Wednesday, October 30, 2013

DC Marijuana Decriminatlization: Chris Hayes drinks the Kool-Aid

Chris Hayes recently did a segment on his nightly show in which he discussed the Marijuana decriminalization bill currently before the DC City Council. I have discussed this issue in depth in a previous post. Hayes did his usual professional job of discussing the bill before falling into the error of believing the bill's backers' propaganda (also known as drinking the Kool-Aid).

Hayes mentioned that the bill would decriminalize simple possession of Marijuana and that the proponents of the bill claim they have the 10 votes to override a mayoral veto if it comes. He did not mention that the police department supports this bill and that the police make 9.000 arrests each year for simple possession. I estimate that each arrest nets the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) $8,500. So 9,000 completely useless arrests net the MPD up to $76 million a year. 1 Another way to put that is that the MPD receives $76 million from the city and taxpayers of DC for its activities arresting people for simple possession of marijuana. Any way you put it, that's a lot of wasted money.

The MPD has a substantial vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and they support decriminalization, not legalization. While questioning the Police representative at the hearing, Marion Barry brought out the point that while possession might be legal, possession for sale would still be a felony, and possession for sale could apply to any amount of marijuana, even a single joint. So decriminalization would open up a different way for DC Police to harass its citizens: by charging a person with possession for sale, the police would still get a felony arrest and the individual arrested would still be injected into the court system.

Furthermore, there would still be a fine of $100 for simple possession of marijuana. Many, if not most, of the people arrested by the police for possession are poor. For them, a fine that steep would be difficult to pay, and there they are injected into the criminal justice system again.

I applaud Chris for bringing this issue to the attention of the public. He should also discuss the merits of legalization, which could save the city more than $76 million a year, because incarceration of convicted users comes from the Department of Corrections, not the police department.

1. The figure of $76 million is based on the total budget of the MPD, $410 million in 2012, divided by the number of arrests (48,000), then multiplied by the number of arrests for simple possession of drugs. This is a very rough estimate, yet it still does not include the costs of incarceration for people who are imprisoned for simple possession.

Not plagiarism: Rand Paul quotes Wikipedia

Rachel Maddow ran a segment about how bad it was for Rand Paul to quote a Wikipedia article on Gattaca. It was bad, of course, because Paul continued the dishonest Republican tradition of treating works of fiction as fact. During the run of 24 Hours, Fox commentators frequently discussed how torture works to extract information from captives because it worked for Jack Bauer, who portrayed torture as normal, effective, acceptable and glamorous. OK, I'm quoting Wikipedia there. But it's not plagiarism.

Paul cited a number of passages from Wikipedia where the omnipotent state uses the analysis of a person's DNA to determine their function in life, a subject covered much more artistically in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. But Paul is using these passages to scare his listeners into believing that such things are now possible, or soon will be. He wants people to believe that our government is omnipotent and dictatorial, like the one in Gattaca. It's not. Paul is using a fictional example of something that doesn't exist--and never will--to attack our actual government falsely.

Paul, as despicable as his purpose might be, is not plagiarizing because he is reviewing the plot from the movie, Gattaca. Paul says at the beginning of his remarks that all these ideas come from the movie, Gattaca. His use of the plot elements are therefore not plagiarism, but fair use. He never pretends that the ideas are his own. 

Maddow showed several passages that Paul had lifted from Wikipedia's description of the movie without giving credit to the source. Wikipedia, however, does not copyright its stories. Much of its historical information comes from encyclopedias, like the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, that are now in the public domain. Wikipedia's stated purpose is to 

Empower and Engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content and either publish it under a free license or dedicate it to the public domain.Disseminate this content effectively and globally, free of charge.

The contents of Wikipedia are covered by a copyright agreement that allows people freely to 

Read and Print our articles and other media free of charge.Share and Reuse our articles and other media under free and open licenses.

When someone gives you permission to share and reuse their work, there cannot be any plagiarism of it.

Maddow should spend her time criticizing the substance of Rand Paul's speeches, not their style.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Red Onion Prison: Virginia's Shame

Despite its reputation as a liberal city, Washington, DC, sends men convicted of felonies, even non-violent drug offenders, to one of the most inhuman, degrading, and shocking prisons in America: Red Onion Prison.

Inmates at Red Onion Prison in Virginia suffer cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of prison guards and the Virginia Department of Correction (VDOC). This treatment is systematic and condoned by prison authorities and by politicians, both in Virginia and in the District of Columbia. DC courts send men convicted of felonies, both violent and non-violent, to Red Onion, because there is no prison in the district. Virginia authorities also send non-violent convicts to Red Onion and Rollins Ridge because of overcrowding.

Red Onion Prison has been the subject of investigations by Human Rights Watch, which found that the VDOC

"has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment."1

The District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DCDOC) sends persons who have been convicted of felonies to Red Onion because DC has no prison facilities of its own. All prisoners, whether violent or non-violent, are sent to this Super-Maximum prison. As a result, non-violent persons are thrown into a violent criminal population where they are treated more harshly than those convicted of similar crimes in other prisons. VDOC apparently believes that it must control prisoners through aggressive, demeaning, and frequently violent treatment.

There are two kinds of cells at Red Onion, progressive and solitary. In progressive housing, two prisoners share a cell. Non-violent prisoners are routinely placed in cells with violent criminals. Any sign of insubordination can result in solitary confinement, where prisoners are confined in a small, windowless room for 23 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Red Onion and its nearby twin, Wallens Ridge Prison, were constructed during the administration of Virginia Governor George Allen (1984-1988), who ran for election on a severe anti-crime platform. The result of the governor's advocacy was a suite of laws consistent with American Legal Exchange Council (ALEC) recommendations that increased mandatory minimum sentences, delayed parole eligibility until 85% of the sentence is served, and made sentences up to 10 times as long. In some states, “three-strike” laws were adopted that guaranteed men who were convicted on a third felony, no matter how minor, a sentence to prison for life. These laws led to long sentences for non-violent offenders and increased the number of prisoners in Virginia's state prisons.

Red Onion and Wallens Ridge were deliberately located in a remote region of Virginia. Red Onion is 4 hours from Charlottesville, the nearest city, and 7 hours from DC. Relatives of prisoners rarely visit them there. These prisons were intended to be dehumanizing, according to Ronald Angelone, a former Virginia Director of Corrections: “It's not a nice place, and I designed it not to be a nice place.2

Human Rights Watch released its report on Red Onion in 1999. In it they described conditions at the prison but also gave details on what HRW was not permitted to do. They could not visit the prison facilities or interview prisoners or prison employees about conditions there. HRW reported that the DOC used prison walls to keep investigators out. Much of what comes out of the prison is based on rumor and hearsay. Prison officials keep facts away from media and the public.

HRW reported the following abuses in 1999:

  • Prisoners who are not incorrigible are arbitrarily deprived of the activities and freedoms available ordinarily even in maximum security prisons.
  • Prison staff use force unnecessarily, excessively, and dangerously. Inmates are fired at with shotguns loaded with rubber pellets and have been injured for minor misconduct, non-threatening errors, or just behavior that guards have misinterpreted.
  • Prison staff routinely use electrical stun-guns.
  • All prisoners are subjected to remarkable levels of control and forced to live in oppressive and counterproductive idleness, denied educational, behavioral, vocational and work programs and religious services.
  • Correctional officers and other prison staff threaten inmates with abuse and subject them to racist remarks, derogatory language and other demeaning and harassing conduct.3

The preponderance of inmates at Red Onion are black, and the staff is almost entirely white, drawn from the rural coal-mining area in which the prison is located. Many of the staff have family or community ties with each other. They have had little or no direct contact with blacks before beginning work at Red Onion.

We do not know what selection process or special training the DOC has provided staff at Red Onion. Inmates assert that many of the staff are respectful and professional. But they also describe some officers as determined to show “they can be badder than we are.” These officers are quick to use derogatory terms and slurs, quick to use force, quick to impose their authority unnecessarily and capriciously. One inmate described to HRW the relations between staff and inmates as follows: “The guards are young—for the most part—and possess the mentality of juveniles—as do most of the prisoners—and they are into the macho mentality—as are most of the prisoners. The two do not mix well.”4

Tensions and misunderstandings perhaps inevitably arise from a clash of cultures in which both black prisoners and white staff hold misconceptions and believe in caricatures about the other. But in a well-run facility with appropriate staff selection, training and supervision, those tensions can be minimized and kept from escalating into provocation, confrontations and violence. Unfortunately, white and black inmates alike at Red Onion describe an atmosphere of pervasive and blatant racism. Inmates claim that officers routinely use such terms as “boy” and “n*r”. One white inmate told HRW that an officer said to him, with reference to a black inmate with a reputation for sexual misbehavior, “What do you expect from a fucking n*r?” Another white inmate wrote to HRW that he had talked with an officer escorting him about a shooting. He described the officer as “so excited about being able to shoot ‘n*rs...’[H]e couldn’t wait to shoot some of them black bastards.”

Men in Red Onion prison have started hunger strikes on at least 2 occasions. VDOC has shut down all communications with the outside world at those times and spread misinformation to the public about how many men were protesting, what conditions they were protesting, and how they were being treated by VDOC. After the hunger strikes ended, leaders were identified and transferred to other prisons as far away as Washington state.

1Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum Security Confinement in Virginia 1, Human Rights Watch, 1999, at
2Craig Timberg, At Virginia's Toughest Prison, Tight Controls C1, Washington Post, April 18, 1999,
3HRW 1.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Washington, D.C. pushes bogus marijuana decriminalization bill

Anyone who's seen a Fox “News” program knows how they work. One talking head reads a news story and the others comment on it, using the most violent distortions of the truth. For instance, one might say, 89 percent of the persons arrested for simple possession of marijuana in the District of Columbia are African-Americans or another minority. Then the Fox commentator says, I wonder why that is? And another one goes into a long-winded reply about how that's the way people are.

Or, on another occasion, someone might read a news item that indicates that marijuana is neither addictive nor harmful. It is certainly not a gateway drug to anything except entanglement in the prison system. Then the other Fox commentator says, surely we can't let this dangerous drug be distributed to our children. Another Fox commentator says, certainly we can't permit this dangerous drug to be legalized.

This sort of comedy show is very popular on Fox. Firmly held opinions of the status-quo are endlessly repeated, no matter how discredited those ideas have been. But these little falsehoods were repeated in DC City Council Chambers last Thursday, October 24, 2013, where the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety was holding hearings on the “decriminalization” of marijuana. The ring master for this farce was Tommy Wells, who I understand is running for mayor. It was Councilman Wells's responsibility to see that witnesses were truthful and all points of view were considered. Unfortunately, Wells did not do that. Instead, he permitted reams of falsehoods to be entered into the record.

Take, for example, the study by Washington Lawyers' committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. This careful study, based entirely on records of the Metropolitan Police Department, showed that 89 percent of arrests made in DC for simple possession were African-Americans. What did Wells say about this disparity in treatment of different races by the police department? He asked the witnesses for the Lawyers' Committee what could be the reason for this startling figure.

Let me make this clear. Wells did not ask the representative of the Mayor, Andrew Fois, how the police intended to fix this problem. No, Wells acted as if it wasn't a problem. Then he sat and listened while Fois explained how decriminalization would work. Mere possession would be legal, but not using the drug on the street. But possession itself would be illegal in City Parks and near schools.

Possession for sale, of course, would still be illegal. Councilman Marion Barry asked how much marijuana a person would have to have before he could be arrested for intent to sell.

Andrew Fois: Oh, any amount.
Barry: Even a single joint?
Fois: Yes.
Barry: So if you had a single joint in your pocket you could be arrested for intent to sell?

At this point one of Fois's deputies jumped in to rescue his boss from the blind alley he had wandered into. “Oh, no,” he said. “There would have to be some other evidence.” What the other evidence might be was not revealed.

When my turn came to testify, I asked the court why they were not considering total legalization. David Rosso has introduced a bill to that effect. It seemed to me inevitable that marijuana would be legalized eventually. Why not now?

Wells got a little hot under the collar. I suppose he was angry at me for disrupting his dog and pony show, where official witnesses lined up to tell Wells what a great guy he was, and what a great job the police are doing, busting 40,000 African-Americans a year, mostly for nothing at all, and how we really can't legalize marijuana right now because, as Wells explained

  1. The Congress might do something if we did.
  2. Legalization of marijuana would do nothing to halt use of more dangerous drugs.
  3. The time isn't right.

To which I would have responded (if Wells had the courtesy to ask what I thought of the matter, instead of pontificating at length about what he thinks,

  1. Congress hasn't done anything yet. It is likely, however, that the courts will do something soon about the prevalence of racial profiling, as they did in Floyd v. City of New York.
  2. Legalization of marijuana only legalizes marijuana, it is not intended to resolve all of society's drug problems. To oppose legalization because it doesn't stop other drugs doesn't make logical sense.
  3. The time is always right to stop enforcing an unjust law that police use to harass African-Americans.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Republicans have cost America $1.3 trillion, not $24 billion

Standard and Poor's rating agency estimates that the government shutdown cost the US--the country, not the government--$24 billion. This figure is based on what the gross domestic product would have been, without the shutdown, compared with what it actually is. This is all hypothetical, of course. No one can say what the GDP would have been because no one can predict the future with certainty.

The government shutdown certainly caused loss of pay for many thousands of workers, not just federal workers, but all those whose livelihood depends on the federal government. It also caused hardship for those left without day care, or unable to get Medicare or Medicaid.

The damage done by Republicans to the US economy, however, has been much greater than just $24 billion. The great recession was a severe blow to the economy. The recession may not have been the fault of the Republicans alone, although an argument can be made that they caused more than a little of it by their obsession with government regulations, which they relaxed with disastrous consequences. But the Republicans were wholly responsible for the lack of a second stimulus package and by the false economies of reductions in government spending that have made the recovery from this recession much worse than average for recoveries in the US.

In fact, the average recovery of the US from recessions after 48 months has been 17%. At this point, the US GDP is only 9% higher than it was in December, 2008. After previous recessions, under both Democrats and Republicans, the federal government has passed vigorous stimulus, assuring that the economy would recover as quickly as possible. After the 2010 elections gave them control of the House of Representatives, the Republican congress refused to pass any stimulus at all. In fact, they forced the president to accept a seriously reduced federal budget, an action that further damaged the economy.

A simple mathematical calculation shows approximately how much the economy has been damaged by Republican intransigence. The economy has actually grown by 9%, or $880 billion since December 2008. If it had grown at a 17% rate (which is only the average rate for recoveries), it would now be $1.31 trillion higher than it actually is.

Therefore, the idiotic policies of Republicans in congress have already cost the nation at least $1.3 trillion.

Jikininki--a ghost story from Japan

Note: This Japanese ghost story was translated by the American author, Lafcadio Hearn over 100 years ago. Holly recommends it as a classic Halloween story and so I am posting it here. Enjoy!


Once, when Muso Kokushi, a priest of the Zen sect, was journeying alone through the province of Mino (1), he lost his way in a mountain-district where there was nobody to direct him. For a long time he wandered about helplessly; and he was beginning to despair of finding shelter for the night, when he perceived, on the top of a hill lighted by the last rays of the sun, one of those little hermitages, called anjitsu, which are built for solitary priests. It seemed to be in ruinous condition; but he hastened to it eagerly, and found that it was inhabited by an aged priest, from whom he begged the favor of a night's lodging. This the old man harshly refused; but he directed Muso to a certain hamlet, in the valley adjoining where lodging and food could be obtained.
Muso found his way to the hamlet, which consisted of less than a dozen farm-cottages; and he was kindly received at the dwelling of the headman. Forty or fifty persons were assembled in the principal apartment, at the moment of Muso's arrival; but he was shown into a small separate room, where he was promptly supplied with food and bedding. Being very tired, he lay down to rest at an early hour; but a little before midnight he was roused from sleep by a sound of loud weeping in the next apartment. Presently the sliding-screens were gently pushed apart; and a young man, carrying a lighted lantern, entered the room, respectfully saluted him, and said:—
"Reverend Sir, it is my painful duty to tell you that I am now the responsible head of this house. Yesterday I was only the eldest son. But when you came here, tired as you were, we did not wish that you should feel embarrassed in any way: therefore we did not tell you that father had died only a few hours before. The people whom you saw in the next room are the inhabitants of this village: they all assembled here to pay their last respects to the dead; and now they are going to another village, about three miles off,—for by our custom, no one of us may remain in this village during the night after a death has taken place. We make the proper offerings and prayers;—then we go away, leaving the corpse alone. Strange things always happen in the house where a corpse has thus been left: so we think that it will be better for you to come away with us. We can find you good lodging in the other village. But perhaps, as you are a priest, you have no fear of demons or evil spirits; and, if you are not afraid of being left alone with the body, you will be very welcome to the use of this poor house. However, I must tell you that nobody, except a priest, would dare to remain here tonight."
Muso made answer:—
"For your kind intention and your generous hospitality, I and am deeply grateful. But I am sorry that you did not tell me of your father's death when I came;—for, though I was a little tired, I certainly was not so tired that I should have found difficulty in doing my duty as a priest. Had you told me, I could have performed the service before your departure. As it is, I shall perform the service after you have gone away; and I shall stay by the body until morning. I do not know what you mean by your words about the danger of staying here alone; but I am not afraid of ghosts or demons: therefore please to feel no anxiety on my account."
The young man appeared to be rejoiced by these assurances, and expressed his gratitude in fitting words. Then the other members of the family, and the folk assembled in the adjoining room, having been told of the priest's kind promises, came to thank him,—after which the master of the house said:—
"Now, reverend Sir, much as we regret to leave you alone, we must bid you farewell. By the rule of our village, none of us can stay here after midnight. We beg, kind Sir, that you will take every care of your honorable body, while we are unable to attend upon you. And if you happen to hear or see anything strange during our absence, please tell us of the matter when we return in the morning."

All then left the house, except the priest, who went to the room where the dead body was lying. The usual offerings had been set before the corpse; and a small Buddhist lamp—tomyo—was burning. The priest recited the service, and performed the funeral ceremonies,—after which he entered into meditation. So meditating he remained through several silent hours; and there was no sound in the deserted village. But, when the hush of the night was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat,—beginning at the head, and eating everything: the hair and the bones and even the shroud. And the monstrous Thing, having thus consumed the body, turned to the offerings, and ate them also. Then it went away, as mysteriously as it had come.

When the villagers returned next morning, they found the priest awaiting them at the door of the headman's dwelling. All in turn saluted him; and when they had entered, and looked about the room, no one expressed any surprise at the disappearance of the dead body and the offerings. But the master of the house said to Muso:—
"Reverent Sir, you have probably seen unpleasant things during the night: all of us were anxious about you. But now we are very happy to find you alive and unharmed. Gladly we would have stayed with you, if it had been possible. But the law of our village, as I told you last evening, obliges us to quit our houses after a death has taken place, and to leave the corpse alone. Whenever this law has been broken, heretofore, some great misfortune has followed. Whenever it is obeyed, we find that the corpse and the offerings disappear during our absence. Perhaps you have seen the cause."
Then Muso told of the dim and awful Shape that had entered the death-chamber to devour the body and the offerings. No person seemed to be surprised by his narration; and the master of the house observed:—
"What you have told us, reverend Sir, agrees with what has been said about this matter from ancient time."
Muso then inquired:—
"Does not the priest on the hill sometimes perform the funeral service for your dead?"
"What priest?" the young man asked.
"The priest who yesterday evening directed me to this village," answered Muso. "I called at his anjitsu on the hill yonder. He refused me lodging, but told me the way here."
The listeners looked at each other, as in astonishment; and, after a moment of silence, the master of the house said:—
"Reverend Sir, there is no priest and there is no anjitsu on the hill. For the time of many generations there has not been any resident-priest in this neighborhood."
Muso said nothing more on the subject; for it was evident that his kind hosts supposed him to have been deluded by some goblin. But after having bidden them farewell, and obtained all necessary information as to his road, he determined to look again for the hermitage on the hill, and so to ascertain whether he had really been deceived. He found the anjitsu without any difficulty; and, this time, its aged occupant invited him to enter. When he had done so, the hermit humbly bowed down before him, exclaiming:—"Ah! I am ashamed!—I am very much ashamed!—I am exceedingly ashamed!"
"You need not be ashamed for having refused me shelter," said Muso. "You directed me to the village yonder, where I was very kindly treated; and I thank you for that favor.
"I can give no man shelter," the recluse made answer;—and it is not for the refusal that I am ashamed. I am ashamed only that you should have seen me in my real shape,—for it was I who devoured the corpse and the offerings last night before your eyes... Know, reverend Sir, that I am a jikininki, [1]—an eater of human flesh. Have pity upon me, and suffer me to confess the secret fault by which I became reduced to this condition.
"A long, long time ago, I was a priest in this desolate region. There was no other priest for many leagues around. So, in that time, the bodies of the mountain-folk who died used to be brought here,—sometimes from great distances,—in order that I might repeat over them the holy service. But I repeated the service and performed the rites only as a matter of business;—I thought only of the food and the clothes that my sacred profession enabled me to gain. And because of this selfish impiety I was reborn, immediately after my death, into the state of a jikininki. Since then I have been obliged to feed upon the corpses of the people who die in this district: every one of them I must devour in the way that you saw last night... Now, reverend Sir, let me beseech you to perform a Segaki-service [2] for me: help me by your prayers, I entreat you, so that I may be soon able to escape from this horrible state of existence"...

No sooner had the hermit uttered this petition than he disappeared; and the hermitage also disappeared at the same instant. And Muso Kokushi found himself kneeling alone in the high grass, beside an ancient and moss-grown tomb of the form called go-rin-ishi, [3] which seemed to be the tomb of a priest.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Online security: We must secure the internet for personal use

Ezra Klein, of the Washington Post's Wonk Blog, declared on Morning Joe that the rollout of Obama Care is a disaster. Problems were to be expected on the first few days, he said, but not by the third week. 

Klein is more an economics wonk than a computer geek, while I am more the latter. I agree with him whole-heartedly on this, but the situation goes far beyond the Obama Care web site, The problems with the web site are multiplied a million times in the internet itself. The difficulties concern, not the mechanics of the site, which is basically a simple site into which a user puts his or her data and the program draws conclusions based on the data. The problem lies in web security itself, which is very broken indeed and gets worse with each passing day.

Before the internet was invented, online traffic consisted of users within a single computer, generally a mainframe. Each user had a single password. His or her security was protected by the internal security of the mainframe itself. Access was controlled by a human being who had to set up accounts for any new users. These users operated within a walled garden, which is to say there was no access to the computer from outside the institution to which it belonged.

The invention of the internet changed all this. Today, millions of people log onto the internet each day. Each person may have dozens of accounts, each with a password and each with the risk of being hacked into by one of the other millions of users. Furthermore, there are thousands of programs that act like humans which roam through the internet much like flies seeking nourishment from a carcass. Most of these programs are benign, like the google programs that keep track of web sites and enable people to find what they are looking for. Other programs are malicious, some looking to take over your computer or steal all the data on it, or even clean out your bank account before you know what is going on.

The Federal government is not to blame for the bugs in the Obama care web site. A cursory examination leads me to suspect that all of these bugs are in the security system, the basic information each user needs to use to log on. This is hardly surprising because there is no standardized system for guaranteeing privacy on the internet.

The free market is to blame. Let me repeat. The free market is to blame for the chaos of the internet. Each web site or company must handle its own security. Some web sites are woefully inadequate to this task. Meanwhile, many people spend their entire lives looking for security leaks and ways to profit from the sloppy coding of others. Many of the people who are doing this have a big advantage over casual users because they work for governments. In short, they are not constrained by the free market but are free to spend their entire time devising devilish computer programs.

The NSA is the best-known computer security organization in this country, but many other countries have their own versions. All these operations have one thing in common. No one knows what they are doing or when they will release it on the rest of us.

The Solution:
The U.S. Government--most likely through a contractor--needs to develop a security system that is available to all of us and protects us whenever we go online. There are many suggestions on how to do this. Many of them use some trait peculiar to the individual, such as the voice, the fingerprint, or the iris. The science of these systems is not advanced enough to be foolproof, however. Each of them requires a special attachment to the computer and therefore is difficult to transfer from one computer to another.

The most likely security method is one already in use for online transactions with banks. The user has a personal password and a device that provides a new extension to the personal password--usually a 6-digit number--every minute. The device is about the size of a digital watch. The site being protected has a copy of this password, which is unique, or nearly unique, for each user. A hacker who wishes to break this system would need to know(a) the personal password, (b) the time the system started, and (c) the sequence of numbers being used to generate new password.

Until each of us has such a device that permits us to log onto the internet, we all run a risk of having our personal information stolen along with our cash. This is the lesson we should take from the failure of the Obama care rollout.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gawker at the Jefferson Memorial

(Full Disclosure: Holly is my wife)

Holly Masri's "Gawker at the Jefferson Memorial" is on display at the Art League gallery in the Torpedo Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia until November 4. Rather than focus on the memorial building itself, which is nearly always depicted in photographs from the exterior, the artist has captured the experience of the Memorial. The painting conveys the monumental scale of the building by showing its huge marble columns from the inside. These columns extend upward out of the frame of the painting, giving a strong impression of their great size.

The central figure--the Gawker--is a senior citizen as revealed by his bucket hat and the sweater draped around his shoulders. He is apparently engrossed by something high up on the wall. As visitors to the memorial know, he is looking at (and reading) one of the three large panels that contain the writings of Jefferson engraved in stone. The gawker is oblivious to the other tourists as he gazes upward in an almost religious fervor.

The other figures in the painting are more typical visitors to the monument. Some are looking at other features of the building, perhaps the giant statue of Jefferson that neither the gawker nor the artist seem to notice. Other figures are arranging themselves for a group photograph. But the Gawker seems transported into a world of ideas and history, oblivious to his surroundings.

The artist skillfully suggests the thoughts and emotions aroused by a visit to the monument by a careful selection of images and details. If you look closely at the painting, you can feel the coolness of the air and hear the voices and footsteps echoing in the enclosed space. You may even hear the Gawker reading aloud the words of Jefferson.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Good Guy David Koch, Meet Dark Money David Koch

On Friday, [October 4,] the David H. Koch Childcare Center will be dedicated, in a celebration that highlights a major and ongoing shift in universities’ thinking about recruiting and retaining people who do world-class research. (Boston Globe)1

Nice guy David Koch loves children. The story of MIT researchers who desperately needed childcare brought a tear to his eye. So he generously donated $20 million to MIT for a new child care center.

That sentence should gob smack you, because there is another David Koch, who uses dark money to attack democratic institutions and stifle scientific investigation. This money is called “dark” because it is filtered into front groups to prevent people from discovering where is comes from and who is behind it.

Dark money David Koch, through a complex web of front groups, donated $200 million to defeat Barack Obama and kill the Affordable Health Care Act. The Act will provide health care for millions of children who currently have no insurance. Dark money David also provides money for Tea Party candidates to get into Congress where they have used the sequester to deny Head Start childcare to 57,000 disadvantaged children. Dark money David hasn't said anything about shedding a tear for the Head Start kids.

There is a logical explanation for this behavior. David, like Mitt Romney, believes in helping the “producers” or “makers” but not the underprivileged, or “takers”. The takers comprise at least 50% of the population, but they should be left to fend for themselves because they are too incompetent to be of any use to society. The scholars at MIT, on the other hand, are valuable producers and should be helped as much as possible.

So there is no contradiction between the good deeds of Good Guy David and the underhanded skulduggery of Dark money David. Koch simply views society as divided into makers and takers and treats the two groups accordingly. Good guy David's philanthropy, while benefiting a fortunate few, has its dark side as well. For example, one of the most virulent climate change skeptics holds the Alfred P. Sloan chair for Meteorology at MIT. David Koch donates a lot of money to the college, not just the $20 million for the day care center. There could be a quid pro quo there: Koch spends millions to attack climate change scientists while MIT, which he gave money to, honors a discredited climate skeptic.

And what a skeptic. The guy's name is Richard Lindzen. Lindzen has spent the last 20 years attacking his fellow climate scientists repeatedly and in print. According to him, everyone is lying except him, and they are doing it for money and fame. Lindzen himself has received money from oil companies, including the Koch brothers, to act as a pro-oil expert. He is paid because he purports to be a climate expert, but what he says is diametrically opposed to the writings of most other experts. One report says he has been paid $2500 a day to do this.

In 1993, Lindzen appeared at a conference of climate deniers held by George Mason University's International Institute. Lindzen essentially called all mainstream climate scientists liars and fools, saying that

"scientist-activists were distorting the issues by (1) presenting only part of the data, (2) distorting logic, (3) repeatedly stating their case in apocalyptic terms, (4) announcing findings at press briefings before other scientists have had a chance to examine their research, (5) using science to advance a political agenda, for example, 'Nuclear Winter,' and (6) intimidating other scientists through coercion."2

Lindzen goes farther. He accuses climate scientists of Lysenkoism. Tiofim Lysenko was the head of Stalin's Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Since Stalin condemned Darwinism as bourgeois pseudo-science, Lysenko forbade Russian scientists to make any mention of natural selection. Scientists who resisted this edict were executed or imprisoned.

I suggest that Lindzen himself is more like Lysenko than those he attacks. His views are politically determined by the parties—the oil industry—that pay him. He holds a prestigious seat at MIT, an institution that only recently brought its global warming projections into accord with the rest of climate scientists. He denounced climatologists at a conference held at George Mason University, which received over $30 million from the Koch brothers.

The Kochs are creating the same kind of conservative echo chamber in academia that exists in the public media, where Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Rush Limbaugh all share the same opinions and repeat the same distortions of reality. The Kochs are unable to convince actual scientists that global warming does not exist, but they are creating a small enclave of academic institutions who preach that up is down, economic recession is good, and Ayn Rand is always right.

1David Koch funds Day Care at MIT, Boston Globe, Health and Wellness, 10/3/03,
2Scientific Integrity in the Public Policy Process,

Monday, October 7, 2013

NSA leaks: TOR and what to do about it

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been trying to break an encryption system called The Onion Ring (TOR). This information was contained in top secret documents made public by Edward Snowden. The Guardian has  breathlessly published this information, although it is difficult to see why this should be big news.

TOR is a cheap way for Internet users to communicate with each other anonymously. The US Government has developed TOR as a means for dissidents in countries with repressive regimes to communicate with each other and the outside world, or for spies to send reports back to their agencies without leaving a computer trail. TOR works like a chain letter. It takes an email you write and removes your return address from it. TOR uses its own servers and removes the return addresses of all of them before it delivers your message.

NSC has been attacking TOR, and the tin-hat brigade seems to have its hair on fire over this. The constitutional absolutists consider NSC's action an attack on free speech. The paranoid right and the paranoid left are united on this issue. TOR is a good thing. NSC should not mess in where it doesn't belong.

The problem with that logic, if it is logic, is that NSC's job is to go after whatever tools or networks the spies and terrorists and criminals may be using. NSC may be overreaching in some areas, but this is not one of them. The libertarians consider this a first amendment issue, but the first amendment is yet another one of those ideas that was fine before people with bombs could kill thousands of innocent civilians, or child pornographers could encourage their minions with secret websites.

I don't approve of NSA collecting data on everyone in their search for terrorists. They can find smarter ways to reach their goals. But once they discover that a terrorist cell may be using an encryption tool, be it TOR or something more intricate and advanced, I want law enforcement to be able to break up that terrorist cell before it can work its evil in the world.

In 2011, the hacker group Anonymous attacked and brought down a TOR site that distributed child pornography. I applaud the motives of Anonymous, but their actions frequently display the worst traits of vigilantism. They target suspects and attack them without giving them a fair hearing. I don't want to read that Anonymous took down a child porn site. I would like some quasi-government entity, perhaps an NGO, to do that.

We need to have a reasonable discussion about what we can do, acting together, to protect ourselves from those who would abuse modern technology. Having automatic reactions against NSC, or anyone else, is not helping us reach that goal.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Beyond government by crisis: Fixing the leaks

The United States has a written Constitution that describes how the government works. We also have rules, not included in the Constitution, that affect how the government works. Some of these rules are causing extreme problems with basic governance. The political parties, primarily the Republicans at the moment, use these rules to stop government when it becomes apparent that the routine running of government goes contrary to their policies. These rules should be fixed when there is no crisis so that we can avoid similar crises in the future.

Crisis 1. The government cannot run without a budget

The Constitution states that any revenue bill must originate in the House of Representatives. The Framers apparently did not consider that the House might decide not to pass a budget and thereby bring government to a halt. The Framers believed in negotiated settlements. They did not foresee a group of representatives who would refuse to negotiate until their demands are met.

This predicament is not predetermined by the Constitution itself, however. The solution could be a simple law instead of a Constitutional amendment. This law would be a law that takes effect when certain conditions are met. For example, the order of succession to the presidency is set by law, not by the Constitution, and the selection of a new president is determined by a specific event, namely the death or incapacity of the current president.

The Congress could pass a law that goes into effect when a budget expires without Congress having agreed on a new one. The budget would be replaced, as currently, by a continuing resolution that continues funding a current levels until a new budget is agreed upon.

This automatic continuing resolution could run indefinitely, as seems reasonable, or it could expire after a set period of time. The effect would be the same in both cases, since a new continuing resolution would come into effect as soon as the old one expires, unless a new budget has been passed and signed into law.

Crisis 2. The government cannot continue borrowing money after the current debt limit is reached.

The debt limit is a relic of the nineteenth century when the government raised revenue by selling bonds or other financial instruments. The practice reached its current form in 1939, when all borrowing was consolidated into one package, called the national debt. Since then, the debt limit has periodically been used as a bargaining chip by one party or the other. The repercussions for allowing the U.S. Government to default on its debt are severe, however.

In 1979, during a similar debt ceiling crisis, as reported by the Washington Post, the U.S. Treasury actually defaulted on a small number of loans--about $120 million worth. This relatively small default caused a ripple effect in U.S. government debt because it raised interest rates by 1/2 of one percent, eventually costing the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars. This amount represented money that had to be repaid at higher interest rates as a result of the "micro" default.

The 2011 debt ceiling crisis was even more expensive, even though the Congress acted before any actual default. As reported in a study by the U.S. Treasury Department, this "near miss" led to a number of negative consequences, including a loss of household wealth of $2.4 trillion and a loss in retirement wealth of $800 billion. Although housing prices and the stock market recovered within a year, the losses sustained during that year can never be recovered. This is because the interest on those investments was lost and any interest that could have been compounded was also lost.

The costs of tinkering with the debt ceiling are grave. The U.S. should institute an automatic debt ceiling increase whenever the actual debt nears the official limit. This automatic debt ceiling increase would work like the automatic budget increase described above. The new law would assure that no irresponsible Congress could ever undermine the full faith and credit of the United States.

The automatic debt ceiling increase would not necessarily keep increasing U.S. debt indefinitely. Then, as now, the Congress has complete control over how much it spends and borrows. No law can force the Congress to behave responsibly, or we wouldn't be facing another Congressional extortion right now.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Marijuana: The Harmless Weed

National Lawyer's Guild Testimony before the District of Columbia Board of Directors opposing the marijuana decriminalization bill, Section 102 (D.C. Official Code § 48-901.02)

For nearly a century in the city of Washington, DC, police have been arresting people for holding, smoking, or selling marijuana. The fact that the majority of these people are African-Americans is well-known. People who are in no sense of the word criminals have been sent to prison, sometimes for substantial sentences.

During the past 30 years, the situation has gotten worse. The country has been in the grip of law-and-order mania. Rather than look at the root causes of crime—poverty, discrimination, racism—our lawmakers have decided to put more people in jail, as if that would solve anything. It wouldn't solve anything because people who smoke marijuana are not criminals in the first place. The law makes them criminals, just as racial profiling makes people criminals.

There is a strong connection between racial profiling and marijuana. Studies of New York City's stop-and-frisk laws show that the most frequent result of stop-and-frisk is the discovery of small amounts of marijuana. Police target African-Americans, search them, and find marijuana. The discovery of even a small amount of marijuana may result in an arrest and a court appearance. For a person without the money to pay a lawyer, this could be a serious problem with life-long repercussions.

Now the DC City Council has come to its senses. They now realize there is something fundamentally wrong with punishing recreational use of a harmless—or even frequently beneficial—plant. But this bill is not the answer. It will decriminalize marijuana, but provides no place to legally obtain it. People who traffic in marijuana will still be criminals. Prices for the stuff will still be steep black market prices, reflecting the enormous risks taken by those who smuggle it and sell it.

This bill is a half-way measure, like permitting gay couples to have a civil union license but not a marriage license. That idea was so silly that a wave of laughter has already swept it from the books in more than 20 states. The proposed law on marijuana is equally silly, but it is also extremely harmful, since it retains criminal penalties for sale of marijuana and continues sending non-violent criminals to prison.

This approach has almost the same effect as the “safety valve bill” proposed by the conservative bill mill ALEC and supported by arch conservative David Koch. Rand Paul is sponsoring that bill in the U. S. Senate, S.B. 609. Surely this City Council can come up with something better than that!

This bill is no compromise measure. It leaves intact the system of injustice that has led to mass incarceration and open warfare in our streets during the shameful war on drugs, which is actually a war on our own citizens. Once we recognize that marijuana is not a harmful drug and that people who use it are no more dangerous than the millions who have a few beers while watching Sunday football games, we have no choice but to legalize it, fully and unconditionally.

There is an alternative to this bill, one which is much better for the community. This other bill addresses the real issues of drug use. This alternative bill was introduced by David Grosso. If enacted, Grosso's bill would levy a tax of 10 percent on recreational marijuana and a tax of 6 percent on medical marijuana. It would also authorize the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to issue licenses to recreational marijuana stores.

This alternative bill would save money the District now wastes imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. It would end the black market in marijuana and let marijuana users purchase the stuff from places that do not also sell Methamphetamine and Cocaine. This is especially important for our youths, who find it easier to buy illicit drugs than alcohol. We should take this opportunity to end the irrational drug policies of the past and start building a new, saner society.

Thank you for listening to us speak on this important issue.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: When Congress Goes Wrong

In many ways, the US Constitution is like an operating system that tells a computer how to run. The Constitution tells the government how to run. Its task is far more important than an operating system, like Microsoft Windows. If Windows fails, it usually causes no more than a minor inconvenience. When the Constitution fails, it affects people's lives dramatically.

The Framers, the colonial Americans who wrote the Constitution, had some experience writing similar documents. Both James Madison and George Mason helped write the Virginia Constitution of 1776. The Framers understood how Constitutional law worked. They did not understand how Constitutional law could fail.

Software operating systems make the computer work. The authors frequently do not consider what will make the computer fail or how to escape from a failure. The Constitution shows the same kind of blindness. The Framers believed the government would work. They did not see how it could fail. They all belonged to a class of well-off gentry. Many in the South held large estates that were run by slaves. The northern framers were professionals—doctors and lawyers and businessmen. These men tended to think alike. All alike believed that they were the elite who should govern the new country.

The framers wrote a document that is particularly ill-suited for our country today. We have numerous contending classes. Each class believes it has a right to participate in government. In the past few years, the former ruling class has been pushed aside and its members are having difficulty accepting their new role. In 2012, Mitt Romney, whose father ran for president in 1960, believed that he would win because he belonged to the governing class.

The governing class, composed primarily of white males, has grown accustomed to receiving preference, in political office, in jobs, in salary, and in a whole host of other ways. This class is recipient of many government programs, including the farm subsidies that go almost exclusively to them. The class never received food stamp benefits, which accounts for its support for the former and hostility to the latter.

The old ruling class viewed the election of Barack Obama as symbolic of their loss of prestige and power. They regarded the presidency as rightfully theirs. The class considered anything that was not traditional—such as African-Americans owning homes and receiving medical care—as a threat to them. For these people, conservatism means preserving their status and prerogatives.

For the ruling class, conservatism also means moral prerogatives. They vehemently oppose legalization of abortion, legalization of marijuana, and gay rights. They see the laws governing these things as the end products of moral struggles that they fought hard to win. They are appalled to watch their America fade away.

But the old America is fading away, and faster than anyone predicted a few years ago. The Republican party has become the party of old, white men. The younger generation today grew up in an integrated society. The young are much more in touch with what is going on throughout the world, and the world is coming to our doorstep.

Past waves of immigrants took at least a generation before they integrated into white American society. The society of those days forced them to conform through discrimination and a tightly knit ruling class. The ruling class is faltering. The new Americans are demanding their rights even before they become citizens. Groups of Americans who never participated in politics before are learning that their votes make a difference.

What we are watching is the last flare-up of a dying system and the birth of a new one. Birth pangs are always painful. Let us hope most of our troubles are behind us.