Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Trump Gives Us The Creeps

Via the Washington Post:

The Trump administration on Wednesday revoked federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity, taking a stand on a contentious issue that has become the central battle over LGBT rights.

Officials with the federal Education and Justice departments notified the U.S. Supreme Court late Wednesday that the administration is ordering the nation’s schools to disregard memos the Obama administration issued during the past two years regarding transgender student rights. Those memos said that prohibiting transgender students from using facilities that align with their gender identity violates federal anti-discrimination laws.

The two-page “Dear colleague” letter from the Trump administration, which is set to go to the nation’s public schools, does not offer any new guidance, instead saying that the earlier directive needed to be withdrawn because it lacked extensive legal analysis, did not go through a public vetting process, sowed confusion and drew legal challenges.

The administration said that it would not rely on the prior interpretation of the law in the future.

This is what happens when you let creepy people who are obsessed with the personal habits of absolute strangers take over the government.

What we really need are protections against those people.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Friday, May 8, 2015

Court To NSA: You Can’t Do That

A federal court has ruled that bulk collection of phone data by the N.S.A. is illegal.

In a 97-page ruling, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, known as Section 215, cannot be legitimately interpreted to allow the bulk collection of domestic calling records.

The provision of the act used to justify the bulk data program is to expire June 1, and the ruling is certain to increase tension that has been building in Congress.

Good.  I’ve never been either that ego-centric or paranoid that I worry if the N.S.A. is listening in on my phone calls or collecting the data from them; lately all they would see is a bunch of calls from “UNKNOWN CALLER” or “PHONE CALL” that call during the day and no one’s there.  It just seems like an incredible waste of time and money to gather all that data with the hope of finding something nefarious.  And if a terrorist is stupid enough to pick up the phone and plot something that tips off the N.S.A. — “Hey, let’s go toss a Molotov cocktail or two” — chances are they’re too dumb to pull off anything other than trip over the cat and blow themselves up.

The USA PATRIOT Act is a dubious piece of legislation passed in the panic-stricken days after September 11, 2001.  No good laws are passed when the ruins are still smoldering.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Moon and Venus

Via David Dickinson at Universe Today, there was celestial pas de deux between the Moon and Venus this morning.  Here’s a shot from my camera phone of the meeting over Miami.

Moon & Venus 02-26-14

That little red dot up and to the right of the crescent moon is Venus.  The pictures at the link above are much better.

Speaking of photos, about a year ago a friend sent me a photo of a young man whom she thought looked like what she imagined one of the characters in one of my plays looked like.  I didn’t know where she got it; I assumed it was either in the public domain or that she had taken it herself.  I later used the photo in a blog post.  The other day I got an e-mail from the subject of the photo asking me to remove it since I didn’t have his permission to use it.  I immediately complied with his request and apologized.

I have resolved from now on to try to avoid using photos that either I didn’t take or can’t locate the source, and to include a credit or link where possible.  Good advice in this ever-expanding digital age; I know how I’d feel if someone used my work without credit or permission.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Reading

60 Words and a War Without End — Gregory Johnsen in Buzzfeed on how the Authorization to Use Military Force has us at war without declaration and at whim.

AUMF 01-19-14

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.

Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.
Culled from interviews with former and current members of Congress, as well as staffers and attorneys who served in both the Bush and the Obama administrations, this is the story of how those 60 words came to be, the lone objector to their implementation, and their continuing power in the world today. The story, like most modern ones of America at war, begins in the shadow of 9/11 with a lawyer and Word document.

Read the whole article.

Another Scare Tactic — Jonathan Chait on the GOP’s latest attempt to rattle Obamacare.

Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who refused to accept defeat in World War II until finally surrendering in 1974, died today. In thematically related news, Obamacare opponents have organized their latest campaign to repeal the “Obamacare bailout.”

“Bailout” may be the single most unpopular policy concept in American politics. So now that Republicans have discovered, nearly four years after the passage of the law, that Obamacare has a provision that they can spin as a “bailout,” it has whipped the party into a frothy mix of genuine outrage and hand-rubbing opportunism, with repentant immigration reformer Marco Rubio leading the charge with a bill in Congress to repeal the “Obamacare bailout.”

There is no Obamacare bailout. A bailout is an ad hoc reward for a company that takes an egregious risk for profit and loses. The “Obamacare bailout” is a provision in the law called risk corridors. Edwin Park has a long explanation, and Jonathan Cohn has a short explanation, but the even shorter explanation for the lazy among you is that it’s a provision designed to make insurance companies in the Obamacare exchanges compete on the basis of price and quality, rather than cherry-picking the healthiest customers. The way it works is that companies that wind up with unexpectedly healthy customers pay some of their windfall back to the government, and companies with unexpectedly sick customers get compensated for their losses.

The Congressional Budget Office assumed that the gains and losses would probably cancel each other out, resulting in no cost to the taxpayers. It’s possible that there will be more sick customers than expected in the system as a whole this year, and the payout will exceed the payback. Conservatives have already taken it as a given that this will happen. Yuval Levin and James Capretta wax indignant in the Weekly Standard:

Because Obamacare’s design is so flawed and its rollout has been so bungled, enrollees in the exchange insurance plans are likely to be significantly older and sicker than the insurance company actuaries assumed.

It may be the case that enrollees in the exchanges are older and sicker than originally forecast. If so, the bungled website rollout would be one reason for this. (Another, smaller reason would the massive public relations campaign by conservative groups and Republican politicians to persuade young, healthy people to boycott the exchanges — which is to say, conservatives are now angry that taxpayers might have to cover the losses that they have done everything in their power to create.)

But it’s far from certain the exchanges will have unexpectedly sick customers. Aetna’s CEO told Sarah Kliff that the demographics of the customers so far are “better than they I [sic] thought they would have been.” That’s just one firm, and others are more cautious. [Update: Kliff has a more detailed report suggesting insurers may indeed be getting about the same risk pool they expected.] The open enrollment period lasts through the end of March, and the outreach campaign by the law’s allies is just getting started.

Out and About — Nico Lang in Salon on outing celebrities.

2014 is quickly shaping up to be the Year of Celebrity Outings. In the first week of the new year, as the Internet was abuzz over rumors about Republican politician Aaron Schock’s sexuality, Sir Ian McKellen belatedly upped the ante. An interview from a 2012 press junket resurfaced last week, one in which the British thespian casually outed half of his “Hobbit” castmates. Fielding a question on whether it’s getting better for gay actors in Hollywood, McKellen went right to naming names. “Just look only how many openly gay actors in the ‘Hobbit’ with were: two of the dwarves, to Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Lee Pace,” McKellen said, in a very rough translation from the original German.

The problem is that only one of those actors is actually out: Stephen Fry. Lee Pace has never commented on his sexuality one way or the other. Queerty describes Pace as “not really out.” On Pace’s sexuality, Queerty’s Daniel Villarreal asked, “If you’re famous, like boys and live openly gay in your personal life, but don’t announce your gayness on a magazine cover or talk show, does that mean you’re closeted?” However, Luke Evans is an odder case, an actor who has been “on-again, off-again gay.” Evans described himself as a “gay man” in a 2002 profile in The Advocate, and in 2004, he told Gaydar Nation what he looks for in gay porn stars: “An enormous big fat cock!” Now Evans is straight with a girlfriend, at least in the press.

The gulf of difference between Lee Pace and Luke Evans shows the changing nature of the closet in 2014. Throughout his career, Pace has been as out as you can be without ever saying it, showing a consistent interest in queer projects. Lee Pace’s breakout role was playing a transgender nightclub singer in “Soldier’s Girl.” Since then, he appeared in Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (based on the landmark gay novel), “Infamous” (about the making of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”) and “Pushing Daisies,” executive produced by the openly gay Bryan Fuller. His career is similar to that of Zachary Quinto, a character actor similarly attracted to smaller projects. Quinto came out in 2012, and although it may have surprised some to learn their favorite Vulcan was gay, it didn’t hurt his career. Quinto’s coming out didn’t even make the headline in his own profile. It wasn’t considered a lead.

However, a Daily Beast article from 2011 looked at the difference between the Zachary Quintos and Lee Paces and guys like Luke Evans. Evans recently starred in “Fast & Furious 6″ and is the face of the rebooted “Crow” franchise, a rising star in an action genre in which gay actors are untested. “Do you want a career or do you want to be out?” The Daily Beast’s Tricia Romano asked. “It’s, what kind of career do you want? If you are open, you might not become the next Russell Crowe, but you could have a more interesting path. Quinto and Evans are, in a way, taking a parallel ride; but while the former might be seen more as a character actor; the latter, as [Paris Barclay of The Advocate] put it, ‘might be a Captain Kirk,’ and as he noted: ‘There are different dollar signs on different kinds of roles.’”

With Tom Daley and Maria Bello’s double coming out at the end of 2013, it’s easy to wax lyrical about the changing nature of coming out in Hollywood and say that it’s no longer a big deal. When you see a tidal wave of positive publicity from major media, the feeling is that our media culture is post-queer. However, Evans shows that gay actors still face obstacles to coming out, like a homophobic industry mindset that believes gay leads only have worth if they stay in the closet. If not, every gay actor would be out, and Rupert Everett wouldn’t be openly encouraging young queer men who want a career to stay in the closet. Just because it’s getting better for some doesn’t mean it’s great for everyone.

Things Unsaid — Zoë Carpenter in The Nation on what President Obama left out of his N.S.A. speech.

The most illuminating sentences of the speech on intelligence reform that President Obama delivered Friday morning were the first:

At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston. The group’s members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots. Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.

The choice to begin the speech with an homage to spying—however noble—reflects the practical decision that the president announced: to embrace much of the surveillance activity conducted in the name of national security, while accepting a series of modest reforms that civil liberties advocates greeted as but a first step to curbing the National Security Agency.

The reforms that will likely get the most attention affect the telephone metadata program, which is authorized under section 215 of the Patriot Act. The president said he will end this program “as it currently exists,” by giving the intelligence community two months to develop “alternative approaches” that nevertheless preserve the metadata dragnet. He ordered more immediate constraints on the call records program, too. The FISA court must now approve every query, and analysts will only be able to trace numbers two “hops” from an initial suspect, instead of three.

The really significant parts of Obama’s speech were the things he did not mention. He did not call for a full stop to the bulk collection of communication records, only a transfer of ownership. Instead, he endorsed the idea that data about millions of Americans should be stored and made available to intelligence analysts. Tellingly, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers, the NSA’s most ardent and prominent supporters in the Capitol, applauded the president for affirming that using metadata “is a capability that is ‘critical’ and must be ‘preserved.’”

Even given the new hurdles the government will face in querying the data, its collection alone poses serious privacy questions, as civil liberties advocates have been quick to point out. “The president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The president should end—not mend—the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution.”

Doonesbury — Selfie portrait.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


It is a victory for civil rights and privacy that a federal judge has ruled that the N.S.A.’s collection of metadata on Americans’ phone calls is a violation of the 4th Amendment’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

But it also makes a martyr out of plaintiff Larry Klayman, the right-wing nut who has called for the overthrow of the Obama administration and has been carrying on like a banshee in a hurricane about everything to the left of Attila the Hun since the Clinton years.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Friday, September 6, 2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Short Takes

President Obama gets John McCain to back his plan on Syria.

DEA phone database bigger than NSA.

CBS and Time Warner make up.

Diana Nyad finally makes the swim from Cuba to Key West.

R.I.P. David Frost, 74, interviewer who got Nixon to apologize for Watergate.

Tropical Update: We still have two disturbances worth watching in the Atlantic.

The Tigers made up for their loss to Cleveland on Sunday by shutting out the Red Sox 3-0 on Monday.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Short Takes

Zimbabwe goes to the polls; Robert Mugabe’s reign on the line.

Egypt cracks down on pro-Morsi camp.

House passes student loan bill with a wide margin.

Report on N.S.A.: They can hear you now.

Senate finally approves new head of ATF.

Rick Scott has a sad over Jesse Jackson’s comments about Florida.

The Tigers walloped the Nationals 11-1.

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Reading

Could Ted Cruz Beat Hillary Clinton?  — Jonathan Bernstein at Salon thinks he could… assuming he gets past that whole born-in-Canada thing.

Ted Cruz 04-30-13What I hear from many liberals about Cruz’s chances are two things. One is just disbelief: Republicans wouldn’t really do something like nominate Cruz, would they? The key is that Ted Cruz isn’t Herman Cain or even Michele Bachmann; he’s a United States senator, and that counts for something (that is, conventional credentials count for something) in presidential elections. So, yes, they really could do something like that.

The other thing I hear, however, is perhaps even more wrong. Some liberals react by actively rooting for Cruz. The theory? The nuttier the nominee, the worse the chances of Republicans retaking the White House. Indeed, in conversation I’ve heard all sorts of justifications: Cruz couldn’t possibly win Florida! Therefore, he couldn’t win the White House!

Don’t listen to it.

The smart money play for liberals remains to root, in the Republican primary, for whichever candidate would make the best – or perhaps the least-worst – president.

The bottom line is that candidates just don’t matter all that much in presidential elections. Yes, a reputation for ideological extremism hurts, but it appears to hurt maybe 2 or 3 percentage points. Yes, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater had reputations for ideological extremism and were buried, but in both cases it was by a popular president during good times. Ronald Reagan wasn’t slowed much (although, still, some) by his conservative image. Don’t get me wrong: There’s no evidence for the opposite theory, that avoiding the squishy center (in either direction) will magically produce an avalanche of new voters who otherwise would have stayed home. Going moderate is better. It just isn’t all that much better.

Now, on top of that, it’s an open question whether Cruz would really wind up with a reputation as more of a fringe figure than any other plausible nominee. For one thing, the Republican nomination process may bring out inflamed rhetoric, but it’s also likely to create converging policy views among the candidates. Indeed, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Cruz wins the nomination as the hero of conservatives, which then leaves him far more free to pivot to the center in the general election race than a less trusted candidate might have. Granted, the other possibility is very real as well – Cruz spends the nomination fight solidifying his conservative reputation, and then finds it sticks with him no matter what he does later. And it’s worth noting that Mitt Romney’s reputation as relatively moderate managed to survive everything he did in in the entire 2012 election cycle.

The bottom line, however, is that Ted Cruz is unlikely to drop more than a couple points to the Democratic nominee. And that’s not likely to swing the election. Could it? Sure; even a small bump would have sunk the Republicans in 2000, for example. But most elections aren’t narrow enough for a couple of points to make a difference.

The only exception to this would be for someone who doesn’t even have conventional credentials. Nominate Cain or Bachmann, and it’s not difficult to believe that the penalty would be very large. There’s no way of knowing, however, because no one like that ever gets nominated. So, sure, root for them, but it ain’t gonna happen.

So what it all comes down to is if you really believe that Cruz is more dangerous as president than Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or the rest of the likely field, then you most definitely don’t want him in place just in case 2016 turns out to be a good year for Republicans.

[Steve M. offers a rebuttal.]

Before Barack Obama was Barack Obama — Garance Franke-Ruta remembers the time when the future president was mistaken for a waiter at a party.

Obama’s frank remarks on race and how he also has been seen as someone less than who he is led journalist Katie Rosman of the Wall Street Journal to resurface a 2008 piece about a 2003 garden party at the Manhattan home of media luminaries Tina Brown, now editor of the Daily Beast, and Harold Evans. The gathering just a little more than 10 years ago was to celebrate Sidney Blumenthal’s book The Clinton Wars. Wrote Rosman:

Standing by myself I noticed, on the periphery of the party, a man looking as awkward and out-of-place as I felt. I approached him and introduced myself. He was an Illinois state senator who was running for the U.S. Senate. He was African American, one of a few black people in attendance.

We spoke at length about his campaign. He was charismatic in a quiet, solemn way. I told him I wanted to pitch a profile of him to a national magazine. (The magazine later rejected my proposal.)

The following year I watched as he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and then won his Senate seat that fall. On Tuesday, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States.

But it’s her kicker that really stands out in light of Obama’s comment today that “there are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”

“What I will always remember,” Rosman wrote in 2008, “is as I was leaving that party … I was approached by another guest, an established author. He asked about the man I had been talking to. Sheepishly he told me he didn’t know that Obama was a guest at the party, and had asked him to fetch him a drink. In less than six years, Obama has gone from being mistaken for a waiter among the New York media elite, to the president-elect. What a country.”


And yet even as that country elected and then reelected its first black president, the easy assumptions about who black men are have yet to vanish.

Frank Rich — Spying is only spying when the subject doesn’t want to be watched.

The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country—always present and now arguably larger than ever—that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like government, period—but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.

R.I.P. the contemplative America of ­Thoreau and of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who “would prefer not to”; this is the America that prefers to be out there, prizing networking, exhibitionism, and fame more than privacy, introspection, and solitude. And while it would be uplifting to believe that Americans are willing to sacrifice privacy for the sole good of foiling Al Qaeda, that’s hardly the case. Other motives include such quotidian imperatives as ­shopping, hooking up, seeking instant entertainment and information, and finding the fastest car route—not to mention being liked (or at least “liked”) and followed by as many friends (or “friends”) and strangers as possible, whether online or on basic cable. In a society where economic advancement is stagnant for all but those at the top, a public profile is the one democratic currency most everyone can still afford and aspire to—an indicator of status, not something to be embarrassed about. According to the Pew-Post poll, a majority of Americans under 50 paid little attention to the NSA story at all, perhaps because they found the very notion of fearing a privacy breach anachronistic. After the news of the agency’s PRISM program broke, National Donut Day received more American Google searches than PRISM. There has been no wholesale (or piecemeal) exodus of Americans from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Skype, or any of the other information-vacuuming enterprises reported to have, in some murky fashion, siphoned data—meta, big, or otherwise—to the NSA. Wall Street is betting this will hold. A blogger on the investment website Motley Fool noticed that on the day PRISM was unmasked, share prices for all the implicated corporate participants went up.

If one wanted to identify the turning point when privacy stopped being a prized commodity in America, a good place to start would be with television and just before the turn of the century. The cultural revolution in programming that was cemented by the year 2000 presaged the devaluation of privacy that would explode with the arrival of Facebook and its peers a few years later.

Doonesbury — History repeats itself.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

From The Smaller Government/More Freedom Files

Read this and then answer the questions below:

In an unusual move, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), his party’s nominee for governor, launched a new campaign website Wednesday highlighting his efforts to reinstate Virginia’s unconstitutional Crimes Against Nature law. The rule, which makes felons out of even consenting married couples who engage in oral or anal sex in the privacy of their own homes, was struck down by federal courts after Cuccinelli blocked efforts to bring it in line with the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling.

Question 1: Explain how the authorities will have probable cause to know that someone is violating (ha ha) the law.

Question 2: In what world does this fit into the conservative philosophy of smaller government means more freedom, which includes the right of consenting adults to do whatever the hell they want to in the privacy of their own home as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or frighten the horses?

Question 3: Since when does a blow job constitute a crime against nature?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Reading

We Spy — George Packer in The New Yorker on the open culture we’ve created through Silicon Valley.

Is it really surprising that the brotherhood of hackers turns out to be more like central intelligence? It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to go from gathering every last move you make online, and sharing it with marketers and advertisers, to divulging it to spies. Google, Apple, and Facebook have long since stopped being mere instruments of individual empowerment through collecting and processing information. Benignly democratic terms like “open source” and “transparency”—still in ubiquitous use around Silicon Valley—have become outmoded distractions from the source of the tech giants’ phenomenal growth, which is data-mining and its monetization.

Yes, it’s voluntary—no one forces you to enter credit-card information on Home Depot’s Web site, or to let Facebook track every purchase you make on Amazon—whereas Prism, the N.S.A.’s top-secret program for mining e-mails, videos, chats, and other online communications, is not. Markets involve choice; laws do not. Being a consumer is discretionary; being a citizen isn’t. But Prism, for all its breathtaking reach and intrusiveness, is less creepy to me than all the trillions of bits of information that commercial companies have stored up on all of us, gathered through a sophisticated mix of temptations, deceptions, default settings, carelessness, and sheer market power. It’s sinister when Big Brother is watching you, but it’s even more sinister when Big Brother is you, sharing. Prism is designed to prevent terror attacks on Americans. Advertising algorithms are designed to increase Google’s and Facebook’s profits. Which involves more of a public benefit? Between career officials at the N.S.A. and marketing managers at social-media companies, I trust the former more than the latter to maintain my privacy and use the information they have on me with maximum restraint. (Private contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton are a different story—the outsourcing of national security is one of the worst post-9/11 trends.)

I’m sympathetic to the dilemma of technology companies that are faced with government requests for access to information. There is an interest in protecting their users’ privacy (or whatever is left of it), and there is an interest in protecting Americans from attack. The government hasn’t proved that the full breadth of the N.S.A.’s program is necessary to uncover, track, and stop terror plots. Its critics haven’t proved that the program has been abused, that the collection of so much abstract data has led to unwarranted specific intrusions. What the whole debate obviously needs is much more clarity—for the government to allow more daylight into the nature of its surveillance programs (its fanatical level of secrecy is at least partly self-serving and designed to thwart critics as much as terrorists), and for the companies to be allowed to stop lying about their involvement. If we are going to have an N.S.A. with such broad powers of surveillance, and a technology industry with such extensive involvement in that surveillance, both have to be monitored and regulated (a hated word in the Valley) much more heavily than they are. Members of the congressional intelligence committees need to be able to discuss what they know without resorting to elaborate circumlocutions, and White House officials need to try persuasion instead of mere assertion. Courts need to be able to reach decisions that are accountable to parties other than just the government itself. Reporters need to be able to dig up important stories—as long as they don’t put lives at risk—without fear of the Justice Department. Technology executives need to be able to describe their industry’s participation in language that’s at least translucent, if not transparent. And the public needs to be able to understand, and then judge, this latest manifestation of the ancient trade-off between liberty and security.

Good Money — Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland, budget officials in two different administrations, look agape at how we throw money around.

Allow us to share some behind-the-scenes illustrations of what our crazy system of budgeting looks like—and to propose how the lessons of moneyball could make our government better.

When one of us (Peter) began his tenure as the director of the Congressional Budget Office in 2007, he took a Willie Sutton approach to the nation’s huge and growing fiscal mess: he went after health care, which makes up roughly a quarter of the federal government’s spending, because that’s where the money is.

The moneyball formula in baseball—replacing scouts’ traditional beliefs and biases about players with data-intensive studies of what skills actually contribute most to winning—is just as applicable to the battle against out-of-control health-care costs. According to the Institute of Medicine, more than half of treatments provided to patients lack clear evidence that they’re effective. If we could stop ineffective treatments, and swap out expensive treatments for ones that are less expensive but just as effective, we would achieve better outcomes for patients and save money.

Both parties should find much to like in such an approach. It would offer Republicans a way to constrain the growth of government spending and take pressure off private businesses weighed down with health expenses. And it would offer Democrats a means of preserving the integrity of Medicare and Medicaid and thereby restoring faith in a core government function.

And yet getting funding for the research needed to assess and compare medical treatments has been like pulling teeth. As a rule, legislators seem to lack a natural affinity for economists and budget analysts (alas, they are hardly alone). But Peter made himself exceptionally unpopular with some Democrats and many Republicans by insisting on such funding in the 2009 stimulus bill, and then working to expand it in the 2010 “Obamacare” legislation. Despite these modest successes, less than $1 out of every $1,000 that the government spends on health care this year will go toward evaluating whether the other $999-plus actually works.

Getting the right information is less than half the battle. Acting on it, once it’s in hand, is harder still. As one small example, some evidence suggests that moving toward “bundled” payments for all services needed by a patient during a course of medical treatment could produce better value than paying piecemeal for each service and procedure, because the piecemeal approach creates an incentive for more care rather than better care. During one meeting with members of Congress in 2008 to discuss how to expand bundling and include a performance incentive in kidney dialysis, Shelley Berkley, a Democratic congresswoman from Nevada, accused Peter, as he remembers it, of trying to destroy the dialysis industry. “You and your staff may have your Ph.D.s, but you have no clue,” he recalls her saying. “We don’t need any of your fancy analysis.” (Berkley says she does not remember the meeting, or those comments.) Berkley had received campaign contributions from several dialysis companies and organizations, and her husband owned a dialysis business. Whether these factors may have influenced her thinking is a question we will leave for the reader.

Clearing the Heir — Britain deals with the perpetual question: who gets the title?

Viewers of “Downton Abbey” spotted the family-destroying potential of primogeniture in the first episode, when the Titanic sank and Lord Grantham, father of three daughters, was left with no obvious heir.

Luckily, the distant cousin who emerged as the next in line proved willing to ditch his dreary day job, marry one of the daughters and cleverly produce a son before his own abrupt demise last season.

But what of those poor, no-prospects daughters, forced to look alluring and wait around for suitable husbands?

The practice of primogeniture — in which titles and estates pass only to male heirs, even negligibly related ones excavated from other continents — may seem as outrageous and antediluvian as denying women the vote, but it is still the law of the land for the aristocracy in Britain.

“My father always said, ‘Remember to wear a safety belt, because your face is your fortune,’ ” said Liza Campbell, a daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor (yes, there is one in real life, not just in “Macbeth”), and now, after her father’s death, sister of the 26th.

Also known as the Earl of Cawdor, the current thane, Colin, is the middle child among five children. But he is the oldest boy, and was always considered the most important, for title-continuity purposes. “I love my brother, but it’s a peculiar situation,” said Ms. Campbell, 53, an artist and writer who grew up on the family’s Scottish estate — 50,000 acres, plus castle — but now lives in London. “There’s one chosen one in the family, and everyone else is superfluous to requirements.”

Until recently there has been little appetite to change the law, a reflection in part of Britain’s inability to decide, finally, whether its aristocracy is an essential part of its identity, a quaint vestige of the past or a bit of both.

“The posh aspect of it blinds people to what is essentially sexism in a privileged minority, where girls are born less than boys,” Ms. Campbell said.

But the issue has been percolating through Parliament since the recent passage of a law allowing the monarchy to be passed on to the monarch’s firstborn child, regardless of sex (this means that William and Kate’s impending baby will become the third in line to the throne, whether it is a boy or a girl). New legislative proposals would allow peerages — basically, inherited titles and the estates that can come with them — to be passed on this way, too, to the oldest child rather than the oldest son.

“We seem to have not got rid of titles, but I think since we have them, I would like to see them gender-blind,” said the bill’s sponsor in the House of Lords, Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall, who because of a historical quirk is one of the few hereditary peers whose titles can pass to girls as well as boys.

Doonesbury — The Women’s Room.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Private Parts

The ever-insightful digby leads us to an article by Daniel J. Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2011 wherein the discussion about privacy and why it matters is discussed.  In short, it calls into question the trope that we hear whenever something like news of the N.S.A. looking into the data of every phone call ever made hits the headlines: “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status, isn’t particularly sensitive. Many people don’t care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of beverages they drink. Frequently, though not always, people wouldn’t be inhibited or embarrassed if others knew this information.

Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

The question is not whether or not I or anyone else has something or nothing to hide.  We all do, whether it’s our credit card statement or our web-browser history, and no matter what it is, the idea behind a country founded on a Bill of Rights that includes the statement “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” should be taken as least as seriously as the one about the well-regulated militia.

Simply put, the only person who can decide for me what’s private and what’s not is me.  I can go on Facebook and tell the world — or at least those who know me — what I had for dinner last night, what movie I saw last week, and so forth.  I can even tell you if I’m in a relationship or not or where I work and who I work with.  Those are my choices, though, and I made them freely.  But the idea of things that I choose to keep private being subject to scrutiny by other people and without my knowledge or consent is offensive not because they might find some deep dark secret but because I’m the one who is supposed to be the one who decides that, not someone else.

I may indeed have nothing to hide.  But that’s for me to decide.