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unraveling

End of April, 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Private intelligence Permalink to this item

Nicole Foy's report in the Idaho Press: An intelligence firm monitored Idaho protests last summer — then sent details to immigration officials. Or, as The Intercept_'s story by Ryan Devereaux has it, Homeland Security Used a Private Intelligence Firm to Monitor Family Separation Protests, even though down in the story they quote "a DHS official, speaking on background" saying that the report was "unsolicited."

"LookingGlass Cyber Solutions, a Virginia-based firm, gathered information on more than 600 demonstrations across the country, information that was then shared with DHS and state-level law enforcement agencies."

The DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis just needs to "ensure stakeholders have appropriate situational awareness regarding personnel, facilities, suspicious activities, emerging threats, incidents, operations, and operational capabilities affecting the Department or the Homeland Security Enterprise," you know.

And there were a lot of demonstrations to look after, even if the social media (aka "publicly available channels") data mining was probably not heavy lifting. I went to the one here in Boise, which had a great turnout. In the LGCS tally, Boise's was "TBD," in spite of organizers actually, you know, seeking publicity, and holding it at the state Capitol.

My photo of the June 30, 2018 event

Freedom to excavate Permalink to this item

You may have noticed that the volume of political flamage, blather and spew on social media has exploded of late. Wrapping up my 240th monthly edition of the blog, I'm struck by just how far we've come...

Perhaps that dream I had last night explains part of it; the next turn for some sort of tour I was on involved jumping into a manhole, not knowing quite where that would lead. The person in front of me jumped, and... oh my, it was a couple of long seconds before a SPLASH.

A comment by one of my fellow-Twitter travelers led to one self-described "Sloth Committee Chair," @senatorshoshana, dredging up an old fight between a Montanan and the federal government, over... "the waters of the United States." As Holly Michels described it for the Montana Standard 3 years ago,

"The tale of Joe Robertson has all the characters of a new storyline playing out across the West: a landowner who doesn't think think what he calls an "overreaching" EPA and Corps of Engineers should have a say about what he does on his property — with two federal agencies that are tasked with protecting the country's water resources and interested parties and like-minded groups watching from the audience, deciding if, when and how to take action."

So mostly the "libertarian" concept of the rugged individualist taking advantage of public lands in one way or another. Not quite to Cliven Bundy family-level mayhem, but some medium-sized heavy equipment's worth. The questions about managing water are important, and the ambiguities in the law are definitely an open question. Look who all has been involved: the Montana Supreme Court, the 6th circuit court of appeals, Ryan Zinke before he wore his Boy Scout uniform to a jamboree as Secretary of the Interior (and then had to lower his flag, and go to work on making Artillery One great again), President Obama, Redoubt News, and the redoubtable Pacific Legal Foundation, and more.

Back in April, 2016, Robertson, then 77, was found guilty by a jury of "two counts of unauthorized discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States and one count of injury or depredation of United States property." It involved excavation on National Forest land, and "adjacent private property" (which turned out to be someone else's property), and "the discharge of dredged and fill material into a tributary stream and adjacent wetlands," which "caused widespread damage to both properties" in the eyes of the law.

Joe died last month. This month, the SCOTUS summarily disposed of some of the case by (a) substituting Joe's widow as petitioner, (b) granting a writ of certiorari, (c) vacating the judgement, and (d) remanding the case to the 9th circuit to decide if it's now moot (or, if the U.S. can still collect on the $130,000 fine from Joe's widow).

The Pacific Legal Foundation is telling the story as Montana man unjustly convicted of violating Clean Water Act; @senatorshoshana (finally!) linked up to Ethan Blevins (one of the PLF attorneys) telling the tale from the defendant's point of view, as A Navy Veteran Went to Prison for Digging Ponds in the Mountains. Playing on our sense of justice; Navy veterans ought to be allowed to dig ponds in the mountains, right? Anyhoo, senshosho's POV was "For those who don't think the EPA ever does bad stuff" and my rejoinder was that oh, ah, this is the defense attorney saying so, and she retweeted me to ask Sir, have you heard of this thing called "opeds"?

It was not easy resisting saying that I was writing them before she was born, but I did.

And after all that, I'm wondering where I was going with this long walk to a possibly moot case over some ponds in the mountains of Montana, and thinking you know, jumping into a manhole with a couple seconds to wait for splashdown.

26.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Free (and not so free) tax filing software Permalink to this item

"Welcome to TurboTax Free File Program," TurboTax's headline on its taxfreedom, free-filing page reads. "All state returns are completely free!"

That's cool. If you qualify. Try your luck with the big orange button, to find out that qualifying means your adjusted gross income must be less than $34k. [In order to know what your AGI is, you have to make your way through the top half of Schedule 1 (Form 1040) and the first seven lines of Form 1040, but ok; maybe you know whether or not "all your income" adds up to that much.] Or, if you're active military, your AGI must be less than $66k; or (maybe) if you qualify for the EITC.

To use this program, you'd have to find this page. Oh, look here, they're trying to keep this URL out of search engines results! View source, and after 366 blank lines (huh?) when you get to the HTML, there's this tag in the <head> section:

<meta name="robots" content="noindex,nofollow,noodp" />

That ProPublica report says the second biggest player in the market, H&R Block, does the same thing. The IRS might hide some of its pages too, for all I know, but I found this pretty easily: Free File: Do Your Federal Taxes for Free. It invites you to choose a Free File option based on your income, with two choices: Income below $66,000 (free software!) and income above $66,000 (free "fillable forms"). Leaving aside the question of what to do if your income is exactly $66,000, and the ancient history of fillable forms (they've been around since Acrobat was a pup), what is this about?

Photo of a hairy plant

About says it's "a partnership between the IRS and the Free File Alliance, a group of industry-leading private-sector tax preparation companies that have agreed to provide free commercial online tax preparation and electronic filing." So, voluntary? Kind of.

The IRS' description makes it sound like they deferred to industry expertise in doing this sort of thing, and maybe they did, but the way ProPublica puts the agreement (with my emphasis added):

"In exchange for the IRS promising not to create its own free, online filing tool, Intuit, H&R Block and other companies signed a deal to offer Free File options to lower-income Americans."

The IRS page listing the current software offers is where you would find the link to the TurboTax page, along with eleven others. Most of them go with the $66,000 limit, but several chip away at it, and add other qualifications. Several discriminate by age: 52 or younger; 65 or younger; 50 or younger; between 17 and 51; 70 or younger. Even the two that cut the AGI limit nearly in half (Turbotax, at $34k; and FreeTaxUSA®IRS, at $35k) still offer it free for Active Military up to $66k.

ProPublica's report—today—is a bit late for the regular filing season, but if you paid one of these outfits to file your return, here's a tip:

"Dozens of ProPublica readers whom TurboTax charged even though they were eligible to file for free have reported getting refunds by calling the company."

Boiling it down Permalink to this item

David Cole's review of the Mueller report is the most direct and concise piece of writing on this subject that I've seen. In The New York Review of Books: An Indictment in All But Name. The first paragraph provides the executive summary (and the summary of our current executive):

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report, released to the public in a redacted version on April 18, lays out in meticulous detail both a blatantly illegal effort by Russia to throw the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump and repeated efforts by President Trump to end, limit, or impede Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference. Trump’s efforts included firing or attempting to fire those overseeing the investigation, directing subordinates to lie on his behalf, cajoling witnesses not to cooperate, and doctoring a public statement about a Trump Tower meeting between his son and closest advisers and a Russian lawyer offering compromising information on Hillary Clinton."

He procedes to dispatch William Barr, "collusion," and "witch hunt" in the next 3 paragraphs before explaining Mueller's legal reasons for not providing an indictment, and the "concern for fairness" that precluded a direct statement of Trump's guilt. But let those who have eyes to see, see. And let Trump's defenders make fools of themselves by arguing that the president is somehow above the law.

"...Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani have argued that the president has the constitutional authority to terminate any federal prosecution and thus cannot be guilty of “obstructing justice.” Mueller convincingly refutes that argument. He notes that obstruction of justice requires a “corrupt” intent, distinguishing between a decision that an investigation does not serve the nation’s purposes, on the one hand, and efforts to conceal wrongdoing by oneself or one’s family or associates, on the other. The latter, Mueller argues, is no more within the president’s constitutional authority than would be a decision to curtail an investigation for a bribe. No reasonable reader can come away from the report with anything but the conclusion that the president repeatedly sought to obstruct an investigation into one of the most significant breaches of our sovereignty in generations, in order to avoid disclosure of embarrassing and illegal conduct by himself and his associates."

Cole finishes by offering possible answers to the question "what should be done now?" No surprises there, but spelled out well: impeachment, convinction and removal from office; indicted for crimes once he's out of office; continuing the House's investigation of Russian interference and Trump's misconduct; and voting the bastard out. (I paraphrase.)

I keep hoping, but very much doubt there are 20 GOP Senators prepared to overcome the complicity that body has shown in the past two years (and their own partisan obstruction carried on for Obama's two terms) and vote to convict, if the House were to impeach. Never mind that the two presidential impeachments we've had so far were political acts; it was the threat of impeachment, and what had become an apparent certainty of conviction that drove Nixon to resign. Trump has shown no capacity for ordinary decency, and ample capacity for its opposite.

Indictment for crimes after he's out of office would be at best a partial remedy as disincentive to future grifters. And an extraordinarly unlikely initiative for the next president. Trump is the best suited to go after a previous president (or candidate) for perceived slights, if not crimes, but he alone can not fix that legal proceeding, and not even his lickspittle Rudy Giuliani would sign up for that job. Saying stupid things on TV is one thing; putting them in court filings is more work, and it goes on your permanent record, as they say.

So, the House, and November 2020. While we're voting Trump out of office, there are also quite a number of Republican Senators who should have their reckoning for job underperformance as well.

We alone can fix it.

25.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

And the constitutional crisis is ON Permalink to this item

Our tyrant-in-training is unveiling the "scorched-earth strategy," vowing to stonewall "all" House subpoenas. Same as the Trump crime family strategy, sue everybody, for everything, and he's thinking his ace in the hole is a Supreme Court, sufficiently stacked in his favor. Never mind "a congressional power of oversight that goes back to the administration of George Washington."

"Litigation ... will turn on precedents that require both branches to make good-faith efforts to accommodate each other’s needs."

That'll be interesting. POTWEETOH wouldn't know Good Faith Effort if it walked up to him and introduced itself.

There's so much to hide. Myriad tax returns (of all those shell game companies); Testimony from aides with, and without a shred of decency; How Jared got his security clearance; The finer points of obstruction of justice.

As many have pointed out, including Charlie Savage there, those finer points—prongs, if you will—are that obstruction of justice is a crime that comprises:

1. An obstructive act

2. A nexus between the obstructive act and an official proceeding; and

3. A corrupt intent.

Guess who hit the trifecta!

For as much as Trump has been able to put his thumb on the scales of the SCOTUS, and Neil Gorsuch and Brett "I like beer" Kavanaugh may appreciate the lifetime appointment, I have to think they won't be on board with enabling an autocratic idiot. (And of course, should impeachment get underway, the nonsensical threat to "go straight to the Supreme Court" will be moot. In impeachment, the Supreme Court's chief justice comes to you! To preside over your trial in the Senate.)

That other Donald, note-taking real lawyer Donald F. McGahn II, may be the fulcrum (and not because he single-handedly shephered Kavanaugh to his seat on the high court). During the Special Counsel's investigation, and apparently against Don II's advice, Don I "waived executive privilege to let Mr. Mueller freely question Mr. McGahn about their conversations." Now he's not feeling so waivey about having Don II talk about all that in public.

It's the big Don against the lawyers now. He probably imagines he'll have the Best Lawyers, as ever. Three of the top tier of the profession (from the GOP, no less) wrote an op-ed for USA Today this week, about the president's dangerous disdain for—and assault on the rule of law.

"When he told the president that a “real lawyer” takes notes, then-White House counsel Don McGahn showed he understood a lawyer’s proper function. He knew that a lawyer’s job is to advise clients about what the law allows and also what it prohibits. Notes are a symbol of a deeper reality — that truth and facts are at the core of the rule of law, and that lawyers are the guardians of those values. ...

"[T]he Mueller report gives us even more evidence of the president’s disdain for legal constraints. Three times he asked McGahn to assist him in legally dubious acts. Three times McGahn refused. McGahn refused to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation; he refused to fire Mueller; and he refused to lie about the president’s requests that he fire Mueller. He stood in defense of the rule of law. The president, by contrast, said he wished his attorney was Roy Cohn — a man who was disbarred from the practice of law for his criminality and dishonesty."

The ultimate wildcard remains the quisling GOP senators who have to decide how long they're going to be just fine with the man who hijacked their party, delivered a big tax cut for the well-to-do, is riding high on the tail of the Obama recovery, can't help himself from lying pathologically, befriends and praises murderous dictators, overrides all sensible counsel, demands loyalty from others and gives none, and puts his own petty interest ahead of e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g else.

How long will they stand by while Trump makes a mockery of everything they once imagined they and their party stood for? What those lawyers from Bush administrations said, before they quoted that line from Shakespeare:

Lawyers are a bulwark against chaos

"These and other recent steps to secure a narrow political advantage by impairing our legal institutions and undermining faith in them are a gross offense to the idea that no man or woman is above the law. In the end, all of our liberties, and our democratic system of government, depend upon maintaining the rule of law by reliance on the independent judiciary, the separation of powers and limited government."

P.S. It's not just obstructing justice; here are five additional impeachment charges Trump could face.

Update: Here's Quinta Jurecic's graphic analysis of the evidence Mueller's team provided for Trump's obstruction of justice. For 4 of the 14 instances, there is "substantial" evidence of all three prongs of the crime: efforts to fire the Special Counsel; efforts to curtail the SC investigation; ordering McGahn to fire Mueller; and non-cooperation with Mueller. She estimates that 9 more might be criminal, and in only one of the 14 did the evidence NOT establish any of the three prongs.

Note the ever-lower bar(r): we're not deconstructing whether Trump has been telling anything remotely like the truth about his bad acts, let alone met the minimum standard of upholding the constitution and the rule of law; the discussion is about just how criminal have his acts been?

From lawfareblog.com, Quinta Jurecic

Update #2: Aaron Blake's analysis of the 5 crimes Mueller suggests Trump could be charged with also mentions Jurecic's, and one from lawyer Richard Hoeg, on the way to his own, which is that "in five of the 10 areas [in which Trump could be viewed as obstructing justice], Mueller seems to see believe that all three criteria to charge a crime are supported by evidence."

24.April.2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Making financial literacy ends meet Permalink to this item

Timothy Ogden goes off on a current education fad: More states are forcing students to study personal finance. It’s a waste of time. "Study after study shows that financial-literacy courses don’t change behavior."

Even without following any of the more than two dozen hyperlinks, he makes a persuasive case. In a nutshell:

"Americans’ finances are in terrible shape because the cost of higher education, health insurance, child care and rent have all increased far faster than paychecks. No amount of financial literacy is going to close budget gaps like the one laid out by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) in her grilling this month of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Porter explained how a full-time Chase bank teller in Irvine, Calif., making $16.50 an hour, ended each month with a $500 deficit, after paying for child care, a bare-bones food budget and a one-bedroom apartment."

Ok I did take one jump, and one more in that, to get to the FINRA Investor Education Foundation National Financial Capability Study, and scanned its charting of various data from 2009, 2012, 2015. Big picture, things improved over that six year span. (Duh.) And financial literacy declined. Six pages of the full (38 pg.) report are devoted to Financial Knowledge and Decision-Making, but they didn't include the part I wanted, which was "the quiz." They did say what the 5 questions (yes, just five questions) were about: Interest rates, Inflation, Bond prices, Mortgages, Risk.

Graph of 20% compounded interest

Given the steady, low fraction of correct answers on "the bond price question" (what happens to bond prices when interest rates fall?), perhaps one takeaway is that bond prices aren't part of most people's necessary financial knowledge and decision-making. ("Don't know" runs 38%, more than either correct—33%—and incorrect, 28%.) For 2015, they considered a new, likely more relevant question:

"Suppose you owe $1,000 on a loan and the interest rate you are charged is 20% per year compounded annually. If you didn’t pay anything off, at this interest rate, how many years would it take for the amount you owe to double?"

A quarter of the sample punted with "don't know," even though it appears that this was a multiple choice question, not fill in the blank. They would have had to reject the wrong answer of "less than 2 years" that 4% chose, and the wrong-the-other-way answers of 5 to 10 years (29%) and at least 10 years (8%). One in three respondents gave the correct answer of "at least 2 years but less than 5 years."

But that study did not address the real-world question many borrowers might have these days: HEY, WHERE CAN I GET A LOAN FOR ONLY 20% INTEREST?! This 5 year old item reported that "Idaho, Nevada and Utah have among the nation's highest interest rates for payday loans," according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The rates are crazy high "mainly because they're among only seven states that impose no legal limits on them." Back then, Idaho payday lenders were charging an AVERAGE of 582% annual interest on their loans.

The advent of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau brought the possibility of some reform, a possibility which has yet to be realized. A rule to curb harmful practices was finalized in 2017, and was set to take effect this August, but Mick Mulvaney's deliberate sabotage of the CFPB is set to COMPLETELY DISMANTLE that rule. (Mulvaney's stint as "acting Director" of the Bureau has been followed by Kathy Kraninger, confirmed in December by the narrowest of margins in the Senate, 50-49.)

Pew has suggestions for state reforms, with Ohio's Fairness in Lending Act providing a model. Stop the Debt Trap, a coalition of hundreds of civil rights, consumer, labor, faith, veterans, seniors and community organizations is doing what they can for financial literacy, and promoting political action to support the intent of the CFPB. They have a web form to send a comment on the proposed (in)action, or you can go directly to regulations.gov and its docket #CFPB-2019-0006-0001 on Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans and punch the comment button there.

"Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving — HOW NOT TO DO IT." – "Little Dorrit"

There are four to nine dozen pages (depending on the formatting; the Federal Register gets more than 1,000 words on a page) of "Supplementary Information" defending their "undo" proposal, including the legally mandated "Paperwork Reduction Act" section, and 395 footnotes. More than 50,000 words altogether in prose that would make Charles Dickens' Circumlocution Office proud. Just what is "unfair," and "abusive," anyway? For example, the old Bureau's notion about one of two definitions of "abuse":

With respect to the alternative “inability to protect” prong of abusiveness set forth in section 1031(d)(2)(B) of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau began by finding in the 2017 Final Rule that consumers who lack an understanding of the material costs and risks of a product often will be unable to protect their interests. (155) The Bureau's analysis found that consumers who use short-term loans “are financially vulnerable and have very limited access to other sources of credit” and that they have an “urgent need for funds, lack of awareness or availability of better alternatives, and no time to shop for such alternatives.” (156) The Bureau also found in the 2017 Final Rule that consumers who take out an initial loan without the lender's reasonably assessing the borrower's ability to repay were generally unable to protect their interests in selecting or using further loans. (157) According to the Bureau, consumers who obtain loans without an ability-to-pay determination and who in fact lack the ability to repay may have to choose between competing injuries—default, delinquency, reborrowing, and default avoidance costs, including forgoing essential living expenses. (158) The Bureau concluded that, “though borrowers of covered loans are not irrational and may generally understand their basic terms, these facts do[ ] not put borrowers in a position to protect their interests.”  (159)

It goes on to find faults with previous studies, and the (old) Bureau's interpretation of the studies. They didn't do any studies themselves. Just, you know, that "the key evidentiary grounds relied upon in the 2017 Final Rule were insufficiently robust and reliable to support the findings of an unfair and abusive practice as identified in §1041.4."

Alternately, you could just let Jordan Wathen's headline on The Motley Fool explain it to you: Donald Trump's CFPB Is Rescuing the Payday Loan Industry; "The watchdog that targeted payday lenders is now their best friend."

Really, we just need to encourage consumers to save more.

23.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Into the maelstrom Permalink to this item

"Russia, if you're listening," Trump said in one of his sneering public performances on the campaign trail in July, 2016, "I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press." As the New York Times reported two years later:

"[I]t turns out, that same day, the Russians — whether they had tuned in or not — made their first effort to break into the servers used by Mrs. Clinton’s personal office, according to a sweeping 29-page indictment unsealed Friday by the special counsel’s office that charged 12 Russians with election hacking.

"The indictment did not address the question of whether the Russians’ actions were actually in response to Mr. Trump. It said nothing at all about Mr. Trump’s request for help from Russia — a remark that had unnerved American intelligence and law enforcement officials who were closely monitoring Russia’s efforts to influence the election."

Evan McMullin, Utah's contribution to the 2016 race, and a former CIA officer says he dove into the [redacted] Mueller report as soon as it came out. "I couldn’t help but see the events it recounts the way that President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, would have viewed them as they happened," he wrote.

"What the report revealed, page after page, was President Donald Trump and his campaign’s efforts to profit from the most “sweeping and systematic” — to use the words of the report — information warfare attack ever waged against the United States of America.

"Trump and his team were uniquely positioned to sound the alarm and halt the Russian attack, but instead they welcomed it. And then they tried to obstruct efforts to investigate it. As such, Trump bears distinct responsibility for our failure to defend against Russia’s hostility and take the steps necessary to deter future threats."

There are still more than a few useful idiots standing by our feckless grifter, his son-in-law first among them, unremarkably. "Sweeping and systematic" information warfare, you say? It was just "some Facebook ads"! Kushner says it was the investigation that really hurt the country.

Tell us that story again about your security clearance, and the embargo of Qatar, and how you're best friends with a murderous Saudi prince, and the $billion loan that bailed your ass out of 666, Jared!

Here's one presidential transition staffer, former counsel for the Republican-led House Financial Services Committee, and law professor at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School who's ready to jump ship. For J.W. Verret, the Mueller report was his tipping point.

"Depending on how you count, roughly a dozen separate instances of obstruction of justice are contained in the Mueller report. The president dangled pardons in front of witnesses to encourage them to lie to the special counsel, and directly ordered people to lie to throw the special counsel off the scent. ...

"At a minimum, there’s enough here to get the impeachment process started."

22.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Indiscretion Permalink to this item

The headline question from Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at UNC, in the latest from the NYT Privacy Project: Think You're Discreet Online? Think Again

Here in the last month of 20 years' worth of blogging (where does the time go?), I do still have a quaint notion that I'm somewhat measured in what I share online, even as I'm sure I've shared more than any human I genuinely care about is interested in altogether. Which means that I'm offering information about myself, free for any old robots to scarf up, digest and remarket for whatever purpose.

On the one hand, my purpose has been to promulgate opinions, and by expressing those, and sharing others' that I think are worthy of praise (or ridicule, as the case may be), I might benefit (or at least amuse) my fellow planet-goers. On the other hand, that inevitably divulges things about myself that (a) maybe should be private? and (b) even I'm not aware of.

My drawing of the Johari window

Joseph Luft's and Harrington Ingham's "Johari window" carved up self- and other-awareness into four convenient quadrants of knowledge and ignorance. It seems the truly "Unknown" is ever-shrinking, as the "Blind Spot" must be ever-growing. (The 2x2 matrix doesn't lend itself to general asymmetry, and sorting personality out into 56 adjectives seems rather charming compared to what data miners are interested in these days.)

I do try to be "careful," but have never equated that with keeping my religious beliefs or political views secret. The book of Tom is here on fortboise.org. Personal life and health status would take some more work to flesh out manually, but from a robotic point of view, it's a walk in the park, I suppose.

I look back at my turn-of-the-millennium Ad Attack piece once in a while, put myself back in the mindset when the web was still new, DoubleClick was evil, and Google hadn't yet absorbed it, and you could opt out of some things. Now, or "in the near future we could be hired, fired, granted or denied insurance, accepted to or rejected from college, rented housing and extended or denied credit based on facts that are inferred about us." As in, inferred by machines and algorithms, rather than just be other people hiring, firing, granting, denying, accepting and rejecting us by their gut notions or the seat of their pants.

"Last year, an investigation led by Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, revealed that Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T were selling people’s real-time location data. An investigative report last year by The New York Times also showed that weather apps including the Weather Channel, AccuWeather and WeatherBug were selling their users’ location data. This kind of data isn’t useful just for tracking you but also for inferring things about you. What were you doing at a cancer clinic? Why were you leaving the house of a woman who is not your wife at 5 a.m.?"

Yes, that same AccuWeather you read about earlier this month, here, with its former CEO still waiting in line to be put in charge of the National Weather Service.

20.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The inside dope Permalink to this item

From a NYT video

The media by and large have done a hell of a job in all this. I've downloaded my own copy of the report (one run through OCR by a helpful someone, so that the text is searchable), but I have yet to dive in and started reading.

Two of the Washington Post's best reporters put out a synopsis on Thursday that covers the general territory in brief, brutal detail: Paranoia, lies and fear: Trump’s presidency laid bare by Mueller report.

Before the Special Counsel's report was in hand, we had two years' worth of dueling narratives; the fact-based one being unraveled in fits and starts, errors made, and corrected, up against the propaganda arms, and the incessant noise machine of the (ever-ironic) @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed crying "Fake news!" night and day.

It's been the president that was fake, all along.

"The vivid portrait that emerges from Mueller’s 448-page report is of a presidency plagued by paranoia, insecurity and scheming — and of an inner circle gripped by fear of Trump’s spasms. Again and again, Trump frantically pressured his aides to lie to the public, deny true news stories and fabricate a false record.

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report says. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

Funny how Bill Barr never got around to that nut of the matter.

"While many of the episodes catalogued have previously been explored in first-person accounts and news reports, Mueller’s report is singular for its definitive examination of the events — and will not easily be dismissed by Trump and his aides as “fake news.” The main actors are under oath and on the record, and the narrative they laid bare stands as a historical product with the imprimatur of a former FBI director who attained a cult status for his impartiality."

"Republicans were eager to turn the page Thursday," Rucker and Costa note, and I saw half of Idaho's congressional delegation waving this nightmare away on Twitter, Sen. Crapo's sorry effort noted here, yesterday.

Our House representative, Mike Simpson dutifully tweeted with the vanguard Thursday morning, quoting himself quoting the GOP talking point. "At last, the American people can know without a shadow of a doubt that the Trump campaign did not collude with foreign governments." No collusion! The very idea of impeachment is "ludicrous" in this press-ready pabulum.

Laughable! Outrageous! The very idea!

Our junior senator, Jim Risch, was keeping a lower profile than usual, apparently having said all he had to say about that last month—when all we had in the official public record was Bill Barr's don't-call-it-a-summary—in a statement that "For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report."

Nothing to see here. Let's move on. (No need to even read the report, eh.)

The newest member of the delegation, ID-1's Russ Fulcher, is not as quick on the draw, but by the end of the day he'd tweeted out his 2¢ of the party line, decrying the time, the expense, the search warrants, the documents, the coverage from the legitimate media, and "enough is enough." (Nice comment from ANGRY NORTH IDAHO on that, with a search link for "2,800 subpoenas".)

George T. Conway III's Thursday take was not so sanguine.
Trump is a cancer on the presidency. Congress should remove him.

"[T]he ultimate issue shouldn’t be — and isn’t — whether the president committed a criminal act," Conway wrote. "Americans should expect far more than merely that their president not be provably a criminal. In fact, the Constitution demands it."

The Constitution commands the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” It requires him to affirm that he will “faithfully execute the Office of President” and to promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” And as a result, by taking the presidential oath of office, a president assumes the duty not simply to obey the laws, civil and criminal, that all citizens must obey, but also to be subjected to higher duties — what some excellent recent legal scholarship has termed the “fiduciary obligations of the president.”

Trump acting as a fiduciary—now that is ludicrous. He was down at Mar-a-Lago golfing with Rush Limbaugh on Friday.

19.April.19 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Mike Crapo, all in (the swamp) Permalink to this item

Idaho's senior US Senator still has a National Debt ticker spinning on top his news releases, either a sad remnant of when he used to rail against deficit spending, or a proud tabulation of his party's budget-busting to provide tax cuts to the people who need them least. $22 trillion and relentlessly counting.

Yesterday, less than an hour after the redacted version of the Mueller Report hit the newstands, the CRAPO STATEMENT ON FULL [sic] MUELLER REPORT was put up, and announced with a tweet, just before noon, EDT:

Read my full statement on the #MuellerReport ➡️ https://t.co/l3zKwkkoBw

— Senator Mike Crapo (@MikeCrapo) April 18, 2019

"Full" slipped out of place there, unless it was meant to be "fullsome" and got clipped. The statement is five sentences arranged in three paragraphs, with no useful facts in evidence. His second sentence refers to "Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary," which was obviously not a summary, as the AG was forced to admit after it was presented as such, and found not to be. Crapo then claimed this not-summary "summarized the principle findings of the Mueller investigation," which it did not do.

With his preconceptions firmly established, our senator informs the world, "I am ready to move on from this drawn out attack on the President." And ICYMI, he is all about pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-national security policies, which Russian interference with our elections has I SEE N-N-N-NOTHING to do with national security.

Also, NO COLLUSION! and TOTAL EXONERATION!

Or, as the president himself put it, and I quote, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fucked.”

Witness to history Permalink to this item

Rosenstein at the Barr press con

I did not watch yesterday's stand-up routine delivered by Donald Trump's Roy Cohn, the current Attorney General of the United States, live yesterday, but did see Judy Woodruff's lead piece on last night's Newshour, which I recommend as an antidote to the AG's spin cycle. In the images from the press con, I was struck by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's appearance. Unlike the other suit off Barr's right shoulder, left-hand man Rosenstein stood perfectly still, perfectly erect, and stared directly into the camera almost the whole time Barr spoke.

A smile flitted across his face when Barr said nice things about his nearly 30 years of service, and how about he couldn't wait to get the hell out of there, but was persuaded to stay a little longer. Then he swallowed once or twice, as Barr leaned into his wholly gratuitous pre-reading of the Mueller report to frame it all for public consumption.

Rosenstein did blink, rarely. (He did not blink out "SOS" in Morse Code, which might have been less surprising.) His gaze shifted a little bit for a few brief moments. 15 minutes in, he swayed just a little bit. Not so much as you'd notice if you weren't staring at him the way he was staring at the camera.

"Four categories of information" (subjected to redactions) brought a slight twitch to Rosenstein's lips. As did "impair," as Barr explained the redactions. Here's the whole 22½ minute song and dance on the PBS Newshour site, from a camera fixed on Barr at the podium.

During the Q&A after Barr's prepared statement, Rosenstein loosened up and started to look like a normal person, looking at the audience, moving his body, and head a bit, blinking more regularly.

Why wasn't Robert Mueller there? "It was a report he did for me," the AG said, and we should all be really, really grateful for his "entirely discretionary" decision to make it public (in redacted form), "since these reports are not supposed to be made public."

Then somebody asked Barr about the "propriety" of Barr coming out and "spinning" the report before its release, and Barr whacked that down by saying "no," and walking off the stage with his lieutenants following. For one brief, shining moment, Rod cracked a genuine, amused smile, before starting his forced march into the sunset.

18.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Just one small revelation Permalink to this item

Remember that good old day when Attorney General William Barr wrote that summary that wasn't really a summary (he said later), but just kind of a sneak preview? And he quoted from the Special Counsel's report that "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian goverment in its election interference activities"?

Give him credit for the [T] in that, signaling that he elided the first part of the sentence. We now have the whole thing. (H/t to Josh Marshall for underlining it.) Here we go:

"Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian goverment in its election interference activities."

See Scott Grow Permalink to this item

Betsy Russell's blog has the closing synopsis from one of Idaho's least distinguished representatives, Sen. C. Scott Grow of Eagle, four paragraphs trying to explain himself, and identify the scapegoat for the debacle of SB1159, the Revenge on Voters Act that passed the legislature and died with a veto, in our new governor's most significant first-term action.

It's every bit as awful as his performance during the session, insisting he had Idaho's best interests at heart, and ignoring the outpouring of public opposition.

All I know about this guy comes from the media, which includes seeing him present his bill before the committee, and here, quoting his wrap-up summary with what I imagine he thinks were carefully chosen words.

My takeaway, to boil it down, is Oh My God.

The legislature's faults, session after session, are demonstrable. One important measure is how much taxpayers have spent on the so-called Constitutional Defense Fund, our self-insurance for errors and omissions. The people's more direct protection against errors and omissions is the process for referenda and initiatives. It's a blunt instrument, to be sure, and difficult to use. It has been employed rarely, but effectively in recent years.

Last year, there were two iniatives that qualified for the ballot. One was another go by the gambling industry to use horse racing as cover for expanding opportunities for losers to put money in slot machines. (In spite of a ton of "outside money" to gather the necessary petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, and to promote the measure, it failed.) The other was a largely grassroots effort to address the chronic failure of the legislature to deal with its role in expanding healthcare availability to Idahoans by expanding Medicaid. That initiative passed by a wide margin, leaving the legislature one big job: providing the necessary funding (a small fraction of the total benefit to the state, the rest coming from the federal budget).

After six? eight? years of wandering in the wilderness, the legislature was swift to act in response, not by, you know, fixing the healthcare problem, but rather by attacking the messenger. They did, finally, provide the necessary funding, but they also added gratuitous "sideboards," including an ill-advised and legally dubious work requirement (because, you know, the poors just need to work harder).

Whether it was on his own initiative, or he was the guy who drew the short straw and was chosen to carry water (and catch spears) for the Idaho GOP leadership, Grow put himself out in front of this issue, apparently convinced that We Desperately Need His Help.

He insulated himself from even the faintest perception of criticism, la la la la-ing past one of the more remarkable outpourings of negative public opinion the legislature has seen in my memory.

And now that the dust has settled, and we're left with the I&R process as-distorted by the legislature's previous retribution (when three referenda passed, undoing "education reform" the majority of voters were not interested in), Grow is taking it upon himself to blame it on the media and their "misunderstandings." And to drop his weird, passive circumlocution on the Governor's desk, as well.

"[T]he Governor unfortunately was unable to sign these measures due in large part to the misunderstandings among the public about them."

There is something seriously wrong with this man's mental processes. He needs to find a different line of work.

17.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The handmaid's tale Permalink to this item

From TED2019

British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr with a must-see talk from TED2019: Facebook's role in Brexit — and the threat to democracy.

She says she spent a year to get Christopher Wylie to go on the record about the work of Cambridge Analytica, unraveling what she calls "the biggest electoral fraud in Britain for a hundred years." It was beyond mere lies; "it feels more like a hate crime to me."

It's been a year since the Observer published its Cambridge Analytica Files series, in which Cadwalladr exposed the connections between Trump, Farage, and Cambridge Analytica—owned by Robert Mercer. Guided by Steve Bannon. Ads in the black box of Facebook, targeted using 87 million profiles CA had helped themselves to.

The Guardian published a retrospective last month, shortly after the British parliament's "official report that called Facebook 'digital gangsters' and said that Britain's electoral laws no longer worked." Cadwalladr:

Facebook "told us, if we published they would sue us. We did it anyway. Facebook: you were on the wrong side of history on that."

"This technology you've invented has been amazing. Now it's a crime scene, and you have the evidence."

"Liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. ... Spreading lies in darkness. It's subversion. And you are accessories to it."

Is it ever possible to have a free and fair election again?

"Democracy is not inevitable. It is not guaranteed."

Better late than never, I added her to Twitter follow list. Her personal footnote about delivering this talk, at a conference sponsored by Facebook, no less, makes it even more remarkable.

12.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The new fixer (continued) Permalink to this item

There I was, a day ahead of Frank Rich, albeit without as colorful a command of the theatrical history.

"The brilliantly perverse achievement of Barr is that he combines both Roy Cohns in a single package. He’s a fixer for Trump, as evidenced by his unsupported conclusion that the Mueller report lets the president off the legal hook for his manifold efforts to obstruct justice. But Barr is also the McCarthy-era Cohn, sliming a “group of leaders there at the upper echelon” of government agencies for spying without offering any specifics or evidence."

And from the right, Rick Wilson: Bill Barr Is the Most Dangerous Man in America.

"Barr knew what he was doing when he claimed Wednesday that the Trump campaign was “spied on.” He was teeing up the upcoming show trials of Trump’s “enemies” in the Department of Justice and the FBI that the president’s craziest supporters in Congress, and at his rallies, have been screaming for. Together with allies like Lindsey Graham, Barr needs to not only feed Trump’s revanchist agenda, but to throw up chaff to confuse the results of the Mueller report that may somehow see the light of day. ...

"The fact the Democrats aren’t already in court to get the full, unredacted Mueller report is exactly the kind of behavior that happens in nations slipping from democracy to authoritarianism. They think this is procedural and political, not existential. There are no brakes, no white knight in DOJ to come to the rescue, and unless Democrats get the entire report in court, Barr, Trump, and Fox will write the history of this sorry affair."

11.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The new fixer Permalink to this item

First, the actual story and (one) unanswered question, as tightly summarized by Jennifer Cohn, above a retweet of Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

Russia hacked into US voter registration systems and obtained hacked emails from the DNC, Democratic state campaigns, the RNC, and various Republicans. How much of this has been used as kompromat already?! https://t.co/mFQoSBGbDG

— Jennifer Cohn (@jennycohn1) April 10, 2019

Second, the gobsmacker of a headline in the daily fishwrap today:

Barr says agencies spied on Trump campaign

I couldn't find that story in the e-edition, probably because they were featuring the reprint of yesterday's New York Times article, which has the slightly less arresting online headline "Barr Asserts Intelligence Agencies Spied on the Trump Campaign," and which they put in print with the keyword in quotes: Barr, Asserting ‘Spying’ in 2016, Cites Questions, but Not Evidence.

Fishing around in the Idaho Statesman's Politics / Nation & World, the follow-up, sort of from the AP: The Latest: Trump says Barr correct about spying on campaign.

The right-wing echo chamber is working to perfection. Trump's hand-picked AG says what the president wants to hear—with no evidence to support it—and the president tweets for effect, HE'S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT ABOUT THAT JUST LIKE I'VE BEEN BLEATING ALL ALONG.

Just to be clear, the current Attorney General of the United States said, in testimony to Congress that he thought "spying did occur," and way down the story to the previous update we can read that

"Barr did not say what "spying" may have taken place, but he seemed to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a Trump aide. He later said he wasn't sure there had been improper surveillance but wanted to make sure proper procedures were followed."

He wasn't sure. As in, he didn't know of any actual evidence to support his casual notion that makes it sound like there was a conspiracy against Trump within the intelligence agencies.

Embedding the quotes in the story text doesn't quite undo the mind-blowing headline that embodies the self-serving swamp gas of fake news coming out of DC pieholes. Neither does Andrew Harnik's photo of Barr's air quote posture, but it's a nice touch:

Andrew Harnik/AP

My alma pater Permalink to this item

While checking the online edition for the next item, and finding it leaning hyper-local, I see that we've selected a president for the University of Idaho. As far as you could tell from their treatment, the old one was ousted because "fourteen different athletic boosters wrote a letter" describing how they had "lost all trust, faith and confidence" in Chuck Staben.

Fourteen "different" boosters is an odd thing to say. As opposed to fourteen "identical" boosters? At any rate, said boosters were members of the University of Idaho athletics booster organization, the Vandal Scholarship Fund. The story last May mentions a potpourri of issues, but the nut of it might be here:

"Booster complaints against Staben include his decision to move Idaho football back to the Football Championship Subdivision's Big Sky Conference, pursuing a job at New Mexico, the handling of Spear's situation, funding priorities, alumni relations and the April announcement that the Vandals may have to cut women's soccer, women's swimming and diving and men's golf if they're unable to correct budget deficits."

Anything about, uh, academic stuff?

Increased research funding, increased enrollment, the state's highest retention rate for freshman to return as sophomores. But hey, football.

Well-connected Permalink to this item

Here's something I did not know: retired judges are not subject to the conduct rules, which apparently means their past conduct is (literally) unimpeachable once they retire.

Maryanne Trump Barry, yes that Trump, may have participated in fraudulent tax schemes with her siblings to avoid gift and estate taxes to boost their take from Fred Trump's long-term grifting, as the New York Times reported last October. As she finally, officially, punches out at age 82, going from "inactive senior judge" to full-on retired, all complaints are now moot. (And the six-figure salary keeps coming, that's nice.)

A lawyer for the president, Charles J. Harder, said last fall, “The New York Times’s allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100 percent false, and highly defamatory.”

But I'm betting lawyers for the president and his sister won't get around to suing the Times on this, which is a shame, because the discovery would be so interesting. Yesterday's wind-up in the Times has a synopsis of the case she won't be hearing:

"Judge Barry had been a co-owner of a shell company — All County Building Supply & Maintenance — created by the family to siphon cash from their father’s empire by marking up purchases already made by his employees, The Times investigation found. Judge Barry, her siblings and a cousin split the markup, free of gift and estate taxes, which at the time were levied at a much higher rate than income taxes. ...

"The family also used the padded invoices to justify higher rent increases in rent-regulated buildings, artificially inflating the rents of thousands of tenants. Former prosecutors told The Times that if the authorities had discovered at the time how the Trumps were using All County, their actions would have warranted a criminal investigation for defrauding tenants, tax fraud and filing false documents."

Nice work if you can get it.

10.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Building with rubble Permalink to this item

The first time Jeanette and I went to Romania, in 2011, the group tour continued to Hungary, and ended in Budapest, of which we saw the "storybook" side (mostly). We did take time on our own to visit the Terror Háza museum, the House of Terror, a memorial to the victims of 20th century fascism and communism. That, and the monument to the Iron Curtain on Andrássy Avenue in front of it were darkly moving, on a cloudless day.

House of Terror, Budapest

On the other side of the Danube, we just happened to be in the courtyard of the Sándor Palace when the relatively new president, Viktor Orbán popped out for some midday sun and a brass band, for St. Stephen's Day. That was jolly, we thought.

Author's photo, outside Hungary's presidential palace, 2011

Author's photo, 2011

In Cluj-Napoca (a.k.a. Kolozsvár, a.k.a. Klausenburg), once the capital of the Grand Principality of Transylvania, once in the Kingdom of Hungary, now in Romania, we'd shared a park bench moment with a young local couple, just enough language between us to mutually recognize the US president, a fellow by the name of Barack Obama, who we all cheerfully agreed was "better than the last guy." That was after our tour of Bucharest, led by a young man with memory of Ceaușescu's last speech, told to us in what's now called "Revolution Square."

We've been through some changes, and have a new guy in charge. Hungary has been through some changes and has the same guy in charge. Eight years on, I bet Orbán's security detail and his band are bigger than they were back then.

Reading "Beda Magyar's" essay, Hungary is Lost, those memories cascade back and remix, in the sober light of "institutions, the legal system and the social fabric are nothing but a pile of rubble."

9.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Neighbors from hell, and jury nullification Permalink to this item

Not the jury-nullifies-law kind, but rather man bites dog angle: a judge can toss out a jury verdict if she decides it is legally unsupportable. One might say, in Idaho, Winmill tilts at you.

That's Judge Lynn Winmill, tossing a verdict and $75,000 damages without prejudice to the jury, noting that the plaintiffs failed to set forth facts that are a legally sufficient basis upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the Homeowners Association violated ... the Fair Housing Act," and for sure, violated the Homeowner's covenants, left, right and center. From one of the eight paragraphs, for example:

"Section 5.4.15 requires exterior lighting to be “restrained in design, and excessive brightness shall be avoided.” Plaintiffs used over 200,000 lights during their Christmas program. Plaintiffs’ design was unrestrained and excessive."

And in the hoist on his own petard dept.:

"The recordings Mr. Morris created of his interactions with other homeowners in the West Hayden Estates show that he was aggressively confrontational with those homeowners and routinely threatened them with litigation. Ms. Scott testified that Mr. Morris “told ... [me] a story about how he sued his sister and I think that it just intimidated me that he would sue us if he didn’t get his way.” Furthermore, Mr. Morris’ testimony was riddled with inconsistencies ... [and] frequently contradicted by extrinsic evidence that he himself created."

Great coverage from Daniel Walters and the Inlander. Justia has a compendium of case documents for the more than 2 year run of Morris et al v. West Hayden Estates First Addition Homeowners Association, Inc., including last week's Memorandum Decision and Order.

Step outside of yourself Permalink to this item

After reading David Brooks' latest opinion piece (and advertisement for his "forthcoming book"), The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, I noticed the few pages' earlier pop-sci complement to the pop-psy: a mathematician and an economist overestimate what they know about overestimation, based on "a large number of studies [conducted] rapidly," if you can call asking participants what they think about their abilities a "study." There were 100 skills "assessed," so that's something. And then "they asked a different group of people to rate each of the 100 skills on 21 dimensions" to look for "what traits the skills that people were overconfident in have in common."

Home wiring; 3-way switch

Short answer, skills "that reflect one’s underlying personality or character"; ones for which skill level is a matter of opinion than objectively measurable; tasks "perceived as easy," and tasks that the person has experience doing. (We mostly all have experience driving, so we mostly all think we're above average.)

David Brooks has a lot of experience opining about morality as an omniscient narrator, so he's confident in his ability to do that. The headline was a feint, though; he had lots to say about what makes a proper moral (and the peril of antithesis), but almost nothing whatever to say about our supposed meritocracy. It's an adjective: "our individualistic and meritocratic culture," reflected in our "individualistic, meritocratic values."

Not long into the piece, I got the feeling I was reading a disembodied alien encountering the two kinds of people on our planet for the first time, and trying to write a report for the people on Karg who sent him here. There is an "I" in his story, but the only thing that's first person is "I'm talking about" and "the people I admire." The rest of it is the second-person presumptive, people who say "I this" and "I that," which is to say you (and them, when he zooms out a little).

He's talking about people he admires, to people who I suppose he imagines would admire him (or his point of view). Those who "make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness" and "spend a lot of time on reputation management," and I asked myself "have I spent any time on reputation management?!" Maybe I'm not good at estimating that answer.

Who is this guy?, I'm wondering. He tells us he "can now usually recognize first- and second-mountain people" without apparently being on either mountain himself. It seems there are only two kinds of readily discernible people in the world (and two kinds of organizations, and two kinds of cultures): those with "ultimate allegiance to self" and those with "ultimate allegiance to some commitment." Tidy.

When he got to the part where "something happened" to turn Type 1 individuals into Type 2, I was wondering if he ever thought about the people whose car broke down, or who got pulled over for being the wrong color, and ended up in jail and lost their job and didn't get to climb any mountains, let alone have a chance to spend time managing their reputation.

"When you’re on the second mountain, you realize we aim too low," he winds up, assuring us that "on the second mountain you see that happiness is good, but joy is better." Also the view is better, and you can report back to the down-slope people about their shortcomings.

8.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Us vs. them Permalink to this item

As a representative of the Baby Boom, I'm one of millions for whom plagues and epidemics are dimly lit chapters of history we did not experience. The best I can conjure is a recollection of an iron lung, in the television shades of black and white that would have been the closest I came to actually seeing one. Something about polio, but more about Jonas Salk's vaccine (announced roughly the same time I was) than anyone I knew having it. [If I'd known then what Wikipedia knows now, it wouldn't have sounded as nightmarish: "a noninvasive, negative-pressure ventilator, more commonly called an iron lung, was used to artificially maintain respiration during an acute polio infection until a person could breathe independently (generally about one to two weeks)."]

I'm searching those distant memories in response to the arresting piece in the New York Times about Candida auris, A Mysterious Infection, Spanning the Globe in a Climate of Secrecy, and Rabbi Dan Fink's E-Torah this morning, Metzora (My Back Pages).

"[The] deadly fungus preys on people with compromised immune systems. It’s highly resistant to our best drugs, and extremely pernicious. After a man died of this infection in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, the fungus was so pervasive that hospital technicians had to rip out parts of the floor and ceiling of his hospital room in order to get rid of it.

"Reading this piece, I could not help but think of our Torah portion for this week, Metzora, which describes the appearance of a leprous plague called tzara’at in the stones of a house. The notion of an inorganic object being afflicted by such a malady struck some of our sages as so bizarre that they questioned whether this ever actually happened. ..."

Ah, right right right, a plague upon your house. My most vivid notion of "plagues" would be Cecil B. de Mille's abbreviated, but Technicolor rendition in The Ten Commandments. (I probably saw the water turning gray before I saw the color version, not as scary in shades of gray.)

The "Germ theory of disease" goes back millennia, from long before any of the scientists or the afflicted could put their fingers on exactly what a "germ" was. Epidemics and contagion were plain enough to behold even before Athanasius Kircher and Anton van Leeuwenhoek started actually seeing microorganisms in the 17th century. Still, it took a couple centuries to catch on, and for modern antibiotics to be developed. That part of the story dates back to when the bigger story of technology was the industrialization of warfare (and everything else). Chalk up one and ten million+ lives to misspent priorities:

"In 1897, doctoral student Ernest Duchesne submitted a dissertation, 'Contribution à l'étude de la concurrence vitale chez les micro-organismes: antagonisme entre les moisissures et les microbes' (Contribution to the study of vital competition in micro-organisms: antagonism between molds and microbes), the first known scholarly work to consider the therapeutic capabilities of molds resulting from their anti-microbial activity. In his thesis, Duchesne proposed that bacteria and molds engage in a perpetual battle for survival. Duchesne observed that E. coli was eliminated by Penicillium glaucum when they were both grown in the same culture. He also observed that when he inoculated laboratory animals with lethal doses of typhoid bacilli together with Penicillium glaucum, the animals did not contract typhoid. Unfortunately Duchesne's army service after getting his degree prevented him from doing any further research. Duchesne died of tuberculosis, a disease now treated by antibiotics."

The rabbi's message for the moment, beyond the fact that, you know what, the "stones" of a house could actually harbor a plague, we should be humble in recognition of our ignorance:

"Torah reminds us that we are not God, and therefore our knowledge is always, at best, imperfect and uncertain. Rather than lamenting this reality, we might embrace it and see it as an opportunity for change and growth."

From there, he springs to the title track of Bob Dylan's 4th album, the song that came to me via the Byrds, and Roger McGuinn's smooth vocal, ending, as he likes to do with a link to bring it to life. (This one's more special than most.)

That lets us off easy, given the still urgent threat of the headline fungus, which has gone from unknown to "featured" in ten years. If you're keeping track of kingdoms, you will have noticed that fungi were on our side against the bacteria in the Penicillum story. And of course, civilization was built on agriculture. But "sides" don't last forever, and it's possible to have too much of a good thing. (Or, from the point of view of the bacteria and fungi, it's "an opportunity for change and growth.") Back to the NYT:

"Antibiotics and antifungals are both essential to combat infections in people, but antibiotics are also used widely to prevent disease in farm animals, and antifungals are also applied to prevent agricultural plants from rotting. Some scientists cite evidence that rampant use of fungicides on crops is contributing to the surge in drug-resistant fungi infecting humans."

The story from 2015 above that seems convincing enough: a week-long treatment with aerosolized hydrogen peroxide effectively wiping out everything... except the C.auris.

Oh, and there are "four distinctive versions of the fungus, with differences so profound that they suggested that these strains had diverged thousands of years ago and emerged as resistant pathogens from harmless environmental strains in four different places at the same time." That "same time" being now. Before the wrap, the authors observe:

"The mystery of C. auris's emergence remains unsolved, and its origin seems, for the moment, to be less important than stopping its spread."

Which, I'm not so sure that's true in the big picture. If it's at your hospital, yes, there's an emergency. But as it makes an appearance at more and more hospitals around the world, understanding the mechanisms of emergence for this and other pandemic germs seems the more important issue.

As we have come to recognize the ubiquity and diversity of microorganisms in ways scientists of centuries past could not have imagined, we also must recognize that everything is connected and broadening programs of annihilation are not going to end well for we great annihilators. No matter how much the drug industry profits in the process, this "story of Darwinian forces multiplied by the pace and scale of global capitalism," as co-author Matt Richtel put it, memorably, in the 9 min. explainer video leading the NYT piece.

Ellen Silbergeld: "Bacteria rule the world. We are just a platform for bacteria." Not even a century after the bad old days when a scratch on the cheek could kill you, our high-speed unnatural selection has amplified the interspecies transfer of genetic resistance to create a new world of braver bacteria (and fungi).

"You can get colonized."

5.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The right thing for the wrong reasons Permalink to this item

First, the good news: Idaho's Governor Brad Little has vetoed SB 1159, the Revenge on Voters Act passed by the state House and Senate, after the voters had the temerity to get an initiative on the ballot, and vote it into law last November. More good news, he's said he'll veto HB 296 as well, the so-called "trailer bill" that responded (ever so slightly) to the overwhelming public outcry against the senate bill.

The rest, I'm sorry to say, is bad news, starting with the fact that the last Revenge on Voters legislation that raised the bar for qualifying an initiative or referendum for our ballot will stand. (That one came after the public roundly rejected the so-called "Luna Laws" for ill-conceived education reform, through referenda in 2012.)

And the letter expressing his veto was execrable, from top to bottom. We share questions about the "consitutional sufficiency of the bills" and then part ways. He goes on about the "unintended consequences" of their passage, by which he means not that they'd be struck down by a judge, but that when asked to consider the LAST changes to Idaho Code, a judge might very well strike THOSE down as well.

He "agree[s] with the goals and the vision" of these latest bills, which were dead simple: restrict or eliminate the possibility that voters could qualify initiatives and referenda for the Idaho ballot.

He gives lip service to the disingenuous claims that increasing the total percentage of voters needed to sign petitions to qualify a measure, and by setting a percentage threshold for petition signatures in almost every county of the state (SB 1159; "only" 2/3rds of them in HB 296) it would "give rural Idahoans a greater say" in the process. The "greater say" the rurals apparently want is to never, ever have another initiative or referendum on the ballot.

There is nonsense about "hamstringing" or "replacing" our representative system of government, as if the use of initiatives and referenda haven't been exceedingly rare, and exceptionally motivated. And he closed by noting an "enormous outpouring of opinion from both sides of this issue" when there was no such thing. The outpouring against the legislature's action was more than a hundred to one to the handful of paid lobbyists speaking up in favor.

Finally (if not last; he featured it in the first paragraph following his declaration of the veto), as if he needed to prove to the other good old boys and gals that he still has manure on his boots, he derided "the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals" with a casual non sequitur about a recent court case having n.o.t.h.i.n.g to do with either bill or the existing law. Just that if we let the Ninth Circuit look at our laws, they might throw out more of them!

Which indeed they might. When ACLU Idaho's legal director, Ritchie Eppink testified against the bills in committee, he was asked why the ACLU hadn't challenged the laws written the last time the legislature raised the bar?

"I will be very candid. This Legislature over the last six years has passed enough unconstitutional legislation that it has kept us too busy. We have prioritized our efforts on certain other bills that have been unconstitutional and successfully challenged those."

So, thank you, Governor Little for vetoing these two bills. As for the rest of what you said, we need to talk.

4.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

What a long, strange trip it's been Permalink to this item

Her superb, recent book, Underbug, was a strong recommendation for everything by Lisa Margonelli, but it seems there was only one other book choice: Oil on the Brain; Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline. (The paperback's cover touts its "National Bestseller" status with a blurb out of the NYT book review, and a different subtitle: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to your Tank.) It was "kaleidoscopic, accessible and focused on our present quandary ... timely" back then. ("A timely sequel" to Daniel Yergin's "magisterial" and "unsurpassed" The Prize of 1991—or in a 2009 paperback update—is what got elided.)

The 2008 paperback's cover

Oil on the Brain is now a period piece, published an eon ago in 2007, while the war in Iraq was still hot, the real estate finance engineering bubble had not yet popped, and a lot of us were anticipating Peak Oil remaking our world and its economies in dramatic ways we could hardly guess.

The first half dozen chapters take us on a journey from the most familiar (Gas Station) and back to the source, via Distribution, a Refinery, and a Drilling Rig, then to "the hoard" (Strategic Petroleum Reserve), and finally the other-wordly NYMEX, at a time when $50 a barrel sounded like a really, really high price. It had burbled around and below $20 for a lot of years before catching our attention by doubling at the end of the century, and starting north after the 2001 recession and the 9/11 attack. In 2006, it ranged $59-68, in 2007 reached as high as $85.53, found triple digits during the financial crisis, and stayed up there for a good part of the Great Recession before shale oil kicked in and the US started talking about exports more than imports for the first time in decades. After being below $30 for part of 2016, last year's average of $50 (what would have been $40 in 2006) didn't seem all that expensive.

People aren't whinging all that much about the price of gas lately, down near $2 in our neighborhood over this last winter, trending back toward $3/gal ("99.9¢" in 1980 terms) and big pickups, SUVs and crossovers are—still—all the rage at auto dealers. Everything's coming up oily roses.

At least until you take the global tour with her in the second half of the book, to consider just what "failed petrostate" has meant to Venezuela, Chad, Iran, and Nigeria, and just what the rise of the next great consumer nation, China, will mean for the global economy and environment.

I wish she'd been able to write a second edition to bring the story up to date, with Venezuela on the brink of a proxy war, and our own petrostate trending more toward "shithole" than "great again" in our current president's inimitable verbal styling. In 2012, The Atlantic picked up her work for Reuters, when the fight over the Keystone pipeline was in the news, and unsettled, as it remains today. This:

"The Keystone XL is merely on hold, and oil from all sorts of other 'dirty' situations continues to flow into our gas tanks. The next time around, environmentalists should resist fighting the symbolic pipeline to concentrate on fighting the larger issue—reducing emissions and making tar-sands oils prices reflect their environmental toll. We need to stop fighting oil development project by project—and instead focus on passing a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (which could make the Keystone XL economically unviable), and on reducing oil consumption overall."

That "clunky bit of legislation" to promote the virtuous and denigrate the dirty took a while to get off the ground, but see here, Canada came around in late 2016, and California is doing something (badly in need of an elevator pitch).

A more general carbon tax is easier to explain, even if it may be just as complicated to bring into being. It's the most important legislative issue the U.S. Congress will consider this decade, or next.

2.April 2019 Permanent URL to this day's entry

How we lost the weather Permalink to this item

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA—is an exemplar of government at its best: advancing knowledge, promulgating utility, improving lives throughout our country and beyond, and doing it all with a modest budget. As human modification of the planet's climate promises increasing disruption, dislocation and disaster, its mission is uniquely important.

May 2018 image

And meanwhile... the looting and kakistocracy proceeds apace, now goaded by the Great Obstructionist, Mitch McConnell, converted from dreamy tortoise to impatient hare now that it's his party's nominees being paraded forth.

Walter M. Shaub Jr. and Gabe Lezra tell the tale of Barry Myers, recently CEO of AccuWeather, a fierce critic of NOAA for giving away information that he'd rather be selling.

He was such a bad choice for the head of NOAA that his nomination actually stalled in the last Congress, but now—perhaps tomorrow—he's going to be pushed through, "despite his failure to address any of the major ethical issues that were raised the first time he went through this process. If anything, Myers’s financial activity since his first nomination expired only heightens concerns about his ethics."

"When his nomination was first announced, we were concerned about whether Myers could be relied on to oversee an agency that can directly impact his family’s business. AccuWeather uses NOAA’s free weather data to make its own predictions, which it then sells to the public. AccuWeather has also argued that NOAA should reduce the amount of weather information it releases directly to the public — that is, much of the data generated by NOAA with our tax dollars would be available exclusively to private companies like AccuWeather that could then sell us forecasts based on that data. Myers himself has advocated that NOAA do less for America so AccuWeather can increase its profits."

After a dodgy financial shuffle, he claims to have divested himself of his interest in Accuweather for a fraction of what he once claimed it was worth ("apparently to his family or their company") and couldn't possibly be counted on to do the right thing for the public at large.

This might not be as immediately devastating as, say, putting epic Medicare/Medicaid fraudster Rick Scott in charge of health care reform, but it could be in the same league in the long-term.

April Fools Permanent URL to this day's entry

How much the Trump administration cares about security Permalink to this item

Today's lead story in this regard, from Rachael Bade in the Washington Post: White House whistleblower says 25 security clearance denials were reversed during Trump administration. Other than that, how's your day going?

"Tricia Newbold, a longtime White House security adviser, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that she and her colleagues issued “dozens” of denials for security clearance applications that were later approved despite their concerns about blackmail, foreign influence or other red flags, according to panel documents released Monday.

"Newbold, an 18-year veteran of the security clearance process who has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, said she warned her superiors that clearances “were not always adjudicated in the best interest of national security” — and was retaliated against for doing so."

Of course she was. And of course the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, Jim "Gym" Jordan, so uttely dogged in his tilting at partisan windmills before his chance ran out, "accused [Chairman Elijah] Cummings of politicizing an issue that should be bipartisan," something the Republicans in the House would never dreeeeeeam of doing. But anyway.

Those being scrutinized, perhaps among dots labeled "Official 1" and "Official 2," include Jared and Ivanka, and Josh Bolton. You know, the National Security Advisor, after that first fellow, Michael Flynn ran into trouble for foreign intrigue and lying to the FBI.

This is not the big story right now for some reason. The Javanka Top Secret Clearance Override story is more than a month old now, an eon before the Barr cover letter for the Mueller report came out and we all lost our minds about that. The don't-call-it-petty grifting getting Chinese trademarks for Ivanka (including WTF brand voting machines) and debt relief for Jared's 666 Money Pit are rather comic sidelights compared to the question of whether Saudi Arabia will have nuclear weapons some time soon, or the unfolding debacle closer to home, south of the border.

We still can't fathom how Mick Mulvaney graduated from the bank bench to the front office, but here he is casually dismissing "okay, career staffers" for having the idea that development aid to all those Mexican countries south of the border might actually reduce the number of people fleeing and seeking asylum.

Will Bunch's notion, also not an April Fools joke today, is that this is (a) on brand, and (b) quite possibly a campaign strategy (there is no governing strategy, mind you). The test of our collective character (and the resiliency of our institutions, particularly the Electoral College, to respond to authoritarianism) is whether or not we can rise to the provocation and begin to vomit out the Trump administration in November, 2020, if not before.

raveling

Tom von Alten
ISSN 1534-0007