Monday, February 26, 2018

February links 2

Just a quick list.

Account of a Russian troll in the St. Petersburg troll factory.

This article about world leadership spurred me to reflect on the sad state of world leadership. But could be worse.

The partisans in Florida are angry with the sheriff of the county where the school shooting happened. Not because he did his job poorly, but because he's going about gun rights orthodoxy. Related. And another.

A big attack by Syrians and Russian mercenaries on a Kurdish/US base. Surprising, but no escalation. No hype about it either.

Finally, the Dem memo countering the sad Nunes memo was released. No surprises here either. A nit-picky critique of the memo.

The Dems in California want someone louder and more progressive than Dianne Feinstein. Eye roll. These are the Dems that go to the state conventions, not the whole of Dem voters.

A dialog I want to read about deficits and debt.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our American gun culture

I've thought about guns all my adult intellectual life, which actually started at age 12-13. I've observed the American cultural traits and myths about guns. First, I have to say that guns are pervasive in American culture. Not as pervasive as food or cars or television, which are practically universal. But about as common as: voting, home ownership, and exercising regularly.

Our latest example of toxic American gun culture was a school shooting with 17 people killed. This is no surprise in the US. We have so many mass shootings, though the death toll isn't usually that high.

Gun rights advocates come up with so many excuses. It's never the goddamn huge availability of guns. It's never the worship of guns to blame. It's always mental illness, or a tenuous connection to the Democratic party, or bad parenting, or liberalism to blame.

I'm not having any of it. The gun rights advocates own these shootings. They are the ones who fight EVERY SINGLE REFORM.  They fight any improvement to background checking (NICS), until there's another mass shooting. They don't try to improve reporting. They don't want the system checked, its flaws revealed. They need the background check as a scapegoat. Many of them don't even support the background check, but feel it was imposed on them. That leads me to wonder if they want totally open sales with no limits on who can buy guns.

Maybe some do. Maybe they think it's a constitutional right, like free speech and freedom of religion. However, my freedom of religion doesn't give me the capability of killing even one person, much less riddling scores of people with bullets. Possibly that's a defect in our Bill of Rights--that gun ownership can't be restricted. Or perhaps I should say that 5 Supreme Court justices decided that's what the 2nd amendment meant.

But the interpretation of the 2nd amendment is only part of the problem. There is a whole cultural issue. In some quarters, you aren't a man if you don't own a gun. You aren't a man if you can't legally own a gun. You aren't an adult if you don't own a gun. Ownership is a right, not a privilege. It's a right, with no attendant responsibility to have training, or good handling. They belief anyone who speaks about good handling is infringing on sacred rights. That anyone who questions the gun culture is unpatriotic and infringing on sacred rights.

My god, more people may worship guns than attend church. That's how pervasive the gun culture is in the US.

Please note, though, that I don't think every gun advocate is part of the toxic gun culture. Many support reasonable reforms. Even more would support reforms if enough Democrats made clearly that they respect the right of sensible, responsible citizens to own guns. However, they aren't loud enough in their support of reasonable reform. Too often, their primary concern is not losing their gun rights, not safety.

Then there are the full-fledged nutcases. They resist all restrictions. They don't even trust restrictions due to mental issues. They would rather mentally ill people have full access than risk being labelled as unable to purchase due to mental impairment.

Frankly, my opinion is that our standards for mental impairment are seriously too tight. Many more people need to be disqualified due to mental impairment. We need to have a procedure for health professionals to report dangerous people, have their gun rights curtailed, and have procedures to follow up. We need the same for family members to report someone who is dangerous, and have their rights curtailed. Most of all, we need to encourage families and all parts of society to support this--to agree that safety is more important. To say "yes, we are committed to preventing dangerous people from having and using guns." I want that to be a whole-society commitment. That is the only rational basis for a healthy gun culture instead of the current toxic culture.


Extras. An example of a gun advocate who blames anything and anyone but except the proximate cause. A conservative supports the kind of measure I talk about. It even has a name - Gun Violence Restraining Order, or GVRO. However, he writes as though these orders are common, but they aren't.

The FBI is accused of mishandling warnings about the shooter. I wonder how deluged the FBI with warnings, and whether the number far outweighed their ability to check. The right wing and alt-right have so many liars who keep them well-supplied with fake stories.

Friday, February 16, 2018

February links

Good news for Dems. A court ruled that Pennsylvania was gerrymandered to benefit Republicans illegally. Therefore, when the new district lines are redrawn, the Dems may pick up several easy wins.

Do nothing Congress. A poli-sci professor reads the signs and predicts that Congress won't do much this year. Congress probably won't pass a budget resolution and therefore can't use reconciliation to pass bills with only 51 votes in the Senate.

Vain hope. This item was more meaningful before the Senate failed to pass any immigration deal today. In the House, a group of 48 reps are trying to reach an immigration agreement.

The story behind the Clinton's email server. A reporter read all the notes about the email server, and shares what he learned. Clinton was weird and backward when it came to using electronics, and that was the main consideration--how to kludge up something she could use. That is so sad. For the info, skip down to 'Act One.'

Trump's budget. Good graphics. I have to check more, such as the highly important question of the projected deficit.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

No natural law

I never studied  the concept of natural law, and was familiar with it mostly from conservative writings. Natural law justified discrimination against gay sex, and maybe many of the ideas against equal rights for women and against contraception. Ugh.

Recently, I read this fascinating article about natural law, ethics, and evolution. Finally, a clear explanation of the concept of natural law:
Step one: look at what happens ‘always or for the most part’ in nature to determine its laws. That investigation will reveal the natural and proper ‘functions’ of organs and activities: those that Nature, so to speak, ‘intended’. (If Nature is just another name for God, then the talk of ‘intent’ can even be taken literally.) Step two: use the resulting observations to determine what we ought to do – and especially what we ought not to do – according to whether it was found to be ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ in step one.
So natural law told us to look at nature, see what 'normal' was by function, and also identify what varied from 'normal.' Oh dear, it looks bad for gay sex.

However, the article moves along and points out that variation is not only normal in nature, it has also been instrumental in the evolution of all living things. Variation itself is not abnormal, but necessary and (can we say this) good:
If no abnormalities had occurred in the past 4 billion years, you and I would still be bacteria. 
That's pretty convincing, at least to me. I'm not a fan of ethical systems that demonize gay sex. I'm happy to see huge gaping holes shot into natural law. I'm not sure the rest of the article hangs together as well, but I definitely enjoyed the beating it gave to natural law. (Take that, Clarence Thomas!)


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Memo frenzy: sequel 1

The Nunes memo (text here) hammers on the Steele dossier, how biased Steele was against Trump, how the dossier was used to spy on an American whose rights were thus abridged, and, hey, the targeted individual worked on Trump's campaign.

The memo was heartily cheered by the Trump faithful. Their narrative is that the whole 'Russia thing' is fake news, stirred up by media, abetted by deep state leakers and a very biased FBI and Justice Department. Both of those departments should obviously be cleared out, with all these anti-Trump conspirators sent to jail.

The Nunes memo supported this narrative by positing the FBI used the perfidious Steele dossier to get a warrant to spy on a loyal American (Trump adviser Carter Page), violating his civil rights. Those who want to take that narrative even further into territory even Nunes can't go, they say that the FBI was spying on the Trump campaign and giving that information to Obama.

The Nunes is centered on the claim that the FISA court judge wasn't told that the dossier was opposition research. Dems dispute this. Am I going to believe Nunes? Not a chance. I'm looking forward to the actual verbiage that Dems points to as backing their claim that the judge was informed that the dossier had political origins.

The duplicity of Steele is a fair target. He didn't fully share his motives. His work was sloppy and uneven, and he broke faith with FBI by leaking to the press while he was very engaged with the FBI.
Did the FBI know the origin of the Steele dossier, paid for by Clinton and the DNC? Did they dig for the information? How did the FBI frame the information from the dossier? Were they clear on its origin at oppo research? Did the judge have full information? It is a reasonable question whether the court would have granted the FISA warrant if the judge had been fully informed.

The Nunes memo is also disputed because it ignores that the FBI was already investigating Russian hijinks prior to the creation of the Steele dossier. What other information had the FBI gathered? Nunes pretends there was none. Trump loyalists pretend there was none--as though there were no Russian hijinks at all. Dems claim there was other evidence.

If there was no evidence of hijinks, then there is no reason to spy on Carter Page. However, if there were Russian hijinks along with evidence that Carter Page was involved, then there's a good reason to spy on Page. Interestingly, Page hasn't been a big figure in the whole issue of Russian meddling. The current inquiry isn't centered around Page, but around multiple connection points between the Trump campaign and Russia. Also, Russian meddling -- can we take it as granted that there were a lot of Russian dirty tricks? Do we need a laundry list of them?

So the question of whether Russian meddling was real is paramount. If it was real, if there were sources showing Russian meddling, and not just the fervid, well-paid work of one biased spy, then the investigations appear to be justified.

If Russian meddling was real, then Russia deserves the sanctions put on it. And it would have been wrong to remove those sanctions, as it appears Trump was ready to do. In fact, the whole coziness of Trump, many of his advisers, and Russia appear to be frightening, as though rules and laws don't matter.

One other observation about the memo. Nunes claims twice that FBI and DOJ knew the Steele was being paid by DNC, but is actually vague on the point. It doesn't say who in the FBI and DOJ knew this. It is also vague on what was known, using the phrase "knew political actors..." This vagueness may indicate that there is no written evidence that the information was known at that time at the FBI and DOJ.

Is this applicable to the memo? To the strategy?

Extras. Reaction from the director of the FBI. Reaction from the New Yorker. Here's an interesting point. Carter Page was already on the radar of other news organizations before the leak from Steele: Huffpost early Aug 2016, ABC July 2016, and Slate July 2016.

Because of the memo frenzy, Congress didn't do the work they needed to in the run-up to the end of the most recent continuing resolution, so we're facing another shutdown. Way to go, boys!

Guess what! There was verbiage to the effect that the dossier was political. It was footnote, and Nunes knew about it. What a fucking liar he is.

More extras that I forgot. Conservative theories and reaction to them. Super-great wonderful interactive graphic about who is who in the Russia investigation. Gowdy splits the difference in conspiracies. An unofficial Dem rebuttal is rebutted. Scathing review of the memo because the critique is very sharp, not because the language is hyped. WaPo timeline I might want to refer to.

Finally, a much better memo from Senator Ron Johnson. Reasonable tone, reasonable questions. Download the memo and the internal FBI communications. This is what a decent congressman does. Nunes is a sideshow.

More and better extras. A long, detailed profile of Carter Page. Impressive unless it's full of Russian disinformation. Another more important memo, also about the Carter Page surveillance, but so much more solid.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Memo frenzy

House Republican Devin Nunes, who did some underhanded shit to cover up for Trump last spring, now has a new plan. He's claiming that he has secret information that shows how the FBI and maybe Justice Department (DOJ) had conspired to illegally surveille on the Trump campaign, and other such nefarious acts.

It's a bunch of hogwash. Nunes doesn't have new information -- that's my prediction. He has a hodge-podge that he's carefully piled up to make the FBI look as bad as possible, mostly by editing out info that shows the FBI doing their job, while playing up anything that makes them look bad.

I have no inside info at all, so my prediction of the contents of the memo are based on existing leaked information that is all over the press. Both the Washington Post (link above) and Reuters have detailed stories about what is in the memo. Nunes' memo shows the FBI used information from the Steele dossier to obtain FISA warrants to surveille Carter Page. Maybe there's a bit of a surprise, and someone else from the campaign was watched too.

Maybe there will be some innuendo that information was shared with the Clinton campaign. You know, hints that it was possible, but no definite evidence that such illegal information sharing actually happened.

It will leave out the information that Papadoupolous told a Danish Australian somebody that he was getting dirt on Clinton from the Russians. That this info was given to the FBI, and they obtained warrants based on that, and maybe other sources too. How this leads to a warrant to watch Carter Page--that I don't know right now. That interesting piece of the puzzle will probably be revealed sometime.

The memo probably pretends that there wasn't anything to worry about the Russians and the Trump campaign until all that misleading info from the Steele dossier, and that was the excuse to spy on the Trump campaign.

True and Not True

However, parts of the Steele dossier have been verified as true, parts have been shown to be wrong, and parts are very scandalous and the kind of delicious misinformation that some source enjoyed feeding to a gullible mark.

Too many Trump supporters would love to pretend that there is nothing to see in Trump's closeness to the Russians. There was no Russian misbehavior. Instead, the misbehavior was on the part of the Obama administration and its subverted spy network embedded in the FBI and DOJ.

What a cynical ploy this is. The Dems on the committee want to blow the whole issue open with their own version of the events. But somehow it's OK for the GOPers to publish their case, but not for the Dems to do the same. I wonder why? This is so obviously partisan that no one should see it any other way.

If and when Nunes' memo is published, there will be hew and cry, and hundreds of journalists will be working to dig out as much of the rest of the story as possible. We \probably won't have to wait very long to find out all the mitigating information that the Dems wanted to tell but weren't allowed to.

Hide and Seek

High-ranking officials in both the DOJ and FBI don't want the memo released either:
“We have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said.
They'll be painted as part of a Dem-aligned spy group within these agencies. Maybe they don't want certain embarrassing details out there. Maybe they don't want internal methods revealed. Maybe they're pissed off about being accused when they were doing their jobs and looking into Russian influence.

Are Trump and Nunes hoping the hew and cry will be enough to shut down the Mueller investigation? Maybe that's what they hope, but I doubt it will happen. I doubt there is much that will smudge the investigation. Mueller will continue to work meticulously gathering the information that's out there, and maybe parts that are currently hidden--though I don't think there will be any more major revelations. I'm so looking forward to the detailed reports--reports are full of real evidence, honestly collected and presented without partisan spin.

What if the memo contains much more than I thought? Then I was wrong and will need to reevaluate. However, if it contains what I've outlined here, this memo is perhaps the biggest example of a shiny object so far in this presidency. A nothing-new-here that dominated the news cycle for several weeks, and that was called "shocking" and "far worse than Watergate." Yep, that's what I'm predicting: a bunch of GOP hype-tripe pretending to be shock and awe.


Extras. Is it a coincidence the Trey Gowdy is calling it quits? Gowdy may be an intense conservative, but he seems to have limits on stupid partisanship.

The head of the CIA, a conservative appointed by Trump, says that he's expecting more interference by Russians in the midterm elections. Fake news, I guess.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reverse auction in Congress

This is an explanation I developed in my comments on political threads, but I'm finally writing it here. On many issues, the GOP leadership has the choice of two negotiation partners. It can negotiate with the House Freedom Caucus (a more conservative group) or it can negotiate with Dems.

Both the Freedom Caucus and the Dems will try to barter votes for concessions. The GOP will be able to play them off against each other and lower the degree of concessions.

This dynamic was first apparent when the GOP were late again getting to the appropriations bills last September. Dems helped them out by providing votes to pass a clean continuing resolution to keep funding as is. In December, it was the Freedom Caucus' turn to provide the votes, with a clean bill again being passed.

Neither the Dems nor the Freedom Caucus gain much in these clean bills. Many of them want to use their leverage (their votes) to gain concessions. Dems want protection for DACA young people (children brought to the US as illegal aliens). The Freedom Caucus has a big roster of wants, including no concessions on DACA, tougher immigration measures, and more military readiness.

With the 1/19/18 appropriation deadline coming up, both the Dems and the Freedom Caucus were vying to be the partner. The Dems thought they had a deal, but it fell apart. The Freedom Caucus swooped in and made a deal for almost a clean bill--few demands at all. That bill passed the House just one day before the deadline.

The Freedom Caucus agenda is a better fit in general for the GOP. But this is complicated by the slim GOP margin in the Senate, and some very independently-minded GOP senators. Several senators, such as Lindsay Graham and Jeff Flake, want to do an immigration reform deal that is more liberal than what the rest of the GOP senators want. (This is how the Dem deal fell apart. The Dems negotiated only with Lindsay Graham, and the deal was spiked by Trump.) Do Graham and Flake have to willpower to stand strong and send the Freedom Caucus deal to defeat? I rather doubt it.

I think Graham and Flake will have to settle on a lesser immigration deal in the near future, or maybe no deal at all. Democrats have been threatening a filibuster and hinting at a government shutdown if they don't get a deal on DACA. I predict any shutdown will fail. The Dem leadership probably realizes this, so I don't think they would attempt anything more than a token shutdown at most.

Shutdown threats are a blunt instrument, and not useful for getting major changes in potential legislation. Making an advantageous deal is going to be hard for the Freedom Caucus or the Dems. The best deal may be for them have secret talks with as many allies in the GOP establishment as possible, be prepared to make concessions, and then take what they can get. However, this strategy is certain to piss off true believers among the supporters, and get the politicians labeled as sell-outs. But that's the breaks when you negotiate from a position of weakness and you aren't the only potential partner. If someone is ready to trip you and underbid you, you need to be ready to do the same.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

World populations

I can't remember what triggered the question in my head, but I started to wonder about racial make up of the population of the whole world.

I was wondering what the world looked like back in the 1400s. Were there major migrations going on? That was on the eve of the migration of Europeans all over the world, and their forcible displacement of Africans via slavery to the Americas. Was there migration as big as the Turks to Anatolia in the 6th through 11th century?

It's incredible to think of Europeans swamping North America and Australia and New Zealand, and making a pretty big dent in South America too. Sad to think about the loss of native American cultures.

So what is the balance in the world now? It was somewhat hard to find. For one thing, racial classification is very much out of favor. However, I did find this:


I liked that the world wasn't divided into white, black, American Indian, and Asian. It makes sense to have more divisions in Asia. Does the entry for South/Central American make sense? Maybe it does. Perhaps there are has been more mixing there of European, American, and African stocks.

I then thought of a Cambodian babysitter my kids had 20 years ago. She had lighter skin and finer features than the Cambodians at the bus stop near me. She explained that she was half Chinese, which was one reason her family fled Cambodia. The Chinese diaspora has been extensive, like the European diaspora. Then I found this graph of the Indian diaspora, which is also fascinating.


Then there was this list of ethnic groups. My group is there, and so is my spouse's. But no Vikings? That's sad.

As a thought experiment, what groups will be on a pie chart in 200 years or 500 years? It almost makes me hope that I'll have an afterlife and can peek in on Earth to watch.

Ssdly, I didn't save a link to a genetic study showing that if there were racial categories, there should be only three of them: pygmies, Bushmen, and everyone else. I have no trouble believing that.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Republican accomplishments in 2017

The GOP had undivided power in the US federal government: presidency, House, Senate, and even a mostly sympathetic Supreme Court. They started the year with all kinds of bragging, but didn't manage to do some major pieces of legislation, including repealing Obamacare, overhauling immigration laws, defunding the horrid Planned Parenthood, reworking trade agreements, etc.

The misses have been well-discussed. What might be overlooked is what was accomplished by these latter day Keyston Kops. (A good summary is here. A summary from a conservative site here.)

Tighter enforcement on immigration. Many groups, including Haitians, have lost special status and are now subject to deportation. DACA for children brought to the US wasn't renewed. Flow across the border seems to be down (a trend over several years). Democrats are being pounded by their constituents over their failure to stop these immigration changes. But that just shows the unrealistic hopes of certain groups since the Dems have almost no power.

The tax reform/tax cut bill was passed, with major changes for both businesses, individuals, and households. It's hard for me to predict how this will affect the country in the long term. It may cause a big increase in deficits. However, if the increases are kept to around $100 billion a year, that's not too large in the scheme of things. So far businesses have responded in positive ways, so there is a chance that the economic benefits will outweigh the economic downsides. We'll have to wait to see, though not everyone agrees. Some are presuming it will be a failure, though partisanship is probably the motive.

Changes in regulations, and a big slowdown in new regulation. I personally think that the stability of much less new regulation is mostly a benefit. I'm not a business owner, but wonder how many are relieved with this change in particular. And I'm not talking about businesses that hope to drill in sea coasts or pollute.

No huge disasters. There haven't been any crises that have started and gotten worse. No blunders that ballooned into disasters. Does that count as an accomplishment? No, but I'm still grateful.


Extras. Not a close fit except for the aspect of a roundup of 2017. The most underreported news stories.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Interesting factoids

My blog is now mostly links. But that doesn't mean I'm not thinking. I feel like I'm thinking as much as before. So I can't really explain why my writing has changed to these collections of short, link-based reflections.

Here are a bunch of lighter link that are still interesting.

Energy promise fulfilled? In Australia, a huge battery system is providing backup for when renewables faulty and storage for when the energy output is abundant. This is such an important step in making renewables primary in large-scale energy production.

Kick him when he's down. We can laugh and/or sneer at formerly famous alt-right jerk Milo Y__(whatever). Here's an article on his unpublished books and the editor's comments.

Hackable votes. This one is heavier: an article about how Georgia has very poor security for its electronic voting machines. It contains first-hand reports of problems and officials trying to cover them up.

Good news/bad news. A funny conundrum. Media has done very well under the Trump campaign and presidency. Viewership is up, profits are up. It could be very nasty (in financial terms) if Trump doesn't win in 2020.

Trump's mental condition. Hahahaha. Nearly everyone has an opinion, but this is the opinion of a trained neurologist.  I've had some training in neurology, so I notice many of the behaviors the neurologist mentions. I would add this: look for changes, particularly diminishing ability. As far as I can tell, Trump hasn't deteriorated, but we should be alert for the signs. This is a reasonable place for a bookmark to a lawyerly explanation for why impeachment hearings are warranted. I don't agree, but the case is well argued.

A journalist on our side. Maybe Trump, Bannon, or whoever thought Michael Wolff could be trusted to write positive fluff pieces, and they found out otherwise when he wrote Fire and Fury. This is the kind of piece that might have given them false hope. It's a sympathetic view of Roger Ailes. It also sounds like he flattered people's egos, basically conning the con men that staff the White House. I don't trust him to be fair and scrupulously accurate. However, he claims to have tapes of some interviews. Added fun!