Thursday, February 28, 2008

Geekathon, part six

This one, as you'll see, has political relevance.
Don’t bother trying to persuade your boss of a new idea while he’s feeling the power of his position, new research suggests - he’s not listening.

“Powerful people have confidence in what they are thinking. Whether their thoughts are positive or negative toward an idea, that position is going to be hard to change,” said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and a psychologist at Ohio State University. ...

The research examined an issue largely ignored by social scientists, Petty said: many studies have looked at how the power of a person delivering a message affects recipients, but this one seems to be the first to assess how the listener’s power affects persuasion.

In the studies, the investigators told college students they would participate in two supposedly separate experiments.

In one, the students role-played in a game in which one acted as a boss, the other as an employee. In the second experiment, the participants viewed a fake ad for a mobile phone. Half the viewers saw ads with rather feeble arguments for buying the phone, such as its great currency converter; the other half saw ads with strong arguments, such as the quick five-minute recharging time.

When the role-playing took place before the ad, those who played boss were more likely than the “employees” to rate the phone similarly - regardless of the ad type, Petty and Briñol said. “The strength of the argument made no difference to those who played the boss. They obviously weren’t paying attention when they felt powerful,” Petty remarked. “Those who played the employee, who were made to feel powerless, paid a lot more attention to the arguments. They weren’t as confident in their own initial beliefs and weighed the arguments more carefully.”
Briñol is Pablo Briñol, lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain.

In another part of the study, the order of the experiments was reversed; reading the phone ads came first, with the students writing down their thoughts as they did so, came first and the role-playing after. After that, they went back and rated the phones.
The role-play­ing “bosses” were now more influenced by the quality of the arguments in the ads, the researchers said, whereas the “employees” were less influenced.

“When power was experienced after the ads had been processed, it gave people confidence in their most recent thoughts, so if they read strong arguments, they rated the phones more favorably. If they read weak arguments, they were much more negative,” Petty said.
In case that's not quite clear: You see an ad and think it makes a good argument. You get a taste of power. You rate the product in the ad and in essence think (without actually thinking) "Well, if I thought the argument was strong, it must be strong!" And vice versa for a weak argument. Meanwhile, those who had been the powerless "employee" were actually less influenced by the ads because they hadn't been given that power-propelled ego boost so they had less confidence in their original judgment.

As for the political relevance, I'd say it explains a lot. Take a person with a sense of entitlement and an overblown ego and put them into a position of power and what do you get? Someone so convinced of the correctness of their own thoughts that they are incapable of accepting criticism and stubbornly resistant to alternatives and who may even be unable to remember a single mistake they've made.

Footnote: Just as a quick observation, I'm aware that criticism has been directed at studies such as this one because they frequently use college students as subjects. Are they, critics ask, really representative of an entire population? Are they really typical enough to generalize from them? I think in some cases, especially those that revolve around social attitudes, the criticism can be valid. But in a case like this, where it's thought processes rather than attitudes which are under study, I don't think it applies.

Geekathon, part five

In 2001, a fossil skull was discovered in the desert in Chad. It had a nearly complete cranium and some pieces of jawbone and teeth. Dubbed Toumai, it provoked an intense debate when its discoverers said it was a hominid - more exactly, if it was an early human. From the article:
Critics said that Toumai's cranium was too squashed to be that of a hominid - it did not have the brain capacity that gives humans primacy - and its small size indicated a creature of no more than 120 centimetres (four feet) in height, about the size of a walking chimp.

In short, they said, Toumai had no right to be baptised with French researcher Michel Brunet's hominid honorific of Sahelanthropus tchadensis - he was simply a vulgar ape.

Toumai's supporters used 3D computer reconstructions to show that the structure of the cranium had clear differences from those of gorillas and chimps and indicates that Toumai was able to walk upright on two feet, something our primate cousins cannot do with ease.
The argument just took on some added significance: The French team that found the fossil say they have determined its age to be between 6.8 and 7.2 million years old. So if it truly was an early human, the story of human evolution will have to be re-written because it will mean the split between apes and humans took place 500,000 to a million years earlier than previously believed.
If Toumai - the name means "hope of life" in the local Goran language - is accepted as a human, the implications are profound.

The fossil was found some 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) west of the Great Rift Valley. If that is still seen as humankind's ancestral home, it implies the early hominids ranged far wider from East Africa, and far earlier, than previously thought.

The discovery also implies hominids evolved quickly from apes after they split from a common primate ancestry.
Anatomically modern humans, homo sapiens, are generally believed to have appeared about 200,000 years ago.

Geekathon, part four

Archaeologists have discovered one of the oldest structures ever found in the Americas: a circular plaza 5,500 years old. It's located at the ruins of a site called Sechin Bajo, part of the Sechin Alto complex located some 366 kilometers, or 229 miles, north of Lima, Peru. The plaza is 500 years older than the ancient Peruvian citadel of Caral, previously thought to be among the oldest sites in the Western Hemisphere.

The plaza had not been discovered before because it was hidden under a later structure at the site. MSNBC has more:
"It's an impressive find, the scientific and archaeology communities are very happy," said Cesar Perez, the scientist at Peru's National Institute of Culture who supervised the project. "This could redesign the history of the country." ...

Scientists say Caral, located a few hours drive from Sechin Bajo, was one of six places in the world - along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India and Mesoamerica - where humans started living in cities 5,000 years ago.
Now, Sechin Bajo may have to join that list - or even head it.

Geekathon, part three

There are good days and there are bad days. has some news from a bad day:
Scientists have dreamed of finding evidence for past life on Mars, where they believe there was once plenty of liquid water. But now they’re saying it might have been too salty.

“Not all water is fit to drink,” said Andrew Knoll, a Harvard University biologist who is on the science team for the NASA Mars rover Opportunity.

High concentrations of dissolved minerals as well as acids may have thwarted microbes from developing on the red planet, he added. ...

Opportunity spent recent months examining a bright band of rocks around the inner wall of a crater in the planet’s Terra Meridiani region. The crater turned out to lie atop an underground water table, according to scientists. Knoll said the rover - which serves as a robotic geologist - found that the water, which once covered the area, left behind evidence of its high acidity and salinity.

“This tightens the noose on the possibility of life,” considering salt is a preservative, he added. Conditions may have been more hospitable earlier, with water less briny, Knoll said. But “life at the Martian surface would have been very challenging for the last 4 billion years. The best hopes for a story of life on Mars are at environments we haven’t studied yet - older ones, subsurface ones.”
On the other hand, as I mentioned just the other day, we keep finding life in places we previously thought impossible - including a lake in California with water three times saltier than sea water but which still contains an ecosystem including microbes, plankton, and small shrimp. So it does tighten the noose, but it by no means chokes off the possibility.

And, of course, the real purpose is not to find life but to learn and discover what we can, whatever the answers to any of the questions turn out to be. It's just that finding life somewhere else would be really, really, really cool.

Footnote: Opportunity and Spirit rovers have now lasted 16 times longer than their planned mission. They began their fifth year on Mars last month.

Footnote to the footnote: The Phoenix lander is on schedule to enter Mars' atmosphere on May 25.

Geekathon, part two

It's sometimes remarked by scientists that the easy questions are the hardest. One of the very hardest is the mystery of consciousness, our awareness of ourselves. We know we exist: "I think, therefore I am." It's far more than a matter of sensory input: A bacteria can react to its environment. It's an internal, something within ourselves, something that deals in and incorporates the information provided by our senses but goes clearly beyond it.

It's so mysterious - so frustrating - that in fact some people denied it even existed. But developments in neurology and neurological imaging continue to suggest a physical basis for consciousness. For example, reports that
[i]n a study billed as an exploration into the realm of “consciousness,” researchers claim to have found brain cells that become very busy only when something is consciously noticed. ...

Volunteers were shown pictures on a computer screen very briefly - for a time just at the edge of being long enough to be noticeable. The participants were asked each time whether they saw the picture or not. Sometimes the exact same visual input was noticeable on one trial and not on another, for the same person, [lead researcher Rodrigo] Quian Quiroga [of the University of Leicester, UK,] said. ...

Certain neurons, or brain cells, “responded to the conscious perception in an ‘all-or-none’ way,” Quian Quiroga said: they dramatically changed their rate of firing signals, only when pictures were recognized. These neurons were in the medial temporal lobe, a region deep inside the brain often associated with memory.

For example, in one patient, a neuron in the hippocampus - a structure also in that area - “fired very strongly to a picture of the patient’s brother when recognized and remained completely silent when it was not,” Quian Quiroga said. ...

“[A] picture flashed very briefly generated nearly the same response - if recognized - as when shown for much longer periods of time.”
In other words, it was the recognition itself, not the length of time it was recognized, that produced the reaction. This is not, of course, a measure of consciousness itself, which still defies real understanding, much less analysis, but it does show the existence of specific physical mechanisms connected to a conscious - and that's the key point here, a conscious - awareness of the world around us. For the moment, neural scientists are having to content themselves with analyzing such physical mechanisms, but there is more than enough to do even there.

The article adds that potential applications of the work, even without considering the idea of explaining consciousness, include development of “neural prosthetic” devices that could enable paralyzed patients to operate a robotic limb by thinking about what they want it to do and the treatment of epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia.

Geekathon, part one

Okay, I know I've said things like this before but my oh my, this really just pins my coolness meter.

The video is a loop of an electron riding a light wave. Did you get that? It's a video of a flippin' electron.

As MSNBC reported on Monday,
[p]reviously it was impossible to photograph electrons because of their extreme speediness, so scientists had to rely on more indirect methods. These methods could only measure the effect of an electron's movement, whereas the new technique can capture the entire event.
The technology involves generating extremely - and I do mean extremely - short bursts of intense laser light, pulses which are measured in attoseconds. An attosecond is 10-18 seconds, or if you prefer, a billionth of a billionth of a second.
"[A]n attosecond is related to a second as a second is related to the age of the universe," said Johan Mauritsson of Lund University in Sweden. ...

The length of the film Mauritsson and his colleagues made corresponds to a single oscillation of a wave of light. The speed of the event has been slowed down for human eyes.
How cool is that?

There have been pictures of atoms for a while, although initially they were more reconstructions than actual pictures. The first directly interpretable pictures came in 1983 but they were of limited use because the maximum resolution of the electron microscope being used was 1.4 angstroms (abbreviated 1.4Å) and most atoms are pretty much the same size, ranging from one to two angstroms. It would be like trying to use a 12 inch ruler without subdivisions to accurately measure things that run from nine to 18 inches across. You could get a general picture, a pretty good sense, but no more.

To get a good measure of something, the smallest unit on your measuring instrument - in this case the maximum resolution of your microscope - has to be smaller than what is being measured. By 2004, the resolution achieved had improved to 0.6Å, good enough to observe individual atoms of silicon in a crystal.

But this is different. This is not an atom, this is an electron. The classic diameter of a hydrogen atom ("classical" meaning without considering quantum dynamics, which make such measurements kind of wibbly-wobbly) is about a million times that of a classical electron. To make a vague and not to the same scale comparison, its kind of like the difference between being able to observe the Solar System as a whole versus being able to observe Mercury.

Oh, and yes, there have been photographs of electron clouds of elements with multiple electrons as far back as 1993. But this is not an electron cloud, this is an electron. A single bleedin' electron.

Definitely cool.

Footnote: A few days earlier, Cornell University announced that
[a] new electron microscope recently installed [there] is enabling scientists for the first time to form images that uniquely identify individual atoms in a crystal and see how those atoms bond to one another. And in living color.

"The current generation of electron microscopes can be thought of as expensive black and white cameras where different atoms appear as different shades of gray," explained David Muller, Cornell associate professor of applied and engineering physics. "This microscope takes color pictures - where each colored atom represents a uniquely identified chemical species." ...

It allows scientists to peer inside a material or a device and see how it is put together at the atomic scale where quantum effects dominate and everyday intuition fails.
The more we look, the more there is to learn. Sometimes that seems like the only thing that makes life worth it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

And it's not even the Fourth of July

As I expect many of you know, carried an article about wingnut charges and rumors that Barack Obama is "unpatriotic" based on his failure to wear a flag lapel pin and that photo of him standing with hands crossed in front of him during the playing of the national anthem. Related to that story, the site ran a disgraceful poll asking if he shows "the proper patriotism" for someone who wants to be president.

In comments at Media Matters, that brought up the whole issue of patriotism, with several people denouncing in various words the idea of lapel pins as a measure of patriotism. One troll there quoted three of the terms used, applied them to patriotism per se, and then suggested that was "the predominant feeling on the left." I decided I would answer with my own take on the overall question, which follows:

Patriotism measured in terms of wearing flag pins, having your hand over your heart during the national anthem, and the like is worthless, dangerous, and overrated, all three. It is a hollow "patriotism," a shell that prefers form to substance and too easily, as we have seen over the last several years, slides from "patriotism" into jingoism.

(And no, don't bother claiming I said wearing a flag pin, etc., is "hollow," as that would be the reverse of my argument. I in no way denied that such actions could be outward expressions of a deeper commitment; I said that a patriotism measured in those terms rather than by that deeper commitment is hollow. And it is.)

You want my understanding of patriotism? Well, maybe not but here it is anyway:

In addition to embracing the comment I read some years ago that "it is natural to have an abiding affection for the land of one's birth," I say being a US patriot means being dedicated to the ideals on which the country was supposed to have been founded and which, at its best moments, it strives to uphold to as full a measure as possible: Ideals such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as the right to rebellion against oppression, as "promot[ing] the general welfare," as political freedoms, as representative government "of, by, and for the people" - the ideal of, to sum up in a single phrase, an intent to "establish justice," a justice I say must include the economic and the social as well as the political if it is to have real meaning.

(Another sidebar: Yes, I know "one of these things is not like the others" in the above list. Don't waste our time with irrelevant quibbles.)

Patriotism, that is, lies in the devotion to the ideals, not in any symbolic outward expression of it. Further, patriotism thus does not lie in support for or opposition to any particular administration or any particular policy except insofar as that support or opposition is an expression of that internal commitment to those ideals. An opponent of the Iraq war who is angered by the Executive branch's usurpation of power is much more patriotic than a war supporter who keeps referring to the president as "the commander-in-chief" as if we were all soldiers expected to obey orders rather than citizens with the obligation held by any free people to "question authority."

I do not wear a flag pin. I do not put my hand over my heart during the national anthem (which, I'll note in passing, I was taught as a child was something that some folks did but was not required). I do not sing along with the national anthem. In fact - and I know this will promote ammo for some and lead others to say I undermine my argument, but I don't care, it's the truth - I don't even stand up for the national anthem. (Not intending to give offense thereby, I usually manage to be out of the room at the time.)

But if patriotism can be understood as embracing the ideals of our nation, as striving to hold this country to the highest of those ideals instead of the lowest of its prejudices, as committing to a notion of what the US, of what we as a people, can be and have at times approached being, then I submit that I am as patriotic as they come. And I have neither patience with nor tolerance for those who would make patriotism a matter of gestures and decorations rather than conviction.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


So Ralph Nader has announced he's running for president again. (Big surprise: Did anyone expect him to go on Meet the Press to say he wasn't running?)

I really don't care: I've said before that for very personal reasons I won't vote for him even if he gets the Green Party nomination (which I hope will go to Cynthia McKinney). I'll vote for other Greens, but not him. In any event, I fully expect his impact on the 2008 election to be even less than he had on the 2004 election, which was none. For that reason I can predict with reasonable confidence that this will be the only post in which I will mention him as a candidate (unless it's to gripe if he gets the GP nomination).

Still, it was interesting to see the
Democrats foam at the mouth, shudder, twitch violently, and otherwise go bonkers in response
to the announcement, just like I expected they would. The usual suspects were there, including TalkingPointsMemo, where Josh Marshall called Nader "Bush's chief enabler" and comments on a snide post were filled with lots of "fuck you"s and repetitions of the long-discredited notion that George Bush is Nader's fault.

At TalkLeft, it was that "MTP had no business putting Ralph Nader on. He is not newsworthy." (Which would seem to be disproved by the number of people talking about it.) According to comments, he "needs a dunce cap." He is, we were told, "hideously selfish - morally obtuse" and "certain to help Republicans cling to power." (That last from someone obviously unaware of the realities involved.)

Of course the armies of drooling partisans at Daily Kos wasted little time in developing their own party line, dishing out the argument that Nader is Harold Stassen.

In comments at Crooks & Liars, he was an "asshat," "DESPICABLE," "delusional," a "joke" dealing in "blatant hypocrisy and lies," a "narcissistic buffoon" who has "the blood of tens of thousands on his hands."

And another mouth-breathing partisan, John Aravosis at AmericaBlog, calls him "fool" and "the herpes of presidential candidates" (which is at least original) while pulling out a quote from Mike Huckabee (who Aravosis otherwise considers a complete moron but in this case is apparently a political savant) saying that Nader takes votes from Dems so GOPpers like him.

At other sites, terms like "insect," "insane," a "crackpot" who is "trying to get Republicans elected" were frequent, along with, as always happens whenever Nader's name is mentioned in these circles, the insistence that everything bad that has happened over the last seven years, every blessed little thing right down to that annoying hangnail on your ring finger and the heartbreak of psoriasis, are Ralph Nader's fault. Nothing to do with Bush. Nothing to do with incompetent Democratic campaigns, nothing to do with the lapdog Democrats in Congress. Nothing to do with biased media. Nader's fault. All of it.

To be as fair as I can to this outpouring of paranoia, this hailstorm of hatred, there were dissenting voices, some who defended Nader against the 2000 canard and a few who dared to say something to the effect of "right on, Ralph." But they were few and far between in the chorus of condemnation, a pose maintained ever since 2000 for the specific purpose of giving the Democrats someone, anyone, to blame other than their own incompetent, invertebrate selves.

I will say I found one valid criticism of Nader, found at the C&L post linked above, where Nicole Belle asked:
Where have you been, Ralph? What have you done in the last eight years to help make third parties more viable and allow them a voice on the national stage? How is showing up more than a year into presidential politicking with just a few months left helpful to the validity of third parties?

Making independents more meaningful isn’t an eleventh hour appearance on a talking head show. It takes years of sustained effort and commitment....
I don't think the criticism is entirely justified in that Nader has not been idle the past seven years, although he has slowed down the past couple. (In fact in 2004, Democrats complained he had spent too much of the preceding four years criticizing Democrats - without, of course, mentioning that what he had been criticizing them for was not being aggressive enough in opposing the GOPpers.) Yet it remains true that Nader has not been contributing to building a party and actually seems more of the mind that an electoral opposition can be built without party-building, which strikes me as quite odd.

Finally, it is a fact that sometimes the best way a given someone can help build a movement - including a third party - is by being the figurehead, the public face that draws the attention. Any third party can use such a person. However, for the American left that person is no longer Ralph Nader.

One Footnote: One of the better responses to Nader's announcement came from Barack Obama, who
said today during a visit at the Ohio State University Medical Center that he wasn’t terribly concerned about the prospect of a Nader campaign. “I think the job of the Democratic Party is to be so compelling that a few percentage [points] of the vote going to another candidate is not going to make any difference.”
It was obviously a prepared answer since he immediately followed up with the classic political move of taking shots at an opponent while praising them, but he does make the central point that I have argued all along: It is the Democrats' job to win those votes, not Nader's job to hand them over; the burden is not on Nader to be silent but on the Democrats to speak more persuasively.

Another Footnote: DKos was not the only place Nader was equated with Harold Stassen as a candidate who had become a joke, so I wanted to say a few words in Stassen's defense.

He was elected three times to be governor of Minnesota, a position he resigned in 1943 to join the Navy as an officer - an action which undercut his political base, costing him dearly later on. He was a delegate to the founding convention of the United Nations, he served in the Eisenhower administration, and was president of the University of Pennsylvania for five years. As president of the American Baptist Convention in 1963, he joined the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.

He was one of those old-fashioned liberal Republicans, a moderate when the term actually meant something. When he ran for the GOP nomination in 1964 (after not having run since 1952) it was specifically to offer resistance to the emerging Goldwater wing of the party and his later runs were an increasingly futile effort to raise the banner of that old-style moderation in the increasingly-reactionary face of the GOP.

I also have a more personal attachment: I ran for Congress three times. During my third race, a reporter referred to me as "our district's Harold Stassen," which she defined as "the guy who keeps running, he makes these great speeches, everybody nods and applauds - and then votes for somebody else."

Don't forget!

A reminder, which I intend to give weekly, to take part in the blogswarm on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. That day is Wednesday, March 19. As of last week, there were 120 blogs pledged to take part.

On a day when between 40 and 50 people were killed and over 100 wounded in two attacks on Shia pilgrims
outside Baghdad and the Turkish attack on Kurds in Iraq continued, it is easy say again: Five years is five years too many. STDD/GTHO.

Again, this is not to be instead of anything else you do that day, but in addition to it.

Footnote: I will also include with each reminder links to my posts on the first, the second, and the fourth anniversary of the invasion in case you want to check them out. Lotus was on hiatus for all of 2006 and I was blogging very infrequently at another site during that time, so there is no third anniversary post.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lawyering up

This would actually be funny if the stakes weren't so high. The source here is Raw Story for today:
House Democratic leaders came under criticism Saturday from President Bush who said they are blocking intelligence legislation so lawyers can sue telephone companies for helping the government eavesdrop on suspected terrorists. ...

"When Congress reconvenes on Monday, members of the House have a choice to make: They can empower the trial bar, or they can empower the intelligence community," Bush said in his Saturday radio address. "They can help class-action trial lawyers sue for billions of dollars, or they can help our intelligence officials protect millions of lives." ...

"House leaders are blocking this legislation, and the reason can be summed up in three words: class-action lawsuits."
Other GOPpers have also been using the "trial lawyer" reference. With Shrub joining in, this is apparently the now-agreed-on line of attack, the newly-minted right-wing meme. Now, it's true that wanting to "kill all the lawyers" is an old sport, but this, it seems to me, is really silly. Does anyone outside of the 19% think this is going to fly as an effective argument? Does anyone really think people are going to jump up and say "Oh my GOD! Trial lawyers? I must support President Bush above all else! Congress, I am anti-lawyer, hear me roar!"

It sounds to me like some element of desperation is entering the winger thought processes (assuming that's not an oxymoron), that they are searching for something that will strike a responsive chord among Americans. The significance of that, especially in light of the silliness of the line of argument itself, is that is indicates that the old meme is no longer working like it did before. It's a clear sign that people are no longer moved by the repeated appeals to unreasoning fear like they used to be.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that those appeals no longer work, period, but I think we can say that they are losing their impact. Which leaves the GOPpers and their minions (including among Dumcrats such as Jay Rockefeller and Diane Feinstein) exactly where?

Stargeek Atlantis

From the Beeb a few days back, serious coolness.
Rocky planets, possibly with conditions suitable for life, may be more common than previously thought in our galaxy, a study has found. ...

Michael Meyer, an astronomer from the University of Arizona, said he believes Earth-like planets are probably very common around Sun-like stars.

"Our observations suggest that between 20% and 60% of Sun-like stars have evidence for the formation of rocky planets not unlike the processes we think led to planet Earth," he said. ...

Mr Meyer's team used the US space agency's Spitzer space telescope to look at groups of stars with masses similar to the Sun. ...

Nasa's Kepler mission to search for Earth-sized and smaller planets, due to be launched next year, is expected to reveal more clues about these distant undiscovered worlds. ...

Excitement about finding other Earth-like planets is driven by the idea that some might contain life or perhaps, centuries from now, allow human colonies to be set up on them.

The key to this search, said Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, California, was the Goldilocks zone.

This refers to an area of space in which a planet is just the right distance from its parent star so that its surface is not-too-hot or not-too-cold to support liquid water.
Astronomers have already found Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, including one planet which
probably has a substantial atmosphere and may be covered with large amounts of water ... and, most importantly, temperatures [which] are very similar to those on our world.
We have also learned that life is a lot more robust than we used to think and that the Earth's own Goldilocks Zone is much wider than we thought.
Scientists have found microbes in nuclear reactors, microbes that love acid, microbes that swim in boiling-hot water. Whole ecosystems have been discovered around deep sea vents where sunlight never reaches and the emerging vent-water is hot enough to melt lead.
As well as microbes, plankton, and small shrimp living in a lake three times saltier than sea water with a pH equal to that of household glass cleaner.

Of course, extraterrestrial microbes and shrimp are not going to be responding to hellos from SETI, but the fact is, the more we learn, the more we discover, the more likely it appears that, somewhere out there, there really are little green men. Or greys.

Friday, February 22, 2008

What you don't know won't hurt you

Or so they tell us.

On New Year's Eve, George the Shrub signed into law the Open Government Act of 2007. One of the things the bill did was create a post of FOIA ombudsman. Working out of the National Archive, this ombudsman was supposed to be an honest broker between citizens making FOIA requests and government agencies receiving them. The idea was that having such a person could both advance open government and reduce lawsuits.

Well, the ACLU reported a couple of days ago that
it was too good to be true. Tucked away in Bush's proposed new budget for 2008 - in the 1,300-page appendix - was language that stripped funding for the FOIA ombudsman role, and shoves the responsibilities off to the Justice Department. The same department, we might add, responsible for defending the government agencies when they're named in lawsuits to have FOIA requests enforced.
Give the White House cabal this much: At least they'e consistent.

More than one, three

Finally, just to show how everyone on SCOTUS can get along when corporate profit is at stake, while that decision may have been only 8-1, this one, coming to us from AP via the New York Times, was 9-0:
The Supreme Court on Wednesday invalidated parts of Maine's law barring Internet tobacco sales to minors.

In a unanimous decision, the court said Maine cannot impose a regulatory scheme on transportation companies delivering tobacco products directly to consumers. The justices said federal transportation law blocks the states from doing so.

The ruling could provide the impetus for the transportation industry to get out from under state laws regulating cigarette deliveries in the Internet age.
Various outfits have been evading state laws about tobacco sales by selling cigarettes, etc., online, shipped directly to underage buyers. Maine is one of 32 states with laws targeting such deliveries. The Maine law required delivery companies to intercept packages from unlicensed tobacco sellers and verify the age of buyers in order to keep cigarettes out of the hands of kids under 18. The industry, of course, argued the costs were just astronomical, bankrupting, ruinous, and besides, hey states, you can't touch us, nyah-nyah.

Federal law, the AP article says, bars states from "regulating prices, routes or services of shipping companies." Maine officials argued that this was regulation for public health and safety, not traditional economic regulation of the sort subject to federal preemption. The First Circuit Appeals Court rejected the argument and SCOTUS has now agreed. Writing for the Court, the supposedly liberal Stephen Breyer said that federal law "says nothing about a public health exception" - that is, states can't regulate trucking firms over public health concerns because the law did not specifically say they could. Reading that made me flash back to the 1980s and the Reagan administration saying they could legally funnel money to the contras through the Agriculture Department because Congress did not specifically mention Ag in the law banning such aid.

Getting back to the immediate case, again, there was a money quote, one that revealed the real concern:
Because of Maine's regulation, companies will have to offer tobacco delivery services "that differ significantly" from what the market might dictate, Breyer wrote. [emphasis added]
Because, of course, the Market Is God. And what's more,
[t]he ruling against Maine's law could enable the industry to argue that similar laws in other states are invalid.
Because, again, the Market Is God.

Footnote: The latter two results may be disturbing, but they should not be surprising, not even the majorities. Last June, I quoted a representative of the US Chamber of Commerce calling the Supreme Court session just concluded "our best Supreme Court term ever." In 30 business-related cases, SCOTUS had ruled against business interests just twice and 80% of the decisions were by margins of 7-2 or better. When it comes to protecting corporate America from the ravages of regulation and the awfulness of accountability, the "liberal" and "conservative" wings of the Court are as one.

More than one, two

The second case is another instance of shielding from public accountability, but this time the beneficiaries are corporations, not government spooks. On Wednesday, the Court said that
the manufacturer of a federally approved medical device cannot be sued under state law if the device causes an injury[, the New York Times reported].

The 8-to-1 ruling in favor of Medtronic, the Minneapolis-based maker of cardiovascular devices, made it much more difficult for patients and their families to sue makers of medical devices that have been granted federal approval.
In 1996, a man named Charles Riegel was undergoing a balloon angioplasty to open a blocked coronary artery when the balloon burst, causing him severe injury. He and his wife Donna
sued the company in federal court, contending that the catheter had been designed, labeled and manufactured in a way that violated New York state law, and that those defects had caused severe and permanent injuries to Mr. Riegel.
Lower courts ruled that Medtronic was immune from liability under state law because the catheter had been approved for the market by the FDA, arguing the Medical Device Amendments of 1976 barred such suits. On Wednesday, SCOTUS agreed.

Writing for the majority, Antonin Scalia - I really don't understand why he's supposed to be some great legal mind - made it clear that while liability was supposedly the issue, that wasn't the Court's, or at least his, real concern. He referred to how many hours, on average, the FDA spends reviewing a device application and noted that the FDA can approve devices with risks if the benefits appeared to outweigh them, mentioning specifically that
the F.D.A. approved a ventricular assist device for children with failing hearts “even though the survival rate of children using the device was less than 50 percent,"
neither of which points seem relevant to the issue supposedly at hand, which is not whether or not an angioplasty has risks but whether or not the device at issue is unsafe and the manufacturer's liability.

But while they weren't relevant to the issue, they were relevant to Scalia's real point, which was that
jurors would probably not be in a position to weigh the benefits and dangers of medical devices as well as agency experts. A jury, he wrote, “sees only the cost of a more dangerous designed, and is not concerned with its benefits; the patient who reaped those benefits are not represented in court.”
In short, juries are too stupid to deal with such questions. And so, in fact, are state agencies.

I admit to a very personal bias in this case: My wife very nearly died when the balloon ruptured and tore a cardiac artery during an emergency angioplasty after a heart attack. "For about 30 seconds, we thought we were going to lose her," I was told in the hallway of the hospital as she was being taken for an emergency triple bypass. The doctor told me he thought the balloon was defective and offered to testify for us if we decided to sue. Ultimately we didn't because we were advised that even if we could show the device was defective, because she survived and survived the surgery, proving actual "harm" would be difficult.

So yeah, I feel this one particularly strongly.

Oh, by the way:
The majority was apparently persuaded by Theodore B. Olson, the lawyer for Medtronic....
Yes, that would be that Ted Olson, former US Solicitor General, counsel for Bush-Cheney in 2000's Bush v. Gore case, apple of George Bush's, Dick Cheney's, and John Ashcroft's eyes, the Ted Olson whose name was floated as a replacement for disgraced AttGen Earblot Slagzone only to be discarded as too partisan even for the Shrub gang to think they could get approved. That Ted Olson.

And here's an interesting coincidence:
In 1996, when there was a different lineup of justices, the Supreme Court ruled that medical devices approved by the F.D.A. under a different, more expedited process were not shielded from state liability. At the time, the federal government took that position. But in 2004, the Bush administration reversed the government’s position and began to take the side of manufacturers.
Olson was Solicitor General from June 2001 until July 2004.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter on Wednesday, asserting that the majority had adopted an unnecessary “constriction of state authority.” Justice Ginsburg said she did not believe that Congress had intended to bring about “a radical curtailment of state common-law suits seeking compensation for injuries caused by defectively designed or labeled medical devices.”
Not only was she the only dissenter, she also was the only one actually understood Congressional intent:
“The Supreme Court’s decision strips consumers of the rights they’ve had for decades,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman.... “This isn’t what Congress intended and we’ll pass legislation as quickly as possible to fix this nonsensical situation.”

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts ... agreed, saying: “Congress never intended that F.D.A. approval would give blanket immunity to manufacturers from liability for injuries caused by faulty devices. Congress obviously needs to correct the court’s decision. Otherwise, F.D.A. approval will become a green light for shoddy practices by manufacturers.”
Now we just have to see if they'll walk the walk.

Oh, ugh

I'm including this, a comment I made at another site, because I think it's a relevant footnote to the preceding item before we move on to case #2.

Kevin Drum, writing at, said last week
although I oppose telecom immunity in the FISA bill currently being considered by Congress, I'm not "hellbent" on it. ....

[I]n a genuine national emergency like this[, 9/11 followed by the anthrax scare,] I don't have a problem with the president assuming extraordinary powers for a short period. ...

[A]s long as it's limited to a short while after 9/11, I'm OK with an expanded surveillance program.
Like the title says, ugh. Drum went on to say that his complaint what that it wasn't limited to a short time. Happily, he was trashed pretty thoroughly in comments, but the point here is that in response, the valued Kevin Hayden at American Street said
I get Kevin Drum’s point and I disagree with it. I’m not an absolutist and do believe national emergencies justify some exemptions for a Commander In Chief.
He then avowed that 9/11 didn't rise to that level (especially as compared to the Civil War and Pearl Harbor) and that an "afraid" citizenry did not justify government over-reaction. In comments there, I responded this way:
I am an absolutist for several reasons:

- The FISA law has options for dealing with supposed emergencies, including being able to file for a warrant up to 72 hours after surveillance begins. If you still can't justify it in that time, there's a damn good chance you shouldn't be doing it.

- We do not have a Commander in Chief. The military has a Commander in Chief. We have a president, an elected official who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and to see to it that "the laws are faithfully executed." [To be precise, that last bit is not from the oath of office, it's one of the president's mandated duties: Article II, Section 3.]

- Finally, if despite all the options under the law, some situation arises that you as president are convinced requires some action beyond the law, you do it and then you 'fess up and you take the fracking consequences, which should include removal from office and even criminal or civil charges if you can't convince people what you did was necessary and proper. That is, you do it as civil disobedience, as an act which you regard as necessary but which you know is illegal, not an exemption carved out from the law on your say-so, and you accept the legal jeopardy that goes along with that. If the prospect of consequences makes you hesitate when the situation is that desperate, you never should have been president in the first place.
As I said in a later comment, there has to be a bright line between what is legal and illegal, between what government officials can and cannot do, and any government official who crosses that line needs to do it knowing there can be a price to pay, perhaps a large one. Smudging, deleting, or ignoring that line makes the difference no longer between legal and illegal, between right and wrong, between what is good for a free society and what injures it, but only between good and bad liars.

More than one, one

There have been three recent Supreme Court decisions I have found troubling for different reasons. The first is well-known, the others likely less so and decided within the past couple of days.

The first is the one everyone has heard by now: the Supreme Court's refusal to hear an appeal from a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled by a 2-1 majority that people suing the Bush administration over its illegal wiretapping had no standing to sue because they couldn't prove they had been wiretapped. (The Supreme Court rejected the appeal without comment. The full decision of the Appeals Court, including the dissent, can be found at this link.)

The suit was brought by the ACLU "on behalf of prominent journalists, scholars, attorneys and national nonprofit organizations who say that the unchecked surveillance program is disrupting their ability to communicate effectively with sources and clients." In response, the Shrub gang invoked the "state secrets privilege," under which it claims the authority to withhold information supposedly related to national security. The power is virtually unchecked and unlimited because courts almost never challenge the claim or even insist it be justified. That set up the Catch-22 created by the Appeals Court where you can't sue unless you can prove you were spied on which you can't prove because you can't sue to get the information. The decision effectively immunizes any secret government program from judicial review because its very secrecy prevents anyone from having standing. That is, by the simple act of calling a program "secret," the White House puts it beyond the reach of the courts.

Now, in fairness, the Appeals Court did address that argument. It quoted a 1974 Supreme Court decision (United States v. Richardson), which said:
It can be argued that if respondent is not permitted to litigate this issue, no one can do so. In a very real sense, the absence of any particular individual or class to litigate these claims gives support to the argument that the subject matter is committed to the surveillance of Congress, and ultimately to the political process. ... [T]hat the Constitution does not afford a judicial remedy does not,of course, completely disable the citizen.... Lack of standing within the narrow confines of Art. III jurisdiction does not impair the right to assert his views in the political forum or at the polls.
Interestingly, Richardson was another national security-related case; it revolved around the contention that keeping the CIA budget secret was in violation of the Constitutional requirement on Congress that a "regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time." And just as in so many others before and since, the Court ran away screaming by finding Richardson lacked standing to sue.

So what the Supreme Court said there and the Appeals Court echoed here was, in effect, "No chance for judicial review of illegal, unconstitutional actions by the president? BFD - take it to Congress and who knows, maybe someday someone will do something about it." Short version: Talk to the hand.

In the ACLU's press release on the Supreme Court's decision in the present case (linked above), Jameel Jaffer, director of the group's National Security Project, said the Court's failure to act is "allowing the executive branch to police itself[, which] flies in the face of the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

Still, two quick notes should be kept in mind if only for the sake of maintaining one's sanity. One is that just like standing is a legal technicality, so is declining review. Which means that the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, not even on the issue of standing. And by denying standing, the 2-1 majority of the Appeals Court did not rule on the NSA program, only on the plaintiffs ability to bring the suit. In fact, as Glenn Greenwald noted last July when the Appeals court's decision came down, only two judges have issued opinions on the wiretapping: The dissenter in the Appeals Court ruling and the original District Court judge - and both called the program flatly illegal.

Oh, and a third note: The might be a plaintiff with standing. From Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly last month:
U.S. intelligence tapped the telephone calls of Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, starting in 2002. ...

One of his intelligence sources had revealed to him that he had “read a summary of a telephone conversation that I had from my home with a source in Egypt.” ...

In 2002 Wright was visited by two FBI agents after placing calls in the course of researching The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the rise of al Qaeda and U.S. responses to it, as well as an article on al Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

“They were members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” he recounted. “They wanted to know about phone calls made to a solicitor in England” who was upset that I was talking to some of her clients, who were jihadis, former members of Zawahiri’s terror organization in Egypt, and they wanted to know what we were talking about.”
It's important to note that Wright made the calls, so it could not even be a case of him being called by some targeted person outside the US. Listening to a call by Wright was supposed to require a warrant - and there is no discernible grounds on which one could have been obtained.

Maybe Wright could be a plaintiff in a new suit. Except, of course, I see some other judge denying him standing by declaring that "the mere invasion of privacy, standing alone, is not sufficient to prove actual harm" and so even though he had proved he had been monitored, he still didn't have standing. Never doubt the creativity of a court wanting to avoid challenging the executive on "national security" issues.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Footnote to the preceding

Contrary to the fulminations of the deranged right, the problem often isn't not enough information, but too much information. Sunday's New York Times tells how you can be spied on without even being spied on.
A technical glitch gave the F.B.I. access to the e-mail messages from an entire computer network - perhaps hundreds of accounts or more - instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to an internal report of the 2006 episode.

F.B.I. officials blamed an “apparent miscommunication” with the unnamed Internet provider, which mistakenly turned over all the e-mail from a small e-mail domain for which it served as host. The records were ultimately destroyed, officials said. ...

[A]n intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because surveillance operations are classified, said: “It’s inevitable that these things will happen. It’s not weekly, but it’s common.”
It's what's called "overproduction," getting more data than you wanted, and according to FBI testimony before Congress last March, yes, it is common. It means the government could be getting access to your telephone calls or email or whatever without you being a target of an investigation, a suspect, or even a mere "person of interest," but just because you happened to get swept up with the rest.

The spooks are supposed to dispose of the information, that's part of minimization, and yes, there is a certain logic to expecting they would because it's just extraneous stuff that can get in the way of what they're looking for - but it remains true that the less oversight there is, the less assurance we have that will be done and done properly, as opposed to, say, "well, we'll just file this away, just in case," or "we didn't ask for it but now that we've got it, why not see if there's anything here." At bottom, at the very least, it adds another thick layer of "just trust us" to the whole business.

And since I already don't trust them, I find that impossible.
The 2006 episode was disclosed as part of a new batch of internal documents that the F.B.I. turned over to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that advocates for greater digital privacy protections, as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the group has brought. ...

Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer for the privacy foundation, said the episode raised troubling questions about the technical and policy controls that the F.B.I. had in place to guard against civil liberties abuses.

“How do we know what the F.B.I. does with all these documents when a problem like this comes up?” Ms. Hofmann asked.
GMTA, Ms. Hofmann.

Footnote: The original (redacted) FBI document is here in .pdf format.

It wasn't a dream!

So House Democrats actually stood up to the WHS*, turned their backs on the fear merchants, and walked away. Yeah, I know I didn't say anything about it at the time; maybe it's just taken me this long to get over the shock.

Despite Shrub and the Shrubberies pulling out every rhetorical excess and innuendo they could find, the House didn't cave. Amazing.

Despite hearing Bush proclaim that failure to pass his FISA bill would "tie the hands" of “intelligence professionals ... working day and night to keep us safe,” that now "our country is more in danger of an attack," indeed one that will “make Sept. 11 pale by comparison” and which can only be stopped by giving him everything he wants, the House didn't cave. Astonishing.

Despite Iowa GOPer Steve King claiming letting the temporary law expire means the loss of "two-thirds of our intelligence gathering capability," Mitch McConnell accusing Democrats of being "more interested in seeing companies in court than seeing terrorists in jail,” Texas GOPper Ted Poe describing “joy throughout the terrorist cells throughout the world,” John Boehner frothing that this perfidity will "undermine our national security and endanger American lives," Dana Rohrabacher fantasizing about "families being murdered at Disneyland," and Ben Powell, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, insisting that the lack of immunity would mean "we're not going to have one of the critical enabling factors of our operations," the House didn't cave. Utterly astounding.

Mind-boggling even, as some Dem leaders actually talked like vertebrates.

Nancy Pelosi said Shrub “knows full well that he has all the authority he needs.” More pointedly, she said said “he has nothing to offer but fear” and is "fearmongering."

In a blistering letter to Bush, House Intelligence Committee Chair Silvestre Reyes said "I, for one, do not intend to back down - not to the terrorists and not to anyone, including a President, who wants Americans to cower in fear."

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called Bush's claims about intelligence gaps "basically dishonest," "categorically false," "inaccurate," and "divisive." He accused Bush of "stoking fears" in an attempt "to stampede the House of Representatives to rubber-stamp legislation ... We will not be stampeded." Hoyer also suggested that the push for immunity is "a cover-up" because the White House is “very nervous about what might be disclosed.”

And there was also that earlier "Dear Colleague" letter from John Dingell, Ed Markey, and Bart Stupak calling for opposition to any bill containing immunity.

(We also heard from the Senate, with Harry Reid calling Bush on his "reckless attempt to manufacture a crisis,” echoed by Dick Durbin, and Sheldon Whitehouse saying Bush was “whipping up false fears” and “creating artificial confrontation.” But sorry guys, you had your chance. Your time has expired.)

Of course, one of the things that made it easier for Dems to re-enact the theory of evolution was the simple fact that they are right and the GOPpers are liars.
With the Protect America Act expiring this weekend, domestic wiretapping rules will revert to the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires the government to obtain a warrant from a special court to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance in the United States.

The original FISA law, these experts say, provides the necessary tools for the intelligence community to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.

Timothy Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, said the last time Congress overhauled FISA - after the September 11 terrorist attacks - President Bush praised the action, saying the new law "recognizes the realities and dangers posed by the modern terrorist."

"Those are the rules we'll be living under after the Protect America Act expires this weekend," Mr. Lee added. "There's no reason to think our nation will be in any more danger in 2008 than it was in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, or 2006."

Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution said because existing warrantless surveillance begun under the temporary laws could continue for up to a year, the "sky is not falling at all."
As Kathy Gill says at her blog on politics,
Are we really expected to believe that the White House is going to find a key terrorist on Sunday (after the current law expires) ... and then do nothing that they are legally empowered to do? That is the implication....
Actually, not quite; the implication rather is that they will be unable to do anything but stand by with "their hands tied" and watch as an attack that will make 9/11 "pale by comparison" occurs. And the GOPpers are already putting out the meme as to who is on "which side" in that scenario, as a video at Crooks & Liars shows.

In that video, Fred Barnes says Congressional Democrats want to make it "more difficult" to surveil terrorists - not that the effect of this is such-and-so, not that opposition to immunity will result in this-or-that, but that Democrats want to make things easier for terrorists. Taking it a step further, Chris Wallace - geez, his father must be so disappointed in him - says when Bush wanted the "power to listen in to al-Qaeda, the Democrats voted no."

Barnes also predicted that the House will fold and pass the Senate bill; that remains to be seen but the truth is, tough talk followed by wobbly knees has been the Dem pattern all along. So I don't have my hopes up but at the same time we can't dismiss the direct and deliberate slap given to Bush by the recess, an unmistakable statement that the leadership did not take what Ben Wittes called Bush's "apocalyptic rhetoric" seriously.

What's important now is for the Dems to not revert to being Dims or Dums and to have someone out there every day - every single day - attacking "fearmongering" by the White House and rejecting the claims of intelligence "gaps." They must not let the GOPper meme take root.

As for any of you reading this: Call your Rep. Tell them no extension of PAA, no renewal of PAA, no warrantless wiretapping, no immunity - and that this is a deal-breaker.

Footnote: There is a common misconception worthy of a quick mention which I thought I had done before but apparently haven't. In that story from the Orange County Register linked above, the paper's DC Bureau Chief Dena Bunis says
the Senate last week passed changes to the original 1978 FISA that would allow espionage on these international calls and e-mails that went through U.S. networks to continue.
That's misleading. It is accepted legal doctrine that foreigners outside the US do not have the Constitutional rights that citizens do at home. (Whether those rights should as a matter of human morality extend to them is not the issue here.) So if there is a call from, say, Egypt to Canada on which the government wanted to eavesdrop, it could. But since the FISA law was passed in 1978, changes in communication technology increased the chances that such a call would be routed through the US, which made spying on it subject to warrant requirements.

If all the PAA (which I still say is fittingly pronounced "pah!") did was to amend the FISA law to make clear it was not intended to apply to calls where both parties are non-US persons outside the US plus adding some minimization requirements to avoid collection of data about non-targets, I strongly suspect it would have passed quickly and without any particular controversy. It is the immunity provisions and an expansion, not merely a clarification, of warrantless surveillance authority that are at issue.

Another Footnote: The photo is by Stephen Boitano of AP. I don't know whether it was the creepy idea of intelligence agencies paying obeisance to Bush or the snarky one that it'd take the CIA to find Bush's intelligence, but it seemed appropriate,

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Better late than nev-, well, actually not

Truth, all too often, is what is considered foolish at the time, revealed afterwards, and conventional wisdom later on. Not that we didn't know it all along, but welcome on one part of the Iraq story to Stage Two. This is from The Independent (UK) for Sunday:
The government official who wrote the first draft of the "dodgy dossier" that helped propel Britain into war in Iraq today admits, "We were wrong."

John Williams, a former Foreign Office aide, said last night that publication of his document would expose how members of Tony Blair's team were locked in a mindset that made military action inevitable. ...

The Williams draft was written in September 2002, only days after Mr Blair, then Prime Minister, announced that the Government would publish a dossier of intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein threatened the world with his weapons. ...

Mr Williams, press secretary to three foreign secretaries, said that the dossier would show how wrong the Blair team was about Saddam's alleged possession of WMD. Mr Williams said: "The argument was that here was someone who had been known to possess illegal weapons. We regarded him as a threat." He added: "The document will show the mindset that everyone had. It was wrong and we know that now."
The "dodgy dossier" is the one that made the false claim that Saddam Hussein could launch a chemical/biological attack within 45 minutes of giving the order. (Among other false claims, that is.) The dossier was, Williams essentially admits now, based on a creationist-style argument: The conclusion came first and the evidence was chosen to fit. (Or if you prefer a different image, an Alice in Wonderland argument: "Sentence first! Verdict afterwards!")

The Labour government had resisted release of the draft for years but was finally told by the UK's Information Tribunal the last week of January that it must comply with a freedom of information request by a UK researcher.

In arguments that will be amusingly familiar to Americans, the government had argued that release of the draft would "inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and ... frank exchange of views." The Tribunal rejected the argument, saying "We believe that the Williams draft might be capable of adding to the public's understanding of the issues in question."

In fairness, I have to note that the government denies that the Williams draft was used in the final dossier. But also in fairness I then have to wonder why, if it was so irrelevant, they have been so determined to keep it under wraps.

Footnote to the preceding

(Cross-posted to the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus.)

Meanwhile, on the Iraqi front that always seems to get overlooked, we learn from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) that
[t]ensions are building between Kurdish leaders and Arab prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Bagahdad, threatening to divide two of Iraq’s strongest political allies.

Kurdish leaders accuse Maliki’s government of not acting on issues most important to the Kurds, such as resolving a dispute over ownership of Kirkuk province and the funding of Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga.

At the same time, the Iraqi Kurdish government has forged ahead with signing private oil contracts without the approval of the central government, irking Baghdad and reigniting debates about how much power Iraq’s regional governments should hold.
The Kurdish Alliance is the second-largest bloc in parliament, holding nearly 20% of the seats. It's part of Maliki's governing coalition and if that alliance does fracture, it could turn the now-merely paralyzed government into one whose existence would extend little beyond the paper describing it.

Adding to those woes is that fact that the Kurds are becoming frustrated with their own leaders' inability to provide basic services. In response, a movement is trying to gather a million signatures on a petition calling for the local parliament to be dissolved and new elections held - but it's being hindered by active interference from security forces, which claim the petitioners need government approval to gather signatures.
In Chamchamal, police are said to have taken the coordinators of the petition to security headquarters in the town, confiscated their literature and told them they couldn’t collect signatures until they obtained permission from officials. ...

“[People] cannot do whatever they want,” said Ahmad Nadir, head of the Assaish, or security forces, in Chamchamal, told IWPR. “They don’t have a permit to collect signatures. We have told them to bring [one] from the governor of Sulaimaniyah and we will then let them work.”
Or, expressed more simply, you can only gather signatures on a petition calling for a new government at the times and places and in the way the challenged government chooses to allow. But that's necessary because, y'see,
[s]ome politicians argue that now is a difficult time to hold an election, citing tension between the Kurdish leadership and the central government in Baghdad over the future status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as well as recent conflict between Turkish troops and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, in northern Iraq.
Of course, it always seems to be a "difficult time" for elections when a government is under internal challenge, doesn't it? Hope it doesn't give you-know-who any ideas. Then again, I expect they've already had them.

Something I won't miss

March 19 is the fifth anniversary of a criminal war, an invasion and occupation of a foreign nation based on lies and driven by power-lust and greed that has generated only chaos, death, civil war, ethnic cleansing, a capital city drowning in sewage, thirsty for water and largely powerless (thanks to Juan Cole for that link), and a country with its worst cholera outbreak in 40 years.

So a call has been issued for a blogswarm to take place on March 19. You can add your blog to the list - as of now, there are 77 participating blogs - and see suggested ways to take part right here.

Note well that this is not intended to be instead of anything else you will do on that day, but in addition to it. Commit yourself to march, to speak, to petition, to write and phone, to sit in at the office of one of your Congressional representatives, to sit down in front of a recruiting office, to make the decision to refuse war taxes, to whatever - but also to blog about the war on March 19.

Footnote: If you care to check them out, my posts on the first, the second, and the fourth anniversary of the invasion are at the respective links. Lotus was on hiatus for all of 2006 and I was blogging very infrequently at another site during that time, so there is no third anniversary post.

Things I missed

- This past week, February 10-16, was the 11th annual Freedom to Marry Week, with over 100 events in 24 states and the District of Columbia. I suppose it wasn't as big a deal here for the obvious reasons, and maybe that's why I missed it, but as Eugene Debs said,
while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Or, as I understand one implication of that, rights denied anywhere are rights denied everywhere. As I've said elsewhere, it must be justice for all or it's not justice at all, but mere favoritism.

- If it hadn't been for James at The Mahatma X Files, I would have missed this one as well: Friday was the fifth anniversary of "arguably the largest protests in global history," all directed against the looming US invasion of Iraq. Tens of millions turned out. Over 800 cities represented. All seven continents (yes, including Antarctica, where scientists at McMurdo held a rally) and Oceania.

To no avail, it seemed, as the invasion proceeded as planned. But it might not have been as ineffective as we often think: It is likely, in fact, that the size of the protests limited or even prevented contributions to our imperialist effort by at least other nations.

So if you want to take a look back, Democracy Now! has an archive of its show about the demos, Wikipedia has an overview of the day's protests, and YouTube has videos from Seattle and New York and London and probably other places.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

You're it!

(Cross-posted to The Core 4.)

I've been tagged by the estimable James at The Mahatma X Files with one o' them interweb meme thingies. Like him, I usually don't take part in them (in fact, I did only one time before that I can recall now), but this one is kind of interesting and so, again like James, I said what the hell.

Here's the deal:
1. Grab the nearest book (that is at least 123 pages long).
2. Open to p. 123.
3. Go down to the 5th sentence.
4. Type in the following 3 sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Now, I cheated a little bit on the book because the nearest books to my computer are my wife's nursing reference books and her textbooks for her master's degree courses and I don't think three sentences of biochemical babble about interactions between two drugs of which I've never heard really fits the idea of the meme.

Instead I popped into the next room for the nearest book that I read - which turned out to be not the one I expected. I had just finished Bill of Wrongs by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, which I thought was on the table - but my wife had taken it to read, so it was gone. My copy of The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian, which I'd just started to re-read, is on my bed table, too far away.

So I just grabbed from the bookshelf the volume nearest to my computer chair. It turned out to be a 1961 translation and reprint of Relativity by Albert Einstein, originally published in 1916, a book I got so long ago that the cover price is 95 cents. These are the sentences:
But this point of view by no means embraces the whole of the actual process; for it slurs over the important part played by intuition and deductive thought in the development of an exact science. As soon as a science has emerged from its initial stages, theoretical advances are no longer achieved merely by a process of arrangement. Guided by empirical data, the investigator rather develops a system of thought which, in general, is built up logically from a small number of fundamental assumptions, the so-called axioms.
Happily, because there was no guarantee, the sentences made a coherent thought. Whew.

Okay, I'm going to tag Kevin at The American Street, JayV at Blazing Indiscretions, anybody at LeanLeft who cares to take it up, Len at The Existentialist Cowboy, and, even though this is different from what he usually posts, Tim at Green Left Infoasis just 'cause he's a cool guy.

No surprise here

Updated below It appears that that there will be no Dodd-lead filibuster today of Senate passage of the FISA bill, or any other kind of filibuster, either. Glenn Greenwald brings the word:
Under the Unanimous Consent framework agreed to by all Senators (including Dodd), there will be a 60-vote requirement to invoke cloture on the FISA bill and for ultimate passage, followed by an allotted 4 hours of post-cloture "debate," but there will not be any real filibuster to prevent cloture.
I can't say I'm surprised. On Saturday, I wondered
if Chris Dodd will have the spirit to follow through on his pledge to filibuster a bill containing immunity, especially in the face of Harry Reid's open antagonism - or will he make just a symbolic gesture, just a way to put an exclamation point to his opposition, before giving it up.
That was especially so since, as I'd noted earlier, I suspected the Senate Dummycrat misleadership was telling Dodd "You've made your point, now shut up." I was backed up by an item in Roll Call (via Crooks & Liars) that suggested Dodd had become "very isolated" within the Democratic caucus. The four hours of post-cloture "debate" will just be a matter of a meaningless running out of the clock that will provide that opportunity for Dodd's exclamation point.

GG goes on to say that
Dodd's efforts against this bill have been quite commendable, and the UC Agreement isn't completely worthless. It means that Democrats do not need 60 votes, or even 50 votes, to stop this bill. Rather, they only need 41 Senators willing to oppose cloture (which everyone knows they're not going to get).
"Which everyone knows they're not going to get." In fact, I expect opposition to cloture to get 35 or 36 votes, the votes of the same Senators that have supported Russ Feingold's attempts at amelioration of this abomination. Indeed, the phrase "not going to get" was the disgusting intent all along. Again, quoting myself from Saturday,
those amendments that were expected to fall short of a majority anyway only need 50 votes to pass, while those that it was thought might get to 50 votes would need 60. It is a procedure designed to have all amendments - including those that would strip telcom immunity - fail.
It was also a procedure designed to have any filibuster fail. And, with the active assistance of Jay Rockefeller and Harry Reid, it has done just that. And it's done it without the need for a single "stand up and talk" filibuster on a single amendment, must less on the whole bill, "exactly the situation," GG pointedly noted, "which Harry Reid vowed just two weeks ago he would not permit."

Which, frankly, is something else that doesn't surprise me: When Reid talked tough about extending the life of the temporary bill, I called it a case of "the mouse baring its teeth to the cat" and said
pardon me for being skeptical, but if once burned is twice shy, then repeatedly burned is I'm not enough of an idiot to touch that again until after its been thoroughly doused with water.
So the action moves quickly to the House, which will now be pressured not only by the White House but also by Harry Reid, who doubtless is already imploring House Democratic leaders to pass the Senate bill quickly, without any real debate, so as not make him look like a fool. The proper response to which is "Harry, you are a fool and there is no way this body is going to endorse that piece of tyranny-loving trash you sent over here." I have no hopes that will be the response; the Pelosi gang has shown itself to be as adept at dropping to its knees with its mouth open as has its Senate cousins. Yet the fact remains the House did pass a bill that is in just about every way superior to the Senate version and it is barely possible - barely possible - that there is some fight in this still.

I say call your Senators and say this is a deal-breaker: Be wrong on this - and that means on cloture, not on the bill itself; voting for cloture but against the bill is an empty gesture designed to look good to folks like us while actually capitulating - be wrong on this, and you will not work for them, contribute to them, or vote for them.

And then call your Representatives with the equivalent message: Stand fast for the House version, accept no changes, no weakening of oversight, no telcom immunity. This, again, is a deal-breaker.

At some point, enough has to be enough. This is more than enough.

Update As I expect you already know, the amendment to strip immunity lost this morning by a margin of 31-67. For those of you that follow such things, the 31 included 30 Democrats (including Barack Obama) and Bernie Sanders; the 67 included all GOPpers (including McCain) plus the rest of the Dims, including such supposedly "liberal" members as Evan Bayh, Diane Feinstein, Daniel Inouye, Barbara Mikulski, and Jim Webb. Hillary Clinton did not vote. (Note that the link is to an Obama campaign site. Do not read anything into that; it's just were I found the list of how people voted.)

Two amendments passed, both on voice vote: Sheldon Whitehouse's to allow the FISA court to consider how well the spooks have implemented "minimization" (minimizing the collection of incidental data about non-targeted Americans) and Kit Bond's to expand the definition of "agent of a foreign power," giving the WHS* even more power to spy.

The final vote on cloture did even worse than I expected; the vote was 69-29. I delayed posting this update for a bit because I wanted to find out the actual voting tally to see who in the last regard was prepared to stand up for the Constitution. It's available here. Some 28 of the 31 who voted against immunity also voted against cloture. Again, Clinton did not vote.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Just a note

I'd want to take a moment to thank those people who have clicked on those rating stars at the ends of posts. There haven't been many ratings given, but those that have been, have been in the 3 - 5 range.

I'd like to make a request, and it is just that, a request, not an expectation, that folks who rate a post at least consider leaving a quick comment as to why you gave the post the rating you did. Was it that the subject was that boring/interesting? The writing that confusing/clear? The language that pedestrian/inspiring? The perspective that unoriginal/insightful? I'd really like to know.

And by the way, if anyone cares to offer advice on how to promote myself to build a bigger audience, I'd be glad to hear that as well, since self-promotion is not something I'm any good at.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Matt Taibbi has an article in Rolling Stone that goes after the Democrats for their failure to end the Iraq War, writing that
congressional superduo Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have completed one of the most awesome political collapses since Neville Chamberlain. At long last, the Democratic leaders of Congress have publicly surrendered on the Iraq War, just one year after being swept into power with a firm mandate to end it. ...

There was much public shedding of tears among the Democratic leadership, as Reid, Pelosi and other congressional heavyweights expressed deep sadness that their valiant charge up the hill of change had been thwarted by circumstances beyond their control - that, as much as they would love to continue trying to end the catastrophic Iraq deal, they would now have to wait until, oh, 2009 to try again. "We'll have a new president," said Pelosi. "And I do think at that time we'll take a fresh look at it."
Gee, you mean all the fuss and feathers about ending the war was actually about positioning for the 2008 elections? Wow, who woulda thunk it?

He also charged that
[a]nti-war organizations essentially became a political tool for the Democrats - one operated from inside the Beltway and devoted primarily to targeting Republicans.
Major "antiwar" groups becoming the Democratic Party caucus of the antiwar movement? No one could have seen that!
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