Friday, January 31, 2014

Reluctantly giving peace a chance

The news media don't usually write about things that are not happening. But it seems worth noting that apparently the fierce push from the Israel lobby for a new Iran sanctions bill that would blow up nuclear negotiation is petering out, at least for the moment. Partisan Democratic commentator Ed Kilgore makes a revealing observation.

Harry Reid’s going to sit on the bill; he won’t get much pushback from Democrats; and Republicans don’t have the votes to cause much trouble. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of House and Senate cosponsors actually goes up when it becomes obvious it’s a dead letter.

The White House and most U.S. citizens pushed back, not having completely lost sight of our actual interest in peace. But, per Kilgore, the proposal was a bonanza for dim Democrats and bellicose Republicans. Signing on enhanced their standing with donors and the evangelists of dumb wars, while betting that Daddy (the Prez) would spare them from having to experience the consequences of their posturing.

Friday cat blogging

Carlie has come to live in our compound. Morty is curious about this development. So far, they have not met without the glass between them.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

SOTU afterthoughts

I didn't watch the State of the Union speech. Watching Barack Obama is too painful. So many had such hopes for him, for change. And so little has changed. Worse, I fear that when he's out of office, I'll remember him as the most sympathetic Democratic party president of my lifetime, for all the many-faceted disappointments of seeing a path-breaking figure get chewed up by his own instinct to placate and the inertia of empire.

Charles Blow encapsulated that sadness today:

The president who was fond of proclaiming that under his leadership, the country was beginning a “new chapter” on everything from diplomacy to climate change, is now just trying to get his paragraph right.

Peter Beinart, who has learned a thing or two himself, points out the terrible hollowness of the President's failure to own up to the crimes he inherited and is leaving behind.

In lauding America’s exits from Afghanistan and Iraq, he didn’t cite a single thing the United States has accomplished in either country. How could he have? Parts of central Iraq are today in the hands of jihadists, and the carnage there has never been worse. When the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan, one expert recently predicted, “the likely outcome is a civil war, much more fierce and widespread than the one fought during recent years.”

The harsh reality is that America did not leave Iraq, and is not leaving Afghanistan, because we accomplished our goals there. We are leaving because we decided our goals of defeating the Taliban and fostering Iraqi democracy weren’t important enough to justify spending billions of dollars and losing more American lives.

They never were. …

And don't get me started on Obama's dumb drone war, the NSA, and Guantanamo.

Then Obama proceeded to use a mutilated veteran as a prop and all the Congresscritters jumped to attention. James Fallows is on fire about this.

In preparation for the speech, a slew of progressive advocacy outfits did their job, sending out laundry lists of what they (we?) wanted the Prez to talk about. These filled our mailboxes, hoping we'd be convinced that somebody, somewhere, was sticking up for all that Washington seems unable to accomplish. There were so many examples of the genre that a friend and I started passing them back and forth, critiquing and noting which ones seemed most adept at including the most comprehensive agenda. We chuckled at the occasional awkwardness or incongruity with past positions.

But this activity is neither just funny, nor futile. As has always been the case, the Obama trajectory shows that what this country becomes can't be left to politicians. Progressive infrastructure at all levels matters, even when it can seem only weak and silly. We never quite know where some vital initiative is going to take off, so build we must.

One last commentary on the season approaching an endpoint

I'm grateful for the seasonal character of football. It begins for this fan casually in August, builds through the regular seasons (college and professional, for those of us fully addicted), hits overdose during the bowls and NFL playoffs, and ends with what is usually an anti-climax at the Super Bowl. By the time it is over, many of us have had enough and are glad to resume other interests.

But some concerns remain. It's time to end this insult, Dan Snyder!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Caught between the German boot and the French slipper

Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis is a picture book -- and a book about what it meant and means to be an Alsatian. Tomi Ungerer was eight when Hitler's Wehrmacht overwhelmed France's defenses of the province of Alsace in 1939. The area had long been contested territory; Prussia seized it from France in 1871 and France had taken back it in 1918.

The young Tomi was a already a visual artist; as an adult he became an illustrator and children's book author. This book consists of visual artifacts of the German occupation, both Tomi's drawings and the propaganda art of the period, along with adult reflections.

It is about a resilient people and place. Tomi's mother (his father died in the mid-1930s) kept the family together and alive with industry, pluck, and wit through prewar poverty and then Nazi occupation. They despised the German invaders, but quickly learned their language and played the part of newly rescued members of the Aryan national volk, delivering their required Hitler salutes in public.

The occupiers were determined to make the Alsatians into Germans. The consequences were often absurd:

The French beret was a Gallic symbol, and it was forbidden to wear one. … you were punished with a fine of 150 Reichmarks and six months in prison if caught wearing one. This applied to Alsace only; in Germany a few miles away across the Rhine you could wear a beret without being punished. Some parents turned this into a joke and sent their children to school wearing absurd headgear, a real carnival! Wedding rings had to be worn on the right hand, as was the custom in Germany. Bathroom faucets marked chaud or froid had to be replaced, as well as salt and pepper shakers.

Tomi insists that the German rulers never understood that Alsatians, "trained by adversities of history, were beyond manipulation and coercion."

The Ungerer family's most dangerous moments came during the actual liberation by converging French and US armies. The community had long dared minor acts of sabotage against the occupiers. Tomi's brother had been drafted by the Germans; he managed to surrender happily to the onrushing Yanks. At home there was fear.

I was twelve years old. We were here, the Germans were here, and the Allies were not very far away and getting closer and closer. … This already war-soaked place was to turn into a battlefield again. This idyll in purgatory was about to turn into an inferno in hell. We had to survive our survival. Slyness is of no use with a bomb, and there is never enough time to tell a bullet to get lost.

The family house was blown to bits around them, but all survived and suddenly Alsatians were French again.

The aftermath had its own painful dislocations when Tomi returned to school:

It was forbidden to speak Alsatian or German, and we were punished for every word uttered. Everywhere signs proclaiming C'est chic de parler Francais (It's chic to speak French) had replaced portraits of the Fuhrer. We had a crop of new teachers, some of them French, and others were Alsatians who had chosen to stay in France during the war. For some we were nothing but scum, a brood of collaborators. … we did not carry the Germans in our hearts. We had suffered as much, if not more than the others. Again we were branded.

Tomi carried a burden of bitterness until time and artistic success in three languages gave him some distance on this hard childhood. Though he settled part time in Ireland, he remained proud of his native Alsace.

After years of occupation, Alsace no longer has to survive under the German boot or the French slipper. We are simply part of Europe. Alsatians are born Europeans …

Alsace never won or lost a war -- our neighbors did, using us as cannon fodder. Alsatians loathe violence, for whoever suffers inflicted wars seeks peace.

Ungerer's anti-imperial posters as well as his erotica made him a pariah in the U.S. for many years; these days his art is the subject of his own museum in Strasbourg, Alsace.

Warming Wednesdays: it is cold outside

Artist Randall Munroe suggests we pass this cartoon on when friends complain about the winter weather.

Here in San Francisco, we're basking in one of the nicest summers in years during this winter -- no fog, clear sunshine, and shorts weather. Of course this is the consequence of drastic drought -- the mountains have about 20 percent of the snow pack they would have been expected to have at this time of year. Come summer, there are sure to be water shortages.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Water worries

It almost felt as if it might rain today. I'll believe it when I see it.

Ten days ago when Governor Brown declared a drought emergency, the situation was dire:

The Sierra Nevada snowpack on Thursday was 17 percent of normal. And last year, most cities in the state received the lowest amount of rain in any living Californian's lifetime. The rainfall records go back to 1850.

For the past 13 months, a huge high-pressure ridge in the atmosphere has sat off the West Coast, diverting storms that normally would bring winter rain northward to Canada.

During the dire drought of 1976-7, I remember people holding rain dances on Mt. Tamalpais. But what is happening this year is much worse. Most locations had record low rainfall during 2013.

A month and more of what are summer temperatures in San Francisco (60+F) has been great for someone like me, who lives to spend time outside. But is this the new normal? Probably not. But if the new normal is anything like this, can California really support what will soon be 40 million residents? After all, much of the state was always a desert, only rendered fertile by irrigation. The history of the state is a history of wars over water.

This image shows the snow pack in the Sierra in 2012; and the snow pack today. There's not much white snow this year.

If you live here, you know all this. But talking with faraway friends, I have realized that it is hard for folks to imagine what it has been like in California this winter.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The people taking council together

In the Episcopal Church, the annual parish meeting is something like the New England town meetings of democratic lore. Members discuss the hydra-headed work of the community and, at least in this diocese, we elect members of the group that serves as the community's board, as well as our representatives to regional bodies. Episcopalians can be clergy-centered at times -- after all, we boast we have bishops -- but lay participation matters here. Most of our clergy seem to understand that this big old voluntary institution wouldn't perk along without the work of all of us.

The parish of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco held its annual meeting yesterday.

Here we are pouring over the agenda and booklet containing reports of activities and finances. There's a lot to read because a lot of people keep this place going. Yes, some of us are nibbling; meeting is hungry work.

Thanking members for their various tasks is a vital part of the meeting. Then we go on to cast ballots in a (gently) contested election for the various positions that need to be filled.

While we're waiting for the election results, the treasurer explains the balance sheet and budget. Since we're perennially short of money, this can get acrimonious. This year went smoothly -- for the first time in years we didn't overshoot our planned expenditures, mostly by cutting everything to the bone.

Eventually, we hear the election results, applaud the outcome, and go our separate ways, feeling at least marginally recommitted to work of the community. At times and seasons when the parish is functioning reasonably well, annual meetings are smooth, even pro forma, the people content to hear leaders lay out our situation. When we're not feeling so good about the community, we raise questions and concerns. Yesterday was close to celebratory, after a long shaky season.

As the sociologists have been pointing out for several decades, the experience of organizing and maintaining voluntary institutions has become a less frequent and conventional part of U.S. society. That loss is probably bad for democracy in all facets of our lives. This form of collective responsibility takes practice.

The annual parish meeting is a rare setting where the experience thrives, at least some of the time. Where else in our lives do we get that? In what settings do you experience participatory democracy?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A window on Egyptian hope

Last night I downloaded the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. Though the title refers to a place -- Cairo's grand Tahrir Square -- this is a film about characters. Director Jehane Noujaim follows three men from very different backgrounds from the inception of the 2011 Egyptian protests that overthrew a dictator, across subsequent betrayal by the military, into a period of elected Muslim Brotherhood rule, and on to the current army regime that expelled the governing Islamists.

None of these regimes had much use for the young revolutionaries. Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy are warm, smart, brave and attractive individuals. They struggle, risk their lives in fights with the army and among factions, grow and change. Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, holds convictions that we're most likely to find foreign, but he is nonetheless a mature and sympathetic figure. Yes, there are even women among these insurrectionists -- though not as prominently followed. This is a hopeful film.

Here's Ahmed's conclusion about Egypt's dramatic events of still murky import:

"The leaders are on top, and is always the people on the bottom that are dying and suffering – it doesn't matter who they are, christian, salafi, brotherhood, revolutionary, we are all Egyptian. … the revolution is a voice."

Maybe. Yesterday 49 people were killed in Egypt (presumably mostly by the army but perhaps some also by armed Islamists) on the anniversary of the beginning of the uprisings.

I would strongly recommend seeing this -- the film is Netflix-funded, presumably in the hope of collecting the caché of an Oscar.
I belong to a small cohort of United States citizens who have lived anything remotely like what these men experienced in the Tahrir Square battles. Berkeley in the '60s, for some, had some of the flavor of the Square: episodic eruptions of mass demands for a different university, a different nation and culture, one that didn't wage war on the Vietnamese, one where voices of all races and opinions were respected and valued, even one where building a garden was more valued than a parking lot. We confronted authorities who used their nightsticks freely; we were tear gassed by helicopters; we were arrested and beaten and some were even shot. I know. A man running next to me was hit by shot from Ronald Reagan's armed goon squad (aka Alameda Country Sheriffs) while we fled during one protest. He was luckily not seriously wounded. That day one bystander died.

This was not like the civil rights struggles in the South in which the authorities were more violent, the protesters more organized and disciplined, and both sides were more deeply rooted in their communities. Perhaps the events most like the countercultural student eruptions of the 60s in more recent United States experience were the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and other WTO protests in which an anti-globalization coalition sought to advance the radical notion that "another world is possible."

Obviously none of this tracks exactly with what has taken place and is continuing in Egypt. But there are recognizable similarities to the 60s campus protests -- we too were under-informed, idealistic young people who had a better idea, up against real injustices and entrenched ways of doing things, all viewed askance by uninvolved bystanders wondering why make such a fuss and risk such disruptions.

The movie, The Square, presents some young Egyptians who insist that the breakthrough in the definition of what is possible created by ousting Mubarak and subsequent authoritarians means Egypt can never go back to the closed society of the preceding 30 years. The Egyptian army seems to be settling in for another round of dictatorship. But extrapolating from the experience of my 60s cohort, the protesters have some reason to hope, if not for all they intend when they chant "freedom," at least for a somewhat better society.

For though the insurrectionists of the '60s mostly failed to institutionalize the peace, equity, justice and freedom we sought and which many of us still work for, there's no question we have won the culture war. Oh, I know, retrograde forces -- grumpy old white people mostly -- are still trying to put the genie back in the bottle, but there's no turning back the sexual revolution, women's empowerment, and gay liberation. My goodness, this country seems at long last likely to decriminalize marijuana.

Maybe the hopes of the Egyptians aren't so crazy after all.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Every time I see a headline like this, I seethe. Just possibly, what sets me off is not what you might think.

The ongoing court challenges to Obamacare's treatment of contraception as unexceptional preventive medicine are just everyday patriarchal obstructionism. Anyone who doesn't want to practice birth control, who has a religious objection to birth control, is perfectly free not to practice it. If your faith says only having the children you want is evil, convince others of your stance. Don't try to prevent poor women from being able to follow their consciences.

But making an order of nuns the face of the challenge is additional offense. Old men who hunger to control women's bodies are hiding behind the good will and good deeds of the sisters. I've known lots of Catholic nuns. Most of these nuns would probably loyally sign on with their particular sect's opposition to birth control -- but mostly they live in the real world of human struggles and moral ambiguity in which we all do the best we can. Nuns aren't the force behind spurious legal abstractions about religious freedom; they deal in the messy realities of life in the world. They are much more likely to be feeding the hungry and clothing the naked than to be peeking censoriously into people's bedrooms.

Nuns should not be drafted into some clerical princes' battle against Obama and the modern world. Now there is an evil.

Saturday scenes and scenery: San Francisco buddhas, pt. 3

I keep encountering these as I walk the city's precincts: statues of the Buddha hidden in gardens or overlooking entrances. Some examples:

Apparently I shouldn't be surprised. This map shows the prevalence of non-Christian groups across the country. I didn't know that in the west, Buddhists are the largest group. (Source: Washington Post)

Previous collections in this series: part 1 and part 2.

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Who knew?

Apparently even ordinary porcelain toilets are subject to wear, tear, and obsolescence. So the plumber explained while removing the 1972 model he pulled out, before installing the bright, new, low-flow replacement.

Friday cat blogging

If someone is going to stretch out a wool sweater, of course I'll test it out, says Morty.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chipping away at the no-fly list

Writing last week about a book about the no fly list, I highlighted law professor Jeffrey Kahn's conclusion that the list is no longer used to keep dangerous people from harming commercial flights. Rather, this post-9/11 monstrosity is now used to punish and harass Muslims and others that the U.S. government considers inadequately cooperative.

The civil rights organization Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) reports that a federal judge seems concerned that the no fly list infringes on the rights of citizens.

The decision includes a long explanation of the grave consequences imposed on those the government places on the no-fly list, noting that the list "implicates some of our basic freedoms and liberties as well as the question of whether we will embrace those basic freedoms when it is most difficult." 

Judge Anthony J. Trenga found that the inability to fly "effectively limits educational, employment and professional opportunities," and being placed on the list is "life defining and life restricting across a broad range of constitutionally protected activities and aspirations."

… The court rejected the government's attempt to dismiss [Gulet] Mohamed's claim based on his inability to return to the United States, holding that a "U.S. citizen's right to reenter the United States entails more than simply the right to step over the border after having arrived there."

The judge's decision allows CAIR to go forward with a lawsuit on behalf of a young American named Gulet Mohamed who claims he was was tortured in Kuwait after being denying boarding on his flight home. He had traveled in Yemen and Somalia.

You can see and hear Mohammed's own description of his experience in this news report from the day he was reunited with his mother in Virginia.

Judge Trenga seems sympathetic to Mohammed's claim of injury.

In allowing Mohamed's case to move forward, the court questioned the standards the government utilizes in placing people on the list, finding it "not difficult to imagine completely innocent conduct serving as the starting point for a string of subjective, speculative inferences that result in a person's inclusion on the No Fly List." 

The judge noted that the government has failed to produce any evidence of "past or ongoing unlawful conduct" and he also noted the "possibility, if not the probability, that [placement on the No Fly List] may be bound up with beliefs, personal associations, or activities that are perceived as threatening but are perfectly lawful in themselves, and may indeed be constitutionally protected."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: can we survive on a hotter planet?

Ricky Rood is a professor at the University of Michigan who leads a course on climate change problem solving. He also blogs at what used to be the Weather Underground where he presents our situation in relation to runaway human-caused climate change starkly.

It is crystal clear that we cannot address our energy challenges and expect to automatically address our climate issues. Short-term energy and economic issues will always trump climate change. We [are experiencing] a technological development that by all indications makes global warming worse. We have great challenges in finding safe, secure sources of energy. Our easiest approaches to the energy security problem make the climate change problem worse.

We cannot solve the climate change problem with fossil fuels – remember it is the accumulation of carbon dioxide, not the instantaneous emission of carbon dioxide that matters. All that is emitted stays with us for a very long time. Therefore, new technology that makes it possible to exploit unconventional oil and gas, which might make the U.S. energy independent, puts multiple stresses into the effort to address climate change.

We have ingrained behavior and practice that continue to reward exploitation of fossil fuels more aggressively than renewable energy. Though the World Bank analysis comes to the conclusion that “a 4 degree Celsius warmer world must be avoided,” we have no energy policy, we have no climate policy, and hence, there is little indication that we will take steps to avoid that world.

In early December 2013 I was on a flight sitting next to a man who drives trucks in the Bakken Shale Oil Fields of North Dakota. In North Dakota they target, primarily, oil extraction. The man told me that they were mostly burning off the methane. He was thriving, growing a business. He was caring for his family and looking to the future. A curious statement he made was that the only problem was that all of money up there was coming from other countries.

This just brings home our immediate energy future. We have made the exploitation of fossil fuels as cheap as apparently it was in the year 1300, when Marco Polo wrote of coal in China. We have beaten peak oil. The World wants these fossil fuels to run its economies. We want the jobs to run our economy. We cannot deny our drive to live comfortable lives, our drive for security. The ease of fossil fuels will keep their use growing. The reality is that our “built-in” climate change needs to accommodate the increment that will come from the emissions that cannot be denied.

Let me restate that with less precision but more affect: our sort of civilization (technological and capitalist) requires and rewards use of carbon-polluting energy. We've found ways to "Drill, baby, drill!" We've figured out how to release far more of carbon-based energy than looked likely 20 years ago. Human demand will cause the release into the atmosphere of most of that carbon, regardless of any bumps that climate activists manage to create along the way. It doesn't just "go away" -- especially when we burn off methane, one of the most potential sources of CO2.

Our problem becomes, can we find a way to survive the horror show we will create?

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Why we must not just trust the NSA with metadata

Or the local police department either!

KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian government used telephone technology to pinpoint the locations of cellphones in use near clashes between riot police officers and protesters early on Tuesday, illustrating that techniques that can be used to target commercial information can serve law enforcement as well.

People near the fighting between riot police and protesters received a text message shortly after midnight saying “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

The phrasing echoed language in a new law making participation in a protest deemed violent a crime punishable by imprisonment.

New York Times

Sure, we're not living with the level of popular disturbance that Ukraine is -- but the rest of the article makes clear that the thugs seem as likely to be the authorities as the protesters.

It starts: time to sum up the Obama presidency?

David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, has scored yet another series of long interviews with the Prez. (Remnick previously wrote a 650 page Obama book.) This article is an early entry in a genre we can expect to drown in over the next few years: who was this man and what did his presidency amount to? We will have opinions, even more than we have today, perhaps some plaudits and certainly many complaints. I just spent a hour reading this Remnick offering and, against my better judgment, will take the bait and jump into the topic.

Here's the Prez's self-evaluation, aggressively promoted by his spokespersons and by the man himself:

“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. ...'

… at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right."

I like that; after all, whatever else I may be, my sensibility is that of an historian. I don't really believe he can accept that he, too, is contingent flotsam -- but we all are.

Elsewhere in the piece, I was taken aback to come across this theological morsel from Obama:

I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. …

I know Obama is some kind of Christian. Given his historical bent and intellectual turn, I guess I should not be surprised by that (Calvinist?) assertion. But for all the professed religiosity of the contemporary United States, there are very few of us for whom a recognition of "original sin" would be anything more than an affirmation of a tribal allegiance to some (pretty awful?) branch of the faith. We don't talk "sin" much. When we do, we usually mean sexual peccadilloes, not statements about our understanding of the nature of our species. But there Obama goes with this and in context it is no throwaway line.

What shocked me most in Remnick's interviews was this:

"I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. …"

What? He'd can't mean that. Runaway climate change portends a far greater crisis than Lincoln or F.D.R. ever imagined. Their adversaries and enemies were bad men; we now face planetary disruptions our social systems are causing and which we only begin to understand. Humans have always been able to be confident that however much we changed societies, the planet would not alter, at least not much or very rapidly. This is no longer true.

This sure looks like a crisis to me. The Prez is too sharp not to understand that. He may not believe he can do anything about it, but even if that is so, he still owes us the truth. Or so I think.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Uncovering and leashing the watchers, then and now

In Mrs. Shipley's Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists, Jeffrey Kahn, a law professor at SMU, tackles three tasks: narrating the history of US government controls on the people's travel, explicating the post 9/11 maze of "no fly" controls, and suggesting a more freedom-friendly legal regime than what frightened politicians and ever aggrandizing spook bureaucracies have wrought.

Looking back at US government watch lists, he has brought to light the regime of Mrs. Shipley. Her obscure office in the State Department decided which US citizens might be issued passports largely without any outside scrutiny from the 1930s through the 50s. Passports in that era were a novelty that only became essential for travel after World War I era controls somehow leached into the ensuing uneasy European "peace." Once the very idea of regulating individual's travel had emerged amid wartime fears, a government office took upon itself to decide which citizens might harm US interests by going abroad freely. Remembered victims include playwright Arthur Miller and the Communist singer Paul Robeson who were both denied passports, but there were thousands who found themselves so restricted, mostly anonymously.

Ruth Shipley was not a politician or even a political appointee. She was a civil servant who rose from the ranks of World War I era file clerks to become a force in Washington whom presidents praised and to whom senators paid obeisance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called her "a wonderful ogre," which he intended as a great compliment. …Mrs. Shipley controlled travel by issuing, or not, what became a license for their travel: a passport. It was her job to decide who could go where, for how long, and under what conditions. On the day she retired, Mrs. Shipley's office had amassed files on twelve million people. …

As the anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s receded, a series of legal decisions curtailed the arbitrary power of Mrs. Shipley's office; several of these were written by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who

in 1959, was obliged to write to Deputy Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy seeking his "personal consideration and if necessary to discuss with Secretary [of State] Herter and President Eisenhower" the Department's decision not to validate his passport for travel to China.

Kahn describes the contemporary watch list system -- the Terrorist Screening Center, the Terrorist Screening Database, and their offshoots -- as less personal and even less penetrable than Mrs. Shipley's regime. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, officials charged with "security," felt exposed as failures and were determined never to let any danger slip past them again. All their incentives encouraged them to expand controls like a cancer.

After the information-sharing mistakes revealed by 9/11, there was considerable zeal to err on the side of overinclusion. Even as late as 2005, Justice Department auditors reported that the then-director of the TSC, Donna Bucella, told them that "to err on the side of caution, individuals with any degree of a terrorism nexus were included" on the consolidated watch list so long as minimum identifying data were available. … in late 2009, the Terrorist Screening Database contained the names of approximately 400,000 people.

The mushrooming lists quickly left the narrow regime of preventing threats to commercial flights and became an instrument of more general coercion. The various security agencies have taken advantage of their ability to prevent travel in order to bring pressure on, mostly Muslim, citizens they wished to investigate or recruit as spies among their communities. (I've chronicled the case of Air Force vet Saadiq Long and his is by no means the only such instance.)

Kahn concludes:

[The] shift from corporeal form to digital avatar accomplished a neat trick, even if those who created the new system did not realize just who they had regenerated. There is no single Mrs. Shipley anymore. Her power was certainly not transferred to the singular discretion of the Director of the Terrorist Screening Center. But Mrs. Shipley's spirit did not entirely disappear. It has been diffused into the databases and computers of scores of analysts working in a systematic, multilevel process.

This makes decision making appear scientific, rigorous, and technologically sophisticated. Data points are parsed and assessed at different stages according to set criteria by dedicated professionals in the "watchlistiing community." The involvement of multiple agencIes with a stake in the results would seem to prevent any single person from amassing the power Mrs. Shipley did. What could be more objective and dispassionate?

… The new system makes it much harder to identify just who is responsible for the final decision to ground a citizen. …Officials in both eras have emphasized the careful vetting and professional judgment used in their departments. But the answer boils down to the same two words: trust us.

Ah yes: "trust us" -- there's President Obama's mantra in response to Edward Snowden's documentation of the NSA's vacuuming collection of our lives; we'll give you cosmetic reforms, we'll study it, but trust us. If the history is to believed, trust in authorities is a mistake unless those authorities are also forced to explain and verify, even when they don't want to.

Kahn goes on to propose that an unrestricted right to travel without government permission should be considered a basic entitlement of citizenship in a democratic state, subject to the strictest scrutiny before officials can use their power to infringe on it. I don't know whether his legal arguments have any future. The Ibrahim case is the latest instance in a string of court decisions that seem to point to a judicial willingness to put some limits on the spooks -- and to the courts' inability to get much more of a grip on the bureaucracy than individuals enjoy.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: red, gold and ready to cheer

If I'd been carrying a camera today, I'd have been able to demonstrate here that every other person in San Francisco seems to be wearing 49ers paraphernalia ahead of Sunday's NFC championship game.
But this wasn't one of my days conducive to photography, so I'll settle for some of the dozens of images of 49er fandom that I've collected in the last year of walking the city's precincts.
Our enthusiasm is pugnacious.

Flags are flying.

 The iconic 49er rides on a fire truck.

This is a public bus, but today I saw one of the private Google buses displaying the same slogan. Everyone's in on the act.

If our gladiators prevail on Sunday, this will be only a prelude. Go 49ers!

Friday, January 17, 2014

A little bit of vindication for victim of no fly list

TechDirt has the story.

We've written a few times about the troubling case of Rahinah Ibrahim, a PhD. student at Stanford who was wrongfully placed on the "no fly" list because (it appears) some clueless law enforcement officials mixed up the names of a networking group of professional Muslims in Malaysia who had returned from work or study in the US and Europe (which she was a part of) and a very, very different terrorist organization.

While she had received something of an apology for initially not being allowed to fly to Malaysia (and then allowed to fly), it appeared that her name was then placed on the no fly list, preventing her from ever returning. She was later blocked from even flying back to the US for her lawsuit against the government.

The ruling issued [Tuesday], and we'd love to tell you what's in it... except for the fact that it's sealed. Judge William Alsup has stated that he believes that the entire order should be made public, but that the US government is fighting that. So, for now, the order is under seal until April 15, while Homeland Security is supposed to agree to what it will allow to be released in a redacted version.

However, in the meantime, Judge Alsup has released a "public notice and summary" of the findings of fact -- basically revealing what he can of the order. Many of the important details are still missing, but it certainly sounds like Ibrahim has mostly succeeded in the case. Alsup notes that "some but not all of the relief" sought by Ibrahim has been granted. And this includes having her name scrubbed from the no fly list. ...

... All in all, it appears that Ibrahim has mostly prevailed here, but the details could be rather important. And, it also appears that even with all of this, the court may be quite limited in how much it can force the government to take someone who has been falsely placed on the no fly list, off of it. Hopefully, the full decision will provide greater clarity.

I assume the government will appeal. And I doubt they'll ever let Ibrahim into the country. It seems to be more important to our spooks to keep us guessing about how they operate than it is to ensure that we've still got a country worth securing.

Meanwhile a Malaysian newspaper reports Dr. Ibrahim's pride in the ruling:

"It's been too long. I don't want innocent people to undergo what I had gone through," the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) don told The Star Online of the nine-year legal battle.

... Asked if she was satisfied with the ruling, the 48-year-old Prof Rahinah replied in the affirmative, and hoped it could assist other innocent persons facing similar challenges.

"I pray that it can help them prevail," she added.

For more from this blog about the no fly list (61 posts so far), click here.

Friday cat blogging

Morty was so enthusiastic he let me film him.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Message from an Xmas tree

I'm not sure that's what a discarded tree would say if it could speak, but someone wants us to think about it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: Ford goes light weight

If, like me, you've watched a lot of football on TV lately, you've probably seen this ad for the Ford F-150. There can be no doubt it is a butch ad -- addressed to the brotherhood of working men who get dirty every day and shower after work instead of before, who need to drive a truck as strong and tough as they are, who yearn to show the other guys they deserve to be in the tribe.

Subjected to a heavy dose of this pitch, I found it fascinating to learn that Ford has decided that in order to preserve its F-150 stud vehicle's market share, the truck needs to become more fuel efficient. And that in order to accomplish this feat, the company is going to make new models of the truck 700 pounds lighter by replacing its steel body with aluminum. Only, according to reporter Craig Trudell, the automaker doesn't much want to advertise this innovative break with automotive tradition.

The buzz entering the Detroit auto show that began today was that Ford Motor Co. would deliver one of the event’s most important introductions, an F-150 destined to be the first high-production vehicle with an aluminum body.

While Ford didn’t disappoint, its official presentation was almost absent any mention of the word “aluminum.” In prepared remarks as a series of new F-150s burst through paper walls onto the floor of Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Ford executives used “tough” to describe their newest pickup at least eight times. Raj Nair, the automaker’s product chief, underscored that the new vehicle’s frame is made of steel -- stronger, he said, than the steel the company’s competitors use in their heavy-duty models.

Only after that was the word aluminum uttered, and those in the stands heard it once.

I think what's going on here is representative of how this country will go about coming to grips with climate change. Established institutions -- the automakers, insurers of property, even utilities -- have begun to grasp that their future success is going to depend on adaptation to a changing climate. They aren't going to want talk about this, to engage in the ideological battle over global warming. But the more functional ones will take incremental measures to ensure their own survival. They'll evolve.

These measures probably aren't enough. The changes human societies have set in motion are too vast to be met by the smarter elements in an anarchic market. But all of us need to be flexible enough to look at where we might find allies in the climate crisis in unusual places. This challenge needs everyone's best energies.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Not again!

An awful lot of Congresscritters think dragging the United States into another Middle East war would be just yummy. Or so their attempt to prevent meaningful talks with Iran about reducing tensions would suggest. WarTimes explains succinctly:
According to the latest count from MoveOn, pro-war senators are just eight co-sponsors shy of having enough votes to override a promised presidential veto of their dangerous new Iran sanctions legislation. If that bill becomes law -- perhaps even if it passes Congress without enough votes to over-ride a veto -- it will torpedo the delicate negotiations between the U.S. and Iran.
Fortunately, the Obama administration seems rather proud of its cautious initiative in the direction of peace. And it is pushing back against the war hawks.
"It's not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran's nuclear program to proceed," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
There's little doubt that the people of the United States have had enough of faraway wars for obscure purposes that do nothing for our well-being and security. War opponents are not just coastal liberals. Check out this from Oklahoma City's Red Dirt Report:
Members of Americans Against the Next War (AANW) in downtown Oklahoma City urge their Senators Coburn and Imhofe not to push for Iran sanctions while talks continue. Liz Burleson photo.
Senators from both parties need to hear from their constituents. Here's a handy petition.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Questioning the Panoticon

Revelations via Edward Snowden about the NSA's practice of vacuuming up every smidgen of data about everyone from the internet continue to inspire efforts to envision the contours of our Panopticon society. The Panopticon was a design for an institution, a prison, imagined by the 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Such an edifice would allow a central observer to see all the inmates at all times, if that observer chose to look at any particular one. Guess we've wandered inside such a thing, at least those of us who inhabit the web.

Steven Levy has long chronicled the development of the tech industry. In the 80s he introduced a general audience to the existence of "hackers"; more recently he offered a journalistic window into Google. This month he has published an intriguing article in Wired titled How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet. The whole is worth reading. Here are some bits of Levy's well-sourced story.

Some companies seemed perfectly comfortable turning over information about their customer bases to the NSA. …Technology companies are another matter. It’s almost a cliché when tech CEOs claim that without the trust of their users, they would have no business. They depend on customers’ willingness to share information….

“At first we were in an arms race with sophisticated criminals,” says Eric Grosse, Google’s head of security. “Then we found ourselves in an arms race with certain nation-state actors [with a reputation for cyberattacks]. And now we’re in an arms race with the best nation-state actors.” Primarily, the US government....

... For years, companies from espionage-happy countries like China have been spurned by overseas buyers who didn’t trust their products. Now it’s America’s turn. …

Levy is a gentle observer, both of the tech companies who are his homies (and his bread and butter) and of the spooks who we've learned infest the same turf. He finds them very similar -- certain that they work from good purposes and uncomprehending that outsiders might question their reach or motives. Both kinds come across as a terrible mix of innocent and dangerous. Perhaps the NSA revelations have killed off any lingering generalized innocence about digital technology being inherently a force for freedom.
Thomas E. Ricks has been a military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The US war machine is his subject and at least some of its members respect his reporting. So when he writes a blog post titled The more I listen to American intelligence officials, the more I edge toward Snowden, he's not some radical blowing smoke.

I've been really ambivalent about Edward Snowden, especially since he landed in Russia. … Yet I have been struck that everyone under the age of 30 I've asked thinks he's a hero.

… It is possible that Snowden did the right thing but in the wrong way. Indeed, he may have helped the United States but committed a crime in doing so. Yet that begs the question: What would have been the right way? Especially given the reckless disregard for the law shown by American national security officials over the last decade, he was right to be wary of going the civil disobedience route. We've seen the killing of American citizens held to be "enemy combatants," and intelligence officials certainly talk about Snowden as an enemy who has inflicted severe damage on their operations. Add two and two and you get a secret execution warrant for one Edward Snowden. Is that speculative? Absolutely. Ridiculous? Not if you have been paying attention to the erosion of boundaries (between civilian and military, war and peace, public and private, and most especially the militarization of intelligence operations).

… until there is more accountability for the crimes committed by U.S. intelligence officials over the last 10 years, I am not inclined to let secret policemen and spies be the moral arbiters of our society or the interpreters of our constitutional rights -- in fact, I think the burden is on them, not on me.

Again, the whole is worth reading.

When people who have been at home inside the circles of the great start asking real questions, be they reporters or tech executives, there may be room for those of us who have always been outside to move the colossus a smidgen. I hope so.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Anniversary highlights US shame

Twelve years ago on January 11, 2002, the United States government opened a prison camp at the land it occupies in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay. The prison's purpose, from the beginning, was to be a holding area beyond the reach of either national or international law.

The government's effort to escape the constraints of law was wrong in the panicked days immediately after 9/11; that our gulag remains open 12 years later is simply evil.

There are still more than 160 men held at by the United States at Guantanamo. The majority have been "cleared for release" -- many for several years. But still they remain incarcerated while the Obama administration dithers. At various times over the last year, over 100 have been on hunger strike, willing to die if that is the only way achieve freedom. The U.S. military force feeds prisoners and, of late, has begun to refuse to disclose whether the hunger strike continues. The purpose of Guantanamo has always been to disappear the inmates at the pleasure of their captors; that vile purpose continues.

Shaker Aamer is the last remaining prisoner with close ties to the United Kingdom. Though he was born in Saudi Arabia, he was a legal British resident. While working for an Islamic charity in Afghanistan in 2001, he was captured by Afghans and sold to US forces as a suspicious Arab. The British legal group Reprieve reports what happened to him in a US prison near Kabul.

Forced to stay awake for nine days straight and denied food, he dropped 60 pounds in weight. US personnel would dump freezing water on him. This treatment, combined with the bitter Afghan winter, caused Shaker’s feet to become frostbitten. He was chained for hours in positions that made movement unbearable, and his swollen, blackened feet were beaten. He was refused the painkillers he begged for.

Shaker began to say whatever the US wanted, whether it was true or not. Satisfied with confessions made by a man desperate to end his torture, the US military transferred Shaker to Guantánamo Bay in February 2002. Despite the hardships he has endured, Shaker remains the kind and supportive man he was when he was captured, with a reputation for looking out for his fellow prisoners.

When the military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying, Shaker initiated the first hunger strike at Guantánamo. …

Although Aamer has been cleared for release under both the Bush and Obama administrations, he remains in the prison, on hunger strike. Last week the Guardian published a letter from Aamer:

The language that they use here at Guantánamo reflects how they treat us prisoners. Just the other day, they referred to me as a "package" when they moved me from my cell. This is nothing new. I have been a package for 12 years now. I am a package when en route to Camp Echo, the solitary confinement wing. I am a package en route to a legal call. "The package has been picked up … the package has been delivered."

It is not enough that we are called packages. At best, we are numbers. I worry that when I come home that my children will call for "Daddy", and I will sit unmoving. I am 239. I even refer to myself as 239 these days. I am not sure when I will ever be anything else. It is much easier to deny human rights to those who are not deemed to be "human".

I have been reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) so I could mark it with the violations the US government commits against us in this facility at Guantánamo Bay. I have been studying each article and on virtually every occasion I have noted how the US military is doing the opposite. …

Code Pink shared a further statement from Aamer on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of our gulag.

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the establishment of Guantánamo Bay. It has been a blot on the reputation of America, and will remain that until, first, it is closed, and second, lessons are learned from it that can help prevent any repetition in the decades to come.

It will soon be 12 years that I have been in Guantánamo. I arrived on the day my youngest child Faris was born (February 14th, 2002). Even then, I had already spent some two months in US captivity, undergoing terrible mistreatment. Those are twelve years that are lost to me forever.

What I have missed most has been the opportunity to do my part to fill up my four children’s reservoir of love. The early years of a child’s life is a parent’s best chance to show them what love is, before they become more distant with approaching adulthood. Losing this, my opportunity and obligation, is my greatest regret.

However, we must look forward, rather than backward. …

I must say one thing to people out there about January 11: My biggest fear is that someone will do something stupid on the anniversary. When anyone does something wrong on the outside, we on the inside have to pay the price for it. When there was that incident in Yemen, the Americans banned the Yemenis from going home – even though it had nothing to do with the Yemenis here in Guantánamo Bay. I am grateful to those who support us. But if anyone wants to demonstrate on our behalf against the black stain that is Guantánamo, please do it in good faith and good humour, and above all practice no violence.

As a British resident, it is not surprising that Aamer speaks fluent English. I wonder what others in Gitmo would say?

The foul atrocity against the rule of law that is Guantanamo should never have begun and must end.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A bishop: famous and notorious

A San Francisco service marking the passing of the Rt. Rev. Otis Charles takes place today. After he retired as the Episcopal bishop of Utah, Charles revealed in 1993 that he had long known he was gay, even though he'd been married to a woman for 42 years and fathered five children. He moved to San Francisco and set about exploring what his long hidden orientation meant. For several years he was part of the parish congregation where I worship, St. John the Evangelist. I didn't know the Bishop well, but for all his past accomplishment and ongoing fame (and notoriety) as "that gay Bishop," it was obvious he was living an uneasy passage in a long life.

Bishop Otis and his partner Felipe Sanchez-Paris on their way to be arrested after a California court upheld the Prop. 8 ban on same-sex marriages.
Eventually he met and married Felipe Sanchez-Paris; together they struggled publicly and vigorously for full inclusion of all -- including gays -- in the life of the church as well as for immigration reforms for all migrants. Their delight in each other and their commitment to their work for justice was inspiring. Felipe died last July; Otis followed him in December.

The Salt Lake Tribune ran a nice obituary.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday cat blogging: scientific observations for cat lovers

John Bradshaw is a British anthrozoologist who likes cats. Hence Cat Sense: How the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet. He worries that domestic cats are asked to thrive in an environment that we urban humans create, an environment that is at odds with the survival instincts evolution has bred into them.
The transformation of the cat from resident exterminator to companion cohabiter is both recent and rapid, and -- especially from the cat’s perspective -- evidently incomplete. Today’s owners demand a different set of qualities from their cats than would have been the norm even a century ago. … Most owners would prefer that their cats did not kill cute little birds and mice … Their independence, the quality that makes cats the ideal low-maintenance pet, probably stems from their solitary origins, but it has left them poorly equipped to cope with many owners’ assumptions that they should be as adaptable as dogs. …
Not being a British wildlife-enthusiast (now there's an intense human sub-species!) nor lived with an outdoor cat in the last 20 years, many of Bradshaw's prime concerns are not mine. The house-cats I've known have all had individual personalities and quirks, but seemed to live lives with us that were more or less satisfying to them. Nonetheless, I found many of Bradshaw's observations fascinating. Here's a sample:
Domestication appears to have subtly modified the sound of the eat's meow. … domestication has enhanced cats' ability to learn how to use their meow, but may have also altered its basic sound.

Owners often say that they know what their cats want from the tone of their meow. However, when scientists recorded meows from twelve cats and then asked owners to guess the circumstances under which the meow had been uttered, few guessed correctly. Angry meows had a characteristic tone, as did affectionate meows, but meows requesting food, asking for a door to be opened, and appealing for help were not identifiable as such, even though they made sense to each eat's owner in the context in which they were uttered. Therefore, once cats have learned that their owners respond to meows, many likely develop a repertoire of different meows that, by trial and error, they learn are effective in specific circumstances. How this unfolds will depend on which meows get rewarded by the owner, through achieving what the cat wants -- a bowl of food, a rub on the head, opening a door. Each cat and its owner gradually develop an individual "language" that they both understand, but that is not shared by other cats or other owners. …

Cats demonstrate great flexibility in how they communicate with us, which rather contradicts their reputation for aloofness. Cats come to realize that human beings do not always pay attention to them, and so often need to be alerted with a meow. They learn that purring has a calming effect on most of us, as it did on their mothers when they were kittens. They learn that we like to communicate our affection for them through stroking, which fortuitously mimics the grooming and rubbing rituals in which friendly cats indulge with one another. They may even learn, through our lack of reaction, that we are oblivious to the delicate odor marks that they leave behind on our furniture and even our legs. …

Owners who expect long, intense interactions with their cat are frequently disappointed. Unlike most dogs, cats are not always ready to chat, often preferring to choose a moment that suits them. Cats are also nervous of any indication of a threat, however imaginary that might be; as such, many do not like being stared at, staring often being an indicator of impending aggression if it comes from another cat. The most satisfying exchanges between cat and owner are often those that the cat chooses to initiate, rather than those in which the owner approaches the cat, which may regard such uninvited advances with suspicion.

An affectionate relationship with people is not most cats' main reason for living. Our cats' behavior shows us that they are still trying to balance their evolutionary legacy as hunters with their acquired role as companions.
Morty doubts any human knows anything about him.