Later On

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

Archive for February 5th, 2015

When irrational policies start to self-destruct: Banking and marijuana

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Fascinating article by Matt Richtel in the NY Times. From the article:

. . . Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2001, and recreational marijuana use became legal a year ago. But marijuana businesses have had limited, if any, access to banking services. The federal government considers marijuana illegal and so traditional banks, fearing prosecution for aiding and abetting illegal drug dealers, have shut down pot-business accounts and declined to give loans. Some banks have ferreted out pot entrepreneurs by sniffing their bills, leading to a countermove: bills sprayed with air freshener.

Without a bank account, pot businesses deal in cash, lots of it, held in safes, handed out in clipped bundles on payday, carried in brown paper bags and cardboard boxes to the tax office and the utility company, ferried around the state by armored vehicles and armed guards. And without access to essential banking services — from credit cards to electronic transfers to loans — those businesses pay a huge premium. The reality in Colorado is that it is legal to grow pot but extremely hard to grow a pot business.

The Fourth Corner partners saw a need and a business opportunity. State accreditation in hand, the partners took a step this November that typically goes off without a hitch: they applied to the Federal Reserve Bank for a “master account.” This is the account they would use to deposit funds and transfer them electronically with other banks — the lifeblood of commerce.

Mr. Mason could not find a case of a state accredited financial institution being denied a master account. Usually, approval comes in days, he noted. But it has been nearly three months since the application was filed and there has been no answer, just a letter in early January saying the request was under review. Mr. Mason said the application was on the desk of a specialist in bank risk, a guy named Ryan Harwell in Kansas City, the Fed’s Midwest regional office that oversees the Denver branch. . .

Mr. Mason suggested a reason the Fed may be wary of granting the account.

“This legitimizes the marijuana industry to the extent it’s never been legitimized before,” he said. If Fourth Corner gets approval, businesses would have a place to deposit and to borrow. Other institutions might well follow, and the federal government “would become complicit, and the walls start tumbling down.”

At the same time, Mr. Mason argued that the Federal Reserve Bank was not only within its rights to approve the credit union but was obliged to do so. . .

Peter Conti-Brown, a banking expert at the Stanford Law School, agreed that the credit union application set up a quandary, one that, as policy questions go, is “delicious” and “awesome.” Yes, in theory, he said, the Fed could approve this credit union. But the implications are unclear, and potentially staggering, he said, given that this pen stroke by Mr. Harwell could let the cannabis industry blossom. And then what happens to the federal government’s power over pot?

“I can almost see his green shaded visor and glasses,” said Mr. Conti-Brown, imagining Mr. Harwell in Kansas City. “All of a sudden on the desk of this midlevel bureaucrat comes an extraordinary question of federal policy and constitutional law.” . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 4:53 pm

New bird feeder for Molly’s entertainment

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Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 3.20.57 PM

A bird feeder is nice for birds, of course, but also good entertainment for indoor cats. (Outdoor cats kill birds.)

I had a few bird feeders at the other apartment, and one serious problem is that big birds—jays and pigeons, mostly—would show up, hog the feeder, and chase away the small songbirds.

And then I got the Duncraft feeder shown above. It costs $17, and it’s a jewel of a feeder. As you see, small birds have no trouble eating from it, and sometimes one would actually get inside the feeder and eat there. The larger birds would try to eat from it, but they had no place to stand. They would fly by, trying somehow to tilt their flight to secure food, but it was hopeless (from their point of view).

A great feeder, and it holds almost 5 lbs. of black-oil sunflower seed, enough to feed birds for quite a while.

Filled with seed, it hangs now on the balcony, with some seed scattered on the floor and railing to attract the first feeders. Once word gets out, birds will come regularly so long as feed is provided.

Molly’s going to be so entertained. 🙂

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Cats

The World’s Email Encryption Software Relies on One Guy, Who is Going Broke

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Julia Angwin reports for ProPublica:

The man who built the free email encryption software used by whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as hundreds of thousands of journalists, dissidents and security-minded people around the world, is running out of money to keep his project alive.

Werner Koch wrote the software, known as Gnu Privacy Guard, in 1997, and since then has been almost single-handedly keeping it alive with patches and updates from his home in Erkrath, Germany. Now 53, he is running out of money and patience with being underfunded.

“I’m too idealistic,” he told me in an interview at a hacker convention in Germany in December. “In early 2013 I was really about to give it all up and take a straight job.” But then the Snowden news broke, and “I realized this was not the time to cancel.”

Like many people who build security software, Koch believes that offering the underlying software code for free is the best way to demonstrate that there are no hidden backdoors in it giving access to spy agencies or others. However, this means that many important computer security tools are built and maintained by volunteers.

Now, more than a year after Snowden’s revelations, Koch is still struggling to raise enough money to pay himself and to fulfill his dream of hiring a full-time programmer. He says he’s made about $25,000 per year since 2001 — a fraction of what he could earn in private industry. In December, he launched a fundraising campaign that has garnered about $43,000 to date — far short of his goal of $137,000 — which would allow him to pay himself a decent salary and hire a full-time developer.

The fact that so much of the Internet’s security software is underfunded is becoming increasingly problematic. Last year, in the wake of the Heartbleed bug, I wrote that while the U.S. spends more than $50 billion per year on spying and intelligence, pennies go to Internet security. The bug revealed that an encryption program used by everybody from Amazon to Twitter was maintained by just four programmers, only one of whom called it his full-time job. A group of tech companies stepped in to fund it.

Koch’s code powers most of the popular email encryption programs GPGTools, Enigmail, and GPG4Win. “If there is one nightmare that we fear, then it’s the fact that Werner Koch is no longer available,” said Enigmail developer Nicolai Josuttis. “It’s a shame that he is alone and that he has such a bad financial situation.”

The programs are also underfunded. Enigmail is maintained by two developers in their spare time. Both have other full-time jobs. Enigmail’s lead developer, Patrick Brunschwig, told me that Enigmail receives about $1,000 a year in donations — just enough to keep the website online.

GPGTools, which allows users to encrypt email from Apple Mail, announced in October that it would start charging users a small fee. The other popular program, GPG4Win, is run by Koch himself. . .

Continue reading.

However, an update to the story is encouraging:

Update, Feb. 5, 2015, 5:55 p.m.: After this article appeared, Werner Koch informed us that last week he was awarded a one-time grant of $60,000 from  Linux Foundation’s Core Infrastructure Initiative.  Werner told us he only received permission to disclose it after our article published.  Meanwhile, since our story was posted, donations have also poured into Werner Koch’s  website donation page to the tune of nearly $50,000 so far.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 3:13 pm

The U.S. Government: Paying to Undermine Internet Security, Not to Fix It

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We are in a time of transition, in which the US government is gradually turning against its own citizens, and the harbingers of the change are seen on every hand. Julian Angwin reports for ProPublica:

The Heartbleed computer security bug is many things: a catastrophic

tech failure, an open invitation to criminal hackers and yet another reason to upgrade our passwords on dozens of websites. But more than anything else, Heartbleed reveals our neglect of Internet security.

The United States spends more than $50 billion a year on spying and intelligence, while the folks who build important defense software — in this case a program called OpenSSL that ensures that your connection to a website is encrypted — are four core programmers, only one of whom calls it a full-time job.

In a typical year, the foundation that supports OpenSSL receives just $2,000 in donations. The programmers have to rely on consulting gigs to pay for their work. “There should be at least a half dozen full time OpenSSL team members, not just one, able to concentrate on the care and feeding of OpenSSL without having to hustle commercial work,” says Steve Marquess, who raises money for the project.

Is it any wonder that this Heartbleed bug slipped through the cracks?

Dan Kaminsky, a security researcher who saved the Internet from a similarly fundamental flaw back in 2008, says that Heartbleed shows that it’s time to get “serious about figuring out what software has become Critical Infrastructure to the global economy, and dedicating genuine resources to supporting that code.”

The Obama Administration has said it is doing just that with its national cybersecurity initiative, which establishes guidelines for strengthening the defense of our technological infrastructure — but it does not provide funding for the implementation of those guidelines.

Instead, the National Security Agency, which has responsibility to protect U.S. infrastructure, has worked to weaken encryption standards. And so private websites — such as Facebook and Google, which were affected by Heartbleed — often use open-source tools such as OpenSSL, where the code is publicly available and can be verified to be free of NSA backdoors.

The federal government spent at least $65 billion between 2006 and 2012 to secure its own networks, according to a February report from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. And many critical parts of the private sector — such as nuclear reactors and banking — follow sector-specific cybersecurity regulations.

But private industry has also failed to fund its critical tools. As cryptographer Matthew Green says, “Maybe in the midst of patching their servers, some of the big companies that use OpenSSL will think of tossing them some real no-strings-attached funding so they can keep doing their job.”

In the meantime, the rest of us are left with the unfortunate job of changing all our passwords, which may have been stolen from websites that were using the broken encryption standard. It’s unclear whether the bug was exploited by criminals or intelligence agencies. (The NSA says it didn’t know about it.) [It should be noted that the NSA routinely and repeatedly lies—nothing that the NSA can be trusted. – LG] . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 3:08 pm

Editorial in the NY Times: Will Anyone Pay for Abu Ghraib?

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Of course, the torture at Abu Ghraib pales beside CIA torture and murder, and the perpetrators of those have been protected by President Obama, who has refused to take any action to enforce the law. And I’m sure that the defense attorneys for the contractors will ask why the CIA and those in the White House who worked hard to create a torture regime get a free pass. The editorial begins:

What happened at the Abu Ghraib prison during the early days of the Iraq war is no secret: The whole world has seen the appalling photos.

Detainees under American control were raped, beaten, shocked, stripped, starved of food and sleep, hung by their wrists, threatened with death and, in at least one case, murdered. These are war crimes, punishable under both American and international law. [President Obama, however, disagrees. – LG]

Yet more than a decade after the fact, only a few low-level military personnelhave been held criminally accountable for the abuse and torture that went on there. Meanwhile, the private companies that contracted with the United States military to help “interrogate” detainees are still trying to avoid any accounting at all by civilian courts. They had no problem taking taxpayers’ money, but when it comes to taking responsibility for their role at the prison, they try to hide behind a web of convoluted arguments that would render them legally untouchable.

On Friday, a federal trial court in Virginia will consider whether two of these contractors — CACI International Inc. and L-3 Services Inc. — can be sued for damages in American courts.

The hearing is the latest in a long-running civil suit first brought in 2008 by four Iraqi men alleging that they were tortured on the orders of private contractors at Abu Ghraib. All four were eventually released without charge, and their suit may be the last chance to hold anyone to account for the atrocities committed at the prison.

CACI and L-3 have claimed, among other things, that their employees had nothing to do with any torture, and that they are not liable in any case because they were acting under the complete control of the military.

Reports prepared in the wake of the prison scandal say otherwise. Whatever chain of command was written into the terms of the contract, military investigators found that in day-to-day practice, there was “no credible exercise of appropriate oversight” of the contractors. According to one report, the torture and abuse were the work of “morally corrupt” military personnel and the contractors who told them to “soften up” detainees for interrogation. [Mote that those military personnel get off scot-free. – LG]

Last June, a federal appeals court rejected one of the contractors’ latest attempts to avoid the courts, which was based on the fact that the acts occurred outside the United States. But it ordered the trial court to determine whether CACI and L-3 might still avoid liability under the “political question” doctrine. This murky concept, nearly as old as the Supreme Court itself, holds that courts are not authorized or equipped to resolve certain matters — like some military decisions or aspects of foreign relations — and must leave them to the other branches of government.

The doctrine has its place, but it should not be invoked to protect the civilian contractors in this case, who are not subject to the military justice system. Sheltering them from the federal courts as well means they can operate with impunity

That accountability gap becomes a bigger concern as the military relies increasingly on contractors. By 2010, a quarter-million contractor employees were working for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — more than the total number of United States troops. And despite the reports’ findings and the Abu Ghraib lawsuit, CACI, which was paid more than $19 million for its work at the prison, continues to collect millions in government contracts. . .

Continue reading.

The accountability gap not only covers contractors, but also the military and the CIA and the White House personnel who put together the torture program: NONE have been held accountable.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 3:03 pm

The Town Where Everyone Got Free Money

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Whitney Mallett reports at Motherboard:

The motto of Dauphin, Manitoba, a small farming town in the middle of Canada, is “everything you deserve.” What a citizen deserves, and what effects those deserts have, was a question at the heart of a 40-year-old experiment that has lately become a focal point in a debate over social welfare that’s raging from Switzerland to Silicon Valley.

Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government tested the idea of a basic income guarantee (BIG) across an entire town, giving people enough money to survive in a way that no other place in North America has before or since. For those four years—until the project was cancelled and its findings packed away—the town’s poorest residents were given monthly checks that supplemented what modest earnings they had and rewarded them for working more. And for that time, it seemed that the effects of poverty began to melt away. Doctor and hospital visits declined, mental health appeared to improve, and more teenagers completed high school.

“Do we have to behave in particular ways to justify compassion and support?” Evelyn Forget, a Canadian social scientist who unearthed ​some of the findings of the Dauphin experiment, asked me rhetorically when I reached her by phone. “Or is simply human dignity enough?”

Critics of basic income guarantees have insisted that giving the poor money would disincentivize them to work, and point to studies that show ​a drop in peoples’ willingness to work under pilot programs. But in Dauphin—thought to be the largest such experiment conducted in North America—the experimenters found that the primary breadwinner in the families who received stipends were in fact not less motivated to work than before. Though there was some reduction in work effort from mothers of young children and teenagers still in high school—mothers wanted to stay at home longer with their newborns and teenagers weren’t under as much pressure to support their families—the reduction was not anywhere close to disastrous, as skeptics had predicted.

“People work hard and it’s still not enough,” Doreen Henderson, who is now 70 and was a participant in the experiment, told the Wi​nnipeg Free Pres​s​ in 2009. Her husband Hugh, now 73, worked as a janitor while she stayed at home with their two kids. Together they raised chickens and grew a lot of their own food. “They should have kept it,” she said of the minimum income program. “It made a real difference.”

The recovered data from “Mincome,” as the Dauphin experiment was known, has given more impetus to a growing call for some sort of guaranteed income. This year, the Swis​s Parliament will vote on whether to extend a monthly stipend to all residents, and the Indian government has already begun replacing aid programs with direct cash transfers. Former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich has called a BIG “alm​ost inevitable.” In the US, Canada, and much of Western Europe, where the conversation around radically adapting social security remains mostly hypothetical, the lessons of Dauphin might be especially relevant in helping these ideas materialize sooner rather than later.

There are other compelling arguments for a guaranteed income now. Despite record corporate earnings, most people are not benefitting. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, ​student debt and health care costs are soaring, and the job market is not rewarding those who are already employed with enough money for a decent way of life. The so-called ​Uberization of the workforce, in which workers are paid by the task rather than on a salary or under an established hourly rate—is increasing the precariousness of work. (And that’s not to mention ​robots and artificial intelligence taking away jobs.) As the concept of universal healthcare spreads and minimum wage is debated, conversations around reconsidering or expanding social security are growing.

“Originally the interest was primarily prompted by the concern that the welfare system was discouraging people from working,” Ron Hikel, who coordinated the Mincome program, ​told Dutch television last y​ear. Today, he says, the motivation for guaranteed income is an increase in inequality. “At some point, the income inequality begins to interfere with people’s ability to have education, and also to take care of their own health. To the extent that that effects the relations in society, it begins to accentuate divisions and differences, and you get an increase in social pathologies, alcohol addiction, the use of drugs, an increase in mental illness, a decrease in provision of educational courses and an increase in the crime rate.”

In the US, support for basic income has come not just from the left but, perhaps surprisingly, from the right, and ​especially from libertarians. . .

Continue reading.

I very much like the idea of a basic guaranteed income—and it’s not as though we cannot afford it, given a rational tax structure. We’re all in this together, and none of us will make it out alive, so we should do what we can to help one another.

Keep in the mind the disastrous psychological costs of great wealth: a significant drop in ethics, morality, and honesty, and in extreme cases, pathological narcissism.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

Sami Al-Arian, Professor Who Defeated Controversial Terrorism Charges, Is Deported From U.S.

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Deporting the man seems mostly an act of petulance, since he was not found guilty of any of the charges. Murtaza Hussain and Glenn Greenwald report:

In 2003, Sami Al-Arian was a professor at the University of South Florida, a legal resident of the U.S. since 1975, and one of the most prominent Palestinian civil rights activists in the U.S. That year, the course of his life was altered irrevocably when he was indicted on highly controversial terrorism charges by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. These charges commenced a decade-long campaign of government persecution in which Al-Arian was systematically denied his freedom and saw his personal and professional life effectively destroyed.

Despite the personal harm he suffered and the intense surveillance to which he had been subjected since as early as 1993, the government ultimately failed to produce any evidence of Al-Arian’s involvement in terrorist activities, instead relying at trial overwhelmingly on the pro-Palestinian writing and speaking he had done over the years.

His ordeal finally ended last night, 12 years after it began, as Al-Arian was deported yesterday at midnight (EST) from the United States to Turkey. His deportation was part of a 2006 plea bargain to which he acquiesced in order, he told the Intercept last night while at the airport preparing to leave the U.S., to “conclude his case and bring an end to his family’s suffering.” Al-Arian added: “I came to the United States for freedom, but four decades later, I am leaving to gain my freedom.”

A 2003 Justice Department investigation led by Ashcroft allegedly implicated Al-Arian and 8 other men for allegedly supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group which had been designated a terrorist organization under the Clinton administration for carrying out bombings and other attacks in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. Ironically, Al-Arian had been a prominent supporter of Clinton, and even met Clinton in the White House. “If I were a terrorist,” he once told the Intercept, “I could have stabbed Bill Clinton with a pen when I was standing two feet away from him in the White House.” In 2000, he supported the Bush campaign (after Bush denounced racial profiling).

Al-Arian, while a Professor at the University of South Florida, was indicted on multiple counts for allegedly providing “material support” to the group and fundraising on their behalf in the United States. In the press conference announcing the indictment, Ashcroft claimed that Al-Arian and his co-defendants “financed, extolled and assisted acts of terror,” and praised the recently passed Patriot Act as being instrumental to helping bring about the charges.

The charges were part of a broader post-9/11 campaign to by the U.S. Government to criminalize aid and support to Palestinians, as exemplified by the successful prosecution of five officials of what had been the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., the Holy Land Foundation. Those charity officials are now serving decades in prison for sending money to Palestinians which, it was alleged, made its way to designated terror groups in the Occupied Territories.

For most of the three years after his arrest, Al-Arian was kept in solitary confinement awaiting trial. During this time, he was regularly subjected to strip-searches, denied normal visitation rights with his family, and allegedly abused by prison staff. Amnesty International denounced the circumstances of his detention as “gratuitously punitive” and in violation of international standards on the treatment of prisoners.

When Al-Arian’s case did finally reach trial after years of harsh imprisonment, prosecutors failed to convict Al-Arian on even one charge brought against him. Jurors voted to acquit him on the most serious counts he faced and deadlocked on the remainder of the indictments.

The outcome was hugely embarrassing for the U.S. Government. Despite having amassed over 20,000 hours of phone conversations and hundreds of fax messages from over a decade of surveilling Al-Arian, the DOJ – even with all the advantages they enjoyed in terrorism cases in 2003 (and continue to enjoy today) – was unable to convince a jury Al-Arian was the arch-terrorist they had very publicly proclaimed him to be.

Indeed, instead of producing evidence that Al-Arian was involved in actual “terrorism,” the government attempted to use as evidence copies of books and magazines Al-Arian had owned in a failed effort to convince the jury to convict him of apparent thought crimes.

This effort failed and a jury ruled to acquit Al-Arian on 8 out of 17 charges while failing to come to a verdict on the remainder. . .

Continue reading.

The US government is not so much interested in justice as in power.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 12:23 pm

Who gets to see police bodycam footage?

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Kevin Drum has a very thoughtful post, in the light of LAPD’s decision to equip its officers with bodycams, on who exactly should be allowed to view the footage. Well worth the click, and note this chart from his post:

rialto_bodycamI think it’s worth observing that, while one might expect wearing a bodycam would exercise a certain restrain on police misbehavior, it undoubtedly has the same effect on the civilians involved: if they know they are being videorecorded, they are apt to behave more properly, not wanting their misbehavior part of the record.

In a word, police bodycams seem to be a win for both police and civilians. But the question of who gets to review the videos is critical and is somewhat knotty, as Drum points out.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 11:41 am

Good shave with Above the Tie and Mickey Lee

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SOTD 5 Feb 2015

Fine shave except that I discovered that SuperMax Stainless Steel blades do not work well for me: I had to struggle a bit to get an acceptable result.

But first was the lather. The grey badger from made a fine lather with Mickey Lee’s Italian Stallion shaving soap, and I enjoyed taking my time in working it into my beard before the first pass.

Three passes with the ATT R1 razor and Atlas handle—a handle whose knurling I like a lot, but that I wish was 4″ long instead of 3.5″.

A squirt of Italian Stallion aftershave milk, with its wonderful (to me) fragrance, and the day gets underway.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2015 at 9:42 am

Posted in Shaving

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