Later On

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

Archive for August 1st, 2013

Why It Took Public Outcry for Congress to Act on NSA Surveillance

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This post by Philip Bump explains exactly why the government should avoid secrecy whenever possible, and to err on the side of transparency.

Read it. It explains why what Edward Snowden did was absolutely essential.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 2:29 pm

The 100 Best Sci-Fi Stories by Women Writers (Read 20 for Free Online)

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Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Books, Science fiction

Congress told of NSA surveillance years ago

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Adam Sewer posts at MSNBC:

. . . A spokesperson for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, told MSNBC that the declassified reports posted online Wednesday were the same ones referred to in the letters.

The reports affirm that the current backlash in Congress is a product of public knowledge of the programs. Some legislators, like Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, had been making public statements for years that hinted at information members of Congress were being told in private. Legislators who say they were ignorant about how the authorities were being used prior to the revelations effectively made a choice not to be informed. They then voted to reauthorize these laws without knowing what they actually did. Those legislators who were exercising their oversight responsibilities and were concerned about surveillance couldn’t inform the public in detail about what was happening. Far from affirming the Obama administration’s insistence that congressional oversight serves as a key check on executive branch authority, it mostly raises the question of whether effective oversight can be conducted in secret.

The reports prove that absent former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks to The Guardian and the Washington Post that sparked the controversy, the current debate over surveillance powers wouldn’t even be happening. As long as the information was secret, legislators could renew these authorities without having to worry about a public backlash. It was only the leaks that spurred Congress into doing its job. That leaves legislators pushing to curtail government surveillance powers in the awkward position of owing their political momentum to a man the Obama administration wants extradited and prosecuted for espionage.

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 2:16 pm

Useful info re: splinters

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Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 2.10.48 PM

The above is from this post.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Daily life

Uruguay Poised To Become First Country To Legalize Marijuana

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Nicole Flatow writes at ThinkProgress:

The Uruguay legislature took a key step toward becoming the first country to legalize marijuana late Wednesday. In a move aimed at curbing violence from the illicit drug market, the country’s lower house passed a bill to legalize the sale, distribution, and production of marijuana. Possession of all drugs is already legal in Uruguay.

The bill will now go before the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily. The proposal would license sellers, distributors, and even individual growers of marijuana. Users could access marijuana in one of three ways: they could grow up to six plants on their own with a license, join a licensed growing cooperative with up to 45 members, or obtain it from a licensed pharmacy. While private companies can grow marijuana, only the government will distribute it through its licensed pharmacies. The bill prohibits sales to minors, driving under the influence, and advertising. Uruguay President José Mujica has been a major force behind the bill, arguing that it will “spoil” the black market by selling it a lot cheaper.

If the proposal becomes law, Uruguay, a small country with a population of 3.3 million, would be the first country to create a legal, regulated marijuana industry. The ballot initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington envision similar systems (albeit with private rather than government-run dispensaries), but these laws hang under the cloud of a federal ban on marijuana. Other countries have loosened criminal punishment on drugs in varying ways. In the Netherlands, for example, marijuana is illegal, but the country has implemented a tolerance policy for small-scale possession and sale via licensed “coffee shops,” while cultivation and supply are unprotected. Portugal abolished criminal penalties for possession of all drugs in 2001, and refers those arrested for addiction assessment. Possession has been decriminalized in several other Latin American countries, including ColombiaArgentina, and Ecuador.

Uruguay’s move comes as Latin American leaders increasingly move toward alternatives to the failed War on Drugs. At the request of several Latin American leaders, the United Nations will hold a summit on new approaches to international drug policy. In proposing the summit to the UN in September, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderon questioned the U.S.-led war on drugs, and said the UN should lead a debate over a “less prohibitionist” approach. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said during the meeting that it is the UN’s duty to “determine – on an objective scientific basis – if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge.” He also said that Colombia would be open to legalization if other countries were to also do so, and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has outright endorsed legalization in the past. A recent report by major Western Hemisphere nationstouted the potential benefits of drug decriminalization and/or legalization. Uruguay President Jose Mujica has been behind his country’s legalization proposal since its inception.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has recently become an outspoken proponent for U.S. marijuana legalization, recognizing that U.S. prohibition has a major impact on demand for drugs supplied by Latin American countries.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Drug laws, Government, Law

Muscular baby

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Here’s the background, by Gina Kolata at the NY Times:

The moment the little boy was born, the hospital staff knew there was something unusual about him. His muscles looked nothing like the soft baby muscles of the other infants in the nursery. They were bulging and well defined, especially in his thighs and upper arms.

”Everybody noticed,” said Dr. Markus Schuelke, a pediatric neurologist at Charité University Medical Center in Berlin.

The baby, it turned out in the first such documented case in a human, had a double dose of a genetic mutation that causes immense strength in mice and cattle. Drugs are under development that, investigators hope, will use the same principle to help people whose muscles are wasting from muscular dystrophy or other illnesses. Experts say the little boy, now 4 1/2 and still very strong, offers human evidence for the theory behind such drugs.

The boy’s story, written by Dr. Schuelke and colleagues, appears today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

At the baby’s birth, Dr. Schuelke said, his doctors were worried. The infant was jittery, jerking his limbs, much the way people sometimes involuntarily jerk their legs when they are falling asleep.

”At first we thought it might be epilepsy,” Dr. Schuelke said.

After two months, the jerking movements had subsided, but the puzzle of the baby’s muscles remained. Then Dr. Schuelke had an idea. He knew that Dr. Se-Jin Lee at Johns Hopkins University, working with mice, had found that when both copies of a gene for a protein called myostatin were inactivated, the animals grew up lean and so muscular that Dr. Lee called them ”mighty mice.”

It turned out that cattle breeders, decades ago, had stumbled upon the same genetic trick, developing a strain known as Belgian Blue, or double muscle cattle. The cattle are hefty, very meaty and lean, and they, too, researchers later found, had inactive myostatin genes.

”We had a big discussion about what to do,” Dr. Schuelke said. ”We remembered the mighty mice and the Belgian Blue cattle. This child looked like that.”

The child’s mother was strong — she had been a professional sprinter in the 100-meter dash — and she came from a strong family. Her grandfather, a construction worker, had unloaded curbstones by hand, hefting stones weighing at least 330 pounds. (There was no information on the baby’s father.)

So Dr. Schuelke and his colleagues decided to test the baby and his mother for mutations in the myostatin gene. The mother had one nonfunctioning copy of the gene. In the boy, both copies of the gene were inactive; he was making no myostatin at all. No other family members agreed to genetic testing.

The findings, researchers say, may help scientists pin down why some people find it easy to get strong while others can lift weights day after day to little effect. At least some of this natural variation, they suspect, may be a result of individual differences in myostatin levels. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

Be careful what you wish Google for.

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UPDATE:  Philip Bump at Atlantic Wire also has a comment. Thank God NSA has assured us that it doesn’t look at what Americans are doing on-line. What if they were?

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones—and click the links in his post to read her full account:

Doug Mataconis passes along a blog post from Michele Catalano about a recent visit her family got from six agents belonging to a joint terrorism task force. It turns out that she had been googling for pressure cookers, her husband had been googling for backpacks, and her son had been googling for news about the Boston bombings. This raised some red flags and produced the JTTF visit. Mataconis comments:

As Catalano notes in her post, as well as in several Tweets regarding the incident collected by Gizmodo, the agents were respectful of her family and didn’t disturb the house in any significant way while conducting their “search.”….Nonetheless, it does raise some interesting questions about exactly what kind of Internet surveillance is going on out there. Quite obviously, the FBI would not have shown up at the Catalano home if some connection had not been made between Google searches conducted several weeks in the past, their IP address, and eventually their home address. On a basic level, this would seem to require; (1) that there is a program out there monitoring seemingly random Google searches by American citizens, (2) that this program allows the government to track IP addresses, or obtain them from Google by some means, and (3) that they were then able to connect the IP address to a home address, presumably with information obtained from whichever company happens to provide the Catalano’s with their internet access.

All of this raises several legal questions, of course. For example, under what legal authority is the Federal Government monitoring the Google searches/Internet activity of American citizens, presumably without a warrant?….More important, though, is how the FBI managed to get its hands on this information and on the Catalano’s home address. Was there a FISA warrant issued?….Was there any warrant issued at all?

Why yes, those are good questions! They’re especially good since the agents told Catalano’s husband that they make about 100 visits like this each week. Inquiring minds would like to know more.

The family should be glad that the FBI didn’t shoot them to death during the interview.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Temperature data for the Earth, 1860-2011

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See whether you can detect signs of global warming:

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Global warming, Video

15 sorting algorithms visualized in 6 minutes

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I actually wrote a similar visualization, though only for bubble sort, shell sort, and quick sort. This was in Forth and I filled the (old, fixed-font) screen on the IBM PC with random characters and sorted those. It was interesting to watch because you could see how the sorts worked, more or less.

At the YouTube site, this info:

Visualization and “audibilization” of 15 Sorting Algorithms in 6 Minutes.

Sorts random shuffles of integers, with both speed and the number of items adapted to each algorithm’s complexity.

The algorithms are:

  1. selection sort,
  2. insertion sort,
  3. quick sort,
  4. merge sort,
  5. heap sort,
  6. radix sort (LSD),
  7. radix sort (MSD),
  8. std::sort (intro sort),
  9. std::stable_sort (adaptive merge sort),
  10. shell sort,
  11. bubble sort,
  12. cocktail shaker sort,
  13. gnome sort,
  14. bitonic sort and
  15. bogo sort (30 seconds of it).

More information on the “Sound of Sorting” at…

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Math, Science, Video

Afghanistan: If a White House Report on a Massacre isn’t Released, did the Massacre Happen?

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Juan Cole posts a ProPublica report by Cora Currier on our secretive and non-responsive government:

Soon after taking office, President Obama pledged to open a new inquiry into the deaths of perhaps thousands of Taliban prisoners of war at the hands of U.S.-allied Afghan fighters in late 2001.

Last month, the White House told ProPublica it was still “looking into” the apparent massacre.

Now it says it has concluded its investigation – but won’t make it public.

The investigation found that no U.S. personnel were involved, said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. Other than that, she said, there is “no plan to release anything.”

The silence leaves many unanswered questions about what may have been one of the worst war crimes since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, including why previous American investigations were shut down, and how evidence was destroyed in the case.

“This is not a sufficient answer given the magnitude of what happened here,”said Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy for Physicians for Human Rights, the organization that originally uncovered mass graves where the prisoners were buried.

The long saga began in November 2001, when Taliban prisoners who had surrendered to Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum were transported in shipping containers without food or water. According toeyewitness accounts and forensic work by human rights investigators, hundreds of men died of suffocation while others were shot, and their bodies buried at the desert site of Dasht-i-Leili.

Dostum was working closely with U.S. troops at the time. Surviving prisoners alleged that Americans were present at the loading of the containers – but the Pentagon has said repeatedly that it had no evidence that U.S. forces participated or were even aware of the deaths. (Dostum has denied any personal involvement, and claims that roughly 200 men died in transit, from battlefield wounds.)

In the fall of 2002, the U.S., U.N., and even Dostum himself expressed support for an investigation. But none got underway. In the summer of 2009, prompted by a New York Times report that Bush administration officials had actively discouraged U.S. investigations, President Obama ordered a new review of the case.

Hayden, the White House spokeswoman, said the new investigation “was led by the intelligence community,” and found that no Americans – including CIA officers, who were also in the region – were involved.

She declined to answer the following lingering questions: . . .

Continue reading.

This is the sort of response one expects from a government like the Soviet Union. But the US has taken a bad turn and I see few signs that it’s getting better. “Transparency,” my ass.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 11:29 am

States Won’t Look Into Why an FBI Agent Shot Ibragim Todashev

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Apparently the FBI will investigate itself—with predictable results, I’d say. Virtually every FBI shooting that has been investigated by the FBI finds that the FBI agent was justified in the shooting. They might as well let the agent involved investigate himself. Their findings will have zero credibility.

Margaret Hartmann writes in New York:

Two months after an FBI agent fatally shot Ibragim Todashev while interrogating him about his connection to Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it’s still unclear if the 27-year-old lunged at the agent with a metal pole, a broomstick, a samurai sword, or was completely unarmed. (And it doesn’t help that the FBI barred Florida’s medical examiner from releasing the cause of death.) Todashev’s friends and family, along with the ACLU and the Council on American Islamic Relations,demanded an independent investigation, but now officials in both Florida and Massachusetts have refused to look into the matter.

Though local police were at the scene, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said last week that the shooting happened outside of her jurisdiction. On Wednesday, Gerald M. Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said in a letter to the ACLU of Florida that his state can’t investigate Todashev’s killing either. “This is an active federal investigation,” said Bailey. “It would be inappropriate for FDLE to intervene.”

“Secrecy fosters suspicion, and the people of Florida deserve better than to be left without an explanation from their government about what led to a person being shot to death,” ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon responded. The Boston Globe notes that independent inquiries into shootings by the FBI aren’t unprecedented. After an FBI agent shot a Detroit imam in 2009, both the Michigan attorney general and the Dearborn police investigated, and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The FBI is already investigating the incident, but the civil liberties groups say their findings can’t be trusted. The FBI has been extremely secretive about the circumstances of Todashev’s death, and the New York Times reportedrecently that over the last twenty years, the agency’s internal investigations found that every shooting by its agents was justified.

The fact that the FBI barred the medical examiner from releasing the cause of death immediately raises questions (and suspicions). Clearly the FBI is hiding things—the medical examiner’s report, for one. I think the idea is to try to stretch out the “investigation” (surely not all that complicated, with multiple witnesses in the room) until the story is forgotten.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 11:17 am

NSA’s Massive Call Record Surveillance Program Accomplishes Little

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Kevin Drum points out that NSA has wasted TONS of taxpayer money building a surveillance state that simply has failed to deliver:

So how effective is the NSA’s massive program to collect call records for every phone call made in the United States? Today they told us:

John C. Inglis, the deputy director of the N.S.A., said there had been 13 investigations in which the domestic call tracking program made a “contribution.” He cited two discoveries: that several men in San Diego were sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia, and that a suspect who was already under scrutiny in a subway bomb plot was using a different phone.

Assuming generously that we’re talking only about the program’s current incarnation, which dates from 2006, that’s about two investigations per year in which it made a “contribution.” And if the two plots they’re willing to talk about are typical, those contributions are pretty damn meager.

If the call record program were stopping 9/11-style events, or jumbo jets being brought down over the Atlantic, we might all hold our noses and decide that the loss of privacy and the cost of the program was worth it. But for two modest “contributions” per year? That doesn’t really sound like a hard call.

And the 54 or 134 (or whatever) plots discovered and disrupted? More false statements from the NSA. It seems that we should not believe any statement from the NSA until and unless it is independently verified. Their routine practice is to lie.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 11:11 am

Will a sheep’s wool stop growing at some point?

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Apparently not. The guy above didn’t want to be sheared, so for a few years he would hide in a cave at shearing time.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 11:04 am

Posted in Daily life

Another tiny-brush shave

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SOTD 1 Aug 2013

In addition to the boar+badger 11047, Omega makes a baby badger brush (not, I hasten to add, a baby-badger brush), with a knot somewhat larger (in terms of bloom) and coarser than the Wee Scot. The Wee Scot uses extremely fine badger hair: along the lines of the proverbial frog’s hair.

The small Omega badger has ample capacity: load o’ lather for three or more passes. And the lather really was quite good: I used the Vanilla/Eucalyptus/Mint Shaving Soap from, the same company that made yesterday’s tiny sample puck. The fragrance is light but quite pleasant and the lather, as noted, was excellent.

Three passes with my iKon open-comb—their second model, in fact—holding a previously used Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade. I had the razor gold–plated after using it a while, partly to test out plating services. A BBS result after three quite pleasant passes, then a good splash of Paul Sebastian aftershave, and the day begins. Overmorrow is Saturday, and I’m looking forward to it.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2013 at 10:16 am

Posted in Shaving

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