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30.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Money, honey Permalink to this item

At the bottom of the recession, money was ridiculously cheap, but reading the business section, it sounded like you couldn't hardly give it away. Now that things are picking up, plenty of people are interested in cheap money, and getting it. Rocky Barker's Letters from the West blog mentioned the big loans for sugar producers which are looking to be a bad investment as domestic sugar prices at four-year lows make it likely many processors won't be able to repay what they owe.

Almgamated Sugar borrowed more than a $quarter billion this year (and more than the state's entire crop of sugar beets was reportedly worth in 2009), and its spokesman is saying let's focus on the Farm Bill, "so Amalgamated can get back to making safe, reliable sugar for America's consumers."

Yeah, but what about our $274 million?!

It's not like the interest on the loans would have been crushing: they got a sweetheart deal of 1.125 to 1.25%. In another business story last week, about people borrowing again, local technology giant Micron was noted as having a "double B-minus" credit rating, but paying investors only 1.625 to 2.125% annual interest on convertible bonds. "Even borrowers with patchy credit" can get "subprime" car loans these days.

Excerpt of Occupy* Poster, link to original on Yet come Monday, it looks like our investment in the future, via guaranteed student loans are going to go from a reasonable-but-not-great 3.4% to a whopping 6.8% if Congress doesn't act (which, how could they, because they'll be on recess Constituent Work Week). Maybe they'll do something retroactively? Or maybe not. There's a lot at stake:

"With a staggering $1.1 trillion in education loans outstanding, the debt load is greater than Americansí total credit card debt and it is having a significant impact upon our economy. In fact, the Federal Reserve and the Department of the Treasury have both warned that high levels of student loan debt could drive down consumer demand and have negatively impact economic growth."

Darrell Issa overblowing Permalink to this item

Sunset on the Palouse, Paradise Ridge Dana Milbank puts two and two together, but it seems to denigrate Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) specific role to make him the prototype for a monger of overblown scandals. You have to admire a member of Congress with the chutzpah to accuse someone's press secretary of being a "paid liar," even as he was behind this rather fascinating shady deal reported on Tuesday:

"The Treasury inspector general (IG) whose report helped drive the IRS targeting controversy says it limited its examination to conservative groups because of a request from House Republicans.

"A spokesman for Russell George, Treasury's inspector general for tax administration, said they were asked by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) 'to narrowly focus on Tea Party organizations.'"

The inspector general obliged Issa by finding exactly what the Congressman was looking for, and the made-for-TV "scandal" lit up like the 4th of July.

What has yet to make waves in the news (that I've seen) is any sort of actual audit about how many of the 501(c)(4) applications (let alone the far more numerous 501(c)(3) applications) were from groups that should be barred from a tax exemption due to their political activities, as the law demands. Somehow it's more important that there might have been an unequal program for sifting through the backlog than to know what the hell is actually going on.

When sports metaphors go barking mad Permalink to this item

You know sports writers live in a different world from the rest of journalism, with a freer license for commentary, and some unusually bad writing on occasion. Local guy Brian Murphy's latest contribution to the never-ending story of Boise State football went like this:

"With the temperature threatening to bust triple digits for the entire week, we're willing to do just about anything to stay cool. If the river and the pool, the air conditioner and the fan, the ice cream truck and the lemonade stand all fail to beat the heat, there is one sure way to keep your mind from melting: countdown to football season."

Yeah, that'll do it. Is it hot enough for you?

But wait, there's more! John Leicester's report of the first stage of the Tour de France, from Corsica filled in the details of the mayhem marring the race after a bus got wedged in the finish line, then unwedged, thusly:

"Then, bam! Two riders collided and one of them went down, setting off a chain of spills that scythed through the pack like a bowling ball."

I thought the scythe and the bowling ball went out with demise of the Soviet Union.

28.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Saving us from multitasking Permalink to this item

part of my screen real estate this morning My first response to Windows8, trying to help a friend who was mightily perplexed by it, was along the lines of "what the hell?" or "get me out of here!" My first response to hearing there's an 8.1 update was to hope they fixed some of the shortcomings. (The "point 1" also brought Windows 3.1 to mind, definitely improved from 3.0, but maybe not the ideal association from Microsoft's POV.)

The highlights list is warm and fuzzy, there'll be a "desktop" mode, if not the good old Start button, but we can add our favorite applications to a tool bar. Lots of Bing, "find anything," a "built-in connection with Microsoft's online storage system," which I guess the NSA will like, IE 11, meh, "easier ways to move apps on the start screen" woot, and this:

"Although Windows 8 allowed people to run two apps side by side, people were limited in how they could configure the screen. Windows 8.1 will give users more options to determine how much of the screen each app takes while showing up to four different programs."

My emphasis there, because before I've actually begun working in earnest today, I started the usual suspects, an Explorer view to the file system, Outlook, Firefox to check gmail, and then quickly opened another 6 or 7 web pages in tabs, and a vim window or two to write a blog entry and edit a post to a forum I moderate, which is yeah, past my allowance, depending on how you count. (After launching an image editor to crop and resize that screenshot, and my ftp app to upload it, I'd be over quota no matter which way you count.)

Maybe I'll wait until I can read about 8.2.

A House divided against itself Permalink to this item

The Senate passed a Big Deal immigration reform bill, but I assume it was too early to get excited. It'll founder in the House, right? There was John Boehner at the sound bite podium yesterday saying yes, yes, fine, fine, the Senate did their little thing, but my members are going to want to ignore all that as they proceed to craft their very own bill, and blah blah blah. Oh, and he thinks there should be a majority of both parties to agree to whatever they come up with. (Because getting the cats in his own party herded up is just too easy.)

Bill Scher asks a question that didn't occur to me: Will House dysfunction save immigration reform? In the middle of "Boehner's Dilemma" on immigration, there may be some "wiggle room":

"If House Speaker John Boehner lets the Senate immigration bill pass the House with mostly Democratic votes, he risks a Tea Party uprising that could spark primary challenges against several Republican incumbents, not to mention a coup ending his Speakership.

"But if he prevents the Senate bill from getting a floor vote, a bill with strong bipartisan support that would surely clear the House given the opportunity, he might spark an even bigger Latino uprising, more powerful that than three-month wave of rallies in 2006 that stopped a House bill turning undocumented workers into felons from becoming law."

Maybe there's a Boehner Rule that's like the Hastert Rule in the cloakroom, where "leadership can get a majority of its members to express private support for a bill even when they're unwilling to vote for it."

And there's at least one example of Boehner giving up on the House's antics and actually having them vote on a Senate bill, last winter's fiscal cliff bill. Can he pull that off and keep from being further "exposed as a feckless leader who can't deliver"? That would be a neat trick.

But first... isn't it time for recess? With July 4th on a Thursday, let's just take the whole week off, shall we? And call it... a "Constituent Work Week", yeah that's it.

27.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Back of the class Permalink to this item

So much has been happening in the early days of summer, and I've been wrapped up in work and other non-blogging diversions. I have been keeping up with email and Facebook, and there has been a lot to Like in that. I'm starting a small collection of wonderful posts from Robert Reich. They're longer than tweets and shorter than op-eds, rather bloggish in character. This personal recollection is a choice example as we try to digest the end-of-term decisions just handed down by the Supreme Court:

"Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, Clarence Thomas, and I all took a course at Yale Law School together called "Civil and Political Rights," taught by Professor Thomas Emerson. Bill was not the most reliable or disciplined attendee (he was often off working on some election), but when he was there he answered every question correctly. Hillary was always an active and enthusiastic participant. I tried as best I could. Clarence, however, sat in the back of the classroom the whole semester with a scowl on his face, never raising his hand, never answering a question, never offering a single word. That was over forty years ago but it seems like only yesterday."

24.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Get a job Permalink to this item

The House members who voted to accept an amendment to the Farm Bill from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) were making a statement equivalent to that teenaged drive-by insult to someone holding a sign and hoping for a handout. Not an exact analogy on the receiving end, but close enough on the sending: a verbal assault with no inkling of help in any form.

Well, it just makes sense that we should encourage people who need assistance to find work, right? And to "encourage people," Southerland offered to pay state governments for anyone denied food stamps because they couldn't find work. No need for actual jobs, a jobs program, job training, just the boot. With a significant financial incentive for someone else. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

"[The] provision would allow states to terminate benefits to households where adults—including parents with children as young as 1 year old and many people with disabilities—are not working or participating in a work or training program at least 20 hours a week. It would not require states to make any work opportunities available and would provide no jobs and no funds for work or training programs. Thus, people who want to work and are looking for a job but haven't found one could have their benefits cut off. Their children's benefits could be cut off, as well.

"Why would a state do this? Because, under the measure, states would have a powerful financial incentive to pursue this route: it allows them to keep half of the savings from cutting people off SNAP, and to use the money for whatever state politicians want—tax cuts, special-interest subsidies, or anything else."

Never one to accept responsibility for his { duplicity | cycnicism | failed leadership } (choose all that apply), House majority leader Eric Cantor blamed the Democrats for the bill's failure with a 195-234 vote, including 62 Republicans on the "no" side. He was

"extremely disappointed that Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership have at the last minute chosen to derail years of bipartisan work on the Farm Bill and related reforms. This bill was far from perfect, but the only way to achieve meaningful reform, such as Congressman Southerland's amendment reforming the food stamp program, was in conference."

RollCall's rundown shows that Boehner's spokesman had that same talking point, "years of bipartisan work" down the drain, and this interesting analysis of what might happen next: No Easy Fix for House Leaders in the Shambles of the Farm Bill Vote.

23.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

This little piggy went to market Permalink to this item

It didn't surprise me to see George Orwell's name on the front page of the SundayInsight section of the Idaho Statesman, but after a gratuitous swipe at the ACLU in the second paragraph, I did wonder why Dustin Walker's opinion on the subject of national security was given top billing. I jumped to the end to read who this guy was, and the explanation: being "of [next-door] Caldwell," the editor of RealClearDefense (describing itself as "a catch-all source for defense news and commentary," so editing must be light work), and most importantly "former communication staffer for Gov. Mitt Romney and the House Armed Services Committee" is good enough for the vast majority of the local readers, I suppose.

It's so hard to deny that "we are indeed approaching an Orwellian world" that Walker went ahead and stipulated that, before assuring us that there's actually nothing to see here, just move along. "Given the safeguards in place against abuse, the surveillance programs are not the problem." This sounds like the standard dismissal talking points:

"The phone monitoring component does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's calls without a court order. PRISM - the program that collects emails, videos and other data from major Internet companies - is limited to foreign targets and does not include U.S. citizens. These programs have been supervised by all three branches of government; Congress has approved them and is regularly briefed, and federal judges continue to scrutinize requests for targeting of specific terror suspects."

If you don't trust the government, just ask some high-up official, and he'll reassure you that everything's OK.

Walker could have just signed off there, but he went on to tell us what is the problem, how the new boss is so much like the old boss, and not 1984 but Animal Farm, and isn't our new president a pig? No, no, no, he didn't put it that way, he's just saying, in the book, don't you know, the men and the pigs together and everything, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

"The point of noting the president's porcine transformation is not to criticize his current policies, but rather to serve as a warning to future White House aspirants..."

To, um, be careful what you say, because you will be turned into a pig too. But not to worry! Piggishness is right! You will enjoy the "responsibilities of power" but will have to endure the difficulty of reconciling your previous "lazy criticism that is so easy to dispense from the sidelines."

Says the former staffer currently on the sidelines, who sounds rather eager to be a staffer for some other Republican aspirant. Hypocrisy is the real problem we have to be on the lookout for.

The Statesman also ran Dana Milbank's recent column providing a less sanguine view of the foggy bottom animal farm, Congress has become a rubber stamp for the NSA, following the House intelligence committee pep rally for NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander:

"This is very important that we get the message out to the American public that what we do is legal," [ranking Democrat Dutch] Ruppersberger concurred. To that end, he asked Alexander about "unfortunate" criticism of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court as weak because it rarely turns down a government request.

"Do you feel in any way that the FISA court is a rubber stamp?" Ruppersberger asked.

"I do not," Alexander replied. "The federal judges on that court are superb."

When the executive branch thinks those checking its power are "superb," it's time for rebalancing.

Summer Permanent URL to this day's entry

Cost of money Permalink to this item

Merged NYT graphs, data sourced from HSH Associates, Bloomberg When I got my first passbook, the nearby Savings & Loan was paying 4% for the bottom tier of retail customers, and along with the nickel and dime sizes of candy bars, that has remained my reference rate for what "interest" is supposed to be. Thus, a persistent sense that something's out of whack these days.

Nelson Schwartz reports in the New York Times that analysts say mercurial mortgage rates are going to stabilize soon, even though the news you can use is that the rates are ratcheting upward, 4.25% on Thursday, up from 4.12% Wednesday, and up from 3.5% last month, "close to the lowest in decades."

Twenty-nine years ago, last time we obtained a mortgage, 10.5% was considered a reasonable interest rate to pay, and I don't remember what the savings & loan was paying, but certainly more than 4%. I see in the graphs accompanying the story that even as recently as 2007, money market yield was up around my benchmark. But then "the crash" and "great recession" and the years of nearly free money. A step to 2% and a slide to near-zero, savers have had new incentive to learn about decimal places. Four point whatever seems mighty cheap for a mortgage to me.

Even so, if I were writing a headline for the story, "stabilize" wouldn't have occurred to me on the mortgage front, and I don't actually expect that to happen. Oh, and I would have made one graph instead of three, to the same scale. I guess the NYT is selling page views though, and the popmeup sidebar doesn't generate the same interest for them.

20.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Put two and two together Permalink to this item

You know the Federal Trade Commission has a Do Not Call Registry and you're probably on it, because why wouldn't you be? And you also must know it's not working as well as it used to. And by now you also know that the National Security Agency is collecting metadata from all our telephone calls. So...

That's right, phone spammers. The NSA knows exactly what you're up to. The only missing piece of the puzzle is a subcontract agreement between the FTC and the NSA to fix the problem at the source. Let's get 'er done.

19.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

You can't be too careful Permalink to this item

Perhaps Peter Crabb (below) is feeling fiddle-dee-dee prescient this afternoon, after the Federal Reserve chairman's latest appearance and promise of very, very careful responses to vaguely forecasted trends roiled the stock markets. Down 1.4%, as "investors sold on his indications that the Fed would reduce its stimulus efforts starting later this year." (It does take two to tango, so you might observe that investors also bought on those indications, at a discount.)

The Fed's going to keep buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, and holding short-term interest rates near zero, but wind all that down if things keep looking gradually better. Two of the 12 members of the Federal Open Market Committee pushed back, the New York Times report tells us, one because "the Fed was doing too much" and the other "expressing concern about the sagging pace of inflation," now at its lowest level in half a century.

Contrary to Crabb's view, the majority position seems to be that "more is more," and any less that the Fed does (or hints it may do, 6 or 12 or 18 months from now) undermines confidence.

"[B]uying bonds is also a way for the Fed to signal its determination to keep interest rates low for years to come. The program, in other words, is an effort to instill confidence in investors. And any reduction in the pace of purchases tends to undermine that message."

Fed FUD Permalink to this item

Wispy clouds over the Boise River, from Barclay Bay My once-a-week dose of Peter Crabb, off-the-wall finance and economics professor at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa produced the usual amount of head-scratching and spluttering. What is he on about now? Fed's excessive intervention contributes to uncertainty. If you're up to a challenge, see if you can figure out how he tortures logic to arrive at his predestination, the thesis that "the Federal Reserve is creating fear in the markets."

He uses the Chicago Board Options Exchange Market Volatility Index, a.k.a. VIX as his primary indicator, explaining that "this so-called fear index comprises stock options prices for the ... companies in the Standard and Poor's 500 Index." "A measure of the implied volatility of S&P 500 index options" is the way Wikipedia puts it at the moment. Options tend to be more volatile than the underlying stock(s) or commodity, and aggregation produces a less volatile measure than single items. So... what?

This thing was imagined in 1986 but didn't come into virtual being until 2004, when "trading in futures on the VIX began." (That explains why Crabb makes a statement about its "long-term average since 2004," a rather short long-term.) If you feel like you're on top of the VIX now, try this:

"The formula uses a kernel-smoothed estimator that takes as inputs the current market prices for all out-of-the-money calls and puts for the front month and second month expirations [and is] calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a 30 day term initiated today. Note that the VIX is the volatility of a variance swap and not that of a volatility swap (volatility being the square root of variance, or standard deviation)."

The goal is simple enough, "to estimate the implied volatility of the S&P 500 index over the next 30 days," but one might wonder at its performance. First, "the interpretation" that it's supposed to be giving: a VIX of 20 (its rough average over its less than 10 year life) means we should expect an annualized change of 20% over the next 30 days. That's up or down (it doesn't say which) by 20%/12 = 5.8% over the next 30 days. Where "expect" means ±1 standard deviation, a 68% chance it'll be less than that (and a slim third that it will be more).

If this is getting too deep, perhaps the title of Nassim Taleb's 2007 paper will help lighten the mood: We Don't Quite Know What We are Talking About When We Talk About Volatility. For its part, the CBOE (which makes its living from people trading options) touts that the VIX "has been considered by many to be the world's premier barometer of investor sentiment and market volatility." Nice third-party plausible deniability there.

Have a look at a combined graph of the S&P500 and the VIX over the past 5 years (or really, any period during the VIX's existence) and tell me what predictive power you discern. The S&500 index is up more than 15% so far this year, a rather staggering excessive gain that should have us thinking about sustainability. Crabb continues:

"Stocks started off the year looking less risky than average, but even risk itself is becoming harder to gauge. Since the start of May the VIX index has bounced around from a low of 12.55 percent to a high of 17.5 percent. This 5 percent range for expected risk equates to a large difference in the chance of negative returns."

He's talking about variation in an index of variation in options for an index. "Stocks" started off the year quite a bit lower than they are now, so... what? Don't be so negative, Professor! That volatility index is direction-agnostic. It's a large difference in the chance of positive returns, too.

"The only thing certain about the markets these days is the uncertain outlook for economic growth and government policy. ... The financial crisis is over, and the economy is growing, so interest rates should be rising. The Fed has kept rates artificially low for too long, confusing bankers, businesses and buyers of all types.

"Fear itself is here to stay. If the Fed keeps its powerful hands in the market, investors should continue to expect the unexpected. Volatility and uncertainty will abound."

Along with the flow important-sounding mumbo jumbo from people who give no evidence of having anything meaningful to say, is my forecast.

18.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Was the fix in on spud prices? Permalink to this item

Bully for the Idaho Potato Commission and their legal filing which entitles them to append ® to the state's name and declare their web property to be THE OFFICIAL HOME OF THE IDAHO® POTATO, as well as to further sprinkle it through their content, answering such pressing questions as What is the Difference Between Idaho® Potatoes and Russets? (Shorter: "only potatoes grown in Idaho can be called Idaho® potatoes.")

Potatoes themselves are of course Peruvian (with just a hint of Bolivian), with seven or ten thousand years of history shared with Homo sapiens. And they come in a thousand other varieties than Russets and the subset of Russets "Grown in Idaho®."

Keep those tubers in the dark, by the way. As the IPC warns, "if your potatoes have any green spots, pare them off before cooking because they could taste bitter." (They don't go into the helpful detail that Wikipedia does about solanine, the bitter glycoalkaloid poison potatoes produce along with their green pigment, good old not-poisonous chlorophyll. Bitter is bad.)

What brings the topic up the newsstack is the AP's Boise stringer, John Miller talking to NPR about Associated Wholesale Grocers, Inc. vs. United Potato Growers of America, Inc., et al. (not including the IPC, I see), and about $15 for a ten pound bag of potatoes in 2008, which would've been a lot back then, or right now, when the BLS says the average city price is between 60 and 70 cents a pound.

Get ready to smile Permalink to this item

Fellow denizens of the Pale Blue Dot, we are going to have our picture taken a month from tomorrow. Well, some of us anyway: Lucky you, illuminated North and Central America! Be smiling between 3:27 and 3:42 pm MDT.

Homeschoolers awake Permalink to this item

Forbes is an interesting mix of savvy business information, cogent opinions (I'm sure there must be some), sycophancy and off-the-wall iconoclasm, a generation or two past its plutocratic family business roots and now mostly just the dwindling business of selling magazines.

So yes, what does Bill Flax, Contributor, who "explore[s] the intersection of economics and culture" have to tell us about education and politics under the headline Want to Tell the State to Stick It? Homeschool Your Kids? The lead sentence of the second paragraph:

"The God-fearing, flag-waiving, gun-toting homeschool crowd embodies the American spirit of mutual self-reliance."

They waive the flag you say?

"Meanwhile, taxpayers waste a fortune securing abysmal academic results. In 2012, SAT scores fell to their lowest level since tracking began. As spending soars, assessment scores plummet.

"The modern homeschool movement comes largely by Christians aghast over an academic establishment overrun by progressives. Schools long ago became laboratories for instilling statism and distilling politically correct groupthink. Values clarification anyone? With public education increasingly geared toward multicultural agitation against Americaís godly heritage, many parents resolved to safeguard the hearts, souls and minds of their young."

Whew, let me catch my breath, and check my Idaho Constitition a moment. Section 1 of Article IX is still there, huh.

"The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools."

Perhaps it's just my overrunning progressive politically correct groupthink acting up, but I think that's a beautiful bit of prose. The intelligence of the people! Where else in our state government is that celebrated?

After Flax's breezy suggestion that test scores are inversely correlated with spending, and Christians aghast are our bulwhark of freedom, he notes that some "unbelievers" are also on board amongst the 1.5 million students receiving homeschooling. (According to, um, that horrid government of ours, so at least there are some facts at his command.)

And after citing a variety of statistics that support his contention that homeschooling is superior to all else, he winds up with:

"Homeschooling represents a microcosm of traditional Americana and a rebuke of government meddling. Hence liberals hate it."

But his "hateful" accusation is just as casual as the other forms of derision that his screed comprises. Let me speak for all liberals (ha, ha) to say that I don't hate his wife's or anyone else's homeschooling. Parental attention is a fine thing, and truly irreplaceable. For those who can find the means to do this, and do it well, more power to you.

For those who infer that a statist progressive conspiracy poisoned the minds of twenty-somethings and "imbued" them with "a reverence for the state" and thus enabled the choice of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney for president in 2012, perhaps you need to adjust your medication, slightly. But do take comfort that every modern president of whatever stripe has shown the capacity for disabusing us of reverence for the state.

16.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

New business opportunity Permalink to this item

Sunrise over Lucky Peak reservoir, from Barclay Bay Not that it's "new business" so much as one of those things we never thought of as business before, but here we go. Who could have imagined that there be something called the Corrections Corporation of America, for example (or that the text on its website would start with "welcome to")? We're not just number one, we're number one in outsourcing, too, I suppose.

What could be closer to the heart of government than spying, though? I mean, if you outsource that, it means subcontracting trust, which just doesn't make a lot of sense. Plenty of outsourcing doesn't make sense, because it doesn't have to. It just has to have some motivation for the people who make the deals. It can cost more overall, it can have horrific side-effects (hopefully ones that don't show up in the news right away), it can be terrible public (or private) policy, but if someone can make some money doing it, chances are it'll get done.

These thoughts come to mind reading about Edward Snowden's former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, in David Sanger's and Nicole Perlroth's piece for the NYT, After Profits, Defense Contractor Faces the Pitfalls of Cybersecurity.

Along the way to some of those profits, they arranged to do contract work for the United Arab Emirates, who figured Booz Allen Hamilton "was a natural choice" to create their version of the NSA.

"The chief architect of Booz Allen's cyberstrategy is Mike McConnell, who once led the N.S.A. and pushed the United States into a new era of big data espionage. It was Mr. McConnell who won the blessing of the American intelligence agencies to bolster the Persian Gulf sheikdom, which helps track the Iranians.

"They are teaching everything," one Arab official familiar with the effort said. "Data mining, Web surveillance, all sorts of digital intelligence collection."

They reportedly "boasted" that half of their 25,000 employees had Top Secret clearances (which something tells me is not actually the Top clearance, but anyway), so if their trustworthiness-vetting is let's say 99.9% accurate, that leaves another dozen or so Snowdens left to come to light, unless they're too busy blackmailing instead of whistleblowing.

Flag day Permanent URL to this day's entry

Is it too soon to talk about irrational fears? Permalink to this item

Maybe you've seen or heard some of the statistics about risks to life, such as drowning in the bathtub or being struck by lightning. Those are 20-some and four times as likely to get you as terrorists, according to numbers in Conor Friedersdorf's assessment of libery vs. safety for The Atlantic, The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror.

"Ceding liberty and privacy to keep myself safe from terrorism doesn't even guarantee that I'll be safer! It's possible that the surveillance state will prove invasive and ineffective. Or that giving the state so much latitude to exercise extreme power in secret will itself threaten my safety."

That link quoted from the original is another piece by the same author, "All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama." There's this:

"[E]ven if all the critics were proved wrong, even if the CIA, NSA, FBI, and every other branch of the federal government had been improbably filled, top to bottom, with incorruptible patriots constitutionally incapable of wrongdoing... The American people have no idea who the president will be in 2017."

But we do know that whoever that may be, she or he will "possess the capacity to be [a tyrant]... to a degree that Americans in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000 could've scarcely imagined."

9.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

All the world should be counted Permalink to this item

A certain acquaintance who will remain nameless (for the time being) told me that she had received a "community census survey" of some sort, and thought it looked like a scam, or at least an unwelcome annoyance, and refused to fill it out. She was further annoyed by the follow-up calls, one fellow she thought had a Russian accent, and yes, that would make me mighty suspicious, too. But I searched it up and see that yes, the United States Census Bureau is doing this thing called the American Community Survey, which is between-decennial counts statistical sampling.

What they say is yes, you do have to respond to the survey. If you can believe them.

"Just as people are required to respond to jury duty, get a driverís license in order to drive, pay their taxes and report their income, they also have the obligation to respond to decennial census surveys.

"The ACS is conducted under the authority of Title 13, United States Code (U.S.C.), Sections 141 and 193, and response is required by law. According to Section 221, persons who do not respond shall be fined not more than $100. Title 18 U.S.C. Section 3571 and Section 3559, in effect amend Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221 by changing the fine for anyone over 18 years old who refuses or willfully neglects to complete the questionnaire or answer questions posed by census takers from a fine of not more than $100 to not more than $5,000."

My acquaintance is not alone in resisting; the response of quite a few of the 3½ million people getting the 28 page (really?!) questionnaire is along the lines of this "horrified" squidoo poster who does not want to answer question about "some of the most intimate details of your life."

Assurances about identity theft and privacy may be slightly less believable in light of recent news. The Bureau says "only authorized persons with a work-related need-to-know view your personal information" and that

"individuals' names and other personal identifiers are deleted from the files used to tabulate these data. We do not maintain a national database with the names, addresses, and personal information collected by the ACS.

"Please note that the ACS does not ask for Social Security numbers, mother's maiden name, or specific information regarding bank accounts or credit cards—the information typically used for identity theft."

And we're not coming for your guns, either.

But anyway, whether the threat of $100 or $500 or $5,000 fines is real, or credible remains to be seen. Whether it's more convenient to go ahead and answer the survey or deal with the robocalls, live calls, and I guess eventually personal visits is what will matter eventually.

7.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

All your metadata are belong to us Permalink to this item

We all feel so much safer just knowing someone's watching out for us, don't we? Folks on both sides of the Senate assure us it's business as usual, "a routine reauthorization" of the program (programs?) that are so secret that the legislators who are worried can't even tell us why they're worried, unless a "disenchanted intelligence official" spills the beans and the less disenchanted can say yes, that was it, and now can we have a "real debate" about whether such "sweeping, dragnet surveillance" should be allowed. The beans are not so much in the law, as the "alarming way" in which the law has been interpreted and applied.

It's also difficult with all that out in the open (a tiny bit), how much more is still buried in back closets, secret legal opinions and "interpretations" that not only don't have to be justified in the light of day, but can't "legally" be discussed in the light of day.

Who calls who is a "business record." Your Facebook "likes" must be too, right? Never mind that 99.9% is trivial, banal, uninteresting, all three, or cats, there's some signal in that noise, and signal analysis is what the puzzle palaces are all about. (We don't know how many puzzle palaces there are, either.)

What Scott McNealy said, now more than 14 years ago now: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

6.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Corporate spies Permalink to this item

As noted yesterday, fundraising appeals have a tough slog at our house these days, but I did have a look at Amy Goodman's, for Democracy Now! That organization has the added problem of a stock-in-trade in bad, and depressing news, which is apparently less attractive to an audience than bad, and hyper-partisan news.

Their line-up of stories for June 5, for example:

Julian Assange, image from Democracy Now!'s fundraising email And this, that caught my attention in the email, a story they brought last week, of

"Jeremy Hammond, who participated in the release of 5 million emails from the servers of a private security and intelligence firm called Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor. He is facing up to 10 years in prison.

"After the Stratfor emails were released to WikiLeaks, it became clear that the firm engages in widespread spying on activists on behalf of corporations.

"Coca-Cola hired Stratfor to spy on the group PETA.

"Dow Chemical hired Stratfor to spy on the activists who were exposing Dow's role in the cyanide chemical disaster in Bhopal in 1984."

More, on their blog: Hammond, Manning, Assange and Obama's Sledgehammer Against Dissent, with this punchline:

"President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have used the Espionage Act six times to prosecute whistle-blowers—more than all previous presidents combined. Obamaís assault on journalism and his relentless war on whistle-blowers are serious threats to fundamental democratic principles on which this nation was founded."

5.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Hey Permalink to this item

Wired has a provocative excerpt from Jonathan Alter's new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies.

The headline says "Annoying Emails Work Better Than You Think," which I pretty much guessed, given that there are ever-more of them. They don't necessarily work better on me, mind you, as I'm almost completely inured to requests for political donations. But talk of the tech team's testing explains a lot:

They "conducted 240 A/B tests on their donation page. (A/B testing, used often in web design, tests different versions of the same information to see which gets the better response.) They tested everything they sent as many as eighteen times, from the salutation—'Hey' worked especially well—to the wording of fundraising appeals to the size of the donate buttons on the site."

And this, most important observation:

"An elaborate 'More Emails Test' showed conclusively that the more fundraising emails that went out, the more money came back—simple as that."

The money quote, if you will:

"Goff concluded that ignoring the human desire not to be annoying may have been the single greatest conceptual breakthrough of the campaign. It turned out to be worth more than $100 million."

3.June 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Those people Permalink to this item

Onions and bluegrass in morning light Today's lead story in the Idaho Statesman, Political elite block Boise transit hub, reports on an April 1 meeting between the Mayor and two state Representatives, in which the latter told the former "they were against a proposal to build a transit hub across the street from the Capitol," and that

other state leaders who didn't want "those people" near the Statehouse. [Mayor Dave] Bieter said [Rep. Brent] Crane was talking about bus riders. But "those people" wasn't a reference to bus riders, [Rep. John] Vander Woude told the Statesman May 24. Instead, Crane was talking about homeless people and panhandlers that transportation hubs tend to attract.

Perhaps the state's legislators don't want the competition? Or the comparison.

"What do you normally see when you go to a bus terminal?" Vander Woude said. "Does it become a collection point, a shelter, even a homeless place where people will park because there's a lot of people coming through for panhandling or whatever?"

It's hard to imagine a more direct statement of antipathy toward public transit than this. We don't want to promote it, we don't want it anywhere close to our center of government, because it's messy. The wrong kind of people use it.

Our legislators are doing such a bang-up job of running the state, they've decided to run the city too, it seems. Which they get to do in this instance because it's "their" land that was proposed to be used for the transit center at 8th and Jefferson.

This particular half-millionth of the state's endowed lands is earmarked to the Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College (covering most of the state's geography rather neatly), and serving to confuse the matter, because nearby lots go to other institutions, and the Department of Lands Director and Secretary of State tell us that

"The Land Board must take into account the way one property's improvements might affect the value of the others before approving the change."

Since the Board lacks even a fraction of Solomon's wisdom, the easiest course of action is to just say hell no to the "inappropriate" possibility of "attracting large numbers of homeless people and panhandlers to within a few hundred feet of the Capitol building."

I mean, they might actually have to address the underlying problems, and heaven knows that would be a distraction from the annual legislative festivities.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is one of our more thoughtful leaders, but he says he's "not clairvoyant," which yes, we sort of knew that, and there "are issues," which is what we pay him and others to sort through. Our as-yet unelected State Controller opines that

"We could bring in so many other things that could make more than what the parking lot's making. It could be any number of other projects or pieces that could make more money."

Sounds like a good argument for some of that local control the Republicans so love to extol when the land owner is the federal government and the state would like to get some of that, doesn't it?

Never mind that, all of Idaho's state government is "local" when it comes to control.


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

ISSN 1534-0007

Tuesday, 02-Jul-2013 22:56:25 MDT