Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The winds of change: NFL scandals

Aaron Hernandez, tight-end for the New England Patriots, was arrested this morning by the Massachusetts State Police for undisclosed charges. There was widespread speculation that the charges would be obstruction-related, following reports that the security system at Hernandez's home--along with his personal cell phone--had been destroyed in the hours after the murder of Odin Lloyd on late June 15th or early June 16th. There are also reports that Hernandez hired a cleaning crew for his home, prior to the body being discovered by police.

It all makes Hernandez look very, very guilty. Maybe not of murder, but certainly of knowing the details and of trying to cover things up. That said, Hernandez has now been formally charged with murder. Yet in response to just his arrest and the above various bits of public knowledge, the New England Patriots released Aaron Hernandez from the team well before the charges were announced:
"A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss," the statement from the Patriots read. "Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
Got that? The Patriots organization is not waiting for the dust to settle, for Hernandez to have his day in court, it's done with him, end of story. Hernandez now moves to waiver-status and he could be claimed by another team. But will any other team take him? Doubtful.

One might ask if the Patriots would have responded differently if it was Tom Brady we were talking about. And I guess that's a fair question. But of course, Brady would likely have never put himself in such a position. Moreover, Hernandez is a star player in his own right; he's not a second or third tier player at all. In dumping him, the Patriots risk a big salary cap hit. Clearly, the people running the show there knew this is going to turn into a no-win situation.

For those that say Hernandez's release shows what a class act the Patriots organization is, how other teams might have stood by their star player, even helped him if possible, let's remember this is the same organization that got hit with major penalties in 2007 for signal stealing (the so-called "Spygate" scandal). So let's not pretend the Patriots organization is significantly more "classy" than any other one in the NFL. It's still almost all about winning. And PR.

Which leads us to the obvious comparison here: the Ray Lewis murder trial in 2000. Then--a mere thirteen years ago--the Baltimore Ravens organization stood by Lewis largely throughout the ordeal. He was never released and following the plea deal he reached with prosecutors, Lewis went on to play another thirteen seasons in the NFL, all with the Ravens. Many people to this day believe Lewis literally got away with murder. But he went on to win two Super Bowls, along with various league-issued accolades like Pro Bowl selections and Defensive Player of the Year titles.

The Hispanic vote: stupid and easily bought

That's the basic message that continues to reverberate through the corridors of power in DC, through punditry-land, and through the media in general. The argument is simple: a failure to pass legislation providing for widespread amnesty--of one sort or another--will have a profound effect on that part of the voting public who identifies as Hispanic. And since it is Republicans who are standing in the way in this regard, they will be the ones who suffer when it comes time for reelection.

Various Democrats in Congress--like Schumer, Menendez, and many others--are making a veritable meal out of this argument, constantly admonishing Republicans to pass a good bill "or else." And many Republicans in Congress appear to accept the argument as well, as does an entire crop of pundits and journalists on the left and the right.

So let's take a closer look at the argument and what it really means. It rests on an assumption--somewhat buttressed by polling data--that Hispanics as a group want immigration reform that first and foremost provides relief to the millions upon millions of immigrants currently in the country illegally. And this assumption is itself based on the assumption that the great majority of these illegals are themselves Hispanics. But even more importantly, the first assumption takes it as a given that racial/ethnic groups vote as a bloc as a matter of course.

On issues where a particular race/ethnicity (and really a particular sex or age group, as well) can find common ground, this argument assumes that they will find common ground and members of the group will cast their votes accordingly. To put it another, the arguments assumes almost all members of a given race/ethnicity vote not for their individual self-interest, but for the self-interest of the larger group, first and foremost.

Thus when it comes the political parties, the group will vote in near lock-step for the party whose platform is perceived to be the most beneficial for the racial/ethnic group. Other particulars of the platform or of the actual candidates are secondary. Supposedly.

But I'm not really concerned about the truth value of this argument. For the record, I don't believe it is always true. It can be true under certain circumstances, but it needn't be as a matter of course. So whether or not the Hispanic vote hinges on the issue of amnesty is not my concern. Rather, I'm interested in what this argument itself says about the people offering it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The failures of South Florida sports: time to take out the trash

The Miami Heat is the toast of the town. Again. Since signing LeBron James three years ago (and Chris Bosh), the Heat has gone to three straight NBA finals and won the last two. James has dominated the playoffs in the past two seasons, pulling down the Finals MVP trophy in both. It's good to be a basketball fan in South Florida right now, there's no question about it.

But the story of the Heat is much bigger than just Lebron James. It begins and ends with the owner  of the team, Mickey Arison. He bought the struggling franchise in 1995 and immediately dug deep into his pocketbook to bring in Pat Riley. Riley quickly transformed the team by adding players like Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, thought the Heat did not win a title until 2006 (after drafting Dwayne Wade in 2003). Following that, the Heat took a few years to rebuild, an effort that ultimately led to the additions of James, Bosh, Ray Allen, and others to the roster to compliment Wade.

The team, it is true, benefited and still benefits from a sweetheart deal at the Triple-A (the American Airlines Arena), but unlike owners in other sports, Arison is not just banking profits, he's spending them to win titles. And that is no mean point. While the Heat has risen to the pinnacle of the basketball world (loved by some, hated by everyone else), the rest of the professional sports teams in South Florida have been suffering through hard times (to put it mildly).

The Marlins--of MLB--are little better than a minor league team, full of young players who really shouldn't be in the majors at this point in their careers. The Panthers are no better, having basically become a permanent member of the "we'll never make the playoffs" class of the NHL, a league where one has to really try to not make the playoffs, truth be told. And then there's the Dolphins, the once-mighty flagship of South Florida sports, the only game in town prior to 1988. Since the exodus of Dan Marino in 1999, the Dolphins have been to the playoffs exactly three times (2000, 2001, 2008) in thirteen years. Compare that to nineteen post season appearances (with eleven division titles and five trips to the Super Bowl) in the previous thirty years under Don Shula and Jimmie Johnson.

Every year now, South Florida football fans hope for a return to the glory years and every year they end up disappointed, to say the least. Hockey and baseball fans seem to have accepted their lot by and large. Though to be fair, they have enjoyed a few great seasons, with the Marlins having won two World Series (1997 and 2003) and the Panthers having made one magical trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

As I noted in the above piece, the Panthers' success in the 1995-96 season was a special thing, difficult to duplicate, but it did lead to a some competitive years and--more significantly--a serious attempt to succeed, evidence by the signings of players like Pavel Bure in 1998. Similarly, the first World Series victory by the Marlins in 1997 created expectations in South Florida for continued success, expectations that were not realized until 2003, with the freakish success of a clearly under-talented team.

Through all of these stories of South Florida sports teams runs a rarely discussed backstory: team owenership. The Heat has been the most successful franchise in South  Florida for the past twenty years, there is no doubt about this. And the successes of the other three teams occurred--for the most part--under one owner: H. Wayne Huizenga. Huizenga sold off his controlling interest of the Dolphin franchise and stadium in 2008, his ownership of the Panthers in 2001, and that of the Marlins in 1999. And apart from the flash-in-the-pan 2003 Marlins' season, the pattern is clear: the new owners of all three franchises have failed to do much of anything.

Arison, as I noted above, has always been willing to spend the money that needs to be spent. Huizenga was really no different, even if things didn't work out so well for him, while he was the primary owner of the other South Florida teams. Owners of professional sports franchises often bitch and moan about a lack of support, about financial difficulties, about how they are unable to turn a profit, but at the same they often fail miserably to deliver a product worth watching, much less one worth paying to watch. Such is the case right now for the Marlins, Panthers, and Dolphins. These are not well-organized, highly competitive teams and show little sign of becoming such anytime soon.

In contrast, the Heat looks to be the alpha dog of the NBA into the foreseeable future. Even after last year's championship, management did not stand pat but sought to improve the team. And the ownership supported this in full. Such was the case for other teams under Huzienga, even if things didn't always work out.

Yet, both Arison and Huzienga--while he was an owner--have been vilified on numerous occasions by local media and fans in South Florida. But the fact remains, they are the only owners--since the death of Joe Robbie--who have actually tried to win. And that's what it's all about. If you're not in it to win, why be there at all? The condition of South Florida sports demonstrates something that many may not like to hear: there are too many NBA, NHL, MLB and yes even NFL franchises right now. There are too many owners who simply don't have what it takes to be owners, who are unwilling to put competitive teams on the field, ice, or court.

I love hockey, I really do. I desperately wish the Panthers would return to their early form. But that's not happening. Ditto for the Marlins, whose current ownership is--for lack of a better way to say it--more interested in raping the area for dollars than it is in fielding an actual MLB-quality team. There is still some hope for the Dolphins, however. Tradition dies hard. And the Heat is in a class by itself. So, I think it's time that South Florida--along with he NHL and the MLB--faces the facts and dumps the Marlins and Panthers franchises permanently. Don't relocate them, don't look for new owners, just end them. Put them--and the South Florida fans--out of their collective misery.

Right now, there is no hockey in South Florida. There is no baseball, either.

Cheers, all.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The legal scholar and the FISA court: ignorance is bliss

President Obama, speaking to Charlie Rose (on The Charlie Rose Show) this past Monday night:
It is transparent. That's why we set up the FISA court. Look, the whole point of my concern, before I was president — because some people say, 'Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he's, you know, Dick Cheney.' Dick Cheney sometimes says, 'Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.'  
My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances? So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee -- but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.
Forgetting the pathetically petty and un-Presidential swipe at Dick Cheney (wherein Cheney is supposedly--by context--some sort of authoritarian monster), Obama's words suggest he doesn't have a clue how the FISA court works, why it exists, or much less when it was established.

During the Bush presidency, the FISA court was a frequent target for complaints from liberal, progressive, and libertarian alike. It's existence was taken as absolute evidence for the lack of transparency, when it came to surveillance of the citizenry. Because, of course, that seemed to be the entire point of establishing the court!

Obama's words--"WE set up the FISA court"--suggest it's a relatively new thing, that he had a hand in establishing it. Many of its critics believe it to be a product of the Bush Administration. Neither is the case. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. And in that Act, the court was created. Yes, the FISA court has been around for 35 years. By the way, the initial legislation was introduced by the "liberal lion" himself, Ted Kennedy, but I digress.

The reasons for the act were simple: Nixon and Vietnam. People had become concerned--by the mid-70's--that government agencies were crossing too many lines, had basically unchecked power, and that they could and would use this power against American citizens for political reasons. The Church Committee's reports in the mid-70's documented not only potential ways such power could be abused but also specific cases of it being abused, including a CIA program that secretly took and opened the mail of U.S. citizens, then resealed it and put it back into postal circulation! Thus in theory, the FISA court supposedly exists as a check against the powers of the mostly-executive-branch government agencies.

In theory.

Because over time, what the FISA court became was a means of legalizing behavior that should rightly be illegal. But let's not get involved in dredging up the past in this regard, let's deal with what is before us now: the metadata collection undertaken by the NSA, involving phone and internet search records of U.S. citizens.

FISA--the Act itself, not the court--was passed because government officials rightly recognized that circumstances could arise wherein critical intelligence could only be had using routes outside those available to traditional law enforcement agencies (i.e., we have spies because we need spies). In the U.S. code, FISA rules are found under Title 50, Chapter 36 (50 USC Chapter 36), entitled "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance." The title is very clear: these rules are about surveillance work directed at foreign interests and their agents. In 50 USC § 1802, very specific requirements are given for warrantless surveillance. Let's take a look:
(1) Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year if the Attorney General certifies in writing under oath that—
(A) the electronic surveillance is solely directed at—
(i) the acquisition of the contents of communications transmitted by means of communications used exclusively between or among foreign powers, as defined in section 1801 (a)(1), (2), or (3) of this title; or
(ii) the acquisition of technical intelligence, other than the spoken communications of individuals, from property or premises under the open and exclusive control of a foreign power, as defined in section 1801 (a)(1), (2), or (3) of this title;
(B) there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party; and
(C) the proposed minimization procedures with respect to such surveillance meet the definition of minimization procedures under section 1801 (h) of this title;
This is very, very clear (an odd thing for U.S. code, to be sure). Warrantless surveillance under FISA is limited to communications involving exclusively foreign nationals. Any communications that involve U.S. citizens--or that appear likely to do so--are strictly off-limits for warrantless surveillance. The one item that is less than clear is the last: "minimization procedures." But we'll get back to this, shortly.

So, the NSA--in the current brouhaha--necessarily needed a warrant to collect all of the data it collected. And it got that warrant--a secret and sealed one, not unlike the one used to investigate James Rosen--from the FISA court. The requirements for a warrant to do what the NSA did, as outlined in 50 USC § 1804 (my boldface):
Each application for an order approving electronic surveillance under this subchapter shall be made by a Federal officer in writing upon oath or affirmation to a judge having jurisdiction under section 1803 of this title. Each application shall require the approval of the Attorney General based upon his finding that it satisfies the criteria and requirements of such application as set forth in this subchapter. It shall include—
(1) the identity of the Federal officer making the application;
(2) the identity, if known, or a description of the specific target of the electronic surveillance;
(3) a statement of the facts and circumstances relied upon by the applicant to justify his belief that
(A) the target of the electronic surveillance is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power; and
(B) each of the facilities or places at which the electronic surveillance is directed is being used, or is about to be used, by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power;
(4) a statement of the proposed minimization procedures;
(5) a description of the nature of the information sought and the type of communications or activities to be subjected to the surveillance;
(6) a certification or certifications by the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, an executive branch official or officials designated by the President from among those executive officers employed in the area of national security or defense and appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, or the Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, if designated by the President as a certifying official—
(A) that the certifying official deems the information sought to be foreign intelligence information;
(B) that a significant purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information;
(C) that such information cannot reasonably be obtained by normal investigative techniques;
(D) that designates the type of foreign intelligence information being sought according to the categories described in section 1801 (e) of this title; and
(E) including a statement of the basis for the certification that—
(i) the information sought is the type of foreign intelligence information designated; and
(ii) such information cannot reasonably be obtained by normal investigative techniques;
(7) a summary statement of the means by which the surveillance will be effected and a statement whether physical entry is required to effect the surveillance;
(8) a statement of the facts concerning all previous applications that have been made to any judge under this subchapter involving any of the persons, facilities, or places specified in the application, and the action taken on each previous application; and
(9) a statement of the period of time for which the electronic surveillance is required to be maintained, and if the nature of the intelligence gathering is such that the approval of the use of electronic surveillance under this subchapter should not automatically terminate when the described type of information has first been obtained, a description of facts supporting the belief that additional information of the same type will be obtained thereafter.
Despite the length of the above, the requirements really aren't that extensive nor difficult to understand. And what the bold-faced portions make clear is that these FISA court warrants are supposed to have a clear target that IS NOT AN AMERICAN CITIZEN. Moreover, the information is supposed to be information that could not otherwise be gleaned. Both of these requirements would seem to disqualify the NSA request. But never fear, via legal hair-splitting, the NSA--under the authority of the President--apparently convinced the FISA court to allow the program. Amazing, isn't it?

Still, the requirement for "minimization procedures" has once again come up (section (4)), so let's get a handle on what this means. 50 USC § 1801 provides all of the definitions for the terminology uses in Title 50. For "minimization procedures," it says the following:
(h) “Minimization procedures”, with respect to electronic surveillance, means—
(1) specific procedures, which shall be adopted by the Attorney General, that are reasonably designed in light of the purpose and technique of the particular surveillance, to minimize the acquisition and retention, and prohibit the dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence information;
(2) procedures that require that nonpublicly available information, which is not foreign intelligence information, as defined in subsection (e)(1) of this section, shall not be disseminated in a manner that identifies any United States person, without such person’s consent, unless such person’s identity is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance;
(3) notwithstanding paragraphs (1) and (2), procedures that allow for the retention and dissemination of information that is evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed and that is to be retained or disseminated for law enforcement purposes; and
(4) notwithstanding paragraphs (1), (2), and (3), with respect to any electronic surveillance approved pursuant to section 1802 (a) of this title, procedures that require that no contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party shall be disclosed, disseminated, or used for any purpose or retained for longer than 72 hours unless a court order under section 1805 of this title is obtained or unless the Attorney General determines that the information indicates a threat of death or serious bodily harm to any person.
Why is this in here? Simple, when FISA was passed in 1978, Congress did not want the Act to become the basis for a nationwide and continuous surveillance program, nor did it want ancillary information obtained by federal agencies used for purely political purposes (again, the whole point of FISA). So in this regard, any program that collects data on U.S. citizens is supposed to be close-ended, not open-ended, and non-vital information is supposed to be dumped, forthwith. FISA is specifically about not creating a permanent database on things like phone records. It doesn't matter if the data is regular run-of-the-mill data or if it is "metadata," the federal government is not supposed to be holding on to it, period.

With all of this in mind, let's return to Obama's defense of the program:
My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances? So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee -- but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.
The President apparently thinks everything is hunky-dory with the program, that a working system of checks and balances is in place, with the FISA court front and center in this regard. One must ask: if this is the case, then how has the NSA managed to establish a program that does exactly what FISA--and therefore the FISA court--was supposed to prevent?


Cheers, all.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Who mourns for Detroit? The lessons of ancient city-states

Thousands of years ago, as early as the 8th century BCE, there was a very prosperous city on the coast of the southern Atlantic portion of the Iberian peninsula known as Tartessos. Located near the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, the city (really, it was a small civilization) became quite wealthy via trade. Metals mined in the north and locally from the river and surrounding marshes formed the basis of this trade, as sea-faring cultures of the period like the Phoenicians visited Tartessos frequently. In fact, the Spainsh city of Cadiz, located someways to the South of Tartessos, was founded by the Phoenicians specifically for the purpose of trading with Tartessos (Cadiz was known then to the Greeks as "Gadir"). The growth of coinage in the following centuries only increased such activity and Tartessian wealth. Initially, at least.

At some point after the classical period of the Greeks (5th to 4th centuries BCE) Tartessos went from significant city-state to basically nothing. It is unclear what happened in this regard. But by the dawn of the common era, Tartessos was no more, it was but a memory, a name of a city that appeared in the histories of various writers in the classical period and before.

I first became aware of Tartessos when I was in high school and was pouring over the legends of Atlantis. For Tartessos has been offered up by some as a possible real-world source of Plato's Atlantis, mostly because it was one of the few (the only?) advanced civilizations known to the ancients that was beyond the Pillars of Hercules, a critical aspect of the Atlantis story woven by Plato. And because Tartessos seems to have simply disappeared, both historically and archaeologically, it has been theorized that it was more or less swallowed by the sea, which again fits well with Plato's story. This website provides a list of some other ways Tartessos mirrors the legend.

Whether or not Tartessos was the basis of Plato's Atlantis story, it still may very well be the case that Tartessos was ultimately a victim of changing geography. The Guadalquivir Marshes were once less extensive and surrounded a large inland lake (shown in the above map) to the north of Tartessos--known as Lacus Ligustinus--that likely served as fishing grounds and a trade-hub for the hinterlands along the Guadalquivir. As that lake slowly disappeared, so might have Tartessos.

But there is an alternate explanation, or at least a secondary one: perhaps Tartessos collapsed because the basis of its wealth disappeared. As the Greek and Roman civilizations expanded, new sources of metals appeared, as did new trade routes. Tartessos ceased to be a critical hub in this regard. The history of Cadiz--the Phoenician colony--supports this idea, as it went from being an insanely wealthy trading center to basically a naval base by the 2nd century BCE, as it came under Carthaginian then Roman control. Tartessos, minus it's dominance in the metal trade, might very well have been a casualty of war; offering a less-strategic position than Cadiz, conquerors may have found no reason to maintain it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Has there ever been a GOOD farm bill?

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune is entitled "Senate passes a bad farm bill." And that begs the question: has the Senate--or the House--ever passed a good farm bill? We all know what farm bills are about. Pork (figuratively, but sometimes also literally). That's been the case since 1933, when the first so-called farm bill--the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933--was passed.

The 1933 legislation was passed during the Great Depression, so we might be inclined to cut the federal government a little slack for offering up various subsidies, subsidies that were paid for by a special tax levied on companies that used the agricultural products in question, like cotton, corn, tobacco, and even hogs. But then again, we might not. Especially since the bill was ultimately found to be unconstitutional--only partly because of the above tax--by the Supreme Court in 1936 (United States v. Butler). It's worth quoting from that ruling, I think. These are the specific findings of the Supreme Court, the things held by the Court:
(1) The Act invades the reserved powers of the States. P. 68.

(2) Regulation and control of agricultural production are beyond the powers delegated to the Federal Government. P. 68.

(3) The tax, the appropriation of the funds raised, and the direction for their disbursement, are but parts of the plan -- the means to an unconstitutional end. P. 68.

(4) The power of taxation, which is expressly granted to Congress, may be adopted as a means to carry into operation another power also expressly granted, but not to effectuate an end which is not within the scope of the Constitution. P. 69.

(5) The regulation of the farmer's activities under the statute, though in form subject to his own will, is, in fact, coercion through economic pressure; his right of choice is illusory. P. 70.

(6) Even if the farmer's consent were purely voluntary, the Act would stand no better. At best, it is a scheme for purchasing with federal funds submission to federal regulation of a subject reserved to the States. P. 72.

(7) The right to appropriate and spend money under contracts or proper governmental purposes cannot justify contracts that are not within federal power. P. 72.

(8) Congress cannot invade state jurisdiction by purchasing the action of individuals any more than by compelling it. P. 73.

(9) There is an obvious difference between a statute stating the conditions upon which moneys shall be expended and one effective only upon the assumption of a contractual obligation to submit to a regulation which otherwise could not be enforced. P. 73.

(10) Owing to the supremacy of the United States, if the contracts with farmers contemplated by the Agricultural Adjustment Act were within the federal power to make, the States could not declare them void or prevent compliance with their terms. P. 74.

(11) Existence of a situation of national concern resulting from similar and widespread local conditions cannot enable Congress [p4] to ignore the constitutional limitations upon its own powers and usurp those reserved to the States. P. 74.

(12) If the novel view of the General Welfare Clause now advanced in support of the tax were accepted, that clause would not only enable Congress to supplant the States in the regulation of agriculture and of all other industries as well, but would furnish the means whereby all of the other provisions of the Constitution, sedulously framed to define and limit the power of the United States and preserve the powers of the States, could be broken down, the independence of the individual States obliterated, and the United States converted into a central government exercising uncontrolled police power throughout the Union superseding all local control over local concerns. P. 75.

(13) Congress, being without power to impose the contested exaction, could not lawfully ratify the acts of an executive officer in assessing it. P. 78.
That's quite the list, isn't it? Look especially at numbers (2), (8), (11), and (12). To call this a smackdown of Federal authority would be something of an understatement. The Court is very clearly admonishing the Federal Government, both for its attempt to exercise powers it does not possess and for its attempt to usurp the authority of State governments, not to mention the unfair taxation of a limited group as a means to benefit another group (a more clear-cut case of wealth transfer by fiat would be hard to find).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Metadata and Constitutional Fornication

The current buzzword on the 'net: metadata.

That's what the NSA--and probably the CIA, the FBI, and other agencies--has been collecting, via phone records, search data, and the like. Defenders of these activities--and make no mistake, there are many on both sides of the aisle--insist such collections are nothing for the typical citizen to worry about, that because it's just "metadata" the government is not learning anything personal or private about individual citizens. As this piece in the New Yorker notes, Dianne Feinstein--for instance--has no problem with the collection of metadata:
Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from liberal Northern California and the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, assured the public earlier today that the government’s secret snooping into the phone records of Americans was perfectly fine, because the information it obtained was only “meta,” meaning it excluded the actual content of the phone conversations, providing merely records, from a Verizon subsidiary, of who called whom when and from where. In addition, she said in a prepared statement, the “names of subscribers” were not included automatically in the metadata (though the numbers, surely, could be used to identify them). “Our courts have consistently recognized that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of metadata information and thus no search warrant is required to obtain it,” she said, adding that “any subsequent effort to obtain the content of an American’s communications would require a specific order from the FISA court.”  
She said she understands privacy—“that’s why this is carefully done”—and noted that eleven special federal judges, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret, had authorized the vast intelligence collection. A White House official made the same points to reporters, saying, “The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls” and was subject to “a robust legal regime.” The gist of the defense was that, in contrast to what took place under the Bush Administration, this form of secret domestic surveillance was legitimate because Congress had authorized it, and the judicial branch had ratified it, and the actual words spoken by one American to another were still private. So how bad could it be?
But such a head-in-the-sand point of view ignores the reality of metadata, that through it very specific things can be known via simple extrapolation. Kurt Opsahl at EFF provides some examples in this regard:
What they are trying to say is that disclosure of metadata—the details about phone calls, without the actual voice—isn't a big deal, not something for Americans to get upset about if the government knows. Let's take a closer look at what they are saying: 
  • They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don't know what you talked about. 
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret. 
  • They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don't know what was discussed. 
  • They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion. 
  • They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood's number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about. 
Sorry, your phone records—oops, "so-called metadata"—can reveal a lot more about the content of your calls than the government is implying. Metadata provides enough context to know some of the most intimate details of your lives.
Now, let's be clear on terminology here. "Metadata" is properly defined as data about data. It's data collected about specific groups of data. Thus for something like phone calls, the data would be all of the individual phone calls en toto, who made them, who was called, what was said, etc. But if we were to then look at this set of data from above (in a manner of speaking), we could collect a whole new set of data--times calls were made, locations made from, durations of calls, etc.--and compile that data with reference to those criteria alone. The internals of the calls wouldn't matter. That's metadata. And really, given a large enough number of collections in this regard, we could also have another new set of data with reference to the metadata; this would be meta-metadata. Sound complicated and somewhat esoteric? It is.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Closets are for hangers, winners use the door

We live in interesting times. Perhaps not as interesting as many moments in the past, but interesting nonetheless. Incidentally, the expression "may you live in interesting times" is often characterized as a Chinese curse, not unlike "may you always get what you want." There's no evidence that either expression is specifically of Chinese origin, but that doesn't lessen their meanings in the least.

Both expressions appear to be blessings, not curses, at first blush. Who wouldn't want to live in interesting times? Who wouldn't want to see their every desire fulfilled. But curses they most certainly are.

"Interesting" means not boring, therefore exciting and--reality being reality--dangerous, scary, or both. The 1930's and 40's were--without a doubt--interesting times for much of the world in this sense. So were the years of the Russian Revolution if one happened to be in Russia, and those of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) for most all of continental Europe. Telling someone they should have to live through such a period is most assuredly a curse.

As bad as that now sounds, telling someone that you hope they always get what they want is even worse. For such a state of existence means taking all of the mystery out of life, all of the hope. It's condemnation to a life without surprises, wherein effort is pointless and accomplishments simply have no meaning. Worse still, it also carries another implication: the idea that we idealize objects of desire, to the extent that getting them--especially with little or no effort--is never fulfilling; oftentimes, there are unexpected consequences that go along with such "getting" as well.

History is a funny thing. As we live the here and now, we form opinions on what is transpiring, of course, And we expect those opinions to be reflective of how future generations will view the same moments, the same events, the same history. The presidencies of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy provide the perfect examples. In the moment, both Presidents were lightning rods. Their immense popularity was always countered by a deep-seated hostility--if not outright hatred--towards each from a smaller portion of the population. And for what? Not for their accomplishments, not for their policies per se, but for their supposed ideology and their evinced identities as human beings. Of course, the popularity both enjoyed was not all about policy, either. Far from it. Much of it was more about how both looked, spoke, and acted. Kennedy especially benefited from the cult of personality that surrounded his political career from start to finish.

Make no mistake about it, President Obama is getting the same sort of treatment, by and large. There are people--lapdogs is a better characterization--who cannot and will not accept any criticism of the the President's actions or those of his administration. Similarly, there are also those who will not give the President or his administration any credit whatsoever. And yeah, the card-carrying racists are there. They always have been. They were around for JFK too, because he was a Catholic (something many people seem to have forgotten). But their numbers are just not that significant, in my opinion. Most of those who object to Obama as a matter of course are not racists, they're ideologues, just as was the case for Reagan, JFK, and to some extent every President, even (especially?) George W. Bush.

But it's the "interesting times" that occupy historians and its the "interesting times" wherein such ideologues rise to the forefront, again as was the case in the Kennedy and Reagan eras.
Historical analysis of such past times often involves judging such ideologues and their evinced criticisms, because they are not always wrong. The standard history--the analysis of the times generally accepted as correct--of the Great Depression was, for a long time, the story of how the policies of FDR saved the nation from the Depression (along with the idea that WWII was the ultimate economic catalyst). That narrative is no longer taken as a given; many historians who focus on the period now see FDR's policies as far less helpful to the economy than had been assumed.

Such is the nature of historical analysis, of the search for truth.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A shameful last week of school

As I've noted in some previous bits, I have three children. The oldest is fifteen and in high school (9th grade), the middle one is twelve and in middle school (7th grade), and the youngest is in elementary school (Kindergarten). So yeah, I have three schools to deal with, three different starting times, three different ending times, three PTAs, three sets of administrators, and so on. But I'm not really complaining. I'm not super-active in all three schools, though I do help out, go on some field trips, help with some events, et cetera. Mostly, I'm involved with the elementary school. And it's only fair: the older two--when in elementary school--saw me put in a lot of time at their school. The youngest deserves the same, I think.

Despite me not being all that active at the middle and high schools, however, I do know what's going on. I track my kids' grades online, I read the e-mails and hand-outs I receive from the schools, and frankly both older kids tell me what they are doing (usually over dinner). Therefore, I know what they've been up to during the last week and what they will be doing this week, the last week of school for all three of them: nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing. They're even being told not to bring book-bags--let alone book and notebooks--these last few days.

The youngest--the one in Kindergarten--had a field trip to a bowling alley today for the end-of year-class party, has "board game day" tomorrow, "pajama day" on Wednesday, then graduation ceremonies on Thursday. The classroom is--for all intents and purposes--no longer functional. Everything is packed up. But it is Kindergarten. A few fun days to end the year isn't really all that bad. And the teacher--to her credit--is still having the kids do some writing and math handouts each day. But I fear this is not common, that its the exception rather than the rule. Homework has come to a full stop, and homework is distributed by the Kindergarten teachers as a group.

The other two, as I noted above, are being told not to bring anything school-related to school, apart from their lunches. Exams are over, the schools are in full shut down and clean up mode. And in that regard, there is no learning taking place. Zero. Nada. Zilch. So the question must be asked: why are they still in school? Attendance policies are far from lax at public schools in Miami-Dade County. In fact, my daughter cannot miss another day this quarter without triggering an automatic SARB event (school attendance review board). She's a straight A student in AP courses in an IB program. So despite some health problems earlier in the year--which had no impact on her grades--she's on the edge, attendance-wise.

Where is the sense in any of this? There are--again--no learning-type activities taking place, no more tests, no more quizzes, no more anything. Who cares if the students even bother to show up this last week or so of school? Well, the schools care, because funding is tied to attendance numbers, so they can't have a massive drop off in the latter or else they risk the same for the former. Silliness.

Erick Erickson's fantasy world-building

The writers' website I frequent--AbsoluteWrite (AW)--has a huge variety of forums for pretty much every genre of writing under the sun. For instance, there is a forum specifically for writers of erotica, as well as one for people doing historical writing--fiction and non-fiction, and many, many others. Included, of course, is a forum for sci-fi/fantasy writers. It's one of the more heavily utilized genre-specific areas of AW; many would-be writers hope to be the next George R. R. Martin or the next J. K. Rowling.

One of the most import issues for such writers is that of world-building, of creating a fantasy or futuristic world/universe in which a story--or series of stories--is to take place. And the meticulous world-builder needs to be concerned not only with geography, flora, and fauna, but also with political  and economic systems along with social customs and institutions. More often than not, worlds populated with humans mirror our own realities to some extent, in the present day or in the past. The worlds of high fantasy writers, filled with mythical creatures like dragons and unicorns, tend to be ones with feudal societies, by and large, peopled by knights, nobility, and fair maidens, along with common folk of all sorts.

Such worlds hearken back to the real feudal periods of our world. Weapons and armor--from siege equipment to swords to crossbows to platemail--are based on what really existed in the past, though specific items might come from different periods or cultures. Clothes, building styles, and basic economies usually follow suit, being drawn from predominantly pre-industrial societies. Political systems for the most part tend to follow fuedal patterns, or at least commonly understood/supposed feudal patterns.

As such, these swords and sorcery fantasy realms are ones with usually very distinct gender roles. George R. R. Martin's Seven Kingdoms is--from this perspective--not so very different from Tolkien's Middle Earth or Robert E. Howard's Hyboria. Writing styles and specific plot lines aside, all three--and many, many other "epic" works of fantasy--are worlds wherein men dominate, insofar as they are the warriors, the political leaders, and the religious leaders. To be sure, this is no hard and fast rule: powerful women exist in many of these worlds as well, but they are exceptional women. as written, not the norm for their societies.

There are, of course, occasional societies of "Amazons" in such worlds, wherein common gender roles are specifically reversed. But for the careful writer, such societies pose a problem: there is nothing--historically speaking--on which to base them. For in the history of mankind, the vast majority of political systems were and are patriarchal to some extent. The earliest societies--prior to the rise of agricultural communities--may have been more or less egalitarian (there is still much debate about this), but since then history of mankind involves patriarchal societies.

There have been theories of ancient matriarchies offered up by people from time to time, but no serious anthropologist accepts such things. For no actual, documented case of a matriarchy exists in human hisory; there are but a handful of societies--since the rise of agriculture--that even approach being non-patriarchal (thus possibly matriarchal, or at least egalitarian), though there are certainly examples of matrilineal and matrifocal societies.

But what we are talking about is big picture stuff here, when it comes to the history of mankind. True enough, warfare has been--and largely remains--the province of males, partly because of biological reasons. And that one reality, in and of itself, led to a male dominance of political power, both for reasons of opportunity and security. Such political dominance could have--and often did have--repercussions for the social and economic spheres of interaction. Thus, patriarchy trickled down, in sense (in a very general sense, to be sure).

The persistence of such structures needed justification. And--as is often the case for social, economic, and political institutions of all sorts--religion was sometimes used to provide that justification. So was simple power, as well.

But even then, even with the apparent dominance of patriarchal structures, it would be a major error to argue that such structures were the natural way of things, for at the lowest level--the household level--things have never as consistent in this respect as many would like to believe.

Fast forward from the past to the present day. Ours remains a patriarchal society, for the most part, with regard to overall structures (at a macro level, one might say). But not wholly. At the household level--or micro level--again things are not so consistent. It is argued by some that the institution of marriage was and is an aspect of a patriarchal society, insofar as it exists to control women. But the fact of the matter is that marriage as an institution is a primary means of maintaining equality between the sexes, especially with regard to property rights (which--like it or not--remains the cornerstone of liberty).