Monday, May 25, 2015

Left Side of the Aisle #205

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of May 21-27, 2015

This week:

Good News: New  Jersey bans "rolling coal"

Good News: Vatican formally recognizes Palestine as a state

Pope Francis calls arms trade the "industry of death"

RIP: B. B. King

Some thoughts on: Are cops racist?



Sunday, May 17, 2015

204.7 - Update: states move against civil asset forfeiture

Update: states move against civil asset forfeiture

Finally for this week, we have an Update on something I've talked about before: civil forfeiture, or civil asset forfeiture as it's also known.

I've discussed this a few times here, the first time nearly two years ago, the most recent time earlier this year. Although I have talked about it before, I'm going to do a refresher before we get to the Update.

Civil forfeiture is a corrupted and corruption-ridden outgrowth of the "War on Drugs." It allows police to seize personal assets based on nothing more than their claimed belief that those assets either are related to illegal drug activity or were paid for with the proceeds of illegal drug activity. They can do this even if they have no basis for any charges against the person possessing the asset. In many cases you do not need to be convicted of crime to have your stuff taken; you do not even have to be accused of a crime. And no, I am not exaggerating. Not one tiny bit.

Under this program, cops have seized money, computers, TVs, jewelry, cars, even homes and businesses without ever presenting - or even having to present - a single shred of evidence that the owners had done anything illegal.

Once your property is seized, it's your responsibility to somehow prove the negative that the asset was not obtained through the drug trade. So it has become sadly commonplace for cops to just keep money or other valuables they find during traffic stops under the claim it's the result of illegal activity and therefore can be seized. The documented examples are legion.

Such civil forfeiture has a long history; it was one of the things that drove the American Revolution and one of the things the part of the Fourth Amendment referring to people being secure in their effects against unreasonable seizure and the part of Fifth Amendment about not being deprived of property without due process of law were designed to prevent.

Except for limited cases such as piracy, civil forfeiture was not used much in US - not, that is, until 1984. That's when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which established a special fund that turned over proceeds from seizures made by federal law-enforcement agencies to the agencies responsible for them. That is, the value of assets seized now didn't go to the general fund, most of it went to the cops and prosecutors. Put another way, cops now had a profit motive for seizing property. The result? At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture went from $27 million in 1985 to $556 million in 1993 to $4.2 billion in 2012.

Since 1984, most if not all states have adopted own civil forfeiture laws, but a number of them come with standards clearly stricter than the federal program, standards such as being able to show actual evidence of related criminal activity. But there was a huge loophole: A federal program called, creepily enough, Equitable Sharing, which included a provision under which the feds could "adopt" seizures made by state agencies, which could then be justified under the looser federal rules. The feds would keep 20% of the proceeds, with 80% going to the local police departments.

Eric Holder
There was some degree of Good News on this front in January when Eric Holder said he was ending the "adoptive seizure" portion of the Equitable Sharing program. However, this didn't apply to seizures in joint state-federal operations, nor, obviously, did it apply to state-level seizures and despite the fact that stricter standards existed in a number of states, that wasn't true in a number of others.

As a result, there were those who said that Holder's move didn't amount to much.

In fact, a February study by the libertarian Institute for Justice found that "adoptive seizures" accounted for only about 25 percent of all properties seized under Equitable Sharing and only about 10 percent of the total value of all seizures.

Which was true, but I noted at the time that Holder's action did not come in a vacuum but was a reflection of the fact that more questions are being asked about whole program of asset seizure and suggested he had brought more attention to the whole corrupt business, which I thought was likely to spur more outrage and more action in more states.

Which brings us to the update.

Last month, New Mexico enacted new law which requires authorities to obtain a conviction or guilty plea before seizing property. It also puts proceeds from seizures into the state's general fund rather than to the budgets of police departments, largely removing the cops' profit motive for such seizures.

The ACLU of New Mexico called it "a good day for the Bill of Rights."

This month, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill to overhaul that state's civil asset forfeiture laws, a bill passed - as was the one in New Mexico - with overwhelming bipartisan support.

As in New Mexico, the new MT law, to go into effect in July, requires conviction of a crime before the state can try to seize property. It also raises the legal threshold for forfeiture, requiring "clear and convincing evidence" - as opposed to the feeble "probable cause" - that the seized property is connected to criminal activity. And it establishes a number of protections for those whose property is targeted, such as a pretrial process.

However, unlike New Mexico, it does not move all proceeds into the general fund, leaving open the loophole of "joint" state-federal operations under Equitable Sharing. The bill's chief sponsor says he is going to be watching to see if more legislation is necessary.

Finally for now, a new bill in California, introduced in April, would require a conviction in all cases before asset seizure, closing a loophole that made it easier to make large seizures than small ones. It also would move some of the proceeds now going to prosecutors, law enforcement and the general fund to the courts and offices of public defenders, and says that Equitable Sharing can't be used by the cops to evade state requirements.

A similar bill failed to make it out of comm in 2012  - but the ground is different now. We’ll have to see if California is prepared to have Montana out in front of it on privacy and 4th Amendment rights.

And we can continue toward putting an end to the corrupt official thievery that is civil asset forfeiture.

Sources cited in links:

204.6 - Footnote: lies about TPP and the US auto industry

Footnote: lies about TPP and the US auto industry

There is a footnote to the discussion of the TPP: One of Obama's favorite sales pitches for the pact is that it will be great for the US auto industry. If the TPP is passed, he claims, Ford Mustangs and Chevy pick-ups will be clogging the streets of Tokyo.

Last month he said "I don't know why folks would be opposed to opening up the Japanese market more for US autos" just before bringing out the "level the playing field" cliche.

The problem is, it just ain't true.

First off, Japan imposes no tariffs on US cars shipped to Japan. Rather, in what was an attempt to protect the US auto industry, there are US tariffs on cars imported from Japan - tariffs which would be reduced as part of the TPP. Which means that rather than opening Japan to US cars, it would further open the US to Japanese cars. You can argue whether that is a good thing or a bad one, but what you can’t claim is that it would help the US auto industry.

Oh, but there are so-called "non-tariff barriers" that keep US cars out of the Japanese market, insist the president's trade minions, and those will be dealt with as well.

Sherrod Brown
Okay, except that the big three U.S. automakers, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, are wary of the deal in part because of its lack of controls on currency manipulation, manipulation of which Japan has been notoriously guilty - and controls which Obama opposes.

What's more, auto industry analysts have long said that the real problem in expanding the US auto industry's presence in Japan is that the Japanese just do not want American cars, preferring smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles to the sort that Detroit insists on making, where words like "room," "performance," "power," and "luxury" hold sway.

Sen. Sherrod Brown observed that past trade deals promising jobs have failed to deliver time and again:
I've seen the same promises - more jobs, higher wages. The jobs don't materialize ... the promises are remade.
This, it seems, is just another example.

Sources cited in links:

204.5 - Outrage of the Week: Senate Dems collapse on fast-track

Outrage of the Week: Senate Dems collapse on fast-track

Next up, another of our regular features. This actually was going to be Good News, but it turned into the Outrage of the Week.

On Tuesday, in what was called everything from a setback to a stinging rebuke, Senate democrats refused to be stampeded by President Hopey-Changey's campaign of half sweet-talk, half-mockery, and refused to give him so-called "trade promotion authority," otherwise known as fast-track authority, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the proposed trade deal accurately labeled by Rep. Keith Ellison as "the biggest corporate power grab you never heard of."

The TPP would create a free trade zone covering 12 Pacific nations and 40 percent of the world economy - making it biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, liberalized trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico, a deal which has been responsible for the loss of millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs in exchange for the creation of millions of low-paid service industry jobs.

TPP has been in negotiation for years - I first mentioned it here two and a-half years ago - negotiated in secret with input from governments, trade and industry associations, and corporations - and essentially none from labor, environmental groups, human rights organizations, or consumers. None, that is, from those whose concerns lay beyond power, privilege, and profit.

Fast-track authority means that once the trade deal is completed, it would be presented to Congress as a single bulk, with only a yes or no, up or down vote possible. No amendments allowed, no filibusters permitted. It's a procedure used only for trade agreements and is intended to make it as easy as possible for them to be approved.

Three weeks ago, I called the push for fast-track the Outrage of the Week but, aware of the growing resistance to the TPP among progressives, including some folks in Congress, I added that it was not a done deal.

And for a moment, it looked like it wasn't: A vote on a procedural motion needed to move fast-track authority forward got only 52 of the 60 votes required, with only one Dem voting for it.

Wow! Good news!

For one day.

And then the Senate Dems - outrageously, disgustingly - collapsed like a used tissue.

Originally, those Dems had wanted the bill for fast-track authority to be bundled with others, including giving favorable treatment to imports from Africa and cracking down on currency manipulation by China -currency manipulation being a practice by a country of artificially depressing the value of its currency in order to make its exports, from our (in this case) point of view, relatively cheaper and US exports, from their point of view relatively more costly, thus protecting their own domestic industries at our expense.

Just 24 hours later, the demand for bundling was gone, exchanged for an essentially meaningless promise to vote on those things as separate bills where they will have no impact on fast-track authority and thus no impact on the TPP and the House can completely ignore them and not even act on them at all.

This means that Senate Dems gave away their leverage on trade in exchange for being able to posture to the folks back home that they "voted to get tough with China."

Fast-track authority is still not a done deal, since after it gets through the Senate, which due to this craven capitulation it clearly will, it will have to be passed by the House, where it is expected to have a tougher time and where a number of Dems (and some GOPpers) are on record opposing it.

None of that changes that fact that Senate Democrats had in practical effect stopped TPP, this latest hosanna to the transnational corporations that dominate the world's trade and, increasingly, its governments, they had stopped TPP in its tracks because the Amazing Mr. O and the Wall Street bankers surrounding him and whispering in his ear know it can't survive actual open debate. And they gave it up, threw it away, for a mess of pottage.

And that, and its potential impact on our economic future - because I don't know how many more "victories" like NAFTA we can afford - makes it an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

204.4 - Clown Award: Sen. James Inhofe

Clown Award: Sen. James Inhofe

Now it's time for one of our regular features, it's the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

This week we have another case of someone I may have to disqualify from future awards because it's not fair to other aspirants because he is such an easy target.

But I haven't done that yet, so for now, the Big Red Nose goes again to the man with the world's most perfect middle name because he clearly has rocks in his head, Senator James Mountain - and yes, that really is his middle name - Inhofe.

Because of his mastery of clownishness, a single incident is not enough to earn him this week's award. So I submit to you the following three examples, all within the past few weeks.

First off, in an Earth Day op-ed, Senator RocksInHisHead - who, sadly, chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee;

Senator RocksInHisHead, who says global warming is "the greatest hoax" and "a conspiracy" because, pretty much, the Bible says so;

Senator RocksInHisHead, who not long ago brought a snowball onto the Senate floor, apparently imagining the fact that it snowed in Washington, DC, in the winter disproves global warming;

in an Earth Day op-ed, Senator RocksInHisHead insisted that Mr. O's climate action plan - the one intended to deal with the climate change Rocky claims doesn’t exist - should push nuclear power because otherwise it doesn't do enough to reduce carbon emissions. In support, he actually favorably quoted James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and whose Congressional testimony in 1988 brought global warming to public awareness, as saying we need to use nuclear power to fight global warming.

He followed up by saying that as his legacy, Obama
wants total gun control, he wants to close Gitmo, and then of course, this is the big thing, he wants to do away with fossil fuels.
Oddly enough, Rocky seems to think those are all bad things.

And finally, just last week, apparently having already forgotten what he wrote just a couple of weeks before about how we should support nukes on the claim that they are "carbon-free" (which they're not, by the way, they are just less carbon-intensive), Rocky went on a rambling rant on the Senate floor against cutting the very emissions the nukes were going to save us from because, he said, "CO2 is a fertilizer" so the increase, which just hit a record level as a world-wide average, is "greening the planet."

Greening the planet - even as it melts glaciers and threatens to inundate low-lying coastlines while leaving California dying of thirst.

Which makes James Inhofe the kind of person who would come to your home after your house got washed away in a flood and grouse that you weren't celebrating the fact that you wouldn't have to water your lawn for some time.

Sen. James RocksInHisHead Inhofe: indisputably a clown.

Sources cited in links:

204.3 - Everything You Need to Know: about why we can't stop corporate corruption

Everything You Need to Know: about why we can't stop corporate corruption

Now for one of our occasional features. This one is called Everything You Need to Know and it's where you can learn a great deal about something in a very short time.

In this case, it's Everything You Need to Know about why we can't seem to stop corporate corruption in just two sentences

1. On May 12, the FCC fined Verizon $90 million for allowing, and profiting from, "cramming," a corrupt practice in the mobile phone industry where third-party vendors "cram" charges into consumers' phone bills for services those consumers didn't buy.

2. On the same day, Verizon announced it was spending nearly 50 times that much - $4.4 billion - to purchase AOL.

And that is Everything You Need to Know.

Sources cited in links:

204.2 - Hero Award: The Vangardist magazine

Hero Award: The Vangardist magazine

Next up we have a Hero Award, something we give out here as the occasion arises to someone who just does the right thing on a matter big or small.

Despite advances made toward acceptance of LGBT people and LGBT rights, there is still a taboo, one that, while not as bad as it once was, is still a source of unwarranted fears that can have devastating consequences: the taboo around HIV and the disease associated with it, AIDS.

Now, a German men's magazine called "Vangardist" has taken a dramatic step in an attempt to break that taboo: It has printed 3000 copies of its May issue using ink infused with HIV-positive blood from three volunteers.

Contrary to some initial reports, it was not just the cover that was printed with that ink, but the entire magazine, which contained statements from the publishers as to why they took this dramatic action and stories about what the magazine called "HIV heroes."

The text of the magazine says handling a copy of the edition carries no risk of infection, as it was produced according "to the most stringent controls" - but I would add that the very fact that it was felt necessary to say that when it has been known for years that HIV - the human immunodeficiency virus - survives outside the body for only a short time shows the fears and, again, taboos still surrounding the disease.

The publishers noted that despite 30 years of campaigning, activism, and research, HIV remains the sixth biggest cause of death in the world, with number of confirmed cases in 2013 some 80% higher than in 2003 - and half of HIV cases are detected late because of a lack of testing caused by the social stigma associated with the virus.

Health experts say that ending that stigma is vital to efforts at eradicating the virus because the culture of prejudice and shame that still attaches to HIV/AIDS deters both people from getting tested and carriers from disclosing their HIV status to sexual partners while making it difficult for prevention programs to operate in the broader community.

The "Vangardist" has found a dramatic way to confront that stigma and ask people to recognize their own fears. And for that the publishers of "Vangardist" magazine are Heroes.

Sources cited in links:

204.1 - Good News: House passes USA Freedom Act

Good News: House passes USA Freedom Act

Let's start with some Good News. Not as good as it could have been, but still good.

Last week, I told you about the upcoming expiration of three provisions of the grossly-misnamed PATRIOT Act and the push by civil libertarians in Congress (and yes there are some) to let those provisions, especially one known as Section 215 of the law, go ahead and expire.

Section 215 is the one that was used to justify the mass collection by the NSA of so-called "metadata" on essentially every phone or cell phone call within, into, or out of the US every day.

Well, the House of Representatives didn't have Section 215 die, but it did do what I suppose was the next best thing: By a vote of 338-88, including majorities of both Dems and GOPpers, it passed the USA Freedom Act.

If it became law, that act would
-stop the NSA from storing domestic telephone toll records;
-create a panel of independent advocates at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the FISC to advocate for privacy and civil liberties when the spooks come looking for a warrant;
-require the feds to have a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a specific search term - such as a certain telephone number - was associated with international terrorism in order to get a warrant to search related phone records;
-prohibit the NSA from making broad requests such as all calling for all records from a city, state, or ZIP code; and
-provide companies and individuals with a means to challenge the gag orders that routinely come with government demands for data under so-called national security letters, or NSLs.

As side effect, with the bar on the NSA storing phone records and an FCC rule that phone companies store customer records for at least 18 months, the bill in effect creates an 18-month limit on the time the NSA has to seek such a warrant.

The bill is far from perfect and some have questioned how much protection it offers, since warrants would still come from the notoriously compliant FISC, which virtually never rejects a request for one - but it is a good deal better than what the right-wing leadership of the Senate wants to do, which is to renew the existing "collect it all" provisions of the law for five more years with no changes.

So the fight is by no means over  - but for the moment, embrace the fact that the House has declared loudly that "privacy" is not an antiquated term. And that is Good News.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #204

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of May 14-20, 2015

This week:

Good News: House passes USA Freedom Act

Hero Award: The Vangardist magazine

Everything You Need to Know: about why we can't stop corporate corruption

Clown Award: Sen. James Inhofe

Outrage of the Week: Senate Dems collapse on fast-track

Footnote: lies about TPP and the US auto industry

Update: states move against civil asset forfeiture

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

203.6 - TRAITOR Act provisions up for renewal

TRAITOR Act provisions up for renewal

Three provisions of the grossly misnamed "PATRIOT" Act - which would better have been called the "TRAITOR" Act, and which is what I will call it here for its attack on privacy and civil liberties - are set to expire on June 1.

When the Traitor Act was passed, it was in an atmosphere of unreasoning panic in the immediate wake of 9/11, passed with unseemly haste and essentially no debate with most members of Congress not even having had the chance to scan the hundreds of pages of the bill, less having read it and analyzed it, even then, even in that atmosphere, enough members kept enough of a grip on their sanity to put "sunset" provisions on some parts of the monstrosity, willing to look forward to a time when the so called "great war on terror" might not inspire the same feelings of overwhelming dread and we might decide the expended powers to poke, prod, and pry into every part of our private lives, well, maybe we overdid it a little. A little.

As a result, those provisions had to be renewed. And they were, in 2006 under the Bush gang and in 2011 under or own President Hopey-Changey.

Now, they are coming up again and this time there is at least the appearance of a debate, all because of one event that occurred since the last renewal: an event named Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden
Because of Edward Snowden, we know about the mass collection of so-called "metadata" about our personal telephone calls, we know about tracking of our emails and other online activities, while phrases like "bulk collection of data" and "mass surveillance" come easily to our lips. We know - we have it in their own words in their own memos - that "collect it all" is the mantra of the National Security Agency, the NSA.

And we know - again because of the spooks' own words, their own repeated failures in their attempts to make a case for it - we know that this massive, daily, on-going, organized, conscious, deliberate violation of our privacy and our rights has not done a damn thing to make us "safe."

And now three provisions of the Traitor Act will expire, will no longer be law, as of June 1 unless Congress acts - in fact, because of a planned recess, Congress actually has until May 22.

Two of those three provisions are known as the "lone wolf" provision and the "roving surveillance" provision. The first changed the definition of "foreign terrorist" to include any non-US-citizen suspected to be somehow a terrorist or a terrorist-in-waiting even if they have no connection whatsoever to any other group or country or whatever. Even if they are all by themselves, they are still considered part of "international terrorism."

The "roving surveillance" provision in essence authorizes telephone wiretaps on an individual. Normally such wiretaps are on a particular phone line. This provision says that no, you are not doing surveillance on the phone line but on the person - so you can, under a single warrant, tap, you can surveil, any phone line that this person may use.

But the provision that's caused the biggest stink is Section 215.

Section 215 allows investigators to obtain "any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items)," as long as the records are sought "in connection with" a terror investigation. The phrase "in connection with" is important. I means that the person or organization or institution whose records are sought need not be suspected of any wrongdoing. They need not even be connected to anyone suspected of any wrongdoing. The only requirement is that investigators be prepared to claim that the information is in some way, is somehow, "relevant" to an investigation. Which is why it's sometimes referred to as the "library records" provision - because some federal spook somewhere might think that the books you read are "relevant" to - something.

It was Section 215 that enabled NSA's on-going, daily, bulk collection of metadata on millions and millions of phone calls. Defenders of the Traitor Act have claimed that such metadata is just a list of what number called what number, so what's the big deal, but that is flatly false. It does include what number called what number, yes - which of course, if it's a landline it reveals from where the call was made (with the same applying to where the call was to) -  but it also includes what time the call was made, how long the call was, your calling card number if you used one, the trunk identifier (which narrows down the physical location of the caller), the IMEI number (a cell phone's unique identifier) and the IMSI number (the unique identifier of the SIM card in your mobile phone).

In 2013, at the time this was coming out, The British newspaper The Guardian noted that
when cross-checked against other public records, the metadata can reveal someone's name, address, driver's licence, credit history, social security number and more. Government analysts would be able to work out whether the relationship between two people was ongoing, occasional or a one-off.
In one small-scale study at Stanford University a year ago, researchers found that phone metadata is
unambiguously sensitive, even in a small population and over a short time window.
Using only metadata willingly provided by a group of people via a certain app, that is, metadata from a limited number of people and only over a period of a couple of months, the researchers were able to infer one case of multiple sclerosis, one heart condition, an unplanned pregnancy, what some of gun someone owned, and they had a high degree of success in cases where they tried to predict someone's religion.

That was, again, a small number of people over a limited time. The NSA is sucking up such data on millions of phone calls every day and has been doing it for several years.

And that doesn't begin to express the reach of Section 215. It's been used to justify NSLs, or National Security Letters, these extra-judicial search warrants, unreviewed by any court, not even the notoriously compliant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which virtually never rejects an application for a warrant, an extra-judicial search warrant issued by any FBI field supervisor on their own authority demanding sensitive information and accompanied by a gag order which not only prohibits the recipient from revealing what records were sought but even from mentioning ever having gotten the demand in the first place.

So it is not surprising that there is a push being put on by civil liberties groups and the civil libertarians in Congress - which includes some folks on the right as well as the left - to let Section 215 die its well-deserved death. Even the White House is on board with that idea, having admitted some time ago that it just doesn't need it. (It could hardly have done otherwise, in light of the fact that Obama's own presidential task force concluded that the program is "not essential to preventing attacks.")

So what's happened?

In April, Senate Majority Leader Fishface McConnell and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr introduced a bill that would extend all three expiring provisions through 2020, without any changes, using a maneuver intended to have the bill skip any committee hearings and go straight to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sen. Fishface McConnell
However, the House Judiciary Committee reached a bipartisan agreement on a different bill, one that supposedly - I strongly emphasize the word - offers significant reforms. Originally, the bill, called the USA Freedom Act, let Section 215 expire, but even that reasonable provision - remember, even the White House says it can do without it - was watered down in the pursuit of the mythologized bipartisan support. Now, the USA Freedom Act narrows the type of records collected, adds some oversight protections, and toughens the standards for a warrant to examine phone company records, but it doesn't end bulk data collection. Instead, it requires the phone companies to maintain those records so that the feds can look at them if they can convince a court they have a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a specific search term - such as a certain telephone number - was associated with international terrorism.

That bill is expected to pass the House but its chances in the Senate - where the right-wing leadership wants our privacy to be invaded unimpeded - are uncertain. And while the USA Freedom Act is, again, expected to pass the House, civil liberties groups seriously question what protections it actually offers. For one unhappy example, the court they have to convince to get a warrant to search phone records is the - I say it again - notoriously compliant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

So, as one observer put it,
here's where we stand with Patriot Act Section 215: two bills, no real changes, a blindfolded fight over the Patriot Act and a bad feeling about everything.
And now that I've depressed you, let me make you feel really down: Remember, all this talk only applies to the three sections of the Traitor Act that are due to expire on June 1. The rest of it rolls merrily along. And while much of the bill is reasonably noncontroversial, often enough just dealing with administrative changes, there is one section that is not part of the debate because it is not going to expire. And its implication are, if anything, worse than those connected to Section 215.

It is Section 702 of the Traitor Act.

Unlike the bulk metadata collection under Section 215, information which the phone companies are required to provide to the spooks on a daily basis, Section 702 is the one under which the NSA sucks up data directly from the physical infrastructure of communications providers. It's the one through which the NSA scoops up mountains of data traveling over the internet, data including emails, instant messages, Facebook messages, web browsing history, and more.

Just to make sure that's clear, unlike the telephone metadata program, the information gathered up under Section 702 includes content. It's not just who sent an email to who, it's the content of that email. It's not just who sent who an instant message, it's what was in that message. You posted a YouTube video under privacy protections so that only specified friends could see it? The NSA can see it, too.

The NSA is not supposed to "intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States." But the words "intentionally" and "target" both have been given wide and let's just call them "flexible" meanings such that millions of internet records of millions of Americans are "unintentionally" swept up. But don't worry, the NSA insists it doesn't "collect" any records on Americans - until it turns out that in the NSA's version of English, a record isn't "collected" until an agent actually directly examines it. It can be gathered, indexed, and permanently stored, but it hasn't - yet - been "collected."

I hope you're reassured that your Fourth Amendment rights and your constitutional right to privacy are under such trustworthy and strong protection.

There is only one real answer to this and it is just not going to happen, at least not this year: We have to throw out all of the Traitor Act and start over.

Again, a lot of the Act is noncontroversial and even common sense administrative changes. It would be easy enough to pull those out and reintroduce them over again and get them passed in pretty much no time.

But those provisions are not the issue. And after 14 years of the Traitor Act with no evidence that it has done anything to protect life or property or anything else worth protecting, after years of mass intrusions into our privacy, after thousands of Traitor-Act-approved secret searches of homes, offices, and other premises - 6,500 of them in 2013 alone, the vast majority of them having nothing to do with terrorism - it's time to say enough. Before it's too late.

There are those - as there always are in any such case - who say they are not worried because they didn't anything wrong and so the NSA doesn't care about them because they only go after "the bad guys."

To those people I would only say that you are staking a hell of a lot on the assumption that power does not corrupt.

Sources cited in links:

203.5 - This week: A two for one special! A second Clown Award!

Clown Award: unknown peer reviewer

This week: A two for one special! A second Clown Award!

Our clown here does not have a name. Or even a gender. But the identity as a clown is clear enough.

Fiona Ingleby, an evolutionary geneticist and postdoc at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, and Megan Head, an evolutionary biologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, together submitted a paper to PLOS ONE, an on-line peer-reviewed science journal based in San Francisco. The paper was about gender differences in the transition from PhD to postdoc and suggested that women may face a harder time in making that transition due to gender biases.

The peer-reviewer to who the paper was referred rejected the article not for flaws in its content or for lapses in the scientific process, but because it didn’t have enough input from men. Yes, I said that. The anonymous rerviewer wrote:
Perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students.
Or maybe, he or she went on, the guys just work harder. Or maybe their papers are just better. Because, we're apparently supposed to gather, they're guys. And stuff.

So the reviewer suggested that the researchers find
one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors) in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically based assumptions.
To put it more bluntly, ya just can't trust them lady scientists, they need a couple of dudes in there to keep their pretty little heads on straight.

Again, we don't know the reviewer's identity or even their gender and if you say that it couldn't have been a women I say to you Phyllis Schlafly. What we do know is that when the researchers made a public stink over the journal's sluggish response to their appeal of the rejection, PLOS released a statement saying it "regrets the tone, spirit and content of this particular review" and promising reconsideration.

The other thing we know is that this reviewer, whoever they were, is a sexist clown.

Sources cited in links:

203.4 - Clown Award: Ben Carson

Clown Award: Ben Carson

Now it's time for one of our regular features, the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity.

The Big Red Nose this week goes to Ben Carson, former brain surgeon and now candidate for GOPper nomination for president.

Ben Carson, the man who in March swore he would never talk about The Gay again because the of how the biased liberal press was so mean to him by quoting what he said, may have found another topic he will have to swear to avoid: the constitution.

On May 5 on the reactionary Newsmax TV, Carson was asked about the pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and he said - and sorry Ben, but I'm quoting,
Ben Carson
we have to understand how the Constitution works, the president is required to carry out the laws of the land, the laws of the land come from the legislative branch. So if the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibly to carry it out. It doesn’t say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law.
In other words, the president is free to ignore any Supreme Court decision he or she does not like. Because that's a "judicial law," not like you know, a real law or something. The fact that judicial review has been established legal practice in the US for 212 years is apparently irrelevant.

It is fortunate that Carson has retired from his surgical practice: I don't think he should be allowed around sharp objects.

Ben Carson: clown.

Sources cited in links:

203.3 - The death penalty must go

The death penalty must go

The "penalty phase" of the trial of Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is now going on. For all I know, it will be over before you see this. But it still is the occasion for a comment.

Because the issue now, obviously, is not one of his guilt or innocence. In a way, it never was: Tsarnaev never denied being involved. The question is one of his life or death: Will he be sentenced to life without parole or will he be sentenced to death?

To me, there is not even a choice to be made: The death penalty is an archaic relic of a brutal past, a past that I would hope we had outgrown but seemingly have not, a relic marked with bigotry, legal sloppiness, and murders of the innocent: Over the past 40 years, 153 people have been released from death row with proof of their innocence, a figure equal to more than 1/10 of those who have been executed in that same time - which can only leave us to wonder how many of those were likewise innocent.

Yes, but we'll be told, you said it yourself: His guilt is not at issue. He is not innocent of the crime. I know that. I also know that killing him - and let's not kid ourselves with euphemisms, what we're talking about planned, premeditated, murder - murdering him will not bring back a single life, it will not undo a single wound, it will not repair a single mangled limb, it will not restore a single shattered life.

I am unalterably opposed to the death penalty - even with the excuse of "the worst of the worst."

I'm not the only one opposed: while a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, that support is now at a 40-year low.

I'm not even the only one opposed in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: The LA Times recently editorialized that
the real reason to spare Tsarnaev's life is that no crime warrants the death penalty. The jury should reject capital punishment and sentence Tsarnaev to life in prison without possibility of parole because that is how a mature society acts. Not out of vengeance. Not out of passion.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Those words echo my own from decades past. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was running for president as a Democrat and he had the failing of being uncomfortable expressing emotion in public, making him seem to many as a cold fish or a mere technocrat, a fine clerk but a lousy leader. During a televised debate, he was asked about his opposition to the death penalty and would it change his mind - how would he feel - if someone raped and killed his wife.

Dukakis rather uncomfortably said he expected he would feel the same things any other husband would and then calmly said it would not change his mind about the death penalty.

I still remember my own reaction to the question. I thought that if someone raped and killed my wife, I would want to rip out his throat with my bare hands. I would want to crush his skull. I would want to rip off one of his legs and beat him with it and smear his own blood all over what remained of his face. My rage would know no bounds.

But, I also thought, that's why we have laws! That's why we have courts! That's why we have a legal system! So we don't act out of blind rage or desire for blood vengeance. So we act with thought, with careful consideration of what we are doing and why and what are the consequences of what we do.

It surely would make some feel somehow better, how we "got him back," if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is murdered by the state, but blood vengeance is not supposed to be the basis for our actions, not as a society any more than as individuals.

We must put an end to the death penalty.

Sources cited in links:

Monday, May 11, 2015

203.2 - Congratulations to Dan Perkins

Congratulations to Dan Perkins

Dan Perkins
Next up, a quick shout-out of congratulations to Dan Perkins, who under the pen name Tom Tomorrow, does the comic strip "This Modern World," for having been one of the three finalists for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning.

If you don't know who he is, if you don't know This Modern World, you really should. You can see the sampling of his cartoons that he submitted for consideration for the prize at the Pulitzer organization's website.

Sources cited in links:

203.1 - Good News: US approves ferry service to Cuba


Good News: US approves ferry service to Cuba

Starting, as I always like to, with some Good News, we have the news that the Amazing Mr. O continues his moves to normalize - to open normal political relations with - the nation of Cuba.

On May 5, the White House announced approval of ferry service between the United States and Cuba, the first such service in decades.

This comes in the wake - no pun intended - of the April meeting between Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro, the first time such a meeting has taken place in over 50 years.

Obama has also eased up some on the embargo on trade with Cuba and, more directly related to the ferries, has moved to ease long-standing travel restrictions between the two nations. While regular tourist travel is still prohibited, Cuban-Americans visiting family, officials on government trips, and journalists will no longer need to get special permission to go from the US to Cuba.

Even with the remaining travel restrictions, the new ferry service would open a new path for the movement of the hundreds of millions of dollars in goods that travel between the two nations yearly - not to mention the many people who make the trip from the US to Cuba each year, usually to visit relatives.

The Treasury Department said that specific ferry licenses are being issued on a "case-by-case" basis and there was no blanket permission for such ferry services. However, at least five ferry lines - one in Mexico, one in Puerto Rico, and three in Florida - have confirmed receiving a license for a ferry service between the US and Cuba.

The downside of all this is that this will also have to be approved, obviously,  by Cuba - and it's not a slam-dunk that Cuba would be comfortable with opening up the possibility of a new large-scale means of exchange. They are going to be cautious, to feel wary, about moving beyond a half-century of mutual hostility, just as the US government has been and still is. Even so, it's a step in the right direction.

And as the guy in the movie said, "Small moves. Small moves."

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #203


Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of May 7-13, 2015

This week:

Good News: US approves ferry service to Cuba

Congratulations to Dan Perkins

The death penalty must go

Clown Award: Ben Carson

Clown Award: unknown peer reviewer

TRAITOR Act provisions up for renewal

Monday, May 04, 2015

202.6 - And Another Thing: the Hubble Space Telescope at 25

The Hubble Space Telescope at 25

I don't know how I missed this last week but I did. This past Friday, April 24, was the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope was named for Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer who in the 1920s showed first that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy, expanding our sense of the scale of the universe by a factor of multiple billions, and then later in the decade proved that the universe is not static but is expanding. The Hubble was conceived from the beginning as a telescope in space, one designed to operate outside the atmosphere of Earth and so without the visually-distorting effects of looking through that atmosphere.

It has worked brilliantly at that. But it didn't start that way. About a month after the telescope was set in orbit during a space shuttle mission came what's called in the trade "first light," the first image to be seen through a new telescope. It came - and it was blurry.

The media reaction was harsh. It was a failure, a boondoggle, a waste, a washout, useless. None of that was really true: Even the blurry images were superior to what could be obtained by Earth-bound observatories. But they were not nearly what they should have been or what the Hubble was designed to produce. It was a huge disappointment.

The problem was quickly diagnosed as spherical aberration, where light striking close to the edges of the telescope's primary mirror is not focused at the same place as light striking the mirror closer to the center, resulting in a blurred, out-of-focus image. The primary mirror in the Hubble is 2.4 meters (just about 8 feet) across and it was, in the words of one, "perfectly flawed" - it was made to the exact specifications called for, but the specifications were a little off. And so, therefore, were the images the mirror produced.

Happily for the Hubble, some optics specialists figured out a way to add small mirrors to correct for the aberraion, a process some described as fitting the telescope with a pair of glasses. In 1993, three years after the launch, another space shuttle mission did repairs - and the results were fantastic.

When those first images began to hit the media, for maybe the first time, no one needed to have an excuse for being an astronomer. No one needed to answer the inevitable "So what's the point?" for their interest in the stars and the galaxies and what they are made of and how they form and what will happen to them.

In the words of Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, Hubble
showed us the universe in ways we simply could not have imagined before. When it showed us light-year-spanning cathedrals of gas where new stars are born, Hubble revealed a new kind of grace. When it showed us glittering but ancient jewels marking the apocalyptic death of stars, it spoke of power on a scale words cannot embrace. Hubble gave humanity a new visual vocabulary for space.

But it was not just a matter of the glorious look of the images. It was what they revealed.

The Hubble Space Telescope triggered the discovery of the still-not-understood dark energy when it showed us that not only is the universe expanding, the rate at which it's expanding is increasing. The effect has been likened to throwing a ball into the air and having it rise faster and faster as it goes up.

The Hubble gave us our first visible-light picture of an exoplanet, a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun.

It has advanced the search for extraterrestrial life with its ability to reveal something about the atmospheres of exoplanets, where it has found cases of carbon dioxide, organic molecules, and even water vapor in some of those atmospheres.

It has advanced our understanding of black holes, those collapsed remnants of massive stars were local gravity is so great that even light can't escape and has provided evidence that a supermassive black hole lies at the heart of almost all galaxies (including our own Milky Way), advancing our knowledge of how galaxies form.

It enabled us to watch the impact of a comet or asteroid on Jupiter almost in real time.

It has enabled us to look deep into the history of the cosmos. Remember that the speed of light is not infinite; light takes time to get from one place to another. What you see is not how an object is at your own "now" but how that object was at time moment the light left it. Which means the further out into space you go, the further back in time you are looking. By looking into deep space, Hubble has enabled us to look into deep time to see galaxies and clusters as they were billions of years ago.

And by looking at those exoplanets, the Hubble Space Telescope has even helped better our understanding of how our own Earth formed.

Quoting Adam Frank again:
From planets to black holes to the large-scale structure of the universe entire, you'd be hard-pressed to find a domain of cosmic science whose textbooks haven't been rewritten because of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The fact is, how we see space and our place in the cosmos we now see through Hubble's eyes; it is a reflection of what the Hubble Space Telescope has seen and shown us.

The Hubble is nearing end of its life. The original plan was for periodic maintenance missions but with the end of the shuttle program in 2009, that possibility is gone. NASA expects that in another year or two the telescope's instruments will start to break down. At some point, it will be brought down from orbit, most of it to burn up in the atmosphere and the rest to splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

That won't be the end of the story, however, just the Hubble's chapter. The next space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is to launch in 2018. It's an infrarad-detecting scope. Why is that important? Because of the expansion of space, the further away something is, the faster it is moving away from us. As it does so, the wavelength of the light it emits gets stretched, making the light redder and redder. It's called redshift and astronomers can use it to tell how far away an object is. (It's also how Edwin Hubble proved the universe is expanding.) It's a visual version of the Doppler effect, usually illustrated by noting how the sound a ambulance siren makes changes as it approaches you, goes by, and moves away.

The point of all this is that if an object is far enough away, the light it emits becomes so redshifted that it is no longer in the visual spectrum but is in the infrared. Yes, the Hubble could take images in the infrared, but the James Webb telescope is designed to maximize abilities in that range. Which means that by "seeing" in the infrared, the James Webb Space Telescope may well be able to see further out in space - and so further back in time - than even the Hubble could.

We'll have to wait to see what new wonders that can reveal.

Sources cited in links:

Sunday, May 03, 2015

202.5 - Outrage of the Week: more media failures on global warming

Outrage of the Week: more media failures on global warming

Now for one of our regular features, the Outrage of the Week.

It starts with the observation that earlier this month there were protests on a number of college campuses, calling on those colleges and universities to divest (or disinvest) in fossil fuels as a means of pushing awareness of, and the immediate need to act on, global climate change

Among other places, there were protests at Yale, Tulane, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksville,Virginia, the University of Cincinnati, Bowdoin College in Maine, Swathmore, UCal-Berkeley, and Harvard - in fact there was a whole week of activities there.

Protest at UCal-Berkeley
So what is the outrage here? This is it: Did you know about any of that? Unless you were at one of the colleges or very local to it, of course you didn't!

Even at Harvard, with a whole week of demonstrations, marches, teach-ins, and sit-ins, virtually the only news coverage I could find in a web search was in the Harvard Crimson - the student paper. The Boston Globe, the big, self-important, major regional newspaper? Apart from a single reference in a "round-up" of "student-journalism in the Boston area" (which quoted the Crimson), not a single word.

These demonstrations, this whole series of demonstrations at campuses across the country, including everything from teach-ins to rallies to civil disobedience, they essentially were totally ignored by the national and even often by the local media. The whole "Divest" movement was subject to an almost total news blackout.

Which is perhaps not surprising considering that the major network news gets failing marks on climate change in general. A recent month-long study by FAIR - for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting; it's a media watchdog group - that study of news coverage of California's now four-year long drought, one that a recent peer-reviewed study has specifically linked to global warming, that study turned up 56 stories on the evening network news about the drought - only six of which even mentioned climate change and those that did referred to the non-existent "controversy" about it.

It's also not surprising because the media story, the media meme, is and has been that student protest, well, since the Occupy movement - they would say faded away or was "replaced by other concerns" but I would say was crushed by federal and local government - but since the Occupy movement, well, student protest just doesn't happen any more.

So covering these actions would have meant challenging their own biases in two ways, so of course it didn't happen. It's another case of how we are uninformed, malinformed, and misinformed by our major media. And no matter how many times I have to say it, that is still an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

202.4 - New evidence tells the same old story: guns don't stop violence, they cause it

New evidence tells the same old story: guns don't stop violence, they cause it

A couple of years ago I did a series on different aspects of gun violence in the US*. I mention that now because I can say that absolutely nothing in the interim has caused me to change my mind in any way.

Indeed, the newest evidence only strengthens my convictions about the dangers of guns and the fact that even within the limits of those hideous Supreme Court decisions on guns (District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago) which redefined the meaning of the Second Amendment to include a personal, individual right to own guns, decisions which I maintain were wrongly decided and decided on political, not legal or historical or Constitutional grounds and which ignored precedent, which they clearly did, even within in the limits imposed on us by those decisions, much more can and should be done to limit ownership of guns which take the lives of 33,000 Americans every single year.

Before I get into that, a quick sidebar to what might well be called an example of Unintentional Humor, where something not intended to be funny, just is.

The Nutzoid Rabbit-brains of America - that is, the NRA -  held its annual convention in Nashville over the weekend of April 10-12. As part of that, the 70,000 or so attendees could ogle the "nine acres of guns" (according to an ad for the event) displayed among the over 500 vendors dealing in everything from Glocks to camo suits.

None of those "nine acres of guns" are for sale: Federal law requires such purchases to be through federally-licensed dealers and sales can't be made at the conventions. However, what, as near as I can determine, is not federal law but is NRA policy, is that guns on display not only are not for sale, they are unloaded and they don't work: The firing pins have been removed. Apparently, the NRA doesn't think it's safe to be surrounded by all those guns.

Anyway, getting back to that newest evidence:

A year ago, David Hemenway, director of the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard, set about surveying a wide range of experts on guns. His team went through about 1,200 articles on firearms published since 2011 in peer-reviewed journals focused on public health, public policy, sociology, and criminology. In May 2014, Hemenway began sending monthly surveys to the authors of these articles - upwards of 300 authorities - with questions related to firearm use, background checks, and other gun policies. The Harvard team has completed nine surveys so far, with about 100 researchers responding to each and the answers consistently came out in ways that smacked down the gun-lovers bogus claims.

Most significantly, a heavy majority the experts agreed that having a gun in the house makes it a more dangerous place to be, makes it more likely that a woman living in the house will be killed, and increases the risk of suicide. Heavy majorities also agreed that having more guns around does not reduce crime and that strong gun laws do reduce homicide.

Meanwhile, a study done by Mother Jones magazine determined that the economic cost of gun violence in the US is $229 billion per year - more than the economic costs of the health effects connected to obesity and almost as much as we spend on Medicaid.

At some point the hard reality of guns and the damage they cause - I may not see it in my lifetime - but at some point that reality will penetrate the public consciousness, at some point the understanding of the Second Amendment will again pay more attention to Constitutional history and precedent and an understanding of what the Amendment actually means than to political power and reactionary ideology. And so at some point the phrase "gun control" and even the phrase "gun ban" will no longer be part of a seemingly-dead language.

The only question is how many of us will be needlessly killed or paralyzed or maimed in the meantime.

Sources cited in links:

*The series on gun violence in America
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