Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Reading

Using the Force — Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker on what a new authorization for military force is worth.

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed with overwhelming support: only one member of Congress (Barbara Lee of California) voted against it. From a layman’s perspective, its language is fairly restrictive. The President was authorized  “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

President George W. Bush used the resolution to justify military action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He obtained separate authorization for the war in Iraq in 2002.) Obama expanded the war and used the resolution to justify military action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But when the Arab Spring drew the United States into a new set of military interventions in the Middle East, the 2001 resolution’s authority was far less applicable. Obama did not try to use the resolution to justify the war in Libya. (He used a different, though still dubious, argument.) When the President considered striking Syria in 2013, he made no attempt to lean on the 2001 law, and was prepared to seek a new congressional authorization.

But, last September, when Obama and his lawyers sought justification for the war against ISIS, they made a decision that will haunt them in the coming congressional debate. The White House argued that the conflict was not a ground war but, rather, a “counterterrorism campaign,” and as such did not require the authorization of war powers. The White House further argued that a war against ISIS would be justified by the 2001 resolution because ISIS is “affiliated” or “associated” with Al Qaeda—never mind that the two groups are now in conflict with each other and that there is no provision in the resolution covering affiliated or associated groups. At the time, many legal scholars argued that this was a ridiculous reading of the 2001 law, but there was little appetite in Congress to debate the issue during the midterm campaign.

These legalistic contortions now have enormous ramifications. As Ackerman notes, even if Congress passes a new, restrictive resolution against ISIS, a new President could always fall back on the unchallenged Obama position of 2014 and insist that the 2001 resolution is sufficient to justify some further campaign. In other words, Obama and his lawyers have made the 2001 resolution so elastic that, unless it is modified or rescinded, it presents an open invitation for abuse to any future Commander-in-Chief.

This issue does not seem to have sunk in yet with many on the right and the left flanks of Congress, who so far have been focussed on tweaking Obama’s proposal. But, as the debate unfolds over the next month, Obama’s prior use of the 2001 authorization is sure to become a major issue, especially among doves in both parties. Last year, Republican Senator Rand Paul, another likely Presidential contender, who is deeply skeptical about any military engagement, drafted a highly restrictive resolution authorizing force against ISIS which incorporated the repeal of the 2001 authorization. On the left, grassroots groups like Moveon.org, which today came out against Obama’s proposed resolution, are citing the failure to rescind the 2001 resolution as the basis for their current opposition.

In his submission to Congress this week, Obama said that he wants to revisit the 2001 resolution—just not now. But, by using the expansive Bush-era law to justify the war against ISIS last fall, he has left Congress with no choice but to review it within the confines of the current debate. As long as the 2001 resolution is still in effect, none of the limits contained in a new ISIS-specific war resolution will matter.

Why We Need Net Neutrality — Mychal Denzel Smith at The Nation explains how the internet saved free speech.

Net neutrality scored a big win recently when Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler changed course on the issue and put forth, in his words, “the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.” The plan calls for reclassification of the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, such that the Internet would be regulated as a public utility, much like telecom services. This would prevent broadband companies from potentially charging websites for better, faster uploading and access, setting up a two-tiered Internet in which larger sites with the ability to pay these fees come to dominate the information we all have access to. Considering the odds (Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the cable-TV and wireless industries, while Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others spent over $75 million last year lobbying on the issue), Wheeler’s decision to support an open Internet is more than welcome, if not a little shocking.

It also couldn’t have come at a better time in US history. The idea of fast and slow lanes on the Internet based on a company’s ability to pay for the service would further already entrenched inequalities. But also, given how crucial the Internet has been to political activism for this generation, an open Internet is vital for organizing efforts around the most important issues of our time.

Nowhere is this more true than with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The name itself took off as a hashtag on Twitter and was able to spread quickly in the wake of the not-guilty verdict handed down to George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and again when Michael Brown was killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The latter event in particular serves as a case study of just how important the Internet and social media have become to organizing. Brown’s death was first reported by residents of Ferguson who took to Twitter to describe the scene as it unfolded. In the four and a half hours in which Brown’s body lay in the street, more tweets poured in and more people from the St. Louis area traveled to Ferguson. From there, a protest movement was born.

“If we don’t have access to open Internet, and we don’t have net neutrality, then it limits the ability for black people to save themselves,” Dante Barry, director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, told the Huffington Post. Indeed, the issue is so crucial to the work groups like Million Hoodies is doing that a delegation of organizers went to Washington, DC, in January to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as a commissioner and staffers from the FCC, to speak to them directly about why their support for net neutrality matters. Among those they visited was Representative John Lewis from Georgia, a civil-rights-movement veteran. After their meeting, Lewis said on Facebook: “If we had the technology, if we had the Internet during the movement, we could have done more, much more, to bring people together from all around the country, to organize and work together to build the beloved community. That is why it is so important for us to protect the Internet. Every voice matters, and we cannot let the interests of profit silence the voices of those pursuing human dignity.”

An open Internet that is accessible to all people has become critical to the maintenance of democracy, and, as such, it should remain a level field where voices previously marginalized can find strength and solidarity.

Laugh Track — Oliver Morrison in The Atlantic explains why there’s no right-wing equivalent to Jon Stewart.

Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias. Alison Dagnes spent years looking into this question for her 2012 book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar. She spoke to dozens of working comedians who self-identified as liberals, and as many who identified as conservatives as she could find. One of the reasons she posits for a lack of conservative satire is that the genre has always been aimed at taking down the powerful, from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam and 9/11. “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg,” she wrote.

Theorists have been trying to explain humor as far back as Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher said humor got its power from the pleasure people get when they feel superior over others, laughing at their foibles and flaws. Freud saw it as a cathartic release from society’s repressions, thus explaining all our sex and fart jokes. And Hegel saw it as reconciling two normally incongruous spheres of meaning—i.e., showing a football player in a cheerleading outfit or putting a cat in human clothes.

Peter McGraw, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, has argued for what he calls the “benign-violation theory” of humor. McGraw believes that humor results from violating social norms or by violating a particular person or group. But it only becomes funny when it’s placed in a second context that clearly signals the violation is harmless or benign. In other words, if someone falls down the stairs, it will only be really funny if that person doesn’t get hurt.

[…]

This struggle to thrive in a particular genre isn’t exclusive to conservatives and satire. At the end of the 1990s, when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, conservatives dominated one form of entertainment media: talk radio. Liberals have never managed to equal conservatives’ success in that arena. The Air America network—whose talent included Rachel Maddow, as well as Saturday Night Live alumnus and future Senator Al Franken—filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of 2010. Even MSNBC has never been able to attract as large an audience as Fox News, the televised version of conservative talk radio.

Could it be that American political satire is biased toward liberals in the same way that American political talk radio is biased toward conservatives? Dannagal Young, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Delaware, was looking into the lack of conservative comedians when she noticed studies that found liberals and conservatives seemed to have different aesthetic tastes. Conservatives seemed to prefer stories with clear-cut endings. Liberals, on the other hand, had more tolerance for a story like public radio’s Serial, which ends with some uncertainty and ambiguity.

Young began to wonder whether this might explain why liberals were attracted in greater numbers to TV shows that employ irony. Stephen Colbert, for example, may say that he’s looking forward to the sunny weather that global warming will bring, and the audience members know this isn’t what he really means. But they have to wonder: Is he making fun of the kind of conservative who would say something so egregious? Or is he making fun of arrogant liberals who think that conservatives hold such extreme views?

As Young noticed, this is a kind of ambiguity that liberals tend to find more satisfying and culturally familiar than conservatives do. In fact, a study out of Ohio State University found that a surprising number of conservatives who were shown Colbert clips were oblivious to the fact that he was joking.

Doonesbury — Dream big.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Cutting The Cable

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the F.C.C., is in favor of net neutrality.

First, Mr. Wheeler proposed regulating consumer Internet service as a public utility, saying it was the right path to net neutrality. He also included provisions to protect consumer privacy and to ensure Internet service is available for people with disabilities and in remote areas.

Mr. Wheeler’s plan would also for the first time give the F.C.C. enforcement powers to police practices in the marketplace for handling of data before it enters the gateway network into people’s households — the so-called interconnect market. For good measure, he added a “future conduct” standard to cover unforeseen problems.

This will undoubtedly piss off the cable companies such as Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon, who think that having a monopoly over telecom is the way God and the Bell System intended it.

Anything that curdles the milk of those companies is fine with me ($140 a month for intermittent service?  Seriously?), so go for it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Reading

The Moment — Dani McClain at The Nation notes that we are seeing the dawn of a new civil rights movement.

Back in August, some observers drew comparisons between the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. If parallels to civil rights movement history are helpful now, then let yesterday’s announcement that a Staten Island grand jury won’t indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death be a sign that we’re somewhere closer to 1963—when a series of devastating setbacks and subsequent widespread outrage transformed the civil rights struggle—than we are to Till’s lynching, that earlier consciousness-raising moment. There was a perfect storm this week: the continuing fallout of the failed indictment of Wilson; the news of the outcome in the Garner case; a Cleveland newspaper’s efforts to discredit and sling mud on the parents of a 12-year-old boy killed by police. This moment has the potential to catapult change, just as a series of events that transpired eight years after Till was killed did.

The murder of 14-year-old Till and the 1963 murder of four black girls at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church both became national stories that hit Americans square in the chest, reminding them of the Jim Crow system of justice in which black people had no rights that whites were bound to respect. With the killings of Garner, Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and others, we are all reminded that black life is still too often devalued, and that police officers are often not subject to the rule of law. That reminder has packed a similar emotional wallop. It is all coming so quickly: these announcements that a trial isn’t even needed to determine the police officer’s guilt or innocence. These exonerations through other means. People are taking to the streets nationwide to protest: just last night saw an outpouring of response in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta and beyond.

[…]

Granted, those dead at the hands of police today are not civil rights leaders, or children killed in their place of worship. For some observers, these more recent victims are unsympathetic: they were involved in roughing up a bodega owner or selling untaxed cigarettes. But for others, we find ourselves at a similar moment fifty years after that critical turning point in civil rights movement history—with “Again?” on our lips and a familiar feeling of dread in response to the violence we witness on the video of the killing of Eric Garner, the incredible amount of force used on a man who announced over and over again, “I can’t breathe.”

What would it take to scrap and rebuild a system that makes it nearly impossible to indict an officer when he or she kills a civilian? What is the landmark legislation that all this fury in the streets can demand and drive? Some of the organizers and strategists who are responsible for the displays of coordinated, righteous protest are putting their minds on these questions. The sense of being up against an unchangeable justice system designed to brutalize black life at the slightest perception of provocation can make one feel that the United States has proven itself to be a failed political experiment, one in which some people’s rights will never be secured. But if the history of this country’s most revered revolutionary period is any guide—and if a policy program is developed to channel all this growing energy—then we’re just getting started.

No Less Convinced — Charlie Pierce on the unraveling at Rolling Stone.

I don’t know what to make of the suddenly unravelling Rolling Stone account of a shocking alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. Right now, it appears that the magazine is back-pedaling on both feet, while trying to pin everything on the woman who was the victim of the alleged crime, and they appear to be doing it under pressure from, among other quarters, The Washington Post. For myself,  I would like to the Post to clarify further this curious admission from the fraternity’s official statement.

Our initial doubts as to the accuracy of the article have only been strengthened as alumni and undergraduate members have delved deeper,” according to the statement.

What “alumni” would those be? Frat-brother lawyers working pro bono? Law enforcement officials in their Wahoo footie pajamas, moonlighting as ratfckers for the old brotherhood? And what undergraduates have “delved deeper,” and what did that involve and where were they delving precisely?

There is a part of me that always thought the story – and the ground rules under which it was pursued – seemed a little hinky. However, at the same time, I’m no less convinced than I was before that something very bad happened to this woman at UVa. If both of those things are true, then a terrible disservice has been done to a lot of different people, including the victim, and I’m not at the point yet that I’m going to take the word of a fratenity’s lawyers that nothing untoward happened at all. I am, however, convinced that we are dealing here with a horrifying breakdown in communications – between source and reporter, reporter and editor, editor and publisher, and magazine and readers – that may well have consequences far beyond this one case. I know a brave someone who’s been working hard on the issue of sexual assaults on campus. This is not a job for the timid and, no matter how the RS affair plays out, it isn’t going to be made any easier, because the howler monkeys already have come out to play. I know we say this a lot but, dammit, absolutely nothing good will come of this.

World Wide Web Not So Much — Vauhini Vara in The New Yorker on how the internet is limited around the world.

In September of last year, Chinese authorities announced an unorthodox standard to help them decide whether to punish people for posting online comments that are false, defamatory, or otherwise harmful: Was a message popular enough to attract five hundred reposts or five thousand views? It was a striking example of how sophisticated the Chinese government has become, in recent years, in restricting Internet communication—going well beyond crude measures like restricting access to particular Web sites or censoring online comments that use certain keywords. Madeline Earp, a research analyst at Freedom House, the Washington-based nongovernmental organization, suggested a phrase to describe the approach: “strategic, timely censorship.” She told me, “It’s about allowing a surprising amount of open discussion, as long as you’re not the kind of person who can really use that discussion to organize people.”

On Thursday, Freedom House published its fifth annual report on Internet freedom around the world. As in years past, China is again near the bottom of the rankings, which include sixty-five countries. Only Syria and Iran got worse scores, while Iceland and Estonia fared the best. (The report was funded partly by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United States Department of State, Google, and Yahoo, but Freedom House described the report as its “sole responsibility” and said that it doesn’t necessarily represent its funders’ views.)

China’s place in the rankings won’t come as a surprise to many people. The notable part is that the report suggests that, when it comes to Internet freedom, the rest of the world is gradually becoming more like China and less like Iceland. The researchers found that Internet freedom declined in thirty-six of the sixty-five countries they studied, continuing a trajectory they have noticed since they began publishing the reports in 2010.

Earp, who wrote the China section, said that authoritarian regimes might even be explicitly looking at China as a model in policing Internet communication. (Last year, she co-authored a report on the topic for the Committee to Protect Journalists.) China isn’t alone in its influence, of course. The report’s authors even said that some countries are using the U.S. National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance, which came to light following disclosures by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, “as an excuse to augment their own monitoring capabilities.” Often, the surveillance comes with little or no oversight, they said, and is directed at human-rights activists and political opponents.

China, the U.S., and their copycats aren’t the only offenders, of course. In fact, interestingly, the United States was the sixth-best country for Internet freedom, after Germany—though this may say as much about the poor state of Web freedom in other places as it does about protections for U.S. Internet users. Among the other countries, this was a particularly bad year for Russia and Turkey, which registered the sharpest declines in Internet freedom from the previous year. In Turkey, over the past several years, the government has increased censorship, targeted online journalists and social-media users for assault and prosecution, allowed state agencies to block content, and charged more people for expressing themselves online, the report noted—not to mention temporarily shutting down access to YouTube and Twitter. As Jenna Krajeski wrote in a post about Turkey’s Twitter ban, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed in March, “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. They will see the power of the Turkish Republic.” A month later, Russian President Vladimir Putin, not to be outdone by Erdoğan, famously called the Internet a “C.I.A. project,” as Masha Lipman wrote in a post about Russia’s recent Internet controls. Since Putin took office again in 2012, the report found, the government has enacted laws to block online content, prosecuted people for their Internet activity, and surveilled information and communication technologies. Among changes in other countries, the report said that the governments of Uzbekistan and Nigeria had passed laws requiring cybercafés to keep logs of their customers, and that the Vietnamese government began requiring international Internet companies to keep at least one server in Vietnam.

Doonesbury — Raiders of the lost arc…

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Short Takes

Putin visits Crimea.

The fix is in: the GOP picks its team for the Benghazi! kangaroo court.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen testified on Capitol Hill about the recovery.

Ten senators told the FCC to abandon its plan to “fix” net neutrality.

A drone and an airliner had a close call over Florida in March.

The Tigers lost to the Twins 2-1.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Republican Flying Monkeys Triumph — Charlie Pierce on the defeat of the farm bill by the GOP.

They do this to demonstrate that government cannot work. They do this so that they can go home and talk at all the town halls and bean suppers to audiences choking on the venom that pours out of their radios and off their television screens about how government doesn’t work, and how they stood tall against it, and against Those People who don’t want to work for a living. (When Stutzman says he’s a “fourth-generation farmer” who doesn’t want the Farm Bill to be a “welfare bill,” the folks back in LaGrange County don’t need an Enigma machine to decode what he’s saying.) They do this out of the bent notion, central to their party’s presidential campaign last fall, that anyone on any kind of government assistance is less entitled to the benefits of the political commonwealth. And they all believe that; the only difference between Paul Ryan and Marlin Stutzman is that Ryan has been a nuisance for a longer period of time. That the country rose up and rejected that notion in a thundering manner is irrelevant. What does the country matter in the Third Congressional District of Indiana? There, they believe government cannot work, and they elect Marlin Stutzman to the Congress to demonstrate to the world that it cannot.

Our Congress is now a cut-rate circus with nothing but eunuchs as performers. Some of these people, like Stutzman and his colleagues in the flying-monkey caucus, become eunuchs by choice. Some of them, like John Boehner, are drafted into the position. Their job is to be forcibly impotent so that the government itself becomes forcibly impotent. They are proud of what they do. They consider it a higher calling to public service that they decline to serve the public. They sing a soprano dirge for democracy in Jesus’s name, amen.

Smartphones Underground — Gerry Smith of the Huffington Post on the trade in stolen smartphones.

Before a federal SWAT team descended last summer, one storefront in a Detroit suburb attracted so many people bearing shopping bags stuffed with iPhones and iPads that managers installed a port-a-potty on the sidewalk.

Once inside, people deposited their electronic wares into a rotating drawer below a bulletproof glass window and waited for the cashier to deliver stacks of cash.

So much money changed hands in this fashion at the Ace Wholesale storefront in Taylor, Mich., that an armored truck arrived each morning to deliver fresh bundles of cash, according to an undercover investigator for the wireless company Sprint and an employee at the Mattress World outlet next door.

“It was like Fort Knox over there,” said the Mattress World employee, who asked not to be named for fear of making enemies inside what police say was a locus of criminal activity.

Many of the mobile devices swapped for cash at Ace Wholesale had been stolen at gunpoint in an escalating wave of gadget-related robberies, police say. Ace Wholesale had become a key broker in the underground trade of stolen phones, a global enterprise that often connects violent street thieves in American cities with buyers as far away as Hong Kong, according to law enforcement and the wireless industry.

“These companies fence the stolen phones for them, no questions asked,” said Jerry Deaven, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with preventing the trafficking of stolen goods. “You can walk right into one of these storefronts and sell all the phones at once and walk out with $20,000.”

The Hut Where The Internet Began — Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic traces the web back to 1945.

Let’s start at the end point: what you’re doing right now. You are pulling information from a network onto a screen, enhancing your embodied experience with a communication web filled with people and machines. You do this by pointing and clicking, tapping a few commands, organizing your thoughts into symbols that can be read and improved by your various correspondents.

There was a beginning to all this, long before it became technically possible.

Well, actually, there were many beginnings.

But one — maybe the most important one — traces back to Douglas Engelbart, who died last week, and his encounter with a 1945 article published here at The Atlantic, “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush, an icon of mid-century science.

The essay is most famous for its description of a hypothetical information-retrieval system, the Memex, a kind of mechanical Evernote, in which a person’s every “book, record, or communication” was microfilmed and cataloged.

“It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory,” Bush wrote. “It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.”

Bush did not describe the screens, keyboard, buttons, and levers as a “user interface” because the concept did not exist. Neither did semiconductors or almost any other piece of the world’s computing and networking infrastructure except a handful of military computers and some automatic telephone switches (the latter were, in fact, one of Bush’s favorite examples).

A crucial component of the Memex was that it helped the brain’s natural “associative indexing,” so “any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.” The Memex storehouse was made usable by the “trails” that the user (another word that did not have this meaning at the time) cut through all the information, paths that could later be refollowed or passed onto a friend.

Texas Bans Women — Andy Borowitz reports on the Lone Star state’s latest move.

Republican lawmakers in the Texas State Senate are proposing a precedent-setting new bill that would make it illegal for women to live in the state.

Senator Harland Dorrinson, one of the many pro-life lawmakers backing the woman ban, crafted his bill after witnessing Senator Wendy Davis filibuster an anti-abortion bill last month.

“That was our moment to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he said. “This comes down to a choice between life and women, and we choose life.”

Senator Dorrinson said his bill would call for a twenty-foot woman-proof fence to be constructed along the borders of the state.

“Women are great at talking, but not at climbing,” he observed.

But another G.O.P. state senator, Cal Jamson, believes that the total ban on women goes “too far” and is proposing a less draconian bill that would allow some women to remain in the state as guest workers.

“Texas needs women to cook, clean, and cheerlead,” he said. “If they show that they can do those things and stay out of politics, there could be a pathway to citizenship.”

Doonesbury — Bringing in help.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Reading

It Will Happen Again — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

The murders—it dignifies them to call them a “tragedy”—in Aurora, Colorado, have hit us all hard, though the grief of the friends and families of the victims is unimaginable. Still, it hits home, or someplace worse than home, for any parent who (as I did, as so many did) had a kid at one of the many midnight screenings of the new Batman movie last night, they having gone to see it the moment it opened. Once again, as so often before, the unthinkable news is disassembled, piece by piece, into its heartbreaking parts. After the Virginia Tech shooting, the horrifying detail, as I wrote at the time, was that the cell phones were still ringing in the pockets of the dead children as their parents tried to call them. In Colorado, you can’t expunge the knowledge of the sudden turn from pleasure to horror that those children experienced. As the smoke bomb went off, some of the kids inside apparently thought that it was a special effect, part of the fun, until they began to see “people holding themselves.” According to the Aurora police, the suspect, James Holmes, who is twenty-four, was carrying both a rifle and a handgun. The bullets were fired so freely that they penetrated the wall separating one movie theatre in a multiplex to devastate people in the next one.

The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.

The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country—Canada, Norway, Britain—has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do—as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue.

You Can Quit Any Time — Bill Davidow studies the dilemma of internet addiction.

The leaders of Internet companies face an interesting, if also morally questionable, imperative: either they hijack neuroscience to gain market share and make large profits, or they let competitors do that and run away with the market.

In the Industrial Age, Thomas Edison famously said, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent.” In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra “create an obsession, then exploit it.” Gaming companies talk openly about creating a “compulsion loop,” which works roughly as follows: the player plays the game; the player achieves the goal; the player is awarded new content; which causes the player to want to continue playing with the new content and re-enter the loop.

It’s not quite that simple. Thanks to neuroscience, we’re beginning to understand that achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content for completing a task can excite the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers. This in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, some people can become obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences and engage in compulsive behavior such as a need to keep playing a game, constantly check email, or compulsively gamble online. A recent Newsweek cover story described some of the harmful effects of being trapped in the compulsion loop.

The release of dopamine forms the basis for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling addictions. The inhalation of nicotine triggers a small dopamine release, and a smoker quickly becomes addicted. Cocaine and heroin deliver bigger dopamine jolts, and are even more destructive.

In the past, companies used customer surveys, focus groups, interviews, and psychological tests to figure out how to make products more appealing to customers. In 1957, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, in which he identified eight hidden needs — including a consumer’s desire to love and be loved, or a yearning for power — which advertisers could exploit to create demand for their products.

Packard, who questioned the morality of exploiting emotions in order to sell products, died in 1996. Were he alive today, he would surely be shocked to see how primitive the exploitation techniques he described now seem.

Let The Games Begin — Dave Barry preps us for the Olympics.

This year the Olympics are being held in London, which is in a festive mood, having just held a “jubilee” to celebrate the Queen’s 350th birthday. The city has spent $15 billion on preparations for the Olympics, including $5.8 billion for the world’s largest umbrella, the “Jumbo-rella,” which, in the event of rain, will automatically pop up and unfurl to cover the entire greater London metropolitan area, encompassing 2,158,597 hectares (one hectare = 17 liters). Because of unanticipated construction delays, the Jumbo-rella will not be field-tested until 3 a.m. on the day of the Olympic opening ceremonies; as a precaution, London authorities are recommending that, during the test, all residents temporarily relocate to “a safe area, such as Wales.”

Which brings us to terrorism. Is it a concern? I will not mince words: maybe. London authorities have asked everyone attending the Olympics to be alert for suspicious behavior such as: standing around, frowning, taking photographs, talking on a mobile phone while walking rapidly in a specific direction, etc. If you see an individual doing any of these things, simply place that individual in a standard headlock and yell for a police officer, which in England is called a “Bobby.”

Be advised that “Bobby” is only one example of the many words or phrases that the British because of centuries of heavy drinking, use incorrectly. Here are some others, with the American, or correct, version on the left, and the British version on the right:

Flashlight = Torch

Elevator = Prawn

Hello = Blimey

Good (or bad) = Aunt Betty’s celery trampoline

Torch = Flashlight

Eat = Spang the wollynacker

Does it ever stop raining here? = Cor blimey?

Paul = Ringo

Take the subway = Neuter the hedgehog

Go to the bathroom = Make a blimey

Gun Control — Editorial Cartoon by Jim Morin of the Miami Herald.

Photo credit — Denver Post.

Sunday Reading

It Will Happen Again — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

The murders—it dignifies them to call them a “tragedy”—in Aurora, Colorado, have hit us all hard, though the grief of the friends and families of the victims is unimaginable. Still, it hits home, or someplace worse than home, for any parent who (as I did, as so many did) had a kid at one of the many midnight screenings of the new Batman movie last night, they having gone to see it the moment it opened. Once again, as so often before, the unthinkable news is disassembled, piece by piece, into its heartbreaking parts. After the Virginia Tech shooting, the horrifying detail, as I wrote at the time, was that the cell phones were still ringing in the pockets of the dead children as their parents tried to call them. In Colorado, you can’t expunge the knowledge of the sudden turn from pleasure to horror that those children experienced. As the smoke bomb went off, some of the kids inside apparently thought that it was a special effect, part of the fun, until they began to see “people holding themselves.” According to the Aurora police, the suspect, James Holmes, who is twenty-four, was carrying both a rifle and a handgun. The bullets were fired so freely that they penetrated the wall separating one movie theatre in a multiplex to devastate people in the next one.

The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.

The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country—Canada, Norway, Britain—has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do—as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue.

You Can Quit Any Time — Bill Davidow studies the dilemma of internet addiction.

The leaders of Internet companies face an interesting, if also morally questionable, imperative: either they hijack neuroscience to gain market share and make large profits, or they let competitors do that and run away with the market.

In the Industrial Age, Thomas Edison famously said, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent.” In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra “create an obsession, then exploit it.” Gaming companies talk openly about creating a “compulsion loop,” which works roughly as follows: the player plays the game; the player achieves the goal; the player is awarded new content; which causes the player to want to continue playing with the new content and re-enter the loop.

It’s not quite that simple. Thanks to neuroscience, we’re beginning to understand that achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content for completing a task can excite the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers. This in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, some people can become obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences and engage in compulsive behavior such as a need to keep playing a game, constantly check email, or compulsively gamble online. A recent Newsweek cover story described some of the harmful effects of being trapped in the compulsion loop.

The release of dopamine forms the basis for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling addictions. The inhalation of nicotine triggers a small dopamine release, and a smoker quickly becomes addicted. Cocaine and heroin deliver bigger dopamine jolts, and are even more destructive.

In the past, companies used customer surveys, focus groups, interviews, and psychological tests to figure out how to make products more appealing to customers. In 1957, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, in which he identified eight hidden needs — including a consumer’s desire to love and be loved, or a yearning for power — which advertisers could exploit to create demand for their products.

Packard, who questioned the morality of exploiting emotions in order to sell products, died in 1996. Were he alive today, he would surely be shocked to see how primitive the exploitation techniques he described now seem.

Let The Games Begin — Dave Barry preps us for the Olympics.

This year the Olympics are being held in London, which is in a festive mood, having just held a “jubilee” to celebrate the Queen’s 350th birthday. The city has spent $15 billion on preparations for the Olympics, including $5.8 billion for the world’s largest umbrella, the “Jumbo-rella,” which, in the event of rain, will automatically pop up and unfurl to cover the entire greater London metropolitan area, encompassing 2,158,597 hectares (one hectare = 17 liters). Because of unanticipated construction delays, the Jumbo-rella will not be field-tested until 3 a.m. on the day of the Olympic opening ceremonies; as a precaution, London authorities are recommending that, during the test, all residents temporarily relocate to “a safe area, such as Wales.”

Which brings us to terrorism. Is it a concern? I will not mince words: maybe. London authorities have asked everyone attending the Olympics to be alert for suspicious behavior such as: standing around, frowning, taking photographs, talking on a mobile phone while walking rapidly in a specific direction, etc. If you see an individual doing any of these things, simply place that individual in a standard headlock and yell for a police officer, which in England is called a “Bobby.”

Be advised that “Bobby” is only one example of the many words or phrases that the British because of centuries of heavy drinking, use incorrectly. Here are some others, with the American, or correct, version on the left, and the British version on the right:

Flashlight = Torch

Elevator = Prawn

Hello = Blimey

Good (or bad) = Aunt Betty’s celery trampoline

Torch = Flashlight

Eat = Spang the wollynacker

Does it ever stop raining here? = Cor blimey?

Paul = Ringo

Take the subway = Neuter the hedgehog

Go to the bathroom = Make a blimey

Gun Control — Editorial Cartoon by Jim Morin of the Miami Herald.

Photo credit — Denver Post.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Short Takes

President Obama changes the contraceptive policy.

China and India are joining in diplomatic efforts with Iran over sanctions.

There’s no truth to the Twitter rumor that Kim Jong-un has checked out.

Democrats and independents gain ground in South Florida redistricting.

South Florida will get another cold snap this weekend.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Going Dark — Ctd

Apparently yesterday’s message from the internet got through to some people.

More than 4.5 million people signed their names to the Google petition and 300,000 people emailed or called their lawmakers, according to the protest organizers. In New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, protesters held rallies to draw attention to the bills. The Library of Congress said late Wednesday that it had been hit with a denial of service attack by “a group opposed to the online piracy legislation.”

By the evening, a number of lawmakers had done an about-face on the legislation.

The Senate version of the bill lost four of its co-sponsors, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

“It is simply not ready for prime time and both sides must continue working together to find a better path forward,” Hatch said in a statement about the Protect Intellectual Property Act.

Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Mark Rubio (R-Fla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) also released statements Wednesday saying that they had reservations and would not vote for the bill if it came up for a floor vote.

Way to go, people. Good job.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Going Dark

A lot of prominent internet sites such as Wikipedia and Google — along with a number of blogs as well — are going dark or changing their home page today in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) that are under consideration by the Senate.

“Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet,” a Google spokesperson told TPM in an emailed statement. “So tomorrow we will be joining many other tech companies to highlight this issue on our US home page.”

If you like, you can lend your voice to the protest here, and if you’re in the U.S., you can contact your representative.

Bark Bark Woof Woof will observe the blackout today from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. See you tonight.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Short Takes

Israel shows a little flexibility on the settlements issue.

Residents
are slowly returning to their homes in San Bruno, California, after the gas explosion last week that killed four.

The wildfire in Boulder may have been started by a firepit.

A few people showed up in funny hats for the astroturfed Tea Party rally in D.C. yesterday.

A Florida court will hear arguments in a lawsuit contending that the healthcare law is unconstitutional.

Where’s Charlie? — Gov. Crist isn’t doing much governing as he campaigns for the Senate.

R.I.P Kevin McCarthy; actor in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and numerous stage plays, including Biff in Death of a Salesman.

Tropical Update: Hurricane Igor is a Cat 4 but looks like it might miss the mainland; watch out, Bermuda. Tropical Storm Julia is next, also curving north, and there’s a disturbance south of Hispaniola that could become something.

The Tigers beat the Orioles. They are at .500.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Short Takes

The 7.1 earthquake in New Zealand opened a new fault.

The BP blow-out preventer that didn’t work has been brought to the surface.

The president of Jungle Island and the owner of the tiger that escaped face misdemeanor charges.

You won’t be able to order “adult services” on Craigslist anymore.

Tropical Update: Earl landed one last punch in Canada.

The Tigers beat KC again.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Short Takes

The FBI wants more access to internet data.

Rain is slowing the search for the dead in the Pakistan air crash.

The healthcare law is gaining popularity.

Bet on it — Congress is reconsidering the ban in internet gambling.

Where did it go? Most of the oil from the Gulf is unaccounted for.

Speaking of spills, more than 800,000 gallons of oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan on Monday.

One of the freed Cuban political prisoners arrived in Miami yesterday.

The funds to fight AIDS are going, going…

Not Yogi and Boo Boo — Bears were on the rampage in Yellowstone Park, killing one person.

Road kill — The slump continues for the Tigers, losing again to the Rays. If you’re keeping count, that’s nine road losses.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Gone Phishing

I got an e-mail the other day:

Dear U.S. citizen,

• 5,000 American Airlines AAdvantage(R) bonus miles:
( Earn 5,000 bonus miles with the American Airlines Survey for year 2010 )

and
• $50,00
( The $50,00 will be debited within 48h )

Earn AAdvantage(R) miles for award travel on American Airlines or over 20 airlines, stays at hotels worldwide and car rentals with the AAdvantage(R) program.
Discover the benefits of membership in American’s frequent flyer program. View current news and information about the AAdvantage program.
The AAdvantage(R) program is American’s travel awards program. It was the original travel awards program, established more than 25 years ago, and today is the world’s largest program. In addition, members earn miles when staying at AAdvantage hotel partners or when renting a car from a partner company.
Currently over 30 hotel partners representing more than 60 brands and all seven major car rental agencies are AAdvantage partners.
Miles can be redeemed for a variety of travel awards around the world on American Airlines, AmericanConnection, American Eagle and our airline partners.
Enjoy American Airlines AAdvantage(R) Survey:
Your $50 & 5,000 miles bonus code is: AA-US-28189
Complete the attached form and follow the reward steps.

Thank you very much for your help and your patient and hope you will enjoy the American Airlines reward program in the future.

Sincerely,
Sandra L. Weller
sandra.weller @ aa.com

American Airlines Reward Department
American Airlines
P.O. Box 689182
Des Moines, IA 50368-9182

Okay, can anyone out there tell me what’s wrong with this picture? Don’t raise your hand, just shout it right out if you think you know.

That’s right, it’s a phishing e-mail from someone trying to separate me from my money by masquerading as the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flier plan. How do I know it’s not on the up-and-up? Let me count the ways. First, it addresses me as “U.S. citizen.” Second, although it purports to come from someone in the U.S. (Sandra L. Weller in Des Moines, IA) it’s written in stilted English (“Thank you very much for your help and your patient and hope you will enjoy the American Airlines reward program in the future”) and it uses the European fashion of decimals by using a comma instead of a period ($50,00). Third; anyone who knows anything about frequent flier programs knows that they are usually free; you do not have to pay to enroll in them.

Most of these scams come from Russia or Central Europe, as opposed to the comical ones from Nigeria or Cote d’Ivoire. I have a feeling that when “Sandra L. Weller” isn’t trying to rip me off, she’s plotting beeg trouble for Moose and Squirrel.

Like most people with e-mail, I get these all the time. When they’re the obvious ones from banks I never heard of, I snicker and delete them; sometimes, when it’s masquerading as a company I do business with such as my bank or PayPal, I take the trouble to forward it to them so they can log it; PayPal tells you to forward it to spoof@paypal.com. But most people I know delete them without even opening them; in fact, if your anti-virus software isn’t up to date, it’s not a good idea to open them at all because they can trigger a Trojan Horse program that installs itself on your computer and takes your information without you even knowing it. This one from “American Airlines” was so clumsy that I knew it was safe to open and then hold up for mockery.

So the next question is, if this kind of thing is so obviously bogus, why do the scammers keep sending them out?

Simple: it works. In spite of all the warnings and all the obvious clues that this isn’t from American Airlines, I’m willing to bet that “Sandra L. Weller” got a bunch of people to fall for this bait hook, line and sinker. Millions of people around the world do it every day. I know a lot of very intelligent and thoughtful people who have been phished; the scammers are getting very good at their techniques. One of the most ingenious ones I’ve seen is one from the Nigerian Ministry of Finance that says they’re conducting an investigation into fraudulent e-mails emanating from their country and they’d like my cooperation to see if my bank account has been hacked. All I have to do is submit my account number for verification….

It’s not just the foolish or the greedy who think that by paying someone in Nigeria $300 they’ll inherit “100,000 millions $” or that they can fly first class on their next flight for “$50,00”, and it’s not just get-rich-quick schemes that people fall for. And it’s not just a child of the Information Age; organized religion has been peddling the talking-snake oil for centuries. The internet has made viral the back-fence gossip and we’ve all gotten the e-mails forwarded from friends and relatives that tell us that they have found President Obama’s real birth certificate (he’s from Cardassia), or that he signed an executive order giving millions of dollars to Hamas. They go back to the Clinton administration and they didn’t stop when George W. Bush became president; I got e-mails (and still do) claiming that 9/11 was an inside job. That shows that internet scamming is, at least, bipartisan; politicians have found that they can raise a million bucks overnight based on a soundbite.

But this also tells me why something like the Tea Party movement has taken off. Aside from the politics, when it comes to passing along a story, whether it’s true or not, we humans have a remarkable tendency to trust information that either reinforces a particular point of view that we harbor — “See, I’m not the only one who thinks that” — or it makes a promise that for an instant we think will benefit us — “Can I really make $10,000 a month addressing envelopes?” And even if they may doubt what they read, or worse, don’t have an informed opinion about what they’re being told, they fall for it. Even when there is an obvious contradiction of logic — “keep your government hands off my Medicare” — or a complete lack of irony in that one of the advocates of vandalism against the people who voted for healthcare reform is a man who depends on government disability checks for his income, it doesn’t seem to dawn on them that they are either misinformed or are being deliberately manipulated by people like “Sandra L. Weller” who knows there are pigeons to be plucked and windows to be broken. (Any truth to the rumors that they’re being instigated by some people behind the scenes at Jeld-Wen?) The message gets out, and since it’s on the Internets, it has to be true.

It’s a balance between the cynical — “See, I told you he was a gay communist Socialist Muslim from Kenya!” — and the hopeful — “Forward this e-mail and the Baby Jesus will send you flowers” and it all gets swallowed up by people who desperately hope that reality and life isn’t as mundane as they’re really afraid that it is.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Short Takes

A suicide bomber kills ten in Pakistan.

Another American woman has been detained in the plot to bomb a Swedish cartoonist.

Secretary of State Clinton chastises Israel.

Henry Kissinger is in the hospital in South Korea.

The FCC plans to widen WiFi.

Landra Reid, wife of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), underwent surgery for her injuries sustained in a car accident on Thursday.

The flu season was milder than expected.

It rained a lot yesterday in South Florida.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Short Takes

A passenger jet crashed after taking off from Beirut, Lebanon.

Haitians need shelters; and few buildings there had insurance.

President Obama will offer aid to struggling families in the State of the Union.

Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club is facing a lot of layoffs.

China says internet controls are here to stay.

There’s another primary in Florida this year besides the one for the Senate.

It will be the Saints versus the Colts in the Super Bowl, which is taking place here in South Florida. Yip yah.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Short Takes

The death toll in Haiti may reach 50,000. Aid is slowly trickling in.

The White House has worked out a deal with labor on the healthcare bill.

The big guns boom away for the Democratic candidate in the Massachusetts senate race.

The head of the EU Web backs Google’s threat to leave China.

Gov. Crist’s gambling deal with the Seminoles has hit a snag.

The suspense is killing her — Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones is suspended again by the governor after being re-elected after being suspended.

Florida Power & Light is denied their rate increase.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Short Takes

Obama gets serious on Letterman.

A big Democratic donor is busted for a $292 million Ponzi scheme.

Father and Son — Two people are charged with making false statements to the FBI in the investigation into possible terror plots.

150,000 — That’s the number of gay couples who say they’re married, according to the U.S. Census.

Sen. Max Baucus says he’s open to changes in his healthcare bill.

Go State — The New York governor’s race is just one campaign the White House plans to get involved in.

Net neutrality gets a boost from the chairman of the FCC.

He’s Back — Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has returned to his country.

Genius — Haitian-born Miami author Edwidge Danticat wins a MacArthur prize.

The Tigers were idle last night, but their lead narrowed when Minnesota won. Meanwhile, the Dolphins lost to the Colts in their home opener at Joe Robbie Landshark Stadium.