Having to convince Russia that we will not abuse Snowden

I think it's ok to prosecute Snowden, even if he should have revealed the breadth of the NSA program. I accept the need to have state secrets and, virtuous or not, that has to be protected.

Where I veer into strict, horrified agreement is that I am completely certain that he would be brutalized by our government if apprehended. While Guantanamo is a completely bad thing, it's a side-issue. What's real is the three years before charges for Jose Padilla or the grotesque torment of Bradley Manning.

In these cases, the government imprisoned the person in harsh, torturous circumstances for years before even granting a trial.

And, of course, it's telling that the correct phrase is "granting a trial". Neither got one until the government bloody well felt like it.

As you know, I am not as concerned as you about the NSA's (possible) abuse of our data. Instead, I am worried as hell about the rest of the government's abuse of people's real, live bodies.

I recently posted an article about the increasingly widespread use of SWAT teams to serve search warrants, destroying property, terrorizing families, and otherwise acting in the way of the jackboot, often toward completely innocent people.

As a result, I completely understand Snowden's unwillingness to accept the consequences of his, as I'd call it, civil disobedience, because it won't be a legal punishment. It will be torture and 'enhanced' interrogation and years of wondering if he will ever get a trial.

Holder didn't say he wouldn't be abused. He said they would not seek the death penalty and he would not be tortured. While Obama has significantly revised the idea of torture by our government, Bradley Manning's example makes clear that Snowden can expect to be severely punished well before a trial is convened.

It is an embarrassment and it is the biggest threat. We think of the fact that we have more people in jail than any other country except, what is it?, Iran is a awful but, the more important clue is that we have become a real, live police state.

Cops do stop and frisk. They use battering rams to serve search warrants. They put people in jail for years without trial. They set up roadblocks to see if your ok to drive. They check your papers at the airport. It goes on and on.

This is big stuff and we need to fix it.

Invitation to Anti-Choice People to School Me

I am 100% strict in my insistence that nobody gets to tell any woman what kind of surgery she has but appreciate your interest being pleasant about it.

Here is why my side goes crazy when they pass laws about abortion clinics: We don't believe that anyone is sincerely trying to 'help'.

You say two things that highlight places where we differ. First, the notion that it's up to you or to the law to make sure a woman has made the correct judgement is a presumption that is offensive to me. I believe that women are fully capable of deciding if they are being coerced and that it is an insult to suggest that they need to be protected.

The other thing is your observation that we fail to see the other's point of view. I actually believe that I do. I realize that you feel sad about the little babies. I realize that you have the belief that those fetuses are tiny humans that you want to protect. And, in fact, I sympathize with you.

The problem is that you want to assuage that feeling by interfering with the bodies of women who disagree. The part of the anti-choice side I cannot fathom is how you can believe that you have the right to interfere with some other woman's decision. To me, it is incomprehensibly arrogant for you to say that any woman should be compelled to compromise with you over the actions she takes with her own body because you have an emotional attachment to, what she and I believe is a fantasy about the potential of that lump of cells.

If I was to say to you (if this exact example applies), "Look, it's obvious that Mohammed is the real deal but, I'm no hardass, let's compromise. You admit that Jesus and Mohammed are equal. You keep worshipping your guy, just don't call him the Son of God."

You (or someone who was Christian if it doesn't apply to you), would consider that request offensive. You would say that I was encroaching on your fundamental right to live your life the way you want. That you *know* that Jesus is the Son of God and the idea that you would compromise on that knowledge is offensive.

For me, and the women I know, your assertion that we should compromise on our belief that women are free to use their bodies as they want and that fetuses are just biological bits is every bit as offensive.

It's worse though, because the anti-choice types want to force women to live their lives, possibly have them ruined, in the name of beliefs you hold but they don't.

It is true that many women are deeply conflicted about this and that's why I use the analogy of a soldier. A soldier does things that are very difficult to make life better for his or her family and country. Many times, the things that must be done are morally ambiguous. (Ask any soldier who has seen combat if you doubt it.)

A woman that judges her best option to be abortion may not like it. She might have visions of cute little babies in her head. She might also have visions of being an impoverished single mom. Or of being thrown out of her parents' house to live on the street. Or of a million other things. When she makes the judgement that her life and that of her family and society are better served by aborting this fetus, that is often a very difficult decision.

It is the brave decision of a warrior. Just as it would be appalling for you to think that you should stand on the battlefield to second guess whether the soldier should have shot that particular opponent or if it was really an innocent who had been forced into the army, it is wrong, wrong in the big moral sense for you to try to interfere with that woman's life and karma.

And so, it comes down to respect. The anti-choice types somehow conclude that their decision about the unprovable reality of the fetus should govern the life of some woman. A woman who, almost always, the anti-choice types are unwilling to help (it's no coincidence that the term 'welfare queen' was coined by anti-choice people).

Even if you are right and fetuses are cute little babies, in the end, it's a matter of respect for women that they must make that decision without having to 'compromise' with some third party. She's already compromising with her emotions. It's none of anyone else's business.

Your turn. Comments are turned on.

On the NSA's Monitoring of Personal Data

I continue to believe that the important result of the current NSA data monitoring revelation is the need to make better decisions about the use of our personal information. Over the weekend, there were a few people who commented on various facets of the problem and cover the ground I've been thinking about fairly well.

To wit:

"When the government grabs every single fucking telephone call made from the United States over a period of months and years, it is not a prelude to monitoring anything in particular. [...] When they ask for everything, it is not for specific snooping or violations of civil rights, but rather a data base that is being maintained as an investigative tool."

"For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse."


"[B]ecause what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it."

"Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11."


"The danger, it seems to me, is not surveillance per se. We have already decided, most of us, that life on the grid entails a certain amount of intrusion. Nor is the danger secrecy [...] The danger is the absence of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom."



This isn't Jackboots, People! (Yet)

I find myself embattled with my usual crowd of political friends as I have taken the unpopular view that I think that Barack can be trusted to administer the NSA wiretapping and data collection programs properly.

There is one thing that I have read repeatedly, both in personal conversations and in the media, that I need to dismiss. That canard goes something like, "Sure, if we do these programs, we will eventually collar some bad guys. It would be even better if we allowed the police to search everyone's home."

This is a classic case of false equivalence. In fact, the entire Fourth Amendment, "unreasonable search" argument is slightly off, in my opinion. (Not, mind you, that I am entirely comfortable with government monitoring.)

There are two points I want to make. First, these programs are not actually interfering with your life in any way, as would a periodic search of your house. The phrase "unreasonable search" also includes "and seizure". While I am as enthusiastic as anyone about interpreting the Constitution in a modern context, looking at information that one leaves sitting around other people's computers is not comparable to jackboots stomping all over your carpets.

The other point is that, given my intent to charitable interpret the situation, I can easily see this more as 'community policing' than searching everyone's homes.

In the community policing model, cops are sent to basically  spend their lives in a neighborhood. The goal is that they can unobtrusively become aware of the nature of the community and its inhabitants so that they can, without having to hassle everyone, know who is causing problems and head off crimes before damage is done.

The knowledge in that neighborhood cops head is an uncontrolled, detailed set of information that could be used for good or evil. The NSA database could be characterized as analogous to that cop's awareness. Given proper controls, it could be seen as a way for defenders to see know what is going on in a way that allows an overview.

It could be providing a capability where, as the cop notices that a handful of young men are suddenly flashing rolls of cash with no apparent explanation, the NSA guy could see that there is phone traffic focusing on some location that procured unusual amounts of potentially explosive fertilizer recently.

For me, the whole thing is presently acceptable because I believe that the President has the good intentions, moral fortitude and discipline to administer the program fairly. That is, I am confident that this particular database is run according to a set of rules defined by a guy I trust.

For it to be acceptable in the long run, it has to be protected against the next George Bush. That is, legal rules must be created to turn abuse into a crime and establish permanent norms that prevent this tool from turning into a monster. That also means that the corporate databases from which the NSA derives it's database must be controlled as well, including responsibility for the uses to which their data is put by others, including the NSA.

This program is not going  away and I'm not sure that I want it to. I am sure that we do not have sufficient protections concerning the use of our personal data in any context, governmental or corporate. That should change.

Without NSA Monitoring

An undercover guy was in a bar and had a conversation where a guy he knows to be a really bad person tells him to stay out of the subway for the foreseeable future. He leers and says that he's heard something really big is going down. He doesn't know much but what he does know sends a serious chill down the back of the good guy. The undercover guy tries to get more information but can only learn that the guy found out about this while overhearing a cell phone conversation in a bar last Thursday.

He contacts his bosses with the information. The undercover guy is hopeful that the problem can be tracked down because the bar where the cellphone conversation happened  probably only had twenty people pass through it on a quiet Thursday night. There would only be a handful of cell calls from the place. That list should be available at the click of a mouse. Finding the cellphone on the other end should be another click. A quick check of the location data for those phones reveals that they have been talking to a phone that came up in another investigation.

Wait! They can't do that. We decided that, instead of "a click of the mouse", they had to fill out a form, get a warrant and wait for those things to be approved. Oh, and they had to know the name and phone number of the guy in the bar before they could get the warrant. Since they don't know that, they don't even apply.

The government defenders are saying that a plot to blow up bombs in the New York subway was foiled a while ago. Imagine how frustrated that undercover guy and his support team would feel as they thought about that overheard conversation. Imagine how annoyed you'd be at your mother's funeral.

IRS Political Targeting: Simply Looking at the Obvious

I tried to figure out why on earth these IRS people would target political groups based on ideology. My experiences with the IRS have made me believe that it's a remarkably professional organization. I can't imagine what would cause them to care about the political orientation of their victims.

Duh! I slap my forehead. As reported, there was a huge increase in non-profit companies leading up the the last election. The names and keywords they looked at clearly indicate the likelihood of illegal political activism. How else would you do the first selection on targets for investigation.

"Tea Party" and "Patriot" are usually included in the names of political action groups. It's as if these people are being criticized for looking at non-profits with names including "Republican Action Network".

Global Warming

If you look at the surface of a pot full of water at room temperature, the surface will be smooth. If you heat it, you will see little waves and undulations on the surface. Those will become more frantic as the temperature rises. When it breaks into a boil, it will change to have bubbles and splashes and roiling waves.

When you co2 collects heat in the atmosphere, it changes. As a gas, it changes the way it absorbs and releases moisture, mostly in the direction of absorbing more. However, the more that it absorbs, the more the water wants to fall out as rain. When the air cools, because of nightfall, seasons, geographic features, some falls out.

Places where the air was being extra absorbent will have extra drought. Places where the air cools, will have extra rain. Places in-between will have in-between weather but, since the world is heating up, there will be fewer of them.

You can't predict the exact pattern of splashes and bubbles on the surface of the pot of water when it crosses the threshold into boiling. You only know it's going to be intensely agitated. As our atmosphere crosses the threshold of absorption, we don't get to know exactly what will happen, only that it's going to be a lot different and more intense.

Good writing. Interesting story. Witty not Glib

I read a lot and I'm pretty open-minded about what I read. That means that I often read things that are flawed. There are two flaws that are almost universal. One is that I can perceive the author's overall outline for the book. I can imagine that the current passage was responding to "Build suspense by having hero get trapped." I prefer that the story follow its own logic. The other flaw is verbosity. Whether it's extraneous action or endless site descriptions or deep diving into the character's internal dialog, I'll be reading (or driving along listening) and think, "Good god! Get on with it!"

I explain these ideas to make clear exactly what is NOT wrong with John Scalzi in general and this book, Agent to the Stars, especially. The guy has an exquisitely organic sense of story telling. I've read several of his books (I'm inclined toward science fiction) and I can't really ever think of an occasion where something happened merely to serve the writing. Even better, when he says stuff, it counts. In this book, when I gave a thought to the writing, per se, it was to remark to myself that this prose was wonderfully bright and lucid.

I love absurdity and comedy. I love references that are 'au courant' for the culture. Sadly, authors that have the kind of awareness to write that sort of thing are very, very often glib. The references are gratuitous and superficial. I feel like they are showing off.

Again, Scalzi does NOT have this problem either. This book is written for the moment. It revels in the modern entertainment culture. But, the things that are said, as with the jokes, absurdities and goofy plot twists seem natural and they serve the story. Instead of seeming like decorations added to beef up appeal, with Scalzi these things create a sense of place and make sense in context. If you removed them, the story would fall apart.

Agent to the Stars is also poignant. I was delighted as I realized that, along with really pleasant entertainment, that Scalzi was actually saying something. I'm no english major but, I am confident that this would stand up to a bunch of solid book club discussion of its themes and values. It was interesting and, as it came to a conclusion, I was charmed by the way he brought his idea to fruition.

On the Idea that Reproductive Freedom Should be Decided by Voters

The idea that we should leave the idea that women should be enslaved to a fetus in the hands of voters is insane. Freedom should not be subject to a vote. Especially in a world where those voters are foolishly swayed by emotion, propaganda and passion. Women are free creatures. Their bodies are their own. Anything else is slavery.

Oh, you think the rights of the fetal 'person' should trump her foolish freedom.

Imagine, a woman is put into a dungeon by a person. He or she only allows this person to serve as a slave to his or her needs. The woman is trapped for years and, one day finds a knife, stabs that person to death and escapes.

You're not saying, She's a murderer. You are saying that her freedom was deeply infringed and she took the only action possible to regain it.

You say that you can't condone murder. Well, if you are a sane person, you just did. No woman should have her life ruined in service to another person.

The anti-choice argument gets even more specious when we are reminded that the fetus is a pulsating lump of meat. If the woman wants to abort, it doesn't have a family, any way to care for itself, or any other role in society except as a parasite.

The idea that a woman should be forced to nurture this parasite because *you* think it's a good idea is immoral.

Considering 'Public Safety Exception'

The courts originally articulated the 'Public Safety Exception' in the case of a cop who, roughly speaking, asked a bad guy about more bad guys out of sight in a violent situation. When the cop testified about that conversation in the trial, it was thrown out since it was not done in the context of a Miranda warning. A (conservative) Supreme Court in the eighties said that was silly. The cops could not be expected to follow procedures when lives were at imminent risk.

During the modern era of international, violent conspiracy, the government has found itself with a nasty problem. After Miranda, a (supposed) bad guy can get a lawyer. During interrogation, the lawyer is there to prevent the interrogator from getting too much information from the bad guy.

This is the normal, American process intended to prevent the cops from coercing people into incriminating themselves and makes a lot of sense. However, it is really frustrating when you think that the guy might know the location of a factory making bombs or biological weapons.

It turns out that there are interrogation techniques that are pretty effective in extracting information from people who don't really want to talk. This is the category of things that are being referred to when people say that "torture is not the most effective way to get information.

However, these techniques require (I surmise) a prolonged game where the interrogator is able to establish a complicated rapport with the person. That rapport is not really possible when you have a third party, the lawyer, interrupting and saying, "Don't answer that," and "That's not necessarily true," and "He's trying to trick you here." That is, the presence of a lawyer is an active impediment to finding out the location of the bomb factory.

Tough luck!, some might say. Our system is based on the premise that it's better to allow a hundred guilty people go free than to put a single innocent person in jail. This premise responds the the very real, very important danger of government overreach. Government through history have used the legal system to illegitimately imprison enemies.

The challenge is the modern age where there are technologies available that allow killing on a scale never considered by the 'let a hundred guilty go free' idea. Yesterday, that one bad guy could, at worst, run around shooting people. Today, there are bombs, dirty bombs and biological weapons that can kill or injure thousands. Letting one bad guy go free who can kill thousands of people changes the calculation if all of a hundred times the number innocents that were protected are killed.

It turns logic on its head to say that, if a person is so bad that they are trying to kill thousands, we have to choose between preventing the killing and putting the bad guy in jail. But it also violates our sense of decency to allow authorities to have a team of highly sophisticated interrogators work over a person and make him or her face it alone. The rules that insist that a person must have a lawyer is very important.

But so is closing the bomb factory.

A decent government is based on the idea of balancing help and harms and this is a balancing act for which we are painfully unprepared. Liberals knee-jerk against the use of state power to manipulate individuals. Conservatives knee-jerk in favor of maximum use of state power to protect society. Over the last several years, the balancing point has moved strongly toward protectiveness.

The Bush administration took a pretty simple view of the matter: protecting society is always more important than civil rights. Obama has been more nuanced. He accepts rules but has transformed them in ways that codify a diminished view of civil rights. In particular, he has claimed that the 'Public Safety Exception' applies to more than the instant safety of the police and public. He says it applies to the finding of the bomb factory, too.

In the original use of the exception, it was very easy to know if it was properly applied. Not so in the modern use. If the CIA has been tracking a guy and claims he knows the location of the bomb factory, there is a long leap of faith to believe that he should be denied normal legal protections, especially since much of the information can't be revealed without compromising the information sources that make you know about the bomb factory in the first place.

The country needs a process to deal with these things that protects our basic constitutional civil rights. If all leaders were as sophisticated as Barack Obama, it would be acceptable to leave the decision to the good judgement of the government. The problem is that we could elect another George Bush any time and be faced with a leader whose disdain for civil rights resulted in many people being imprisoned without any trial at all after having information extracted from them in a way that, was it used in a trial, would make a mockery of our judicial system.

In this case, the use of the 'Public Safety Exception' distorts the idea of imminent threat beyond recognition because it is dealing with a real issue that is important but has not been accommodated by the law in any way. We need to find a way to deal with the need to extract information from people who know information that is important to the safety, perhaps the survival of our society. It's not that the person is a terrorist, or an enemy, or even a criminal.

  • We need to figure out a way to decide that a person knows something essential to the survival of society and can be compelled to reveal it. There are some challenges in this:

  • If the person is not otherwise subject to the justice system, what happens? (Imagine a person who inadvertently found the location of the nuke but, for some reason is unwilling to tell. Can he be interrogated, even though he's not even vaguely suspected of committing a crime?)

  • How can this process be constructed so that information gained doesn't ruin our ability to have a fair trial for the person? (Imagine that innocent guy above actually is guilty of, say, parking illegally and that information is revealed during said interrogation. What happens to his parking trial considering that he is 100% innocent of involvement in the nuke problem?)

  • How do we adjudicate the boundary between 'risk to society' and 'very bad behavior'? If we allow the use of sophisticated interrogation, do we want it used to, say, cause a gang member to reveal all of the details of his gang because they are bad guys and going to do bad things in the future? What about a guy who knows about irregularities at Goldman Sax? It would be very useful to know if he knows things that might let us prevent another Great Recession.

  • It is legitimately important that our society has the ability to extract existentially important information from people who do not want to give it. The use of the idea 'Public Safety Exception' is dangerously inappropriate. It is not sufficiently accountable. It also does not provide adequate latitude. Some accountable process is needed that protects us from government overreach yet also supports just outcomes for bad guys is needed.