Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tom Tomorrow: —
'2013: The Year In Crazy' Part I

Click to view original cartoon
Via Kos. H/T ellroon for link. Happy 2014 to all of you (both of you) who still read this virtual rag!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Haste Waste To The Wedding: At Least 8 Wedding Parties Struck By US Drones Or Piloted Aircraft Since 2001

Two articles provide the horrifying details. Rather than quote extensively, I'll let the articles speak for themselves. First, from Tom Engelhardt, via The Nation:

The US Has Bombed at Least Eight Wedding Parties Since 2001

Next, a piece by Heather Linebaugh, former US Air Force intelligence imagery and geo-spatial analyst, writing for The Guardian:

I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on

(H/T BrandonJ at FDL for both links.)

Several thoughts, in no particular order:

Ms. Linebaugh remarks on the frequent severe psychological damage inflicted on drone operators and analysts by their work: the perpetual mental "videos" of drone kills running in one's mind; the (not surprisingly undocumented) suicide rate of drone analysts and operators. Two of her immediate colleagues committed suicide shortly after leaving the Air Force. Apparently the remoteness of drone targets is no insulation against the horrors of inflicting a particularly gruesome death. And there's always, always a feeling of uncertainty about whether the targeted people were indeed carrying weapons, or engaging in terrorist operations, or indeed anything other than civilians going about their nonthreatening daily business: was that individual carrying an assault rifle or a shovel? the drone camera images are too pixelated to tell you.

As for the wedding parties, do I even need to comment? Are the troops so under-trained, or the weapons so horrifyingly imprecise, that either the operators cannot tell if the targets are hostiles, or the drones themselves cannot "surgically" strike the bad guys? If so, why is the great United States of America using the damned things? If it is true that one can tell a lot about a nation by the ways they wage war, I can only imagine what America's use of drones says about our nation's character.

Aftermath of drone that killed
American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (via PBS)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Not News, Hardly Surprising, But Essential: Post Office Photos All Mail Covers For Law Enforcement

I missed this altogether five months ago when it was reported, but it is so much in keeping with all the stuff going down today that I believe it should be noted. From the NYT:

U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement

Published: July 3, 2013

WASHINGTON — Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. ...


Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.

Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.

It is hardly surprising that if email, telephone and web-based communications are subject to universal and warrantless government surveillance, so is plain old postal mail.

Warrantless? What about the Fourth Amendment's reference to "papers"? Well, since the name-and-address information outside an envelope is "voluntarily" given to a government entity (actually its agent, USPS), there is no need for a warrant. According to the article, "[t]ens of thousands" of pieces of mail out of the millions sent each year are scrutinized on behalf of law enforcement. Were you an activist when you were young? It could be your mail.

Your tax dollars and your postage at work...

Friday, December 27, 2013

Federal Judge Rules Nothing Can Possibly Challenge PATRIOT Act Section 215 — UPDATED 2x

Kevin Gosztola of FDL:

Judge Defends Government Secrecy & Dismisses ACLU Lawsuit Challenging NSA Surveillance Program

... Friday December 27, 2013

A federal judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection of Americans’ phone records is “lawful” and not unconstitutional.

The ruling comes just over a week after another federal judge ruled in a similar lawsuit that the surveillance program violates Americans’ privacy rights and James Madison, one of America’s founding fathers, would be “aghast” if he was alive to see this program.

Judge William H. Pauley, appointed by President Bill Clinton, did find that the ACLU had standing. The ACLU had not had been granted standing in its case against dragnet warrantless NSA surveillance before the Supreme Court and the lawsuit was dismissed. However, Pauley found that Congress had precluded challenges to the provision of the PATRIOT Act known as section 215, which the government has claimed grants the power to indiscriminately collect Americans’ phone records from telecommunications companies. He also did not find the constitutional claims argued by the ACLU had any merit.

“Allowing any challenge to a section 215 order by anyone other than a recipient would undermine the government’s vital interest in keeping the details of its metadata collection program secret,” he wrote in his decision. “It would also—because of the scope of the program—allow virtually any telephone subscriber to challenge a section 215 order.” Congress “intended to preclude statutory causes of action.”

[Bolds mine. - SB]

So a federal judge, a Bill Clinton appointee, has ruled that God can make a stone so heavy S/He cannot lift it Congress can pass a law whose constitutionality cannot be challenged by other branches of government through ordinary judicial processes.

This cannot end well. This cannot end with the survival, intact, of the Constitution of the United States of America.

UPDATE: patrick devlin at FDL offers thoughts worthy of our attention, notwithstanding a few punctuation and syntax problems:
... a federal judge (appointed by Democratic president Bill Clinton), has established as federal case law that citizens cannot have privacy in their associations and communications under American law and have no right to challenge what the US government has acknowledged is complete and continuous spying within the US court system.

Furthermore, the judge declared that the personal communications of Americans and the citizens of other countries, even as these communications are the physical expressions that reveal the personal cogitative energies carried out by individual humans – the thoughts that are our own and that we understand to be ‘self-expressions’, are in fact not “owned” by us (the expressing individuals) but, are rather the personal possessions of the data service and communications businesses upon whose equipment we hire to deliver our personal ideas and expressions through. As in: the above 2 sentences are the personal possession of the dizzying array of owners, renters, users, firewall builders, server operators and data transmitting and information storing entities who may desire to lay claim to the above two comma laden attempts at cogitation&communication (& this one, too).


As inheritors of the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution, we can rest easy because all of this personal rights subversion and annihilation is being carried out as a “counter punch” [ed. note: the judge's words, not devlin's] by our protecting homeland security operatives against the “al-Qaeda’s terror network,” ...

Further, and most importantly as it coagulates our proctors’ in big business, our elected leaders and now the court system, vision of a new American philosophy of freedom, we must understand and accept the notion that;
Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law…the success of one helps protect the other. Like the 9/11 Commission observed: The choice between liberty and security is a false one, as nothing is more apt to imperil civil liberties than the success of a terrorist attack on American soil.
One may ask if Pauley’s ruling is not itself the creation of case law that pours poison on the soil of American democracy and its citizens’ rights in an effort to render that fertile ground permanently barren; ...

Yes, it's a "counter punch," all right...

... though a head might be a better emblem than a fist.

UPDATE: emptywheel is also worth reading on the subject.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Pedro Memelsdorf And Mala Punica Perform Johannes Ciconia At 2013 Utrecht Festival

We go from the utterly ridiculous (see previous post) to the truly sublime...

An hour ago I was listening to a 1995 recording by recorder player Pedro Memelsdorff (bio, photos) and harpsichordist Andreas Staier of two-part English consorts in the second half of the 17th century... John Playford, William Lawes, Matthew Locke, etc.

But I wasn't content to stop there. I googled Memelsdorff, and found a veritable gold mine of material on him. He has grown; his art has grown and the scope of his activities has broadened immensely. Memelsdorff, born in Buenos Aires and active in Europe since the 1970s, seems to have been known back in 1995 primarily as a truly excellent recorder player, and no doubt he still is, but since then both his ambitions and his skills have diversified greatly.

Now director of the long-famous Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, he also formed and performs with the group Mala Punica (Lat. "pomegranate"), a group devoted to historically plausible (and artistically stunning) performances of, among other things, works in the ars subtilior ("the more subtle art") style, an intentionally complex and avant‑garde style in parts of France and Spain at the end of the 14th century. The work they perform in the video below is by Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370‑1412), at the 2013 Festival Oude Muziek ([Utrecht] Festival of Early Music), in the Geertekerk (St. Gertrude of Nivelles Church).

After truly TMI, here is the Ciconia performance. Is it avant‑garde enough for you? It sounds pretty forward-leaning to me!

The First Day After Christmas

This may not be the most artistically satisfying musical post you ever see on this blog, but it gets the point across. And I kinda like her "red dress of grievances"; I guess that's for the first day after Festivus...

Just in case you can't catch them all, here are the lyrics, more or less. And just to be really clear, no, my true love and I did not have a fight...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Why is the Star so seldom shown
at the left of the picture?
... to all my Christian relatives and friends. A belated Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends. To the rest of my friends, Happy Festivus, or Winter Solstice, or Samhain, or NODWISH (NOn-Denominational WInter Solstice Holiday) as appropriate.

Oh... and to Bill O'Reilly, Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Florida Town Bans All Holiday Displays On Public Property To Keep Out Festivus Pole, Then Changes Rules And Puts Up Manger Scene

If you ever wondered what Christian Floridians learned from the story of Christmas, here's the answer: lie, cheat or steal to keep out the competition. From Raw Story:
In 2012, the mayor of Deerfield Beach had given in to atheist Chaz Stevens and the American Civil Liberty Union, allowing an 8-foot-tall Festivus pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans to be placed alongside a manger and Menorah. Festivus is a secular holiday created by the television show Seinfield, which some atheists celebrate on Dec. 23.

But to prevent Stevens from putting up the pole again this year, a city spokesperson told the Sun Sentinel that it had banned all holiday displays that it did not put up itself. Many thought that it meant that there would be no Nativity scene because the display belonged to a private business.


In the meantime, a Nativity scene reappeared at Deerfield Beach Fire Station No. 1.

Chaz expressed his outraged in a video posted to YouTube late last week.

Yep, that's Bible Belt Christianity for you. "Let us prey [sic]..."

The High Cost Of Privatizing Governmental Functions

Before I retired, or rather, was retired by the Great Recession, I spent approximately half my career as an employee and half my career as an independent contractor. In both roles, I spent, again, about half my time working for government entities and half my time working for private corporations. This not only gives me more perspective than usual on both sides of the great government/private enterprise divide, but also leads me to an observation:
I was the same worker, whether employee or contractor, whether working for government or working for private enterprise. In the four possible categories, there was effectively no difference in the quality of my work or the diligence of my approach. And the same is true of the workers I saw around me. There is no basis in typical employee quality to prefer a private enterprise over a public effort.
So it was with considerable interest that I read an opinion piece by Truthout's Ellen Dannin, "Who're You Rootin' for - Team Public or Team Private?" The piece is long enough and well-documented enough throughout that it is almost an insult to call it an opinion piece. Among other things, Ms. Dannin explores OMB's Circular A‑76, the root document addressing government's official position on privatization:
At the federal level, privatization takes a number of forms that are regulated by the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A‑76. Its basic principle is:
In the process of governing, the Government should not compete with its citizens. The competitive enterprise system, characterized by individual freedom and initiative, is the primary source of national economic strength. In recognition of this principle, it has been and continues to be the general policy of the Government to rely on commercial sources to supply the products and services the Government needs.
What this means is that each federal agency or department must devote time and money to A‑76 competitions, the process that determines whether work will stay in-house or be privatized. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's process, which is typical, is used here to illustrate the process and philosophy of federal privatization.
The key concept of A‑76 is that competition enhances quality, economy and productivity. OMB Circular A‑76 provides procedures to conduct managed competitions between public and private sectors. Such competitions will determine whether it's more efficient for a function to be performed by the private sector, by an in-house government workforce, or through an inter-service support agreement with another government activity. In A‑76 competitions, agencies and contractors are equal and viable competitors.
There is of course an obsession voiced constantly by conservatives that even the most intrinsically public functions of government should be privatized, both for their efficiency of performance and the resultant cost saving to the taxpayer. The implicit assumption... I've seldom seen it explicitly expressed in anything but the broadest handwaving arguments; more typically, it is simply assumed a priori by conservatives... is that privatization intrinsically always results in those efficiencies and cost savings. Ms. Dannin undertakes to examine that typically unstated assumption... and finds it wanting.

Ms. Dannin's conclusion puts paid to the whole conservative position on privatization:

At What Cost?

The goals of increased efficiency and cost savings are not unreasonable. But if the OMB were to identify and consider all costs relevant to deciding who will perform the work, the price of the analysis regularly would exceed any costs saved through privatization.

The Circular A‑76 process does a disservice to the nation by taking such a narrow, adversarial view of the relationships among government, the private sector, public servants and the public itself. By promoting the liberty concept of freedom from government only, Circular A‑76 ignores the government's many roles in promoting unity, justice, domestic peace and the public's welfare, not just for ourselves but also for those who come after us.
In other words, the whole conservative position on privatization is a consequence of pure ideology, having little if any basis in the reality of how work is done and how business is transacted. Even apart from the human costs, and those are not inconsiderable, privatization is an exceptionally expensive approach to those functions that are intrinsically governmental.

Conservatives should just get off their high horse about privatization. Not that I'm holding my breath awaiting their dismount...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

NSA Paid Encryption S/W Company To Place NSA Back Door

From Juan Cole at Informed Comment (whose site has a spiffy-looking redesign):

NSA bribed Encryption Companies to Install Back Doors: Was the Law Broken? Did Obama Know?

(By Juan Cole)
Reuters gets the scoop: the National Security Agency gave internet security firm RSA some $10 million to use an NSA encryption formula in its BSafe software. RSA is now a subsidiary of the EMC corporation, and they have urged customers not to use BSafe since the revelations by Edward Snowden made clear that the NSA’s formula in fact allowed the agency access to all the information supposedly encrypted with it.

This story should be a huge scandal, but I fear it won’t be. This is like the FDA paying a pharmaceutical company to carry a drug that does not work and could therefore leave patients open to dying from an untreated illness after taking medication they are assured will cure it. ...

The "bribe" (Cole's word, not mine) was immense, and amounted to ⅓ of RSA's corporate income last year. I cannot imagine for a moment that their personnel did not know about the back door, or that Obama was not informed of it. IMHO, this is NSA's worst transgression yet, and if Obama knew about the payoff (or, Dog forbid, secretly authorized it), he is guilty of a criminal act. Even absent his complicity, this is some serious shit.

One question remains: will RSA rename the s/w "BSorry"?


Mark Fiore: Jesus Rebranded

Brought to you by Daily Kos. The idea is not new, but as always, Fiore's execution of it is superb.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Is Wrong With This Conversation?

Chris Z, Jane's boss (of either sex): Here are your options for our company's medical insurance. Please select one by Tuesday.

Jane X, female employee: Hmm... I want a medical insurance plan that covers contraception. I want to use the morning-after pill. If my husband has a plan that covers erectile dysfunction medication, and we've already had as many kids as we want, I'd better be prepared. I don't see such a plan listed among my options. The Affordable Care Act requires that I be offered that option.

Chris: You can't have it. I am opposed to morning-after contraception on religious grounds. It's my company, and I won't offer a plan that covers that.

Jane: But I'm paying the premium. The law doesn't require you to pay for the plan, only to make it available.

Chris: I won't do it. It's against my religion, and this is a company of God-fearing people.

Jane: But it's not against my religion, and I'm as religious as you are. I'm the one paying for the coverage, not you, and the ACA requires that coverage. It's the law.

Chris: If you persist in demanding something I believe is immoral, I'll take the matter to federal court.

News Report: OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A federal judge granted an injunction Friday that prohibits the government from enforcing the federal health care law's requirement that insurance coverage include access to the morning-after pill and similar contraceptives on almost 200 religious organizations that have filed a class-action lawsuit to block the mandate. ...

Jane: But what about my religious freedom? You're requiring me to abide by the tenets of your religion. There was never such a clause in my contract with you. All I'm asking is that you comply with the law.

Chris: Well, I guess you'll just have to work for someone else. Please pack up your desk. An HR representative will see you to the door.

What is wrong with this conversation? Everything!

(NOTE: Chris and Jane are wholly fictional. The court ruling is not.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Penny, For Your Thoughts

I mean, specifically, Louise Penny, extraordinary mystery writer, winner of over a dozen major mystery awards, author of the Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du QuébecThree Pines series of novels. Penny, herself a Québécoise living in a small town south of Montreal, has been likened in craft, quality and verisimilitude of her plots and characters to Agatha Christie, and who am I to say otherwise. I believe she has published nine of the Gamache–Three Pines books so far, and as of today, I have read all of them.

Her most recent novel, How the Light Gets In (yes, the name is from the Leonard Cohen song, used by permission and referenced in the book), is a real page-turner, resolving many of the issues developed in the previous several novels. A recommendation: it helps to read the novels in order; that's the considered opinion of someone who did not. Another recommendation to anglophones: keep a French-English dictionary handy. That said, these are the most satisfying mysteries I have read in a long, long time.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

US District Court Judge Rules NSA Meta‑Data Collection Unconstitutional

From Myrddin at AMERICAblog:
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon has found that an NSA program collecting telephone ‘meta-data’ is unconstitutional.

Although the ruling is stayed pending inevitable appeal, the impact on the debate on the US dirty war of drone strikes, imprisonment without trial and mass surveillance is likely to be profound.

For years, we have been assured that the NSA surveillance programs are ‘unquestionably legal’. Which of course was technically true in the sense that nobody was able to challenge the programs in court because the NSA denied they existed.

Judge Leon’s ruling strips away the cloak of legality from the NSA operations, for a time at least. It will be many months before an appeals court hears the case, and many more months before there is a ruling. The Senate will have to hold hearings on replacement directors of the NSA and national intelligence first.


Morale at the NSA has collapsed. Job applications are down by a third, and retention has suffered too. ...

It couldn't happen to a nicer more appropriate agency.

It's winter, and you know about a snowball's chance in hell? IMHO, this ruling has about the same chance in SCOTUS...

Monday, December 16, 2013

'Pro‑Life' Legislation? 'Pro‑Rape' Is More Like It

Robin Marty at TPM discusses changes in Michigan law that makes it almost impossible for a woman to purchase private insurance with her own money that covers abortion... even when the pregnancy results from rape... without buying a separate "rider" explicitly covering the rape exception, a rider which is, effectively, utterly unavailable.

Marty says this:
Supporters called it “The Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.” Opponents referred to it as the “rape insurance” bill. ...
Of course, neither name reflects reality. What this law does in fact is authorize rapists to force their victims not only to have sex with them, but also to bear their child. "The Rapist Empowerment Act"? "The Woman As Reproductive Vessel Act"? Pick a name: under any name, this bill, which has passed in eight states including Michigan, point-blank deprives a woman not only of the right to decide whether to reproduce, but also of the right to choose the father of her children. Under such a law, a rapist off the street acquires the same parental rights as a consensual sex partner. And the woman... the woman has no rights at all.

These laws are being passed in states that have petition mechanisms by which citizens can introduce and pass laws, mechanisms which can completely circumvent the fundamental protection of a governor's veto. Government by the consent of the governed mutates into a kind of mob rule available to any large enough group of extremists. If you do not see the difference between laws created by this process and laws created by the more conventional legislative process, you are not thinking clearly. Only the latter laws really reflect the consent of the governed.

No one... no one... has a right to force a woman to bear a child conceived as a result of a sexual act in which her participation was involuntary... an assault, a rape. What's next... a reinstitution of droit du seigneur?

Paul Ryan: Debt Limit Standoff Worked So Badly For GOP Last Time, We Absolutely Must Do It Again

Sahil Kapur at TPMDC:
Republicans will return to debt limit brinkmanship with a new set of demands to avert default early in 2014, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan signaled on Sunday.

"We as a caucus, along with our Senate counterparts, are going to meet and discuss what it is we want to get out of the debt limit. We don't want nothing out of this debt limit. We're going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight," Ryan said on "Fox News Sunday," taking a victory lap after his bipartisan budget deal easily passed the House on Thursday.

The Wisconsin Republican's remarks hint that while government shutdowns may be averted for the next two years -- pending Senate passage of the two-year agreement he struck with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) -- the GOP isn't ready to lift the country's borrowing limit without a fight. He indicated that Republicans will come up with their ransom demand when they meet after the holiday recess.
"We're going to meet in our retreats after the holidays and discuss exactly what it is we're going to try and get for this," he said.

When I first read "We don't want nothing out of this debt limit," I thought Ryan had stumbled into a common grammatical atrocity, right out in front of Dog 'n' everybody. But no, he used the clause as if it were followed by the qualifier, "which is what we got last time."

This scarcely requires an answer, but for Mr. Ryan's education, I'll offer a definition attributed to Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Is the GOP there yet?

Beethoven's (Probable) Birthday, 1712

No questions, I presume... if you do have any, start here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Chang'e Lands Successfully On Moon

Remember Chang'e, the Chinese space vehicle intended to soft-land on the Moon and deploy a rover? Via Bryan of Why Now?, the AP on CBC informs us it arrived successfully and is leaving "deep traces on [the Moon's] loose soil" today. (See video on linked page.)

When I was 10 years old I assumed this sort of event would be routine by now. Because Saint Ronald Reagan effectively abandoned any aspect of the American space program that could not be turned directly to military purposes, it has actually been almost 40 years since America left the moon. America gave up space research, and humankind is the poorer for it.

Congratulations to China. It is good to know that as America abandons its creative technological past in favor of direct transfers of taxpayers' money to already wealthy people, at least one nation intends to revive and continue the efforts America gave up.

Hey, maybe we can ask China for a lift to the International Space Station. We've been depending on Russia to move people there and back...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Economic Inequality: The Defining Challenge Of Progressivism?

Paul Krugman argues, tepidly but indisputably, yes, after due consideration, inequality is our fundamental issue.


The key point, however, is that the case for regarding inequality as a major, indeed defining challenge — and as something that should be at the center of progressive concerns — rests on multiple pillars. Taken together, the reasons to focus on inequality are overwhelmingly convincing, even if you can be skeptical about particular arguments.

Let me make four points.

Which he proceeds to do, and they are persuasive. Please read them in their original context.

This may all sound very abstract and econo‑philosophical, but it is hard as nails for people who are unemployed or otherwise shunted to the low end of economic inequality, and ultimately inequality is what must be fixed, in some measure, if we want to congratulate ourselves on running a fair and just society. Ceaselessly pointing out unjust inequality and ways it can be addressed is not class warfare: it is the path to our society's survival.

Friday, December 13, 2013

New Old Music: A Telemann Recorder Concerto I Had Never Heard Before

Oberlender Alto Recorder, 18th century
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) composed so much music in total, and so much of his music comprises recorder solos, and so many of those are among the great virtuoso works of the recorder literature, that it is not too surprising that I reached age 65 without ever encountering this work (cataloged as TWV 51:C1), let alone performing it. Please enjoy this fine performance by Swedish recorder player Dan Laurin with the Polish ensemble Arte dei Suonatori, and Mark Caudle, viola da gamba.


Santa And Jesus: Are Either Or Both Of Them... Caucasian White?

After Megyn Kelly and other Fox Folx assert they were, Jon Stewart and Jessica Williams discuss the matter:

(OK someone or something is intermittently blocking display of the video on this site. If you can't view it here, go see it on TPM; see if I care!)

The 'R' Word — Robert Reich Says It Right Out Loud

Robert Reich:
Robert Reich
The President’s speech [12/4] on inequality avoided the “R” word. No politician wants to mention “redistribution” because it conjures up images of worthy “makers” forced to hand over hard-earned income to undeserving “takers.”

But as low-wage work proliferates in America, so-called takers are working as hard if not harder than anyone else, and often at more than one job.

Yet they’re still not making it because the twin forces of globalization and technological change have reduced their bargaining power ...

Better education and training for those on the losing end is critically important, as will several of the other proposals the President listed. But they will only go so far.

The number of losers is growing so quickly, and so much of the economies’ winnings are going to a small group at the top — since the recovery began, 95 percent of the gains have gone to the richest 1 percentthat some direct redistribution of the gains is necessary. [Bolds mine. - SB]

Hear, hear. No magic of the marketplace can make anything resembling an equitable correction to this problem in a time‑frame preventing tragic human consequences, especially given who really runs our "free" market and what the consequences are... namely, none... for abusing that market to the advantage of the very wealthy. "Makers" and "takers," my fxxking a$$... in reality, which is which?

So... what will the losers in this rigged game do about their loss? Reich continues:

Without some redistribution, the losers are likely to react in ways that could hurt the economy. They’ll demand protection from global markets they believe are taking away good jobs, and even from certain technological advances that threaten to displace them (rather than smash the machines, as did England’s 19th-century Luddites, they’ll seek regulations that preserve the old jobs). [Bolds mine. - SB]

I don't know; smashing some servers might have some effectiveness. I don't recommend it only because for many of us it would make our lives more difficult, but the thought of it and the reminder of such response during the industrial revolution should lead the bosses to offer displaced workers some of the aforementioned protection... or appropriate redistribution.

Politicians dare not say the "R" word because redistribution is perceived as unfair to hardworking individuals. What, then, are we to call it when the forbidden word correctly names the only concept that results in actual fairness to a vast number of unemployed, underemployed or just plain underpaid Americans? An unpleasant name doesn't change the fact that everyone has a right to earn a living... and many among us are unable to do so under current conditions.

A word to our leaders: it doesn't matter what you call it, it's the right thing to do... just do it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Cold (Cyber) War

According to NSA's Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA sees massive data acquisition, even on American citizens, as analogous to the arms race in the Cold War. Yes, that Cold War. Remember how, if the Commies were reported to have a specific kind of weapon, something dread and terrible, even something capable of wiping out all of humankind, it was absolutely essential that the US have the same weapon, only better? Remember the arms race? Remember how secure it made us feel when our bombs were bigger than Soviet bombs? (Don't worry... I don't remember that last one either. The whole Cold War thing scared me shitless. YMMV.)

Well, that's how Alexander, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the massive warrantless data collection on American citizens: other nations' security agencies do it, so America has to do it to compete. And some senators... indeed, some Democratic senators... agreed with him.

As one commenter remarked (more or less), didn't Alexander's mother ever ask little Keithie if he would jump over a cliff just because one of his buddies jumped over a cliff? Are we in this helluva fix because the good General failed to absorb that one tiny bit of maternal wisdom?

Caution: small representation
appears much clearer than
data actually retrieved
This is fucking nuts. It would be nuts even if its implementation didn't cost a fortune. It would be nuts even if it didn't compromise the privacy of every American and most every other human being who has a phone or an internet connection. It would be nuts even if it didn't give even America's allies good reason to mistrust the United States. It would be nuts even if it didn't drive America's adversaries to prepare for an otherwise wholly needless war against the United States.

But it does. And it does. And it does. And it does.

I remember, decades ago, chatting during a rehearsal break with the very conservative husband of one of my musical colleagues. How we got off on the subject of nuclear disarmament I do not remember; I generally avoid such no-win debates. But I remember his stating as a premise... a fact already in evidence, to be assumed, something not necessary to demonstrate... that any weapon the Soviet Union had, the US must develop and deploy in more than equal quantities. That was his starting point. I didn't bother challenging him further: someone who believes that is unlikely to understand why that approach is a terrible idea.

And now we are repeating the whole cycle, this time with online weapons. I won't say it is more dangerous to our physical existence than the nuclear arms race was (and is). But it is every bit as hazardous to our fundamental rights and liberties. It is not an exaggeration to say that we've already lost them and must struggle to regain them. In this "era of Big Data," God help America, because Americans like Alexander sure as hell won't.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Shop Online? NSA Is Probably Watching You

Via teacherken at Daily Kos, we have Washington Post's "The Switch" blog informing us:

NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking

By Ashkan Soltani, Andrea Peterson, and Barton Gellman — December 10 at 8:50 pm

... [image of slide from NSA internal presentation]

The National Security Agency is secretly piggybacking on the tools that enable Internet advertisers to track consumers, using "cookies" and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.

The agency's internal presentation slides, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, show that when companies follow consumers on the Internet to better serve them advertising, the technique opens the door for similar tracking by the government. The slides also suggest that the agency is using these tracking techniques to help identify targets for offensive hacking operations.

For years, privacy advocates have raised concerns about the use of commercial tracking tools to identify and target consumers with advertisements. The online ad industry has said its practices are innocuous and benefit consumers by serving them ads that are more likely to be of interest to them.

The revelation that the NSA is piggybacking on these commercial technologies could shift that debate, handing privacy advocates a new argument for reining in commercial surveillance.

NSA Co-opted Spokesmonster
I know of no way to beat this surveillance, short of using one computer and 'net connection for shopping, and another computer and 'net connection for anything you want to keep safe from NSA hacking. Maybe two virtual machines would do; I don't know. But NSA is determined to divert and use every scrap of information you share with anyone or any company, for NSA's own purposes of... well, what? Who knows... anything they damned well please. I can't imagine all their intentions are benign.

Warrants for these NSA searches? You must be joking. Presumption of innocence? "Innocence? That's so... 19th century," as a friend says in a recent comment. You think all the invasive practices of the NSA don't affect you because you don't have anything to hide? See if that makes any difference when someone, somewhere in government or law enforcement, decides they have a bone to pick with you. You're damned right it affects you. But... go ahead, enjoy your delusions while you can; I won't try to stop you.

Unemployment Benefits Will Probably Expire

Sahil Kapur of TPM:
1 Opening for every 3 Unemployed
Unemployment benefits will likely expire as scheduled on Dec. 28 for some 1.3 million Americans who are looking for work.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) revealed Wednesday that Democrats will push "after the new year" to extend the federal emergency compensation program for those out of work.

"I believe, as many Democrats do, that an extension of emergency unemployment insurance should be included in this package," he said Wednesday in remarks on the Senate floor. "I'll stand up for those Americans who want to get back to work as soon as possible but face a market where there is only one job opening for every three unemployed workers. That's why we're going to push here after the first of the year for an extension of unemployment insurance -- when the Senate convenes after the new year." ...

House Republicans have been calling this week for an end to emergency unemployment benefits, citing an increase in the number of jobs added in November and a decrease in the (official) unemployment rate. "Bursts of speed right at the finish line always win marathons, no matter how far behind the runner may be when the burst starts," John Boehner did not say, but might as well have. "We'll get to this real soon now," Harry Reid did not say but might as well have.

It is hard to think of myself as lucky, as I am both disabled and unemployed (without benefits, of course; self-employed workers have no such safety net) for five years now. But maybe I am lucky. Barring further complications, I have just enough savings to see me through to a very skimpy Social Security income starting sometime after May, and I have a Medicare card and a supplement policy card in my pocket, both valid from Feb. 1. Of course, those are worthwhile only if the Republican-controlled House and our fake-Democratic president don't join forces to kick the props from under all the social programs I paid into for my entire working life, goddamn their souls to hell if they do that...

Sign Of The Times

IOL News (publisher of 15 South African newspapers):

Memorial sign language man ‘a fake’

December 11 2013 at 10:24am

The deaf community is angry over what they say was a fake sign language interpreter used at former president Nelson Mandela's memorial, according to reports.

According to various online reports, the sign language interpreter used at the memorial at FNB Stadium in Soweto on Tuesday may have been unqualified.

Braam Jordaan, a deaf South African citizen and board member of the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section (WDF), was quoted as saying : “The structure of his hand, facial expressions and the body movements did not follow what the speaker was saying.

“I was really upset and humiliated by the mystery interpreter who was supposed to be signing what Barack Obama, the president of United States of America was saying... He made up his own signs.”

How did this happen? Did they think no one would notice? And... is nothing sacred?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Local Law Enforcement Spies On Cell Phones Using NSA Methods

I have to admit, this one is jaw-dropping. Via DSWright of FDL, we have a report from USA Today on local police departments using NSA technologies to divert and track cell phone signals, using, among other things, a device called Stingray:
Armed with new technologies, including mobile devices that tap into cellphone data in real time, dozens of local and state police agencies are capturing information about thousands of cellphone users at a time, whether they are targets of an investigation or not, according to public records obtained by USA TODAY and Gannett newspapers and TV stations.

The records, from more than 125 police agencies in 33 states, reveal:
  • About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a "tower dump," which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.

  • At least 25 police departments own a Stingray, a suitcase-size device that costs as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.

  • Thirty-six more police agencies refused to say whether they’ve used either tactic. Most denied public records requests, arguing that criminals or terrorists could use the information to thwart important crime-fighting and surveillance techniques.

Remember, when you leave home, be sure to take your cell phone police tracking device with you!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Santa's Satan's On His Way!

AP via TPM:

Oklahoma Satanists Seek To Put Monument On Capitol Steps, Next To Ten Commandments
Sean Murphy – December 9, 2013, 7:10 AM EST

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state's Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

The satanists assert their monument will be of good quality, in good taste and yes, children-friendly. One proposal is a monument in the shape of a pentagram (please see a rather elaborately decorated pentagram, above). Another proposal features an interactive display for children; who could object to that?

The simple fact is that "good" Christians who want to advance their own cause at the expense of other religions may shoot themselves in the foot, without even applying for a concealed-carry permit.

Please excuse me for a moment while I ROTFLMFAO: idiots in Texas of the same kind as these dominionists in Oklahoma attempted to deny the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member churches a tax exemption notwithstanding the fact that historically four US presidents have been Unitarian. The idiots in Texas got their butts kicked by a federal court; one can hope the same fate will meet the OK legislators.

Look. This is simple. Either all religions are protected from government intervention and excluded from government participation or advocacy, or that First Amendment thingy doesn't mean (ahem) a damned thing. It's all or none; state legislatures can't pick and choose which religions to protect. Got it? Good! Oh, and by the way...


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Republican Rejection Of Reality

Krugman and Friend
Paul Krugman comments on the extreme ideological obsession Republicans have in two areas, health care and monetary policy, and their utter refusal to accommodate reality in either area. He gauges right‑wing views based on the hate mail in his inbox, a source most of us small-time blog owners don't have in anything near the quantity Krugman sustains:

... is what I see a lot in my inbox (and in my reading): the furious insistence that nothing resembling a government guarantee of health insurance can possibly work.

That’s a curious belief to hold, given the fact that every other advanced country has such a guarantee, and that we ourselves have a 45-year-old single-payer system for seniors that has worked pretty well all this time. But nothing makes these people as angry as the suggestion that Obamacare might actually prove workable.

Indeed that is a curious belief, and a simple, compelling debunking. We already have such a system, which unfortunately we have limited to old people, and even the success of that system sends some right‑wing nut‑jobs shrieking about socialism and "death panels" (hearing Palin's atrociously stupid phrase, I can't help imagining Captain Kirk delivering the line, "Scotty! it's all those tribbles, hiding behind the death panels!"). Putting aside the wingnut demagoguery, the only thing that is "wrong" with the concept of Medicare for all is that it puts the insurance companies out of business.

And Krugman on inflation:

As I said, the other issue where I see this kind of enraged denial is monetary policy. There are a lot of people on the right who know, just know, that the Fed is debasing the dollar and creating runaway inflation. This belief doesn’t seem to have been dented at all by five years of failed predictions of inflation just around the corner.

I believe Krugman is as tired of the endless nut‑job repetition of fantasy horror stories as I am. And I think someone as inclined to accept actual socialism for some obvious governmental functions as I am would recognize it if it ever arrived in the morning email.

Krugman's conclusion:

On both the healthcare and inflation fronts, what you have to conclude is that there are a large number of people who find reality — the reality that governments are actually pretty good at providing health insurance, that fiat money can be a useful tool of economic management rather than the road to socialist disaster — just unacceptable. I think that in both cases it has to do with the underlying desire to see market outcomes as moral imperatives.

And I suppose there have always been such people out there. What’s new is that these days they control one of our two major political parties.
Damned if they don't. As Americans seems stuck in a permanent two‑party system, they can't really afford one party comprising unbridled economic right‑wing extremists. But I don't see how we get rid of them any time soon.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The NSA Knows Where I Live

Kevin Gosztola of FDL:
NSA Has a Massive Program Which ‘Incidentally’ Collects Cell Location Data of Millions of Americans

New documents from former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden show the NSA is storing location data from “at least hundreds of millions of devices.”

The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Koltani write, “The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world.” This enables the agency to track “movements of individuals—and map their relationships—in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.”


Previously, in late September, Senator Ron Wyden asked NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander during a Senate hearing if the agency had ever made plans to collect Americans’ cell site location data. But, Alexander, after Wyden repeated his question, said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court needed notice if the NSA wanted to collect cell site location records. He then said he did not want to put anything out that would be classified.
Oh, I think I could have previously imagined that "previously unimaginable" location, movement and contact data for myself, or at least for my cell phone. Let's see...

Über-Secret NSA Document!
When I wake up, my old-fashioned Samsung (by no means a smartphone) rests on the shelf next to the bed. Sometime later... maybe 7:00am, or 8:00 or 9:00, depending on the day... the phone moves by way of the bathroom into the den, on the table next to my easy chair. It may migrate to the kitchen for long enough for me to throw together some sort of brunch, then it's back to the La-Z-Boy in the den.

But having no laptop at present, I can't commit much terra-ism from the recliner, so sooner or later, for the sake of NSA agent sanity, I head for the office (that's what we call the rear bedroom, which has no beds but does have two working computers and two separate 'net connections— don't ask why two; if I told you, I'd have to... oh, never mind). NSA of course is able to track that displacement of the phone by perhaps 25', or maybe it correlates the movement with the sudden activity of one 'net connection. They can do that, right? right?? and deploy massive countermeasures to the horrors I am sure to perpetrate... dangling participles, incomplete sentences, even occasional misspellings, all a threat to the safety and security of America.

The rest of the day, the phone oscillates between the office and the den, with occasional trips to (as Brahms described it to a critic) "the smallest room in my house." Maybe I'll drive to the doctor's office (about 5 miles), or to a grocer (2 to 10 miles), or even my PO Box (maybe 3 miles), where I read any mail the NSA has seen fit to leave for my perusal after removing subversive material (ACLU or Planned Parenthood newsletters, Sierra Club publications, etc.) that might otherwise interfere with right-thinking on my part. Ten miles is probably a median over the span of a week. Their equipment can do that, right? right???

After another spell by the La-Z-Boy as I read subversive fiction (e.g., murder mysteries) or radical political material (I recently read fully half of Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars before fatigue took it from my hands), I take myself and my cell phone back to the bedroom, the one with a bed in it.

My life may sound boring, but it could be worse: I could be the NSA agent who has to sift through records of my movement...

When A Bargain Is Not A Bargain

Robert Reich
Robert Reich explains the flow of the process by which the "great deals" Americans find on holiday purchases ultimately come at the expense of American workers. Americans either lose their jobs to lower-wage workers in other countries (the Pacific Rim is noteworthy in this respect) or to new technologies (e.g., robots in manufacturing processes), or else see their own wages driven down dramatically by the same factors that give them such "great deals."

Reich correctly observes that there are no easy answers to this very real problem, but I am going to look sideways to another class of possible solutions: more equitable distribution of the wealth gained by such savings. Since Saint Ronald Reagan's days in office, those gains have gone almost exclusively to the top 1%, 0.1%, 0.01%, even 0.001% of Americans. While there are intrinsic reasons... technology and offshoring... for the savings and wealth themselves, there is no intrinsic reason for its distribution exclusively to the wealthiest Americans. If we of the 99.999% ever regained control of our government by one means or another (*cough* *cough*), a more equitable distribution of wealth could be legislated.

There is a fundamental human right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," a right we declared along with our nation's independence, the birthright of every American regardless of their economic status. There is no comparable right to unbounded personal or corporate wealth. As the late lamented Molly Ivins used to say, God is in the details. We can address those details!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Joint Runoff Election, City Of Houston, Houston Community College System: Runoff Date Dec. 14, Early Voting Dec. 4-10

Most early voting details (schedules and locations) are available here. As for the location of your polling place for runoff election day Dec. 14, and the specific content of your ballot for this runoff, our brilliant County Clerk Stan Stanart (R) says it will be available soon. The message is clear: do not ever elect as County Clerk a member of a political party that depends for its continued existence on your not being able to vote. How hard is that to understand?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Moon... Rover... Wider Than A Mile... ♬

China today launched a spacecraft aimed at soft-landing a rover on the Moon in the middle of this month. The mission is named Chang'e 3, after a mythical Chinese moon goddess, and the rover is named Yutu or Jade Rabbit, after her equally mythical pet.

In 2003, China entered the very small club of nations involved (currently or previously) in human space flight. More recently, China successfully sent an unmanned craft to orbit the Moon, subsequently intentionally crashing it into the Moon. (Better to litter the surface than space near the Moon!)

Search Google Images on "chang'e 3 rover" for a lot of pictures related to the mission. The rover is not much to look at, but it's a lot more substantial than America's current Moon program, which is, uh, mythical. My best wishes to the goddess and her rabbit.

Afterthought: An Australian analyst goes all touchy-cranky about accusations of similarity of design to America's Mars rovers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) Indulges In That Old Republican Pastime — Lefty‑Baiting

Some things haven't changed since Senator Joe McCarthy held up his list of purported Commies in Congress, and one of the things that haven't changed significantly is the Republican Party. Here's Caitlin MacNeal at TPM:
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) on Sunday said that Democrats are moving further to the left, rather than to the right, as they see problems with Obamacare surface during the law's rollout.

"They are moving further to the left," he said on ABC's "This Week," noting that Democrats are arguing for a single-payer health care system.

Cole called this is a "big mistake."

"Medicare is going bankrupt as it is," he said.

Cole remained skeptical of Obamacare's success despite the administration's announcement Sunday that it had reached its goal to have the website working for most users.

"There's going to be some winners, there's no questions about that," he said, but added that there will also be losers. "This thing is going to be an unmitigated disaster for the President."
In McCarthy's day, it was Communists that Republicans howled about. Today, it's generic Leftists. In both cases, it's clear evidence of an utterly bankrupt Republican platform in pursuit of an agenda that the vast majority of the American people do not even begin to share.

Here's my message to Republicans: you have nothing to offer except a self-fulfilling proclamation that government is a failure. Offer something substantive to America's 99%, or get the fuck out of the business of government.

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