Later On

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

Archive for July 16th, 2013

Even strong support (and praise) for the McDonald’s budget

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Kevin Drum (and Tim Lee) convinced me, for sure. Read Kevin’s now. (I already blogged Tim Lee’s response earlier.)

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Daily life

Newspeak decoded

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Philip Bump does (as usual) an excellent job.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 4:10 pm

Posted in Business, Congress, NSA

“In space, no one can hear you scream”

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Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Technology

Ed Kilgore offers words of insight and wisdom

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Ed Kilgore writes in Political Animal:

I have journalistic friends who aren’t really happy with me for early (and middle, and late) doom-saying about the trajectory of gun and immigration reform legislation. Yeah, I was right, but why rub it in, and why not try to promote good bipartisan legislation even if the odds against it are stiff?

My answer to this kind of complaint has been two-fold: First, Political Animal isn’t a public utility or an agitprop operation; its mission is to offer acute and accurate and sometimes even slightly profound (at least by frantic-news-cycle-blogger standards) observations about political life in our country from a progressive POV. But second, I’m convinced the most important phenomenon in contemporary American politics is the radicalization of the conservative movement at almost the precise moment it consolidated its hold on the Republican Party after nearly five decades of struggle. There are a variety of interesting byproducts of this phenomenon, including asymmetric polarization, culture wars, the Tea Party Movement (a radicalized phase of the conservative “base” activism that has been there all along), congressional gridlock, and a Democratic Party deep into a defensive crouch. But the main show is what’s important, and I feel an obligation to keep pointing that out so long as people keep misunderstanding or discounting it, as they most definitely do.

It does seem, however, that people are coming around, particularly as the reality of what’s happening on immigration reform sinks in, viz. a column from the New Yorker’s John Cassidy that concludes that it will take at least a third consecutive presidential defeat to bring the GOP to its senses.

With even some respectable political analysts now peddling the argument that the most urgent task of the G.O.P. is to appeal to more alienated and absentee white voters, is it time to junk the theory that the party will eventually direct its attentions to the electorate at large? Could the party really remain in thrall to the God, guns, and anti-government brigade until Ronald Reagan returns to save us all from eternal damnation? That’s doubtful. Clearly, though, the adjustment process is going to take more time.

Indeed. But where I part company with Cassidy and a lot of other progressive and/or neutral observers who wonder, as Barack Obama put it, when “the fever” might break, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 3:54 pm

Posted in GOP, Politics

Libertarianism in action

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Absolutely fascinating article by Mina Kimes in Bloomberg Businessweek:

Every year the presidents of Sears Holdings’ (SHLD) many business units trudge across the company’s sprawling headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Ill., to a conference room in Building B, where they ask Eddie Lampert for money. The leaders have made these solitary treks since 2008, when Lampert, a reclusive hedge fund billionaire, splintered the company into more than 30 units. Each meeting starts quietly: When the executive arrives, Lampert’s top consiglieri are there, waiting around a U-shaped table, according to interviews with a half-dozen former employees who attended these sessions. An assistant walks in, turns on a screen on the opposite wall, and an image of Lampert flickers to life.

The Sears chairman, who lives in a $38 million mansion in South Florida and visits the campus no more than twice a year (he hates flying), is usually staring at his computer when the camera goes live, according to attendees.

The executive in the hot seat will begin clicking through a PowerPoint presentation meant to impress. Often he’ll boast an overly ambitious target—“We can definitely grow 20 percent this year!”—without so much as a glance from Lampert, 50, whose preference is to peck out e-mails or scroll through a spreadsheet during the talks. Not until the executive makes a mistake does the Sears chief look up, unleashing a torrent of questions that can go on for hours.

In January, eight years after Lampert masterminded Kmart’s $12 billion buyout of Sears in 2005, the board appointed him chief executive officer of the 120-year-old retailer. The company had gone through four CEOs since the merger, yet former executives say Lampert has long been running the show. Since the takeover, Sears Holdings’ sales have dropped from $49.1 billion to $39.9 billion, and its stock has sunk 64 percent. Its cash recently fell to a 10-year low. Although it has plenty of assets to unload before bankruptcy looms, the odds of a turnaround grow longer every quarter. “The way it’s being managed, it doesn’t work,” says Mary Ross Gilbert, a managing director at investment bank Imperial Capital. “They’re going to continue to deteriorate.”

Plagued by the realities threatening many retail stores, Sears also faces a unique problem: Lampert. Many of its troubles can be traced to an organizational model the chairman implemented five years ago, an idea he has said will save the company. Lampert runs Sears like a hedge fund portfolio, with dozens of autonomous businesses competing for his attention and money. An outspoken advocate of free-market economics and fan of the novelist Ayn Rand, he created the model because he expected the invisible hand of the market to drive better results. If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, he argued, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.

Instead, the divisions turned against each other—and Sears and Kmart, the overarching brands, suffered. Interviews with more than 40 former executives, many of whom sat at the highest levels of the company, paint a picture of a business that’s ravaged by infighting as its divisions battle over fewer resources. (Many declined to go on the record for a variety of reasons, including fear of angering Lampert.) Shaunak Dave, a former executive who left in 2012 and is now at sports marketing agency Revolution, says the model created a “warring tribes” culture. “If you were in a different business unit, we were in two competing companies,” he says. “Cooperation and collaboration aren’t there.”

Although Lampert is notoriously media-averse, he agreed to answer questions about Sears’s organizational model via e-mail. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 3:29 pm

Posted in Business

Completely lacking in empathy and compassion

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Two examples—and I urge you to read both:

North Carolina Lawmakers Ram Through Plan That Would Increase Taxes On Poor People

Miami Considers Jailing Homeless People For Eating, Sleeping In Public

Both are in the South, you’ll notice, but perhaps that’s a coincidence.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Government

Mission Creep: When Everything Is Terrorism

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I’ve commented several times on how “weapons of mass destruction” have been redefined so that a hand grenade is now a weapon of mass destruction. Bruce Schneier rightly sees this as mission creep. He writes in the Atlantic:

One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government’s spying on American citizens is that it’s only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there’s a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep. The definitions of “terrorism” and “weapon of mass destruction” are broadening, and these extraordinary powers are being used, and will continue to be used, for crimes other than terrorism.

Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of “normal” violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term “terrorist” is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn’t normally consider terrorists.

The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility’s security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism — and remain in jail.

Meanwhile, a Tennessee government official claimed that complaining about water quality could be considered an act of terrorism. To the government’s credit, he was subsequently demoted for those remarks.

The notion of making a terrorist threat is older than the current spate of anti-terrorism craziness. It basically means threatening people in order to terrorize them, and can include things like pointing a fake gun at someone, threatening to set off a bomb, and so on. A Texas high-school student recently spent five months in jail for writing the following on Facebook: “I think I’ma shoot up a kindergarten. And watch the blood of the innocent rain down. And eat the beating heart of one of them.” Last year, two Irish tourists were denied entry at the Los Angeles Airport because of some misunderstood tweets.

Another term that’s expanded in meaning is “weapon of mass destruction.” The law is surprisingly broad, and includes anything that explodes, leading political scientist and terrorism-fear skeptic John Mueller to comment:

As I understand it, not only is a grenade a weapon of mass destruction, but so is a maliciously-designed child’s rocket even if it doesn’t have a warhead. On the other hand, although a missile-propelled firecracker would be considered a weapon of mass destruction if its designers had wanted to think of it as a weapon, it would not be so considered if it had previously been designed for use as a weapon and then redesigned for pyrotechnic use or if it was surplus and had been sold, loaned, or given to you (under certain circumstances) by the secretary of the army ….

All artillery, and virtually every muzzle-loading military long arm for that matter, legally qualifies as a WMD. It does make the bombardment of Ft. Sumter all the more sinister. To say nothing of the revelation that The Star Spangled Banner is in fact an account of a WMD attack on American shores.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, one commentator described our use of the term this way: “What the United States means by terrorist violence is, in large part, ‘public violence some weirdo had the gall to carry out using a weapon other than a gun.’ … Mass murderers who strike with guns (and who don’t happen to be Muslim) are typically read as psychopaths disconnected from the larger political sphere.” Sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that.

Even as the definition of terrorism broadens, we have to ask . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 2:00 pm

The NSA Faces a New Threat

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Philip Bump—and he’s good: I’ve noticed lately how many of his articles and posts are right on target—writes at the Atlantic Wire:

A coalition of activist and advocacy groups have joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency and FBI, alleging that the government’s collection of phone metadata is a violation of their First Amendment rights. The most pervasive, technologically advanced surveillance system in the world could end up hobbled by a Los Angeles church, some gunsellers, and a few marijuana advocates. As was prophesied.

The lawsuit (which can be read in full at the bottom of this post) focuses on the First Amendment right to assembly. A post at the EFF’s blog explains why the collection of metadata on phone records—collection revealed by Edward Snowden and reported last month—infringes on that right.

“People who hold controversial views – whether it’s about gun ownership policies, drug legalization, or immigration – often must express views as a group in order to act and advocate effectively,” said [EFF legal director Cindy] Cohn. “But fear of individual exposure when participating in political debates over high-stakes issues can dissuade people from taking part. That’s why the Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that membership lists of groups have strong First Amendment protection. Telephone records, especially complete records collected over many years, are even more invasive than membership lists, since they show casual or repeated inquiries as well as full membership.”

Should there be any question about the government’s willingness to investigate participants in such groups, you don’t have to look very far back in history to see examples. (The ACLU, in fact, has a database of such instances.) During the Iraq War, the FBI infiltrated peace groups with the goal of investigating their activities.

Which explains the motley group the EFF has assembled to join its lawsuit. In the lawsuit, each explains its advocacy activity. The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles works for social justice. NORML works to decriminalize marijuana. The Council on American Islamic Relations does what you’d expect. The California Association of Federal Firearm Licensees represents gun manufacturers and sellers. Human Rights Watch watches human rights—including those of whistleblowers. Each of these groups has joined the suit as a plaintiff, each seeing how the collection of data could make it easier for the government to observe their activism.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit shortly after the Snowden revelations became public that differs in at least one significant ways. Its lawsuit was predicated on the fact that it as an organization was a customer of Verizon’s Business Services section—the only phone company division for which an order to collect metadata is public. The EFF (and its co-plaintiffs) argues persuasively that the program is understood to be broader than just affecting Verizon, citing the words of Director of National Intelligence (and suit co-defendant) James Clapper to that end. The point is important because the plaintiffs must have standing for the suit. The Supreme Court has already rejected one argument against surveillance on standing grounds. (The ACLU also employed the First Amendment argument, however.)

Few organizations can match the EFF’s recent legal success against government surveillance. Earlier this month, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 1:54 pm

Tim Lee comments on the reality of the McDonald’s budget

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Interesting take from Tim Lee in the Washington Post:

Various people are mocking McDonalds and Visa for putting together this sample budget for someone living on an after-tax income of $24,720 per year, calling it “ridiculous” and “hilariously obtuse.”

McDonalds budget

Budgets depend on individual circumstances, so it’s hard to know if a budget will work for any specific individual. But with a couple of exceptions, these are typical figures for the spending of millions of low-income Americans. Here are the major items in the budget:

Rent: Gawker’s Neil Casey calls $600 per month for rent a “laughably small” figure, but Casey should spend more time outside the Northeast Corridor. When I lived in St. Louis, my roommate and I each paid $425 per month for our comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods. My then-girlfriend was paying less than $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Then we moved to Philadelphia, where we paid $1,125 for a two-bedroom apartment in another nice neighborhood. That’s less than $600 per month per person. Paying $600 in rent sounds like a fantasy in New York but it’s completely plausible in typical U.S.cities.

Utilities: The budget allocates $0 for heat. This could be realistic in some Southern states, or in apartment buildings where heating costs are covered by the landlord. But most Americans have to pay heating costs. McDonalds and Visa have tacitly acknowledged their mistake by changing the heat figure to $50 in the latest version of the chart.

The other utility figures are more realistic. The budget has electricity costing $90, just slightly below the national average of $103. There’s $100 earmarked for phone and cable services. The FCC says the average cost of basic cable is $20.55, while “expanded basic” costs an average of $61.63. Cricket offers basic cellphone plans that start at $35 per month, while its smartphone plans start at $50 per month. So for $100 per month, you can either get basic cable and a smartphone, or expanded basic cable and a basic cellphone. Either way, $100 is a realistic amount for a low-income individual to pay for cable and cellphone service.

Health care: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Daily life

What Edward Snowden has done is becoming clearer

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Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian:

Former two-term GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire emailed Edward Snowden yesterday [emphasis added]:

Mr. Snowden,

Provided you have not leaked information that would put in harms way any intelligence agent, I believe you have done the right thing in exposing what I regard as massive violation of the United States Constitution.

Having served in the United States Senate for twelve years as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee, I think I have a good grounding to reach my conclusion.

I wish you well in your efforts to secure asylum and encourage you to persevere.

Kindly acknowledge this message, so that I will know it reached you.

Gordon J. Humphrey
Former United States Senator
New Hampshire

After I contacted Sen. Humphrey to confirm its authenticity, he wrote to me [emphasis added]:

Mr. Greenwald,

Yes. It was I who sent the email message to Edward Snowden, thanking him for exposing astonishing violations of the US Constitution and encouraging him to persevere in the search for asylum.

To my knowledge, Mr. Snowden has disclosed only the existence of a program and not details that would place any person in harm’s way. I regard him as a courageous whistle-blower.

I object to the monumentally disproportionate campaign being waged by the U.S. Government against Edward Snowden, while no effort is being made to identify, remove from office and bring to justice those officials who have abused power, seriously and repeatedly violating the Constitution of the United States and the rights of millions of unsuspecting citizens.

Americans concerned about the growing arrogance of our government and its increasingly menacing nature should be working to help Mr. Snowden find asylum. Former Members of Congress, especially, should step forward and speak out.

Gordon Humphrey

Snowden’s reply to Sen. Humphrey: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 1:06 pm

Behind the Scenes of the Bradley Manning Trial Ignored by Corporate Media

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The media certainly were all over the Zimmerman trial, but the Bradley Manning trial doesn’t even get a mention. Odd.

Democracy Now! has a program on the trial, with a video plus this transcript:

The judge in the Bradley Manning case says she will decide Thursday on his lawyers’ request to dismiss seven of the charges he faces, including allegations that he aided the enemy when he provided hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The defense says the prosecution has not provided sufficient evidence that Manning had actual knowledge that the information he leaked would end up with the enemy. Lawyers for the government have said that, based on his training, Private Manning knew that al-Qaeda and other groups could have access to the documents. For an inside look of the Manning trial, we speak to Kevin Gosztola, a civil liberties blogger at Firedoglake who is one of only a handful of journalists covering the Manning trial on a daily basis. “It really is only being covered when the outlets in the U.S. media feel they have an obligation to cover something,” Gosztola says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We end today’s show with an update on the trial of Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade. The judge hearing the case said she will decide Thursday on his lawyers’ request to dismiss seven of the charges he faces, including allegations he aided the enemy when he provided hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The defense says the prosecution has not provided sufficient evidence that Manning had “actual knowledge” the information would end up with the enemy. Lawyers for the government have said that, based on his training, Private Manning knew al-Qaeda and other groups could have access to the documents.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, last week we spoke with—about the trial with Kevin Gosztola, civil liberties blogger at Firedoglake, who has been covering Manning’s trial at Fort Meade in Maryland every day. He’s the co-author of Truth and Consequences: The U.S. vs. Bradley Manning. He joined us via Democracy Now!video stream from his car in the Fort Meade parking lot. I interviewed him along with co-host Nermeen Shaikh and began by asking him about how the trial has been covered by the media.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: It really is only being covered when the outlets in the U.S. media feel they have an obligation to cover something. So, for example, this is the first day of the trial—that’s something important; this is the first day of Bradley Manning’s defense—that’s feels like something important. Other than that, we aren’t going to see a lot of outlets. We’ve seen a small, dedicated, core group of individuals, of which I have been a part, an independent journalist named Alexa O’Brien, Courthouse News reporter who works in New York City named Adam Klasfeld. We’ve had a courtroom sketch artist named Clark Stoeckley, who also happens to be the driver of the WikiLeaks Truck, which, I have to tell you, it is quite remarkable and phenomenal to watch that drive onto the base every single day. And then we have Nathan Fuller, who is a reporter for the Bradley Manning Support Network. And these are the people who have been showing up every single day, and many of us don’t even live in D.C. It baffles me that in a city of Washington, D.C., where I assume there are thousands of journalists, there aren’t more reporters who feel like they should be here regularly. But we’ve had Associated Press here regularly. They have been doing good work as an establishment news organization. Occasionally we see The Washington PostThe GuardianThe New York Times shows up from time to time because they were shamed by their public editor, Margaret Sullivan. We just don’t have the sort of wall-to-wall coverage that the George Zimmerman trial has or some of these other more sensational trials.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kevin Gosztola, could you explain what the significance is of the way in which WikiLeaks is being characterized in the trial—that is, that Manning leaked these documents to the website WikiLeaks and not to a mainstream media outlet like The New York Times?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: There’s an Army intelligence report that Manning is accused of leaking from the Army Counterintelligence Center. It suggested that WikiLeaks might pose a threat to the U.S. military. That wasn’t a question that was answered by the report. They were able to find fact that the enemy in fact would use WikiLeaks to go find U.S. government information. But in that report, it describes WikiLeaks as an organization that is intent on basically stealing proprietary data of the United States government or even corporations, and doing this because they feel they have a commitment or desire to expose wrongdoing of governments. So they see Manning as working on behalf of this organization.

And today, after we are done with this interview, Professor Yochai Benkler is going to take the stand for the defense, and he is being put on the stand to talk about what is WikiLeaks. It’s very important in this case that the defense gets out that WikiLeaks is a media organization, that when Bradley Manning engaged in his act, which I consider classic whistleblowing, based on his statement on February 28th, that WikiLeaks is in fact a media organization and not some sort of organization that would have been possibly working and doing so for the benefit of foreign intelligence services or adversaries like terrorist organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, the fact is that WikiLeaks collaborated with The New York TimesThe Guardian of Britain, the El País of Spain, Der Spiegel in Germany, and many other very mainstream news organizations in releasing these documents. Now, Kevin, just that picture you described of the court artist is the one driving the WikiLeaks Truck? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 12:45 pm

No one’s ever said that the GOP makes sense

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Much less that it’s intelligent. Kevin Drum points out extremely short-sighted thinking in the GOP House:

Earlier this year, when I wrote my big piece about lead and crime, I hoped that maybe someone important would see it and actually do something constructive. It’s always nice to make a difference, after all. But as Harry Stein points out today, that’s not exactly what happened. Here’s the House GOP budget for 2014:

Lead in House

Idiots. Stein explains the consequences: “Exposure to lead causes permanent brain damage, and half a million American children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning is linked to lower IQs, learning disabilities, and even criminal behavior. The connection between lead poisoning and crime is so strong that scholars have even linked the prevalence of leaded gasoline to the overall crime rate…..Using the most conservative estimate of $17 in benefits for every dollar invested, the $6 million that sequestration already cut from lead removal programs will cost our country at least $102 million. The House Republican cut of $64 million below sequestration would cost over $1 billion.”

Of course, lead removal programs mostly benefit poor people and non-whites, and the Republican Party has made it extra clear lately that they don’t care about either group. I guess the only real surprise here is that they didn’t cut the program to zero.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 12:34 pm

Baby ostrich dance party

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The little guys are emus:

Ostriches quite clearly are born to run.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:47 am

Posted in Video

Top 10 Reasons Americans should Dismiss Israel’s Netanyahu on Attacking Iran

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Juan Cole writes at Informed Comment:

The Iranian electorate did about the most cruel thing possible to uber-hawk Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It replaced former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with an eminently reasonable and personable successor, Hasan Rouhani.

The Israeli and American politicians who desperately want to fall on Iran the way a hungry lion does on a lamb had made hay with Ahmadinejad’s quirkiness and foot in the mouth disease. They also deliberately mistranslated him to make him seem menacing, even as he kept saying Iran would never launch a first strike.

Here are the reasons not to pay attention to the recent round of saber-rattling by Netanyahu, who never met a war (including the illegal one on Iraq) he didn’t love:

1. Everyone knows that the real reason Netanyahu keeps squawking about Iran is that he is trying to take the focus off the Israel campaign of ethnic cleansing and Apartheid policies toward the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Likewise, Netanyahu takes attention off of Israel’s own 400 nuclear warheads.

2. Everyone in the international community agrees that the new president of Iran will have to be given at least a year, and maybe more, to prove he is an earnest negotiator for Iran. You can’t just attack a presidential administration that only recently got into office and before taking the measure of it. The European powers and the countries of the global South would never accept it.

3. Iran is not proved to have a nuclear weapons program, as opposed to a civilian nuclear enrichment program aimed at making fuel for nuclear reactors.

4. Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly affirmed that Iran’s theocracy cannot accept the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons, since they cannot be deployed without killing hundreds of thousands of innocent non-combatants (e.g. women and children), and killing innocent non-combatants is illegal according to the Qur’an and Islamic law.

5. President Rouhani is proposing increased transparency for its civilian nuclear enrichment program, so as to ease Western fears.

6. Contrary to what Netanyahu says, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:45 am

Posted in Iran, Mideast Conflict

A vacation for astronomy buffs with kids

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Sounds fascinating to me—but then, so do many things. Lee Billings writes at Aeon:

few Septembers back, on a Saturday afternoon, I took a long drive, from a leafy neighbourhood in Boston, Massachusetts, to the remotest parts of the outer solar system. I set out from Cambridge in a dusty, rented Volkswagen, with my co-pilot Andrew Youdin, a planet-formation theorist from the University of Colorado at Boulder. We drove north to Maine, aiming for Aroostook County, where, stretched along close to 100 miles of small towns, big farms and empty highway, you’ll find the world’s largest three-dimensional scale model of the solar system.

The outer edge of this imaginary solar system begins in an easily overlooked wooden box, wedged between two restrooms inside a visitor information centre in Houlton, Aroostook’s county seat. The box contains two small, off-white ceramic orbs. One of them is about the size of a large jawbreaker candy, with ‘Pluto’ engraved on a brass plate beneath it. The other orb, pea-sized and eight inches away on the box’s opposite side, is Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. A brochure from a nearby stand explains that the display is part of the Maine Solar System Model, conceived in 2000 and completed in 2003. According to a map printed on the inside fold of the brochure, the Sun lies 40 miles north, in a small town called Presque Isle. A jawbreaker model of Eris, the far-flung dwarf planet that spurred Pluto’s planetary demotion in 2006, lies 55 miles south, in Topsfield. At the model’s scale, Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, would be located a bit more than 250,000 miles away, on the dimpled surface of the Moon.

To encounter a scale model of the Sun and its planets is to realise that the solar system most of us learn about as children — and continue to envision as adults — does not really exist. A typical classroom poster depicts the planets extending out from the Sun in a close-packed sequence, like stepping stones an astronaut could skip across on a journey to the stars. In comparison with the Sun, each planet is usually shown scaled up tens, hundreds, even thousands of times its actual size. The asteroid belt, if it’s shown at all, is a thick clump of jagged brown rocks — when, in fact, the real asteroid belt is so vacuous that if you ploughed through it in a rocket, you’d be lucky to come within sight of a rock, let alone collide with one.

Educators aren’t really to blame: the limitations of the printed page and of the human eye sabotage any textbook’s attempt to accurately depict the vast, haunting emptiness of interplanetary space and the comparatively diminutive sizes of even the largest planets. Shrink the Sun down to the smallest typographic component — like the dot at the end of this sentence — and even Jupiter becomes microscopic, invisible. To bring a model of the solar system into the macroscale requires thinking over the horizon.

This planet-picturing problem was preoccupying Kevin McCartney one summer’s day in 1999 as he left a business meeting at the Houlton Visitor Information Centre and walked through the parking lot to his car to return to his office at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where he is professor of geology and de facto head of community outreach. McCartney curates the university’s small science museum, located near his office in Folsom Hall. He had recently tried to revitalise the museum with a host of new exhibits, including a scale-model solar system exhibit stretching down a corridor in 1:150 billion scale, one metre per astronomical unit. Visitors loved it, and McCartney mused from time to time about making a proper three-dimensional model, where the Sun and its planets wouldn’t be paltry signs but fully fledged objects, enduring artefacts to be walked around and appreciated for generations.McCartney had once heard of another scale model along a highway in Washington State, where a simple sign marked each planet’s location. On a whim, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

The Religious, Progressive ‘Moral Mondays’ in North Carolina

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Some North Carolinians are fighting back against their repressive and reactionary state government, as reported by Abby Ohlhauser in the Atlantic Wire:

Every Monday, for the past 11 Mondays, protesters have congregated in front of the North Carolina General Assembly building. Their numbers range from the hundreds into the thousands, week by week. North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” began months ago, after a series of new measures from the Republican-led state legislature cut unemployment benefits, turned down federal funding for Medicaid, and restricted voting. Add to that the more recent headline-ready series of anti-abortion bills making their way through state legislature, and the NAACP-led, progressive-leaning protests had a robust weekly ritual for those who oppose the GOP policies emerging from the legislative building.

This week, protesters were focusing on women’s rights, pegged to the recent anti-abortion legislation. But the protests were also about the Zimmerman verdict, and about the series of economic issues that keep the demonstrators coming back to Raleigh, week after week. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:25 am

Paralysis through fear of change

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An excerpt from Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life:

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life “distills the author’s twenty five years of work as a psychoanalyst and more than 50,000 hours of conversation into a series of slim, piercing chapters that read like a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks.” What follows is an excerpt from the book, in stores now.

When the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, Marissa Panigrosso was on the ninety-eighth floor of the south tower, talking to two of her co-workers. She felt the explosion as much as heard it. A blast of hot air hit her face, as if an oven door had just been opened. A wave of anxiety swept through the office. Marissa Panigrosso didn’t pause to turn off her computer, or even to pick up her purse. She walked to the nearest emergency exit and left the building.

The two women she was talking to – including the colleague who shared her cubicle – did not leave. “I remember leaving and she just didn’t follow,” Marissa said later in an interview on American National Public Radio. “I saw her on the phone. And the other woman – it was the same thing. She was diagonally across from me and she was talking on the phone and she didn’t want to leave.”

In fact, many people in Marissa Panigrosso’s office ignored the fire alarm, and also what they saw happening 131 feet away in the north tower. Some of them went into a meeting. A friend of Marissa’s, a woman named Tamitha Freeman, turned back after walking down several flights of stairs. “Tamitha says, ‘I have to go back for my baby pictures,’ and then she never made it out.” The two women who stayed behind on the telephones, and the people who went into the meeting, also lost their lives.

In Marissa Panigrosso’s office, as in many of the other offices in the World Trade Center, people did not panic or rush to leave. “That struck me as very odd,” Marissa said. “I said to my friend, ‘Why is everyone standing around?’”

What struck Marissa Panigrosso as odd is, in fact, the rule. Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.

This should be obvious to anyone who has ever taken part in a fire drill. Instead of leaving a building, we wait. We wait for more clues – the smell of smoke, or advice from someone we trust. But there is also evidence that, even with more information, many of us still won’t make a move. In 1985, fifty-six people were killed when fire broke out in the stands of the Valley Parade football stadium in Bradford. Close examination of television footage later showed that fans did not react immediately and continued to watch both the fire and the game, failing to move towards the exits. And research has shown, again and again, that when we do move, we follow old habits. We don’t trust emergency exits. We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered. Forensic reconstruction after a famous restaurant fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving, and so died in a queue.

After twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst, I can’t say that this surprises me. We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.

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Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:22 am

Would an American Jury Even Convict Edward Snowden?

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Conor Friedersdorf writes in the Atlantic:

At Lawfare, David Pozen, a Columbia Law School professor and former State Department lawyer, points out that even if the U.S. government manages to take Edward Snowden into custody, the Obama Administration will find it unpleasant to prosecute him. “Snowden would no doubt obtain high-powered lawyers,” he writes. “Protesters would ring the courthouse. Journalists would camp out inside. As proceedings dragged on for months, the spotlight would remain on the N.S.A.’s spying and the administration’s pursuit of leakers.” What I found most provocative about the post, however, is the suggestion that the trial’s outcome would be in doubt:

If the case law is on its side, why would the government have reason to worry about prosecuting Snowden? One source of concern is the jury. Snowden says his leaks revealed an unconstitutional and undemocratic system of surveillance. Polls suggest that many Americans agree. Even if the judge instructs the jury to set aside its views on the rightness or wrongness of Snowden’s acts, there is no guarantee it will. Jurors might be tempted to acquit Snowden, not because they believe he is factually innocent but because they believe he was morally justified.

He goes on:

It has happened before–in England. In 1985, Clive Ponting looked destined for prison after leaking Ministry of Defence documents that called into question the official story of the Falklands War. Ponting fessed up to being the source. The jury voted to acquit him nevertheless, and in so doing helped catalyze a movement to liberalize the laws against unauthorized disclosures.

In a separate item posted several weeks ago, Scott Adams, best known as the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, suggests that he would bet on acquittal and that he would vote for acquittal too:

I’m wondering how you find a jury that would convict Snowden. On the first day of the trial his lawyer will explain to all twelve jurors how the government spied on them personally. Every potential juror is also a victim. Good luck getting the victims to side with the perpetrator, which in this case is the government. I think there’s some sort of law that says I can’t make a public statement in favor of jury nullification. Jury nullification is when jurors agree that the accused broke the law, but they feel the law itself is wrong, or that a conviction would be overkill, so they find the accused innocent. I predict that will happen. I don’t recommend jury nullification because I’m not sure I have freedom of speech in this regard. I simply predict that nullification will happen. My personal view is that if the government had asked citizens for permission to collect all communications in the country, or had stated its intentions without asking for permission, I’d be okay with it. It seems like a great tool for combatting domestic terrorism, and I don’t think the government cares about my browser history. But the government didn’t ask my opinion before it collected my personal communications data. I can’t give a free pass for that. And I am available for jury duty.

More Americans believe Snowden is a whistleblower than a traitor.

Federal prosecutors do not take kindly to calls for jury nullification, and if a protest movement arose, prior to an Edward Snowden trial, to encourage potential jurors to acquit as a form of protest, it could provoke a free speech showdown. Consider the case of this New York state man: . . .

Continue reading.

I’m surprised jury nullification hasn’t been used in cases in which patients using marijuana or growers and dispensaries have carefully followed all state laws, paid taxes, and so on—only to be sentenced to decades in prison. Of course, often the judge doesn’t allow the jury to be told that the marijuana was for medical reasons or that the operation was completely in accordance with state law—so much for telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I totally don’t get why juries are not allowed to consider the legal context of the offense, but I imagine it has something to do with the government’s fear that then the defendant would be found not guilty, and any sort of tactic is worth using if it puts someone in jail—after all, the US leads all nations in its prison population: that’s not an accident.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:12 am

In “Stand Your Ground” cases, race matters

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Richard Florida writes in Atlantic Cities:

During his trial, George Zimmerman’s lawyers opted to avoid invoking the controversial“Stand Your Ground” law that the state of Florida approved in 2005, which allows people to “meet force with force, including deadly force,” rather than retreat from a confrontation when they are in fear for their lives. Still, the law has been at the center of the Trayvon Martin case since the teen’s death on February 26, 2012. It ultimately gave Zimmerman the cover to pursue Martin and use deadly force that fateful night. Police initially waited 44 days after the shooting to arrest Zimmerman, in part based on his “right to use force” under this Florida law. Most of all, it created a reasonable doubt about the motives and circumstances surrounding Martin’s death that led to a not guilty verdict.

On one of the final days of the trial, jurors learned that Zimmerman had studied the law in a criminal litigation course. Though Zimmerman has publicly said he had never heard of the “Stand Your Ground” statute, his course instructor called him “one of the better students” in a class that often covered the very defense Zimmerman used. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, the jury instructions were clearly informed by the existence of the Florida law.

The nation is now embroiled in a heated debate about these laws, which are in place in at least 21 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (These state laws have been particularly in flux in the year and a half since Martin’s death, but the trend seems to be decidedly upward). The states that have enacted self-defense laws are mainly clustered in the South and Midwest, but Northeast swing states New Hampshire and Pennsylvania also have similar statutes. At least nine states explicitly use “stand your ground” language (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina).

Stand Your Ground

In June, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced an inquiry into the role that racial bias plays in “Stand Your Ground” cases. New data from the Urban Institute points a bit more empirically to the strength of this relationship.

Last year, . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 11:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Law

The man behind the great Dickens-Dostoevsky hoax

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Stephen Moss writes in the Guardian:

Arnold Harvey is waiting for me outside his flat overlooking Clissold Park in north London. With beard, lank grey hair and a large stomach that may be the product of eating too many fry-ups at the greasy spoon next door, he looks like a bucolic version of William Golding. It is his first ever interview and he is nervous, expectant. After a lifetime of what he believes to be academic condescension – or worse, conspiracy – he sees me as a possible source of redemption. This could be tricky.

Harvey, who has written most of his books using the initials AD rather than his first name Arnold, which he dislikes, has been exposed in the Times Literary Supplement as the possessor of multiple identities in print, a mischief-maker who among other things had invented a fictitious meeting in 1862 between Dickens and Dostoevsky. This startling encounter was first written up by one Stephanie Harvey in the Dickensian, the magazine of the Dickens Fellowship, in 2002, and quickly hardened into fact, cited in Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens in 2009 and repeated by Claire Tomalin in her biography two years later.

It was only after a New York Times review of Tomalin’s book that American specialists in Russian literature started to wonder about this meeting, Dostoevsky’s account of which, according to Stephanie Harvey, had been documented in the journal Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakskoi (News of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic). “In what language did Dickens and Dostoevsky converse?” asked Russian scholars. Why had Dostoevsky’s revealing portrait of Dickens – “There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite” – not been included in his collected works? And why had they never previously come across the distinguished journal Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakskoi?

Doubts about the authenticity of the Dickens-Dostoevsky meeting spread, retractions were made, the Dickensian had egg on its face. But only recently did the full story of the deception emerge when Eric Naiman, a professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an immensely detailed six-page article in the TLS(“three days’ work”, says Harvey dismissively when I praise Naiman for his industry) establishing Harvey’s academic avatars – not just Stephanie Harvey, but Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham (author of Oxford: The Novel), Michael Lindsay and Ludovico Parra. Naiman traced the way in which, over the past 30 years, this group had been commenting on one another’s work in scholarly journals and little magazines, sometimes praising one ano ther but occasionally finding fault too. “How comforting,” Naiman commented drily, “to construct a community of scholars who can analyse, supplement and occasionally even ruthlessly criticise each other’s work.”

AD Harvey doesn’t deny he is the creator of that community. Indeed, he says there are several identities which even Naiman has failed to unearth: Stephen Harvey, author of an article titled The Italian War Effort and the Strategic Bombing of Italy, published in the journal History in 1985; the Latvian poet Janis Blodnieks (“I search but cannot find the key/ Which will unlock the glowing door/ To the life which runs parallel/ To the world in which I am trapped”); and a variety of internet personalities which he prefers not to disclose as he says they might not reflect well on his output and interests. So who is the real AD Harvey?

When we make it upstairs to his tatty, book-lined, file-infested rented flat, he begins to tell me his story. His style is insistent, combative, digressive, and the conversation occupies more than four hours. He says he doesn’t get much intelligent conversation these days, and in any case we have a lifetime – a lifetime of being turned down for academic jobs and forced to live the impoverished life of the independent historian – to cover.

We talk across a table, placed next to a window that affords a pleasant view over the park. The late-afternoon light is beautiful. On the table stands a pile of books: Britain in the Early 19th Century; English Poetry in a Changing Society (1780-1825); English Literature in the Great War with France; Literature into History; Collision of Empires; Sex in Georgian England; Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War; Arnhem; The Body Politic. His life’s work, assembled, I assume, for my benefit.

Harvey, who is 65, was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2013 at 9:57 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

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