May 022012
 

I realize I haven’t posted in quite a while. It’s not deliberate and I do have more to say. Sometimes life interferes. I will be posting again.

 Posted by at 2:21 pm
May 022012
 

 

 

 

 

Over the last several months, I have received a number of comments on various posts in this blog. I know that that seems unlikely as you may not see many comments showing up. There are several reasons for this. The blog is set up for  comment moderation, meaning that I have to see and approve each comment submitted. For various reasons, I have not approved many of the comments I have received. I will explain why.

It’s difficult to know if anyone is actually reading this blog. I initially had Google analytics enabled for the site, but, for a number of reasons, I no longer use Google analytics. Thus, it may be that no one is reading what I have written. I would like to have some readers (and some interesting, thought-provoking discussions with readers), but I have made a conscious decision not to implement some of the various search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to make the blog show up more often in search engine results and hence get more traffic to the web site.

Based on the fact that I don’t know who’s reading each entry, I am left to judge whether any given comment submitted is a valid comment left by an interested reader or is simply spam sent as a mechanism to get a link embedded and hence enhance SEO for the commenter. In many cases, it is easy. Comments such as:

[…]Our list of top blogs & websites we found for you to visit[…]…

are obvious span and can be deleted without much thought.

Similarly, comments such as:

Great blog I am just taking in on motorbikes and this post really helped me out! I really appreciate the hard work.

Are also easily dismissed, particularly since I never talk about (for example) motorcycles.

Other comments are more difficult, although if I get more than one such as:

Your spot is valueble for me. Thanks!…

I know it’s not a legitimate comment. Misspellings also lead me to quickly delete the comment.

The comments I have trouble with (hint for spammers) are the ones that legitimately seem like they actually have something to do with the post. One example is:

I doubt anyone has read any of the oensivrs in their entirety. I also doubt anyone will. How is it that this is suddenly a crime against humanity? Complex bills are always hundreds of pages and they are never read by a single congressional member in their entirety nor do they need to be.Big Daddy: I think in your haste to complain about fdm you missed her point: If not reading the bill is bad why only complain about the Left when the Right are equally guilty? Its a fair point that you and the asker missed in your zeal to whine about the Dems. TYPICAL.

This has an air of legitimacy, although the poor spelling and grammar (What is an oensivr? Who is Big Daddy? Who is fdm?) make it suspect, as does the fact that it doesn’t seem to refer to anything I have written or to any of the preceding comments. My inclination is to delete such comments, although there is the nagging feeling that I may be cutting off an exchange of ideas that I think is worth having. Maybe the poster was responding to someone else’s blog?

So what would you say about the following?:

People, wake up before it gets worse.The Government is ticaheng you to blindly do whatever they tell you. They’re not profiling strangers, they’re shaking down citizens. America, America, what have you done you have elected the very people that are setting us up to fall. BHO was groomed for this time, his puppet-master is George Soros, Pres. Obama’s czars are stripping the greatness from our country and you are cheering them on; YOU ARE THE TRAITORS!!!

or

William, I would think you would know, first-hand, about people snepding their time and resources getting prepared. To be successful, that MUST come first. I don’t doubt that there are enough people ready to fight for this country, and I mean do what it takes. It’s difficult though, going thru the process waiting wondering when what next but I don’t doubt the resolve of the people I have met over the last few years. They aren’t going to go off, half cocked there’s too much at stake. There has been an awakening, and I think you’ll be pleased. If we stop tearing ourselves up over the primary process that will help, as anyone running against Obama would be better than him however, I don’t believe any of them can save us not without a major MAJOR focus on energy independence. A major effort in the energy sector, using all our resources to harvest our own oil and gas, and at the same time figuring out which renewable makes the most sense for us, that we can use, that we can export, is the only possible avenue I can fathom to save us from economic collapse. That means Barack Hussein Obama is OUT, come 2013 and he can take his Gestapo with him.

or

No they will not read it and no they did not read the patriot act ehiter that is the problem no one is reading the bill ehiter democrats or republicans. The staffers who are not elected are the only ones reading and writing the bills. They are making friends so when they are done being staffers they can make big bucks working in firms that get benefits from the bills they make. Vote out your senator if they have not read the bills.

Are any or all of these three legitimate? They don’t seem to address my blog posts, they seem more to address some else’s comment on someone else’s blog post.

Because of the spam problem in comments, here’s what I’m going to do with comment moderation.

First, if the comment doesn’t specifically mention something I have written about in the post the comment is responding to, or to something specific in a preceding comment, it will be marked as spam and deleted. Vague comments such as “good post”, “I have added you to my RSS reader”, “I like what you said”, or “this is very useful”, will be deleted.

Second, if the comment passes the first criterion and has an embedded link (either in the comment text or because the author entered something in the URL box), if the link doesn’t point to either a blog or something like a legitimate Facebook page, the link will be deleted before the comment is approved.

If your comment doesn’t show up and you think it should, get in touch with me via and we’ll discuss it.

 

 Posted by at 2:18 pm
Jan 062012
 

 

On December 31st, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). A lot has been said and written about this “indefinite detention” act and whether it applies to Americans on American soil. I’m not going to add to that debate. I have read various opinions concerning this bill ranging from “due process is dead” to “no big deal, they’re just formalizing what the government has been doing since 9/11” and I find myself more on the side of the “due process is dead” crowd.

I have to admit, however,  that I didn’t see this coming. I have been seriously concerned about the increasingly tyrannical turn that the American government has taken since 9/11 and have written several posts about it. But this act, coupled with previous ones, and with  judicial rulings on limits (or not) to government surveillance techniques and several proposed new laws (for example, SPOA and PIPA), seem to have moved me squarely into the tin-foil hat, conspiracy nut crowd.

What I see coming together is a large expansion of government power into what could ultimately move toward a totalitarian regime. Consider some of the following:

The 9/11 attack and the passage of the Patriot Act lead to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. (Does it bother anyone else that the name “Homeland” sounds so much like “Fatherland” that other notorious regimes used to refer to their country?) The DHS gathered together many smaller agencies under one banner, allowing more effective control by a smaller group of people.

In addition to existing agencies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was also created under DHS. Notice that TSA is not named the “Aviation Security Administration”. On its website, the TSA says that has “responsibility for security for all modes of transportation” (emphasis mine). After making commercial airplane travel a completely miserable experience, TSA VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams have now moved on to other modes of transportation.The VIPR teams have expanded to trains (including at least one incident where passengers were searched after completing their journey and leaving the train) and buses. VIPR teams have also been conducting truck searches and, in  November of 2011, conducted a pilot program in Tennessee. This pilot program was not based on any specific threat but was conducted to provide “a visible deterrence and detection security presence across Tennessee.” Other states are following.

Consider also the case with another part of DHS, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US Border Patrol. ICE has partnered with local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, often resulting in what critics claim are instances of racial profiling. This cooperation has lead to a combining of federal and local law enforcement in a way not seen before.

The Border Patrol, on the other hand, has declared the border inspection zone with which they are concerned to include from the nation’s borders to 100 miles inland. In some cases, the Border Patrol will even expand that zone if the area in question is the “functional equivalent” of a border. Customs may also “confiscate and examine” any electronic devices a traveler may have when he or she crosses the border. There is no necessity for probable cause and they (Customs) can look for evidence of any possible crime. They can examine and copy the hard drive contents.

Something that few people took notice of was the John Warner Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007, signed by President Bush on October 17, 2006, which gives the president the power to employ the armed forces to restore public order in any state of the United States. This further weakens the Posse Comitatus Act (pass by Congress on June 16, 1878) which prohibits most members of the federal uniformed services from exercising state law enforcement powers that maintain “law and order” on non-federal property. It allows the president to, for example, use the National Guard from state A to work in state B, in law enforcement, regardless of the wishes of the respective state governors (to whom the National Guard ostensibly reports).

And now, since NDAA has declared the whole world a war zone, anyone can be declared an enemy combatant and held without charges or access to a lawyer indefinitely. (Until the war is over? When will the “War on Terror” be over? How long has the “War on Drugs” been going on?)

So here’s what I missed. With the Patriot Act, legalized unfettered government surveillance, the ability to stop, search and possibly arrest you without charges, control over travel (by whatever means), and, with SOPA and PIPA, control over the internet worthy of a country such as Iran or China, the government is perfectly positioned to stop any potential uprising by an angered populace. No Jeffersonian revolution for the US.

I sure hope I’m a hopelessly out-of-touch conspiracy nut, because I fear for our democracy.

EDIT: 01/08/2012—Added section on the Posse Comitatus Act and the legislation which made that act moot.

 Posted by at 5:45 pm
Oct 302011
 

 

Backyard Fountain Moss

A while back, the White House announced and activated an interesting addition to their website called “We the People“. The URL takes you to a page that states

Welcome to We the People on WhiteHouse.gov. This tool provides you with a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

There have been a number of petitions proposed on the website and I signed several of them. The ones I signed included Abolish the TSA, and use its monstrous budget to fund more sophisticated, less intrusive counter-terrorism intelligence., End the destructive, wasteful and counterproductive “War on Drugs”, Restore democracy by ending corporate personhood., Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God.’, Legalize Marijuana, and several others.

The White house has said that they will respond to petitions gathering enough support (that is, signatures).

Well, I have just received my first two official responses from the White House. The first was concerning “Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God.’.” The response, reproduced in its entirety was:

 Religion in the Public Square
By Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Thank you for signing the petition “Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God.’” We appreciate your participation in the We the People platform on WhiteHouse.gov.

The separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is an important founding principle of our nation. Our nation’s Bill of Rights guarantees not only that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also guarantees citizens’ rights to practice the religion of their choosing or no religion at all.

Throughout our history, people of all faiths – as well as secular Americans – have played an important role in public life. And a robust dialogue about the role of religion in public life is an important part of our public discourse.

While the President strongly supports every American’s right to religious freedom and the separation of church and state, that does not mean there’s no role for religion in the public square.

When he was a Senator from Illinois, President Obama gave a keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference where he spoke about the important role religion plays in politics and in public life.

A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters.
That’s why President Obama supports the use of the words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” on our currency. These phrases represent the important role religion plays in American public life, while we continue to recognize and protect the rights of secular Americans. As the President said in his inaugural address, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” We’re proud of that heritage, and the strength it brings to our great country.

So there it is. The White House policy expert on religion in the public sphere is the Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This is the guy responsible for overseeing Obama’s expanded version of Bush’s faith-based initiatives. It’s clear that the White House is not going to lead any kind of change in this area regardless of the fact that a large number of people want to see such a change.

The second response I got was concerning the legalization of marijuana. This was one of the most voted for petitions on the web site. The response came from Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as follows:

What We Have to Say About Legalizing Marijuana

By Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug’s effects.

According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world’s largest source of drug abuse research – marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years, raising serious concerns about what this means for public health – especially among young people who use the drug because research shows their brains continue to develop well into their 20’s. Simply put, it is not a benign drug.

Like many, we are interested in the potential marijuana may have in providing relief to individuals diagnosed with certain serious illnesses. That is why we ardently support ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine. To date, however, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked marijuana to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition.

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.

That is why the President’s National Drug Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities. Preventing drug use is the most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences in America. And, as we’ve seen in our work through community coalitions across the country, this approach works in making communities healthier and safer. We’re also focused on expanding access to drug treatment for addicts. Treatment works. In fact, millions of Americans are in successful recovery for drug and alcoholism today. And through our work with innovative drug courts across the Nation, we are improving our criminal justice system to divert non-violent offenders into treatment.

Our commitment to a balanced approach to drug control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on drug education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on drug related law enforcement in the U.S.

Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President’s approach to drug control to learn more.

This sounded so much like “politicianspeak” that I did a simple exercise. I copied the text and substituted the word “alcohol” for the words “marijuana” and “drug” and ended up with the following:

When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about alcohol is based on what the science tells us about alcohol’s effects.

According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world’s largest source of alcohol abuse research – alcohol use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that alcohol use is a significant source for voluntary alcohol treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that alcohol potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years, raising serious concerns about what this means for public health – especially among young people who use the alcohol because research shows their brains continue to develop well into their 20’s. Simply put, it is not a benign alcohol.

Like many, we are interested in the potential alcohol may have in providing relief to individuals diagnosed with certain serious illnesses. That is why we ardently support ongoing research into determining what components of the alcohol plant can be used as medicine. To date, however, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked alcohol to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition.

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We also recognize that legalizing alcohol would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with alcohol use.

That is why the President’s National Alcohol Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of alcohol entering our communities. Preventing alcohol use is the most cost-effective way to reduce alcohol use and its consequences in America. And, as we’ve seen in our work through community coalitions across the country, this approach works in making communities healthier and safer. We’re also focused on expanding access to alcohol treatment for addicts. Treatment works. In fact, millions of Americans are in successful recovery for alcohol and alcoholism today. And through our work with innovative alcohol courts across the Nation, we are improving our criminal justice system to divert non-violent offenders into treatment.

Our commitment to a balanced approach to alcohol control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on alcohol education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on alcohol related law enforcement in the U.S.

Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President’s approach to alcohol control to learn more.

The “alcohol” version of this statement (with only minor revisions-who ever heard of smoked alcohol and alcohol plants?) could have been made in support of the 18th amendment to the constitution banning the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol in the United States. As you may remember, Prohibition was a dismal failure leading to increased crime and crime syndicates as well as a general decline in societal health (sound much like what the “war on drugs” has caused?)

I especially noted in the original “legalize marijuana” response the two assertions (both totally unsupported by any kind of facts) that “…we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem…” and “We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.” He (the author, Gil Kerlikowske) “knows” this because he’s a former police chief. How many logical fallacies can you count in just that one paragraph? “Arresting our way out of the problem seems to be the preferred approach, doesn’t it?

Here’s the NORML response to the White House statement that addresses it in detail.

Anyway, rather than rehash why these two responses fail and how the pat responses don’t satisfy, let me just point out that the avowed purpose of the website is that it “…provides you with a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country.” The two responses I have received to date demonstrate very clearly that the Obama Administration is not going to take any action in response to these two petitions, but instead is just going to stay the course.

I almost prefer that they not pretend to listen to us. Then I know for sure they are not working to make any improvements. Pretending to listen only raises hopes that things will get better, only to dash those hopes when you realize that nothing is going to change.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Oct 092011
 

Red Rocks State Park, Nevada

There have been, in the United States, groups of people who are lawbreakers and, when someone becomes a perceived danger to the leaders of the group, that someone somehow manages to wind up dead. These groups go by various names including gangs, “the mob”, and organized crime. When such people can be shown to have caused, either by direct action or by enticing others to action, the death of people, they are prosecuted by the legal system for murder.

There have been, in the world over the ages, other groups of people who have attained positions of power and, when someone becomes a perceived danger to the leaders of the group, that someone somehow manages to wind up dead. These people have been monarchs, dictators, war lords, tribal leaders or despots. These groups has never been prosecuted by their own societies, but they have been overthrown by intrigue, war or insurrection. In other cases, the leaders have simply died before any outside agent has been able to bring them to justice.

The United States has long had various bans on killing done outside the judicial system. There are executive orders (Executive Order 11905 signed Feburary 18, 1976 by Gerald Ford banning political assassinations, Executive Order 12036 signed January 24, 1978 by Jimmy Carter further banning indirect US involvement in assassinations and Executive Order 12333 signed December 4, 1981 by Ronald Reagan reiterating the banning of US intelligence agencies carrying out assassinations.), although executive orders can and have been revised and revoked. There are laws (U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 51, Paragraph 1119 provides for the punishment of a US citizen who kills another US citizen on foreign soil). There is the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution which states that the government may not deprive a person of life “without due process of law”. Ever since its founding, the United States has long considered itself a nation governed by the “Rule of Law” rather than by the whim of the leader. This phrase is often used by politicians and and is often summarized with the phrase that “no person is above the law”, including most specifically the leaders themselves. It further implies that “no one can be punished by the state except for a breach of the law and that no one can be convicted of breaching the law except in the manner set forth by the law itself.

There is an October 5th post at businessinsider.com by Dr. John Corbin titled “End of Rule of Law in the United States” that is very thought provoking, particularly in the context just defined. In his article, Dr. Corbin, who now lives in Chile, makes a pretty good case for asserting that the United States has, through its actions, ended the rule of law in this country. His comments mostly have to do with the killing, ordered by President Obama on September 30, 2011, of Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both Awlaki and Khan were killed by drone strikes, on foreign soil. Neither of the two men had been convicted of any crime in any court of law. Both were American citizens. So, because of the purported activities of the two men which may have constituted treason or other illegal acts, rather than subjecting them to arrest and trial, our elected leaders instead decided to simply take them out, without a trial, without hearings and without public debate. While in this case arrest could have been problematic, this is extraordinary and should make all Americans fear that they may someday cross the boundary where the government thinks they have become inconvenient.

There is some evidence that this was a group decision. An October 6th article by Glenn Greenwald at salon.com titled “Execution by secret WH committee” explored the existence of a secret panel, operating out of the White House, which “is empowered to place American citizens on a list to be killed by the CIA, which (by some process nobody knows) eventually makes its way to the President, who is the final Decider.” The fact that there is a committee does little to diminish the far-reaching implications of this action. As Thomas Jefferson said,

The concentrating [of powers] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one.

A New York Times article published October 8, 2011 written by Charlie Savage titled “Secret U.S. Memo Made Legal Case to Kill a Citizen” describes a document that the Obama administration used to justify this killing of an American citizen without a trial. This legal opinion seeks to justify what has, until now, been an illegal, unconstitutional act. Of course, the government will not release the document and most certainly will cite the state secrets privilege to prevent its release. It may be the case that the legal opinion is solid and will hold up under scrutiny by legal scholars and experts outside the administration. But we may never know, if the document is not released.

The Council of Europe (An international organization in Strasbourg which comprises 47 countries of Europe. It was set up to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.) has issued a draft resolution objecting strongly to the increasing use of the state secrets privilege which states

Security and intelligence services, the need for which cannot be put into doubt, must nonetheless not become a “state within the state”, exempted from accountability for their actions. Such lack of accountability leads to a dangerous culture of impunity, which undermines the very foundations of democratic institutions.

In some countries, in particular the United States, the notion of state secrecy is used to shield agents of the executive from prosecution for serious criminal offences such as abduction and torture, or to stop victims from suing for compensation.

But it considers that information concerning the responsibility of state agents who have committed serious human rights violations, such as murder, enforced disappearance, torture or abduction, should not be subject to secrecy provisions. Such information should not be shielded from judicial or parliamentary scrutiny under the guise of “state secrecy”.

These actions by the US government should engender outrage on the part of its citizens. It is part and parcel of the host of changes to the way the government operates that have come about since the attack of September 11, 2001. Some of the changes have a basis in law (flawed as those laws may be), others have come about through Executive Orders or simply by someone in the executive branch deciding that they wanted to accomplish some specific objective. The Justice department and other legal aides have abetted the actions by providing legal opinions allowing such actions. This trend started in the Bush administration, but in continues under President Obama. We should demand more of our government. We are slipping into despotism. As Daniel Webster said,

Whatever government is not a government of laws, is a despotism, let it be called what they may.

The War on Terror and the attendant effort to instill fear in the minds of the public have had a devastating effect on this country. James Madison saw this 200 years ago,

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

We as a people need to rise up and demand the undoing of the ill-conceived practices instituted under the mantle of the War on Terror. We need to demand that those responsible for illegal and unconstitutional acts be held responsible. We need to insist that the legal system do its job before we are left with a hollow Constitution and a despotic, non-democratic, non-representational government. I hope it’s not too late.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Frederick Douglass

 Posted by at 1:03 pm
Sep 232011
 

Sequoia National Park

When the Tea Partiers were getting all upset about the health care plan, one of their rallying cries was “We want our country back!” The refrain was taken up by birthers with an unstated, but rather obvious, at least to me, tinge of racism. Giving the phrase its most charitable interpretation, people who support the tea party will say that the slogan is about out of control government: too much spending, too much regulation, just too much government.

That’s not what I mean when I say I want my country back. The country I want back is one that may have never existed, or at least, one that only partially existed, but is no more.

The country I want back seems to have started disappearing about 30 years ago, around the time Ronald Reagan was President.

The country I want back is the one where each succeeding generation could look forward to doing better financially than their parents; having more to spend, enjoying more leisure time. I’m old enough to remember when a married couple could prosper in the middle class on a single wage-earner’s income. In most cases, that meant the husband had a paying job outside the home and the wife worked in the home, raising the kids and running the household. How many families could do that today? Do you know anyone who could afford that?

The country I want back is the one where we didn’t have a homeless problem, where the homeless were mostly “hobos’ or men who chose to live free of the constraints of society.

The country I want back is one where young kids felt safe playing outside, often far away from parents, sometimes even after dark when hide and seek was the most fun. How many parents would let their kids do that today?

The country I want back is one where people were free to go where they wanted and do what they wanted without intrusive government surveillance of their every action. Where there were no traffic cameras, no surveillance cameras.

The country I want back is one where people could arrive at the airport 15 minutes before the flight left and simply board the aircraft without having to wait in line for a security check, endure a virtual strip search by an X-ray machine or a “pat-down” search that could be properly classified as sexual molestation. One where train trips and car trips could be entirely without hassle or without anyone from the government stopping you and asking whether you are a citizen.

The country I want back is one where merchants aren’t able to track your every purchase through the use of credit card receipts and “preferred customer” cards. Where on-line data aggregators can’t keep track of every move you make, every web search you do, every site you visit and then sell that data on you to anyone that wants it without any oversight. Where cell phone companies can track every place you have been and then willingly and without pressure give that information to government authorities.

The country I want back is one where the healthcare insurance industry is not controlled by a handful of companies that effectively ration the healthcare in the country by the decisions they make concerning coverage and what they will and won’t pay for; where the doctors and patients don’t have to fight with the insurance companies to get the treatments that the doctor and patient agree are most effective.

The country I want back is one where, although they disagreed on many things, the two major parties could work together and actually accomplish things of great import for the good of the country, things like major infrastructure investments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the  interstate highway system, Hoover dam. Where social advances such as women’s suffrage, voting rights and racial equality could be recognized, sometimes after long debate, as worthy accomplishments and worth the effort it takes to enact them.

The country I want back is the one where the educational system was recognized as one of the best in the world and prepared generations for competition in the world they were entering. I want the country where the most serious disciplinary problems facing school teachers were talking and chewing gum in class and teachers were free to concentrate on teaching.

The country I want back is one where we were generally at the head of the pack of all countries in a whole host of measures including education, infrastructure, science, manufacturing and health care instead of ranking much lower, in some cases towards the bottom, in all of these categories.

The country I want back is one which could dream of big things, like putting a man on the moon, and then have the means to actually achieve it.

As I said before, this country probably never existed as I envision it. But all of the things I want did exist at one time or another. The common saying is “9/11 changed everything”, but the effect I’m describing goes back much further than that. And the causes are many. In education, the lack of well planned and executed tests of new educational approaches and the willingness of the educational establishment to try out untested hypotheses have contributed to the decline. But so have the rise of families with two parents working outside the home, the push for “back to basics” education, the rise of illicit drugs aided by the ill-conceived “war on drugs”, struggles to measure progress based on standardized tests and a host of other things.

The decline in manufacturing has resulted from companies’ increased emphasis on short term profitability, outsourced jobs, globalization, and increased competition from emerging economies. The decline in infrastructure is a result of “benign neglect” as Nixon said in another context and the increasing polarization and politicization of government.

While we still have a robust science community, there are pressures here too. Other countries have gained on us, particularly in areas where asinine religious objections have stymied basic research for years (for example, stem cell research). The increasing influence of religion in government has resulted in a de-emphasis and distrust of science. The government has also seemed to lose a good deal of interest in funding basic research in response to the overblown deficit crisis.

We ourselves have contributed to making this not the country I want back, primarily through our desire for the latest new gadgets, expansive use of the internet and other technology in which we have given up the expectation of privacy for the convenience that such technological improvements provide us. I often wonder if it is worth it or if we realize what we have given up.

In spite of the causes, the country I want back is the one where we can say “We’re number one!’ and actually be correct. We were there once, and I don’t know if we can be again, but I believe we can’t get there if we don’t try. We have to try.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm
Sep 022011
 

Old Abandoned Train Trestle

It never fails. Seems the day before I submitted my last article (August 30, 2011), The Nation website posted an article by David K Shiplet titled “Our Vanished Civil Liberties“. I didn’t become aware of that article until today. It summarizes much better than I could what the problem is with the current state of affairs related to measures implemented after 9/11. I am very concerned that lack of privacy and the imposition of police state policies will become the new normal for a very long period of time.

 Posted by at 2:06 pm
Aug 312011
 

Spider Web

*Bill Moyers

I had originally titled this post with the Benjamin Franklin quotation: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But on reflection, although the quotation is apropos, I find it a little too familiar, a little too hackneyed. The Bill Moyers quotation I ended up using is just as succinct and appropriate, so it became my title.

This post has taken me some time to produce and is the result of a number articles I have come across over the last week or so. I am indebted to the excellent organization, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, whose email newsletter provides a number of references each day. I heartily recommend subscribing to it and supporting the organization in any way you can.

The first article I read, which depressed and angered me more than I can express, was an August 25th article on OpEdNews, a self described “non-partisan, non-profit, bottom-up, progressive / liberal news, opinion, op-ed media site, activism tool and blog community”. It was the first article in a three part series titled “2001-2011: A decade of civil liberties’ erosion in America”. This series is written by Abdus-Sattar Ghazali, a freelance journalist and Executive Editor of American Muslim Perspective.

The article begins by talking about the brief history of the gradual erosion of our civil liberties and stated forthrightly that

“The so-called War on Terror has seriously compromised the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights of citizens and non-citizens alike.”

Mr. Ghazali goes on to describe the top ten abuses of power since 9/11  identified by the ACLU in a September 2006 report:

  1. Warrentless wiretapping
  2. Torture, Kidnapping and Detention
  3. The Growing Surveillance Society
  4. Abuse of the Patriot Act
  5. Government Secrecy
  6. Real ID
  7. No Fly and Selectee Lists
  8. Political Spying
  9. Abuse of Material Witness Statute
  10. Attacks on Academic Freedom

The key point Mr. Ghazali makes is that these erosions of civil liberties have taken place gradually, over time. They were originally justified as reasonable action to take against our foreign enemies, but have come to affect not only non-US citizens, but all of us.

In the second and third parts of the series, Mr. Ghazali describes how authorities at all levels from federal to state to local have expanded upon the powers given to them by a combination of Congressional and judicial actions. The expansive view of executive power originally espoused by the Bush administration, while initially criticized by President Obama, has come to be embraced and expanded by his administration.

Accompanying the erosion of our civil liberties has been an embrace of government secrecy, a serious threat to any democracy.

On the same day (August 25th), there was an article which appeared on the Washington Post website. This article, titled Why are we subverting the Constitution in the name of security?, was written by  Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency. In it, he describes his attempts to stop the secret electronic eavesdropping and data mining operations that the government is conducting against American citizens. He concludes his piece by stating

“Before the war on terrorism, our country recognized the importance of free speech and privacy. If we sacrifice these basic liberties, according to the false dichotomy that such is required for security, then we transform ourselves from an oasis of freedom into a police state that crucifies its citizens when they step out of line or speak up against government wrongdoing. These are the hallmarks of despotism, not democracy. Is this the country we want to keep?”

Then, at the Los Angeles Time website on August 29, 2011, an article by Ken Dilanian, titled  A key Sept. 11 legacy: more domestic surveillance, was published which described the escalation of FBI and NSA secret surveillance activities on ordinary Americans starting with National Security Letters and moving onto programs which tap into and accumulate the wealth of data that exists about each of us on the Internet. All of this surveillance and data gathering are happening without judicial oversight and leads to a situation where a single branch of the government, the executive, can decide on its own who and how it wants to investigate.

Mr. Dilanian concludes with a quote from one of the people he talked with for the story, Nicholas Merril:

“I want the America back that I was taught about in school,” Merrill said. “The one where there’s checks and balances, and where one branch of government can’t do everything on its own.”

Finally, there was an article On August 30, 2011 on Security News Daily by Sue Marquette Poremba, titled 10 Ways the Government Watches You, which lists less formal mechanisms which are in place which add to government’s ability to find out things it never could in the past. Many were and are incredibly useful to each of us in our day-to-day activities, such as one-pass systems to let you get through bridge or other toll situations quickly and easily and GPS which lets you find locations with little hassle. While useful, such systems increase the government’s ability to find out about where you go and what you do. While all the legal issues are still being resolved, there have been courts rulings that accessing such information doesn’t require a search warrant (with others that disagree).

Taken together, these articles and others describe a government that is taking the first steps towards the despotism that Thomas Drake describes. The executive branch is out of control, gathering more and more information about each of us, and stepping on Constitutionally guaranteed rights without concern. The legislative and judicial branches seem to have abrogated their traditional roles of providing a check on authorities’ actions. Just where are we as a country headed?

Let me finish this post by quoting the conclusion of Abdus-Sattar Ghazali

“Rights can never be taken for granted, Prof. Gary Orfield [of the UCLA Civil Rights Project] argues by adding: In a nation that rightly proclaims its commitment to freedom across the world, our freedoms at home are our most precious asset and any threat to them undermines our credibility everywhere in an age of instant global communication. Prof. Orfield reminds us that the history of the United States is that rights are not given, they are won and they must always be defended.

“The core challenge during the Obama era to civil liberties is to rollback the repressive policies of the Bush regime, while fighting any further erosion of constitutional rights. Many Americans resisted the attacks on civil liberties during the Bush administration. Over 400 local governments and several states passed resolutions supporting the Bill of Rights and objecting to parts of the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 laws, executive orders, and policy changes. Some cities passed ordinances directing police to facilitate, not impede, peaceful demonstrations.

“Attacks on civil liberties are not minor infringements on the rights of a few extremists. Today they affect a vast cross-section of Americans. It will not be too much to say that the chilling effect of denials of our democratic freedoms curtails political debate within the U.S.

“To borrow Paul Craig Roberts, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, today Americans are unsafe, not because of terrorists and domestic extremists, but because they have lost their civil liberties and have no protection from unaccountable government power. One would think that how this came about would be worthy of public debate and congressional hearings.”

 

 Posted by at 4:53 pm
Jul 102011
 

Plant in Northern Arizona

E-books are a fantastic invention. Just think, you can carry a whole library’s worth of books in a single hand. It allows for enhanced books with links to supplemental material. It could free students from backbreaking backpacks and make all their course books readily available wherever they want to take them.

The benefits of e-books are apparent and people have quickly adopted them. In July of 2010, Amazon reported that sales of e-books surpassed the sales of hardcover books from their on-line store. Less than a year later (May of 2011), e-book sales at Amazon surpassed the sale of all printed books.

And this doesn’t even include the efforts at Project Guttenberg and Google Books where many books which have moved into the public domain have been digitized and are available for free download.

It seems pretty clear that the future of book publishing is electronic. Brick and mortar book stores are closing. Borders, the national book store chain, filed for bankruptcy in February of 2011. The publishing business is changing.

So, we have yet again another longtime business that is being disrupted by technology. And, like other business sectors before them (music, movies, newspapers), the business leaders hope to cling to a business model that no longer works. They are no longer able to control the  business in the way they used to, but they seem unable to come up with a new business model that accommodates the new reality. So what do we see? We see the same sort of thing that happened in the music business and is happening in the movie business. We see an attempt to protect the product by implementing “Digital Rights Management (DRM)”, backed up by  laws passed by their friends in Congress such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (passed October 1998), and various extensions of the length of copyright protection to the point that copyright is no longer acting per its original intent.

We see spectacles like Amazon erasing books remotely from Kindle devices when it discovered that it didn’t have the legal copyright to the books it sold. These are books that customers bought which “magically” disappeared from their Kindles. To be sure, Amazon reimbursed the owners and recognized that it was a bad PR move to have removed them, but the more important point is that the action was even possible. Think of it, Amazon can remotely change the contents of a device you own, removing content that, again, you ostensibly own, all without you being involved in the action.

So what does that mean regarding book ownership? When I buy a paper edition of a book, I do truly own it. I can do with it as I wish, including loaning it to someone, reselling it, giving it away, or destroying it. Most of those actions are not true with e-books. You can’t loan them, can’t resell them, can’t give them away. In what sense do I own an e-book?

The publishers are also working out ways to keep libraries from “misusing” e-books. The current mechanisms allow them to check out an e-book to a library customer, but they can’t check out more copies than they have purchased and many books have a check out limit, after which the library must re-purchase the book if it wants to continue to carry it. I guess this mimics the wear and tear that happens to physical books, but in many cases physical books can be repaired. And of course, libraries can’t resell the books they may have purchased that they no longer need.

Many publishers are also setting prices on e-books commensurate with the price of a physical book. Publishers are allowed to try to get whatever price they can, but as a customer, I have to scratch my head and question this approach. E-books cost virtually nothing to reproduce. There are no printing costs, no warehousing costs, no handling costs, distribution cost is minimal. The only costs include royalties to the original author, publicity and promotion cost and profit for the publisher. These have to be a lot lower than the costs for a physical book. For example, I was looking at buying a paperback a couple of weeks ago. The paper book price was around $12.00. The e-book price was $11.00. Guess which one I bought. For $1.00, I got a version that I could write in the margin of, could loan to a friend, could do whatever I wanted with, and there weren’t a lot of restrictions placed on me.

Is the convenience of a e-book worth what we are giving up? In my case, the answer is a pretty strong NO, but I am fighting a losing battle agains the tide of technology. I like books. I am really to sorry to see the way the publishing industry is moving. But I suspect that the industry will change, it’s just that it make take some years for that to happen and that’s just sad.

 Posted by at 11:59 am
Jun 062011
 

Tree Shadows

Lately, I have had the question of privacy on my mind. The “brave new world” that we live in seems to be marching headlong into a state where privacy is non-existent. On the internet, for example, Mark Zukerberg on January 8, 2010 declared that the age of privacy was essentially over, that people have become so accustomed to sharing more and different kinds of information and more openly with more people, that the social norm regarding privacy had fundamentally shifted. And it seems pretty clear that the internet generation is very open about sharing even the most intimate details of their lives on-line.

There are other forces at work here too. The “War on Terror” has, through the Patriot Act, other legislation, and associated court cases, lead to increased government surveillance of everyone, including Americans who are not even suspected of any criminal activity.

Then, there are the commercial aspects. The greatly expanded nature of communication and increased access to large amounts of computing power and mass storage have enabled businesses to accumulate, store and access vast amounts of data on virtually everyone in the country. Much of the data accumulated is public record, but there is a vast difference in the economics of having to access the data by visiting the appropriate county courthouse and looking through the paper records versus a simple data base query via a computer attached to the internet. In the former case, getting the data is cost prohibitive, in the latter, it is trivial.

By the way, is anyone else weirded out by the Progressive Insurance “SnapshotSM” program where you plug a device into the diagnostic port of your car, drive for 30 days and then send the device to the company where they use your driving habits to determine how much to charge you for insurance? I suppose you get something (maybe lower rates) for giving up some of your privacy, and I suppose it’s up to the individual to determine if it is worth it, but it’s not something I’m going to do.

My own view of privacy has gone through some shifts too. I have always felt uncomfortable with the typical question posed in title to this post. “Why should you care what we have access to? You shouldn’t have any worries if you have nothing to hide.” This always struck me as a case of guilty until proven innocent. It’s as if the government (and others) are saying, “We’re going to assume that you have something to hide and hence we claim the right to look ‘just to make sure you really are clean’.” A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 15, 2011 made it very clear in my mind that privacy is important even when there is nothing to hide. The basic question should be, “what right do you have to that information,” not an assumption that anyone else has a right to it unless there IS something to hide. Our privacy is precious and we should not give it up unthinkingly.

I’m old enough to remember the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade in which the court justified a woman’s right to abortion, citing the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to affirm the people’s right to privacy and restrictions on the individual states to place restrictions on that (and other) rights. But the word privacy doesn’t appear in in the constitution, and that lack made me scratch my head and wonder at the ruling. Of course, with the current makeup of the Supreme Court and its seeming disdain for precedent, plus the other efforts underway by the states’ and federal legislatures, that right to privacy may go the way that many of our other rights have gone (away) in the last few years.

It seems to me that the march of technology and the action of the conservative right, in combination with the complicity of the more progressive politicians who either actively aid the right or, more insidiously, don’t oppose it, are leading us down a road I don’t want to travel. More than ever, I want to have my privacy and I refuse to give it up without a really strong overriding reason. I haven’t heard that reason.

 Posted by at 11:54 am