Later On

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Archive for August 8th, 2013

Another look at Michael Hastings’s death

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Christian Stork reports at

At the time of his death in a mysterious one-car crash and explosion, journalist Michael Hastings was researching a story that threatened to expose powerful entities and government-connected figures. That story intersected with the work of two controversial government critics—the hacker Barrett Brown and the on-the-run surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Any probe into Hastings’s untimely death needs to take into account this complex but essential background.

But First, the Raw Facts

A little over 12 hours before his car was incinerated on an LA straightaway on June 18, 2013, Hastings sent out a short email headed, “FBI Investigation, re: NSA.” In it, he said that the FBI had been interviewing his “close friends and associates,” and advised the recipients — including colleagues at the website Buzzfeed — “[It] may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news-gathering practices or related journalism issues.” He added, “I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radat [sic] for a bit.”

From: Michael Hastings

Date: Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 12:56 PM

Subject: FBI Investigation, re: NSA


Hey [5 REDACTED WORDS] the Feds are interviewing my “close friends and associates.” Perhaps if the authorities arrive “Buzzfeed GQ”, er HQ, may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news-gathering practices or related journalism issues.

Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radat for a bit.

All the best, and hope to see you all soon.


The next day, Hastings went “off the radar” permanently.

Here is a video that shows a lateral view of Hastings’s speeding car just before it crashed.  (It shows at about 0.07.)

Following publication of the email by KTLA, the FBI quickly denied that the Bureau was ever investigating Hastings.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation and ProjectPM — the research wiki that Brown was involved with — are in the process of filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn if indeed Hastings was the subject of an FBI probe.

The FBI denial notwithstanding, a number of clues indicate that the proximity of Hastings to Brown and the work of ProjectPM may have been what spawned the purported investigation in the first place.

Deep Background

When the FBI raided the Dallas home of journalist Barrett Brown in March 2012, the travails of the Vanity Fair and Guardian contributor didn’t get much ink — that is, until Michael Hastings published an exclusive on the Brown raid on Buzzfeed.

The story included a copy of the search warrant that revealed why the government was so interested in Brown: Along with colleagues at the research wiki he started, ProjectPM (PPM), Brown was looking into a legion of shadowy cybersecurity firms whose work for the government raised all sorts of questions about privacy and the rule of law.

Since Hastings was familiar with the government contractors listed in the search warrant, he was also potentially culpable in whatever “crimes” the feds believed Brown and PPM were guilty of. Is this why he was being investigated in the days before his fatal crash on June 18, 2013?  By then, Hastings had established a reputation as a fearless muckraker, whose stories often stripped the haloes from the powerful and well-connected:

–       The besmirched “runaway” Special Forces general Stanley McChrystal, whose career Hastings had dispatched in a 2010 article forRolling Stone

–       The saintly General “King” David Petraeus—former commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

–       Daniel Saunders—a former assistant US attorney for the Central District of California

–       Former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, with whose staff Michael had many pointed exchanges regarding State’s Benghazi spin.

“To Maintain and Cultivate an Enemies List”

In his profile on the blogging consortium True/Slant, Hastings confided that his “secret ambition” was “to maintain and cultivate an enemies list.” Such ironic distancing was Hastings’s way of making palatable an inherently cynical view of the world.  He knew that power corrupted, and to effect change it was necessary to point out the Emperor’s glaringly naked flesh.

In this manner, he was much like his blogging colleague at True/Slant, Barrett Brown. So much so, in fact, that the latter approached Hastings to work on a project that would change the way the public viewed the murky world of intelligence contracting in the post-9/11 era.

For those unfamiliar with Brown’s tale, WhoWhatWhy has beenchronicling his trials since February 2013.  He is currently in federal custody in Ft. Worth, Texas, facingover a hundred years behind bars for researching 70,000 hacked emails obtained from the cybersecurity firm HBGary Federal and its parent company HBGary. At no point is the government alleging he was involved in the hack itself. His putative “crime” is doing what investigative reporters are supposed to do: digging for the truth about breaches of the public trust.

To do this, Brown pioneered a collaborative wiki where researchers and journalists could sift through these emails and create an encyclopedia from the information contained within. This was known as ProjectPM (PPM).

In 2009, Brown invited Hastings to join forces on PPM, but Hastings’s interest was tempered by other commitments. When the two spoke next, Hastings told Brown he was working on something big.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 11:08 am

Posted in Government, Media

Industry wrote provision that undercuts credit-rating overhaul

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Again we see Congress as a pawn of big corporations. I suppose this will get worse as the US continues its decline. Greg Gordon reports for McClatchy

Moments before the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to overhaul the credit ratings industry seven years ago, Republican and Democratic sponsors took turns touting its promise for ending an entrenched oligopoly.

The bill, they said, should break the viselike dominance of three agencies – Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, Moody’s Investors Service and the smaller Fitch Ratings – in an industry that serves as a crucial watchdog over the nation’s financial system.

What’s escaped public scrutiny until now, however, is that the law’s tough criteria defining when a newcomer could join the industry weren’t written by Congress. They were crafted by a yet-to-be-identified official of one of the big three ratings agencies, a former aide to the Senate Banking Committee has told McClatchy.

Experts and the heads of unregistered ratings firms worry that congressional staffers, in seeking help to ensure that fly-by-night companies couldn’t win federal approval, inadvertently let the fox into the coop.

The industry-written criteria, they say, weakened a law meant to spur competition in the estimation of the default risks of bonds and other securities. Those ratings, ranging from AAA to C, often guide investments by pension funds, foundations, insurers and other institutions.

While a handful of new firms have registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as “nationally recognized” ratings agencies, competition has increased only modestly since the 2006 law was enacted.

The criteria have prevented at least one potential competitor from winning approval and have dissuaded others from even applying, the critics say.

Despite a barrage of criticism over their behavior, the three firms issued 97 percent of all ratings in the 12 months that ended in June 2011, according to the SEC’s most recent publicly available data.

Perhaps most importantly, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 11:00 am

Posted in Business, Congress

The Surveillance Reforms Obama Supported Before He Was President

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It’s difficult to maintain respect for President Obama: he seems to have no principle that he will not compromise or abandon in the face of opposition. At ProPublica Kara Brandeisky takes a look at the reversals Obama has exhibited in the sphere of surveillance:

When the House of Representatives recently considered an amendment that would have dismantled the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program, the White House swiftly condemned the measure. But only five years ago, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. was part of a group of legislators that supported substantial changes to NSA surveillance programs. Here are some of the proposals the president co-sponsored as a senator.

As a senator, Obama wanted to limit bulk records collection.

Obama co-sponsored a 2007 bill, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have required the government to demonstrate, with “specific and articulable facts,” that it wanted records related to “a suspected agent of a foreign power” or the records of people with one degree of separation from a suspect. The bill died in committee. Following pressure from the Bush administration, lawmakers had abandoned a similar 2005 measure, which Obama also supported.

We now know the Obama administration has sought, and obtained, the phone records belonging to all Verizon Business Network Services subscribers (and reportedly, Sprint and AT&T subscribers, as well). Once the NSA has the database, analysts search through the phone records and look at people with two or three degrees of separation from suspected terrorists.

The measure Obama supported in 2007 is actually similar to the House amendmentthat the White House condemned earlier this month. That measure, introduced by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., would have ended bulk phone records collection but still allowed the NSA to collect records related to individual suspects without a warrant based on probable cause.

The 2007 measure is also similar to current proposals introduced by Conyers and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

As a senator, Obama wanted to require government analysts to get court approval before accessing incidentally collected American data.

In Feb. 2008, Obama co-sponsored an amendment, also introduced by Feingold, which would have further limited the ability of the government to collect any communications to or from people residing in the U.S. 

The measure would have also required government analysts to segregate all incidentally collected American communications. If analysts wanted to access those communications, they would have needed to apply for individualized surveillance court approval.

The amendment failed 35-63. Obama later reversed his position and supported what became the law now known to authorize the PRISM program. That legislation — the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 — also granted immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government on surveillance.

The law ensured the government would not need a court order to collect data from foreigners residing outside the United States. According to the Washington Post, analysts are told that they can compel companies to turn over communications if they are 51 percent certain the data belongs to foreigners.

Powerpoint presentation slides published by the Guardian indicate that when analysts use XKeyscore — the software the NSA uses to sift through huge amounts of raw internet data — they must first justify why they have reason to believe communications are foreign. Analysts can select from rationales available in dropdown menus and then read the communications without court or supervisor approval.

Finally, analysts do not need court approval to look at previously-collected bulk metadata either, even domestic metadata. Instead, the NSA limits access to incidentally collected American data according to its own “minimization” procedures. A leaked 2009 document said that analysts only needed permission from their “shift coordinators” to access previously-collected phone records. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., has introduced a bill that would require analysts to get special court approval to search through telephone metadata.

As a senator, Obama wanted the executive branch to report to Congress how many American communications had been swept up during surveillance. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:56 am

In 2011, 1 in 25 Americans was arrested

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It stuns me to read that in the course of a single year, 4% of the US population was arrested. Natasha Lennard reports in Salon:

According to new statistics released by the FBI, one in 25 Americans was arrested in 2011 (the most recent year for which there are complete statistics). It’s a startling figure, especially considering the fact that most of those arrests can be attributed to America’s ongoing and ill-thought “War on Drugs,” which helps fill prisons and fulfill police arrest quotas.

The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,531,251 arrests), larceny-theft (estimated at 1,264,986), and driving under the influence (estimated at 1,215,077),” the FBI report notes. Looking at the numbers broken down, however, one can see that marijuana possession alone accounts for a staggering 43.3 percent of drug-related arrests.

As Radley Balko rightly points out in HuffPo, although not every arrest leads to a charge or a conviction, the effects can still be ruinous:

Arrests can be damaging, even if they never result in criminal charges. They generally go on your criminal record, which can be checked each time you apply for a job, housing, or credit. An arrest can also be a barrier to your ability to adopt, obtain some types of professional licenses, and obtain a visa or passport. And of course an arrest also comes with some social stigma.

When I spoke to CUNY sociologist and marijuana arrest expert Harry Levine for The New Inquiry earlier this year, he stressed the extent to which the vast numbers of marijuana arrests made in the U.S. went without media attention:

The nearly 700,000 marijuana possession arrests a year in the U.S. are the same kind of scandal. They have gone on for years and harmed millions of people, but big city police departments and prominent politicians, including many liberals, keep making the arrests. And until recently they have been remarkably successful at keeping the arrests out of the public eye.

The work of exposing these huge numbers of possession arrests has only just begun, but the facts are startling. In New York City for over 15 years more people have been arrested for marijuana possession than for any other criminal charge whatsoever. One arrest in eight is for simple possession of a small amount of marijuana. That general pattern is true for many other cities and counties.

Levine also emphasized the racist, classist bent of these marijuana arrests, he noted that “police arrest mostly young and low-income people for marijuana possession, 90 percent men, disproportionately young blacks and Latinos.” It is, after all, on the basis of racial discrimination that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is currently facing a landmark federal lawsuit.

The FBI stats on total arrests with regards to race are as follows: 69.2 percent of all persons arrested were white, 28.4 percent were black, and the remaining 2.4 percent were of other races. It’s worth considering that black people make up only 13.6 percent of the total U.S. population, but yet nearly 30 percent of those arrested in 2011. Although figures alone could tell many stories, in the context of national outcry over racist police practices and what Harry Levine called a “national scandal” of marijuana arrests, such statistics seem to support a troubling story.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:48 am

Posted in Drug laws

Global terror alert inconsistent with U.S. portrayal of weakened al Qaida

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An interesting story Hannah Allam and Lesley Clark in McClatchy, worth pondering. I also read an earlier story about drone attacks killing “suspected terrorists” and thought that the US has definitely crossed a line when it routinely kills persons who are merely suspected of possible future wrongdoing. What the US does in its drone attacks is ruthless murder, and it is no wonder that it arouses strong anger toward (and hatred of) the US, leading to more terrorists.

The story begins:

The Obama administration’s sweeping response to an alleged al Qaida plot – closing diplomatic posts in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia – suggests a terrorist organization that’s capable of striking virtually anywhere, not the one U.S. officials have depicted as a group that’s near defeat.

Counterterrorism analysts said Monday that the U.S. government’s global response to a threat emanating from Yemen, home to al Qaida’s most active affiliate, was at odds with how dismissive President Barack Obama was in a speech in May, when he said that “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves as al Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

That was only one of a series of public statements by Obama and his Cabinet members that played down the capabilities of al Qaida-linked groups. For at least the past two years, the administration has sought to reassure Americans that al Qaida is “on the run,” while counterterrorism experts were warning about the semiautonomous affiliates that have wreaked havoc in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

“The actions the administration is taking now are deeply inconsistent with the portrait of al Qaida strength the administration has been painting,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research institute.

U.S. officials have been secretive about what precise information led to the worldwide travel advisory and embassy closings, but a Yemeni official told McClatchy on Sunday that authorities had intercepted “clear orders” from al Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of the affiliate in Yemen, to carry out an attack. . .

That leak—of the specific persons targeted and which communications were intercepted—seems far more damaging to our counter-terrorism efforts than anything that has come from Edward Snowden. I wonder whether this leak will be investigated and the person punished—well, no. I don’t. Nothing will happen because leaking classified information is perfectly fine for the administration.


Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:42 am

Virginia’s “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” and the lies they tell

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It’s always a bad sign when agencies lie—for example, the DEA lying about its use of NSA data. And in the area of reproductive rights, lies from the Right are commonplace (because proponents have no factual case to make). Tara Culp-Ressler reports at ThinkProgress:

An new undercover investigation into Virginia’s right-wing “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) exposes the blatant misinformation about women’s health, as well as the shame-based messages surrounding sexuality, that their employees typically impart to patients. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia — which has been working for years to expose the dozens of CPCs in the state — caught the lies on tape and released their findings on Wednesday.

NARAL recorded a counseling session between a young woman and a CPC employee. The woman received false information about the risks of hormonal birth control, misleading explanations about how contraception works, and judgmental messages about her decision to be sexually active before getting married. During the conversation, the CPC counselor repeatedly suggested that her organization was more trustworthy than the staff at abortion clinics, since abortion providers are ultimately trying to convince their patients to spend money at the clinic. “I’m not lying to you, sweetie — why would I lie to you? I’m not asking you to give me anything here,” she said. “We’re a pregnancy health and education center.”

For several minutes, a CPC employee told horror stories about the dangers of being on birth control, saying she typically tries to talk women out of using it. She likened birth control to “tremendous dosages of steroids,” and belittled her patient for opting to flood her body with artificial hormones. “You really want that stuff inside of you? You have a brain, think and choose here,” shesaid. “Any of that stuff is just not good for you.”

According to the CPC counselor, birth control is dangerous because taking it for four years before becoming pregnant can increase women’s chance of getting breast cancer by 48 percent. She repeatedly referred to the “carcinogens” in contraception. She also cautioned her client to “read the fine print,” warning that even if she would never choose to have an abortion, she could accidentally end up aborting a fetus while using hormonal contraception. “If you’re on the pill, on the patch, on the shot, and get pregnant… Unintentionally, you will abort that baby because the uterus cannot sustain that pregnancy because the lining has been so altered by those steroids, the artificial hormones,” she claimed.

The CPC employee falsely asserted that condoms and birth control pills are about equally effective at preventing pregnancy, and claimed that using condoms doesn’t actually prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. “They’re naturally porous — there’s always a chance of them breaking, a chance of spillage,” she said. “The only safe sex is no sex.”

The conversation also quickly took a religious bent. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:32 am

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Medical

How can the DEA maintain that marijuana has no medical benefits?

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By ignoring reality, mostly. Nicole Flatow reports at ThinkProgress:

Before she started using medical marijuana, Charlotte Figi wassuffering from seizures lasting 2 to 4 hours that landed her in the hospital and several times stopped her heart. She lost the ability to walk, talk, and eat, and her parents said their goodbyes on several occasions. Doctors had her on seven different potent, addictive medications; they had her on a special diet. But each time, the benefits were only temporary, and the side effects were overwhelming.

Charlotte’s mother, Paige Figi, had voted against the Colorado medical marijuana ballot initiative that passed in 2000. But after doing some research, she and her husband Matt changed their minds. They found a video of a young boy in California who suffered dramatic seizures and whose life had been changed by a strain of medical marijuana.

The Figis called doctor after doctor to find two who would sign off on a medical marijuana card for their five-year-old daughter. “Everyone said no, no, no, no, no, and I kept calling and calling,” Paige told CNN. Eventually, they found a Harvard-trained doctor who treated other medical marijuana patients. He found a strain similar to the one used by the little boy in California – low in the psychoactive component of marijuana, THC, and high in another chemical compound known to be therapeutic, CBD. She takes it in liquid form, twice a day. The seizures stopped, and they were determined to find more than the initial two ounces they had procured for $800.

To find a steady supply of the substance, they turned to brothers known as the “Robin Hoods of marijuana” who ask patients to donate only what they can. Forty-one other patients with seizures and cancer are now using the strain that’s been named Charlotte’s Web for its first user.

Now Charlotte is feeding herself, walking, and riding her bike. She usually only has one seizure a day, and usually in her sleep.

But Charlotte’s parents have expressed the terror of having to give their child a substance that is federally illegal, and they question why they “were the ones that had to go out and find this cure,” which they point out is “natural.” “How come a doctor didn’t know about this?” Charlotte’s father Matt asked in an interview with CNN.

The answer is that research proposals on the benefits of marijuana are suppressed by agencies designed to enforce prohibition, not explore the benefits of marijuana and other drugs. For a researcher to use marijuana in a study, it has to obtain a legal, approved source of it from the federal government through the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They usually say no. Federal funding that is the lifeblood of much academic research is also withheld for medical marijuana research. As a result, Charlotte’s parents don’t have all the information they need, and other people suffering from other disorders are left to find their own way like the Figis did.

But the Figis are lucky enough to live in one of the 20 states where medical marijuana is legal, which . . .

Continue reading.

A classic catch-22 on marijuana research: you are not allowed to do research until research shows it’s beneficial.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:28 am

Posted in Drug laws, Medical

Rise of the Warrior Cop

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An excerpt from the book here, and here’s a review by Phillip Smith in the Drug-War Chronicles:

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, by Radley Balko (2013, Public Affairs Press, 382 pp., $27.99 HB)

Whatever happened to Officer Friendly? You may recall that program, designed to improve police-community relations by acquainting children and young adults with law enforcement officers and explaining to them that police were their friends and were there to help. It was popular in the 1960s, but largely died out by the 1980s, although vestiges remain at a few police departments scattered around the country.

There may still be a smiling Officer Friendly on the force somewhere these days, but you wouldn’t know it, because he’s all dressed up in paramilitary gear, looking like an Imperial Storm Trooper, and that smiling face (if it exists at all) is hidden behind the darkened visor of his riot helmet.

To be sure, Officer Friendly was always a public relations effort. Even back in the halcyon 1960s, his friendliness toward you was largely determined by your net wealth, your neighborhood, and your race. But back then, we still had a working Fourth Amendment and we didn’t have the war on drugs at least the drug war that we have today. We didn’t have SWAT teams marauding across the landscape. And if not all police officers were really friendly, at least they looked like normal human beings, not winners of a Darth Vader look-alike contest. [Ed: Most police officers aren’t on SWAT teams and don’t dress like Darth Vader — but you know what we’re saying.]

Written by veteran investigative journalist Radley Balko, who’s been covering the drug war, policing, and criminal justice beat for years at places like Reason magazine, the Cato Institute and Huffington Post, Rise of the Warrior Cop explains what happened. It’s a long story whose origins go back to colonial days, but in Balko’s hands, an entertaining and illuminating story — as well as depressing and frightening — told with verve and gusto, meticulously researched, and filled with telling historical detail.

Balko traces the origins of policing back to the colonies and exposes the tension between fears of a standing army and the need for an effective force to maintain public order. He shows how the values (and fears) of the Founding Fathers were expressed both in the Castle Doctrine (“a man’s home is his castle”) and the Bill of Rights, whose 3rd Amendment forbade the stationing of troops in private homes in peacetime and whose Fourth Amendment protected persons and their homes from government intrusion without a warrant.

Balko’s telescoping work brings us rapidly to the dawn of the contemporary period a half-century ago, when rising crime rates and social disorder sparked heightened public concern and increased willingness by the public and the men in blue to resort to ever more repressive and aggressive policing measures to stem the tide of anarchy unleashed by pot-smoking hippies, anti-war activists, and uppity blacks.

And if you want to put a face on the militarization of American policing, Balko has just the man for you: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:16 am

UN Drug Agencies Fret over Uruguay Marijuana Vote

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Interesting report at Drug War Chronicles by Phillip Smith:

Wednesday night’s vote in the Uruguayan chamber of deputies to approve state-run marijuana commerce would make the South American nation the first to create legal pot markets, and that’s making United Nations anti-drug bureaucracies nervous. Both the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued statements Thursday fretting about the vote.

Uruguay hasn’t legalized the marijuana market yet — that will require a vote in the Uruguayan Senate this fall — but the Vienna-based UN organs aren’t waiting. Charged with enforcing the global drug prohibition regime, and its legal backbone, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and successor treaties, the INCB and UNODC are raising the alarm about the apparent looming breach of the treaty.

“The INCB has noted with concern a draft law under consideration in Uruguay which, if adopted, would permit the sale of cannabis herb for non-medical use,” INCB head Dr. Raymond Yans said in a statement. “Such a law would be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug control treaties, in particular the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which Uruguay is a party.”

The INCB said it had always “aimed at maintaining a dialogue with the government of Uruguay” and complained that Montevideo wasn’t paying attention to it. “The Board regrets that the government of Uruguay refused to receive an INCB mission before the draft law was submitted to parliament,” Yans said.

The statement further urged Uruguayan leaders “to ensure that the country remains fully compliant with international law which limits the use of narcotic drugs, including cannabis, exclusively to medical and scientific purposes” and warned that legalization “might have serious consequences for the health and welfare of the population and for the prevention of cannabis abuse among the youth.”

The UNODC, for its part, said in its statement that it supported the INCB statement and was continuing “to follow developments in Uruguay closely.”

But, perhaps signaling a belated recognition that the global drug prohibition regime is increasingly tattered, the UNODC acknowledged that the results of enforcing drug prohibition, including “horrorific violence” related to black market drug trafficking have “led to a debate over best to address such problems.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:12 am

Posted in Drug laws

These Six States Want To Allow Health Insurers To Deny Coverage To Sick People

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Seldom is GOP support for big business and hostility to the public more evident. Sy Mukharjee reports at ThinkProgress:

Officials in Texas and five other GOP-led states are refusing to oversee even Obamacare’s most basic — and popular — consumer protections and insurance market reforms. That includes the law’s ban on denying coverage or charging more because of a pre-existing condition and discriminating against women on the basis of gender. The decision could present major hurdles to Americans who buy health insurance through federally-run marketplaces in the Lone Star State, Arizona, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

A majority of states haven’t set up their own insurance marketplaces, opting to let the federal government set one up for them. But every one of those states (other than the six in question) have at least said they will police the insurers that sell plans on their federally-run marketplaces to make sure that they aren’t giving consumers short shrift. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will instead be responsible for enforcing Obamacare’s insurance industry reforms and reviewing consumer complaints in the states refusing to do so on their own.

That could be confusing for Americans who are buying insurance for the first time through the marketplaces. For example, imagine you’re a relatively poor person with diabetes. Your income isn’t low enough to get you on Medicaid — but your employer doesn’t offer health benefits, and you’ve never qualified for insurance on the individual market because of your medical condition. On October 1st, you can go buy insurance with government subsidies for the first time on an Obamacare marketplace. But the plan you choose charges you a suspiciously high premium relative to your income. You suspect it’s because of your medical problem, which is clearly illegal under the reform law. But who do you complain to?

Usually the answer is your state’s insurance department. But the answer is CMS if you live in one of the six states that won’t enforce the consumer protections. Unfortunately, if you don’t know that, you could spend months oscillating between the state and federal government, trying to figure out if you’re getting hoodwinked by your insurance company. And in the meantime, the bills are piling up.

Those kinds of scenarios are the reason that health policy experts say insurance complaints are best handled by state agencies. Officials with the Texas Department of Insurance argue that they legally can’t enforce the regulations because they’ve ceded authority over the marketplace to the federal government, and Texas doesn’t have corresponding state laws holding insurers to the same standards as Obamacare. But Stacy Pogue of the Center for Public Policy Priorities tells the Texas Tribune that’s likely a smokescreen, since Texas has enforced plenty of other federal laws on a statewide level in the past.

Officials in the Lone Star State certainly haven’t been shy about their opposition to the health law. Gov. Rick Perry (R) dug in his heels against reform in 2012, saying he wouldn’t “be a part of expanding [the] socializing of our medicine.” More recently, Perry denied basic health benefits to 1.5 million of his state’s poorest residents by forgoing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Evidently, that wasn’t going far enough.

National Republicans have also been stepping up their efforts to to undermine Obamacare. Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) are refusing to help their own constituents if they have questions about the health law, and the Tea Party-affiliated advocacy group FreedomWorks has been telling young Americans to forgo signing up for health coverage under Obamacare entirely.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:07 am

Arizona Firefighter’s Widow Denied Health Benefits Because He Was Considered A Part-Time Worker

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Sickening. Tara Culp-Ressler reports in ThinkProgress:

Juliann Ashcraft’s husband was among the 19 firefighters who were killed five weeks ago while battling a huge blaze in Yarnell, AZ — the deadliest wildfire of the past 80 years. Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) and Vice President Joe Biden have called her late husband a hero. Nevertheless, Ashcraft says she’s being denied salary and health benefits in the aftermath of his death because city officials considered him to be a part-time employee.

The slain men were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew. “These men were some of the strongest, most disciplined, tenacious, physically fit men in the world. An elite unit in every sense of that phrase,” Biden said at a memorial service for the firefighters in June.

But city officials in Prescott, AZ considered Ashcraft’s husband to be a part-time, seasonal employee. Under that definition, Ashcraft and her four children — the youngest of whom is just 18 months old — aren’t entitled to the lifetime benefits that the families of full-time members of the Hotshot crew will receive. The seasonal employees will get worker’s compensation and a one-time federal payment of $328,000 — and no guaranteed health care.

“As shocked as I was that my husband went to work and never came home, I’m equally shocked in how the city has treated our family since then,” Ashcrafttold CBS News. She says her husband was working 40 hours a week at the time of his death, and CBS News obtained paperwork confirming that he did earn a full-time salary from the city.

“I said to them, ‘My husband was a full-time employee. He went to work full-time for you,’” Ashcraft told CBS. She said that city officials responded, “Perhaps there was a communication issue in your marriage.”

Outside of the Ashcraft family, loopholes in federal and state employment laws can often prevent emergency responders from receiving the benefits they need. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy tore across the East Coast in November, the FEMA workers . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 10:04 am

Posted in Government

Corporations avoiding accountability: Fracking division, with arsenic

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Theodoric Meyer writes for ProPubica:

A recently published study by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in groundwater near natural gas fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale.

While the findings are far from conclusive, the study provides further evidence tying fracking to arsenic contamination. An internal Environmental Protection Agency PowerPoint presentation recently obtained by the Los Angeles Times warned that wells near Dimock, Pa., showed elevated levels of arsenic in the groundwater. The EPA also found arsenic in groundwater near fracking sites in Pavillion, Wyo., in 2009 — a study the agency later abandoned.

ProPublica talked with Brian Fontenot, the paper’s lead author, about how his team carried out the study and why it matters. (Fontenot and another author, Laura Hunt, work for the EPA in Dallas, but they conducted the study on their own time in collaboration with several UT Arlington researchers.) Here’s an edited version of our interview:

What led you guys to do the study? . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 9:35 am

Corporations avoiding accountability: Lead paint division

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Kevin Drum writes at Mother Jones:

The main focus of my story in January about the link between lead and crime was on leaded gasoline. That was mainly because the rise and fall of leaded gasoline following World War II tracks the rise and fall of crime between the 60s and 90s. However, lead is lead, and the lead in leaded paint has all the same ill effects when small children are exposed to it: it reduces IQ, increases learning disabilities, and affects parts of the brain linked to impulse control. Despite that, activist groups haven’t had much luck holding the paint industry accountable. Lilly Fowler reports for us today on what happened:

Apart from one settlement, the industry has successfully fended off roughly 50 lawsuits by states, cities, counties, and school districts over the past quarter century. Now, in a trial under way in San Jose, California, industry lawyers are seeking a final victory in a case brought by 10 agencies, including the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego, and the counties of Los Angeles and Santa Clara. The agencies want the industry to cover the cost of eliminating lead paint from all the homes in their jurisdictions; the price tag could exceed $1 billion.

….Defense lawyers have argued in a brief that the companies weren’t aware when they promoted lead paint that it would someday cause harm. “Scientific knowledge concerning lead exposure evolved over the decades,” it reads. What’s more, they claim there is no longer any widespread danger from lead. Today’s blood lead levels, according to their court filings, do not present “a current public health crisis” but rather “a public health success story.”

What’s more, they argue, California already has a well-funded lead poisoning prevention program that collects annual fees primarily from the gasoline industry, but also from makers of paint and other lead-containing products.

Unfortunately, the research linking lead to crime has probably come too late to have an impact in this case. Read the whole thing to learn how the paint industry has managed for decades to avoid responsibility for the catastrophic effects of their products.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 9:31 am

Town uses Eminent Domain to Help Homeowners avoid Foreclosure

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Very interesting use of eminent domain: for the good of citizens, not corporations. Sarah Lazare reports at, via Juan Cole’s Informed Comment:

Using the authority of state government to actually help people has Wall Street bankers in a panic, spurring threats of aggressive legal retaliation against the town of Richmond, California simply for trying to help some of its struggling homeowners.

‘Eminent domain’ has long been a dirty term for housing justice advocates who have seen municipalities invoke public seizure laws to displace residents and communities to make way for highways, shopping malls, and other big dollar projects.

But in Richmond, city officials are using eminent domain to force big banks to stop foreclosing on people’s homes in an innovative new strategy known as ‘Principle Reduction’ aimed at addressing California’s burgeoning housing crisis.

Richmond became the first California city last week to move forward on a plan that has been floated by other California municipalities to ask big bank lenders to sell underwater mortgage loans at a discount to the city (if the owner consents), and seize those homes through eminent domain if the banks refuse. The city has committed to refinancing these homes for owners at their current value, not what is owed.

City officials launched this process by sending letters in late July to 32 banks and other mortgage owners offering to buy 624 underwater mortgages at the price the homes are worth, not what the owners owe.

“After years of waiting on the banks to offer up a more comprehensive fix or the federal government, we’re stepping into the void to make it happen ourselves,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said in late July.

Wall Street is furious at the plan and has vowed to sue the municipality, a threat that did not stop Richmond but did slow other California cities in adopting the strategy.

Big banks have been slammed for their damaging mortgage loan policies that target poor and working class people and communities of color with high risk loans, policies that have had a profound impact on Richmond, which has large latino, African American, and low-income communities.

Eminent domain laws also have a painful history in Richmond, but housing justice advocates are hopeful about this new twist on the seizure law. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 9:19 am

Privacy intuitions often incorrect

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Fascinating article at Aeon by Ian Leslie:

In October 2012 a woman from Massachusetts called Lindsey Stone went on a work trip to Washington DC, and paid a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where American war heroes are buried. Crouching next to a sign that said ‘Silence and Respect’, she raised a middle finger and pretended to shout while a colleague took her photo. It was the kind of puerile clowning that most of us (well me, anyway) have indulged in at some point, and once upon a time, the resulting image would have been noticed only by the few friends or family to whom the owner of the camera showed it. However, this being the era of sharing, Stone posted the photo to her Facebook profile.

Within weeks, a ‘Fire Lindsey Stone’ page had materialised, populated by commentators frothing with outrage at a desecration of hallowed ground. Anger rained down on Stone’s employer, a non-profit that helps adults with special needs. Her employers decided, reluctantly, that Stone and her colleague would have to leave.

More recently, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the panoptic scope of government surveillance have raised the hoary spectre of ‘Big Brother’. But what Prism’s fancy PowerPoint decks and self-aggrandising logo suggest to me is not so much an implacable, omniscient overseer as a bunch of suits in shabby cubicles trying to persuade each other they’re still relevant. After all, there’s little need for state surveillance when we’re doing such a good job of spying on ourselves. Big Brother isn’t watching us; he’s taking selfies and posting them on Instagram like everyone else. And he probably hasn’t given a second thought to what might happen to that picture of him posing with a joint.

Stone’s story is hardly unique. Earlier this year, an Aeroflot air hostess was fired from her job after a picture she had taken of herself giving the finger to a cabin full of passengers circulated on Twitter. She had originally posted it to her profile on a Russian social networking site without, presumably, envisaging it becoming a global news story. Every day, embarrassments are endured, jobs lost and individuals endangered because of unforeseen consequences triggered by a tweet or a status update. Despite the many anxious articles about the latest change to Facebook’s privacy settings, we just don’t seem to be able to get our heads around the idea that when we post our private life, we publish it.

At the beginning of this year, Facebook launched the drably named ‘Graph Search’, a search engine that allows you to crawl through the data in everyone else’s profiles. Days after it went live, a tech-savvy Londoner called Tom Scott started a blog in which he posted details of searches that he had performed using the new service. By putting together imaginative combinations of ‘likes’ and profile settings he managed to turn up ‘Married people who like prostitutes’, ‘Single women nearby who like to get drunk’, and ‘Islamic men who are interested in other men and live in Tehran’ (where homosexuality is illegal).

Scott was careful to erase names from the screenshots he posted online: he didn’t want to land anyone in trouble with employers, or predatory sociopaths, or agents of repressive regimes, or all three at once. But his findings served as a reminder that many Facebook users are standing in their bedroom naked without realising there’s a crowd outside the window. Facebook says that as long as users are given the full range of privacy options, they can be relied on to figure them out. Privacy campaigners want Facebook and others to be clearer and more upfront with users about who can view their personal data. Both agree that users deserve to be given control over their choices.

But what if the problem isn’t Facebook’s privacy settings, but our own?

Afew years ago George Loewenstein, professor of behavioural economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, set out to investigate how people think about the consequences of their privacy choices on the internet. He soon concluded that they don’t.

In one study, Loewenstein and his collaborators asked two groups of students to fill out an online survey about their lives. Everyone received the same questions, ranging from the innocuous to the embarrassing or potentially incriminating. One group was presented with an official-looking website that bore the imprimatur of their university, and were assured that their answers would remain anonymous. The other group filled out the questions on a garishly coloured website on which the question ‘How BAD Are U???’ was accompanied by a grinning devil. It featured no assurance of anonymity.

Bizarrely, the ‘How BAD Are U???’ website was much more likely to elicit revealing confessions, like whether a student had copied someone else’s homework or tried cocaine. The first set of respondents reacted cautiously to the institutional feel of the first website and its obscurely concerning assurances about anonymity. The second group fell under the sway of the perennial youthful imperative to be cool, and opened up, in a way that could have got them into serious trouble in the real world. The students were using their instincts about privacy, and their instincts proved to be deeply wayward. ‘Thinking about online privacy doesn’t come naturally to us,’ Loewenstein told me when I spoke to him on the phone. ‘Nothing in our evolution or culture has equipped us to deal with it.’ . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 8:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

The 25 Best Websites for Literature Lovers

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Take a look at a good list.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 8:28 am

Posted in Books

Harmonica tech brings a harmonica renaissance

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Fascinating article. The Son once played harmonica.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 8:27 am

Posted in Music, Technology

An interesting defense of science vis-à-vis the humanities

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An interesting polemic from Steven Pinker.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 8:18 am

Posted in Science

Sanjay Gupta Reverses On Marijuana: ‘We Have Been Terribly And Systematically Misled’

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Rebecca Leber reports at ThinkProgress:

CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta reversed his position on marijuana’s health benefits and apologized for his previous stand against it in an article Thursday for CNN. In 2009, Gupta penned an op-ed advocating against marijuana, where he advised as a doctor that “marijuana isn’t really very good for you.” At the time, he was in the running for an appointment to Surgeon General.

Since then, additional research and his work on a documentary have convinced him otherwise.

“I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now,” he said. “I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.”

Gupta noted Thursday that part of his original mistake was to trust the Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of the drug as dangerous and addictive, which was never based on sound scientific proof. What he found was “unsettling,” because research existed predating the 1970 DEA decision that supports the drug’s medical benefits:

They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works. Take the case of Charlotte Figi, who I met in Colorado. She started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications. Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.

I have seen more patients like Charlotte first hand, spent time with them and come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana.

We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.

The case Gupta describes of Charlotte Figi is just one example of where doctors didn’t have the research available to them on the drug. That’s because agencies, designed for prohibition, have often suppressed research about marijuana and other drugs’ benefits. Cases like Charlotte’s and 20,000 articles documenting other benefits have led Gupta to his new conclusion that marijuana has great potential medical value that cannot be realized under the current system of prohibition.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 8:10 am

Posted in Drug laws, Medical, Science

Excellent brush, lather, and shave

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SOTD 8 Aug 2013

Another BBS result. The new Omega banded boar brush was extremely again, once again on first use. I wet it before I showered, and after the shower the brush was ready. A quick pre-shave beard wash (Jlocke98’s formula with emu oil), and then I worked up a fine lather from Martin de Candre shaving soap. I got microscopic bubbles pretty quickly but continued loading for a great lather.

The iKon S3S holds a previously used Astra Superior Stainless blade, and it was quite effective: three easy passes to perfect smoothness, followed by a splash of Alt-Innsbruck.

Great way to start the day.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2013 at 8:08 am

Posted in Shaving

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