Later On

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

Archive for December 24th, 2013

Elmore Leonard fans: A terrific article

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 9:36 am

Posted in Books, Movies & TV

Obama can’t point to a single time the NSA call records program prevented a terrorist attack

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Despite much bluster, the NSA call-records program simply hasn’t produced, though it has undoubtedly cost a lost, in dollars and in civil liberties. So why does the Administration cling to it? Andrea Peterson writes in the Washington Post:

National Security Agency defenders, including President Obama, continue to cite the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001 when defending the program that scoops up domestic call records in bulk. But asked specifically, on Friday, if he could identify a time when that program stopped a similar attack, President Obama couldn’t. That’s because the program hasn’t prevented a second 9/11.

At the end of the year news conference, Reuters’s Mark Felsenthal asked:

As you review how to rein in the National Security Agency, a federal judge says that, for example, the government has failed to cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata actually stopped an imminent attack. Are you able to identify any specific examples when it did so? Are you convinced that the collection of that data is useful to national security to continue as it is?

But President Obama never answered the question about a specific examples. Instead he spoke more broadly and tied the program, again, back to 9/11.

What I’ve said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track, if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States, where that call might have gone and that having that data in one place and retained for a certain period of time allowed them to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.

The president’s reliance on a 9/11 narrative is expected. The terrorist attack was a defining moment for a generation and now serves as a tragic reminder of a time when the U.S. government failed to protect its citizens. It’s understandable that any president would want to be seen as vigilant in preventing another such attack.

But the reason the president can’t cite a specific time the phone meta-data program stopped a similar tragedy is because it hasn’t.

Law professor Geoffrey Stone, a member of the presidential task force charged with reviewing NSA programs, told NBC News the group specifically looked for times when the program may have helped prevent a terrorist attack, but “found none.” The task force’s final report reflects that, saying: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 9:35 am

The simple facts about mass shootings are not simple

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For example, there is no trend of mass shootings becoming more common. Banning assault weapons is beside the point. And right-to-carry laws are as well. Michael Todd writes in the Pacific Standard:

A year after Newtown, there’s plenty of bad information circulating about mass shootings, a lot of it trying to bold down a mass of sometimes conflicting data into a headline.

After all, we don’t want nettlesome social issues to be complex mixture of causes and effects. Better that a single prescription—ban guns, lock up crazy people, make all video games feature the Smurfs—can solve the problem, ideally before the station break. It’s complicated, however, and gets more so when the facts are screwed up.

A lot of the assumptions that underlie that debate are, if not outright wrong, outright misleading, argue two Northeastern University criminologists. In a new paper appearing is a special mass shooting-themed issue of the journal Homicide Studies,James Alan Fox and Moncia J. DeLateur “attempt to identify and assess a number of these misconceptions that seem to have encouraged policy responses with a slim probability of achieving their desired outcome—eliminating the risk of mass murder.” Fox, dubbed the “Dean of Death,” is one of the go-to academics whenever a mass shooting roils the national consciousness; a number of the studies he cites in this paper are from his own work, many of them with Pacific Standard author Jack Levin.

Although the authors call these misconceptions “myths,” really these are more “memes.” That’s just as well, because in many cases the authors don’t so much debunk the conventional wisdom as add both context and that political poison, nuance.

Some of their myth-busting is pretty unequivocal, such as the idea that mass shootings are on the rise. They’re not. While numbers vary from year to year, looking at figures between 1976 and 2011 the number of mass shootings have not gone up.

Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the hundreds of those who have been victimized in recent attacks, the facts clearly say that there has been no increase in mass shootings and certainly no epidemic. What is abundantly clear from the full array of mass shootings is the largely random variability in the annual counts. There have been several points in time when journalists and others have speculated about a possible epidemic in response to a flurry of high-profile shootings. Yet, these speculations have always proven to be incorrect when subsequent years reveal more moderate levels.

A comprehensive report in Mother Jones did demonstrate a rising tide of carnage using actual numbers, making the argument that the rise in incidents parallels the increases in the number of guns in the U.S. But Fox (who provided some assist to the Mother Jones team) and DeLateur argue that the magazine’s ground rules for determining what to include it its report—numbers had to come from a single incident in a public place by a lone shooter, resulting in at least four dead, and not be related to street crime—obscured the long-term trends by creating an arbitrary definition of “senseless” killing. (The magazine did include some two-person attacks, such as Columbine and Westside Middle School, but its rules would leave out incidents such as the D.C. sniper attacks or the recent incident at a Centennial, Colorado high school.) By not excluding cases based on motive, location, or victim-shooter status, the academics show that there’s actually been a baseline average of 20 mass shootings a year, with bad years (like 2012) followed by better years (like 2013).

It’s worth noting that when the authors break down figures from the FBI’sSupplementary Homicide Reports into three time frames (1976-94, 1995-2004, 2005-11) meant to show how an assault weapons ban in the middle period wasn’t particularly effective, the figures do show an upward drift in each subsequent period in the average number of incidents and the annual average number of victims.

The authors also find that recent mass killings don’t always involve record-setting body counts, always a media fixation. But improvements in news gathering and delivery do mean that any incident gets crammed down the public’s throat, creating the aura of moral panic.

[A]s news of the Sandy Hook shooting was still unfolding and before any perpetrator or motive was identified, scores of journalists were asking whether this was the worst school shooting in history. It didn’t matter that deadlier episodes had occurred overseas (the 2004 school siege in Russia), at a college setting (Virginia Tech in 2007) or involving means other than gunfire (the 1927 school explosion in Bath, Michigan), reporters were eager to declare the Sandy Hook massacre as some type of new record.

What about guns?

On the whole, the authors write, banning assault weapons is unlikely to end future mass shootings, in large part because the gunmen –and they’re almost always men—are more likely to use pistols or revolvers than AK-47s. Handguns, particularly semiautomatic ones, were used in 62 percent of the all the incidents, while assault weapons were used in 25 percent. “Only 14 of the 93 incidents examined by [Mayors Against Illegal Guns] involved assault weapons or high-capacity magazines,” the authors write. “Of course, limiting the size of ammunition clips would at least compel a gunman to pause to reload or switch weapons, potentially giving others a brief window of opportunity to escape or even intervene.”

There’s less definitive data on whether arming potential victims would at least reduce the casualties from mass shootings. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 9:31 am

Posted in Guns

Interesting article on the problems in restricting gun rights of the mentally ill

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Another piece that both gun advocates and gun-control advocates will find of interest, this time by Lauren Kirchner in the Pacific Standard:

The question about how to, or whether to, regulate the access of people with mental illness to guns has always been a heated debate—and several high-profile events over the past year have added a considerable amount of fuel to the fire. A New York Timespiece on Sunday by Michael Luo and Mike McIntire revealed just how confusing and contradictory state laws governing gun-confiscation by law enforcement are.

Federal law typically prohibits people from owning guns when they are involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution or deemed unfit for gun-possession by a judge. But when local law enforcement has a risky run-in with a mentally unstable person, laws and guidelines as to whether they can take his or her guns away, and for how long, vary widely. The Times examined court and police records of over 1,000 mental-health-related gun seizure cases, finding many loopholes and inconsistencies along the way.

“Perhaps most striking, in many of the cases examined across the country,” the authors write, “the authorities said they had no choice under the law but to return the guns after an initial seizure for safekeeping.” Common sense and self-protection dictate that cops disarm a person when he or she seems to pose a danger, but then there is often little that they can do when that person wants to get the weapons back later. Some states require a waiting period, some don’t; some states put the person’s name on a state or federal registry to try to prevent them from buying additional guns; some don’t.

But of course, seizure laws aren’t merely a logistical challenge; they are both politically and ethically charged. As Luo and McIntire write:

At the same time, mental health professionals worry that new seizure laws might stigmatize many people who have no greater propensity for violence than the broader population. They also fear that the laws will discourage people who need help from seeking treatment, while doing little to deter gun violence.

A recent issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedingspublished this fall, made those very arguments. The study, entitled “Guns, Schools, and Mental Illness: Potential Concerns for Physicians and Mental Health Professionals,” examines all of the difficulties inherent in “preventing” gun violence from a legislative or health-provider perspective. The study shows that, not only is mental-illness-related violence incredibly hard to predict or prevent, but it can also be hard to agree on even how to talk about it. For instance, authors remind readers to be careful about what short-hand terms they use when discussing mental health issues and the law. The authors dispel one persistent myth here, and in so doing emphasize how hard establishing a so-called mental illness “registry” would be: . . .

Continue reading.

Some very good points. Quite a few unsolved problems remain unsolved because they are extremely difficult to solve. The idea that “mentally ill people should not own guns” ignores the fact that an episode of some sort of mental illness (e.g., clinical depression) can strike almost anyone, and it would be impossible to place people on a list when they become mentally ill and remove them when they recover.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 9:25 am

Interesting interview with Edward Snowden

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Edward Snowden has achieved his goal, which was to inform the American public what was being done in their name by their government, and this has upset some people no end—while also demonstrating that our government has repeatedly misled and sometimes outright lied to the public about what they were doing, for the very good reason that they knew that the public would not approve. One example of an outright lie is James Clapper’s famous (and false) denial, but more often we see the claim that the NSA is totally focused on fighting terrorism, usually with at least one and sometimes several references to 9/11. But that, we know, is false: Angela Merkel, though she grew up in East Germany, can hardly be considered a terrorist, nor is the president of Brazil, nor the Brazilian oil company, all victims of unchecked NSA snooping. Barton Gellman writes in the Washington Post:

MOSCOW — The familiar voice on the hotel room phone did not waste words.

“What time does your clock say, exactly?” he asked.

He checked the reply against his watch and described a place to meet.

“I’ll see you there,” he said.

Edward Joseph Snowden emerged at the appointed hour, alone, blending into a light crowd of locals and tourists. He cocked his arm for a handshake, then turned his shoulder to indicate a path. Before long he had guided his visitor to a secure space out of public view.

During more than 14 hours of interviews, the first he has conducted in person since arriving here in June, Snowden did not part the curtains or step outside. Russia granted him temporary asylum on Aug. 1, but Snowden remains a target of surpassing interest to the intelligence services whose secrets he spilled on an epic scale.

Late this spring, Snowden supplied three journalists, including this one, with caches of top-secret documents from the National Security Agency, where he worked as a contractor. Dozens of revelations followed, and then hundreds, as news organizations around the world picked up the story. Congress pressed for explanations, new evidence revived old lawsuits and the Obama administration was obliged to declassify thousands of pages it had fought for years to conceal.

Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations. One of the leaked presentation slides described the agency’s “collection philosophy” as “Order one of everything off the menu.”

Six months after the first revelations appeared in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Snowden agreed to reflect at length on the roots and repercussions of his choice. He was relaxed and animated over two days of nearly unbroken conversation, fueled by burgers, pasta, ice cream and Russian pastry.

Snowden offered vignettes from his intelligence career and from his recent life as “an indoor cat” in Russia. But he consistently steered the conversation back to surveillance, democracy and the meaning of the documents he exposed.

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said. “That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals.”

‘Going in blind’

Snowden is an orderly thinker, with an engineer’s approach to problem-solving. He had come to believe that a dangerous machine of mass surveillance was growing unchecked. Closed-door oversight by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was a “graveyard of judgment,” he said, manipulated by the agency it was supposed to keep in check. Classification rules erected walls to prevent public debate.

Toppling those walls would be a spectacular act of transgression against the norms that prevailed inside them. Someone would have to bypass security, extract the secrets, make undetected contact with journalists and provide them with enough proof to tell the stories.

The NSA’s business is “information dominance,” the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. At 29, Snowden upended the agency on its own turf.

“You recognize that you’re going in blind, that there’s no model,” Snowden said, acknowledging that he had no way to know whether the public would share his views.

“But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act,” he said, “you realize that some analysis is better than no analysis. Because even if your analysis proves to be wrong, the marketplace of ideas will bear that out. If you look at it from an engineering perspective, an iterative perspective, it’s clear that you have to try something rather than do nothing.”

By his own terms, Snowden succeeded beyond plausible ambition. The NSA, accustomed to watching without being watched, faces scrutiny it has not endured since the 1970s, or perhaps ever.

The cascading effects have made themselves felt in Congress, the courts, popular culture, Silicon Valley and world capitals. The basic structure of the Internet itself is now in question, as Brazil and members of the European Union consider measures to keep their data away from U.S. territory and U.S. technology giants including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo take extraordinary steps to block the collection of data by their government.

For months, Obama administration officials attacked Snowden’s motives and said the work of the NSA was distorted by selective leaks and misinterpretations.

On Dec. 16, in a lawsuit that could not have gone forward without the disclosures made possible by Snowden, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon described the NSA’s capabilities as “almost Orwellian” and said its bulk collection of U.S. domestic telephone records was probably unconstitutional.

The next day, in the Roosevelt Room, an unusual delegation of executives from old telephone companies and young Internet firms told President Obama that the NSA’s intrusion into their networks was a threat to the U.S. information economy. The following day, an advisory panel appointed by Obama recommended substantial new restrictions on the NSA, including an end to the domestic call-records program.

“This week is a turning point,” said the Government Accountability Project’s Jesselyn Radack, who is one of Snowden’s legal advisers. “It has been just a cascade.”

‘They elected me’

On June 22, the Justice Department unsealed a criminal complaint charging Snowden with espionage and felony theft of government property. It was a dry enumeration of statutes, without a trace of the anger pulsing through Snowden’s former precincts. . .

Continue reading.

I don’t understand the espionage charge: Snowden was not working for or on behalf of a foreign power. Simply not liking what he did is insufficient grounds for the charge, I think.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 9:14 am

A better (much better) cardboard box

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Just watch:

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 8:18 am

Posted in Technology

Christmas Eve: Perfect shave

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SOTD 24 Dec 2013

Unfortunately, the lid slipped so you can’t see the surface of the soap. I’ve not used my Mitchell’s Wool Fat shaving soap since mid-June, so the puck had dried out totally—surface even had cracks. Some like to put a little water on the soap to soak it while they shower, but that is completely unnecessary. I wet the Omega Pro 48 and let it sit while I showered, then wet it again and went to work on the puck. Within 10 seconds the brush was fully loaded and the lather was wonderful. I do have fairly soft water, but nothing like, say Vancouver BC.

My Pro 48 has now broken in well, and it feels marvelous on my face. And with such a good lather I took my time brushing it around.

The Maggard MR3, the razor in back with the shorter, thicker handle is quite a nice little razor. The bottom does unscrew, like a cap, so you can fill the interior with weights if you want more heft, but it’s really nice as it is. The razor in front, an iKon handle with an Edwin Jagger head, is the one I accidentally picked up after learning about the removable end-cap on the MR3. The iKon handle’s bottom does NOT unscrew, no matter how hard you tried. (I tried, repeatedly, and then wandered into the bathroom and discovered I had picked up the wrong razor.) The MR3 cap comes off easily. Live and learn.

I used a Gillette Thin blade, and it did a fine job: felt good, and a very smooth, soft, BBS result. A splash of 4711 on that, and the day begins. Today I salt the standing rib roast.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2013 at 8:10 am

Posted in Shaving

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