Later On

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

Archive for December 6th, 2013

More on Goliath and the state of the State of Israel

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Just read this column and watch the video.

I wonder if he’s getting pressure to take that video down. What do you bet?

UPDATE: I went to YouTube to pick up the video (below) and saw that comments for that video have been disabled. Touchy issue.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Mideast Conflict

Wikileaks reveals failed plans to suppress anti-Keystone activists

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I think we knew that backers of Keystone XL (those who stood to make ginormous sums of money) would think hard about how to make it happen, and they naturally would know one major opponent would be the various environmental groups. So they tried to figure how best to approach the issue and deal with the threat. I see nothing at all wrong with that picture (save the Keystone XL pipeline itself, that is—but if you’re going to support it for whatever reason, the steps being taken seem totally reasonable to me). The article at the link above provides backstory, the link below is what they came up with.

What is interesting is to see the specifics of the analysis as presented.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 1:54 pm

FEMA betrayed New York prior to Hurricane Sandy

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Al Shaw, Theodoric Meyer, and Christie Thompson report for ProPublica:

When Patrice and Philip Morgan bought a house near the ocean in Brooklyn, they were not particularly worried about the threat of flooding.

Federal maps showed their home was outside the area at a high risk of flood damage. For that reason, the government did not require them to buy flood insurance, a cost imposed on neighbors on more vulnerable blocks.

Even so, the couple decided to raise their house four feet to protect their basement from the effects of heavy rain storms.

“We thought we might have a foot or two of water,” Patrice said, “so we put a sump pump in to avoid any small issues.”

But the maps drawn up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were wrong. And government officials knew it. [This is the point at which I think criminal charges become appropriate. – LG]

According to documents and interviews, state, local and federal officials had been aware for years that the crucial maps of flood risks were inaccurate; some feared they understated the dangers in New York City’s low-lying areas.

The flaws in the maps had significant impact. Developers relied on FEMA’s assessment of risks when they built new homes near the water. And homeowners and businesses made crucial decisions about where to buy or lease property on the assurance that they were outside of the high-risk zones.

Thousands of the buildings incorrectly identified as outside the flood zone were damaged when seawater surged ashore as Hurricane Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, 2012.

State and city officials had been asking FEMA for years to revise the maps with technology and modeling methods that didn’t exist when they were first drawn in the 1980s. William S. Nechamen, New York State’s floodplain chief, warned FEMA in a 2005 letter that the failure to do so “will lead to higher than necessary flood damages and more expenses placed on individuals and on FEMA.”

Yet, despite Nechamen’s warning, FEMA missed chances to make changes that could have protected city dwellers from some of the worst of Sandy’s destruction.

During a push to modernize flood maps in the mid-2000s, FEMA decided to save money in New York City and much of the rest of the country by digitizing old flood maps without updating the underlying information, rather than using new technology to create more accurate maps.

The agency changed course in 2006, but didn’t release maps with better elevation data and more accurate storm-surge models until months after Sandy – too late to help New Yorkers like the Morgans.

When FEMA finally released a preliminary version of those maps this January they showed that the number of city structures considered at high risk of flooding had doubled. More than 35,000 additional homes and businesses were added to the map’s riskiest zones, according to a study by New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Some 9,503 of those buildings suffered damaged during Sandy, a ProPublica analysis of flood maps shows.

FEMA did not respond to specific questions about the adequacy of its flood maps or glitches in the modernization process. Bill McDonnell, the deputy director for mitigation for FEMA’s Region II, acknowledged that no new data had been collected to update maps for New York or New Jersey in the mid-2000s. In a statement, the agency said it began giving priority to map updates for “high-risk, coastal areas” in 2009. These included 14 counties in New Jersey and New York City. The agency said it continues to work with state and local officials to “incorporate the best available data into maps.’’

That didn’t help the Morgans. Their home, a 1920s bungalow to which they added a second floor, was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 12:59 pm

Hollywood Without the Happy Ending: How the CIA Bungled the War on Terror

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Interesting column by Pratap Chatterjee at TomDispatch.com. Tom provides a good introduction:

Someone should launch a feature somewhere on American foreign and war policy under the rubric: How could anything possibly go wrong?  Here are just two recent examples.

The Obama administration intervenes militarily in Libya, plays a significant role in overthrowing the autocrat who runs the country as a police state, and helps unleash chaos in its wake. The streets of Libyan cities fill with militias as the new government’s control of the situation fades to next to nil. Which brings us to our present moment, when a panicky Washington decides that what’s needed is yet another, different kind of intervention. The plan seems to be to compete with various local and Islamic militias by creating a government militia as the core of a new “national army.” Its members are to be drawn from already existing militias and they’ll be trained somewhere outside of Libya. What an idea! Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

Or consider this: Washington begins to panic about heightening tensions between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  The problem, reports David Sanger of the New York Times, based on what Obama administration officials have told him, is that the conflict could escalate and so “derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it.”  Now, let’s get this straight: before things began to run off the rails in the East China Sea, the Obama administration was confidently planning to “manage” the rise of the next superpower on a planet already in such tumult that what being a new great power might even mean is open to question. And keep in mind that we’re talking about an administration that couldn’t manage the rollout of a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Both examples highlight the strange combination of hubris and panic that, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee points out today, seems to be the essence of so many of Washington’s plans and actions at the moment.  The urge to “manage” is invariably followed by shock at the unmanageability of this roiling globe of ours, followed by panic over plans gone desperately awry when things begin, utterly predictably, to happen unpredictably, followed of course by the next set of managerial plans.  Is there no learning curve in Washington? Tom

And here is Chatterjee’s column:

Call it the Jason Bourne strategy.

Think of it as the CIA’s plunge into Hollywood — or into the absurd.  As recent revelations have made clear, that Agency’s moves couldn’t be have been more far-fetched or more real.  In its post-9/11 global shadow war, it has employed both private contractors and some of the world’s most notorious prisoners in ways that leave the latest episode of the Bourne films in the dust: hired gunmen trained to kill as well as former inmates who cashed in on the notoriety of having worn an orange jumpsuit in the world’s most infamous jail.

The first group of undercover agents were recruited by private companies from the Army Special Forces and the Navy SEALs and then repurposed to the CIA at handsome salaries averaging around $140,000 a year; the second crew was recruited from the prison cells at Guantanamo Bay and paid out of a secret multimillion dollar slush fund called “the Pledge.”

Last month, the Associated Press revealed that the CIA had selected a few dozen men from among the hundreds of terror suspects being held at Guantanamo and trained them to be double agents at a cluster of eight cottages in a program dubbed “Penny Lane.” (Yes, indeed, the name was taken from the Beatles song, as was “Strawberry Fields,” a Guantanamo program that involved torturing “high-value” detainees.) These men were then returned to what the Bush administration liked to call the “global battlefield,” where their mission was to befriend members of al-Qaeda and supply targeting information for the Agency’s drone assassination program.

Such a secret double-agent program, while colorful and remarkably unsuccessful, should have surprised no one.  After all, plea bargaining or persuading criminals to snitch on their associates — a tactic frowned upon by international legal experts — is widely used in the U.S. police and legal system.  Over the last year or so, however, a trickle of information about the other secret program has come to light and it opens an astonishing new window into the privatization of U.S. intelligence.

Hollywood in Langley

In July 2010, at his confirmation hearings for the post of the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper explained the use of private contractors in the intelligence community: “In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War… we were under a congressional mandate to reduce the community by on the order of 20%… Then 9/11 occurred… With the gusher… of funding that has accrued particularly from supplemental or overseas contingency operations funding, which, of course, is one year at a time, it is very difficult to hire government employees one year at a time. So the obvious outlet for that has been the growth of contractors.”

Thousands of “Green Badges” were hired via companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and Qinetiq to work at CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) offices around the world, among the regular staff who wore blue badges. Many of them — like Edward Snowden — performed specialist tasks in information technology meant to augment the effectiveness of government employees.

Then the CIA decided that there was no aspect of secret war which couldn’t be corporatized.  So they set up a unit of private contractors as covert agents, green-lighting them to carry guns and be sent into U.S. war zones at a moment’s notice. This elite James Bond-like unit of armed bodyguards and super-fixers was given the anodyne name Global Response Staff (GRS).

Among the 125 employees of this unit, from the Army Special Forces via private contractors came Raymond Davis and Dane Paresi; from the Navy SEALs Glen Doherty, Jeremy Wise, and Tyrone Woods. All five would soon be in the anything-but-covert headlines of newspapers across the world.  These men — no women have yet been named — were deployed on three- to four-month missions accompanying CIA analysts into the field.

Davis was assigned to Lahore, Pakistan; Doherty and Woods to Benghazi, Libya; Paresi and Wise to Khost, Afghanistan. As GRS expanded, other contractors went to Djibouti, Lebanon, and Yemen, among other countries, according to a Washington Post profile of the unit.

From early on, its work wasn’t exactly a paragon of secrecy. By 2005, for instance, former Special Forces personnel had already begun openly discussing jobs in the unit at online forums. Their descriptions sounded like something directly out of a Hollywood thriller. The Post portrayed the focus of GRS personnel more mundanely as “designed to stay in the shadows, training teams to work undercover and provide an unobtrusive layer of security for CIA officers in high-risk outposts.”

“They don’t learn languages, they’re not meeting foreign nationals, and they’re not writing up intelligence reports,” a former U.S. intelligence official told that paper. “Their main tasks are to map escape routes from meeting places, pat down informants, and provide an ‘envelope’ of security… if push comes to shove, you’re going to have to shoot.”

In the ensuing years, GRS embedded itself in the Agency, becoming essential to its work.  Today, new CIA agents and analysts going into danger zones are trained to work with such bodyguards. In addition, GRS teams are now loaned out to other outfits like the NSA for tasks like installing spy equipment in war zones.

The CIA’s Private Contractors (Don’t) Save the Day

Recently these men, the spearhead of the CIA’s post-9/11 contractor war, have been making it into the news with startling regularity.  Unlike their Hollywood cousins, however, the news they have made has all been bad. Those weapons they’re packing and the derring-do that is supposed to go with them have repeatedly led not to breathtaking getaways and shootouts, but to disaster.  Jason Bourne, of course, wins the day; they don’t.

Take Dane Paresi and Jeremy Wise. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 11:42 am

Krugman on Obama’s speech on inequality

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Good NY Times column from Paul Krugman:

Much of the media commentary on President Obama’s big inequality speech was cynical. You know the drill: it’s yet another “reboot” that will go nowhere; none of it will have any effect on policy, and so on. But before we talk about the speech’s possible political impact or lack thereof, shouldn’t we look at the substance? Was what the president said true? Was it new? If the answer to these questions is yes — and it is — then what he said deserves a serious hearing.

And once you realize that, you also realize that the speech may matter a lot more than the cynics imagine.

First, about those truths: Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing — and, unfortunately, all too accurate — vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.

This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.

And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.

And there was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago.  A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Finally! Our political class has spent years obsessed with a fake problem — worrying about debt and deficits that never posed any threat to the nation’s future — while showing no interest in unemployment and stagnating wages. Mr. Obama, I’m sorry to say, bought into that diversion. Now, however, he’s moving on.

Still, does any of this matter? The conventional pundit wisdom of the moment is that Mr. Obama’s presidency has run aground, even that he has become irrelevant. But this is silly. In fact, it’s silly in at least three ways.

First, much of the current conventional wisdom involves extrapolating from Obamacare’s shambolic start, and assuming that things will be like that for the next three years. They won’t. HealthCare.gov is working much better, people are signing up in growing numbers, and the whole mess is already receding in the rear-view mirror.

Second, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 11:33 am

Yay! Software patents may be over!

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Software is an algorithm and thus should not have been patented according to the Supreme Court’s own past decisions. Tim Lee reviews the current case coming up for a decision. His conclusion:

Now the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to weigh in on the case. And while the high court could issue a narrow ruling based on the details of the patents in this case, it could also take the opportunity to fix the software patent mess more broadly. All it would need to do is to reiterate its earlier position that patents claiming mathematical processes — a.k.a. computer software — isn’t eligible for patent protection unless it’s tied to a specific machine or physical process.

The high court will be reluctant to do this because it would be disruptive. Reiterating that mathematical algorithms can’t be patented would call into question thousands of patents held by major software companies. And these companies could complain, with some justification, that the Supreme Court’s failure to rule on the issue for more than 30 years was a tacit acceptance of rulings by the Federal Circuit.

Still, the federal circuit cannot overrule Supreme Court precedents. And the federal circuit’s experiment with software patents has been a disaster. As the patent scholar James Bessen has argued, the patent troll crisis is really a software patent crisis. Software patents are far more likely to be involved in litigation than other types of patent. The result: According to Bessen’s calculations, troll-related litigation cost the U.S. economy $29 billion in 2011 alone. Reiterating that “pure” software can’t be patented wouldn’t just be good law — it would also save the nation billions of dollars in litigation costs.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 11:02 am

Posted in Business, Law, Software

The GOP believes that there should be no lower bound to what workers are paid

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Basically, the GOP thinks that employers should not have to meet a minimum wage, no matter how small. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and others have called for an end to the minimum wage—and pretty clearly believe that without it, employers would happily pay even lower wages.

I find this attitude astonishing. Obviously, not all conservatives think this way: rather than very low minimum wages combined with lots of government assistance, some are proposing a higher minimum wage—one that people could live on. Government assistance programs then would cost less and demand would also increase, helping the economy. And having a livable minimum wage does not, as it turns out, reduce employment.

Look at these posts (and charts): it’s an important issue because when companies like Walmat and McDonald’s pay their employees so poorly that the companies recommend that employees apply for food stamps and get food contributions for the holidays, they are obviously not paying enough. For some in the GOP to say that there should be no minimum wage at all is staggering. But: Joe Barton…

Why should there be a law defining the minimum wage? The same reason as for most laws: there are some very bad people out there, which is why we need laws against robbery and rape and also why we need a law setting a minimum to legal wages. The same reason for all these laws: stop bad actors or, if they go ahead, provide a means to punish them.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2013 at 10:33 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, GOP

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