Friday, August 31, 2007

Not welcome here...


The mainstream media is beginning to become aware that the U.S. is doing next to nothing for Iraqis who work with the occupation -- leaving them behind to be killed as collaborators seems to be the plan. And those are the favored few. Most of the some 700,000 uprooted people in Jordan and 1.2 million in Syria aren't even in the "favored" class of collaborators. They are just people displaced by the violence we've unleashed.

The United States is sending a clear message to the refugees and the countries sheltering them: you are on your own.

But what happens when some of the few Iraqi-origin folks who have made it to the United States volunteer to assist their adopted country? Click the image above and view a YouTube news report.


This is a San Francisco story for a Labor Day weekend.

Once upon a time there was a freeway coming into the city that crossed Market Street and disgorged cars into a neighborhood called "Inner Haight" or "Hayes Valley" or just "north of Market." The cars mostly ended up on one-way Fell Street and streamed toward Golden Gate Park and points west. Coming east on Oak Street, cars entered the freeway at Laguna and headed off toward San Jose or the Bay Bridge.

The 1989 earthquake showed that all the local freeways needed shoring up to prepare for the next shake -- and provided an opportunity to the city's many devoted opponents of freeways to get a few torn down. Besides the collapsed Embarcadero freeway, we also got rid of the bit of the Central freeway that crossed Market as I've described in the previous paragraph.

After a couple of rounds of referenda that pitted commuters from the west side of the city against the progressive, anti-freeway east side including the residents of "Inner Haight" or "Hayes Valley," a new grooud-level Octavia Blvd. became the route across Market and onto a shored up Central freeway.

So, finally, here's my question: how do folks in the Octavia Blvd. area feel about the changes in traffic patterns? I'm a big user of Golden Gate Park who lives south of Market and (I admit shamefacedly) drives. I find that the back up on Oak leading to Octavia Blvd. encourages me to turn south on Laguna or Buchanan, or even Webster. That is, I'm part of a new traffic flow through what were previously far less trafficked residential streets.

Is the change bothering residents of the area? Does anyone have any suggestions for re-routing those of us who just pass through?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Malaise and hope

This morning San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll snaps a quick picture of the public mood at the end of this disturbing summer:

We've had enough schadenfreude in the past year. We have seen the mighty fall, or at least resign. We have grasped the nature of the idiocy. What the hell do we do about it? Where do we go from here? You gotta plan, big boy? ...

You've heard of compassion fatigue? I think we have stupidity fatigue. Yet one more administration hack does one more laughably inept or corrupt thing - at first you get mad, and then you want to get beyond the mad. The problems will be there long after the hacks have left town. Yes! Positive thinking! Solutions! And then some fresh outrage comes along, and it's just too awful not to write about - and so it goes.

... there's a lot of fear that things have become so badly screwed up that there is no coming back. Is global warming reversible in any real sense? Is New Orleans ever going to thrive again? Is there any way for the United States to develop a sensible foreign policy toward the Middle East? Will we ever get universal health care? Can Congress really be weaned from the money machine? Will government really give back the privacy it has taken from its citizens?

Boy, I'd take the negative side on each of those propositions in any casino situation. And yet despair and hopelessness are not acceptable, even if they may be realistic. No society is perfect; no answer is complete. The way to begin to save our souls and our minds is to act as if - as if there will be a brighter tomorrow, as if the next regime will be better than the previous one, as if new leadership will make a difference.

Seems about right. Those of us who do politics day in and day out need to remember that a very substantial fraction of folks who seem alienated from, or unconscious of, matters of governance aren't really opting out at all. Rather, they yearn for "something to be for."

Photo by Terry Lorant

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crisis reveals perversion of democracy

AFP PHOTO / Aris Messinis

All nations at important moments in their history face pivotal moments when they must urgently address pressing matters of great collective concern if they are to avoid regression. ... such a moment has arrived. Unfortunately, neither of the two major political parties that have taken turns to govern the nation ... have displayed the administrative competence or the intellectual understanding now required to address the ecological threat confronting the country. ...

The nation is in dire need of new, bold, courageous leadership. It urgently requires a long-term strategy that pioneers will a sea-change in the country's approach towards the environment. Shortcuts will be very dangerous. Complacency may be fatal. Moral consciousness must be awakened and a grand vision needs to be developed to avert the nation's ecological collapse. ...

It is a genuine shame that a country that gave form and shape to democracy and civil virtue and once prided itself on the cultivation of aesthetics as the true meaning of life today displays astounding mental perversity in sacrificing the environment and its ecological system on the altar of greed and political clientilism.

Has Al Gore completely lost it? It would be hard to blame him.

But no, the author is Chronis Polychroniou, head of academic affairs at Mediterranean College in Athens, bemoaning what the current inferno in his country has revealed about its polity.

On the second anniversary Hurricane Katrina, when our system let a major city drown -- probably for Republican political gain -- we should find this all sadly familiar.

What are we, and the Greeks, going to do about it?

Workers just want to get paid

Supporters of Emeryville living wage payments owed to Woodfin hotel workers troop into City Hall.

Emeryville residents, who passed a living wage ordinance by initiative in 2005, won a victory last niight when their legislators ordered the hotel to pay up.

After a tense, rowdy hearing the Emeryville City Council ordered the Woodfin Hotel to pay workers $350,000 dollars in back wages and penalties.

Fifty-six workers went after the Woodfin Hotel after an Emeryville city law which guarantees a livable wage for hospitality workers.

In last night's meeting the attorney for Woodfin might have felt he wasn't getting much hospitality - he was tossed from that meeting by the mayor. Later he returned only to hear the council say that hotel owes workers $300,000 dollars in back wages plus a $50,000 dollar fine. The City Manager ordered $250,000 dollars in back pay back in June, Woodfin wouldn't pay that and the hotel said it won't pay this fine, it said it will appeal. Source.

Unidentified persons inside the city administration building watched a worker rally anxiously.

The Emeryville situation highlights the difficulty immigrant workers have collecting even payments to which they are legally entitled. The hotel responded to worker activism by instigating the Social Security Administration to check their Social Security numbers, then firing activists for whom the Feds returned "no match" letters.

The Bush administration has responded to Congress' failure to pass its "immigration reform" package by moving to make employers to fire all workers who cannot provide proof of valid Social Security numbers. That is, by punishing workers, it hopes to force its business base to provide the muscle to get an immigration law passed over the wishes of its large, vocal, racist constituency. Labor journalist David Bacon has explained the "no match" ploy clearly in this article.

Luz Dominguez speaks out for the Woodfin workers.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Our wonderful urban park

I suppose I ought to have opinions about the San Francisco Chronicle's recent crusade against the homeless residents of Golden Gate Park. See here, or here, or here. After all, in the last 30 years, I estimate that I've logged over five thousand miles running on its paths. Probably more. The nooks and crannies of the park are some of my favorite bits of San Francisco.

Yes, there have always been homeless people living in the park. Sometimes, like most summers, there are more there. Sometimes, for example when the press and politicians are making a fuss (1997 or 2003) there may be less -- or at least the homeless are better hidden.

There was a period when I felt unsafe in the park in the '90s. A rapist was attacking women in the bathrooms. Eventually he was caught. I once ran a trail past what was clearly a stash of stolen bikes -- there are things you don't want to see. For that matter, there was a gay men's cruising path where I didn't run for years because venturing onto it felt like I was intruding in someone's bedroom.

Like anyone else who uses the park, I don't have any sympathy with people trashing it up or leaving needles lying around.

But I also can't say that the presence of the homeless has ever gotten in the way of my using the park as I do.

What's wrong here is that there isn't any realistic way for these people to get themselves into homes. Folks get down on their luck, or loose their mental equilibrium, or get hooked on drugs -- and end up on the street. Once they wear out whatever human community they had, if any, there is no longer any bottom of the barrel housing -- fleabag hotels, flop houses, seamen's hostels -- in which they can stabilize themselves and eventually crawl back into some kind of life. Cities used to have such places, awful as they were, because such decayed urban properties could make a profit for their owners. I saw them myself on the Bowery in New York in the 1970s.

Since the Reagan era, the federal government has pretty much gone out of the affordable housing promotion business, states and localities are strapped because we've hamstrung the tax system, and interest rate manipulations have made urban land simply too valuable to use to house the poor. That is, as a society, we got rid of their housing options, but we still have the poor. When poor people lose their ability to hold on to private spaces, more and more they get pushed into our public spaces -- into the parks.

Volunteer attorneys recently explained why criminalizing sleeping in the parks just makes things worse:

When a homeless person has a warrant, even for a very minor offense such as sleeping in public, she is prevented from getting the services she needs to exit homelessness. The penalty for a "quality-of-life" citation is a fine. Because homeless individuals are too poor to pay the fines, the citations turn into active warrants.

Pro bono attorneys with the Homeless Rights Project have represented homeless people who were denied public housing because they had warrants for sleeping in the park. We have had clients who would have lost Social Security benefits, General Assistance benefits, a place in a treatment program and employment opportunities, if we had not helped clear their status crime warrants.

The San Francisco Police Department claims that in issuing citations, it is trying to hold homeless residents accountable for their behavior. People camp in parks or sleep in their vehicles, however, because they have no other place to be, not because they want to defy the law.

San Francisco Chronicle,
August 24, 2007

Periodic sweeps and tickets aren't going to cut it.

Until, and unless, we can make our society deal with the causes of homelessness, I'm afraid that we park users are simply going to have to share our public spaces with those who have nowhere else to go. We deserve to be reminded of our failure to organize our society so that it works for vulnerable people. We all would be worse off if somehow we could simply lock the victims of our failed social organization out of our sight. But we can't. They are in the parks.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Palestinian outsider ...

Jean Zaru

It's hard to say -- or think -- anything very hopeful about the situation of the Palestinians. An ancient people is being harried and harassed into oblivion by a bullying settler state, Israel, fully supported by our country, especially its political class. Not surprisingly, Palestinians resist erasure as best they can, often with ugly results.

So it was a great privilege to hear on Friday from a Palestinian who is trying to project a vision of resistance that affirms life while refusing to compromise with injustice whether by Israelis toward Palestinians, by any religion against another, or by men towards women. Jean Zaru represented the Jerusalem-based ecumenical liberation theology center, Sabeel, at a Berkeley conference sponsored by its North American friends. I'm not going to try to reproduce Zaru's talk; I would not do it justice. Rather I'll share just a bit from a handout of what she said on another occasion,

My first problem has always been introducing myself. If I called myself a Palestinian, I was equated with terrorism. If I said I was an Arab, I was assumed to be a Muslim. If I said I came from Jerusalem, thinking this would make things clearer for my fellow Christians, someone would immediately say, "Oh, you are Jewish! Shalom." And, when I continued to point out that I am Christian the inevitable final query came: "When were you converted?"

I give the only reply I can: "Sorry, I cannot give you the satisfaction of saving my soul. I am a Christian, I must tell you, because my ancestors were Disciples of Christ. They were members of the first Christian Church which was in Jerusalem." ...

As I continue on my journeys to affirm the presence of 12 million Arab Christians in the Middle East and of a Palestinian people struggling for justice and freedom in at least a part of their homeland, new obstacles and pressures reveal themselves. For liberal Christians, influenced by Holocaust theology and European history and guilt, I am not, as a Palestinian Christian, a part of their agenda. My very existence disturbs the balance. For fundamentalists, I am not among the chosen. Rather, I am one of the cursed. As so as a Palestinian, I stand in the way of the fulfillment of the prophecy of God. I cannot win for it seems that I am not part of the theology of many, if not most, of my brothers and sisters.

Yet, my entire life has been affected and encompassed by Biblical teachings and interpretations. As a Christian, a Palestinian, a woman, an Arab and a Quaker, the teachings of western churches have affected me personally and, collectively, my people in very specific ways.

Read the whole thing.

The Israeli occupation has been, in language the religious scholar Rosemary Radford Reuther used at the same meeting, "lethal to the Palestinian Christian community. They get it from all sides." In 1967, the indigenous Christians of Jerusalem and the West Bank numbered some 13 percent of Palestinians. Today, Christians are less than one percent. Christian holy sites are no longer living churches -- they been "museumified."

Actually, I didn't have to go to some conference to learn about this -- many corner store owners in San Francisco would be happy to share a similar story. Just ask in the places with a picture of Jerusalem pasted on the back wall...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

JAG officers say Bush order legalizes torture

Detail from a mural in Leon, Nicaragua that depicts treatment of prisoners under the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship.

Charlie Savage at the Boston Globe caught this story, as he has many during the Bush regime:

The Judge Advocates General of all branches of the military told [three Republican] senators that a July 20 executive order establishing rules for the treatment of CIA prisoners appeared to be carefully worded to allow humiliating or degrading interrogation techniques when the interrogators' objective is to protect national security rather than to satisfy sadistic impulses. ...

... the JAGs told the senators that a key part of the order opens the door to violations of the section of the Geneva Conventions that outlaws "cruel treatment and torture" and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment," officials familiar with the discussion said.

The JAGs cited language in the executive order in which Bush said CIA interrogators may not use "willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual." As an example, it lists "sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation."

Among lawyers, "for the purpose" language is often used to mean that a person must specifically intend to do something, such as causing humiliation, in order to violate a statute. The JAGs said Bush's wording appears to make it legal for interrogators to undertake that same abusive action if they had some other motive, such as gaining information. ...

[Robert S.] Turner, who is now a University of Virginia law professor, said the Justice Department was "playing games," and called its explanation "a con." He said "the only reasonable interpretation of that language is that if your purpose in doing this is not to humiliate and degrade the guy, then that clause doesn't apply."

Turner's vehement criticism is particularly significant because he has been a rare and outspoken defender of the Bush administration in other controversies related to presidential power and the war on terrorism. ...

In addition to the offense against humanity Bush is perpetrating here, since when did we allow Presidents to declare what is legal by executive fiat? Since GWB, I guess.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Two maps that should pop the Beltway's bubble

This morning much of the mainstream media is blithering about how important it is that Republican Senator John Warner wants Bush to withdraw some 5000 US troops from Iraq to push the Iraqis to shape up. Nice of him -- what planet do these people live on?

According to Chris Bowers at Open Left:

Currently, there are only twelve congressional districts in the entire country where either a majority or a plurality of voters in that district are opposed to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq ...

Congresscritters ignore that level of unanimity at their peril. This morning, my hometown paper headlined: "California voters souring on Democratic Congress."

California voters, disappointed that Congress has been unable to change policy in Iraq, are now giving federal lawmakers their lowest approval rating of the past decade, according to a Field Poll released today.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also is taking it on the chin. Her popularity with state voters has tumbled as Democrats and independents grow impatient with her party's inability to force the White House to start to bring home U.S. troops, the poll showed.


Meanwhile, consider this from Inside Iraq:

Patience has limits
In 1991 I witnessed the public uprising that was aroused in most Iraqi governorates by the persecuted people. At that time I was a witness when people spontaneously said, "no to the tyrant". The Iraqi people said no and they knew the consequence of this no. They knew with whom they confront, Saddam Hussein, but in spite of that they stormed to the streets yelling no … no … no. This no cost them their lives. This historical situation will remain in generations' memories for a long, long time. We will remember when the bare arms with no weapon shook at the tyrant's throne. ...

Those people who were able to say no to Saddam they will be able too to say no to new tyrants.

Yes, the government must understand that Iraqi people can't be patient forever. The day will come when Iraqi people will say no again. They can't watch daily tragedy in all of Iraq, or the sectarian fight in which governmental parties are involved and foreign influence from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Washington.

The day will come when the Iraqis will create their reality by themselves.

Jenan, who wrote this, is not some "dead-ender." The author works at great personal risk in Iraq with McClatchy News -- with a US news agency and US reporters -- to tell the story of what is happening in that unhappy country.

The map above (source) shows current conflict zones. Most of the south lacks those little flames.

But as the late great Steve Gilliard would have pointed out, this area is where in 1991 the Iraqis rose up against Saddam Hussein. If, as Jenan says, the people are once again on the verge of rising up en masse in disgust, the only line of retreat for US forces is south through those currently quiet provinces on the way to Kuwait.

The sight of that rout ought to get the attention of our sleeping rulers, don't you think?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

One more reason to stay off the government dole

The Bush administration plans to screen thousands of people who work with charities and nonprofit organizations that receive U.S. Agency for International Development funds to ensure they are not connected with individuals or groups associated with terrorism, according to a recent Federal Register notice.

The plan would require the organizations to give the government detailed information about key personnel, including phone numbers, birth dates and e-mail addresses. But the government plans to shroud its use of that information in secrecy and does not intend to tell groups deemed unacceptable why they are rejected.

Washington Post,
August 23, 2007

This summer we had the privilege of having a young activist stay in our house while she did an internship with a local housing rights outfit. Listening to her impressions, it was quite clear that she was learning that government funding and the non-profit structure itself were barriers to organizing members to assert their rights.

This is a very welcome development. In the 1990s, organizers were far less questioning of foundation- or government-funded 501c3 structures as vehicles for their organizing. That conventional wisdom seems to be changing.

Eric Tang has taken a shot at reexamining the form in "The Non-Profit & The Autonomous Grassroots" originally published in Left Turn. He observes that one promising effort to move beyond the constraints of the non-profit form is:

The NGO [non-governmental organization, the non-profit] is not the subject of the social movement, but rather the political and technical support for the struggle. The NGO leverages funds to the autonomous grassroots groups, helps the movement build connection to those beyond the borders of the nation-state, provides training, education, and infrastructural support (the development of health clinics, schools, alternative media centers, etc.), and serves as a liaison between government officials and autonomous movements.

Yet, before we take heart that the new paradigm ... provide[s] a solution for our generation, it is worth noting that, here too, contradictions abound.

Tang's essay, along with others wrestling with this difficult topic, is anthologized in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, by INCITE! - Women of Color Against Violence.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When "average" is anything but typical

The article was a hit piece on the Bush administration's economic performance, so I should like it, right? Yesterday the New York Times ran an article by David Cay Johnston headlined "2005 Incomes, on Average, Still Below 2000 Peak." Here are the first two paragraphs:

Americans earned a smaller average income in 2005 than in 2000, the fifth consecutive year that they had to make ends meet with less money than at the peak of the last economic expansion, new government data shows.

While incomes have been on the rise since 2002, the average income in 2005 was $55,238, still nearly 1 percent less than the $55,714 in 2000, after adjusting for inflation, analysis of new tax statistics show.

Kind of petty ante stuff, that. So I kept reading. Way, way, way down the piece I come to this:

Nearly half of Americans reported incomes of less than $30,000, and two-thirds make less than $50,000.

Now wait a minute, didn't he just say that the "average" income was in the $55,000 range? Yes, he did.

But he didn't mean "average" the way you or I usually mean it. The dictionary defines "average" as:
  • "the level, amount, or degree of something that is typical of a group or class of people of things"
  • "without any extraordinary, untypical, or exceptional characteristic."
No, that's not what Mr. Johnston was talking about. He was talking the arithmetic "mean": if you added up all incomes in the United States from the poorest welfare mom to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and divided by 2, you'd get that $55,000 number. Because a few people make astronomical amounts while many, many people make very little, that mean comes out higher than the incomes of two thirds of everybody.

The Wikipedia article on "arithmetic means" explains this very clearly:

The arithmetic mean may be misinterpreted to imply that most people's incomes are higher than is in fact the case. When presented with an "average" one may be led to believe that most people's incomes are near this number. This "average" (arithmetic mean) income is higher than most people's incomes, because high income outliers skew the result higher (in contrast, the median income "resists" such skew). However, this "average" says nothing about the number of people near the median income (nor does it say anything about the modal income that most people are near).

Nevertheless, because one might carelessly relate "average" and "most people" one might incorrectly assume that most people's incomes would be higher (nearer this inflated "average") than they are. For instance, reporting the "average" net worth in Medina, Washington as the arithmetic mean of all annual net worths would yield a surprisingly high number because of Bill Gates. Consider the scores (1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 9). The arithmetic mean is 3.17, but five out of six scores are below this!

This stuff matters. How many of those people in Washington would know that the "average" income cited here was very atypical indeed? After all, in Congress they get paid $165,000 annually without taking into account any wealth they bring with them. They probably think they are fairly typical, though perhaps somewhat fortunate!

One reason most of us feel as if our rulers live on some different plane of life is that they do.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

People want to be heard ...

This YouTube is interesting. Go ahead -- play it.

As far as I can tell, this is strictly a viral product: I found it on OpenLeft; the copy on the Judy Feder website doesn't play for me.

Judy Feder, dean of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, ran as a Democrat for Congress in the Virginia suburbs of Washington in 2006 against a 25-year Republican incumbent. She got creamed, 57-41 percent. Now she's back, asking the people of that district what the U.S. ought to do about Iraq.

I like it. I think she is on to precisely what voters, and most people, want from their leaders at the moment. Folks are ready to scream: Listen to us, damn it!

Congress is sinking in the polls -- and the fall is steepest among Democrats. The current leadership was put in by voters who wanted a change and so far they aren't getting it. You wouldn't expect Bush loyalists to like the present Congress -- but Dems don't give it much higher ratings.

Peace movement, take note. Frustrated people will listen if we give them ways that feel effective to express their urgent desire to end this war. Can we be creative enough to answer that call?

Monday, August 20, 2007


Photo by Tina Hager.

The guy glad-handing the tiger, General David H. Petraeus, will brief the US Congress on September 11 about Iraq. Nothing political about choosing that date -- no, of course not.

Empires can collapse

Detail of crowded market in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica empire, as pictured by muralist Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.

For people with a standard Eurocentric education (and that's most of us) the paradigm of "empire" is Rome. You know: enterprising republic, conquered most of known world, became rich and powerful, long decline while ruled by incestuous maniac dictators, barbarians poured over walls into once great cities, civilization collapsed and we got "the Dark Ages."

Maybe if we knew some different history, we'd be able to imagine some different trajectories. I'm currently reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. Probably at some point I'll write more about this fascinating book, but for now here are some thoughts inspired by Mann's history. When Columbus landed

the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants.... By 1620-25, [the native population] was 730,000, 'approximately 3 percent of its size at the time that [Europeans] landed.'

When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes entered the capital of the Mexica empire that ruled the region, was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. ...Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens -- none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate.

Within a few years this civilization was gone, wiped out not so much by conquest according to Mann, as by vulnerability to European diseases.

Empires can collapse. They can rule their known world -- and then be gone in an eyeblink. This is a hard thought for those of us raised on Rome.

Actually, we've seen an analogous imperial collapse within the lifetimes of most of us, though fortunately not one quite so lethal. From 1945 until 1989, the Soviet Union with all its internal nationalities and external satellite states looked like an enduring reality. Today -- an empire just about forgotten, with rapidly falling population numbers in the shrunken Russian state.

Empires can collapse. Think about it.

Then, if feeling masochistic, take a look at Glenn Greenwald:

Ruling the world ... through superior military force -- starting wars even when our national security is not directly at risk -- is the definitional behavior of an empire.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

While Bush plays cowboy and Democrats vacation...

Iraq rush hour. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Good, I still have my two hands and they still working properly, and what else?, oh, i still have my two legs working, I still have my head stuck to my neck, my two eyes working,my mouth and nose, no blood on my white T-shirt but why do I have this terrible pain in my ears? oh now I know why. the reason of this pain in my ears is the explosion. it just happened two or three seconds ago. It is 8,10 am when I was in the mini bus coming to work. A loud sound. OMG, its an explosion

man in the mini bus:-"its a car bomb OMG. "

myself:-"no its not a car bomb. Its either a mortar shell or an IED"

the man again:-"its a car bomb, i saw a big piece of iron "

myself:-"ok its a car bomb but where is the black cloud? where is the big fire?

the man:-" oh right, I think its an IED."

...Less than five minutes after the explosion, everything was normal and we started talking and laughing again and why not, its just an IED in Baghdad....

Inside Iraq,
August 4, 2007

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier,
Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy,
members of the U.S. Army in Iraq
New York Times,
August 19, 2007

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Free the Net? -- an end user view

Here in San Francisco's Mission District, we're the target of a convoluted marketing scheme. Some weeks ago, posters went up on the usual telephone polls, asking if we want to take part in "Free the Net." A "Free the Net" option also appeared among visible wireless networks. Not surprisingly around here, many were interested, including this household.

And so, not long later, we got a package from a company called Meraki containing the "Mini repeater" above. We stuck it in our front window. The company's map of users, from its website, shows a rapidly growing cluster of users in the Mission-Guerrero corridor.

So what is this about? Given that quite a few folks are now (in theory -- more later) getting their wireless through this project, there is little accessible information on line about what Meraki is up to. The best coverage I have found has been at GigaOm, here, here, and here. Apparently

Meraki will build a one-square-mile free Wi-Fi network that will span a few select San Francisco neighborhoods. The network will be built with Meraki wireless mesh gear and will cost around $50,000. The company will also pay for DSL connections to power the network. ...

Meraki’s CEO and founder Sanjit Biswas calls the plan an experiment and a showcase of what the company’s low cost Wi-Fi equipment can do. It’s also a savvy marketing play and if the network is successful it’ll show that community-backed wide-area Wi-Fi using the right equipment doesn’t need to be a bureaucratic hassle.

The network itself has nothing to do with the current Earthlink/Google Wi-Fi deal, and on the pace of that negotiation, Biswas says “we’re frustrated . . .everyone has been frustrated.”

Remember Google is also a Meraki investor, but Biswas says Google is interested in getting behind broadband access in whatever form.

Some months into this, Meraki claims nearly 8000 users and plans to expand citywide. In other markets, Meraki sells the Mini repeaters for about $50 -- so handing them out free is an audacious form of advertising to a pretty tech savvy and tech hungry neighborhood.

How well does it work? Here's my household's anecdotal experience: four users, three different experiences.

For one, it works fine in every way. She is not bothered by the small ads in a toolbar in her browser windows. But she is the person who pays for our pre-existing Comcast cable network and that works fine for her, so she doesn't much care about "Free the Net."

Two users successfully use "Free the Net" for web surfing. For them, it is faster than the house's Comcast cable, so that's fine. They can't send outgoing email. Because they haven't figured out how to switch to their own ISP's smtp accounts, Meraki's DSL won't pass on their messages. Neither sends much mail from here anyway, so they are happy enough, though confused. They can email from net mail portals and are willing to do so.

I can't use "Free the Net" at all. Whenever I do tabbed browsing in Firefox on this network, something locks up the browser. There may also be some kind of popup blocker problem. I can get mail, but although I have "smtpauth" personalities that work well in hotels and the likes of Starbucks, I can't send mail from Free the Net. So I don't use it.

Now Meraki can't be expected to provide free tech supporter to a mixed bag of users with all sorts of equipment and all levels of sophistication -- but if their wireless offering is less simple and less transparent than that offered by most hotels, a lot of people aren't going to be able to use it. A lot of those who can't use it are almost certainly the same ones who most need free broadband access.

Free the Net is an experiment I wish well. I have no faith that Gavin Newsom's deal with Earthlink is going to bring universal broadband to San Francisco. But what Free the Net offers now seems not quite ready for prime time.

"Do No Harm"
Psychologists rally against torture

On Sunday, the American Psychological Association (APA), meeting in convention in San Francisco, will decide whether to adopt an ethical standard that prohibits members of the profession from orchestrating "interrogations" and torture for the U.S. government.

The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have such standards; the APA currently has a more equivocating standard that has been interpreted by some psychologists in ways reminiscent of how President Bush carefully parses non-denial denials of government lawlessness. Instead of simply declaring "torture is always wrong," the APA sounds proud that it keeps its place alongside the torturers. In March, its president told the Washington Monthly that

APA has chosen to stay engaged in the process of working to define and enforce ethical interrogations because we believe that it is the best way to prevent unethical behavior.

To a lot of psychologists, this sounds like wanting to be "in with in-crowd" at the cost of disgracing their profession -- and abetting the birth of an out-right torture state.

This July in Vanity Fair, Katherine Eban reported the apparent marriage between the APA and the U.S. military.

... a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession's 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards -- what Arrigo called the "Rumsfeld definition" of humane treatment.

... I also discovered that psychologists weren't merely complicit in America's aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A. Two psychologists in particular played a central role: James Elmer Mitchell, ... and his colleague Bruce Jessen. ...

Both worked in a classified military training program known as SERE -- for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape -- which trains soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on SERE trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror, according to psychologists and others with direct knowledge of their activities. The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including "waterboarding," at its network of "black sites." In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, "We are proud of the work we have done for our country."

Many psychologists are simply disgusted.

Those working to get their association out of the torture business held a rally at Moscone Center late Friday afternoon. Several hundred psychologists and friends listened to impassioned denunciations of what they consider the association's current shifty stance.

Dr. Ghislaine Boulanger is a leader of the movement to "Withhold APA Dues" until the association unequivocally repudiates psychologists' involvement in torture. Of French origin, she compared those who participate in government "interrogation" schemes collaborators with the Nazis who worked in the Vichy government. She believes their stance "subjects psychology to contempt and derision."

Dr. Stephen Soldz, who blogs at Psyche, Science, and Society, charged that the APA has "done everything in its power" to keep psychologists in the "interrogation" business.

Dr Brad Olson emphasized that psychologists ought to be governed by the ancient medical injunction: "first do no harm."

People in the crowd stepped up to take "Stop Torture" buttons ...

... while Hector Aristizabal gave a preview of the show he was to perform later that evening as a benefit for Survivors International.

Let us hope we'll read on Monday that the American Psychological Association has come out clearly against torture. It doesn't seem a lot to expect of a "helping" profession. Campaigns like the one these psychologists are waging within their profession are a significant part of how we take our country back.

UPDATE: Sunday, August 18: According to AP:

After a raucous debate about what role - if any -- psychologists should play in U.S. government interrogations of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, the American Psychological Association voted overwhelmingly today to reject a measure that would have banned its members from those interrogations.

Looks like some members will be joining the movement to withhold dues, if Friday's rally is any indication.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging

What is the point of sudden photographs of animals on political blogs? I think they are an important change of pace and a reminder to be in touch with all things which fundamentally matter: the trees, the animals the rocks, the rain, the sun. We are animals ourselves, whatever the wingnuts wish for, and we need to stay grounded. Besides, the pictures are calming and cheering and often funny. And a way to signal that the weekend is coming.

August 3, 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Democratic Congresscritters: the peoples' home front

The ACLU is raising money to put this ad in Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi's home newspapers. Our feeble Congresscritters are home for recess. We need to bother the heck out of them.

This morning I heard Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Mike Honda on local radio whining about how they can't do anything because "they don't have the votes." They've completely ceded the power of the purse; if Bush keeps refusing to sign what Congress sends him, he runs out of money. Maybe he just steals it; I wouldn't put it past him. But no, these Democrats just whine.

Code Pink is out in front of Pelosi's house. No reason to give her a pass -- she is not doing her job.

Padilla verdict

So a Miami jury has convicted Jose Padilla of something or other. Judging by what was reported of the trial, the "evidence" they were provided was so flimsy that I can only conclude he is guilty of being both brown-Puerto Rican and Muslim.

The jury was never told that Padilla was tortured for 3 and half years.

Padilla is an experiment -- on him, to observe the effects of different forms of torture -- on us, to see if we'll put up with the corruption of our polity. It seems to have been quite successful.

Have we really become such a cowardly nation that we shit our pants in the face of paper-thin threats? And are willing to torture people to try to calm our fears? Apparently all too often.

I agree with Lew Koch writing before the verdict at Firedoglake:

Regardless of the verdict, ... the name Padilla will now go down around the world, next to those of Sacco and Vansetti and Koramatsu and Gideon and Miranda as people who put our United States Constitution to the test.

For the moment, the people of the United States are flunking the test. I don't mean just the jury. I mean all of us -- including especially Congressional Democrats -- who claim to represent our better possibilities.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Test marketing for Iran attack?

This morning the Washington Post tells us that the U.S. might " designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's 125,000-strong elite military branch, as a "'specially designated global terrorist' ..." Apparently this is one of new bureaucratic legal categories of official enemies -- does it mean that Iran's army are all "unlawful enemy combatants"?

I think we are in a period of test marketing. Cheney, the Neocons, various imperialists and Likidniks (I am not trying here to decode their various motivations) want the U.S. to attack Iran.

They ran out the imminent mushroom clouds for a while, but the Europeans and general fatigue with WMD threats seems to have momentarily stalled that.

They claimed Iran is arming the Iraqi insurgency -- except the sectarian situation in Iraq makes that un-credible (besides, it turns out they are arming the insurgency with those all those missing U.S. rifles.)

So now they claim Iran is exporting terrorism through an elite army unit.

While the Bush regime crumbles at home, should we expect the attack on Iran this fall or will it be winter? Whatever these guys are, they are gamblers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Into the fishbowl we jump

Henning Kaiser photo

On the one hand,

The Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a "surveillance society" in which the sense of freedom that stems from being anonymous in public will be lost, privacy rights advocates warn. ...

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said that it is difficult to say how much money has been spent on surveillance cameras because many grants awarded to states or cities contained money for cameras and other equipment. Knocke defended the funding of video networks as a valuable tool for protecting the nation. "We will encourage their use in the future," he added.

Boston Globe,
August 12, 2007


S.F. public housing cameras no help in homicide arrests

The 178 video cameras that keep watch on San Francisco public housing developments have never helped police officers arrest a homicide suspect even though about a quarter of the city's homicides occur on or near public housing property, city officials say....

Though the Housing Authority doesn't keep a record of how often its cameras' footage is used in making arrests in crimes, a housing authority official and a police lieutenant told the committee they are unaware of the footage ever being used to arrest a homicide suspect.

The city has its own security camera program with 70 cameras in 25 high-crime locations. None of them is on federal housing authority property, but many of them are positioned at street corners right outside them. ...

Four homicides have occurred in the past 12 months at the intersection of Laguna and Eddy streets -- at the corner of the Plaza East public housing development - including the daytime killing of a 19-year-old in May. A security camera is trained on that corner but so far has not proven useful in making any arrests...

San Francisco Chronicle,
August 14, 2007

I draw two possible lessons from these two articles:
  • Police and federal spooks want to get their budgets raised so someone can monitor the cameras at all times.
  • Very likely some Republican crony is making a killing on all those cameras paid for by Homeland Security.
The Brits are way ahead of us on this: it is estimated that there is one camera, public or private, for every 14 people in the U.K. The cameras don't make people safer:

One effect that has been noticed is that initially crime moves away from the cameras which is why they are often touted as a success. However within a short period of time the crime returns. Usually the criminals have baseball caps and hooded tops etc to hide their identity, and "do the job" very quickly.

The criminals obviously know that a camera like a burglar alarm only represents a threat when you don't know how to allow for it in terms of time, identification hiding etc.

As for the privacy implications of these cameras, it looks like we're on the way to much more effective, near universal surveillance.

... technicians are developing ways to use computers to process real-time and stored digital video, including license-plate readers, face-recognition scanners, and software that detects "anomalous behavior." Although still primitive, these technologies are improving, some with help from research grants by the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate.

"Being able to collect this much data on people is going to be very powerful, and it opens people up for abuses of power," said Jennifer King, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies privacy and technology. "The problem with explaining this scenario is that today it's a little futuristic. [A major loss of privacy] is a low risk today, but five years from now it will present a higher risk."

As this technological capacity evolves, it will be far easier for individuals to attract police suspicion simply for acting differently and far easier for police to track that person's movement closely, including retracing their steps backwards in time. It will also create a greater risk that the officials who control the cameras could use them for personal or political gain, specialists said.

Boston Globe,
August 12, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Rights activists not allowed to leave Philippines

Gemma Mirkinson holds a bullhorn while Ona Mirkinson reads a statement from the three women advocates for human and women's rights apparently placed on a "hold list" by the Filipino government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The two are daughters of one of the women not allowed to leave the Philippines.

UPDATE: 8:58 am Tuesday, August 14: a friend of the women writes: "all three of them are on a plane to the US right now - hurray!" Good work by all who contacted the Philippine government.

Monday evening a small but spirited group rallied outside the Philippine Center on Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco. According to the Filipino publication Bulatlat,

Dr. Annalisa Vicente Enrile was on her way back to the U.S. on Aug. 5 after a month’s stay in the Philippines. However, as she proceeded to the Immigration booth to have her passport exit-stamped, she was told that she could not get on the plane because she was on the “watchlist.”

Enrile is the chairperson of GABRIELA Network USA (GABNet), a U.S.-based women’s group affiliated with the militant [Filipino] women’s group GABRIELA .... Enrile said she believes she is being held because of her involvement with GABRIELA and for being part of a team that went to the country to probe the human rights record of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration.

“I’m being held hostage,” Enrile told the media. “I cannot go back to my work and my family.”

The U.S.C. professor was given the run around when she tried to get cleared to return to the States. Activist Judith Mirkinson and American Book Award winning novelist Ninotchka Rosca are also believed to be on the "hold list" and so far are unable to leave the Philippines.

These events occur against a background of growing repression carried out by the Filipino government, the legitimacy of whose election is contested by many popular movements. Many believe that the Macapagal-Arroyo administration is trying to return to the martial law system under which dictator Ferdinand Marcos governed the country from 1965 to 1986 -- without using the dread words "martial law.
  • In June, Human Rights Watch issued at report on the regime, Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines. It does not mince words:

    It’s a complete breakdown of the rule of law. Civilian rule has been replaced by military rule. The courts don’t function. The prosecutors don’t function. The investigative agencies don’t function. Lawyers are threatened.

    Romy Capulong,
    human rights lawyer,
    September, 2006

  • The Philippines is also a dangerous place for religious leaders who stand up for the poor and oppressed.

    Bishop Alberto Ramento of Tarlac in the Philippines, former Prime Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church, or Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), was found stabbed to death at his rectory on the morning of October 3, 2006. .... Ramento's death is the latest in a string of killings of Christian leaders in the Philippines. On June 17, Tito Marata, provincial officer of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and a member of the Farmers for Agrarian Reform Movement, was gunned down by passing motorcyclists, taking the death toll of Christian activists to 17 in less than two years.

    Episcopal News Service

  • In July, the government brought a new "Human Security Act" into effect. ... The UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism has called for the law to be repealed or for its implementation to be delayed.
  • The Committee for the Protection of Journalists names the Philippines as a major violator of reporter's rights.

    CPJ’s research shows that 32 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work in the Philippines since 1992, making it the world’s fifth deadliest nation for journalists during that time period. The impunity rate in these cases is well over 90 percent, CPJ research shows.

Security "needs"

Musing on California Secretary of State Deborah Bowen's effort to decide whether electronic voting machines are "secure," Bruce Schneier argues that giving the machines to computer experts to see whether they can break into them, then ordering particular fixes of the holes revealed by the test, is "completely backward." Better to demand from the get-go that companies convince those experts and hackers that their machines are designed for security. However profit concerns will always mean that companies prefer to skimp on the front end and scramble to fix on the back end. If they get away with it, this is cheaper than engineering in security against potential attacks.

Schneier then offers criteria that might lead to "assurance" -- the best we can do in a real world of determined human beings with imaginations -- to provide security when we need it. He follows with this interesting observation:

Assurance is expensive, in terms of money and time for both the process and the documentation. But the NSA needs assurance for critical military systems; Boeing needs it for its avionics. And the government needs it more and more: for voting machines, for databases entrusted with our personal information, for electronic passports, for communications systems, for the computers and systems controlling our critical infrastructure.

It seems to me that what we need is not only "assurance" but also a deep, society-wide conversation to discern what needs to be "secure," what needs to be "private," what needs to be "safe." Our technological capacities have outrun our understanding of those issues. We don't want to leave the shape of the future to markets, smart nerds, the occasional aspiring dictator, and chance.