Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Barack Obama, All-Star

At the end of the year, there are always a bunch of retrospective articles on the presidency. This year, history has been kind to Barack Obama. Like, really kind. The stories all list Obama's signal accomplishments achieved against persistent, unreasoning, and sometimes angry opposition.

Obama's performance as the first Black president is like the career of the first African American in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson. Robinson had to put up with the same kind of treatment on the job that Republicans have inflicted on Obama.

The fans booed Robinson and hurled racial epithets. They threw things at him in the field. Opposing players tried to injure him on the bases. Through it all, Robinson kept his cool by following his manager's advice never to let his detractors see him get angry.

Robinson responded to the pressure by becoming a rookie sensation, winning batting titles, and becoming the National League MVP. He was the first major league star to concentrate on stealing bases and scoring runs, rather than hitting home runs.

That sounds to me a lot like what Barack Obama has been doing. As the first black president, he has taken a lot of abuse from the press and Republicans. Not a single Republican voted for the Affordable Care Act, which had been proposed by the Heritage Foundation, a Conservative think tank, and implemented by Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts.

There is one major difference between Obama and Robinson. Robinson had to spend several years in the Negro Leagues and started his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he was 28. Failing health forced him to retire at age 37 after only 10 years in the league.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, became president in 2009 at the relatively young age of 47. When he leaves office, Obama will still be in the prime of life at 55. The thought of Obama being active after his presidency must be truly frightening for Republicans. The man they couldn't beat may be spending the rest of his life beating them.

I think that would be a fitting end to his story.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Secret societies and conspiracy theories

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. 

Where's the proof? Writing a story about a secret society and making a pretty graphic do not constitute proof. We need names, dates, places, accomplishments, letters, correspondence to show that events have been planned and executive. And no, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion do not count--they have been proven forgeries. And hatha yoga has absolutely nothing to do with Roman Catholicism, since the core teachings of yoga are over a thousand years old.

This kind of "silly science" takes up time that could be productively spent solving the world's problems. During the middle ages, when Catholicism was the only game in town, the learned priests spent their time speculating about heaven and hell and learning how to detect satanists and witches. They could have been learning about physics and mathematics but they wasted their intellects and precious time arguing about nonexistent spiritual entities.

We only have one lifetime. We can spend it increasing the store of important-sounding nonsense in the world, or we can spend it trying to solve the problems of the world. The choice is entirely yours.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why Darren Wilson Must Face Civil Rights Charges

I see it all the time. Another clueless person says that Wilson must be innocent because of testimony given at the Ferguson Grand Jury hearings. Wilson was afraid of dying, so he had to shoot an unarmed man. The unarmed man, Michael Brown, was high on marijuana, so he mistakenly charged at the officer who was shooting at him.

There are so many errors in the Grand Jury transcript that even these true believers might notice something amiss. But these people ignore any facts that don't agree with their preconceived ideas. They believed that Obama was born in Kenya. They believed that Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster. No evidence was ever produced to substantiate these beliefs, but the true believers still keep the faith.

The true believers read that Darren Wilson shot 12 bullets at Michael Brown, hitting him 6 times. Wilson fired at least 6 times at Brown as the young man was running away. Wilson testified that he was terrified of Brown, and that's why he killed him. Reality check: If Wilson was terrified of Brown, why did he chase him over 100 feet down the block? Shouldn't he have called for backup instead of following the man of whom he was terrified?

The true believers have perused a 800-page transcript of the Grand Jury hearing. Most of them do not know that this was not an actual trial. If it had been an actual trial, there would have been a judge there to explain the law to the jurors and stop the lawyers from using their questions to testify or explain the law. Any one of the serious errors made by the prosecutors during the hearings would be enough to reverse the verdict on appeal--if it had been an actual trial.

If the Grand Jury hearings had been an actual trial, the prosecutor would have cross-examined Wilson for hours, perhaps days, about inconsistencies in his testimony and his actions. Does Officer Wilson believe in demons? How could he recognize that Mike Brown was a demon? What was it about the face of this African-American boy that made Wilson so frightened?

So the true believers, among whom are many violent racists, can point to the Grand Jury decision not to prosecute Wilson as proof of his innocence, despite 6 credible eyewitnesses who described how they saw Wilson gun down a teenage boy because the boy had been walking in the street. True believers believe that every African-American male is a violent criminal. This decision vindicates that belief.

African-Americans and those who speak on their behalf, however, know that police officers harass, stop, arrest, and shoot young black men 10 times as often as young white men, even though it is believed that both white and black men break the law with about the same frequency. At least, the same percentage of whites and blacks in DC say they smoke marijuana, but 86 percent of the arrests are of blacks. That is why the crimes of Darren Wilson and McCullough need to be recognized and the perpetrators punished.

Dorian Johnson's Story

 A commenter on Google Plus asked, "My understanding may be wrong but policy is to shoot fleeing felons isn't it?"

Uh, no. In the first place, you're not supposed to kill a suspect. You're supposed to arrest them and bring them in for arraignment and trial.

Aside from that, the police policy is not to shoot at fleeing suspects--not felons. Remember, he's not a felon until he's convicted of a crime. In fact, it's exactly what a cop is not supposed to do, for a very simple reason. Shooting a gun is hazardous to bystanders. 

Once a bullet leaves the barrel, it can go anywhere. Hit off a rock and ricochet, or the ground, or a car. It can go through walls and kill someone sleeping in his bed.

I contest that Brown assaulted the police officer. That's not what Dorian Johnson said, who was standing right next to Brown at the time. That's what Wilson said, who had to have a reason for shooting at the back of a fleeing suspect.

Johnson said that Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck. Brown was 6'5", but Wilson was driving an SUV, so he could reach Brown. Johnson said Wilson threatened to shoot Brown when Brown tried to get out of Wilson's grasp. That would be the point at which Wilson pulled his gun. My theory is that Brown tried to deflect the barrel of the gun away from himself, which was when he was shot and wounded in his hand. All this is confirmed by the autopsy report.

Wilson's story is not plausible. 
Sure, you can reach into a car, but you can't reach around a cop and grab his gun, not unless it's already out of its holster. Wilson is never going to admit he already had his gun out and was pointing it at an unarmed suspect. A good attorney could have ripped his story to shreds on cross-examination. But Wilson was never cross-examined. Only one side of the story was told to the Grand Jury, which is why I call it a kangaroo court.

The Federal Case

Wilson could still be tried in a real trial, with a judge and an actual prosecutor, because a Grand Jury hearing is not a trial and a decision not to indict is not an acquittal, so there can be no double jeopardy. The governor of Missouri could appoint a special prosecutor, but he has indicated he will not. Of course not. He doesn't want to risk finding Wilson guilty after the extraordinary measures the prosecutor took in getting the Grand Jury not to indict.

There is one other possibility. There is a federal civil rights law on the books. It makes it illegal to deprive someone of their civil rights under color of law, which means that a cop or prosecutor pretends they are following the law when in fact they are breaking it. This "color of law" statute was passed in 1868 to enforce the 14th amendment. For the next 80 years, it lay dormant, as Jim Crow laws were passed in the South and African Americans were systematically denied their civil rights.

In recent years, however, the Color of Law statute has been used against Southern racists who killed civil rights demonstrators or bombed churches. You will read that the statute is difficult to enforce because the prosecutor must prove intent to deprive someone of his or her civil rights, but this is slightly inaccurate. The federal prosecutor must prove that the accused person intended, not just to murder someone, but to deprive someone of their civil rights. This is more difficult than just to prove that a police officer shot someone.

The important word in the law is willful. The prosecutor must prove that the shooter was willful in the act, that he knew what he was doing was not part of his job ("color of law"), but he did it anyway. The bad news is that this would be almost impossible to prove for a single person acting alone. Who knows what was going through Wilson's mind when he pulled the trigger on Michael Brown. He is certainly not going to give us an answer that would incriminate him. 

In his lengthy testimony before the grand jury, Wilson kept on saying how frightened he was of Brown, who looked "demonic". There are a couple of things wrong with his statement. First, he had to know that Missouri state law granted a policeman authority to shoot and kill an assailant if the policeman feared for his life. Second, he had to run 150 feet to get close enough to Brown to be attacked by him. 

The first fact makes it difficult to believe Wilson when he says he was frightened. He has a strong motivation to lie about this fact because he could face punishment if he says he wasn't frightened. The second fact also tends to contradict his statement that he was frightened because he jumped out of a vehicle, equipped with a radio and, presumably, a shotgun, and ran after a man he says he was frightened of. This is not the action of a reasonable man. The reasonable man would stay in the car and call for backup.

Wilson fired two shots in the car. One struck Brown in his hand. The other was embedded in the car door. Wilson struck Brown with five more bullets, one in the arm, three in the torso, and one in the head, the shot that killed him. We know from a digital recording made at the time of the shooting that 12 shots were fired. 

Five shots were unaccounted for. Either Wilson fired those shots as he was chasing Brown, or he fired at Brown and missed him just before he fired the shot that killed him. Since Brown was a large man and almost stationary at the time of the last shot, it seems unlikely that Wilson would miss five shots, then strike Brown with four. Rather, it is likely that Wilson fired the shots while he was chasing Brown.

Willful Action

For Wilson to be convicted under the federal statute, he had to have acted willfully to deprive Brown of his civil rights, in particular his right to live. The problem encountered by the Supreme Court in Screws v. U.S. is that depriving a man of his right to live is the same crime as murder, and murder is not a federal crime but a crime reserved for the states. In order to succeed, the court must decide that Wilson intended to deprive someone, whether Brown or someone else, of a Civil Right. That is the problem facing the federal government right now.

Make no mistake about it, the Justice Department cannot let itself be seen as helpless in the face of gross misconduct on the part of the state. The way around this problem was provided in the case of U.S. v. Price by convicting the murderers of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, of conspiracy to violate the civil rights, not of the Murder victims, but of the black people of Mississippi. The three victims were working to gain voting rights for blacks when they were murdered by the sheriff of Meridien, Mississippi, and a number of Ku Klux Klansmen. The court determined that the murderers were motivated by their desire to prevent blacks from voting, in other words, to deny their civil rights.

A similar charge could be brought in this case. After the death of Brown, the Prosecutor, with the assistance of Wilson's lengthy testimony, was involved in a conspiracy to deny the people of Ferguson their right to petition for redress of grievances. The grievance was the failure of the courts to try Wilson for murder. The police department of Ferguson was involved in a conspiracy to deny the people of Ferguson their right to petition for redress of grievances as well as their right to peaceably assemble.

There is no lack of evidence of these crimes. The police sought, day after day, to suppress legitimate assemblies with truncheons and tear gas. They committed false arrests against members of the press and neutral observers. Their intent was clearly to deny the people of Ferguson their civil rights as defined in the First Amendment of the Constitution and guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Prosecutor released a voluminous transcript which proves that he did not make any attempt to convince the grand jury to indict Wilson. Instead, his deputies interrogated witnesses in such a manner that the grand jury had to assume that Wilson was innocent. Wilson was permitted to testify without cross-examination for hours. The substance of his testimony shows that he was either coached by lawyers on the points of Missouri law relating to police violence, or else was well aware of those details through previous experience.

There is a member of the Ferguson police force who has stated that the whole force was racially biased and prejudiced against the people they were sworn to defend. This prejudice took form in denial of many basic civil rights, such as the right to walk down the street without being harassed, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment as freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

All these violations of civil rights were committed by the police force and the prosecutors of the city of Ferguson. The Justice Department has a duty to see that the perpetrators are punished. Bringing these people to justice should have the same salutary effect on the respect for civil rights in Ferguson as the trial of Scherner, Chaney, and Goodman had in Meridien, Mississippi, in 1964.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why healthcare.org doesn't work

No one should be surprised that the federal government can't do database interfaces very well. Their computers are obsolete, of course, as are the development platforms they use. They require their programmers to use obscure programming languages that they are not allowed to fix. But the worst barrier between you and the database of your choice is the rigid hierarchy that infects the halls of power.

We know how to develop good technology. Silicon Valley has numerous companies that do it quite well. Google and Facebook come to mind. But the federal government pays absolutely no attention to the rules of program development, among which are the following:

1. Hire the best engineers you can find. Forget about Ivy League credentials and teacher recommendations. My company once hired a high school student who had been helping them with user testing. They waited until he got out of high school, though.

2. Give your developers their head. These developers are like spirited racehorses. If you tell them they must wear a suit and tie and be in the office at 9 am, they will bolt for the nearest exit, where they will find project managers eager to hire them. 

3. Make sure your engineers are creative and flaky. Encourage them to stay at the office by giving them whatever they need. Google gives them espresso and food. There are also game rooms (see below).

4. Let them goof off. My favorite software company developed video games. Anyone in the company could play video games at any time. That was part of the culture. In other companies, the department snitch spies on you and tells the manager you are goofing off. The Roman philosopher Seneca explained it this way: Reading and writing are opposites. You must do both, like breathing in and breathing out. Programming and playing are opposites. You can't have one without the other. One company I worked at had a big red nerf bat. The project manager came to your cube and hit you with it if you were late with your code. The same company had super-soakers (squirt guns). Members of the development team would sneak up on someone and spray him with water.

5. Pay them time-activated bonuses. These usually take the form of stock options that don't vest until a person works for the company for several years. This keeps them working for the company and gives them an incentive to keep producing.

These are just a few of the effective practices used in the computer industry to produce  high-quality software. Here, by way of contrast, are some of the practices of the federal government:

1. Always hire graduates of top Universities. Federalistas believe that they should hire people with good grades who are skilled at pleasing their professors. These people should fit in well in a federal system that prizes pleasing your boss above all other virtues.

2. Always give preferential treatment to veterans. Unfortunately, this hiring practice works against finding good programmers. Veterans learn how to follow orders. Good programmers learn to disregard orders whenever necessary. Their attitude is different. They know that managers can't code, so they don't pay attention when managers tell them how to do something. Good managers, on the other hand, don't give explicit orders to programmers, because they know programmers like to figure things out on their own.

3. Hire stable workers who will stay on the job for many years. This works well when you are looking for people who need to fit in to a hierarchy to be happy. Such people make terrible programmers. Good programmers find problems in other people's code and tell them about it. Good programmers abandon a structured design when it isn't working. Good programmers find new and innovative ways to solve problems.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Since the Republicans refuse to act on immigration, Obama will

Obama's proposal, as released, contains several different options, which he is evidently inviting the Republicans to accept. The Republicans, of course, will reject all of them, so immigrants to this country will have the first real breathing room since 1986, when President Reagan granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented workers then living--and working--in the US.

Today there are 11 million undocumented workers. Many of them have American children and relatives who would like to join them, like aged parents, but cannot. Major corporations that hire these people would like to keep the system the way it is, because it saves them money.

I know one undocumented worker who works cleaning up operating theaters in a hospital, a dirty, difficult job. She makes $10 an hour from the company the hospital hires to do the job, The hospital also hires people directly to do the same job and pays them $14 an hour, but the hospital requires those direct hires to be validated citizens. So the entire US economy is based on a discriminatory system as unjust as any Jim Crow Laws, where some people can be paid less than others because of the chance of their birth.

There is no chance that corporate-ruled America will expel immigrant laborers from this country. The corporate system uses immigrant labor to pad its bottom line. Our corporate masters make too much money off the current unjust and immoral system for them ever to question it.

The worker of whom I speak has been the sole support for 2 children and works 2 jobs. She is just the sort of person the Republicans are always extolling as exemplary citizens: hard-working, law-abiding, receiving no government benefits. But instead of rewarding her efforts, the Republicans propose to expel her and her child who was born in this country, thus punishing a child for the transgressions of her mother.

There is no excuse for such immorality. The Republican party must be rejected utterly by every thinking, feeling American. Though the Republicans use every conniving trick to stay in power, no one party can stay in power forever. We will remember your excesses whenever evil deeds are mentioned.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sierra Club sues US to stop new tar sands pipeline

A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, have sued the State Department over its failure to protect the US from Canadian tar sands oil. At issue is a pipeline, called the Alberta Clipper, currently bringing oil across the border at a rate of 450,000 barrels a day. Enbridge Energy wants to increase the volume of oil to 800,000 barrels per day.

The State Department has ruled that the new pipeline does not need its approval, despite nearly doubling the amount of tar sands oil entering the US. The Sierra Club suit disagrees with their assessment.

The State Department is clearly at odds with President Obama's public statements on this. Obama promised he would not permit more tar sands into the country if the project would increase greenhouse gas production. The State Department study claimed it would not. But practical considerations prove that it would.

The State Department study claimed that the tar sands oil could be transported by rail if the Keystone XL Pipeline is not built. But attempts to use railroads have proven costly. Instead of earning $40 per barrel of oil shipped by rail as it predicted, Southern Pacific Resources is earning less than one dollar per barrel. The failure of its oil-by-rail strategy has driven Southern Pacific to the edge of bankruptcy.

Since the State Department's study relied on the viability of the oil-by-rail strategy to reach its conclusion that Keystone XL would have no effect on greenhouse gas production, the entire study must now be rejected as false. Instead of proving that the Keystone XL pipeline would not harm the environment, the State Department has proved that it will. And President Obama has promised he would not approve the Keystone XL under these conditions.

Democratic Senators have completely caved in to Oil Industry demands. They are proposing to approve the Keystone XL despite the State Department's fiasco. The Senators say they are acting to save Senator Mary Landrieu's seat for the Democrats. What they are really doing is the bidding of the oil industry.

The oil industry is getting desperate. The tar sands in Alberta are the third largest proven oil deposit in the world. But tar sands are expensive to refine and destructive to the environment. The oil industry needs Keystone XL to extract this poisonous wealth. Right now they are losing their battle.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

States where it's hard for African Americans and Latinos to vote

Here are the states (red) and counties (blue) that formerly required preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. Notice these are among the same states that passed voter ID legislation that resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being denied the vote, including 600,000 in Texas alone.

During the Jim Crow era, these states had similar laws that were used to prevent African-Americans from voting. Favorites were a poll tax which was small enough for whites to pay but to much for A-As to afford; and a literacy test, which varied from a simple test for whites (such as reciting the alphabet) to a much more difficult test for A-As (such as reciting the Declaration of Independence)

Votes of African-Americans and Latinos will continue to be suppressed in these states so long as Republicans control Congress, which is likely to be a long time. Thank the US Supreme Court for this latest injustice due to their repeal of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

Since when do 5 unelected judges get to decide who becomes president (as in 2001) or who wins the Senate? Thus canceling out the votes of millions of American citizens.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Michael Brown homicide: Ferguson Prosecutor Prepares to Cut Wilson Loose

Grand Jury testimony is supposed to be secret, but the Ferguson DA's Grand Jury has so many leaks it might set some kind of record. Grand Juries are supposed to be secret because they are completely opposed to the adversarial system that is supposed to make our justice system fair. 

In a normal court, a prosecutor for the state is allowed to attack a defendant, but the defendant is supposed to be represented by an equally able attorney. The defendant cannot be compelled to testify against himself. There is a judge whose duty is to see that the lawyers for each side argue fairly. It's called the adversarial trial system and it has its roots in English law back before the Magna Carta. 

But the Grand Jury has none of those protections for the defendant. In fact, Grand Juries are considered so unfair to the defendant that the US is the only country in the world that still uses them. Grand Juries are not run by the courts, but by the prosecutor, so there is not even a judge to help the jury persons understand the law.

The defendant does not need to be present and may not have defense council in any event. The prosecutor holds all the cards. The grand jury itself is composed of ordinary citizens, so the prosecutor acts in place of the judge, as well as the prosecuting attorney, by informing jurors about points of law.

Out of a recognition that Grand Juries are inherently unjust and prejudicial to the prosecutor's opponents, precautions have been taken with regard to their use. In the first place, they are supposed to be absolutely secret.

Precautions are taken to prevent leaks. Releasing testimony from a grand jury constitutes contempt of court. Violators are liable to fines and imprisonment, as well as the charge of obstruction of justice. Nevertheless, and despite the seriousness of leaking information, leaks have been coming from the Ferguson grand jury steadily. Protesters and county officials both see a pattern in these leaks.

Protesters believe the prosecution is leaking information to affect public opinion in favor of Officer Wilson. Someone tweeted early in October announcing that the case against Wilson was weak  It said:

"I know someone sitting on the grand jury. There isn't enough at this point to warrant an arrest. #Ferguson."

Prosecutors claimed that the owner of the twitter account had no connection with the prosecutor's office. Protesters pointed out that the same twitter account had been used to spread rumors about the Trayvon Martin trial a year earlier, tweets that were critical of the African-American community and supportive of Zimmerman. Regardless of the source of the tweet, its effect was to prejudice the public in favor of Wilson.

Instead of investigating whether the leak was real or not, the Ferguson prosecutor's office ignored it. They found the person who owned the twitter account and examined his computer. They concluded that the tweet was not sent from that computer. And that was the end of it.

Another intentional leak which may have come from the prosecutor's office was the autopsy report, also supposed to be confidential. None of the grand jurors had access to that document. The St. Louis Dispatch report quoted a forensic pathologist, Judith Melinek, as saying that the report supported officer Wilson's version of the incident. But Melinek says she was quoted out of context, and in fact she had told the reporter for the St. Louis Dispatch that the autopsy could support several interpretations, not just Wilson's version.

The official autopsy revealed that the victim had been taking marijuana. The reports of the autopsy said there was enough marijuana in Brown's system to cause hallucinations. This statement is extremely prejudicial, since it presents as factual something that can't be known. Additionally, even the idea that marijuana causes hallucinations is disputed, so stating it in a newspaper article misinforms the public about the truth.

All of the leaks favored the officer, Wilson, who was investigated in the first place only because demonstrators from the community demanded it. But we're looking at what was released. The leak said that 6 witnesses backed up Wilson's story. This only helps the prosecutor. If it were leaked by a jury member, it would be diffuse, not concentrated on one point. As it is, it releases information helpful to Wilson's defense in the way a lawyer would make an argument.

I found it incredible that African-American witnesses would be so well-organized that they would all have the same version of an incident. If they were that well-organized, all the accounts would be identical, the way all Fox News accounts are identical, no matter which of the talking heads is speaking. But that is not the case.

A St. Louis Dispatch article published soon after the shooting took place reported several witnesses telling their account of the events. There was no agreement among the witnesses on exactly what had happened. There was also no single version of events that every witness agreed on. This contradicts the information in the leak that stated that six or seven of the witnesses supported Wilson's version of the incident, but were afraid of reprisals if they spoke out publicly. 

In addition, the reporter interviewed two workers who did not know Michael Brown. One of the workers said that Brown had his hands up and was trying to surrender when Wilson shot him several times, killing him. This account, given by an eye-witness with no reason to fear reprisals shortly after the event, does not support Wilson's version of the incident.

All of the leaks have favored Wilson, but in such a way that a prosecutor, organizing his case, would present them to a jury. Circumstantial evidence points to the prosecutor's office as the ones who leaked the information. If true, they are engaged in the worst kind of injustice, convicting Michael Brown in the public press.

Ruben Carter, a boxer who was convicted of murder and served 19 years in prison before being exonerated, described the actions of the U.S. justice system like this: 
“The criminal justice system is not about justice. It is about success. Successful police officers are promoted. Successful prosecuting attorneys become judges. A successful judge goes to a higher court. … A successful judge...in our system of jurisprudence, is a careful judge, and not necessarily a wise one.”
I would be very surprised if the Grand Jury fails to exonerate Wilson in its decision. I would be surprised because the prosecution has already released to the public all the prejudicial testimony it can get its hands on and nothing that favors Michael Brown. The prosecutor in the Michael Brown case gives every evidence of being a successful prosecutor, but not a just one. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why we didn't vote for anyone

Bernie Sanders at least has a coherent philosophy. But when he claims that the voters were fooled by Republican slander, he isn't giving voters enough credit for their intelligence. Sure, the country has lost faith in its government, but if they really want health care, they know they haven't a prayer with the republicans. I think people failed to vote because they couldn't see any difference between the Democrat and the Republican in their local elections. Obama has talked a good show, but major constituencies have doubts about his sincerity.

Obama has courted the Latino vote, but he is known in the Latino community as the guy who deported more Latinos than any other president. Deportation of a friend or loved one is a personal affront and a deep injustice. So Latinos look at him as someone who failed to keep his promises.

African-Americans look at our prisons and see their young men in chains. In the streets, they see their young men shot down with impunity by violent, heavily-armed cops or any other white man with a gun. They have no great vote for Democrats while cops were still assaulting African-Americans in Ferguson.

The progressives look at Obama as the guy who gave us half a national health plan and didn't fight hard enough for a one-payer system, which is the only way the system will work. Obama also ran on an anti-war platform, but actually escalated the war in Afghanistan. He killed Osama bin Laden, but anti-war voters did not buy into the Bush doctrine that we should fight terrorism around the world. Progressives understand war itself is terrorism, and we do not like to see our president pounding the drums for war. Progressives didn't like to see tax cuts as the major stimulus program. Bush gave us that. Finally, progressives saw Wall Street and the neocons from the Bush administration walking away unpunished from the disasters they caused.

So Republicans should not take comfort that the election was a referendum against Obama. Many of the people who dislike Obama do so, not because he is too liberal, but because he is not liberal enough.

The man in the middle will take fire from both sides.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

No, Obama is not the worst president ever: The Big Lie and Republican politics

The big lie of the Republican party is that Obama is the worst president ever. Anyone with any critical faculties left recognizes this would be difficult to prove, even if true. Yet Republicans keep repeating the lie over and over again, never giving any facts to back it up. Or, if they do give facts, they turn out to be minor failures to fulfill campaign promises, such as when he said that if you like your health insurance you can keep it. I'm sorry, but no politician has ever kept all his or her campaign promises. 

Obama has kept most of his promises, and most of the ones he hasn't kept have been blocked by the Republicans. But Republicans never admit their complicity. They practice the propaganda tactic known as the "Big Lie", which maintains that people will believe a big lie if they hear it over and over again.

There are other, similar tactics used by Republicans to get people to follow them mindlessly.

Wikipedia discusses these practices in its article on "Big lie".

The primary rules are: 

  • never allow the public to cool off 
Keep on cooking up new scandals, or repeating the old ones. Don't let the public forget "Benghazi", even if they don't know what it is. Keep forming new committees and hold hearings to rehash the old accusations.

  • never admit a fault or wrong;
Never admit that Congress could have passed an immigration bill if the Republicans had joined with the Democrats. The Senate passed a bill, but the Republicans refused to bring it to a vote. It would have passed had they done so. Yet the Republicans claim it was the Democrats, specifically President Obama, who failed to pass an immigration bill. They also claim that it is Senator Harry Reid who is blocking legislation in the Senate, even though it is the Republican House of Representatives that has been blocking every Obama initiative for 4 years. 

  • never concede that there may be some good in your enemy;
Be sure you mention that Obama is the worst president ever as much as possible. Use name-calling whenever you can. Call the Democrats "socialists", or "race-baiters". Call Obama "weak" and say that he needs to "grow a pair". Recall that Obama's stimulus package didn't work, though most of the spending items in it had been included in Republican bills, including G.W. Bush's stimulus package of 2008. Recall that Obama refused to compromise on the Affordable Care Act, although its basic idea was a Republican idea proposed by the Heritage Foundation and passed in Massachusetts by a Republican governor, Mitt Romney.

  • never leave room for alternatives;
There were several issues, like immigration and paycheck fairness, where compromise might have produced agreement. But Republicans would rather have government fail, even though the failure causes hardship for everyone except the very wealthy.

  • never accept blame;
For example, when Romney was asked about the firing of workers by Bane Capital, he said it happened after he left the company so he had no responsibility for it. When it was discovered that he employed undocumented workers as gardeners, he denied knowing about the problem. He said he fired them as soon as he found out they were undocumented, but in fact he fired them when the press found out about them.

  • concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong;
Republicans pretend that Obama can be blamed for everything, even things that took place during the Bush administration.

  • people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one;
I'm not so sure this is true. It would appear the Republicans will believe any lie as long as it favors Republicans. Another definition of the Big Lie may be closer to the truth: During WWII it was claimed that 
The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
That sounds more like the way the Republicans practice the Big Lie than the original definition. 

  • and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
Yep. That's what Fox News and Republican talking points are for. 

Republican lies are a Ponzi scheme for American voters

Chaz K writes, "The midterm elections were a repudiation of Obama and his policies."

I would agree with him except that the Republican party spent over $100 million running attack ads that misrepresented the issues and the candidates' positions. What he are saying is, if Fox News and the Koch Brothers were successful in buying the election, then the election is a repudiation of the president and his policies. This position is nonsensical. If Bernie Madoff convinced a thousand people to invest in a Ponzi scheme, it doesn't prove Madoff's Ponzi scheme is a good investment. More to the point, it doesn't "repudiate" the laws of mathematics that prove Ponzi schemes don't work. 

But the Republicans began opposing Obama and his policies before they even knew what they were. They opposed his policy of marriage equality, falsely saying it would legalize polygamy and somehow devalue traditional marriage.They opposed limited intervention in the Middle East, saying that Obama was a closet Muslim who favors ISIS. They opposed the Affordable Care Act, saying it would destroy the US medical system (it hasn't), bankrupt the economy (it hasn't), and create death panels (it hasn't). They opposed the EPA policy of decreasing coal production and burning in the atmosphere, by saying that Climate Change is a myth created by the scientists because...scientists don't know anything about what they spend their whole lives studying.

If the Republicans lied about the policies of the administration to win the election, their repudiation is only a repudiation of the fantasy that Republicans created with their lies. In other words, it was a repudiation of nothing. In addition, the Republicans have suggested no alternatives to policies they oppose--because they know those policies are reasonable and there are no defensible right-wing alternatives.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Showa: World War II from the Japanese viewpoint

Americans know all about the war against Japan in 1941-1945. They have seen Pearl Harbor attacked in movies or read about it in popular literature numerous times. They know the stories from Tales of the South Pacific and the musical show is embedded in our culture. They know how John Wayne won the battle of Iwo Jima and how Charlton Heston crashed his plane after winning the battle of Midway. We also know how the sneaky and sadistic Japanese soldiers treated POWs, from the movie, Bridge of the River Kwai. We also learned, from the same movie, how Japanese officers killed themselves to save their honor.

But aside from various similar cliches and scenarios, we know about as much as Ronald Reagan learned about fighting in WWII when he made a film in which he portrayed an American soldier at the front. Showa, a manga series by Shigeru Mizuki that is both history and autobiography, tells the Japanese side of the story. Mizuki is a master story-teller and artist, but it is his heart that shines in this series. Showa: 1939-1944 is by turns violent and tender, as the author describes how he fails as a newspaper delivery boy before failing as a bugler in the Japanese navy. 

Mizuki, like many young men during wartime eschews the quiet life of a bugler behind the front lines. He longs to see action; eventually, he gets his wish. Some of his army experiences are pleasant, like the first time he landed on the island of Palau, of which he writes, in a panel depicting a tropical island sunset,
I never imagined a place so beautiful could be such hell.
Mizuki had to take a great deal of physical abuse, however, as a raw recruit in the Japanese navy, which modeled its training methods after the Prussian army. Which is to say, the new recruits were beaten regularly by the veterans. Apparently, the Prussians did this to build resistance to hardship and inure men to pain. Mizuki clearly hated the whole ordeal, as witnessed by the number of beatings, slaps, and punches he records that he received.

Mizuki also records incidents that befell the Japanese soldiers for which there is no parallel on the American side: Japanese soldiers starved until they were too weak to fight; suicide squads, armed only with swords, were ordered to charge the enemy positions until they were all dead; commanders were ordered into battle with insufficient ammunition for their men; commanders committed suicide to preserve their honor when they were unable to carry out an order, even an impossible on.

Showa was the Japanese name for the years that coincided with the reign of Emperor Hirohito. The first volume, Showa: 1926-1939, contains many incidents of domestic life, as well as historical events that led to Japan's destruction in WWII. The second volume, covering the years 1939-1944, covers the first part of WWII. The third volume is scheduled to be released in November, 2014.

Mizuki narrates in great detail, both with words and with extraordinary pictures, how he learned to despise the glory of war and the stupidity of the men who brought Japan to ruin. A word of warning: You will not be able to put this book down.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

New York Times Attacks Marijuana Legalization--Again

What is it with these establishment newspapers? It was only a fortnight ago that I responded to the Daily Telegraph's  diatribe against marijuana legalization. The Telegraph published some stale data from Wayne Hall and presented it as a new, 20-year study of the effects of marijuana. The "new" study came to the sam conclusions as Hall came to 20 years ago.

New studies on marijuana have not been influenced by old prejudices. The Big Lie is that, since marijuana is illegal, it must be harmful. Since marijuana was made illegal to control African-American recreational users. The first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, was a racist who used racial slurs to get marijuana criminalize in 1937. Anslinger argued that drugs should be outlawed based on the "undesirable" people who use them:
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Marijuana is not a gateway drug and does not cause insanity, here comes Abigail Sullivan Moore, writing in the New York Times, that a new study has shown that marijuana use causes changes in the brain.

Moore entitles her article, This is your brain on drugs, apparently unaware that the "Just say no" campaign from which this slogan is taken was simply relying on ingrained prejudices rather than actual scientific evidence. The advertisement that used this slogan was an attempt to scare people by showing an egg frying in a frying pan and implying that somehow, evidently magically, marijuana turns your brain into a fried egg.

What about this new study, so ominously accompanied by pictures of a human brain on which yellow and red circles, strangely reminiscent of the old advertisement, are superimposed. The pictures themselves show nothing, but the circles are certainly scary. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience on April 16.

Criticism of the Study predates the Times article by six months

On the next day, April 17, Lior Pachter, a professor at UC Berkeley with a PhD in mathematics, published a post on his blog calling this study, "quite possibly the worst study I have read all year."

Pachter went on to make multiple criticisms of the study:

  • While the author of the study, Hans Breiter, claimed to be a mathematician, in reality he had only taken a couple of courses in mathematics.
  • Breiter lied when he claimed that some of the study subjects used marijuana only once or twice a week. In fact, the majority were heavy users of between 10 and 30 joints per week.
  • The number of users studied was 20 (a very small sampling, considering the millions of marijuana users in the US alone) and there were no long-term studies done to verify Breiter's conclusions.
  • There was no evidence to back up Breiter's claim that casual users were having problems.
  • The experiment consisted of a single MRI scan for each subject, which Pachter considered inadequate, given the variability of MRI scans.
  • The study did not calculate separate p-values for each of 4 tests, but simply used one value for all. A p-value is used to determine whether the hypothesis of the experiment--in this case, that marijuana smoking induces changes in the brain--is correct. In other words, the study invented a p-value that did not exist. Since the p-value determines whether the hypothesis is true, or even likely, this carelessness with statistical methods should invalidate the entire study. Pachter calls the methods of the study, "unbelievable".
Pachter was not alone in his criticism of this study. Ryan M. Smith, PhD in Neuroscience, Ohio State University, criticized the study for its repeated statements that there is a causative relationship between cannabis use and anatomic changes in the brain, when they state clearly at the end of the article that the experiment does not prove any causative link.

Nidia J. Melendez, Research Assistant at Columbia University, makes the obvious point that there are no measures of cognitive behaviors or any other behaviors in the report. The authors make no attempt to connect their observations of changes in the brain to any real-world effects. Also, she says, there are indications that the marijuana users have used other drugs, but the study makes no attempt to distinguish the effects of marijuana and other, unknown drugs. In other words, this supposed scientific study draw no conclusions about marijuana use because it did not exclude other drugs from the study.

What is the New York Times Thinking of?

The article, This is your mind on drugs, has nothing of value in it. All of its conclusions are based on a single study. Its author, Abigail Sullivan Moore, has no credentials for writing a review of a scientific article. She has primarily worked as a public relations writer for an insurance company. It is not necessary for a reporter to have extensive experience in the field she writes about, but she should at least pay close attention to the subjects she writes about.

In particular, Moore writes this article for the Times six months after the study was published. Since that time, experts in statistical analysis and physiology have severely criticized the conclusions of the article. But Moore apparently did not bother to consult other sources before writing. Although she is not a scientist, she should have some understanding of common practices in the scientific field, including the practice of other scientists reviewing publications.

She should also know that a single study cannot be widely accepted until other studies have been conducted that corroborate its findings. Nevertheless, Moore proceeds as if this study proves something that it does not.

The fault her is not Moore's, however. No doubt she is doing the best she can with limited training and only a layman's understanding of her subject matter. The fault belongs to the editorial staff of the New York Times. As the newspaper of record, the Times should take pains to keep from printing the results of unverified experiments. This article will undoubtedly spawn others like it, each one pointing to the Times as a reliable source of information.

It should be reliable, but it is not.

Monday, October 27, 2014

When will the wealthy get their wake-up call?

In an NY Times Op-Ed, Paul Krugman describes the political struggles in Hong Kong and discovers--surprise!--the wealthy of Hong Kong are trying to suppress the votes of the bottom 50%. Sounds a lot like what's going on in America, right? Krugman's conclusion: "The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win."

You don't have to be a genius to see the vast wealth of CEOs and Hedge Fund Managers. Wherever you live, you can find enclaves of beautiful homes for the wealthy and vast stretches of mediocre homes for everyone else. The best property in any town is captured by the wealthy: The wealthy have the property next to the parks, the homes with views, the huge lots. The wealthy live in the nice neighborhoods with trees and garbage collectors and little boutique shops full of stuff that only they can afford to buy.

The wealthy really can't hide what's going on. They tell their supporters that all this can be theirs, too, if they just work hard enough and long enough and vote Republican. But even the dullest resident of the poorer districts can see those houses on the hill and those penthouse apartments and understand that he or she will never be living there. 

No amount of money spent on fancy propaganda is going to keep the 99% from the realization that they don't live in a mansion and don't own several houses and don't earn enough to buy those things. The 1% will never be able to convince the immigrants who do many of the menial jobs in this country that their lives will be better if they don't get the right to vote.

So I don't think there is a question about which side will win in the end. Eventually the non-wealthy among us will realize that immigrants are likely to vote with us and against the wealthy. That is precisely why the wealthy don't want to give citizenship to immigrants, even though it is the wealthy who benefit most from the maids, cooks, janitors, dishwashers, waiters, gardeners, security guards, night watchmen, and nannies who have come to this country to work. The 1% enjoy the unjust and unfair economic system just the way it is and they are fighting like Hell to keep it that way. The wealthy call this selfish attitude, "Conservatism," when it is really just "Greed."

The wealthy will lose because the non-wealthy are not nearly as stupid as they think we are.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

ISIL falls into a trap in Kobane

Recently, pictures taken on the border between Turkey and Syria showed a curious sight: A line on Turkish tanks pointed toward a town where ISIL forces were attacking Kurdish defenders. The tanks were sitting there, watching in a row, while in the valley below, people were being killed.

The Turkish tanks were respecting a traditional convention that is rapidly becoming obsolete. They were stopping at an international border. I say it is becoming obsolete because so many wars are being fought without traditional borders. ISIL, the military force that the Turks were watching on that border, has been attacking places in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Part of their success comes from their ability to attack across borders, then retreat to their strongholds in Syria.

The terrible situation in Syria is another reason why borders are obsolete. The UN protocols for war crimes and human rights crimes are predicated on a country's borders being inviolate. The UN Charter and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court both condemn wars of aggression, which are wars where one country attacks another without itself being threatened. This opposition to wars of aggression implies that sovereign nations should never be attacked by other nations without provocation.

The sole exception to this rule would seem to be whenever an attack receives the approval of the UN Security Council. The Security Council is a political body, however. It is likely that any decision to sanction an action taken by the Security Council will have opposition, regardless of how justified the action may be.

In this case, when Turkey lines its tanks up on the Syrian border, Turkey is presumably defending itself from attack while at the same time observing the UN prohibitions on aggressive war. Neither of these presumptions are likely to be true. The Turkish tanks, while motionless are actually preventing ISIL forces from retreating into Turkey along a long, somewhat porous border. The Turks are supporting the efforts of American and Arab jets, who have been relentlessly pounding ISIL positions with high explosives. So there is a battle going on here that violates the UN Charter, but one could argue it does not violate the natural laws that require the strong to protect the weak.

The residents of Kobane are not, strictly speaking, Syrians. They belong to a Kurdish minority and practice a form of Islam known as Shi'a. The people attacking them right now are Sunni Moslems, but so are the Turks who are protecting them. More than 100,000 refugees, many of them Kurds, have crossed the border into Turkey. So the tanks are protecting those refugees.

The tanks are on the high ground, solemn and still. The fighters of ISIL do not dare to attack them. Although the fighters in Iraq's army may be badly trained and poorly motivated, this is not true of the Turkish army. Young Turkish men must serve in the army for 6 to 12 months, which receives weapons from the US and other NATO countries. This service is seen as a patriotic duty by the Turks.

ISIL has a fighting force of approximately 35,000 men. Their propaganda claims they are an unbeatable force of highly motivated muslim fighters. Recent American tv shows have bolstered the claims of ISIL by attacking all Muslims as sympathizers with ISIL and its tactics. ISIL has seized several cities and gained control of western Iraq, but their force is still small and they have few allies in the region. Saudi Arabia has admitted giving aid to ISIL at one time, but official spokesmen have asserted that that the aid has been stopped.

It has been estimated that 500 ISIL fighters have been killed by these multi-national air attacks. An additional 1500 have likely been seriously wounded. Therefore, ISIL has lost 5% of its entire army in the attack on Kobane. This fact supports the idea that the anti-ISIL forces have been using Kobane as a killing ground, a place where ISIL fighters have been lured in with the prospect of an easy victory.

The dedication of ISIL fighters, who are advertised (by ISIL) as fierce jihadis, has also been brought into question by testimony from a captured ISIL member.  He has admitted fighting with ISIL, but says he was forced by threat of beheading to join the battle. He also says that ISIL drugs young men before sending them out as suicide bombers.

There may be some doubt as to the veracity of this young man's story, but there is no doubt that ISIL would use those tactics--and worse--to recruit new fighters.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bill Maher debates Ben Affleck on Islam

Recently Bill Maher caused a sensation on the internet by claiming that Islam is more like a criminal enterprise than a religion. What other religion, he asked, threatens to kill you if you don't agree with their religious practices?

Maher and his guest, Sam Harris, then brought out a laundry-list of complaints leveled at Muslims: they subjugate women, they execute apostates (Muslims who renounce their religion), and they execute people who defame Islam or the Prophet Muhammed.

Ben Affleck responded by calling Maher's comments racist. The definition of racism is the application of a set of stereotypical characteristics to an entire race. So, when you condemn Islam because ISIS commits atrocities in Iraq, you are spreading racism. In fact, it is people with microphones, like Maher, who do the most damage by spreading racism. Reza Aslan, a scholar of middle eastern religions, says that Maher has been attacking Islam for a long time but people have just started to notice the damage he is doing.

Maher doesn't see it that way. For him, as also for Sam Harris, Islam is an evil religion. Muslims may reject the actions and beliefs of ISIL, 
but hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.
Harris says that Islam is the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas.

Is Islam as bad as all that?

We need to understand that this debate is not just about Islam, but religion in general. Harris and Maher are not just critics of Islam, they are famous atheists who are making money from attacking religion. Harris, in particular, has made a career by attacking religion.

So we have to ask, would people be likely to approve this attack on Islam if they understood that the attackers, Maher and Harris, have said similar things about Christianity? The circumstances would be quite different if Maher had said, Christianity is a terrible religion, but Islam is even worse.

To his credit, Affleck pointed out the absurdity of the attacks on Islam. You can't judge a religion with a billion adherents all around the world by the actions of a few extremists in Iraq. The US Constitution made a good rule, that religions should be allowed to practice their beliefs without interference from the government.

Affleck admitted that ISIL had committed some atrocities. So what do you want to do about it? He asked Maher. Kill more people? Hasn't there been enough killing already?

Affleck may have struck a nerve with that question, because Harris first came to prominence as an Islam basher after the 9/11 attacks. His views provided a rational basis to go to war against Iraq. They still provide an excuse to start yet another war in the Middle East, and there are plenty of people who planned the last one still hanging around, urging Obama to send in the troops.

This program went viral, probably because Affleck was on it. Affleck was sandbagged by these two professional muslim-haters.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why shouldn't the Chinese people fight for Democracy? A question on Quora.

Over a thousand people on quora voted for an answer to this question that concludes: "If you think democracy is good, that is okay. Revolutionizing the entire system requires real urgency, when the society is ready to pay the cost. But now, the Chinese system works just fine."

An engineer has written the answer to this question. Hundreds of people have upvoted the answer. In the answer, the engineer compares the government of China to an internet protocol. This is a very bad analogy.

The consequences of continuing an operable though inferior protocol are negligible in terms of human rights or quality of life. The consequences of continuing a Communist system of government are huge. 

Communism is a form of oligarchy. As with all oligarchies, the ruling class gets many privileges while everyone else looks the other way. When it comes time to vote, as with the answer upvoted here, everyone says, yes, this is a fine system. The oligarchy does not look kindly on anyone who tries to oppose its power in any way, no matter how insignificant. So your vote doesn't count, except that if you vote against the oligarchy, you could suffer serious consequences. This is why, when elections are held in an oligarchy, everyone says the government is just fine.

The Chinese government gives great advantages to the people who run the industrial organizations, the entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs acquire great wealth and privilege. So you have a country where the rural population makes 1/3 as much per capita as the urban population and the top 1 per cent own 1/3 of the wealth. See Income inequality in China for details.

Surprise! The result of the economic system in China is almost exactly the same as the result in the US: A small number of people own most of the wealth. Both these countries are oligarchies, so the outcomes are inevitably the same. 

There are many reasons why the people living in an oligarchy do not rise up to throw off their masters. In China, the government watches the people very closely for any signs of rebellion. The oligarchy there pays special attention to any groups trying to organize for any reason. The oligarchy knows that any group that tries to challenge its power must first organize.

As a result, the Chinese government imposes strict press censorship. The penalties for printing anything against the government are severe. The government imposes the death penalty for 55 crimes, including white-collar crimes like embezzlement. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese government executed more people than the rest of the world combined. See Human rights in China.

Human rights organizations have accused the Chinese oligarchy of denying basic human rights to its people. The Chinese oligarchy responds that, since there are differences between people, there should be differences in human rights that are given to the people. This practice is an example of Chinese claiming the existence of Chinese exceptionalism, just as Americans claim American exceptionalism excuses many of their violations of international human rights treaties, such as when they invaded Iraq without provocation, or when they tortured prisoners of war.

Given the absolute control by the Chinese oligarchy over its people, and its denial of basic rights like the right of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom from torture (guaranteed by the fifth amendment in the US constitution), the likelihood of any uprising against the Chinese government is very small. So the answer to the question, Why shouldn't Chinese people fight for democracy, is that the oligarchic system of government in China prevents any organized resistance and punishes any perceived resistance severely.

Whether the Chinese are really happy with their present government is a completely different question. Let me answer it with another question: Assuming that you are not a member of the ruling oligarchy, would you be happy in a country where the oligarchy routinely commits human rights abuses and your chances of escaping poverty are almost nil?