Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Government Isn’t Business

March 27, 2017

Back in the day, Bill Clinton and Al Gore set out to redefine government in the mould of modern business. The idea was that government would be more efficient if it worked more like a business. There were some good ideas here, but the basic concept failed, and not just because the follow-on governments of the Party of Business rejected the ideas (because they were thought up by Democrats), but because the basic concept is wrong. The practice of government is not like business, any more than the practice of medicine is. Businesses have customers, and seek to extract maximum profits from those customers. Government has citizens, and seeks to promote the common welfare. In business, the bottom 20% of your customers are the ones you shed. In government, the bottom 20% of your citizens are the ones who need your help the most.

This difference in basic motivation results in widely differing approaches to, among other things, decision-making and negotiations. In his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump talks about showing his opponent the down-side of not accepting the deal. When working with the city planning people in New York city, he would ask for exceptions to existing regulations — because successful real estate development in the city is based on managing exceptions — and show the planners the ugly buildings he could build if he stuck to the code. BTW, the same year I read TAotD I read an autobiography of a different NYC real estate developer (don’t remember the author) who said that he had never had to ask for a exception. In the AHCA negotiations with the House Freedom Caucus, he essentially demanded agreement, with the threat that if they didn’t support him, ACA would remain the law of the land. We saw how that worked out.

Now, Trump wants to follow in the footsteps of Clinton and Gore, to make government more efficient, more like business. He has selected Jared, I am not a nepotist, Kushner to head up a SWAT team that will make government more efficient. In addition to not knowing what a SWAT team does, what he doesn’t understand is the fact that the Founding Fathers didn’t want efficient government. They wanted government that was difficult to suborn, that was structurally incapable of fostering a dictator.

Pick your battles

February 13, 2017

A few seasons ago, there was a short format (7min) anime titled Tonari No Seki-kun (My Neighbor Seki-kun). It was about a girl (Yokoi) who sits next to Seki-kun in class and watches all the madcap antics he gets up to in the back row. In the first episode, he builds a complex falling-dominoes layout on his desk, complete with stairs and crossovers. In the second episode, he draws a chessboard on his desk and plays shogi — Japanese chess — Game of Thrones style, complete with beheadings and regicides. The pattern of each episode is the same: Yokoi tries to pay attention to the teacher, but gets drawn in by the outrageous things Seki-kun is doing, ending up as a participant, or even an accomplice. When she tries to stop him, it’s her frantic actions that get disciplined by the teacher. There’s a political lesson to be learned from all this, given that the US has just elected a Seki-kun as our President.


I have to state at the start, for those who may be unclear on the concept, that our President is not an anime character. For one thing, Seki-kun carries out his little projects without disrupting the classroom, whereas Trump-kun is trying to disrupt things, to stir the pot, to keep his opponents — everyone who isn’t him — off balance. What is the best response to this? Spoiler: don’t be Yokoi.

Here’s a selection of some of the outrages Trump has committed in his first weeks in office. Threatening to destroy the career of a Texas state representative who opposes asset forfeiture. Attacking the “so-called judge” who opposed his immigration ban. Nominating as Ambassador to Austria some businessman whose prime qualification seems to be that he’s a “Sound of Music” fan. And in general, acting in such a way that even members of his staff are alarmed.

Any of these things would be fatal to the administration of a real politician, and I’m sure you can think of another half-dozen or so. But Trump don’t care. As someone said about one of my former bosses, “he does for fun the kinds of things other people get ulcers from doing.” The key to dealing with Trump is to not sweat the small stuff.

Yes, he needs to be called out for unacceptable behavior, but then leave the shouting and the tweet-storming and the pearls-clutching to the talk show hosts and other trained professionals. Don’t end up in an adrenalin coma. For one thing, it won’t accomplish anything. For another, it will only be more red meat for his base “lookit them liberals running around like headless chickens!

Instead, put your effort in those things that will return the most gain. Opposing the immigration ban. Opposing Repeal and Replace for the ACA. Opposing Sessions as Attorney General.

That last is a good example. The Attorney General is in a position to destroy respect for law and order in this country. Who holds that office is arguably much more important than who the Secretary of Education is. Forcing a tie on Sessions, and forcing Pence to own the tie-breaking vote, is much more important down the road than a similar vote on DeVos.




Three week hiatus

January 2, 2017

Sortof. For the next three weeks I’m not going to read or write about anything political. Why? Because it will pretty much be a waste of time and electrons.

Look, we know the Trump regime will be bad, but we have no way of knowing how bad. To the extent that he has plans, or maybe primal urges and proclivities, those plans will, as they say, not survive contact with the enemy. We all have a pretty good idea of what Democrat and Republican politicians want, and we have a fuzzier idea of what Liberal and Conservative Americans want. Trump is going to have to operate within that framework. We should all work to strengthen that framework, but that is something we should have been doing all along.

As for the details, until he actually assumes the toga and begins doing, or trying to do, things, we can only guess. The newsies don’t know, his Cabinet (whoever they turn out to be) doesn’t know; hell, Trump doesn’t know, and can’t know. Not at this point.

But there is a 24/7 news hole that has to be filled, and despite their lack of knowledge, the newsies and the bloggers and the tweets will have to fill it — with something. Anything you read between now and the Inauguration (maybe between now and the State of the Union) will be pure speculation and click-bait. Save your adrenalin for when you’ll really need it.

Go eat some oatmeal. Go watch some anime.

Trump and Intelligence

December 18, 2016

As a career Intelligence professional (somewhat dated, I’ve been out of the business longer than I was in the business), I’m finding Trump’s relationship with the Intelligence Community very interesting right now. He has deprecated their contributions and rejected the usefulness of their efforts. Many people have said that this is just one more example of his stupidity. I don’t think so. At least, not totally. I think what we are seeing is a good example of what might be called operator bias.

Operators are the people who get things done. It’s the operators in an organization who bring life to its reason for being. In the military, they are the war fighters, the ship drivers, and blue four. In business, they are the CEOs and COOs. Their job is to accomplish the mission, fly the frag, keep the doors open. They chafe at anything that might limit their ability to do this, no matter the firmness and reality of those limits. They are the ones who say never tell me the odds. The ones who say think like a manager rather than an engineer.

Trump is 100% a businessman, an operator. He’s always looking to apply his art to another deal. Anything that gets in the way of that deal is an obstacle, not an ally. And if it persists, it’s an enemy. Trump is hot on the deal of a lifetime, and he’s due to close on it on January 20th. So, how is he going to act when the Intelligence Community tries to queer the deal, as he sees it? He’ll do what any businessman does when faced with an inconvenient fact. He’ll belittle it, downplay it, distract you from thinking about it. He’ll ridicule the source. If forced, he might offer some sort of cosmetic band-aid.

“That high voltage line runs right through the back yard of that house we’re looking at.”
I haven’t seen any two-headed cats wandering around.

“That used car you’re selling seems to be leaking oil.”
They do that when they’re brought in from a cold lot. It will seal right up once you run it.”

“I like this used car you’re selling, but it’s got 150,000 miles on it.”
You shouldn’t be obsessed with mileage.”

Afterwards, a thinking-ahead businessman might take action to — well, not to fix the problem, but to keep it from being a problem for him by suppressing further news of it. To the extent he can, he might retaliate against those who might keep raising the issue.

But it’s not the job of Intelligence to suppress an issue. It’s not part of our ethos, it’s not in our DNA. An Intelligence analyst lives and breaths the concept of Timely Truth, Well Told. In Intelligence, the cardinal sin is to know something and not tell the operators who need to know it. Like logisticians, analysts deal only in facts, but must work for men who merchant in theories. Intelligence, as they say, is our last defense against wishful thinking.

The Intelligence Community is actually pretty good about giving the President what he wants in the format he wants it in, from Reagan’s briefing book to Obama’s briefing Blackberry. If Trump wants his intel in 140-character bites, that’s what he’ll get.

The problem, as I see it, is that it doesn’t matter what the package looks like, Trump isn’t buying the product. He talks to his advisors, and he talks to foreign leaders and maybe he reads the New York Times (because that’s what New Yorkers do, even if they disagree with it) and then he heads off to make deals, and woe betide any Intelligence agency that gets in the way of the deal. And when something goes horribly wrong, as it well might, he’ll deny that it happened, deny that it happened that way, deny that it’s wrong, deny that it’s horribly wrong, and then — he’ll blame Intelligence.

Russia and the American election

December 13, 2016

I don’t know.

Intelligence analysts hate politics. Intelligence managers endure them. Intelligence executives exploit them. Today’s round of politicised Intelligence is about Russian attempts to influence the US election in support of Trump. On the one hand, you have CIA, an arrogant, but usually competent, agency mostly concerned with human source Intelligence, not computers, saying there’s a direct path back to Russian hackers (although not everyone agrees). On the other hand, you have the FBI, as incompetent a group of clowns as ever crawled out of a car, with special lack of smarts where computers are concerned, saying that they’re not so sure. Who we haven’t heard from yet is NSA, the agency charged with knowing about this kind of thing. On the other, other hand, Congress has gotten into the act, in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion.

I agree with Pat Lang, that there’s no way the FBI would be in cahoots with the Russians over this. However, given that the Republican who is the current Director of the FBI already did his best to influence the election for Trump, there’s no reason to assume that a pro-Trump stance isn’t continuing to influence their actions.

The documents in the case are the DNC emails published by Wikileaks. One side says the Russians were feeding them to Wikileaks editor Julian Assange. Assange had to be in the sway of the Russians, or why else just publish the DNC emails when it was likely the RNC could have been hacked as well? The other side says it was an internal DNC defector, and that’s why there’s no RNC data.  My take on this is that the US declared war on Julian Assange in 2010 and forced him to live in the Ecuadorian embassy for the last four years. He is striking back with the best weapons at his disposal, under the not-unreasonable assumption that a Trump presidency is the most harmful thing he could do.

Bottom line: this is a particularly egregious case of DC leak and counter-leak. There are even those who say this is another example of “both sides do it”.

The people who most indignantly condemned Trump’s questioning of Obama’s birth certificate as a scurrilous scheme to delegitimize his presidency, now seek to delegitimize Trump’s presidency. — Pat Buchanon

This kind of statement, even if it was a throwaway line in an article on a different topic, reveals a blatant disregard for reality. Statements by US government officials charged with responsibility for the topic are not to be confounded with the ravings of talk radio jockeys.

Right now, we, the people, have no idea where the truth lies, and we won’t, unless there are Congressional hearings, or another Snowden.

Don’t give Trump all the credit

December 11, 2016

I’ve been reading the news, like the news junkie I am, and it’s all about Trump — Trump appointed him, Trump appointed her, Trump’s new policies will transform this, that, and the other government programs. Trump is a loose cannon. Trump is nothing like a true Republican. The GOP will rue the day they handed the reins to Trump. You would think that he’s already a dictator, rather than being only an incipient autocrat.

In reality, Trump represents the heart and soul of the Republican Party. He is appointing to cabinet positions the same kind of people that the Republicans have always wanted in those positions: rich businesspeople with opinions directly opposite those in previous Democratic administrations. Think of all the headlines “Trump appoints an opponent of X to head the X department”. This is not Trump going off the rails, this is Trump adhering to the deepest, darkest wishes of the GOP core.

Or take budget deficits, and stimulus packages, and the like. The Republicans are the party of fiscal responsibility and low deficits, right? Wrong! The Republicans are the party who say they are for fiscal responsibility and low deficits. But which of our modern Presidents drove up our debt as a percentage of GDP? Reagan. Bush. Also, Bush. Who drove them down? Carter. Clinton. Obama didn’t because deficit spending is what you need to get you out of a near-depression. The Republicans love deficit spending, as long as it’s on their terms, on their projects, and isn’t done by some uppity Democrat.

By attributing all these actions to Trump, the person, we miss Trump the personification of the new GOP. We give them the opportunity to plausibly deny his actions, come the next election cycle, and skate out from under the blame. “We voted for Trump, and Trump failed us” the voters will say. NO. You voted for the most Republican of all Republicans, and it was the Republicans who failed you. Republican.

Don’t let our fascination with the showman in front of the curtain obscure the truth of the matter. When the histories are written, when responsibility is properly assigned, the word Republican will go down as one of those words that, like Quisling, evokes a regime fraught with deceit and betrayal.


November 30, 2016

Herewith, a compilation on post-election/pre-inauguration discussions of Trump’s mindset.

Trump may have Narcissist Personality Disorder.

How to cope with NPD.

How to deal with Trump.

How to defend against the Trumpistas.

A somewhat longer piece on the same topic.

…and an alternative view.

So, is he a dictator?

Is Democracy doomed?

Mattis for SecDef

November 26, 2016

Military policy site War is Boring, has a generally favorable article on Trump’s consideration of retired Marine Corps general James Mattis for Secretary of Defense. However, their first sentence, quoting Mattis as saying that “it’s fun to shoot some people” removes the statement from it’s context and makes him seem like a natural for his nickname “Mad Dog”. Here’s what he actually said:

You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.

While that isn’t a picture of sweetness and light, it’s a lot more nuanced and motivated than the truncated version indicates, as other observers have testified.

And Mattis has already made news by telling Trump that he was against torture, because he found that a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers usually worked better when interrogating someone.

While I’m not certain I approve of a career military man as SecDef — I think that undermines the whole idea of civilian control — given the President we’re getting, and the possible choices he had, I think the appointment is a general plus.

Trump’s Nikki Haley Appointment

November 25, 2016

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Trump has named South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as his ambassador to the United Nations. The CSM says that this sends a message of inclusion, diversity, and reconciliation. I don’t think so.

Haley was a fierce Trump opponent during both the primaries and the election campaign itself. She is, as the article says, a strong woman and a strong governor, who fought hate and discrimination. None of her public positions would be approved of by Trump, none of Trump’s positions would be approved of by her. Trump is not known for rewarding opponents or the disloyal. So why would he appoint her to the UN?

Well, read that last paragraph again. She’s a strong GOP governor. She’s a strong woman, the face of the New South. She opposes Trump’s policies. If she accepts the UN job, she’s in a position that is none of these. Instead, she’s an employee. She’s Trump’s representative to an organization he despises, and her job will be to present his positions in the best way possible, parroting the party line. As ambassador to the UN, she’ll spend the next four years trying to defend indefensible positions and articulate inarticulate policies. As a governor, as a strong, effective southern governor, she’s in a position to build a launching pad to the Presidency. The GOP would love it if the first woman President were a Republican.

How can Trump prevent a Haley challenge in 2020? By kicking her upstairs to a powerless position.

The Election

November 22, 2016

So it’s been just two weeks since the event the Mary Beards of the 22d Century may well label the Fall of the Republic. After two centuries, the US has managed to elect its first proto-autocrat. Not a Hitler, nor even a Mussolini (who was reportedly well-versed in the writings of Socialist philosophers). Perhaps a Berlusconi. How did this happen? There are many theories out there, but almost all of them suffer from a too, too simplistic view of a complex systems problem.

The proposed reasons fall into three categories: (a) apolitical hatreds (racism, misogyny), (b) manipulated electorate (mainstream media, Facebook, voter apathy/suppression), and political discontent (class revolt, reaction to big government).

Some commenters emphasize simple racism — the choice between multiracial democracy and white supremacy. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie does this, despite admitting that not everyone is racist all the time.

T. R. Ramachandran, president of a web-presence software company, produced a pages long and well-researched tweetstorm analyzing the data on various causes. His conclusion was that it was primarily, not exclusively, a racist/sexist cause, with very little economic underpinning.

There are two kinds of manipulation theories — government and non-government. The idea of government manipulation is based on the fact that many states implemented various voter suppression laws, designed to make it hard for Democratic voters — the poor and minorities, mostly — to vote. I haven’t been able to find anything current on that conjecture, but I do note that overall turnout was not as low as first reported. In fact, 2016 may have equalled 2012 in percentage of eligibles voting, and Clinton won a solid majority of the popular vote, just not in the right states. The key question is, did it suppress enough votes in key states to make a difference? We won’t know that for some weeks yet.

The non-government side of the manipulation argument turns on the actions of the main-stream media (MSM) in covering click-inducing trivia at the expense of real issues, and in treating the actions of both candidates as equivalent — Clinton’s email problems getting far more time for far longer than Trump’s actions, actions (racist remarks, sexist remarks, failure to release tax records) that in past campaigns would have spelled political death.  It also includes the extremely lopsided coverage, that gave Trump almost $2 billion in air time, when he spent only $10 million on advertising.

Of course, were the bogus news sites and fake news stories circulated on Facebook. It can be argued that these were only echo chamber amplifiers, and that those who read and believed the stories had already made up their minds.

Then, too, I would personally include the decades-old smear campaign by the GOP against the Clintons. Many people said they disliked Hillary Clinton personally. To the extent that that is not a reaction to an ambitious woman (and I have personally seen this kind of reaction by women, against ambitious women in the workplace), I’d say it’s the result of the ongoing double standard in press coverage. Although he attributes it to other factors, Michael Moore has pointed to one result:

90,000 Michiganders voted for every office and every ballot proposal on both sides of the ballot — and refused to vote for president.” …and Clinton lost Michigan by 11,000 votes.

The final manipulation, of course, was the stab-in-the-back on-again-off-again announcements about the FBI non-investigation of Clinton’s emails by Director Comey in the final week of the campaign. Given that Comey was originally a Republican appointee, kept on to show bipartisan dedication to justice for all, it’s likely that his actions were a deliberate attempt to sabotage her campaign.

The political discontent argument, what one might call the peasant’s revolt, has supporters that range from Michael Moore (writing pre-election, and post-election), to Glenn Greenwald’s post-election essay in The Intercept and Joan Williams somewhat more thoughtful post-election essay in the Harvard Business Review, with some support from post-election press interviews. You could even factor in Allan Lichtman’s forecasts here.

The TLDR version of this is, the White Working Class is hurting, and has been hurting for decades and neither party has done anything about it. The Democratic Party has given up on blue collar workers as part of their base, and the GOP has given up on democracy in general. Finally, the WWC had enough, and voted to throw an electoral Molotov cocktail into the works. They weren’t voting so much for Trump as against the current system.

My view, as a General Systems Theory person is, All Of The Above.

The Peasant’s Revolt seems to be the heart of it. In 2008 and 2012 we voted for Obama because we wanted change, and we didn’t get it. Part of that is the obstructionist tactics of the GOP, they should only burn in Hell, who looked at a country that they had just plunged into what could very easily have become a second Great Depression and decided that their overwhelming priority, at whatever cost to the country, was to make Obama a one-term President. But part of the lack of change can be laid at the feet of the Democratic Party and Obama himself. After what the banks and Wall street did to destroy the economy and the lives and livelihoods of the middle and working class, there should have been lawsuits, there should have been criminal charges, there should have been people taken out and shot on the tarmac.

There was nothing. There wasn’t even much in the way of relief for those bilked out of their homes and life savings. Meanwhile, Obama was pressing for even more in the way of trade agreements which, rightly or wrongly, the WWC sees as a threat to their jobs. All Democrats were disappointed (OK, all Democrats who were not millionaires). And Clinton was seen as more of the same.

Meanwhile, on the periphery, you had the whites of the Old Confederacy voting GOP, because yes race and misogyny. Race because Clinton was going to be a female continuation of that man in the White House, who they saw as, well, uppity.

On the other hand, Ramachandran’s claim that economics wasn’t a factor because voters didn’t know what the candidates economic positions were doesn’t keep economics from intruding. Economics played a role because even the well-off WWC faced a bleak, uncertain future, and so did their children. People said that Trump would make things worse, and the response of the WWC was, how will we tell?

So what did the election process look like? In the beginning, there were two candidates who beat the populist drum and told the WWC that somebody finally cared — Sanders and Trump. Sanders (who really cared) had the bad luck to be up against possibly the best prepared and most qualified Presidential candidate of the modern era. Trump (who couldn’t care less) was up against a band of light-weights who got trampled because they were one-dimensional caricatures of what a GOP candidate might look like, and none of them were agents for change.

So, the message from the voters was, we want change, and if we can’t have change we can believe in, we want change that will scare the monied elites out of their greedy ways. It’s the electoral equivalent of burn, baby, burn, and it’s going to go on for four more years, unless he gets impeached before then. And the consequences will be incalculable.


Why I am voting for Hillary

November 6, 2016

A recent essay by (retired, disabled veteran) Jim Wright over on Stone Kettle Station resonates perfectly with my feelings. As I read them, his key points are that the GOP has abandoned all sense of humanity and true individual freedom and responsibility, has based its economic policies on grinding down the poor to serve the rich, and has thrown out diplomacy in its love for yet another war. This is all true, but it leaves out some issues.

He left out the fact that it was a Republican (elected by a politicized Supreme Court) who got us into the Iraq war, who perverted the Intelligence process, who spat on every professional standard I know (and if you want to swap that p for an h, I won’t argue).

It was a Republican who started us on the slippery slope to a surveillance state, who authorized torture of the innocent, and who doesn’t dare step out of the country for fear of being arrested as a war criminal.

He left out the fact that, in the face of a re-run of the Great Depression (brought on by Republican policies), the response of the GOP was to declare that their primary goal was to make Obama a one-term President. This is a naked admission that their driving objective is power, and they don’t care how they get it.

These things are also true, and combined with Wright’s arguments they make a strong case for not voting Republican.

But my vote, and I think, his, is not merely a vote against. It’s a vote for.

Hillary Clinton is a professional politician, and that’s a good thing. As a Democrat, she believes in the ability and duty of government to work to improve the lot of all the people, and not in the pursuit of power for its own sake. As a Clinton, she has survived a quarter century of accusations and innuendo. As a woman, she will bring a much-needed dose of serotonin to the office. All of those things make a vote for Hillary a no-brainer.

So, yeah, I’m voting for Hillary.


The Needy Ones

October 21, 2016

Rescue dogs are notoriously needy. Case in point is our black lab rescue. Her one goal in life is to be close to her human. When I sit down, my butt hasn’t hit the chair before she’s in my lap. Fortunately, she only weighs about twenty pounds. If I tell her to come, she can jump a three-foot fence from a standing start next to it. She doesn’t need attention or petting. She just wants contact.

You know who beats that for needy? Politicians.

A week ago I made one of the few political contributions I’ve made in my life. Balloon Juice, a collaborative website I follow, had posted a link to ActBlue, a website for donations to close-but-winnable political races. I live in a dead-red portion of an otherwise blue state, and the local Republican Congresswoman is well-nigh unbeatable. There is no place locally that my donation would make a difference at the margin, but the ActBlue website has 16 House and Senate races that Democrats might just win, and a few bucks might just help. So I donated. Ten dollars each. I was expecting that to put me on a number of e-mailing lists, but boy was I surprised.

Three hours later, I had my first message from one of the campaigns, begging for more money. A week later, as I was typing this, the 122d 123d begging email came in. They were running at about one every 90min, awake or asleep.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew this would happen. I still think I did the right thing. I still think it’s a worthy cause. I’d recommend that you follow the link above and make a contribution of your own. I have a bunch of emails that will convince you that your donation is urgently needed.

I’m just a little bemused at how needy the politicians are.


Sports, the military, freedom of speech, and social protest

October 13, 2016
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 1968

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 1968

My association with social protest at sporting events goes way back. In the mid-1960’s, runner Tommie Smith was my classmate at San Jose State. Half a century ago he was setting records right and left, and two years later, in 1968, he won gold at the Mexico City Olympics. His Black Power salute atop the medals platform was a way of protesting, and raising awareness of, the treatment of Blacks in the United States.

Almost fifty years later, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the National Anthem at football games, an action that soon spread even to high school sports. The reason is … the treatment of Blacks in the United States.

I can understand the NFL and the networks being embarrassed over this. I can even understand individuals disagreeing both with the position that Kaepernick represents, and his way of displaying it. The same thing happened to Smith, back in the day. What I can’t understand is those people who feel he is somehow being disrespectful of the US military.

Carlos Kaepernick and Erick Reid, 2016

Carlos Kaepernick and Erick Reid, 2016

Was he showing disrespect towards the United States of America? Yes. Certainly. That’s the whole point. He was saying that it does not deserve our respect because of the way it treats its citizens. Does that also mean disrespect for the military, as some have claimed? Because it’s a military honor guard that’s carrying the flag for the National Anthem? The same US military that paid pro sports millions of dollars for the publicity opportunity? Gimme a break.

If you ask those in the military, most of them get it. It’s called free speech and it’s one of the reasons that we in the military fought and fight for the USA. But if you only protect speech you agree with, then it’s not free speech at all. Justice Ginsburg understands this, even as she deplores his actions. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with Kaepernick’s actions, if you respect the USA, and you respect the military, then the only course of action for you is to follow Evelyn Beatrice Hall‘s summary of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Trim Tabs and the Towers: A 15 year retrospective

September 10, 2016

Fifteen years ago, the towers fell. Ten years later, I wrote this essay about the idea of trim tabs, how they work on airplanes, and how they work in organizations. Specifically, I wanted to talk about how the idea applied in the aftermath to 9/11. In the five years since, nothing much has changed. Nothing except the justification and realization of my fears. Jump to the end for my current opinions.

In the old days, airplanes were controlled by the movement of wing and tail surfaces, driven by what was essentially piano wire directly connected via pulleys to the pilot’s controls. It was like an extension of the pilot’s body, because it was a direct physical link: hand, stick, wire, ailerons. Since the controls were extensions of the pilot’s body, they were driven by the pilot’s muscles. In those days, flying was physically exhausting because there were no automated systems like autopilot, or even altitude-hold, and all inputs were physical. Flying a two-hour mission in bumpy weather was like spending two hours bulldogging steers.

As airplanes became bigger and faster, this became a problem. When you move the stick, you are forcing a slab of metal to move against the airstream created by your flight. Remember when the back windows of a car would open? Remember riding along with the window open and your hand stuck out like an airfoil? If you tilted it the least little bit, it would take off, and it took all your strength (or a certain dexterity) to get it back into position. That’s the problem pilots encountered before the invention of power assist on flight controls. Moving a big metal plate against a fast-flowing airstream took all your strength, and maybe required the help of a co-pilot. There was a limit on what was physically possible. Enter the trim tab.

The trim tab, more accurately the servo tab, was a small rudder built into the much larger real rudder. The idea is that you move the small rudder this way, the much larger rudder responds by turning that way, and the whole ship or airplane responds. The idea dates from WWI. A real trim tab is a more or less ‘set it and leave it’ item, that creates a certain continuing flight regime (for instance, to offset a heavy load in the tail of the aircraft), while a servo tab is a true continuous flight control. However, since the organizational applications were talked about (by Buckminster Fuller, for starters) as ‘trim tabs’, I’ll stick with that.

What does all this have to do with terrorism? Just this. A terrorist act is an attempt to be a trim tab. If the terrorist group plays their cards right, they can cause a reaction in the target government that causes a counter-reaction in the populace. The basic idea is that the target government will over-react, increase oppression, and drive the populace into the arms of the terrorists. Properly executed, a terrorist campaign will get the government to do the terrorists work for them That’s one reason why most nascent guerilla movements use terrorism as a tool. The trouble is, that scenario can only play out when it’s native terrorists promoting a domestic cause against an oppressive government (which doesn’t have to be a foreign power, but often is). It doesn’t work that way when the terrorists are foreign, or the populace doesn’t feel oppressed, or the government is one that reacts with Norwegian calm.

Since Al Qaida was facing a different problem, they had to have a different immediate goal. Al Qaida’s goal was to target the US populace and government in such a way as to cause the US to overreact, both internally and externally, and to bankrupt itself the way the USSR did in Afghanistan.

Our reaction has validated AQ’s view of the US as a blind giant, ignorantly flailing around in response to stimuli we don’t understand. A measured approach to 9/11 would be to fill in the hole and turn the problem over to the FBI and the Treasury Dept. The world was on our side on 9/12, and we could have gotten unbelievable levels of cooperation. A strongman approach would be to follow the measured approach, plus invade Afghanistan, beat up on the Taliban, and chase AQ into the hills. The world would still be on our side, but the countries of SW Asia would begin to feel threatened, and would begin hedging their bets. Domestically, we had 99% of the US Muslim population on our side — the remainder being the disaffected youth who, like DYs of any persuasion hate the man. A measured domestic approach would be to armor the cockpit doors on airliners so it was impossible for another 9/11 to happen, and increase our police contacts within the Muslim community.

Instead, we embarked upon a decade-long attack on domestic freedoms, we demonized the Muslims in the US, we engaged in two wars in exactly the wrong place, the outcome of neither will be of any benefit to us. Let me emphasize that. In another year or five, we will be substantially out of both IQ and AF, and those two countries will be in whatever state we leave them. If we could have gotten them into that state for free, if the genie in the lamp could have delivered today’s Iraq and tomorrow’s Afghanistan without it costing us a dollar or a life, we’d still be worse off than we were in 2001. The fact that it cost trillions of dollars, and more American lives than were lost in 9/11 is just a side-benefit for the terrorists. I think The Onion’s headline on this year’s media coverage is appropriate: our nation would rather think about 9/11 than anything from the subsequent ten years.

So, here is the unexpected (by us), emergent, trim-tab-induced result. We have bankrupted our country, morally, politically, financially, and militarily. We have trampled on the US Constitution and the rights of citizens. We have squandered our post-Cold-War international advantages. We did it by reacting in exactly the wrong way to the 9/11 trim tab event. The terrorists acted. The government reacted in a predictably inappropriate fashion. The country and the economy responded by flying into the ground like a hijacked airliner. I can’t say the terrorists have won, but I can say they are well ahead on points. You can say that, hey, we’re still here, and Bin-Laden is dead, and Al Qaida a scattered, hunted remnant. But no suicide bomber expects to live to see the fruits of their sacrifice. I’m sure that if we could reassemble OBL from the inside of whatever sharks he’s now inhabiting, he’d say yeah, it worked. It was worth it.

So, what has changed in the five years since I wrote those words? Not a lot, except that our knowledge of things has expanded. As predicted, we still have a presence (read Americans being killed) in Iraq and Afghanistan. As predicted, neither of those countries has a successful government. As not predicted, the instability spilled over into Syria, and now our supposed ally, Turkey, and our opportunistic opponent, Russia, are working together to prop up the Assad regime, and destroy our friends, the Kurds (read domino effect). Guantanamo is still an extra-judicial detention camp, with 60-some prisoners, 40 of whom are too dangerous to release (read, they hate us), but are infeasible to prosecute because of their treatment (read, tortured, which may have something to do with why they hate us).

Three years ago, Edward Snowden pulled back the drapes and let some sun shine in on what our government had been doing in the dark, behind our backs, in our computers. Now we know that not only has the US Intelligence Community been unleashed on its citizens, in ways that are manifestly unconstitutional — and other ways that probably would also be, if the Republicans didn’t have (until recently) a majority on the Supreme Court. Those intrusive techniques have trickled down to the local police, who have conducted their own unconstitutional operations, and lied to the judges about it (or didn’t bother to lie, because the judges didn’t care).

And speaking of police, they are now armed with the latest in military hardware, courtesy of the unending wars, and their interactions with the citizenry have taken on many aspects of an occupying force, making a mockery of serve and protect. And if anyone complains, well, do you want the terrorists to murder us in our beds?

Has America become a police state? Heavens, no. We are still among the freest countries of the world. Too bad about slipping from that The Freest position. Have we laid the foundations for becoming a police state? It’s too soon to tell, but we are certainly establishing a framework on which those foundations could be built. Many of the elements are slotting into place: a militarized police force, contemptuous of its citizens, a ubiquitous domestic spy system that runs all the way up to the central government, a complaisant judiciary at all levels — all that is needed is a coming to power of a political party more interested in power than governance, headed by a like-minded demagogue.

If it looks like the American ship of state has careened out of control, scraping from one reef to another, that’s a tribute to the effectiveness of trim tabs.

9/11, Trim Tab Day. Remember it.

Happy 4th

July 4, 2016

The Fourth of July seems to have become a holiday devoted to celebration of the military. We have parades, we have fly-bys, we have speeches honoring the brave men (and now, women) who are overseas, serving and defending our country. We’ve always had some of this, but in the past it was the military celebrating alongside the rest of America, not America celebrating the military. What has changed?

I think part of it has to do with the ending of the draft. It used to be that everyone had served, or knew someone who served. Today, not so much. While there’s still a large group of people who know someone in the Reserves or the Guard, the total is way down from the 50’s and 60’s. More to the point, people no longer feel threatened by the possibility of conscription, so they can afford to wast some pleasantries on some uniformed stranger who is going off to die in some dusty country. Plus, it’s cheap. Like inflated job titles in some underfunded Silicon Valley startup, we can give fancy lip-service to someone we don’t want to give a high salary or effective post-service medical care to.

In addition, it’s good corporate policy to be seen being patriotic, by including a “thank you for your service” in their employee practices, by offering servicemen and women half off, if they come in uniform, or by building a new MLB ballpark at Fort Bragg. It costs very little — smiles are free, nobody who’s been stuffed in a uniform all week wants to slag around in it on the weekend, and the Fort Bragg logo on one end of the sign can be balanced by the Chevy logo on the other.

As someone who has served overseas in one war (VietNam), one almost war (Korea) and one Cold War (Europe), I am mildly put off by all this “Thank you for your service” propaganda. If you want to thank us for our service, stop getting us into stupid wars.

The Anti-Snowden

May 22, 2016

UPDATE: And after you read this essay, read this report, on a now-former DoD Inspector Generals official who tried to support the whistleblower laws.

U.S. News and World Report has an interview with Geoffrey Stone, described as a

… member of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union [and] member of a special review group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

Stone exonerates the NSA of running amok, by pointing out that

Every one of the programs the NSA was running in foreign intelligence surveillance was approved by the House and Senate intelligence committees, White House, the attorney general and the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court. Every program was authorized and approved…. If there were extensive criticisms of the programs, the fault rests with the government entities that approved and authorized them.

I have always said that the problem doesn’t lie with NSA. The problem I have with this is that none of the groups Stone mentioned provided appropriate oversight. The Congressional intelligence committees are a bunch of know-nothings who are too busy trying to get re-elected to actually read any of the authorization documents. You can tell by looking at all the gasping and running around that was done after the disclosures. Maybe the committee chairs were witting, but the rest were complaisant and happy to remain in the dark. As for other possible sources of oversight, recent Attorneys General seem to think of themselves as aiders and abettors of whatever the President wants to do, and the FISA court is generally considered to be a rubber stamp and a joke.

Then, Stone puts his finger on the crux of the matter.

The risk is always there that some head of the NSA, or a J. Edgar Hoover or Nixon or LBJ would access those records for illegitimate reasons.

Exactly. We have secret laws, interpreted in secret ways, and approved in star chamber hearings. To that list of possible threats, we could add some future Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Donald Trump. This is how you start a democracy on the road to collapse — you institute bad policies for reasons of expediency, and you prevent those policies from being scrutinized by persons more concerned with good government than operational efficiency. Two or three Presidents later, you find those rules being used to attack political opponents.

About Snowden, Stone thinks he exposed too much.

I think if he had only disclosed the existence of the second 215 metadata program, then one might be able to make the case he did more good than harm because there were reforms adopted because of his disclosures

As for the rest of it

My involvement ended before all the consequences could be evaluated. I have no doubt folks in the government are quite confident of that (the subsequent damage). It’s quite logical.

So, he doesn’t know, but he thinks it hurt our collection activities. Except that when he gives examples, he admits that smart terrorists already assumed that NSA was listening, and so it would only be the dumb terrorists that would be caught. You know, like the ones who the FBI regularly entraps just in time for the next round of budget hearings.

Stone’s final take on Snowden:

I don’t doubt that Snowden was courageous and did what he did for what he thought were good reasons. But I think he was unduly arrogant, didn’t understand the limitations of his own knowledge and basically decided to usurp the authority of a democracy.

My personal opinion is that if it hadn’t been for the continuing drumbeat of revelations, from inside the US and overseas, the metadata revelations would have turned out to be another inside the Beltway, one-week-wonder, pushed off the front page by the latest round of political shenanigans, and that nothing would have been done.

Did Snowden’s revelations hurt the U.S. in its fight against terrorism? If there had been major damage, the agencies involved would have been trumpeting the news all over town. There’s been nothing. At least, nothing factual. There’s the periodic “it must have” and “it’s logical to assume”, but nothing that I have seen that is both substantial and concrete. And for what small impacts there have been, think of it as collateral damage, like you get from a drone strike.

As for usurping the authority of a democracy, sorry Mr. Stone, democracy had already been usurped by the very agents you describe in your first quote, above. And the defense that Snowden proposes isn’t the defense that you accuse him of inventing. It’s not “You can violate law if you have good enough reason to do it.”, it is “several agencies of the US government were committing acts that are both criminal and unconstitutional, and the purported methods of reporting them were closed to me.” And as an aside, the same laws that prohibit Snowden’s proposed defense include prohibiting that defense for revealing the 215 metadata program, so your argument is inconsistent.

So, my takeaway on all this? Yes, NSA, as usual, was acting within the constraints of law, as specified and approved by a whole range of government agencies. In doing so, they were the victims of an ongoing scam in much the same way that CIA interrogators were misled by John Yu’s DoJ opinions on torture. Edward Snowden, believing in both the Constitution and the new American motto for living “If you see something, say something”, essentially sacrificed his life to reveal the crimes. Could he have done it in a way that put fewer US programs at risk? Possibly. Could he have done it in a way that was just as effective but less sensational? Probably not.

UPDATE: And if you don’t believe me, here’s the story of a now-former DoD Inspector General official who tried to support the whistleblower laws.

Steve Balmer shows us why we can’t trust Trump

March 11, 2016

The business of America is business. The sole function of a business is to maximize shareholder value. A good CEO will do whatever it takes for his company to make a profit.*

Fifteen years ago Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer said that Linux is a cancer. Last week, he said that he was glad to see MS releasing SQLServer for Linux, and shrugged off his earlier statements because the Linux threat was now “in the rearview mirror”. He also said: “The company made a ton of money by fighting that battle very well… It’s been incredibly important to the company’s revenue stream.” So, he lied. And he lied to make money, regardless of the impact on the sharing economy.

Not only did Microsoft continuously misrepresent Linux and the GPL in their quest for a revenue stream, they also funded bogus lawsuits, that drag on to this day.

What does that have to do with Trump? Just this. He and Balmer are cut from the same cloth, the kind of businessmen who will say whatever it takes to make the sale, close the deal. His position on a topic can change in a heartbeat. Neither one is the sort of a CEO who will let the truth stand in the way of a business strategy.

So, if you want America to look like Microsoft, vote for Trump, and leave the truth in the rearview mirror.

*Within legal reason, of course, and keeping in mind that the risk of going to jail is just one of the risks of doing business.

TSA can’t do math. Either

January 26, 2016

There’s a couple of TSA reports over the last year that nobody seems to have linked up, perhaps because statisticians have better things to do than read TSA reports.

Last June, the TSA IG released a report that said that TSA inspectors at airports failed to find 95% of the contraband items (guns, explosives) used to test the system. In November, reports from Congress indicated there’d been no improvement. Perhaps in an effort to get 2016 off on a better PR footing, this month, TSA reported that their seizures of firearms was up 20%, to 2,653 and that 83% of them were loaded. Let’s do some math.

We have 2,653 weapons found. Some 83%, or 2200 were loaded. Now, we know that TSA regularly misses 95% of the weapons the IG tries to smuggle on, which implies that those 2200 loaded firearms represented 5% of the ones that were actually carried on board.

1. Question for the class. How many loaded firearms successfully boarded aircraft in 2015?


.05 * X = 2200 = loaded guns found
X = 2200/.05 = 44000 = total guns smuggled
44000 – 2200 = 41800 = guns successfully smuggled

So, 41,800 loaded guns were successfully smuggled onto airliners in the US in 2015. That’s just over one gun every fifteen minutes.

2. Take home question for the class. Of those 41,800 loaded weapons on airplanes, how many were used in hijacking attempts?

3. Critical thinking question: What does this tell you about the real threat?

FOMC Follies

November 20, 2015

The release of the 27 October Federal Open Market Committee minutes shows them edging towards an increase in interest rates. This, despite the fact that we have not fully recovered from the Great Recession, and that history, in the form of the Great Depression, shows that a too-early tightening of the government belt can kill a recovering economy. One part of the summary deserves closer inspection.

A number of participants pointed to various reasons why the Committee should avoid a delay in policy firming [AKA interest rate increase]:

One concern was that such a delay, if the reasons were not well understood by market participants, could increase uncertainty in financial markets

And the FOMC is certainly not cabable of explaining things in a way that hedge fund managers could understand.

and unduly magnify the perceived importance of the beginning of the policy normalization process.

So if the process is so unimportant, what’s the harm in delaying the interest rate increase?

Another concern mentioned was the increasing risk of a buildup of financial imbalances after a prolonged period of very low interest rates.

But so far, as far as I know, no responsible person has suggested that such a buildup is occurring

It was also noted that a decision to defer policy firming could be interpreted as signaling lack of confidence in the strength of the U.S. economy

And of course the fact that we still haven’t closed the gap between current employment and output and the potential employment and output lost in the last near decade is no reason to have a lack of confidence in the current state of the economy in this fragile recovery

or erode the Committee’s credibility.

Because our image is more important than the US economy.

Some participants emphasized that progress toward the Committee’s objectives should be assessed in light of the cumulative gains made to date without placing excessive weight on month-to-month changes in incoming data.

And the overall cumulative progress is nowhere near what it should be or could be, even though we’ve had a good couple of months. It’s almost like the FOMC wants to raise interest rates because they want to raise interest rates and they will grasp any shred of evidence that will let them pretend to have a rationale for doing so.

The intellectual implosion of the GOP

September 27, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Paul Krugman had an item in the NYT titled Charlatans, Cranks, and Apparatchiks, on the kind of people who support Jeb! Bush’s tax policies. He also had a link to a great comment on how they got started:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Patriot Day

September 11, 2015

As I have written before, Patriot Day is a sham and a scam, a fraud perpetrated by the criminals who highjacked the true meaning in order to increase their own power. The only real winner in the fourteen years since the founding event was Osama Bin Laden. If he had written the script, he couldn’t have come up with this good of an outcome. I’m not alone in thinking this. Here’s Tom Engelhardt on the topic.

And here is Bob Cringely, fourteen years ago, making some very cogent predictions.

My two cents on Trump

August 12, 2015

In 2008 the Republican Party suffered a massive nervous breakdown. This happened as a result of them unexpectedly losing an election that everyone but them knew they were going to lose. The fact that they were, to echo a Churchillian phrase, both beaten and puzzled, shows how tenouous their grip on reality was in the first place. Their loss was not only unexpected but it was a loss to a Democratic candidate who embodied everything they were against, everything they hated — a vast collection of traits perhaps best summarized in a single word “Uppity“. That sudden exposure to reality drove them absolutely stark, staring, barking mad.

How mad? Well, mad enough to think about sabotaging their own country. In their efforts to ensure that Obama was a one-term President, they did their absolute best to trash the economy. We know how to get out of a recession, even a Great Recession: the government spends money. Lots of money. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s biggest blunder is generally acknowledged to be cutting back on the spending too soon. But that didn’t matter. Now that Uppity was in the White House, the GOP switched from running some of the largest deficits in history to whining that anything other than a balanced budget would undermine the economy, the solidity of the dollar, and probably the sanctity of marriage as well.

How mad? Well, mad enough to to go insane over a non-existent gun control threat. Democratic Presidents are generally for gun control but are unable to do much about it. Carter was. Clinton was. But there were no loud-mouthed, wool-hatted, rednecked, right-wing extremists patrolling outside of their speaking engagements carrying firearms in support of the Second Amendment and comparing them to Satan, or Carpathia, or other Biblical figures. Mad enough to believe that a multi-state training exercise like Jade Helm was an attempt to take over Texas and steal their guns.

How mad? Well, four years later the GOP ran essentially the same campaign, with, OK not the same candidate but with his ideological and intellectual clone, expecting that this time they’d really win, and of course they lost, again.

But that’s history, even if it’s recent history, and even if there are people who still don’t have a home or a job, or a future because of the events of 2008 and the GOP’s actions afterwards. Let’s not sweat the small stuff. Let’s look to the nation‘s future. Let’s consider what’s happening with the GOP primary campaign in 2015. As satirist P.J. O’Rourke said last June about the possible candidates, they are all pygmies (to be fair, he’s including Clinton and Biden as well).

That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s a list of congressionally appointed members of a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission named to look into a question of pressing national importance such as “paper or plastic?”

Of course, the stand-out amongst them is Donald Trump. Everyone agrees he has no chance of getting the nomination, but he is certainly getting the attention. On the home page of yesterday’s Washington Post online there were seventeen headlines dealing with the Presidential race (some were repeats under different headings). Seven of them were about Trump. The New York Times online edition had nine mentions of Trump, and seven mentions of all other campaign personalities. Of course, a mention doesn’t have to be political. Three of the NYT mentions of Trump were various headers on Stephen Colbert’s Night Show. But the fact remains, that Trump is sucking up the lion’s share of the coverage. And that’s good for the GOP.

It’s good for the GOP because they are all pygmies. They are all failures, at business or government, or life. Each one of them has some one useful trait that has propelled them into the ranks of serious candidates. Not one of them has a collection of traits that would make a good President. And where they fall short, where their vision fails, they fall back on the tried and true GOP policy positions that lost the last two elections. They blow on their dog whistles until their lips are chapped, but gently, discreetly, and not in a way that might cause people to think they were extremists, or incompetents, just loud enough to alert the base. And then along came Trump.

Trump isn’t saying anything that any of the others don’t believe, he’s just saying it louder, with more bombast and bravado. He’s giving them political cover, making it possible to say the un-sayable, as long as they do it discreetly, and not like him.   But there’s more to it that that.

There’s a concept called the news hole. It refers to the fact that there is only so much time on national television news, only so much space on the front pages of national newspapers, only so much time available for reading even the most insightful of blogs. There’s even, and I know this is hard to believe, a limit on how much can be covered in one 24hr cycle of talk radio. And if it doesn’t get covered, then by definition, it’s not news. Every day editors of one stripe or another must decide what goes in and what goes away. It’s the basis for content analysis, a concept going back at least to the OSS exploitation of German newspapers in WWII.

By hogging the limelight, by filling up the news hole, Trump has limited the media’s ability to ask penetrating questions of the real candidates. You can see this in the numbers for the first debate, where even bleed’n Megyn Kelly was guilty of spending too much time on Trump, and not enough time on the other candidates. You can see it today on the home pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Even The Economist, no chaser-after of glib headlines, with five US Presidential campaign articles on the first page of their Politics section, mentions Trump twice and leads with his picture on a third article.

Of course, questions do keep being asked. Insightful questions like: Is Trump serious? Is there a way to beat Trump? Will Trump really pick Sarah Palin as his running mate? Sometimes they are even asked of the candidates: Mr. Candidate, how would you respond to Trump’s characterization of illegal immigrants?

Very few are the probing kinds of policy questions that would expose these pygmies for what they are. And that means that whoever gets the GOP nomination, almost a year from now, will have had a year to skate on the hard questions, will have dodged a year’s worth of scrutiny.

That’s the gift that The Donald is giving to the GOP, and they should be grateful.

Abolish TSA

June 2, 2015

You’ve been diagnosed with a chronic, possibly fatal disease. Your doctor writes you an expensive prescription to deal with it. Almost fifteen years later you find that 95 out of every 100 pills you have taken over the years were just plain aspirin. Your disease has not progressed. You haven’t died. Questions for the doctor: Do I really have that disease? Do I still need to take these pills? Do you have malpractice insurance?

That’s the situation we are in today with TSA. Their measures don’t work. Their measures have never worked. Given the low level of the terrorist threat, a simple Bayesian analysis shows they will never work. So what’s TSA’s response? We will tighten up our procedures.

Sorry, guys. Doing more of something that doesn’t work, doesn’t work.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any security. I’m saying that by TSA’s own numbers, nothing they have done since 2001 has made us any more secure than what we were doing before that.  We’ve been subjected to a ~fifteen year, ~$70Billion government scam. It’s time to revert to our previous protocol. It’s time for a $70Billion malpractice suite.

It’s time to abolish TSA.

Police Keep Misplacing Their Military Gear

August 28, 2014

It seems that America’s police departments have a hard time keeping track of weapons and Humvees and other military equipment the DoD gave them. A lot of it’s gone missing. And what do they say when the federal government asks about it?

I'm sure it's around here somewhere.

I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.

Veterans and Entitlements

June 17, 2014

In the almost-century that tha VA, or its components, has existed, it’s never been adequately funded to meet its responsibilities. In typical fashion, Congress has ignored it, except when some scandal has forced their hands. In the most recent decade, they have consistently refused to provide funding for those thousands of veterans injured in America’s Longest War. It took a series of vets dying practically on Senator John McCain’s lawn to trigger the latest stopgap measure. And stopgap it is, and no, it won’t be followed up on, not once the November elections are past.

Despite that, some Republican lawmakers still found it necessary to carp about the cost and the open-endedness of it all. Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, a state kept afloat by Army, Navy, and Air Force bases, found it in his heart to say:

“I feel strongly we’ve got to do the right thing for our veterans. But I don’t think we should create a blank check, an unlimited entitlement program, now,”

Blank check. Entitlements. You know, Senator Sessions, every serviceman and -woman signs a blank check upon entry onto active duty. That check says they will obey all lawful orders given by their superiors. If those orders require that they die carrying them out, well, they knew that when they signed up. You can see it in the kinds of orders that are sometimes given: “hit the beach”, “take that hill”, “hold until relieved”, “come on you bastards, ya wanna live forever?”. The Coast Guard, responsible for rescuing mariners in trouble, no matter what the sea state, has a saying: “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”

We’re not that far past the anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the turning point of WWII in the Pacific. My father was with the Marine Defense Battalion on Midway Island during the battle. His introduction to it was his commander saying to them while they were still in Hawaii, three months after the fall of Wake Island, “You lads want to go bait a trap?” One of the heroic stories of the battle itself was the performance of Navy torpedo squadron VT-8. Torpedo 8 is famous because they pressed home their attack in the face of overwhelming fire, every plane was shot down, and only one man survived. What normally isn’t said is the fact that they knew, when they took off from their carrier, that if the Japanese fleet was where we thought it was, they wouldn’t have enough gas to get back. They still went. Blank check.

So yes, Senator Sessions, Senator Johnson, Senator Corker, we should create a blank check for these people. We should create an unending entitlement, because they did the same for you, in all your foreign wars and adventures. It’s one of the costs of engaging in those wars, a cost that should be fully recognized at the start. If you can order them in harm’s way, you can damn well care for what comes back. It’s their right. They’re entitled.

What we need to remember on Memorial Day

May 26, 2014

I was not going to write anything this Memorial Day, because there’s only a few simple facts that apply, and one grows boring, repeating them over and over. But I persist. After all, Delenda est Carthago. What prompted this was a typical feel-good Memorial Day email from my Congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Reading it, I found I had to reply.

Thanks for your Memorial Day message, but let me remind you that actions speak louder than words.

As a VietNam veteran, I have some suggestions as to what actions you, as a lawmaker, can take to honor those who died, or otherwise gave their lives in service to America.

1. Fund the VA, nationwide, at a level that will let them hire the doctors and staff needed to serve the workload associated with our wars, for as long as those who served need their service.

2. Fund the economic programs needed to make sure returning service members can find a job when they get out, and that they have a safety net until they find that job.

3. Fund the State Department at a level that will let them maintain adequate security at all their stations. Did you know that since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lost more ambassadors overseas than we have general officers?

4. Finally, keep us out of stupid wars and ill-thought foreign adventures. 6000 Americans died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re less safe than we were on September 10th.

Do these four things, whoever is in office and whatever their party, and you will have the undying gratitude of those who served, and their survivors. Do these four things without regard to offsets or tax reform or other political cant. Do these four things because they are the right thing to do to support the troops, and because they represent part of the hidden costs of a robust foreign policy, a hidden cost you have to accept when you make the decision to engage.

It’s fine to remember the troops, and I thank you, but more importantly, you should never forget that it’s your laws and your funding that sends them in harm’s way and cares for what comes back.

The Ukraine: Lessons for Iran, North Korea, and others

March 27, 2014

The Ukraine (UA) became independent of the USSR in 1990, and inherited the third largest stock of nuclear weapons in the world, including mobile and silo-launched ICBMs, long-range bombers, and over a thousand cruise missiles. In 1994 they signed the SALT II agreement, and by 1996 they had given up all their nuclear weapons. In return for this, they got the Budapest Memorandum, which Wikipedia summarizes as follows:

Before voting on accession, Ukraine demanded from Russia, the USA, France and the United Kingdom a written statement that these powers undertook to extend the security guarantees to Ukraine. Instead security assurances to Ukraine (Ukraine published the documents as guarantees given to Ukraine), given on 5 December 1994 at a formal ceremony in Budapest (known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances), may be summarized as follows: Russia, the UK and the USA undertake to respect Ukraine’s borders in accordance with the principles of the 1975 CSCE Final Act, to abstain from the use or threat of force against Ukraine, to support Ukraine where an attempt is made to place pressure on it by economic coercion, and to bring any incident of aggression by a nuclear power before the UN Security Council.

Got that? No guarantees from anyone. Assurances that aggressive acts would be brought to the attention of the UN. They gave up their nuclear weapons and got promises in return, promises that (for good geopolitical reasons, as we’ll see in a later essay) have turned out to be empty.

What lessons are to be learned from this? The big one (other than the usual that diplomats lie, and countries don’t keep their word) is that if you aren’t a nuclear power, you don’t get no respect. If UA had kept even 10% of the almost 3000 warheads under their control, scattered amongst the various delivery systems, do you think that Russian troops would be on the ground in Crimea today, with 50,000 of them massing on the UA’s eastern border? Of course not.

The world is watching. And some countries are watching more closely than others. What lessons have North Korea and Pakistan and India and Israel drawn from this? Don’t give up your nukes. Ever. What lessons has Iran, and any other aspirant, drawn from this? If you don’t have a force in being, you get invaded. I’d say that, whatever the ultimate resolution, one of the outcomes of the Crimea Crisis — perhaps soon to be the Ukraine Crisis, perhaps with the possibility of becoming the next European War — is that the cause of global non-proliferation has been set back fifty years.


Malaysia Airlines flight MH-370 and the terrorist threat – 1

March 13, 2014

The best ongoing reporting on the search for the missing aircraft is from the website Aviation Herald.

One of the interesting side notes is the case of the stolen passports — two Iranian men used stolen passports to board the plane enroute to the Netherlands via Beijing. There is no evidence that they were terrorists. In fact, they appear to be freedom-seekers fleeing an oppressive government.

It is “much easier to get a stolen passport than most people think”. Some 10,000 passports are lost or stolen every year in Thailand alone. Perhaps a third of the people who board aircraft around the world, do so without their passports being checked against the Interpol stolen passport database.

So far as I know, no airliner in the last, say, five years, has been hijacked, blown up, or otherwise interfered with by terrorists using fake passports. This makes me ask the Fermi question, about alien intelligences: “Where are they?”  If it’s so easy to do, where are the tens, hundreds, nay, thousands, of sweaty jihadistas who want to blow up airplanes as a political statement? No, they don’t have a very good chance of boarding a US-bound flight, because we do 100% checking, but that wouldn’t keep them from attacking aircraft of friendly countries, or aircraft enroute to friendly countries.

Could it be that the threat is not nearly as high as DHS/TSA wants us to believe? That they are pumping up the threat just so they can keep us in line and their budgets growing? Surely not.

NSA as an autoimmune disease

January 26, 2014

An autoimmune disease is one where the body’s defenses turn on the body itself, where the various mechanisms for attacking intruders and disease mistake healthy tissue for diseased intruders. Some, like Type 1 Diabetes, attack organs that perform useful functions. Others, like ALS, and Multiple Sclerosis, attack the nervous system that ties the different parts of the body together.

Various of the NSA programs seem to fit this description. I’m not talking about the mass collection of American communications data that the President’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recently declared both unconstitutional and useless. That’s a topic for another rant. No, what I’m talking about are their various actions to make the Internet, and all electronic communications tools, insecure and unsafe.

The Internet is one of the most marvelous, if not the most marvelous, creations of the hand of man. It stands beside the space program in its sheer technical brilliance — and I speak as someone who grew up watching satellites being launched from his back yard. It has created new industries, enabled people with innovative ideas to compete in the marketplace, and tied the world together in a way that was inconceivable a mere thirty or forty years ago. It was designed as an open system, based on trust, and for the last decade and more, the NSA has worked to destroy that trust.

Consider their efforts to put backdoors in both hardware and software, to promote weakened crypto. Part of their efforts went into suborning the various cryptographic standards bodies in such a way that NSA personnel had full control over their actions. Even such organizations as the Internet Research Task Force’s Crypto Forum Research Group are co-chaired by NSA employees*. Other programs solicited zero-day exploits from US firms like Microsoft, or purchased them on the open market.

What this all amounts to is no less than attack on the basic infrastructure of global e-commerce. It’s as if you could no longer trust the road signs on the Interstate, or you found that an unknown number of overpasses had been wired with demolition charges. As others have pointed out, obscurity is no substitute for security. If there is a vulnerability in the system, be it one that was introduced by NSA or one that NSA found out about and didn’t tell anyone, sooner or later someone else (the Russians? Chinese? Mafia?) will find it and exploit it. Will we find out about it? Probably not, because the exploit will hide behind the NSA screen. Only an exceptional set of circumstances (as with the 2005 Athens Affair) would let the cat out of the bag. Now, maybe this won’t destroy the Internet. It will merely make it untrustworthy, incapable of securely handling financial transactions. Think of it as having just a mild case of multiple sclerosis. Thanks, NSA.


*The effort to oust this particular employee failed because the group chairman said that a mere co-chair had no powers. I’d respond by pointing out that there was a reason that the most powerful man in the old Soviet Union was the mere Secretary of the Communist Party.

NSA: The more things don’t change

January 18, 2014

…the more they stay the same.

So, here’s Obama’s speech. And here’s some commentary, and some commentary and some commentary. (UPDATE: here’s a belated commentary from Greenwald, and a line by line analysis by The Reg). Now, it’s my turn to do some commentary, on one specific part of the speech: bulk collection and storage of American communications data.

As far as I can tell, nothing much has changed, or will. Bulk collection and storage of phone call data will continue, despite the NSA-acknowledged fact that it hasn’t contributed squat to national security. I’d like to say it’s unconstitutional, but the government has worked very hard to prevent any associated cases from going to court. They say because of national security reasons. I say it’s because they’re scared spitless that SCOTUS will break up the party.

What the President proposed was that the data be held by someone other than NSA (this is in the speech, not in the official Presidential Policy Directive, PPD-28). That doesn’t pass the laugh test. Who would hold it? AT&T? You know, the communications monopolist that has spent most of the 21st Century profiting from illegal deals with NSA? Sorry, formerly illegal deals. A “third-party” company? One staffed by ex-NSA-ers because those are the only people with clearances? One that is beholden to NSA or DoD for the continuation of their contract? One that doesn’t have the status of government agency, and therefore can’t do lots of things that would protect this data from outsiders?

To my mind, if we are going to keep this data, then NSA are the best people to keep it safe. But, of course, none of these proposals can keep it safe from the US government and the intellectual and moral heirs of people like Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. That’s the main problem and that’s why safeguards were built into the Constitution.

Quite aside from the constitutional issues, what makes this so tragic is, we have no idea what other collection and analysis efforts are being stifled because all the resources are going into haystack maintenance. Even a massive organization like NSA is resource limited. There’s never enough analysts, linguists, database administrators, to do all the jobs that need doing. In the past, NSA has been accused of cherry picking — sitting on an easy target and then flipping through the requirements list until they found a line item that would justify it. It looks to me like that’s what’s happening here. Bulk collection of phone call and Internet data is easy — just pay the telcos to siphon it off for you. Collection against overseas communications that aren’t from Angela Merkel is presumably harder. Why waste time on the hard stuff when you can get 100% coverage of your US targets?

Support your local non-Democrat … the Brin Plan

January 14, 2014

As I said in an earlier post:

We have a deeply divided political system right now. Part of that is due to gerrymandering — drawing political districts so the opposing party has an overwhelming majority in a very few districts and a powerless minority everywhere else. …

What can be done to fix this? … Let’s start with the primaries. David Brin has an interesting proposal — if you are a gerrymandered minority, simply register as a member of the majority party, and vote for the most centrist of the contestants. Admittedly, this may require you to choose between Attila-the-Hun and Timūr-the-Lame, but it does give you an effective choice, better than the one you have now.

Brin has a good idea. He goes into greater depth here but doesn’t give some of the information you need to operationalize it. This essay will help.

One way to estimate the degree to which a given state or district is divided is to use the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), a measure of how far the voters lean towards one party or another. Obviously, in a heavily partisan district, it’s almost impossible for a challenger from the other party to win, so the challenge to an incumbent comes from someone further from the center — yes, he’s Republican, but is he Republican enough?

How can you tell if you live in a gerrymandered state? Take a look at the PVI for your state’s districts. If you have two or three districts that are R+7 for every one that’s D+15, you’re gerry’d. A good example is Michigan, with 9 districts averaging R+4, and 5 averaging D+19. A more balanced state might be one like next-door Iowa. It has a total of four districts: D+4 and D+5, +0, R+5. If the divide was due to simple geography or demographics, you’d see something more like Washington state, which has a strong Red/Blue divide along the crest of the Cascades, separating the urban West (D+11) from the agricultural East (R+6).

In a highly partisan state the policy positions don’t get decided along party lines, instead, they get decided by divisions within the dominant party. That being the case, the only way you can influence those positions is by being a voting member of that party, and voting in that party’s primary. This means you have to start thinking politics early in the year, not just in September or October. In heavily red districts, the election is essentially over by late summer. Come November, the only thing getting decided is Municipal Sanitation Officer, and the referendum on Outlawing Poor People.

The idea of voting to influence the Reds is more important this year than ever. The few Republicans who were adult enough to push back against last fall’s government shutdown and threatened default will be subject to well-funded attacks on the right by Tea Party absolutists who believe you have to destroy the government in order to save it.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if your state is Republican-gerreymandered, or if you have the bad luck to live in a Republican enclave in a Democrat-gerrymanedered state, or even if you just happen to live in a district that’s natrually Republican. All that’s really important is that your distirict be safely red, say R+6 or above. Having said that, you’re more likely to be living in a red district if you’re living in a red state. Here’s a list of the top ten Red states that (as far as I can tell) hold meaningful primaries. I’ve left off states where the candidates are determined by party caucus, even if there’s a beauty-contest primary as well.

State Primary
10 TX 03/04/14
13 WV 05/13/14
12 NE 05/13/14
13 KY 05/20/14
14 AL 06/03/14
10 SD 06/03/14
8 SC 06/10/14
22 UT 06/24/14
19 OK 06/24/14
12 TN 08/07/14

Note that Texas holds its primary as early as May. Note also that Texas has some of the most anti-Democrat (and anti-democratic) voter restriction legislation in the country, so you need to start prepping now to have the proper ID and registration and so forth. Most of the rest vote in May or June, so you’ve got some time left, but do check on the voter ID requirements.

Once you have voted for your Republican in the primary, you can go on to vote for the Democrat (assuming there is one) in the national elections in November. That will let the politician know there’s more people on the left that he could be picking up votes from. My thought is, the only time you wouldn’t do this is if the Democrat is an obvious nut-case (free marijuana for all and defund the police!). People who vote for nutters like that are what used to be called Yellow Dog Democrats (I’d vote for a yaller dog, if’n he was a Democrat). Those kinds of folks are unpersuadable, and your Republican isn’t going to wast time on anybody who votes that way. You want to be plausibly persuadable, to make it worth his while to moderate his stance in order to get your vote.

Medicare for all

January 4, 2014

A recent online article in Newsweek made the interesting claim that “If everyone in the U.S. was on Medicare, the savings would move the federal budget from deficit to surplus.”

Being a military brat, and career military after that, I’ve spent my whole life in a “single payer” environment. I loved it. These days, as a Medicare-eligible, TRICARE-eligible, working civilian with employer-provided health insurance, I’m in much the same situation. I think that’s pretty good, as well, except that the paperwork has grown, from zero, to WTF? I found the quality of care from the military doctors to be as good, or better, than I’m getting now. Doctors are doctors.

The article started me thinking about what it would cost to extend the US military health care system to the rest of the population. I did some very quick, very sloppy, digging around. I found numbers and estimates (about half Wikipedia and half official handouts) of annual costs that are more-or-less comparable. Here’s my summary:

US Military, including reservists, dependents, etc: 10 million
US DoD Medical Spending: $53 billion

VA-enrolled Veterans: 10 million
VA Medical Spending: $50 billion

Total People: 20 million
Total Spending: $103 billion

Average Spending Per Person: $5150

Average US Medical Spending Per Person: $8000

Even if I’m off by as much as 50%, extending military health benefits to the entire population would still be cheaper than what the “free market” has foisted on us. And zero paperwork. Of course, that might impact recruiting.

So, yeah. Medicare for all, and maybe something better.


December 23, 2013

Headline-mongering websites are all yelling about how NSA paid RSA to install a backdoor into their products. There’s less here, and more, than meets the eye.

The news broke when Reuters published an article on how NSA had paid RSA $10million to make the NSA-developed Dual Elliptic Curve algorithm the default random number generator in their BSafe crypto tool. The article does not say, but this was presumably in 2005 or 2006.

In response, the various Internet news sites began running headlines along the lines of RSA took NSA money to put a backdoor in BSafe. Headlines like this gain lots of hits, but are somewhat misleading.

RSA responded by saying:

RSA, as a security company, never divulges details of customer engagements, but we also categorically state that we have never entered into any contract or engaged in any project with the intention of weakening RSA’s products, or introducing potential ‘backdoors’ into our products for anyone’s use.

This is as careful a case of lawyerly wording as you will see until NSA issues its next denial. Notice the “never divulges details of customer engagements” statement. This is a reasonable policy for a security company, but it shouts that they did take the money. But also notice the “with the intention of weakening” statement. Nothing they did was intended to weaken their product.

My take, which is only alluded to in the various reports, is that NSA, at the time a trusted player in the crypto field — after all one of their missions is Information Assurance, and they regularly provide advice to the private sector — approached RSA management and said they felt strongly enough about secure communications in these post-9/11 days that they’d gladly provide an additional business reason to use the algorithm. So NIST supports the algorithm. NSA is pushing it. And RSA already (they say) made the decision to use it back in 2004. That $10million is just found money.

In other contexts, this is called social engineering. You convince the target that the action you want them to take is the action they want to take. No, not in other contexts. In exactly this context: an evil-doer wants to exploit the gullibility of a trusting person in order to get them to install malware to their system. So, the headlines should say: NSA dupes RSA into installing malware. Or something like that.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that NSA has been under fire for having too much influence on commercial crypto security. Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, before Osama scared us all over a cliff, people were already questioning their actions. RSA will likely take a major business hit because of this, and neither they nor any other security products firm will be free of the taint of NSA manipulation for years to come.

On being over-patrioted

November 11, 2013

1. Fourth of July
2. Memorial Day
3. Patriots Day
4. Veterans Day
5. Thanksgiving
6. Presidents Day

All days on which we celebrate the Americans we’ve managed to kill in recent wars (2, 4), or praise God for his foresight in signing-on with such an obviously successful nation (1, 5), or disseminate propaganda on how it’s our patriotic duty to obey the government (3), or buy linens (6). To those of us who grew up in post-WWII America, served in her mid-century wars, and held what really was a bulwark of freedom against the Soviet Union, today’s government-sponsored, MSM-supported patriotism is a distorted, fun-house-mirror projection of what we served for.

Back in the 60’s, as I recall, there was a Senate hearing on some non-DoD budget topic, basic science research, support for the arts — memory fails, as does the Internet. At one point, a Senator asked a witness about what contribution his program would make to the defense of the nation. The response was “It’s part of what makes it worth defending”. One could make the same response when asked what enforcing all these Constitutional restrictions on DHS and NSA will contribute to the defense of America. We have come to a sorry state of affairs, when Germany feels it has to chastise us for failing Democracy, for abandoning good government in favor of power-grabbing paranoia and fear.

As Der Spiegel (The Mirror) editorial says, we’re losing the bedrock reasons for supporting patriotism in America. At one point, patriotism meant taking up arms to free our country from colonial exploiters. At one time it meant leaving our ploughs in the field and going off to defend America and the world against evil that was not only real, but effective. Now, it means joining the ranks of our huddled masses, yearning to be safe.

I like to use patriotic dates like this as an occasion for commenting on the state of the nation and the moral standing of our politicians, but I’m not going to comment on every day listed for every year that rolls around — there’s too many of them, the evil remains banal, and one can only remain mad for so long.

Truth-Teller Clapper

October 23, 2013

denies reports of NSA spying on France.

I wouldn’t lie to you. I mean, it’s not like you were Congress.

Support your non-local Democrat …

October 21, 2013

…and your local non-Democrat.

We have a deeply divided political system right now. Part of that is due to gerrymandering — drawing political districts so the opposing party has an overwhelming majority in a very few districts and a powerless minority everywhere else. Part of it is due to self-selection — we tend to live with like-minded people, except when we don’t. The result is an overwhelming majority of safe seats, where the only threat to the incumbent is from the lunatic fringe. As the latest debacle in Congress shows, the lunatics are winning.

What can be done to fix this? That is, what can be done to ensure that (a) there’s enough diversity at the state and national level to ensure that political compromise is possible, and (b) to ensure that politicians we elect aren’t from the lunatic fringe of whatever party we’re talking about?

Let’s start with the primaries. David Brin has an interesting proposal — if you are a gerrymandered minority (Democrat in a deep red district, Republican in a bright blue one), simply register as a member of the majority party, and vote for the most centrist of the contestants. Admittedly, this may require you to choose between Attila-the-Hun and Timūr-the-Lame, but it does give you an effective choice, better than the one you have now. If there are enough moderates in your district, you should be able to keep the fringe politicians from gaining a toehold.

On the other hand, suppose you live in Washington*, or Iowa, states which use the caucus system? Influencing a caucus means spending far too much time in smoke-filled rooms with people you want to sit two stools away from at the diner. There’s not a lot you can do about local politics in that case, so your next option is to find the nearest political district that’s considered a toss-up, and send money.  Political scientist L.J.Sabato at University of Virgina has a list of competitive House seats for 2014. If you’re a Democrat, find a contest that’s a toss-up, or better yet, one that has a vulnerable Republican, and send the Democratic challenger a check. You know the Koch Brothers are doing the same for the other side. The Examiner has another list, of vulnerable Republicans. Here’s a Google query that might help.

*Correction. Washington state uses a “top two” primary system where the top two vote getters advance to the general election, whatever their party. Preliminary party support for candidates is still determined by caucus.

Tom Foley

October 19, 2013

Former Speaker of the House, Tom Foley has died, at 84. I was just starting on my Ph.D. studies, and Spokane was not yet on my radar (although I had friends there) the year he was voted out of office. I was amazed at how dumb a move that was on the part of the voters of Spokane. Whatever party he was from, he was the Speaker of the flipping House! Did the voters think they were voting on a new Speaker for Spokane? I am amazed that Spokane didn’t lose Fairchild AFB during the 1995 BRAC negotiations.

And what did they get as a result? George Nethercutt, a political hack who broke his promise on term limits (which is what helped him oust Foley) and conned the voters into letting him serve for ten years.

An open letter to Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers

October 5, 2013

Ms Rodgers,
I am nearly seventy years old, a military veteran, a Republican for most of my life. I lived in Washington, DC, for fifteen years. I’ve lived in your district for fifteen years. I voted for you, once. I have never seen such irresponsible conduct as is now being shown by you and the Republican Party in the House of Representatives.

I wasn’t going to write to you about the shutdown, but your latest screed forced my hand. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a tissue of lies from one end to another. You must have an exceedingly low opinion of the voters of eastern Washington if you think that document will be believed by anyone smart enough to read an email.

You had the chance to be a statesman. You are in a safe Republican district, and there’s no-one in sight who can mount a credible threat from your right. You could have been one of the sane voices in Congress, but instead you voted to furlough tens of thousands of hard-working government workers and shut down much-needed services, like NIH, in what amounts to a fit of partisan political pique because you lost the game of partisan politics.

The LA Times reports that, in an 1860 speech at New York’s Cooper Union, President Lincoln said:

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. […] A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

This describes your actions exactly.

I cannot say that you’ve lost my vote over this, because you lost that years ago when you voted against ACA, and then lied about what it said. What I can say is that you have encouraged me to spend some time searching the country for Democratic candidates in competitive districts, and then supporting them with my campaign contributions.

I miss the Soviet Union

October 1, 2013

It is said somewhere that your worst enemy is also your best friend, because it’s they who keep you up to the mark and true to yourself.

Back in the day, we spent a lifetime staring down the threat posed by the Soviet Union. They truly had the power to destroy the United States, to rub us out of existence. We could have done the same thing right back at them, but by then our country would be well on its way to radioactive non-existence.  For that matter, the Soviet Union, and us, could have made a good start at destroying human civilization. That didn’t happen.

It didn’t happen because the United States had two clear goals — prevent nuclear war and halt the growth of communism, in part by demonstrating that our system worked better than theirs, both for the elite and for the workers. It took seventy years or so, but we did it. We defeated the communist system so badly that even their power elite agreed it was unworkable, and we did it without fighting a nuclear war. Our politicians were, for the most part, statesmanlike, willing to compromise for the greater good. As far as Greatest Generations go, those of my generation gave our parents a pretty good run for their money.

So the Soviet Empire collapsed, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon faded. There were no enemies left, at least none worthy of the name. The USSR was gone, and the US was left astride the world like a colossus.

“And then what happened, daddy?”

And then it all fell apart. For seventy years, the politicians knew that if they made a mistake, it would hurt us in the undecided minds of the third world. If we showed a flaw in our ability to govern ourselves, the Soviets would be there in a heartbeat, prying and poking and widening the flaw until it gave them the ability to defeat us. We had to stand strong, we had to be governed by statesmen, because we were the hope of the world.

But once the enemy was gone, once there was no existential threat to the nation (and as far as existential threats to the US, Al Qaida and its ilk are dangerous but laughable bumblers who never scored better than a 75% success rate on their best day), once there was no external reason to compromise in order to display a united front, well then, our statesmen turned into politicians. For that seventy event-filled years, our politicians agreed that a strong and well-run country was essential to our survival and well-being. Power was important, but not power at any price. Ideology was important, but not at the expense of the country. Those who forgot that, those who (like “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy) attempted to turn governance into a platform for personal power, were rejected, reviled, and forgotten. Today, the single, solitary goal of the politicians is to gain power and to hold on to it.

Or, I should say, the single, solitary goal of Republican politicians is to gain power and to hold onto it. We know the mechanical reasons — demographics, gerrymandering, safe seats attackable only from the right. What we don’t talk about is the profound moral collapse of the party. There are those who could take a principled, statesmanlike stand. My own representative Cathy McMorris Rogers, is in a safely Republican seat, with no sign of a credible threat from her right. She could stand for the country, but doesn’t. She could be a statesman, instead of being a Republican Party hack, but she isn’t. She’s dedicated to keeping and extending what power the GOP now has, and to hell with the long-term interests of the country.

Why don’t I include the Democrats? Because they are the party of diversity, and they have to foster compromise within their own party if it is to have any kind of a coherent policy. They could have played the government shutdown card when Bush was in office, but they didn’t. They are forced to be morally better than the GOP, in the same way the US was forced to be morally better than the USSR.

So, we have a sequester — a self-punishment so bad even the Republicans would seek compromise to avoid, but they didn’t — and we now have the government shut-down, for however long this farce lasts, and we’re staring a default on our debts if things continue as they must.

When we had the Soviet Union as an adversary, we could look inside ourselves and pull out the courage and strength of character needed. Without the Soviet Union, Republican politicians can no longer find such things as character and courage, all they can produce is petty, greedy, small-minded clutching for power at any cost.

Putin’s two cents on Syria

September 12, 2013

If it’s true, is it still propaganda?

Vladimir Putin’s OpEd in the NYT is a masterpiece. Its checkable facts check out. Its opinions are widely held. Its sentiments are unassailable. The question is, does Putin really believe any of this stuff?

Putin is an autocrat. To draw a parallel between Russia and traditional royalty, he’s a Constitutional Dictator. His only interest is in strengthening himself, personally, and strengthening Russia’s position on the international scene. In pursuit of these goals, he is perfectly capable of cheating, lying, and even, on occasion, telling the truth.

What makes his OpEd such a powerful statement is that it all rings true — with  the exception of the self-serving comments about Russia.  It is arguably true that US intervention is likely to destabilize the region. It is arguably true that an intervention will make WMD available to terrorists. It is absolutely true that the US has been acting as a bully throughout the Middle East, and it is absolutely true that the US follows UN directives only when it suits us (yes, yes, Russia does the same thing. Your point?).  It is a sad day when the actions and intentions of the US can be held up by an autocrat as an example of poor international citizenship.

As one blogger said recently, if you don’t want your opponent to take the moral high ground, then don’t abandon it yourself

UPDATE: WaPo does a good job of dissecting Putin’s claims. The one claim that’s almost certainly wrong is that this was a rebel use.  It was almost certainly Syrian government forces, but there’s still no strong evidence that it was ordered by Assad.

Patriot Day

September 11, 2013

I have nothing to say.

For the last decade, the DoJ, DHS, and NSA have been colluding in a program that claims to protect American lives but which in truth only serves to deprive us of our Constitutional rights and cause us to live in fear — more in fear of the government than of any terrorists. A succession of Presidents have gone haring off into the depths of the Middle East, destroying what few tatters of respect and goodwill we have in that part of the world, increasing the numbers of our enemies and decreasing our national and individual safety. Only the whistleblowing revelations of Edward Snowden exposed the one and a revolt by the citizens of the US, their representatives, and all but one of the industrialized countries of the EU paused the second.

Any true patriot will spend the day at home with a bottle of Scotch, mourning along with Thomas Jefferson.

George Lakoff’s views on Syria

September 6, 2013

I changed the title. It was amusing, in context, and at the time, but times change.

Lakoff discusses the power of metaphore, and the metaphores that are being used to discuss Syria. It’s an interesting read, and it’s also interesting to see how many of the metaphores (metaphorae?) he quotes that colored my thinking on the topic, presented in the previous essay.

It helps to be more self aware.

UPDATE: Here’s Part 2 of that essay. It talks about systemic causation, and why it’s a hard concept to get across. As a systems scientist, I can totally agree with this. Of course, when you start looking at the systems implications of actions, you also have to consider the impact on systems that are not the ones you are worried about.

My two cents on Syria

September 5, 2013

I am severely disappointed in President Obama. I still think he’s a better choice than Romney, but he’s turning out to be the least competent Democrat we’ve had in a long time. However, that’s a topic for another essay. Let’s talk Syria.

Looking at all the publicly available evidence, I can say how I read it:

1. I’m certain there was a sarin attack (or at least a release). However, I note that UN team has not reported yet, and the samples we tested were smuggled out of Syria by the rebels. Not a pristine chain of evidence. As with Iraq, we’re going ahead without the UN report.

2. I’m pretty sure it was by Syrian government forces (but we’ve admitted that the rebels also have CW).

3. I and others, are not so sure it was ordered by Assad. The evidence there is all ‘third party’ — Israeli for the most part. Israel is not our friend and has an interest in involving us in a Middle East quagmire. That, too, is a topic for another essay.

On the opinion side, I see no reason for the US to unilaterally intervene, and I see a lot of reasons not to, clear reasons against and less clear but well-founded fears of unintended emergent consequences:

4. Whatever Yoovian logic is used, if we go in without UN approval, not having been attacked ourselves, it’s a violation of international law.

5. This isn’t anything like the use of nuclear weapons. CW have been used before, by (just for e.g.) Iraq, both internally (on Kurds, at least), and externally, on Iran. The US did nothing either time, because (a) the Kurdish attacks were an internal affair, and (b) we’ve always been in favor of anything that hurts Iran. We ourselves used ‘non-lethal’ CW in VN, to drive VC and NVA out of their bunkers into the open, where we could napalm them. There is no bright red line because it’s been scuffled into a blur over the years. Obama’s moral huffing and puffing are pure show.

6. Just as with our other ME wars, the government has started out by lying to us. Up until recently, everybody agreed that the major (and most effective) part of the rebels were now Al Qaida affiliates, or the equivalent in Islamic extremists. Kerry now says it’s 15-25%. Putin flat-out called him a liar. God help me, I’m on Putin’s side on this. Do we really want to become Al Qaida’s Air Force?*

7. Depending on which of Kerry’s reported discussions you believe, we either do or do not plan to use force to effect a regime change. Once again, he’s lying to somebody. The fact is, if we make an attack, we have to ensure regime change. Assad can’t overlook an overt US attack on his country. It’s a defacto declaration of war. What will he do in return? I don’t know, but I do know that Americans will die because of it. For example, the war could spill over into Lebanon, to Israel, to Kurdish Turkey. Russia could support her client by sending fighters, or advanced SAMs, or advanced ship-killer missiles through Iran. Are we going to go to war with Iran as well? With Russia? The GOP would love that. So would the Israelis.

It looks to me like Obama got stampeded into making a lot of bellicose statements that he feels he now has to back up or be seen as ineffective or something. His credibility is at stake and therefore our credibility as a nation is at stake, because The President is The Nation. Personally, I see no reason to commit an act of international aggression just to save Obama’s face, or any other part of his anatomy.

History may judge a failure to act as an insult to what America stands for, but I think it was Lenny Bruce who said “I was at Salerno. I can take a lot of insults.”


*and who would have thought I’d ever quote Ted Cruz approvingly?

Saint Jones

August 20, 2013

Pamela Jones, PJ, is a lady, who might be young and blonde or old and grey, who might live in upstate New York, or maybe it was Jersey, and who, on occasion, might or might not wear a red dress. She’s also someone who took on one of the greatest evils of our technological culture, and won. OK, it wasn’t just her, any more than it was just Joan of Arc who drove the English out of France. She didn’t even command armies, the way Joan did. In military terms, what she did was organize a guerilla war that bled the enemy dry while the big guns of companies like IBM rolled over their main force. And thereby hangs a tale.

Back in the day, there was a pretty cool company called The Santa Cruz Operation, or SCO, for short (for anyone from the South Bay Area who’s been to the beach at Santa Cruz, the name says it all). They built a version of Unix that ran on x86 chips, the kind you use in your PC — this was pre-Linux. Alas, SCO fell on hard times, and eventually was bought out, by a company called Caldera Systems. Some years later, Caldera, now The SCO Group, also fell on hard times, when their server software wasn’t selling the way they thought it should. Instead of winding up their software business, or reinventing themselves as a beachwear company, they decided to become copyright trolls.

The way they did this was to start suing people who used or contributed to Linux (which by now was not only A Thing, but Quite A Thing) — IBM, Novell, Daimler Chrysler, AutoZone, claiming that among other things, SCO owned Unix and that code donated to Linux by companies like IBM included SCO-owned code. The apparent plan was to get the deep pockets to give them lots of money to go away, and to gain control over Linux. If open-source Linux was destroyed along the way, well, that’s just a side effect of doing business in today’s USA. This was a direct attack on everything the hacker culture holds dear, and I’m using hacker in the extremely positive sense.

In early 2003, within two months of the initial suite being filed, a retired paralegal named Pamela Jones started a website called GrokLaw, intended to collect all documents and evidence associated with the SCO offensive and to rally the technical community to the support of Linux.

She became SCO’s worst nightmare. Every time they would make a statement, someone out in the technosphere would find an original document that proved the statement false, send it to PJ, and she would post it on GrokLaw. Every time a SCO expert witness said something, there were dozens of technical experts who would write to PJ refuting it. Many of them were on the order of “I was there, and this is what really happened…”

PJ was scrupulously honest. Notice that I did not say even-handed — even-handed today means finding some weasel-worded way to say “both sides do it”, or “the other side has a point”. She never believed that. No-one who understood the industry believed it. She published the documents in the case and let the chips fall where they may. It’s just that none of the chips fell SCO’s way. The fact is that SCO was evil, lied, knew they were lying, and didn’t care. They kept getting outside funds (cough – Microsoft -cough), and kept running the case long after it was obvious to all that they were defeated. At the end, in January of 2007, they told the Utah judge that there was no need to establish an escrow fund for things like the licensing fees the judge had awarded to others. No fund was necessary, because they were a profitable, operating business, with no intention of going bankrupt. In September of 2007, in New Jersey, they filed for bankruptcy.

PJ’s punctilious sense of honor hurt her in many ways. In some cases it was simple smear tactics by SCO and their hireling press. In others it was more direct. Once, she was offered a job, with a company called Open Source Risk Management. SCO immediately said she was trading on her fame from GrokLaw. She resigned. “I kept coming back to the same thing. If my working for OSRM is doing harm by creating FUD possibilities, I need to remove that issue. Money is nice, but integrity is everything.

Pamela Jones is an extremely private person. One might say she has a pathological need for privacy, but I refuse to say anything bad about PJ. Throughout the whole guerilla war against SCO she refused to come into the limelight, even to receive any of the multiple awards that GrokLaw has been given. But GrokLaw runs on email, and if you’ve been following the reports of the attacks by NSA and the Obama administration on the 4th Amendment in general and email in particular you know there is no way to remain a private person and still use email. None.

So today, in a statement she posted at 2:30AM, PJ announced that she is shutting down GrokLaw.

You may not like her decision. You may not agree with it. But it’s her decision to make, in order to preserve her personal integrity. Unlike Joan, she was able to see her cause triumph. Unlike Joan, she was able to see that institutions that she revered, like The Law, were no longer able to protect her. Unlike Joan, she was able to remove herself from the fray with both her life and her honor intact. Like Joan, she set in motion something that would continue beyond her time. GrokLaw may be closed to new entries, but the site is still open. More importantly, she showed the technosphere that it is possible to win through collective action. It requires A Cause, but there are several of them out there, including protecting the privacy of email users. One day, perhaps, she’ll be back.

A Good Lawyer

August 13, 2013

There’s an old saying, that goes something like “a lawyer will point to the rule that says you can’t do something, a good lawyer will comb through the rules until they find the combination that says you can do it“.

Time and again, the Department of Justice has demonstrated that, when it comes to destroying American constitutional government, they are the very best of lawyers. Remember John Yoo?

He is best known for his opinions concerning the Geneva Conventions which legitimized the War on Terror by the United States. He also authored the so-called Torture Memos, which concerned the use of what the Central Intelligence Agency called enhanced interrogation techniques including waterboarding. Wikipedia

What’s the DoJ latest? A white paper of Yoovian audacity, justifying the bulk collection of US citizens’ telephone activity, on the grounds that it might someday be “relevant” in combatting the terrorist threat to the US. Some people have a problem with this.

One of the jobs of the Attorney General is “to give his advice and opinion upon questions of law when required by the President of the United States”. Those words are used in both the original Judiciary Act of 1789, and in the follow-on legislation almost a century later, the Act to Establish the Department of Justice, ch. 150, 16 Stat. 162 (1870).  So the job of the Attorney General, with the support of his minions in the DoJ, is to answer questions like “Is it torture if we do to this guy the kinds of things we executed other people for?” and “Is it a violation of the 4th Amendment if we do to citizens of the US the kinds of things we vilified the communist countries (and King George) for doing?” Given our long devotion to the rule of law, one would expect the answers to be along the lines of  “Of course it’s illegal, you dumb shit, why are you even bothering me with this malarkey?”

Instead, we find that the AG and the DoJ have become enablers, complicit in attacks on US civil liberties. I’m not claiming an anti-American conspiracy here. The AG’s under both Republican and Democratic President’s are honorable, capable men, who I am sure, see themselves as protecting American lives; men who have no intention of creating a police state and who see no way that it would ever come to that.

To modify slightly the closing words from Judgement at Nuremberg, “It came to that, Mr. Attorney General, the first time you sanctioned an act that you knew to be illegal.”

The Insider’s View

August 10, 2013

Jennifer Hoelzer is the former deputy chief of staff for Senator Ron Wyden (D OR), long term NSA critic. Today she wrote a “Favorite Posts of the Week” column for TechDirt, talking about the NSA surveillance programs. I don’t normally post links to things I don’t comment on, but I think this one stands on its own.

The TL;DR version: the President, the Intelligence Community, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have been guilty of lies and coverups about the legality of the NSA collections programs, and the recent public statements by the President are simply more lies and obfuscations. Go read it, and read the stories it links to, and keep in mind that this is just one week’s worth of news and commentary on the topic.

The Paradox of Warning 2

August 9, 2013

And so Ramadan has come and gone, the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr have come and gone, and there’s been no attacks. Maybe there never were any planned, at least, none of substance.

As I said in my first post on the subject, The Paradox of Warning is that if you give your boss a warning of an event, and your boss acts on it, and as a result of those actions the event doesn’t happen, were you guilty of crying wolf?

Sometimes there’s corroborating evidence. In a big operation like this, there’s always that ten percent what don’t get the word, and so there’s a pattern of minor attacks — guys running up to the barricades carrying a flag with their shirt undone and not enough people behind them to justify a painting. Sometimes the other side will admit to their plans, usually years later. But sometimes you just get it wrong and there never was a serious intent to make a serious attack. And sometimes you are guilty of lying.

Take this latest kerfluffle. Look at the leaked “evidence” around it. The Legion of Doom holds a conference call that we are able to tap into, maybe because there’s so many participants they can’t keep track of who’s dialed in. There’s a threat that stretches across all of the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, requiring that we close our embassies there for a week. There’s a threat of attacks on pipelines and ports in Yemen. Except, of course, there’s always attacks on pipelines in Yemen and the pro-AQ tribes have never had the ability to mount a major attack on a port. Plus, I’m not aware of any pipelines that run through the embassy there.

What’s the result? I mean aside from us becoming the laughingstock of the Middle East, and aside from giving Al Qaida in Madagascar an idea for their next deception operation? Well, at home, the NSA supporters have the opportunity to claim that their programs (legal, but of questionable constitutionality) are needed to prevent these kinds of plots in the future. Funny timing on that, isn’t it?

It stinks, as they say, on ice.

Snowden started it, but it was only a matter of time

August 5, 2013

The NYT this morning is reporting that NSA is being pestered by other government agencies, clamouring for their data (and in some cases, getting it).  This is all coming out because the Snowden leaks have made it possible to talk about it, but the fact is, those other government agencies have always wanted in on NSA’s surveillance data on US citizens. It’s an organizational imperitive. If there’s a tool that will help you do your job better, then you want to use that tool.

Better, of course, means “more convictions”, not “protect American values.” Convictions can be measured and therefore have become the standard. Safeguarding the rights of Americans can’t be easily measured, can’t be reduced to a sound bite for an appropriations committee, and so becomes irrelevant.

This is the slippery slope. This is why the various NSA programs should be prohibited. It’s not that NSA is a rogue agency, ’cause it’s not. It’s that elements within all three branches of the government conspired to make legal that which should never have been made legal.

Will shutting down these programs increase the risk? Certainly. Will shutting down these programs lead to increased American deaths? Most likely. But Americans have always been willing to accept risks, and to die, in support of freedom and, let’s say it “the American way of life”. Because that’s what’s under attack right now. Al Qaida, for all their chatter, poses no great threat to the US, not compared with, say, furniture. But NSA, FBI, DHS? These are the real threat.  These are the organizations whose chatter we should be listening to.


There were 54…

August 1, 2013

Do you want to know why General Alexander claimed there were 54 terrorist plots foiled by NSA surveillance of everybody in the USA? Because 57 was already taken.


I Trust the NSA

July 24, 2013

It’s true. I used to work with those guys, and they’re scrupulous about obeying the law. That’s at the worker level.


I don’t trust the NSA leadership

I don’t trust the FBI.  At all.

I don’t trust the DoJ. At all.

I don’t trust the Senate. With a few, very few exceptions.

I don’t trust the House of Representatives. With a few exceptions.

I don’t trust the FISA Court

I don’t trust the Supreme Court

I don’t trust the TELCOs

I don’t trust the President, and I voted for him. Twice.

In general, I don’t trust the government.

All of the above have colluded and/or lied to the American people about programs and laws which even their creators have said have gone too far.

It’s time to change those laws. It’s time to dismantle those programs. It’s time for some pushback against the attacks on our civil rights, on our Constitutional rights.

President Obama says he wants an informed, open, deliberative process. He’s had four years to initiate that process, and he hasn’t done it. The only thing that makes him willing to do it now is the blunt approach. So let’s get blunt.