to being a routine patrol … until the pilots found themselves confronted by a collection of German bombers. Forty-two of them.

The pilots did what anyone piloting a plane made of plywood would do when confronted with enemy craft and enemy fire: they ducked. They sent their planes into dives, returning fire directly into the center of the German formation. The tiny planes’ flimsiness was in some ways an asset: their maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, meaning that the pilots could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers could. The outnumbered Soviets downed two Nazi craft before one of their own planes lost its wing to enemy fire. The pilot bailed out, landing, finally, in a field.

The people on the ground, who had witnessed the skirmish, rushed over to help the stranded pilot. They offered alcohol. But the offer was refused. As the pilot would later recall, “Nobody could understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn’t drink vodka.”

The brave lad had refused the vodka, it turned out, because the brave lad was not a lad at all. It was Tamara Pamyatnykh, one of the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years — and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies. Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were — per their plywood-and-canvas construction — generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and gliding to the bomb release point. As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by.

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: “night witches.” They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross. . .

Continue reading. And there’s a video at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Military

George Zimmerman fears vigilante justice

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Seems ironic, doesn’t it?

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15 July 2013 at 2:11 pm

Posted in Daily life

Get the Abs You Crave, in an Amount of Time

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My kind of workout.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Fitness

Yet Another Study Shows How Lead Exposure Can Produce More Violent Crime

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Kevin Drum notes at Mother Jones:

The LA Times reports today on the latest study from the lab of Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist who investigates the roots of violent and antisocial behavior:

It began with a casual question that neuroscientist Kent Kiehl posed to a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory who had been conducting brain scans on New Mexico prison inmates. “I asked, ‘Does ACC activity predict the risk of reoffending?'” Kiehl recalls, using the scientific shorthand for the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain structure associated with error processing.

The postdoctoral fellow, Eyal Aharoni, decided to find out. When he compared 96 inmates whose brains had been monitored while they performed a test that measures impulsiveness, he discovered a stark contrast: Those with low ACC activity were about twice as likely to commit crimes within four years of being released as those with high ACC activity.

Attentive readers will know why this caught my eye. The following passage comes from my story about the connection between lead and crime a few months ago. It’s about a pair of MRI studies performed at the University of Cincinnati:

A second study found that high exposure to lead during childhood was linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as what psychologists call “executive functions”: emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. One way to understand this, says Kim Cecil, another member of the Cincinnati team, is that lead affects precisely the areas of the brain “that make us most human.”

Although I used “prefrontal cortex” as shorthand here, the precise part of the brain implicated in these studies was the anterior cingulate cortex. Cecil and his team found that lead exposure in children leads to a permanent loss of gray matter in the ACC, while Kiehl’s team has discovered that low ACC activity increases the risk of recidivism. This linkage isn’t surprising, given what we know about the functions of the ACC, but this is an unusually clear result that links ACC deterioration to criminal activity. Just thought I’d pass it along.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 1:59 pm

Why are universities trying to limit access to breast cancer tests?

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Short answer: Because universities would rather make money than save lives.

Timothy Lee explains in the Washington Post:

When the Supreme Court ruled that you couldn’t patent human genes, Ambry Genetics began offering women a test for the BRCA genes, which are linked to breast cancer. But last week, Myriad Genetics, the firm that has enjoyed a de facto monopoly on BRCA tests in recent years, sued. It argues that despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, it still has patents covering Ambry’s product.

Myriad is the lead plaintiff, but two universities also signed on to the lawsuit: the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Utah Research Foundation. These schools own BRCA-related patents, which they have licensed exclusively to Myriad.Why are universities trying to force a potentially life-saving cancer test off the market? A spokeswoman for the University of Pennsylvania declined to comment for this story, and a University of Utah spokesperson didn’t return our call Friday afternoon. But the short answer seems to be money.

Many universities now have “technology transfer” offices whose job it is to obtain patents based on university research and license them to private industry. These activities generated $1.8 billion in patent licensing revenues in 2011.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. According to the Wall Street Journal, universities were only obtaining about 250 patents a year as recently as 1980. Then Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it easier for universities to claim patents for federally-funded research. By 2003, the number of patents universities were getting each year had shot up more than 10-fold to almost 4,000.

Officials at technology transfer offices like to emphasize how they help move technologies developed in the laboratory into the commercial marketplace. But getting private companies to pay hefty licensing fees always rests on an implicit threat: if you don’t pay up, you could get sued for patent infringement.

And in some cases, these enforcement efforts are hard to distinguish from garden-variety patent trolling. In one high-profile case, the University of California licensed a patent to a company called Eolas, which claimed to own the concept of embedding interactive content in web pages. Eolas has sued a wide variety of high-tech companies, with the University of California sometimes signing on as a plaintiff. A settlement with Microsoft alone netted more than $30 million for the University of California.

Myriad doesn’t fit the standard definition of a patent troll because the firm offers a suite of BRCA testing products. But its aggressive efforts to claim ownership of a basic fact of human biology—that the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are linked to breast cancer—raises many of the same issues.

Firms like Ambry don’t have to use any of the specific techniques Myriad and its university allies invented in order to run afoul of their patents. Any product that sequences the BRCA genes for diagnostic purposes is likely to expose a competing firm to a lawsuit.

The standard argument for patents holds that they are needed to reward inventors for their creative endeavors. But that argument doesn’t make as much sense for universities. Most university research is funded by taxpayers and private philanthropists, not profits from commercial activities. And university researchers are motivated more by academic prestige than the prospect of earning licensing revenues for their employers.

Of course, higher licensing revenues enable universities to engage in research and educational activities they might otherwise be unable afford. But as the Myriad lawsuit illustrates, that licensing revenue is not free. Every licensing negotiation comes with an implicit threat to sue for patent infringement if the licensing company doesn’t pay up.

In other words, in order to generate licensing revenue, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Utah are effectively limiting women’s choices for a potentially life-saving cancer test. That seems hard to square with universities’ broader mission to expand public access to knowledge.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 1:45 pm

Similar to the Zimmerman trial, but defendant was black—and the verdict was different

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Annie Rose-Strasser reports at ThinkProgress:

George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin over the weekend, successfully using a claim of self-defense to convince six jurors that he was right to shoot and kill the 17-year-old Martin. The case centered around the question of whether Martin was physically aggressive toward Zimmerman in any way — the defense claimed that the teenager bashed Zimmerman’s head into the concrete — or if Martin was simply a victim. Ultimately, the jury decided, the prosecutors could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin didn’t engage Zimmerman in a fight, prompting him to use deadly force in self-defense.

Self-defense cases are fairly common in the American justice system. And while in Zimmerman’s case, many feel that justice was left undone for the shooting victim — and that the boy’s race, black, and the man’s, white hispanic, were a deciding factor — the roles are often reversed; there have been notable cases in recent years where what seem to be reasonable self-defense claims by black defendants are dismissed by a jury:

Marissa Alexander

In the middle of a domestic violence incident, believing that her husband was threatening her, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the wall to ward him off. In court, Alexander tried to use a claim of self defense — specifically, Stand Your Ground, the same law that let Zimmerman walk free on the night he shot Martin before later being arrested. As ThinkProgress’s Nicole Flatow previously pointed out, “Alexander would not have needed a Stand Your Ground law to defend her action. While that law goes so far as to authorize unfettered deadly force in self-defense without a duty to retreat, Alexander used significantly lesser force that would fall under a typical self-defense claim.” Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter; her defense wasn’t as successful. Alexander, who had no prior record, was sentenced to 20 years in jail — a mandatory minimum for the crime.

John McNeil

On one fateful night in December of 2005, a black businessman named John McNeil got a call from his son that someone was “lurking” around the backyard. That person turned out to be white 19-year old Brian Epp, a hired contractor for McNeil who had past disagreements with McNeil’s son. When McNeil got home, he told Epp, who was weilding a box cutter, to leave the property several times. After Epp repeatedly refused, McNeil fired a warning shot, which caused Epp to run. As witnesses attest, McNeil then shot Epp in self-defense, killing him. A court rejected McNeil’s self-defense claim, sentencing him to life in prison — but McNeil was lucky; his case drew a ton of media attention, and with it, calls from powerful politicians and the NAACP to reconsider the case. After six years in jail, McNeil’s charge was reduced to manslaughter and he was let free — with many caveats: He must serve out 13 years of probation, during which time he cannot leave the state of North Carolina, and he must pay $75 a month as part of his probation. Unlike Zimmerman, he will be forced to carry the charge permanently on his criminal record. And more than anything else, McNeil can’t get those lost years back; while he was sitting in prison, his mother and wife died.

John White

The case of John White is similar to the Trayvon Martin/ George Zimmerman story, but with racial roles reversed. In 2006, black 54-year-old John White shot dead white 17-year-old Daniel Cicciaro after an altercation at White’s home. White reported that Cicciaro and several other white teens showed up at his door looking to beat up his son. White greeted the group of boys at his driveway, holding a pistol. He reported that Ciccairo “lunged” for the gun, and it accidentally discharged, striking the teenager. When the case went to trial, White characterized the group of white teenagers as a “lynch mob” and insisted he was only trying to defend his family. The jury — made up of 12 people, 11 white and one black — found him guilty of manslaughter. He served just five months in jail before his sentence was commuted by then-New York Gov. David Paterson (D).

Justice in America may indeed be blind—and deaf, to boot.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Law

Food for kids: “The Best Lunch Box Ever”

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Marion Nestle says this about a new book on lunches kids can take to school:

The Best Lunchbox Ever is a terrific gift to anyone who has to pack a lunch for a kid, and wants that lunch to be healthy—and eaten.  Katie Morford has dozens of interesting and sometimes surprising suggestions for easy, delicious, and nutritious lunch items that kids will enjoy—if parents don’t get to them first.  I wish I’d had this book when my kids were in school.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 1:18 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Food

McDonald’s shows that it’s easy to live on a minimum-wage job

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You can see why Wal-Mart is outraged that it has a pay a higher minimum wage than small companies: the regular minimum wage is plenty as McDonald’s shows. From ThinkProgress by Annie-Rose Strasser:

McDonalds has partnered with Visa tolaunch a website to help its low-wage workers making an average $8.25 an hour to budget. But while the site is clearly meant to illustrate that McDonalds workers should be able to live on their meager wages, it actually underscores exactly how hard it is for a low-paid fast food worker to get by.

The site includes a sample”‘budget journal” for McDonalds’ employees that offers a laughably inaccurate view of what it’s like to budget on a minimum wage job. Not only does the budget leave a spot open for “second job,” it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

McDonald budget

Basically every facet of this budget is unachievable. For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan. While some full-time McDonald’s workers do qualify for the company’s $14 a week health plan, that offer caps coverage at $10,000 a year and is often insufficient. If that person wants to eat, “moderate” spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

The sample budget is also available in Spanish. On another section of the site, it concludes, “You can have almost anything you want as long as you plan ahead and save for it.”

Neither McDonalds nor Visa returned requests for comment by the time of publication.

Last year, Bloomberg News found that it would take the average McDonalds employee one million hours of work to earn as much money as the company’s CEO. This immense wage disparity in the fast food industry has sparked a series of protests and walk-outs by low-wage workers working at fast food chains around the country — in New YorkChicagoWashington, and Seattle, to name a few cities, workers from chains including KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell have spoken publicly about the need for serious wage increases across the industry.

Major corporations need the money much more than the employees who earn the money for them.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

For those who travel

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Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Daily life, Software

But people are fighting back against Federal Prosecutors

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In the previous post I blogged an article that describes in detail the aggressive and unchecked actions of Federal prosecutors, who seem to set their own agendas with no control from Eric Holder or anyone else. They seem to laugh at Presidential promises, and show their independence by deliberately acting against promises. April Short describes in AlterNet how some are taking legal action:

Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, met with Steve DeAngelo, the Oakland-based executive director of California’s largest marijuana dispensary, and former Microsoft executive Jamen Shively on July 8. After the meeting, Fox told reporters that legalization is the only way to end the violence of Mexican drug cartels, which he said was a result of the U.S. government’s war on drugs.

As a result of illegal drug cartels, 40 people a day die on average in Mexico, and almost 90,000 people have died since 2006. That is almost twice the number of people killed in the Vietnam War (58,220 casualties). Mexico’s cartels are deriving 40 to 70 percent of their revenue from cannabis, DeAngelo told AlterNet.

“Fox and other people legitimately concerned about public safety have no real ax to grind as far as cannabis goes. They’ve recognized the cost of prohibition is way too high to tolerate any longer,” DeAngelo said.

DeAngelo’s medical cannabis dispensary, Harborside Health Center, was the target of a federal crackdown in May. Despite the fact that it has operated without incident and within city and state laws since its founding six years ago, U.S. prosecutors filed a forfeiture case to seize its building in 2011. They claim the dispensary—which distributes more than 70 strains of cannabis—was a “superstore” serving 100,000 customers in violation of federal law.

In an unprecedented move, the city of Oakland came to the defense of the local dispensary as the first California city ever to challenge federal threats against a local medical cannabis facility. In City of Oakland v. Eric Holder, Oakland sued the federal prosecutor to block Harborside’s closing. On July 3, Judge Maria-Elena James granted a motion to stay by the city of Oakland that effectively delays the feds’ case against Harborside for more than 15 months.

On July 3, Oakland’s neighboring city, Berkeley, become the second city in the state to directly challenge the federal government crackdown. Berkeley has filed a claim aiming to protect the largest of its three dispensaries, Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), in response to federal prosecutors’ threats to seize BPG’s assets. BPG has provided medical cannabis to Berkeley patients since 1999—three years after the state of California legalized medical marijuana.

Berkeley is claiming that the federal government is improperly interfering with the city’s financial and regulatory interests as well as residents’ medical interests.

Berkeley city councilmember Kriss Worthington, District 7, says while city councilmembers fight with each other all the time over environmental, labor and business policy, the decision to defend the dispensary against federal prosecutors “wasn’t controversial at all.”

“The more moderate people were worried about the impact on public safety, the more progressive people worried about the impact on health,” he says. “Everybody was worried about, ‘Why is this person interfering with the most highly regulated part of our entire system?’”

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who brought the action against BPG, has previously used federal asset forfeiture laws to target and close a number medical marijuana dispensaries, even when those dispensaries have longstanding relationships with the cities in which they are located and comply with state and local laws. Citing proximity to Duboce Park playground as the reason, she targeted San Francisco’s Vapor Room, which as a result closed its doors for good last July.

Since the federal government launched a renewed effort in Oct. 2011, prosecutors have been shutting down medical cannabis operations across states like California where they are protected by state laws. In Montana, where medical cannabis is also legal, prosecutors have been crusading against medical cannabis growers, on a quest to put them behind bars. Thousands have lost their jobs and formerly regulated businesses have been forced underground. Meanwhile, federal reports show that the medical marijuana industry generates upward of $100 million in tax revenue for California per year.

Sean Luse, manager at BPG, says the dispensary has done everything possible to comply with state and local laws. They were vetted by Berkeley city staff and elected officials, a public hearing was held to approve the location, and they even adhered to the U.S. attorney’s guideline requiring them to be located 1,000 feet from any schools, which is not state or local law.

“So, we were just very surprised and disappointed,” Luse said.

He adds that he’s grateful the city has come to BPG’s defense as the decision makes it clear that BPG is an incident-free member of the Berkeley community.

“When states like California and cities like Berkeley regulate medical cannabis distribution, it’s much safer, much more orderly and there are many benefits in terms of tax revenue and jobs,” he said. “It’s literally taking the crime off the streets and putting it into a state-controlled environment.”

Worthington calls BPG “the model example” of how a business should be run.

“I think it’s perverse that somebody would try to criminalize people who have gone to great lengths to follow city and state laws,” he says. “I guess it’s hard work to actually go after dangerous drug dealers, so rather than go after dangerous drug dealers it’s easier to go after a medical model that is very tightly regulated. They’re a much easier target.”

Berkeley’s claim, filed on July 3, states that the closure of BPG will likely cause an increased number of unregulated, unpermitted dispensaries and an increased number of illicit marijuana sales on the city’s streets, which will negatively impact Berkeley neighborhoods and businesses.  . .

Continue reading.

I think these Federal prosecutors will have to be replaced for things to change. They will not listen, as they have demonstrated.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 11:51 am

Federal Prosecutors’ Unchecked Power and Zeal Creates Prison Nation

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Steven Rosenfeld points out in AlterNet how Federal prosecutors have little or no accountability for their actions:

This month, John Lester Gross III, a 48-year-old Californian, became another casualty in the federal government’s escalating war on marijuana. He plead gulity and was sentenced to 19-plus years for creating and running a dispensary in Sacramento and a nearby farm, where federal agents said they found 2,800 plants and 100 pounds of trimmed pot.

Like pot entrepreneurs in other states with non-federal laws allowing medical marijuana, Gross thought he was operating under state law, and most critically, after the federal Department of Justice told its prosecutors to back off marijuana cases early in President Obama’s first term. But California’s four U.S. attorneys decided that they did not like the industry’s rapid growth and began enforcing a gamut of federal laws to destroy it, especially taking aim at the large cultivators and retailers.

Prosecutors appointed by Obama, such as Andre Birotte, Jr., the first African-American to hold the post in the district where Los Angeles is located and a lawyer praised by the civil rights leaders, recently told a local public radio station that they were acting with prosecutorial discretion by not going after caregivers and patients, but targeting “drug dealers with storefronts.” U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag similarly touted her “measured approach” in seeking to seize the property of Berkeley’s biggest dispensary.

Longtime criminal defense lawyers don’t buy these “reasoned” explanations, however, because they know, as few Americans do, how powerful federal prosecutors are.

“You can’t trust the police to draw the lines of big-versus-small cases. You can’t trim the marijuana laws around the edges,” said Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense lawyer and author whose books criticize a wide array of federal prosecutions. “Society has to make a decision. Is it willing to endure the expense and corruption that these laws engender?”

America’s political system is not about to stop the prosecutorial juggernaut filling federal prisons. It’s not just marijuana cases. The U.S. House is not about to pass immigration reform with amnesty and a path to citizenship, which accounts for a third of federal cases in 2012. Nor is it about to legalize marijuana, which accounts for a fourth of all federal drug offenses. Nor is it about to change how prosecutors with battlefield mentalities are held to account within the Justice Department.

“It is hard to overstate the power of federal prosecutors,” wrote New York University Law School professor Rachel Barkow, citing the massive growth in the number of federal crimes, the severity of punishments, the size of the federal prison population, and the prosecutors’ total control of the charges and punishment in almost every case.

“There are currently no effective legal checks in place to police the manner in which prosecutors exercise their discretion to bring charges, to negotiate pleas, or to set their office policies,” she wrote in 2008, when 95 percent of federal cases were not even tried before judges or juries, but instead filed with the federal courts as done deals.

Today, the number of federal cases tried is even smaller. Of the 84,173 cases resolved in 2012, federal statistics report that only 3 percent went to a judge or jury trial. Almost all, including the top categories—immigration, drugs, financial fraud, weapons offenses—had prosecutors who were, as Barkow wrote, “the final judges in their own cases.”

Even more disturbing is the percentage of cases where the accused did not harm others. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that in 2012 immigration and marijuana accounted for upward of 40 percent of recent prosecutions, even though offenders overwhelmingly were not commiting violent crimes. Eighty-four percent of the immigration cases involved being illegally in the U.S.

“The public is so often fed the impression that DAs and AUSA offices are operating as honest public servants whose integrity cannot be questioned. But of course they are the necessary partners in making the United States a prison nation, unparalleled in its mass incarceration of the population,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which has sued police for abusing political protesters.

“I’m sure you know, in addition to the highlighted cases of gross prosecutorial misconduct, which are certainly more pervasive than is covered by the media, there is the day in and day out process by which defendants are falsely charged and overcharged and forced to plead guilty to some offenses in order to avoid the prosecutor’s threat of decades more of imprisonment,” she said. “It’s a terrible and vicious weapon, and coupled with the use of police lies accounts for the fact that 97 percent of cases don’t go to trial. It has effectively eliminated the constitutional right of defense for most.”

Let’s look at several ways that federal prosecutors operate without checks and balances. These prosecutors are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate for four-year terms. They run offices that can have dozens or hundreds of deputies working for them, where they both lead and take cases from all the federal police agencies.

1. Abuse of Prosecutorial Power . . .

Continue reading.

Congress could change this if Congress could function. The Executive branch will not change it because, so far as I can tell, Obama and previous Presidents do everything they can do to make the Executive branch more powerful and less answerable for its actions.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 11:43 am

How Intellectual Property Reinforces Inequality

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Joseph Stiglitz, a renowned economist, has an op-ed in the NY Times:

In the war against inequality, we’ve become so used to bad news that we’re almost taken aback when something positive happens. And with the Supreme Court having affirmed that wealthy people and corporations have a constitutional right to buy American elections, who would have expected it to bring good news? But a decision in the term that just ended gave ordinary Americans something that is more precious than money alone — the right to live.

At first glance, the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, might seem like scientific arcana: the court ruled, unanimously, that human genes cannot be patented, though synthetic DNA, created in the laboratory, can be. But the real stakes were much higher, and the issues much more fundamental, than is commonly understood. The case was a battle between those who would privatize good health, making it a privilege to be enjoyed in proportion to wealth, and those who see it as a right for all — and a central component of a fair society and well-functioning economy. Even more deeply, it was about the way inequality is shaping our politics, legal institutions and the health of our population.

Unlike the bitter battles between Samsung and Apple, in which the referees (American courts), while making a pretense at balance, seem to consistently favor the home team, this was a case that was more than just a battle between corporate giants. It is a lens through which we can see the pernicious and far-reaching effects of inequality, what a victory over self-serving corporate behavior looks like and — just as important — how much we still risk losing in such fights.

Of course, the court and the parties didn’t frame the issues that way in their arguments and decision. A Utah firm, Myriad Genetics, had isolated two human genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that can contain mutations that predispose women who carry them to breast cancer — crucial knowledge for early detection and prevention. The company had successfully obtained patents for the genes. “Owning” the genes gave it the right to prevent others from testing for them. The core question of the case was seemingly technical: Are isolated, naturally occurring genes something that can be patented?

But the patents had devastating real-world implications, because they kept the prices for the diagnostics artificially high. Gene tests can actually be administered at low cost — a person can in fact have all 20,000 of her genes sequenced for about $1,000, to say nothing of much cheaper tests for a variety of specific pathologies. Myriad, however, charged about $4,000 for comprehensive testing on just two genes. Scientists have argued that there was nothing inherently special or superior about Myriad’s methods — it simply tested for genes that the company claimed to own, and did so by relying on data that was not available to others because of the patents.

Hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs — a group of universities, researchers and patient advocates, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation — other laboratories quickly announced that they would also begin offering tests for the breast cancer genes, underlining the fact that Myriad’s “innovation” was identifying existing genes, not developing the test for them. (Myriad is not done fighting, though, having filed two new lawsuits this month that seek to block the companies Ambry Genetics and Gene by Gene from administering their own BRCA tests, on the grounds that they violate other patentsthat Myriad holds.)

It should not be very surprising that Myriad has done everything it can to prevent its tests’ revenue stream from facing competition — indeed, after recovering somewhat from a 30 percent drop in the wake of the court ruling, its share price is still nearly 20 percent below what it wasbeforehand. It owned the genes, and didn’t want anybody trespassing on its property. In obtaining the patent, Myriad, like most corporations, seemed motivated more by maximizing profits than by saving lives — if it really cared about the latter, it could and would have done better at providing tests at lower costs and encourage others to develop better, more accurate and cheaper tests. Not surprisingly, it made labored arguments that its patents, which allowed monopolistic prices and exclusionary practices, were essential to incentivize future research. But when the devastating effects of its patents became apparent, and it remained adamant in exerting its full monopoly rights, these pretensions of interest in the greater good were woefully unconvincing.

The drug industry, as always, claimed that without patent protection, there would be no incentives for research and all would suffer. I filed an expert declaration with the court (pro bono), explaining why the industry’s arguments were wrong, and why this and similar patents actually impeded rather than fostered innovation. Other groups that filed amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs, like AARP, pointed out that Myriad’s patents prevented patients from obtaining second opinions and confirmatory tests. Recently, Myriad pledged it would not block such tests — a pledge it made even as it filed the lawsuits against Ambry Genetics, and Gene by Gene.

Myriad denied the test to two women in the case by rejecting their Medicaid insurance — according to the plaintiffs, because the reimbursement was too low. Other women, after one round of Myriad’s testing, had to make agonizing decisions about whether to have a single or double mastectomy, or whether to have their ovaries removed, with severely incomplete information — either Myriad’s testing for additional BRCA mutations was unaffordable (Myriad charges $700 extra for information that national guidelines say should be provided to patients), or second opinions were unattainable because of Myriad’s patents. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 11:07 am

Firsts: First purchase from Amazon, first Twitter message, first Reddit post, etc.

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Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 10:58 am

Posted in Technology

How NSA chief Alexander drove the agency toward universal surveillance

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Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick report in the Washington Post:

In late 2005, as Iraqi roadside bombings were nearing an all-time peak, the National Security Agency’s newly appointed chief began pitching a radical plan for halting the attacks that were killing or wounding a dozen Americans a day.

At the time, more than 100 teams of U.S. analysts were scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might lead to the bomb-makers and their hidden factories. But the NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, wanted more than mere snippets. He wanted everything: Every Iraqi text message, phone call and e-mail that could be vacuumed up by the agency’s powerful computers.

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

The unprecedented data collection plan, dubbed Real Time Regional Gateway, would play a role in breaking up Iraqi insurgent networks and significantly reducing the monthly death toll from improvised explosive devices by late 2008. It also encapsulated Alexander’s controversial approach to safeguarding Americans from what he sees as a host of imminent threats, from terrorism to devastating cyberattacks.

In his eight years at the helm of the country’s electronic surveillance agency, Alexander, 61, has quietly presided over a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security. And, as he did in Iraq, Alexander has pushed hard for everything he can get: tools, resources and the legal authority to collect and store vast quantities of raw information on American and foreign communications.

His successes have won accolades from political leaders of both parties as well as from counterterrorism and intelligence professionals who say the NSA chief’s efforts have helped foil dozens of terrorist attacks. His approach also has drawn attack from civil rights groups and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. One Democrat who confronted Alexander at a congressional hearing last month accused the NSA of crossing a line by collecting the cellphone records of millions of Americans.

“What authorization gave you the grounds for acquiring my cellphone data?” demanded Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), waving his mobile phone at the four-star general.

****

New details of the spy agency’s vast reach were brought to light last month by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information on government programs that sweep up “metadata” on phone calls and e-mails by Americans. Those revelations in turn have spotlighted the role played by Alexander, the NSA’s avuncular leader and, by all accounts, a driving force behind a post-Sept. 11, 2001, quest to transform an agency inundated by the data revolution into one that can exploit it to defend the nation. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 10:06 am

What makes a popular philosophy book a good book?

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Interesting post by Ingrid Robbyns at Crooked Timber:

I’ve lately been contemplating the question of what makes a popular philosophy book a good book. I am focusing on the case of philosophy professors who are writing a book that is explicitly aimed at a broader audience, and who may or may not also have written scholarly articles on the topic of their popular-philosophy book. Which quality-criteria should that book meet? Here are some thoughts.

1. Trust. The reader has to be able to trust the author that she has done the research needed to be able to write a book on this topic (please do swap ‘he’ and ‘she’ if you prefer so). Since it is a popular rather than a scholarly book, the author doesn’t need to elaborately demonstrate that she has done her homework (for example via references and careful summaries/overview of the literature as it has developed), but she must have done that homework. The reader has to be able to trust the author that she does know what she is writing about. For this criterion, I think it makes a difference whether the author is also a professor, since the general public tends to grant professors the status of an expert on the topics they are writing about. Hence if a professor of philosophy writes a popular book, most people will be assuming that she also knows the scholarly literature well, and that the popular book reflects that literature. Professors do know that the default position is that readers trust them to have expert knowledge on what they are writing, and therefore our professor who writes a popular book should not damage that trust.

2. Accessibility. An important difference between a scholarly philosophy book and a popular philosophy book should be its accessibility. It is fine for a scholarly philosophy book to be written for fellow specialists and hence to be specialised and very likely ‘technical’ in some sense. By contrast, a popular book can, at best, assume an interest in philosophical questions and, perhaps, some basic philosophical background, but definitely nothing more. It should be accessible, and that accessibility will show itself both in the lack of assuming much specialist knowledge, as well in its writing style, which will tend to be less dense, and more infused with lively examples.

3. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 9:29 am

Posted in Books

The case against Wal-Mart

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At Political Animal Kathleen Geier makes an excellent argument that large businesses should pay a premium level of minimum wage:

Our old friend Walmart has been back in the news this week. Gawker has been continuing its exemplary series in which Walmart workers, powerfully and movingly, tell the true stories of their own lives. And this week, the Washington, DC City Council passed a law that requires Walmart and other big box retailers (basically, any retailer with sales of over $1 billion a year and stores that average 75,000 or more square feet) to pay a living wage of $12.50 per hour. The bill hasn’t become law yet — it still has to be signed by the mayor, and DC’s Mayor Vincent Gray could end up doing what Mayor Richard M. Daley did in Chicago a number of years ago to a similar bill: veto it. Walmart has threatened to cancel its plans to build stores in the DC area if the bill is enacted.

As soon as word of the DC Council’s vote broke, predictable spasms outrage followed. I’ve seen expressions of anger not only from the expected quarters such asFox News, but also from some of my neoliberal sparring partners on listservs. After listening to their arguments, I’ve come to believe that the objections some Democrats have to this bill have little to do with well-grounded economic arguments based on empirical realities. These folks seem, instead, to be fmotivated principally by their desire to distance themselves from members of the dirty hippie labor left. When it comes down to it, their arguments are weak tea indeed. The more you exxamine their arguments, the more you realize there’s no there there.

1. It’s downright un-American to use the law to target a single business.

There’s something particularly creepy about liberals who, out of a sense of abstract principle, fall all over themselves to defend the honor of a corporate predator like Walmart. Because unless you cling to fairly fundamentalist ideas about the thrilling magic of markets and the ghastly, unforgivable sin of government interference in them — which basically no actual liberal really does — this argument makes no sense.

Let’s back up a bit. First of all, the idea that the DC law would apply only to Walmart is false. As I noted above, it applies to all new big box stores in the DC area, and as the WonkBlog post I linked to reports, that means it could also apply to other retailers like Costco, Target, or Home Depot.

Secondly, that said, yes, it’s clear that laws like these have been invoked mainly against Walmart. And what, I ask, is so very wrong about that? Walmart is not a person, it’s a corporate behemoth. More than that, it is the single biggest employer in the world. As such, it has had a huge, and in practice disproportionately negative, impact on workers worldwide. It is a powerful monopsony that drags down wages throughout the retail sector. In the same way that the auto companies and Walter Reuther’s Treaty of Detroit set labor standards for the rest of the American economy in the mid-20th century, Walmart is the leader in setting labor standards today. And that is a truly terrible and tragic thing.

Also, Walmart engages in many notorious anti-worker labor practices besides its rock-bottom wages. Its long list of crimes against labor includes wage theft, violating child labor lawsviolating occupational health and safety lawslocking employees in stores against their will. and sex discrimination (which is the subject of a huge ongoing lawsuit) — all practiced on a massive scale. In addition, it is the most hardcore anti-union employer in the country (the international human rights group, Human Rights Watch, has issued at least one special report about its anti-union tactics). And don’t even get me started on the labor conditions in Walmart and its affiliates abroad, and the brutal impact Walmart has on the labor practices of its suppliers!

For all these reasons, Walmart has been targeted by labor organizations. The idea is: if even a bottom-feeding company like Walmart can be brought to heel, it will have a hugely salutary impact on other employers — in the same way that, for example, a unionized workforce in a leading company in a particular industry tends to increase pay industry-wide.

2. But we’re in a recession! Walmart will create jobs, and living wage laws are job-killers! . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 9:26 am

Interesting idea for small bookstores

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I somehow do not believe the idea—small bookstores becoming, in effect, member-supported book showrooms—it is still intriguing. Virginia Postrel (a writer who in my mind flies a “be cautious of this writer” flag for some reason) writes at Bloomberg.com:

Turmoil at Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS), where Chief Executive Officer William Lynch resigned last week after the company posted an unexpectedly large loss in the quarter ended April 30, has people in the publishing industry worried. “We’re all forced to ask: What would the book discovery environment look like without Barnes & Noble?” writes Rich Fahle, a former Borders executive who runs a marketing agency for authors.

The question zeroes in on a growing problem for the U.S. book industry. Although readers increasingly purchase books online, they still rely on physical bookstores to discover what to buy. In-store displays are the most common way, after personal recommendations, that frequent buyers find new books, accounting for about 20 percent of purchases, according to a survey by the Codex Group. Yet brick-and-mortar stores are disappearing, as customers defect to the convenience and, in many cases, lower prices of Amazon.com Inc.

Online discovery — including everything from Twitter recommendations to authors’ Pinterest boards to Amazon pages — is growing, but it hasn’t kept up with online sales. People still seem more likely to buy books if they’ve had a chance to flip through physical copies. “Something is seriously missing with online retail discovery. It’s not working,” Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder and CEO of Codex told the Digital Book World Conference and Expo in January.

Looking Inside

Books are what economists call “experience goods.” Unlike blue polo shirts or AAA batteries, they have characteristics that are hard to observe in advance. You have to consume them before you know whether you like them. That’s why people rely so much on trusted friends to recommend books, and it’s also why browsing is so important.

One big reason readers find it more satisfying to “showroom” in physical bookstores is that many publishers deliberately make it hard, if not impossible, to examine books online. In a physical bookstore, the proprietor decides whether letting people read the books on display is likely to turn into sales. Most rule in favor of extensive browsing, allowing potential customers to stand, or in some cases sit, around for long periods reading their books.

On Amazon or Google Books, by contrast, the publishers rule, and too many seem determined to keep your dirty eyeballs off their merchandise. Although some works are relatively easy to look through, often you can’t even read the entire index or table of contents, much less actual prose, because publishers or authors are more concerned with would-be pirates than potential sales.

The other problem online is that even when you can see the whole book, you have to know to look for it in the first place. You’re less likely to stumble on something interesting.

Until he saw it recently in a used bookstore, my husband had no idea he wanted an 800-plus-page book about gravitational-wave detection. But he’s been devouring it. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2013 at 9:23 am

Posted in Books, Business

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