Later On

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

Archive for July 28th, 2013

An excellent Larry Summers joke

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Read it and laugh.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 9:37 pm

Posted in Humor

Health costs of common drugs

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I use to send long articles to my Kindle so I can read them more comfortably than on the computer screen. I now have quite a backlog, so I’m working through it. I came across an interesting factoid in a PBS interview reprinted as an article on AlterNet. The entire article is quite interesting and well worth reading, but this in particular struck my eye:

The social costs attributable to cannabis consumption are nominal in comparison to those costs associated with the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. According to a 2009 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, “In terms of [health-related] costs per user: tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user, and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user.” Further, any social costs that may be attributed to cannabis use are presently not being offset by taxation.

Two important points: first, the health costs for pot are just 2.5% of the health costs of tobacco. And, second, we are getting no tax revenue from pot sales to offset those costs. Indeed, we are paying a high price in money, lives, and social problems in a futile effort to stop drugs.

Another quotation from the article:

Mexican officials understand that the U.S. demand for cannabis, combined with its illegality, is fueling violence and empowering criminal traffickers. Mexico today has a growing body count ( anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 dead citizens) to attest to this. Yet our own DEA administrator, Michelle Leonhart, has publicly described this bloodshed as “a signpost of success.”

If that is success, it is well disguised as failure. But I feel pretty sure that Ms. Leonhart has not lost a family member to the drug wars, so she probably feels pretty calm about it.

Another good point:

Decriminalization is a step in the right direction because it prevents people from the shackling of criminal records for simply possessing marijuana and also allows the criminal justice system to focus more of its limited resources on stopping and solving violent crimes. However, it does nothing to reduce the violent underground drug trade. Only legalized regulation of the market can do that. Let’s remember that during alcohol prohibition, personal possession and use of booze was essentially decriminalized. It wasn’t until the prohibition on manufacture and sales was lifted that gangsters stopped killing each other and the police over black market alcohol profits. This is because legalizing and regulating a product means people will purchase it through the proper channels and therefore the lucrative illegal market all but disappears.

And one final important point:

The social and health costs associated with marijuana use are vastly outweighed by those associated with alcohol and tobacco use. In fact, the costs for alcohol consumers are eight times greater than those for marijuana consumers, according to an assessment recently published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal. More specifically, the annual cost of alcohol consumption is $165 per user, and tobacco-related costs are $800 per user, compared to just $20 per user for marijuana. This should not come as a surprise given the vast amount of research that shows alcohol poses far more – and more significant – health problems than marijuana. Studies have shown that the majority of costs associated with marijuana are specific to enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws. If marijuana is a legal and regulated product, we can expect to generate far, far more in revenues and savings than we will see in costs.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Drug laws

Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility

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I can understand how we can lack free will, but I don’t understand how to go from there. For example, if people don’t have free will, then it’s silly to be outraged by what they do. But without free will I have no choice but to feel outrage. I think our thoughts might resemble a much more complex version of the kind of activity seen in the dancing flames of a campfire: no free will is involved in those, obviously, and yet the motion is intricate and unpredictable, even though it’s all in response to natural laws and transient forces. Our brains and bodies also follow an intricate and unpredictable (in the particular, if not the general) pattern determined by natural laws and transient events. So too, it seems, our minds.

Via My Mind on Books, here’s the blub on Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, ed. by Gregg D. Caruso:

This book explores the philosophical and scientific arguments for free will skepticism and their implications. Skepticism about free will and moral responsibility has been on the rise in recent years. In fact, a significant number of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists now either doubt or outright deny the existence of free will and/or moral responsibility—and the list of prominent skeptics appears to grow by the day. Given the profound importance that the concepts of free will and moral responsibility play in our lives—in understanding ourselves, society, and the law—it is important that we explore what is behind this new wave of skepticism. It is also important that we explore the potential consequences of skepticism for ourselves and society. This edited collection of new essays brings together an internationally recognized line-up of contributors, most of whom hold skeptical positions of some sort, to display and explore the leading arguments for free will skepticism and to debate their implications. It includes original contributions by Susan Blackmore, Thomas W. Clark, Mark Hallett, John-Dylan Haynes and Michael Pauen, Ted Honderich, Neil Levy, Thomas Nadelhoffer and Daniela Goya Tocchetto, Shaun Nichols, Derk Pereboom, Susan Pockett, Maureen Sie, Saul Smilansky, Galen Strawson, Manuel Vargas, Benjamin Vilhauer, and Bruce Waller.

At the link you can see Google Books preview of the book.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Books

Fox News shows again the ignorance/stupidity of its interviewers

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Read this amazing post and watch the interview. What you see is a mean-spirited interviewer whose profound ignorance can only be the result of an intense stupidity.

Still, it’s good to know about the book. I bought a copy and am reading it now (on my Kindle Paperwhite).

Here’s another write-up, also good.

Here’s the interview. Unbelievable:

Apparently the woman never opened the book.

How can a person who is not a marmot possibly write a book about marmots? 🙂

UPDATE: It’s interesting to contrast the above with a good interview of Aslan:

And here’s the second part:

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Books, GOP, Religion

Living in a One-Superpower World (or Edward Snowden vs. Robert Seldon Lady)

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Tom Englehardt has a good post:

He came and he went: that was the joke that circulated in 1979 when 70-year-old former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died in his Manhattan townhouse in the presence of his evening-gown-clad 25-year-old assistant.  In a sense, the same might be said of retired CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

Recently, Lady proved a one-day wonder. After years in absentia — poof! — he reappeared out of nowhere on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and made the news when Panamanian officials took him into custody on an Interpol warrant.  The CIA’s station chief in Milan back in 2003, he had achieved brief notoriety for overseeing a la dolce vita versionof extraordinary rendition as part of Washington’s Global War on Terror.  His colleagues kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Muslim cleric and terror suspect, off the streets of Milan, and rendered him via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to the torture chambers of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Lady evidently rode shotgun on that transfer.

His Agency associates proved to be the crew that couldn’t spook straight.  They left behind such a traceable trail of five-star-hotel and restaurant bills, charges on false credit cards, and unencrypted cell phone calls that the Italian government tracked them down, identified them, and charged 23 of them, Lady included, with kidnapping.

Lady fled Italy, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar villa near Turin meant for his retirement.  (It was later confiscated and sold to make restitution payments to Nasr.)  Convicted in absentia in 2009, Lady received a nine-year sentence (later reduced to six).  He had by then essentially vanished after admitting to an Italian newspaper, “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re at war against terrorism.”

Last week, the Panamanians picked him up.  It was the real world equivalent of a magician’s trick.  He was nowhere, then suddenly in custody and in the news, and then — poof again! — he wasn’t.  Just 24 hours after the retired CIA official found himself under lock and key, he was flown out of Panama, evidently under the protection of Washington, and in mid-air, heading back to the United States, vanished a second time.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on July 19th, “It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States.”  So there he was, possibly in mid-air heading for the homeland and, as far as we know, as far as reporting goes, nothing more.  Consider it the CIA version of a miracle.  Instead of landing, he just evaporated.

And that was that.  Not another news story here in the U.S.; no further information from government spokespeople on what happened to him, or why the administration decided to extricate him from Panama and protect him from Italian justice.  Nor, as far as I can tell, were there any further questions from the media.  When TomDispatch inquired of the State Department, all it got was this bit of stonewallese: “We understand that a U.S citizen was detained by Panamanian authorities, and that Panamanian immigration officials expelled him from Panama on July 19.  Panama’s actions are consistent with its rights to determine whether to admit or expel non-citizens from its territory.”

In other words, he came and he went.

Edward Snowden: The Opposite of a Magician’s Trick

When Lady was first detained, there was a little flurry of news stories and a little frisson of tension.  Would a retired CIA agent convicted of a serious crime involving kidnapping and torture be extradited to Italy to serve his sentence?  But that tension had no chance to build because (as anyone might have predicted) luck was a Lady that week.

After all, the country that took him into custody on that Interpol warrant was a genuine rarity in a changing Latin America.  It was still an ally of the United States, which had once built a canal across its territory, controlled its politics for years, and in 1989 sent in the U.S. military to forcefully sort out those politics once again.  Italy wanted Lady back and evidently requested that Panama hand him over (though the countries had no extradition treaty).  But could anyone be surprised by what happened or by the role Washington clearly played in settling Lady’s fate?  If you had paid any attention to the global pressureWashington was exerting in an “international manhunt” to get Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower it had already charged under the draconian Espionage Act, back to its shores, you knew which direction Robert Seldon Lady would be heading when he hit the nearest plane out of Panama — and I don’t mean Italy.

But here was the curious thing: when Panama sent him north, not east, there wasn’t the slightest ripple of U.S. media curiosity about the act or what lay behind it.  Lady simply disappeared.  While the Italian minister of justice “deeply regretted” Panama’s decision, there was not, as far as I can tell, a single editorial, outraged or otherwise, anywhere in this country questioning the Obama administration’s decision not to allow a convicted criminal to be brought to justice in the courts of a democratic ally or even praising Washington’s role in protecting him.  And we’re not talking about a media with no interest in trials in Italy.  Who doesn’t remember the wall-to-wall coverage of the murder trial (and retrial) of American student Amanda Knox there?  For the American media, however, Lady clearly lacked Knox’s sex appeal (nor would he make millions off a future account of his Italian sojourn).

In this same period, there was, of course, another man who almost magically disappeared.  In a transit area of Moscow’s international airport, Edward Snowden discovered that the U.S. government had deprived him of his passport and was determined to bring him back to Washington by just about any means to stand trial.  That included forcing the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, returning from Moscow, to make an unscheduled landing in Austria and be searched for Snowden.

The NSA whistleblower was trapped in a kind of no-man’s-land by an Obama administration demanding that the Russians turn him over or face the consequences.  After which, for days, he disappeared from sight.  In his case, unlike Lady’s, however, Washington never stopped talking about him and the media never stopped speculating on his fate.  It hasn’t yet.

He’s only appeared in public once since his “disappearance” — at a press conference at that airport with human rights activists from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  The U.S. government promptly deplored and denounced the event as something Moscow “facilitated” or “orchestrated,” a “propaganda platform,” and a State Department spokesperson even suggested that Snowden, not yet convicted of anything, shouldn’t have the right to express himself in Moscow or anywhere else.

The truth is: when it comes to Snowden, official Washington can’t shut up.  Congressional figures have denounced him as a “traitor” or a “defector.”  The world has repeatedly been lectured from the bully pulpit in our national capital on how necessary his return and trial is to freedom, justice, and global peace.  Snowden, it seems, represents the opposite of a magician’s trick.  He can’t disappear even when he wants to.  Washington won’t let him, not now, not — as officials have made clear — ever.  It’s a matter of morality that he faces the law and pays the (already preordained) price for his “crime.”  This, in today’s Washington, is what passes for a self-evident truth.

The Lady Vanishes

It’s no less a self-evident truth in Washington that Robert Seldon Lady must be protected from the long (Italian) arm of the law, that he is a patriot who did his duty, that it is the job of the U.S. government to keep him safe and never allow him to be prosecuted, just as it is the job of that government to protect, not prosecute, CIA torturers who took part in George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror.

So there are two men, both of whom, Washington is convinced, must be brought in: one to face “justice,” one to escape it.  And all of this is a given, nothing that needs to be explained or justified to anyone anywhere, not even by a Constitutional law professor president.  (Of course, if someone had been accused of kidnapping and rendering an American Christian fundamentalist preacher and terror suspect off the streets of Milan to Moscow or Tehran or Beijing, it would no less self-evidently be a different matter.)

Don’t make the mistake, however, of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 3:50 pm

In Colorado Fracking Invades Cities

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Phillip Doe reports at AlterNet:

Many people used to think serving on city council wasn’t worth a bucket of warm piss, as Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Garner, famously described his job.

Sewers, gutters, zoning, budgets, and taxation used to be the principal domain of city councils, with a little larceny thrown in now and then as reward—maybe a new driveway or remodeled bathroom from a favor-seeking contractor. In Colorado, city council members are sometimes paid a feeble $5,000 a year, but in smaller towns it may be nothing. Public service is its own reward.

Most people would rather watch an evening of “Survivor” reruns than go to a council meeting in their city. But no more. Not in Colorado since the invasion or threat of invasion by the oil industry into cities and towns up and down the Front Range. Colorado city council chambers now are flooded with citizens outraged by the regal indifference of the industry and their swarm of drones who are found at every level of local government, right up to the governor himself who bragged to Congress not long ago that fracking fluid was safe to drink. He knew because he had drunk some to no ill effect. This caused a local wag to proclaim, “the jury’s still out until somebody does an independent study of the guv’s brain function, ’cause there’s obviously some crazy chemistry working up there.”

The industry’s ace-in-the-hole is a mind-numbing determination by the Colorado Supreme Court back in 1992, Bowen/Edwards Associates, Inc. v. Board of County Commissioners of LaPlata that local citizen rights, including the rights of self-determination, are subservient to oil and gas mineral rights and profits. Many see the decision’s looking-glass logic as a full frontal attack on the rights of the governed and the constitutional guarantees associated with Colorado home rule cities and towns.

Chief among the court’s arguments was the proposition that for the state’s oil resources to be developed to their maximum, cities and towns couldn’t be allowed to establish their own set of rules. That might discourage development of the state’s resources reasoned the court. What these arithmetically challenged man and women in black didn’t account for is the fact that the cities and towns of Colorado, all of them, constitute less than 2 percent of the state’s land base. The other 98 percent is available and would seem to provide adequate opportunity for development, and exploitation.

The assault on the city of Greeley because of this court decision should be frightening to the citizens of every city that sits atop shale deposits. This includes Denver proper which has largely missed the debate up to now. Indeed, the limited open space available to the industry within cities will result in highly concentrated, heavy industrial, polluting, and environmentally exempt oil colonies, as Greeley’s experience reveals.

From the standpoint of local control and dispersed governmental powers, Colorado is a strong home rule state. The framers of the Colorado Constitution were strenuously opposed to monopoly capitalism, to concentrated wealth buying control of government. The railroad barons and oil trusts provided ready proof of the danger. Neither did the founding fathers trust centralized government. It could be too easily bought.

That is why, in Colorado, the water of the state is owned by the people, not the state. The framers thought the people would be harder to buy off. But even that control against monopoly interest hasn’t been entirely successful, as the courts and the legislature have been chipping away at the public’s greatest asset for years.

So when you read the 1992 opinion and compare it to the clear language of the state constitution one shouldn’t be totally surprised. The constitution says that the ordinances adopted by home rule cities “…shall supersede within the territorial limits and other jurisdiction of said city or town any law of the state in conflict therewith,” Colorado Constitution, Article XX, Section 6. That language seems pretty clear, at least to a non-judge.

Ironically it was the city of Greeley that first attempted to stop oil drilling inside its city limits under its home rule powers. The 1992 case is the result.

For the people of Greeley, that 1992 court decision has meant the presence of 426 wells within the city, but all are of the old, before horizontal fracking, variety. A total of 1,600 are rumored to be on the planning horizon, but only the industry knows. The state has no master plan, none is envisioned, and by virtue of the 1992 decision, the cities have little say.

The Greeley city council, despite the tearful reasoned arguments of concerned mothers and the untearful reasoned arguments of medical and science professionals, approved the drilling of 16 horizontal wells only 350 feet from homes in a development called Fox Run, and about 200 feet from some businesses, shown as Sheep Hollow on the location map. The new rules taking affect on August 1 will require a 500-foot setback from residences, with a 1,000-foot setback from hospitals, schools and high-density housing. But the early approval voids these new setback standards. . .

Continue reading. Now we see why South Americans feel as they do about oil companies.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 1:39 pm

What bankers talk about when they’re along

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They have great laughs about how they’re fleecing the suckers and getting a €7 billion loan that they know they won’t pay back: very funny indeed. The recording of the conversation—including some extraordinarily lame attempts at humor which nonetheless produce loads of guffaws—can be heard in a recording included with this story. I found via a link in Tana French’s interesting column in the NY Times:

FOR the past month, Ireland has been outraged bytapes of Anglo Irish Bank officials, back in 2008, discussing lying to the government about how big a loan they needed, and how they knew there was no chance that the loan would ever be repaid. That loan was the first domino in a sequence that ended with the whole Irish economy flat on its face.

It’s not the bankers’ actions that have outraged people — pretty much everyone had a fair idea that this was what had gone down. It’s the overpowering sense of amorality revealed on the recordings, which were released by the Irish Independent newspaper. The bankers have a great laugh about the situation. It genuinely never seems to mean anything to them that the taxpayer is going to be forced to pay their bills, to the tune of tens of billions. More than that: it never seems to occur to them that their actions might harm people.

I write psychological crime, so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about morality and amorality and what underlies them. And it seems to me that this amorality could be a symptom of something deeper: a total disconnect between action and consequence.

Ireland’s population is just over half that of New York City’s. Our ruling class — including many of the politicians, bankers and property developers who wrecked the economy — is a tiny community, interwoven by friendship, marriages, education, sports and financial transactions to a degree that would be unimaginable in a bigger country. That interweaving has created a safety net that won’t let any of the ruling elite fall. If you’re a banker and your golf buddy’s kid wants to be a banker, then it doesn’t matter if the kid is an idiot, or if he kills cats for kicks: you’ll take him on, and you’ll keep him on.

For many of these people, action and consequence don’t apply; their lives are mapped out from birth, and nothing they do will alter that map. It seems to me that that would be intensely disempowering, even terrifying. Instead of being a series of interlinked actions, life is made up of a scattering of events that have no discernible relationship to one another and that you don’t influence in any real way. In that climate, it would be difficult to develop the sense that your actions make any difference, that you have any responsibility for the consequences. Without cause and effect, there’s no foundation for morality.

I’m not saying this is an excuse. It isn’t. But, like everyone in Ireland, I want answers — for the taxes piled on taxes, for the enormous cuts to essential services, for the dole queues and the flood of emigration, for the desperation in the voices of people who are trapped in ghost estates and don’t have the money to buy their kids shoes. And I wonder if this could be one small facet of one of the answers.

Another question, maybe a more interesting one, is how people who weren’t part of that powerful elite got sucked into the property pyramid scheme that fueled the boom. Some commentators have implied that the answer is basically the same: people got deep into credit-card debt, or took out mortgages for 10 times their income, because they were temporarily sucked into the psychosis of the powerful and it didn’t occur to them that there might be consequences.

But I wonder if, for these people, the truth might actually be the opposite.

Throughout the economic boom, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 1:34 pm

Digby tears into Obama

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And rightly so. Please read it, though you’re likely to become furious at Obama if you’re one of the 4 out of 5 Americans in near-poverty and/or out of work.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 1:17 pm

JJ Cale live in an LA studio in 1979

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Via Open Culture, which provides context.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Jazz

401Ks are a disaster

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Duncan Black has a column in USA Today:

We need an across the board increase in Social Security retirement benefits of 20% or more. We need it to happen right now, even if that means raising taxes on high incomes or removing the salary cap in Social Security taxes.

Over the past few decades, employees fortunate enough to have employer-based retirement benefits have been shifted from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans. We are now seeing the results of that grand experiment, and they are frightening. Recent and near-retirees, the first major cohort of the 401(k) era, do not have nearly enough in retirement savings to even come close to maintaining their current lifestyles.

Frankly, that’s an optimistic way of putting it. Let me be alarmist for a moment, because the fact is the numbers are truly alarming. We should be worried that large numbers of people nearing retirement will be unable to keep their homes or continue to pay their rent.

According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the median household retirement account balance in 2010 for workers between the ages of 55-64 was just $120,000. For people expecting to retire at around age 65, and to live for another 15 years or more, this will provide for only a trivial supplement to Social Security benefits.

And that’s for people who actually have a retirement account of some kind. A third of households do not. For these people, their sole retirement income, aside from potential aid from friends and family, comes from Social Security, for which the current average monthly benefit is $1,230.

There are good proposals out there for improving the private aspect of our retirement system. Having employer-based 401(k) contributions be opt-out rather than opt-in is one such proposal. There are other commendable suggestions for ways to simplify personal financial management.

But none of these ideas will help people who are nearing retirement. Only the possibility of several decades of compound returns make the personal financing of retirement a realistic idea for most people; those with only a few working years left cannot benefit from this. Absent an unexpected windfall, such as lottery winnings or inheritances, most 60-year-olds lack any capacity to significantly increase their savings. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 12:52 pm

4 in 5 in US face poverty, no work

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The US has demonstrated what a government corrupted and controlled by moneyed interests can do to its citizens. Hope Yen reports for Associated Press:

Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor and loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.

The findings come as President Barack Obama tries to renew his administration’s emphasis on the economy, saying in recent speeches that his highest priority is to “rebuild ladders of opportunity” and reverse income inequality.

Hardship is particularly on the rise among whites, based on several measures. Pessimism among that racial group about their families’ economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987. In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy “poor.”

“I think it’s going to get worse,” said Irene Salyers, 52, of Buchanan County, Va., a declining coal region in Appalachia. Married and divorced three times, Salyers now helps run a fruit and vegetable stand with her boyfriend, but it doesn’t generate much income. They live mostly off government disability checks.

“If you do try to go apply for a job, they’re not hiring people, and they’re not paying that much to even go to work,” she said. Children, she said, have “nothing better to do than to get on drugs.”

While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in government data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.

The gauge defines “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.

“It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position,” said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor who specializes in race and poverty.

He noted that despite continuing economic difficulties, minorities have more optimism about the future after Obama’s election, while struggling whites do not.

“There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front,” Wilson said.

Sometimes termed “the invisible poor” by demographers, lower-income whites are generally . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 12:43 pm

Greenwald Claims Private Contractors Can Spy On Calls, Emails

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Just as we thought. Glenn Greenwald appeared on ABC News to make some new revelations. Evan McMurray has the story:

Following up on Edward Snowden’s earlier claim that he could wiretap anybody as a low-level defense contractor—a claim denied by NSA officials and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike RogersGlenn Greenwald appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos and claimed that his forthcoming reporting would prove exactly that.

“It’s an incredibly powerful and invasive tool,” Greenwald said of the program Snowden used, “exactly the type that Mr. Snowden described. NSA officials are going to be testifying before the Senate on Wednesday, and I defy them to deny that these programs work exactly as I’ve just said.”

Greenwald described the capabilities of the program, accessible not just by NSA officials but by low-level private contractors:

“The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and email in their databases. What these programs are are very simple screens, like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things: it searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered; and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or connected to that IP address do in the future. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”

Greenwald noted that while “there are legal constraints on how you can spy on Americans,” there’s nothing stopping, or even detecting, abuse of the program.

RELATED: Glenn Greenwald To Testify Before Congress On NSA Surveillance

“The real issue here is that what the NSA does is done in complete secrecy,” Greenwald said. “Nobody really monitors who they’re eavesdropping on. The question of abuse is one that the Congress ought to be investigating much more aggressively.”

Greenwald also pointed out that, if true, these allegations would make some under-oath statements from the likes of National Intelligence Director James Clapper untrue.

“One of the most amazing parts of this entire episode has been that top-level national security officials like James Clapper really did get caught lying red-handed to the American Congress about what the NSA is doing,” Greenwald said. “It’s amazing that he not only hasn’t been prosecuted, but he stil has his job. What that does is it lets national security officials continue to lie to the public.”

Watch the video.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 12:35 pm

Jorge Luis Borges on Samuel Johnson and James Boswell

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Interesting talk, reprinted in the New York Review of Books:

Dr. Johnson was already fifty years old. He had published his dictionary, for which he was paid 1,500 pounds sterling—which became 1,600 when his publishers decided to give him one hundred more—when he finished. He was slowing down. He then published his edition of Shakespeare, which he finished only because his publishers had received payments from subscribers, so it had to be done. Otherwise, Dr. Johnson spent his time engaged in conversation.

….The truth is, in spite of his numerous accomplishments, he had a natural tendency toward idleness. He preferred to talk rather than write. So, he worked only on that edition of Shakespeare, which was one of his last works, for he received complaints, and satirical responses, and this made him decide to finish the work, because the subscribers had already paid.

Johnson had a peculiar temperament. For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts. He was so interested in them that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one. Apparently, he didn’t. There’s a famous passage by the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, I think it is in his Sartor Resartus—which means “The Tailor Retailored,” or “The Mended Tailor,” and we’ll soon see why—in which he talks about Johnson, saying that Johnson wanted to see a ghost. And Carlyle wonders: “What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men.” Then Carlyle adds, “How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”

….Johnson was in a bookstore when he met a young man named James Boswell. This young man was born in Edinburgh in 1740 and died in the year 1795. He was the son of a judge. In Scotland, judges were given the title of Lord and could choose the place they wanted to be lord of. Boswell’s father had a small castle that was in ruins. Scotland is full of castles in ruins, poor castles in the Highlands of Scotland, and as opposed to the castles of the Rhine, which suggest an opulent life with small but more or less lavish courts, these don’t, they give the impression of a life of battle, of difficult battles against the English. The castle was called Auchinleck. Boswell’s father, then, was Lord Auchinleck and so was his son. But this wasn’t, let us say, a native title, from birth, but rather a judicial title. Now, even though Boswell showed an interest in letters, his parents wanted him to go into law. He studied in Edinburgh and then for more than two years at Utretcht University in Holland. This was customary at that time: to study at several universities, in the British Isles and on the continent.

It could be said that Boswell had a premonition of his destiny. Like Milton knew that he would be a poet before he had written a single line, Boswell always felt he would be the biographer of a great man of his era. So he visited Voltaire; he tried to approach the great men of his time. He visited Voltaire in Berne, in Switzerland, and he made friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau—they were friends for only fifteen or twenty days, because Rousseau was a very ill-tempered man—and then he became friends with an Italian general, Paoli, from Corsica. And when he returned to England, he wrote a book about Corsica, and at a party given in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the birth of Shakespeare, he showed up dressed as a Corsican villager. So that people would recognize him as the author of the book about Corsica, he carried a sign on his hat, on which he had written “Corsica’s Boswell,” and we know this because of his own testimony and that of his contemporaries.

There is something very strange about Boswell, something that has been interpreted in two different ways. I’m going to look at the two extreme views: the one of the English essayist and historian Macaulay, who wrote around the middle of the nineteenth century, and that of Bernard Shaw, written, I believe, around 1915, or something like that. Then there is a whole range of judgments between those two. Macaulay says . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Daily life

Grocery shopping done, cooking begins

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When I get back from the supermarket, I immediately cook up (for example) the greens: conserves space in the fridge. This time it is a large bunch of mustard greens and a smaller bunch of red chard. They also had some superior leeks, including one with a knobbed end, which I couldn’t resist. I halved that lengthwise and sliced it thinly—and the entire green part of the stalk turned out to be usable—and then sautéed it in olive oil with some salt and pepper, adding about 8-10 minced cloves of garlic toward the end of sautéing.

The I added water, a splash of red-wine vinegar, and the greens, rinsed and chopped fine. That’s cooking now and will be chilled. I’ve been enjoying beans and rice (black beans, currently), but I don’t like a meal without greens, so now I layer in my bowl: greens (bottom), beans, rice. I zap that for 2 minutes in the microwave to heat it, then add some chopped red onion and pepper sauce, sometimes a little dash of soy sauce.

Once that’s done, I have a head of cauliflower that I’ll steam for 20 minutes or so, then mash with butter, lemon pepper, lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a little sour cream. That will also go into the fridge for later.

Next is a new batch of pepper sauce: lots of red jalapeños (so it said, though they sure look like red Fresnos to me), a dozen habaneros, some Serranos, a dozen dried chipotles, and couple of dried Anchos. Cut off the stems, put into a blender, add white vinegar and 1/3 c salt, blend, simmer for 20-30 minutes, let cool the same amount of time, blend again, and bottle.

Finally, I’m also making Cucumber Salad with Tahini Dressing, and I did get all the ingredients.

That’ll hold us for a while.

UPDATE: Pepper sauce has been made—2 qts—and is now bottled. The peppers were particularly fresh and healthy. The mix is as described above, but I also added about  1/4 cup fish sauce and a good slug of olive oil. Had to go out to buy white vinegar—I discovered I was out—but walking to and from the supermarket worked as my 20-minute walk. This batch looks quite good.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 11:54 am

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

California Inmate Dies In Solitary Confinement During Hunger Strike

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Aviva Shen writes at ThinkProgress:

A man being held in solitary confinement has died at one of the California state prisons where thousands of inmates are refusing foodto protest the practice of indefinite solitary confinement. Prison officials are insisting Billy “Guero” Sell was not part of the hunger strike when he died. Advocates and inmates, however, say that he was not only participating but had requested medical treatment for several days before his death.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation maintain that Sell’s death is being investigated as a suicide, unrelated to the hunger strike. Inmates rejected this explanation, saying a suicide would be “completely out of character for him.” According to a letter from hunger strikers, several men said, “No one believes he killed himself.”

The hunger strike began with 30,000 individuals on July 8 and has dwindled to about 1,000 participants in 11 prisons. Prison infirmaries have been swamped with fasting inmates in critical condition.

Prison officials have undercounted hunger strikers by not including inmates who are still drinking electrolytes like Kool-Aid or tea. Additionally, leaders of the movement have been rounded up and put in more severe solitary confinement. Lawyers and relatives of the strikers say they have received multiple letters from different inmates reporting that prisons are blasting their cells with cold air in an attempt to weaken their resolve.

At Pelican Bay, California’s maximum security prison, many inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 10 to 28 years — even though the psychological trauma of being locked in a windowless room for 23 hours a day begins to kick in after just ten days.. Officials often justify this “living death,” by using race or political reading materials as evidence the confined inmate may have a “gang affiliation.” Mentally ill prisoners also make up a substantial proportion of solitary cells in several states. In their third hunger strike since 2011, inmates are calling for an end to solitary confinement, a more humane review process for inmate punishment, as well as access to health care and education.

The use of long-term solitary confinement is completely inhumane.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Government, Law

Prison nation: Some shrinkage, unlikely to last

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An interesting look at the American prison industry—incarcertaing people for profit. One interesting point that is sometimes difficult to understand: the prison population has grown much faster than the overall population. Some recognize that we have an increasing number of prisoners and attribute that simply to the fact that we have an increasing number of citizens, but that’s not it. If you look at the number incarcerated per capita, that has increased rapidly. That is, we are locking up out citizens faster than the population is growing. This chart from the article tells the story:


The Washington Post article by Mike Konczal begins:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics on Thursday released its count of the number of prisoners in the country. There are 1,571,013 individuals under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities. However, that number represents a decline, having fallen 1.7 percent since last year — the third consecutive annual drop and the largest of the three. This multi-year falling trend is also true if you consider everyone in the correctional system, or the nearly 7 million people you get when you include local jails, probation and parole. This is after decades of rapidly expanding prisoner populations in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s leading provider of private, for-profit prisons, had a happy announcement in a recent PowerPoint presentation: State budgets will soon be no longer in crisis. One must imagine that CCA shareholders who are U.S. residents were excited that school budgets would no longer be slashed, public services more broadly would no longer be cut, and the dangerous state-level austerity holding back the economy would no longer be an issue. But the real excitement was over the idea that states could finally start arresting people again, thus filling the depleted ranks of the incarcerated.

Liberals debate the longer-term consequences of the past five years all the time. Is the financial sector well-regulated again? Did we roll back the expansive executive authority of the War on Terror, or solidify it? Did we invest enough in infrastructure when interest rates were at all-time lows? But a major question is still open for debate: Did collapse of state budgets during the Great Recession put us on a permanent path to rolling back the United States’ high levels of incarceration?

On the first pass, the answer should be an obvious yes. States really did have a financial crisis. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities records, total state budget shortfalls topped $100 billion dollars for each year from 2009 to 2012, with a $191 billion-dollar gap in 2010. States were looking for places to cut, and their prison budgets had grown at a rapid clip.

But a provocative paper from 2009 argued that we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that austerity would lead to a less punitive justice system. In  “Cell blocks & red ink: mass incarceration, the great recession & penal reform” (an earlier, ungated version here), University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marie Gottschalk argued that the Great Recession itself could make it harder to fix our criminal justice system, easily outweighing any advantages a budget gap would give reformers.

Citizens experiencing uncertainty over their economic future and facing huge dislocations might demand more, rather than less, security and control. Thus, economic insecurity may lead to even more scapegoating of specific populations and a subsequent jump in demand for punitive policies targeting those groups. Civil unrest that comes with economic distress can cause governments to conflate crime and social protests [cf. designating protestors as “terrorists,” which under the Patriot Act allows locking them up indefinitely with no charges filed – LG], which gives the state an opportunity to expand its law-and-order infrastructure. We may even see a version of “penal Keynesianism,” where well-entrenched public-sector prison guard unions and private-prison shareholders fight to keep the status quo, arguing that the prison sector is synonymous with economic health and jobs. [That is quite evident in California—the power of the correctional officers union and the lobbyists for private prisons is considerable. – LG] Also worth mentioning is the idea that reducing the penal population might require spending more in the short term in order to do it right, which states are not in a position to do.

Yet we’ve seen declines, and those declines may continue. What has happened? As Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told me: “There’s no question the recession had an impact. But it’s a little too simplistic to say it is the main or driving force. The groundwork for this transformation has been laid over the past 10 to 12 years.” [He might have mentioned the abatement of lead in the environment, a major factor. – LG]

It’s worth contemplating, with the help of the following two graphs, how extensive incarceration is in this country. Take the first one, which shows several countries and the United States over the past few decades (data: herehere). We have by far, the largest population, and it happened in the past 30 years: . . .

Continue reading.

Oddly, the author makes no mention of the well-established finding that conclusively shows that the abatement of environmental lead was the cause of a marked decline in violent crime and criminal behavior. This should have been mentioned in the decline since the time leaded gasoline was discontinued and efforts were made to strip lead from the environment (in paints, for example).

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 9:48 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

The Quantification of Everything

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Some very interesting books. I read The Evolution of Cooperation years ago, and it’s a terrific book. I was pleased that the winner of both competitions in the book was a program created by Anatol Rappoport, author of Operational Philosophy, a book that I read in high school and is still quite intriguing. The person interviewed is Vlatko Vedral:

Vlatko Vedral is Professor of Quantum Information Theory at the Universities of Oxford and Singapore. He has published over 100 research papers in quantum mechanics and quantum information and was awarded the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award in 2007. He has held a Professorship at Leeds, visiting professorships in Vienna and Singapore (NUS) and at Perimeter Institute in Canada. He is the author of Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information.

The interview begins:

Your first book is Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality? by Alastair Rae.

This is a completely popular book about quantum physics: there is not a single equation in there, I think. What he does is to go through all the major ways in which we try to understand quantum physics, all the major interpretations. It’s extremely good in that he writes in a very objective way and it’s very difficult to tell which one he supports. It’s very passionately argued as well, and it’s a beautiful exposition, very philosophical. I think it’s the best, probably my favourite, popular account of all the things we argue about on the fundamental side of quantum physics.

There are all kinds of strange views on what quantum physics actually is.

Right. There are connections with religion, then there are extremes saying it’s all in the mind: basically that nothing becomes real until we measure it and look at it and consciously record it. On the other side there is a point of view that it’s as real as anything else, out there independently of us and so on. He talks about these two extreme views and what quantum physics tells us about this very old question: whether the world is ideal or real.

Does he resolve it?

He really leaves it open because, to be completely honest about these issues, I don’t think we have something that’s universally accepted as the view: each has lots of positive points but also something that makes it a not completely plausible view to hold. That’s a really nice book.

Your second book?

The Ghost in the Atom. This was actually a sequence of radio interviews recorded by Paul Davies, who’s probably the best populariser of physics we have.

He’s the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence guy?

Right. He’s written a book about that as well. I think in the 70s/80s he conducted a set of radio interviews with about 10 of the leading physicists of the time. And the spirit is similar to the previous book in that it’s all to do with how we understand the unusual phenomena in quantum physics. The book is written as a dialogue – Davies asks a question and then the interviewee answers – and I would say this format is a much more exciting read than typical prose where someone exposes something. It also goes into personal issues, which you usually don’t get in these books, in that he asks each person about how they got engaged, when did they first learn about quantum mechanics, how did they learn it? It’s really fantastic, an amazing read.

To whom does he speak?

People like John Bell, who came up with Bell’s Inequality, which was one way of quantifying the weirdness in quantum mechanics; then David Bond who has one of those interpretations that tries to retain, I would say, some kind of reality in quantum mechanics, arguing that the world is still as real as it was in a Newtonian kind of framework. Davies chose a person to represent each of these points of view, and it’s really interesting how the interview is conducted and then where it leads – how different people end up in completely different parts of quantum physics, and what they find exciting, and so on.

Does it lead you to believe that maybe people go into quantum physics to prove an idea that they’ve already had?

That’s an interesting point. It’s difficult to tell what comes prior to what, right? In a way we do have these inner feelings, all of us, as to what we think the world should be like. And we usually carry this prejudice with us into our research as well, so it’s not clear whether you come with a prejudice and then you’re trying to use this theory to confirm what you already thought the world was like prior to that. In this kind of interview it’s easy to expose these kinds of things: you can see that people started with some ideas and then maybe changed them or didn’t change them as they did research.

All these unifying theories that quantum mechanics proves, seem to have already been posited in literature or religion or whatever. 

Yes, I don’t think there is anything really distinctly novel that was brought there philosophically by quantum mechanics. The key tenet I would say is this randomness that is at the core of our interaction with the world: there is an element that you can never make more deterministic. And, of course, randomness as a way of looking at the world existed for a long time. If you go back to the ancient Greeks I think you will see a spectrum of all of these world views already present there.

Your next book? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 9:29 am

Posted in Science

Tagged with

Cool Tool (for Windows users): TouchFreeze

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This I would have gotten in a heartbeat if I still used a Windows machine with a touchpad. And it’s free.

Technology to help fix technology.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2013 at 9:18 am

Posted in Software

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