Later On

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

Archive for July 26th, 2013

Sen. Ron Wyden On NSA Spying: It’s As Bad As Snowden Says

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Via AlterNet:

Editor’s note: This is a transcript from a speech given on Tuesday, July 23, at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

When the Patriot Act was last reauthorized, I stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said, “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has interpreted the Patriot Act, they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.”

From my position on the Senate Intelligence Committee, I had seen government activities conducted under the umbrella of the Patriot Act that I knew would astonish most Americans. At the time, Senate rules about classified information barred me from giving any specifics of what I’d seen except to describe it as “secret law”—a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, issued by a secret court, that authorizes secret surveillance programs; programs that I and colleagues think go far beyond the intent of the statute.

If that is not enough to give you pause, then consider that not only were the existence of and the legal justification for these programs kept completely secret from the American people, senior officials from across the government were making statements to the public about domestic surveillance that were clearly misleading and at times simply false. Senator Mark Udall and I tried again and again to get the executive branch to be straight with the public, but under the classification rules observed by the Senate we are not even allowed to tap the truth out in Morse code ­ and we tried just about everything else we could think of to warn the American people. But as I’ve said before, one way or another, the truth always wins out.

Edward Snowden’s Revelations

Last month, disclosures made by an NSA contractor lit the surveillance world on fire. Several provisions of secret law were no longer secret and the American people were finally able to see some of the things I’ve been raising the alarm about for years. And when they did, boy were they stunned, and boy, are they angry.

You hear it in the lunch rooms, town hall meetings and senior citizen centers. The latest polling, the well­-respected Quinnipiac poll, found that a plurality of people said the government is overreaching and encroaching too much on Americans’ civil liberties. That’s a huge swing from what that same survey said just a couple years ago, and that number is trending upward. As more information about sweeping government surveillance of law­abiding Americans is made public and the American people can discuss its impacts, I believe more Americans will speak out. They’re going to say, in America, you don’t have to settle for one priority or the other: laws can be written to protect both privacy and security, and laws should never be secret.

After 9/11, when 3,000 Americans were murdered by terrorists, there was a consensus that our government needed to take decisive action. At a time of understandable panic, Congress gave the government new surveillance authorities, but attached an expiration date to these authorities so that they could be deliberated more carefully once the immediate emergency had passed. Yet in the decade since, that law has been extended several times with no public discussion about how the law has actually been interpreted. The result: the creation of an always expanding, omnipresent surveillance state that ­­ hour by hour ­­ chips needlessly away at the liberties and freedoms our founders established for us, without the benefit of actually making us any safer.

So, today I’m going to deliver another warning: If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we will all live to regret it. I’ll have more to say about the consequences of the omnipresent surveillance state, but as you listen to this talk, ponder that most of us have a computer in our pocket that potentially can be used to track and monitor us 24/7. The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed.

What’s Happened Since 9/11

At this point, a little bit of history might be helpful. I joined the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2001, just before 9/11. Like most senators I voted for the original Patriot Act, in part because I was reassured that it had an expiration date that would force Congress to come back and consider these authorities more carefully when the immediate crisis had passed. As time went on, from my view on the Intelligence Committee there were developments that seemed farther and farther removed from the ideals of our founding fathers.

This started not long after 9/11, with a Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness, which was essentially an effort to develop an ultra­ large-­scale domestic data­mining system. Troubled by this effort, and its not-exactly-modest logo of an all­-seeing eye on the universe, I worked with a number of senators to shut it down. Unfortunately, this was hardly the last domestic surveillance overreach. In fact, the NSA’s infamous warrantless wiretapping program was already up and running at that point, though I, and most members of the Intelligence Committee didn’t learn about it until a few years later. This was part of a pattern of withholding information from Congress that persisted throughout the Bush administration ­ I joined the Intelligence Committee in 2001, but I learned about the warrantless wiretapping program when you read about it in the New York Times in late 2005.

The Bush administration spent most of 2006 attempting to defend the warrantless wiretapping program. Once again, when the truth came out, it produced a surge of public pressure and the Bush administration announced that they would submit to oversight from Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court. Unfortunately, because the FISA court’s rulings are secret, most Americans had no idea that the court was prepared to issue incredibly broad rulings, permitting the massive surveillance that finally made headlines last month.

It’s now a matter of public record that the bulk phone records program has been operating since at least 2007. It’s not a coincidence that a handful of senators have been working since then to find ways to alert the public about what has been going on. Months and years went into trying to find ways to raise public awareness about secret surveillance authorities within the confines of classification rules. I and several of my colleagues have made it our mission to end the use of secret law.

When Oregonians hear the words “secret law,” they have come up to me and asked, “Ron, how can the law be secret? When you guys pass laws that’s a public deal. I’m going to look them up online.” In response, I tell Oregonians that there are effectively two Patriot Acts ­­the first is the one that they can read on their laptop in Medford or Portland, analyze and understand. Then there’s the real Patriot Act—the secret interpretation of the law that the government is actually relying upon. The secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have interpreted the Patriot Act, as well as section 702 of the FISA statute, in some surprising ways, and these rulings are kept entirely secret from the public. These rulings can be astoundingly broad. The one that authorizes the bulk collection of phone records is as broad as any I have ever seen.

This reliance of government agencies on a secret body of law has real consequences. . .

Continue reading.

I continue to think Edward Snowden should get a medal. He did violate his confidentiality agreement with Booz Allen, but that is not a crime. And he has palpably helped the country by telling us what our government was doing, though of course that made the government angry since it wanted to keep all that secret from the public. But what he did was very good. And doesn’t Obama constantly tell us how he wants transparency?

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 9:53 pm

The Essential Good-Food Guide

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Looks like a good book for those who like food in general and good food in particular.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 5:24 pm

Posted in Books, Food

Kidnapped and Sold: Inside the Dark World of Child Trafficking in China

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This is a very upsetting article. I know people who have adopted Chinese infants. Charlie Custer writes in the Atlantic:

In March 2011, Rose Candis had the worst lunch of her life. Sitting at a restaurant in Shaoguan, a small city in South China, the American mother tried hard not to vomit while her traveling companion translated what the man they were eating with had just explained: her adopted Chinese daughter Erica had been purchased, and then essentially resold to her for profit. The papers the Chinese orphanage had shown her documenting how her daughter had been abandoned by the side of a road were fakes. The tin of earth the orphanage had given her so that her daughter could always keep a piece of her home with her as she grew up in the U.S. was a fraud, a pile of dirt from the place her daughter’s paperwork was forged, not where she was born. Candis had flown thousands of miles to answer her daughter Erica’s question — who are my birth parents? — but now she was further from the answer than ever.

Almost exactly a year earlier, Liu Liqin had the worst day of his life. He was out on a temporary construction job, looking forward to lunch and his next cigarette break, when his wife called to tell him that their two-year-old son Liu Jingjun was missing. Liu rushed home and began a frantic but fruitless search for the boy. He and his wife called relatives, ran to the local police station to report Jingjun missing, and then fanned out through their city neighborhood calling the boy’s name and asking passers-by if they had seen anything. The police told him they couldn’t take the case because not enough time had passed since the boy had disappeared. Finally, late in the evening, Liu thought to check the footage from a surveillance camera at a building on the street outside his family’s apartment. Sure enough, when the video footage was queued up, in a small corner of the frame, Liu could see a man, face obscured, carrying little Jingjun down the narrow alley where the Liu family lives. I met Liu for the first time in that same alley; he had agreed to become the first subject of a documentary film I was making about kidnapped children in China. “Watching the man in the footage taking him away, I just…” Liu trailed off. “There’s really no way to describe that feeling.”

“It was touted as the most stable program, the most above-board program,” Candis says of the way the agency she worked with. “Certainly they never ever mentioned trafficking.”

Rose Candis and Liu Liqin’s backgrounds could not be more different, but both parents have spent the past couple of years searching in China for the truth about their children. Both will do almost anything to get at it. And both have been stymied at almost every turn.

Child trafficking and its relationship to adoption in China is a serious problem, but also a deeply opaque one. It is a taboo topic for the Chinese government, which acknowledges the problem exists but also does not make public statistics about the number of children kidnapped or the number of children sold into adoption. Because of the implications for the tens of thousands of families in the United States and elsewhere in the West who have adopted children from China — Americans alone adopted nearly 3000 Chinese children in 2012 — the topic is often taboo outside of China’s borders, too.

Neither child trafficking nor baby buying in Chinese international adoptions are widely studied. No one can say for certain how many children are kidnapped in China each year, or what percentage of them end up being put up for adoption domestically or internationally. But the problem is a lot more serious than most people know, as I have come to learn over the last few years. In the process of making a documentary film on the subject, my wife and I have spoken to dozens of parents of kidnapped Chinese children and adoptive parents in the U.S. who have come to believe their children were sold into adoption.

* * *

When Candis, an Ohio-based therapist (who asked that I use her pen name to protect the privacy of her daughter), decided to adopt a child, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Daily life

They Know Much More Than You Think

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James Bamford was interviewed by Democracy Now! back in June, and I blogged it. Worth a click if you didn’t see it. Now he writes in the New York Review of Books:

In mid-May, Edward Snowden, an American in his late twenties, walked through the onyx entrance of the Mira Hotel on Nathan Road in Hong Kong and checked in. He was pulling a small black travel bag and had a number of laptop cases draped over his shoulders. Inside those cases were four computers packed with some of his country’s most closely held secrets.

Within days of Snowden’s documents appearing in The Guardian and The Washington Post, revealing several of the National Security Agency’s extensive domestic surveillance programs, bookstores reported a sudden spike in the sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. On Amazon.com, the book made the “Movers & Shakers” list and skyrocketed 6,021 percent in a single day. Written sixty-five years ago, it described a fictitious totalitarian society where a shadowy leader known as “Big Brother” controls his population through invasive surveillance. “The telescreens,” Orwell wrote, “have hidden microphones and cameras. These devices, alongside informers, permit the Thought Police to spy upon everyone….”

Today, as the Snowden documents make clear, it is the NSA that keeps track of phone calls, monitors communications, and analyzes people’s thoughts through data mining of Google searches and other online activity. “Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it,” Orwell wrote about his protagonist, Winston Smith.

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Of course the US is not a totalitarian society, and no equivalent of Big Brother runs it, as the widespread reporting of Snowden’s information shows. We know little about what uses the NSA makes of most information available to it—it claims to have exposed a number of terrorist plots—and it has yet to be shown what effects its activities may have on the lives of most American citizens. Congressional committees and a special federal court are charged with overseeing its work, although they are committed to secrecy, and the court can hear appeals only from the government.

Still, the US intelligence agencies also seem to have adopted Orwell’s idea of doublethink—“to be conscious of complete truthfulness,” he wrote, “while telling carefully constructed lies.” For example, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was asked at a Senate hearing in March whether “the NSA collect[s] any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper’s answer: “No, sir…. Not wittingly.”

Three months later, following the revelations of the phone-log program in which the NSA collects telephone data—the numbers of both callers and the length of the calls—on hundreds of millions of Americans, Clapper switched to doublethink. He said that his previous answer was not a lie; he just chose to respond in the “least untruthful manner.” With such an Orwellian concept of the truth now being used, it is useful to take a look at what the government has been telling the public about its surveillance activities over the years, and compare it with what we know now as a result of the top secret documents and other information released by, among others, the former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden.

Looking back, the NSA and its predecessors have been gaining secret, illegal access to the communications of Americans for nearly a century. On July 1, 1920, a slim balding man in his early thirties moved into a four-story townhouse at 141 East 37th Street in Manhattan. This was the birth of the Black Chamber, theNSA’s earliest predecessor, and it would be hidden in the nondescript brownstone. But its chief, Herbert O. Yardley, had a problem. To gather intelligence for Woodrow Wilson’s government, he needed access to the telegrams entering, leaving, and passing through the country, but because of an early version of the Radio Communications Act, such access was illegal. With the shake of a hand, however, Yardley convinced Newcomb Carlton, the president of Western Union, to grant the Black Chamber secret access on a daily basis to the private messages passing over his wires—the Internet of the day.

For much of the next century, the solution would be the same: the NSA and its predecessors would enter into secret illegal agreements with the telecom companies to gain access to communications. Eventually codenamed Project Shamrock, the program finally came to a crashing halt in 1975 when a Senate committee that was investigating intelligence agency abuses discovered it. Senator Frank Church, the committee chairman, labeled the NSA program “probably the largest governmental interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.”

As a result of the decades of illegal surveillance by the NSA, in 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was signed into law and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) came into existence. Its purpose was, for the first time, to require the NSA to get judicial approval for eavesdropping on Americans. Although the court seldom turned down a request for a warrant, or an order as it’s called, it nevertheless served as a reasonable safeguard, protecting the American public from an agency with a troubling past and a tendency to push the bounds of spying unless checked.

For a quarter of a century, the rules were followed and the NSA stayed out of trouble, but following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration decided to illegally bypass the court and began its program of warrantless wiretapping. “Basically all rules were thrown out the window and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans,” I was told by Adrienne J. Kinne, who in 2001 was a twenty-four-year-old voice intercept operator who conducted some of the eavesdropping. She or her superiors did not have to get a warrant for each interception. “It was incredibly uncomfortable to be listening to private personal conversations of Americans,” she said. “And it’s almost like going through and stumbling and finding somebody’s diary and reading it.”

All during this time, however, the Bush administration was telling the American public the opposite: that a warrant was obtained whenever an American was targeted. “Anytime you hear the United States government talking about a wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order,” President George W. Bush told a crowd in 2004. “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.” After exposure of the operation by The New York Times in 2005, however, rather than strengthen the controls governing the NSA’s spying, Congress instead voted to weaken them, largely by codifying into the amendment to FISA what had previously been illegal.

At the same time, rather than calling for prosecution of the telecom officials for their role in illegally cooperating in the eavesdropping program, or at least a clear public accounting, Congress simply granted them immunity not only from prosecution but also from civil suits. Thus, for nearly a century, telecom companies have been allowed to violate the privacy of millions of Americans with impunity.

With the arrival of the Obama administration, the NSA’s powers continued to expand at the same time that administration officials and the NSA continued to deceive the American public on the extent of the spying. In addition to the denial I have mentioned by James Clapper, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 5:15 pm

Great collections of Greek myths

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Lucy Coates recommends 5 books on the Greek myths:

The author of one of the best children’s books on Greek myths chooses her own favourites. There’s one for children, one for teenagers, one for scholars, one to read out loud and one that’s very definitely adult in content…

What is a Greek myth? What is it about Greek myths that has attracted us to them down the ages?

A Greek myth is basically a way of explaining the world, or it was a way of explaining the world to a primitive people who didn’t have any explanation of the sun or the moon or the disasters that happened — like earthquakes and floods and fire. It was easy to make a myth about it, and to say that it was down to the gods. What’s so fascinating about the Greek myths in particular is that the gods are terribly human. They’re in Olympus but they’re recognizable to us. They have a lot of quirks and foibles and they do all the things that humans do: Zeus cheats and lies and he is the most appalling serial adulterer. The stories also, perhaps, help explain how to behave and the consequences of certain actions — a bit like the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not…” or something terrible will happen. So, for instance, Ixion, who commits the first murder, ends up in a fiery pit, tied to a wheel, forever revolving, because that was not a good thing to do. They’re a guide to life as well as being stories.

How did you, personally, get interested in them?

I read two particular books, which I haven’t chosen because I think for modern readers they’re a bit too bowdlerised and preachy. One was The Heroes by Charles Kingsley and the other was A Wonder Book/Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Scarlet Letterfame. These two authors were telling the stories in completely different ways and taking different aspects of them. That was one reason they fascinated me, but they’re just damn good stories: it’s as simple as that.

You don’t think it hinders the narrative that the gods can always decide the outcome?

No, I don’t think it does affect the story, because, as I said, the gods do have all these human traits. They make mistakes, they show themselves not to be completely infallible. I think that’s part of the attraction.

Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. I noticed that three of the five are about or related to the Trojan War…

Yes. In my opinion the Iliad and the Odyssey are two of the greatest tales ever told. Although the gods are involved, the stories are very much about humans and how humans react to certain situations. They’ve always fascinated me. I went to Troy when I was in my twenties and was completely blown away by the fact that it’s tiny. Going there helped me understand this extraordinary story about Achilles and Hector fighting their way around the walls of Troy seven times. You think a city is huge, but it wasn’t. Two fit young men, even dressed in armour, could quite well have run around the walls seven times, hacking at each other.

How much is left of Troy?

Not a great deal. Of course there’s always the question of “Well, was this the right Troy?” One thing I couldn’t understand when I went there is that you have to drive miles and miles and miles inland to get to it. Then I realized that the whole of the plain was originally sea but has silted up and is now land. For me the whole geographical thing was a fascination.

Let’s talk about the first book you’ve chosen, which is about the greatest Greek hero at Troy, Achilles, and his love affair with another Greek man, Patroclus. It’s called The Song of Achilles

Yes, this is by Madeline Miller who is an American academic. It was her debut novel and it won the Orange Prize. For some reason I came across it when it first came out, before anyone else knew about it, and I absolutely loved it. I really appreciated the deft, spare beauty of the writing and I like the way it came at the story from Patroclus’s point of view.

Tell me about the story.

At the beginning Patroclus is the underdog. Then he makes friends with Achilles, this golden, god-like boy and they go off to the centaur Chiron and are educated by him. Then, of course, they go to the Trojan War. The book might shock people because there’s some quite graphic sex scenes in it. One of the reasons I loved it is that I’ve always thought of Achilles as a slightly spoiled brat but told through the eyes of Patroclus I understood him much better. I just loved the richness of the language, the descriptions. She really made me feel I was in ancient Greece — the smells, the whole environment. And, again, it’s just such a good story. I knew how it ended, of course. It’s like Othello, you always know how it’s going to end, but I still always hope that it’s going to end differently. I hope against hope that somehow it’s going to have a happy ending. Then of course it doesn’t and it’s almost a double blow…

I thought the relationship she depicted between Achilles and Patroclus was very beautiful. I was so sad at the end, I almost cried.

Oh I did cry. That whole tenderness of male friendship and love, it was very moving.

You mentioned in your email you thought it was one of the best retellings of the story you’d read in years. Was it also a very accurate retelling? The author teaches Greek and Latin, so I expect there was a lot of attention…

To source material, absolutely. She clearly knows her Homer and associated sources.  She researched and researched and researched in order to get all the details right. One of the things about writing a semi-historical book like that is that for ancient stuff there really isn’t all that much you can go back to. You just have to do your best. Everything she has in there is pretty authentic — or as authentic as it possibly can be.

Let’s go on to your next choice, Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition. Every single Greek myth is in this book, is that right?

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 5:06 pm

Posted in Books, Religion

The General, a truly great movie:

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Here it is, in its entirety:

I found it at Open Culture, which has links to 20 other Buster Keaton classics.

Really: watch this movie. You’ll be glad you did.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Humor, Movies & TV

Lucky for banks, they can get away with things like this

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I think the woman should contact a good lawyer. Bryce Covert reports in ThinkProgress:

Katie Barnett, a resident of MacArthur, OH, claims that a bank she doesn’t belong tobroke into her house while she was on vacation and either took or destroyed most of her possessions. First National Bank in Wellston had meant to foreclose and repossess a house across the street andblames its GPS for the mix-up.

Barnett says she has since presented the president of the bank with an $18,000 estimate to compensate her for the loss, but he has refused to pay her. “He got very firm with me and said, ‘We’re not paying you retail here, that’s just the way it is,’” she told 10TV News. The bank president told 10TV that it is trying to come to terms with Barnett. The bank did not respond to ThinkProgress’s request for comment.

Barnett called the police after the incident, but the police told her the case was closed just weeks later.

Her tale would sound familiar to many Americans who have suffered from wrongful foreclosures and bank misdeeds. Jo-An Seipp told ThinkProgress in June that Wells Fargo sold her house in foreclosure even though she was current on her mortgage. Etienne Syldor is facing foreclosure from the same bank even though he not only made timely payments but overpaid on them. Bank of America foreclosed on a man two days after it approved his loan modification.

Banks have been accused of illegally foreclosing on members of the military and have been found guilty of “robo-signing” foreclosures without verifying the pertinent information. They were alsoordered to end “dual tracking” in which they pursued foreclosure even as they worked with homeowners on modifying loans, but many continued the practice.

The Department of Justice and 40 state attorneys general announced a $25 billion settlement with five big banks last year over foreclosure fraud. Yet less than half of the funds meant to provide homeowners who had been improperly or illegally foreclosed on with relief had been dispersed as of October. Much of the money hasn’t even gone to helping homeowners at all.

Banks don’t mind writing a check; they just don’t want any managers or executives to personally suffer for their wrong decisions and bad actions.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law

US government argues drone strikes are above the law

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Or, more generally, that the Executive Branch is above the law, as evidenced by how Obama feels free to ignore the laws that he doesn’t like, with no accountability at all. (Congress could hold him accountable, but, well, Congress…) David Sirota reports in Salon:

Court cases are often cures for insomnia, but every so often a lawsuit is an eye-opening journey through the looking glass. One of those is suddenly upon us — and we should be thankful because it finally provides an unfiltered look at our government.

You may not know about this case, but you should. Called Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, it illustrates the extremism driving the policies being made in the public’s name.

The first thing you should know about this case is that it is simply about a man who wants to know why his grandson is dead. That’s right — in this age of endless war, a grandfather named Nasser Al-Aulaqi is having to go to court to try to compel the U.S. government to explain why it killed his grandson in a drone strike despite never charging the 16-year-old American citizen with a crime.

Another thing you should know is the specific defense the government is mounting in this case. As the New York Times reported, the Obama administration’s Deputy Attorney General Brian Hauck first declared that courts have no right to oversee executive-branch decisions to extrajudicially assassinate Americans. He also insisted that the White House already provides adequate due process for those it kills, prompting federal judge Rosemary Collyer to point out that “the executive is not an effective check on the executive.” The fact that the judge needed to issue such a reminder speaks volumes about an administration utterly unconcerned with constitutional governance.

But perhaps the most important thing to know about this case is what the government is arguing about the law itself. In defending the administration, Hauck asserted that such suits should not be permitted because they “don’t want these counterterrorism officials distracted by the threat of litigation.”

The radical message is obvious: Yes, the government now claims that America should not want public officials to have to consider the constraints of the law.

If this harrowing doctrine sounds familiar, that’s because the sentiment behind it has been creeping into our political dialogue for years.

When President Obama first took office, for instance, his administration declared that Bush officials who violated laws against torture “will not be subject to prosecution.” Rather than deterring similar law breaking in the future, the new president’s administration agreed with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who claimed that any investigation would “do great damage” to “our capacity to be able to have people take on difficult jobs … without having to worry” about being punished for breaking the law.

At the local level, it has been much the same notion from police. Indeed, two years ago, when citizens began recording police brutality with their cellphones, the head of America’s police union claimed that such recording and accountability was unacceptable because it might make police officers think twice about breaking the law.

“Anything that’s going to have a chilling effect on an officer moving — an apprehension that he’s being videotaped and may be made to look bad — could cost him or some citizen their life,” he said.

Taken together, the logic implies that America should want a government that gets to shoot first and never have questions asked. It implies, in other words, that we should want a government that is above the law — and that we shouldn’t want a “chilling effect” on government law breaking because that might endanger us.

Consider, though, what’s more dangerous: a government that has to momentarily think about following the law when using violence or a government that gets to use such violence without having to think at all?

Government officials pretend they have the only answer to that question. But Nasser Al-Aulaqi’s dead grandson suggests there is a far more accurate answer than the one those officials are offering.

For a police state to work, authorities must be above the law. We’re getting there.

I’m beginning to view mortality as a feature, not a bug. I don’t particularly want to live through the decline of the US into an authoritarian state.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 2:06 pm

Police out of control

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First, a police informant was caught on video planting crack cocaine on a business owner: planted it, took a cellphone photo, then told detectives outside that it was a “go.” Owner was arrested and jailed for three weeks before the grand jury was allowed to see the surveillance video (at the link). I imagine the city will pay a pretty penny for this: false arrest, false imprisonment, and the like.

Second, in Pittsburgh 14 SWAT troops terrorized a family at gunpoint:

Although the team purportedly sought to arrest William for quarreling with a drunk, off-duty police officer at a local veterans club early that morning, the family says that their “terrorization” continued for another 45 minutes after William was apprehended.

The officers threw to the floor, kicked and handcuffed Georgeia, her stepfather and her adult son Billy. They also injured Mark’s shoulder and forced Billy to lie face down in broken glass, according to the complaint.

When Georgeia pleaded repeatedly that she had young children in the house, at least one officer allegedly stated, “You think you can get one of ours, and we won’t get one of yours?”

The family says the police proceeded to drag Georgeia’s 10-year-old son Trentino violently from the bathtub, injuring his ankles. They allegedly then made the boy stand naked at gunpoint next to his 4-year-old sister Briseis.

Officers have continued to harass and threaten the family since the raid, telling them “that’s how we do things here” and that they should move out of Pittsburgh, the complaint states.

The family is seeking only $50,000 in damages. I would say that they should get more and the chief of police should lose his/her job—and some officers also should go.

The city is fighting the lawsuit, saying that the SWAT team’s actions were proper and expected.

This is par for the course in a police state.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Chutzpah: Pepper-spraying cop wants workers comp

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He already received 8 months’ paid administrative leave. Now he wants more.

Next he’ll want payment of physical therapy for a sprained thumb.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Daily life, Law

Where our fresh water goes

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Where is all of the water going? “[N]uclear or fossil fuel power plants, which require 190 billion gallons of water per day, or 39% of all U.S. freshwater withdrawals.” Kate Zerrenner for the Environmental Defense Fund website.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

One-handed bottle opener

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Very cool. All my pocket knives are one-hand open/close. More here.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

Redefining “marriage”

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The OED will update its definition. That should put an end to arguments that begin “Marriage is defined as…”. And Biblical support is lacking (cf. Solomon, David, et al, who had multiple wives: the Biblical definition of marriage).

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 1:00 pm

Posted in Daily life

Who Are We at War With? That’s Classified

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This is totally astonishing: the Obama Administration has taken the US to war, but has classified our opponents. We are to support a secret war. Brave new world, and Obama’s talk about transparency is clearly totally bogus. Cora Currier reports for ProPublica:

In a major national security speech this spring, President Obama said again and again that the U.S. is at war with “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”

So who exactly are those associated forces? It’s a secret.

At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.

The Pentagon responded – but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department’s “answer included the information requested.”

A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”

“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”

It’s not an abstract question: U.S. drone strikes and other actions frequently target “associated forces,” as has been the case with dozens of strikes against an Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.

During the May hearing, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said he was “not sure there is a list per se.” Describing terrorist groups as “murky” and “shifting,” he said, “it would be difficult for the Congress to get involved in trying to track the designation of which are the affiliate forces” of Al Qaeda.

Sheehan said that by the Pentagon’s standard, “sympathy is not enough…. it has to be an organized group and that group has to be in co-belligerent status with Al Qaeda operating against the United States.”

The White House tied Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and “elements” of Al Shabaabin Somalia to Al Qaeda in a recent report to Congress on military actions. But the report also included a classified annex.

Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law who served as a legal counsel during the Bush administration and has written on this question at length, told ProPublica that the Pentagon’s reasoning for keeping the affiliates secret seems weak. “If the organizations are ‘inflated’ enough to be targeted with military force, why cannot they be mentioned publicly?” Goldsmith said. He added that there is “a countervailing very important interest in the public knowing who the government is fighting against in its name.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 11:37 am

Will Obamacare Kickstart Health-Care Revolution?

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Obamacare is coming, like it or not—and I believe there are some who do not like it—and innovators are starting to see big opportunities in a revitalized healthcare industry. Ezra Klein writes at Bloomberg:

On Jan. 1, 2014, the federal government will begin subsidizing millions of people’s health insurance purchases through Obamacare. “At that point,” warned Byron York, an influential conservative columnist with the Washington Examiner, “the Republican mantra of total repeal will become obsolete.”

Three years after the law passed, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it, and nine months after Republicans lost the election that might have allowed them to repeal it, the Washington conversation is still about Republicans’ rear guard actions to undermine the Affordable Care Act and profit politically from the damage.

But in a cavernous room in New York’s SoHo district, a group of entrepreneurs is working to render the entire Washington conversation over Obamacare obsolete. There, Obamacare is no longer a political controversy: It’s a business opportunity. And a trio of young technologists have raised $40 million to take advantage of it.

For Joshua Kushner, the epiphany came when he opened his insurance bill. “I realized I had absolutely no idea what it meant,” he said. “I’m overeducated. I run a growing business, but I don’t know what my benefits are, I don’t know what doctors or hospitals I have, I don’t know how to file a claim. So I picked up the phone and called 10 or 12 of my friends and asked if they had any idea how to navigate this amazing expense. None of them did.”

To Kushner, that signaled a business opportunity — and a social one. The 28-year-old Harvard graduate is the founder of Thrive Capital, which invests in Internet and media companies, including Kickstarter and Instagram. “We hope to transform traditional industries,” he said. . .

Continue reading.

As to perceptions of Obamacare’s success, the GOP may be helping:

“[T]here’s something else Republicans have been doing that, in a weird way, will likely help the Affordable Care Act. Namely, they have predicted the law’s complete and utter implosion when it launches on Oct. 1…Republicans have set Obamacare expectations so incredibly low that, if Godzilla doesn’t march in on Oct. 1 and gobble up our health insurance coverage and legions of IRS agents fail to microchip the masses, that could plausibly look like a success.” Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

The “microchip the masses” comment: The GOP is telling people that Obamacare will result in microchips being implanted in everyone’s hand (or neck—the story varies). Cf. “death panels” and other lies.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 10:33 am

The GOP’s war on the US continues: The healthcare front

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Paul Krugman discusses the latest GOP attack on the common welfare and speculates why this attack is so frenzied:

Leading Republicans appear to be nerving themselves up for another round of attempted fiscal blackmail. With the end of the fiscal year looming, they aren’t offering the kinds of compromises that might produce a deal and avoid a government shutdown; instead, they’re drafting extremist legislation — bills that would, for example, cut clean-water grants by 83 percent — that has no chance of becoming law. Furthermore, they’re threatening, once again, to block any rise in the debt ceiling, a move that would damage the U.S. economy and possibly provoke a world financial crisis.

Yet even as Republican politicians seem ready to go on the offensive, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety, even despair, among conservative pundits and analysts. Better-informed people on the right seem, finally, to be facing up to a horrible truth: Health care reform, President Obama’s signature policy achievement, is probably going to work.

And the good news about Obamacare is, I’d argue, what’s driving the Republican Party’s intensified extremism. Successful health reform wouldn’t just be a victory for a president conservatives loathe, it would be an object demonstration of the falseness of right-wing ideology. So Republicans are being driven into a last, desperate effort to head this thing off at the pass.

Some background: Although you’d never know it from all the fulminations, with prominent Republicans routinely comparing Obamacare to slavery, the Affordable Care Act is based on three simple ideas. First, all Americans should have access to affordable insurance, even if they have pre-existing medical problems. Second, people should be induced or required to buy insurance even if they’re currently healthy, so that the risk pool remains reasonably favorable. Third, to prevent the insurance “mandate” from being too onerous, there should be subsidies to hold premiums down as a share of income.

Is such a system workable? For a while, Republicans convinced themselves that it was doomed to failure, and that they could profit politically from the inevitable “train wreck.” But a system along exactly these lines has been operating in Massachusetts since 2006, where it was introduced by a Republican governor. What was his name? Mitt Somethingorother? And no trains have been wrecked so far.

The question is whether the Massachusetts success story can be replicated in other states, especially big states like California and New York with large numbers of uninsured residents. The answer to this question depends, in the first place, on whether insurance companies are willing to offer coverage at reasonable rates. And the answer, so far, is a clear “yes.” In California, insurers came in with bids running significantly below expectations; in New York, it appears that premiums will be cut roughly in half.

So is this a case of something for nothing, in which nobody loses? . . .

Continue reading. Bottom line:

Republicans may be willing to risk economic and financial crisis solely in order to deny essential health care and financial security to millions of their fellow Americans.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 10:19 am

The iKon Slant & Mystic Water

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SOTD 26 July 2013

I went with the Semogue Owners Club brush. As a precaution, based on my previous Semogue experience, I also soaked the Omega Pro 48 boar brush. In both cases, I wet the knot thoroughly under the hot-water tap, then let the brush sit on its base, dripping wet, while I showered.

The Mystic Water Sandalwood Rose made a fine lather, but the Semogue held only enough lather for two passes, so I went with the Omega for the final pass. I don’t think I’ll try Semogue any more. Some really love the brand, but it simply does not work for me, whereas the Omega brushes are terrific. To give Semogue its due, though, let me point out this post by a Semogue enthusiast. I am, however, puzzled by his recommendation (as an alternative boar brush) an Omega banded boar. I personally prefer the plain (unbanded) boar knots Omega offers—the dye from the band stains the first couple of lathers and really brings nothing to the party. The specific recommendation for banded over unbanded is puzzling. I would recommend an unbanded Omega boar (for the reasons already stated).

Now to the main course: the new stainless iKon Slant. Greg offered me a copy of the razor, and I accepted, so this is an exception to my “purchase-only” rule.

The razor is hefty—solid stainless will do that—and has an immediate advantage over its only current competitors, the Merkur 37C and 39C, in that it is a three-piece razor, not a two-piece razor (in which handle and baseplate are one unit—thus requiring a threaded shaft inside the hollow handle to tighten the cap, along with a friction ring to hold the shaft in place. The three piece design is simpler and packs flat when disassembled. More important, the three-piece design allows swapping out the standard handle with a custom handle from (say) UFO, Pens of the Forest, Elite Razors, or the like. This not to say the stock iKon handle is bad. On the contrary, it is a comfortable diameter and length with excellent cross-hatched knurling and good heft. But it’s nice to have the choice of a change of pace from time to time. [UPDATE: I just learned that the iKon Slant head will be made available for sale separately.]

I used a Personna Lab Blue blade, and when I loaded the razor, I noticed that the head is sufficiently wide that the blade’s ends are not exposed (as they are on many razors, digging into one’s fingers when the head is tightened or loosened—to the point that on some razors I have to grab the head with a towel to protect my fingers). This head is as comfortable in the loading as it is in the shave.

And what about the shave? In a word, fantastic. This razor follows in the iKon tradition of extremely comfortable, extremely efficient razors, with this razor’s efficiency pumped up by the slanted blade, while suffering no loss at all of comfort. I felt that in shaving normally, I simply could not cut myself, and indeed I got no nicks and no burn: just a very comfortable three-pass shave. (Note: I did not try to cut myself, but I also did not shave with extra care: just a regular workday shave.)

Three passes to a BBS result. I love this razor already. It is as comfortable as the Bakelite slant, and the extra heft of the stainless steel is not a problem and has the virtue of being much less breakable than the Bakelite, which, being Bakelite, is somewhat brittle. My own Bakelite slant has been fine, but I’ve seen reports of others that were dropped and cracked. Not the iKon: if you drop it into the sink, your concern will be damage to the sink, not to the razor.

A good splash of Booster Aquarius, a favorite—but where is my June Clover? I think I have to replace that.

Two more photos. The iKon slant disassembled:

iKon Slant disassembled

And the iKon slant in its full totemic glory:

iKon Slant

UPDATE: I posted on Reddit’s Wicked_Edge about the iKon Slant, and a couple of comments are worth noting.

First, note that you can do some custom work on your iKon Slant—for example, you could have the steel blued (contact a local gunsmith) or plated in gold (or rhodium or whatever). Sculpt Nouveau sells a variety of finishing compounds, including blue patina (the traditional blue-steel look) and black: the iKon Slant in black would be awesome.

Second, I was asked for a comparison shot—see below. Left to right: Bakelite slant, iKon slant, Merkur 37G. You might also take a look at the Wicked Edge thread, which has quite a bit of information.

3 slants

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 9:01 am

Posted in Shaving

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