Good News, Bad News in Federal Rulings

The Good News is that the ACLU has won its case before Anna Brown in re: the Constitutionality of the mysterious, un-auditable, un-checkable “no-fly” list. I’m sure the gummit will appeal, but don’t look for many judges to be swayed by their utter bullshit argument.

On the other hand, there’s the Bad News, regarding the terrorism case against Adel Daoud. Daoud was caught up in one on the FBI’s many “let’s invent a terror scheme and arrest an idiot!” plans. Daoud’s lawyers have, sensibly, insisted on seeing some of the evidence against their client — specifically, that which was obtained via FISA and which supposedly establishes Daoud (a clearly not-terribly bright high school student) as the agent of a foreign power. The Feds refused, saying it was classified.

Think on that for a minute.

Well, it gets worse, because the judge sided with the Feds. It’s a giant due process problem that we can only hope will be overturned on appeal.

It’s that time again: BRING THE HATE

Deadspin’s 2013 Hater’s Guide to the Top 25 is, as always, a thing of beauty. Some great moments are below, but go read the whole thing.

Ohio State (#2)

“Any time someone tells me he’s from Ohio and involved in football in some way, I double lock my car and put a cork in my asshole.”

Georgia (#5)

“This state has winning pro teams like the Falcons and Braves, and yet the people there choose to spend all their fan capital on a college team that can’t even win its own conference. Are you people fucking stupid? […] Alabama fans are justifiably batshit crazy for the Tide because they win stuff. You win nothing. It makes no sense.”

Texas A&M (#7)

“Football Bieber. It’s not even close. Before Johnny Football arrived, A&M was just a boot camp for ugly people and aspiring arsonists. Now it’s home to a sniveling, whiny, alcoholic redneck brat who deserves to have his name dragged through the mud. Five years from now, Johnny Football will be run out of the NFL and will be pissing in buckets and spitting on roadies backstage at Keith Urban concerts.”

Louisville (#9)

“If the school were renamed The University of Phoenix II presented by ESPN as told to Papa John, it would be more accurate. Rooting for Louisville is like rooting for a marketing brief.”

Notre Dame (#14) (About which: Seriously? — Ed.)

“Everything. The single most hateable thing about Notre Dame is its inherent Notre Dame-ness: the arrogance, the false piousness, the halo the program has placed over itself. It’s all disgusting, which is why you deserved not only to get steamrolled by Eddie Lacy on national television, but to then have your empty-headed sweetheart linebacker publicly embarrassed for being stupid enough to fall in love with an imaginary pen pal. I wanna watch David Blaine street-magic videos with Manti Te’o, just to see him accuse Blaine of witchcraft.”

Michigan (#17)

“The reason 100,000 Michiganders go to those games is because they have nowhere else to go.”

USC (#24)

“And yet, in Lane Kiffin, they have found the perfect amalgam of arrogant lowlife: deluded, snooty, overprivileged, completely unqualified, transparently insincere, and destined for a bombastic personal downfall. If it came out that Lane Kiffin had an ex-girlfriend bound and thrown into the sea, would you doubt it for a second? Of course not. He goes the extra mile to be a miserable bag of shit.”

Today in Huge Developments

First: The IRS announced today that all legally married gay couples will be considered married for tax purposes, regardless of where they live.

In other words, two Californians who move to Alabama won’t lose their status just because of their zip code.

Second: Ending years of vague and contradictory statements, the DOJ has announced it will not challenge states that legalize marijuana, and will basically leave them alone as long as certain guidelines are followed (which generally have to do with keeping it away from minors, suppressing illegal cartel activity, and related goals). It’s not as much of a clear win as the first one (individual USAs will still be able to be dicks if they want to, basically), but it’s still a step in the right direction.

Who Is Nick Saban?

This GQ profile is paints a picture of Coach Saban that’s easy to read as accurate. A bit:

Saban fully admits that his father’s perfectionism informed the process, even if it took decades for him to codify it. Big Nick’s influence also has something to do with why, even after a big victory, Saban feels less joy than relief. Saban is reaching for a standard, so there are only two possibilities: Either you did what you were supposed to do, or you fell short. If you fell short, you go work harder and better to try to meet the standard next time. And if you met the standard, you go work doubly hard to fight off complacency—a fatal disease transmitted by pats on the back and post-game confetti—so you have a shot at meeting it again. The process, then, is never over. Wins are not ends but merely data points that help Saban assess the state of the process at a given moment.

Emphasis mine. That last sentence says volumes.

25 years sounds so . . . respectable

The Onion turns 25 today, which is sort of amazing.

The first Heathen link there? Amazingly, from January of 2001, it was to this horribly prescient story: “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over’.”

“My fellow Americans,” Bush said, “at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us.”

Bush swore to do “everything in [his] power” to undo the damage wrought by Clinton’s two terms in office, including selling off the national parks to developers, going into massive debt to develop expensive and impractical weapons technologies, and passing sweeping budget cuts that drive the mentally ill out of hospitals and onto the street.

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.


On the economic side, Bush vowed to bring back economic stagnation by implementing substantial tax cuts, which would lead to a recession, which would necessitate a tax hike, which would lead to a drop in consumer spending, which would lead to layoffs, which would deepen the recession even further.

Again, from January of 2001. Almost not funny, huh?

Books of 2013, #36: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

Oh, mercy.

I hadn’t read this since high school; it’s lost none of its delight, really, but I get that it’s a sort of delight not everyone understands or enjoys. My own re-read was triggered largely by the news that James Franco has adapted it for the screen, which is an odd thing to consider — AILD is infamous for its constantly switching points of view and stream-of-consciousness technique (typically from Vardaman); it’s not at all clear how either idea will translate to the screen. I had similar reservations about adapting Watchmen, and had them largely vindicated. In general, when a work lives so fully in the medium that birthed it, translating it to some other medium is an undertaking fraught with peril.

But I’m sure I’ll still go see it, because Faulkner.

(By the way, it turns out there’s a band — working in the previously unknown to me genre of “Christian metalcore” — using the title as its name. Said band (who I’m sad to say own the domain name “”) are in the midst of some difficulties at present, as it appears that, back in May, their lead singer was arrested in a Barnes and Noble for trying to hire an undercover policeman to kill his estranged wife.

The gentleman in question — Tim Lambesis — also has a sideband/solo project called “Austrian Death Machine,” which I think we can all agree is several steps down the band-name-quality ladder from his day job. It is, of course, an Arnold Schwarzenegger tribute project.

I am not making (any of) this up. We learn odd things from time to time via Heathen, don’t we?)

Books of 2013, #35: How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

This has been on my to-read list for a long time, so when I happened upon it in a shop recently I snagged it and dove in.

Sadly — and this may be the most damning thing I’ve said about any book so far this year — in the 19 days since I finished it, I seem to have almost completely forgotten any charm it held. Critics called it “playful” and experimental, but after a lifetime of reading just that sort of thing, I think it failed to register as novel at all. I read a similarly playful take on “trope” fiction, Soon I Will Be Invincible, back in April, and found it much more entertaining.

You can skip this one.

Smart Thinking about the NSA — from 1983

Via BoingBoing, we find this quote from the New York Times 30 years ago:

No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.’s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency’s budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans – the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends. Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation’s security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.

Great Job, TSA

In twelve years, they still haven’t managed to stop any terrorists, but they’ve cost billions in lost productivity, hundreds of millions on boondoggle sweetheart deals on the porno-cancer-scanners, and thousands of stories like this where innocent people are given the third degree for, basically, flying while brown.

If you work for the TSA, you are part of the problem.

What happens when the NSA head has dinner with a critic?

Again, via TechDirt, we find this story about NSA critic Jennifer Granick’s dinner with Keith Alexander. You really ought to read the whole thing (which is full of links not reproduced in quotes here).

In general, Granick’s argument isn’t particularly novel, but it’s devastating to Alexander’s “we really have to do these things to keep you safe” line. (“The General seemed convinced that if only I knew what he knew, I would agree with him.” That reasoning is rhetorically and logically bankrupt, but it doesn’t stop intel types from spouting it whenever challenged.)

I have no doubt that Gen. Alexander loves this country as much as I do, or that his primary motivation is to protect our nation from terrorist attacks. “Never again,” he said over dinner. But it may be that our deep differences stem from a fundamental disagreement about human nature. I think Gen. Alexander believes that history is made by great individuals standing against evil. I believe that brave people can make a difference, but that larger inexorable forces are often more important: history, economics, political and social systems, the environment. So I believe that power corrupts and that good people will do bad things when a system is poorly designed, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. More than once, my dinner companions felt the need to reassure the DIRNSA that none of us thought he was a bad man, but that we thought the surveillance policies and practices were bad, and that eventually, inevitably, those policies and practices would lead to abuse.

It’s utterly unsurprising that Alexander is sure the abuses will be minor, and that these awesome powers are required, but men are not angels, and abuses are rampant.

How does a good man sit across from you at the dinner table and assure you the government is properly constrained, when in reality it lies and disregards even the most anemic purported safeguards? The easy answer is that he’s not a good man after all. Some people will call me naïve, but I disagree with that conclusion. In any case, it’s a simplistic view that masks the truth about systems of power, a truth we must understand and respect if we are to fix this surveillance nightmare we are just beginning to uncover.

Of course, we see mission creep – once you build the mousetrap of surveillance infrastructure, they will come for the data. First it was counterterrorism, then it was drug investigations, then it was IRS audits. Next it will be for copyright infringement.

And of course, there also will be both “inadvertent” and intentional abuse, inevitable but difficult to discover. Bored analysts do things like spy on women using surveillance cameras and listen to American GIs overseas having phone sex with their loved ones back home.

Granick concludes:

Liberty and security are the hard-won results of democratic process and limited government power. A system of mass surveillance puts innocent people at risk, and is, in itself, an abuse of liberty. Inevitably, it leads to further abuses. When the justification is counter-terrorism, and that’s your only concern, there is no countervailing interest that justifies slowing you down or stopping you. We are only beginning to learn all the ways in which good men are nevertheless failing to withstand the corrupting force of vast spying abilities. Indeed, the FISA court noted in that 2011 opinion that the government’s collection of tens of thousands of purely domestic communications, hidden from the court for years, could be a crime. (Footnote 15) The good people at NSA have literally pulverized the Fourth Amendment, government accountability, freedom of expression, rule of law, and so many other equally critical components of the American system.

More on Snowden, Miranda, Greenwald, & the Criminal Behavior of the Intelligence Community

(Preface: I was away for a week, so this is a bit of an omnibus post, largely drawn from the excellent TechDirt. TD has in the past focused mostly on abuses of intellectual property law — copyrights and patents — and their damaging effects in the tech world. Since the NSA disclosures, though, they’ve been a vital source for anyone trying to keep up; you should be reading them directly.)

As always, Bruce Schneier is on top of it. The clear takeaway here is that the terrorism law provisions were clearly misused to bully and intimidate Miranda as a proxy for Greenwald and Snowden — in other words, to “send a message“. From Schneier’s piece:

This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.

Once again: Fuck That. This is not how honorable nations behave. I’m increasingly skeptical this matters to anyone in power (even if it mattered to them before they gained power, even). The government’s incredibly illegal reaction to Manning’s leaks — n.b. that she’s been given a sentence well in excess of those convicted of actual espionage, and that the criminal acts exposed by the leaks have resulted in ZERO punishments — make it pretty clear Snowden did the right thing by leaving.

The NSA and the rest of the American security apparatus are wildly out of control. They have no real oversight (and are probably not worth the money they cost), and their apologists think this is fine. It’s not. Anyone given power over their fellow citizens must be policed MORE than average citizens, not less, because power absolutely corrupts. Just as the standard of behavior for a beat cop must be higher than that of a civilian, we must hold our spy agencies to similarly high standards. And that means civilian oversight. Government secrecy is anathema to freedom, and is self-evidently out of control — I mean, if the idea of secret laws and *secret courts** don’t freak you right the hell out, I don’t know what I can do for you.

Instead of a rollback, though, so far we’ve just gotten metastasis. Government agents are acting like thugs, blatantly intimidating perceived enemies. You probably heard that a secure email service called Lavabit shut down earlier this month after receiving one of those so-called “national security letters;” the thought at the time was that he was afraid of what the Feds might ask for in the future (and that he wouldn’t be able to complain about it, because of the gag provisions in the security letters). In response, the Feds are now threatening him with arrest and charges for shutting down — which makes us wonder if their real goal wasn’t a back door that would allow them access to everyone’s Lavabit mail. Good on Levison for doing the right thing, because it’s a matter of record that, when given the chance, the NSA is datamining the shit out of everything they can get their hands on, which at this point we realize includes about 75% of US Internet traffic.

Fortunately, we’re getting outrage on both sides of the pond to the overreach of intelligence organizations — outrage that can only be fueled by amazingly tone-deaf defenses from the British Home Office and American right-wing hacks like John “Torture is A-Okay!” Yoo (who, amazingly, argues that while the Justice Department should be governed by the 4th Amendment, military and intelligence agencies should be free to ignore it). In the UK, the fire’s been further fueled by the darkly hilarious development that spooks showed up at the Guardian and demanded to be allowed to destroy the hard drives holding the Snowden documents, and invoked the Prime Minister’s authority to do it — and never mind that Greenwald has clearly made copies and backups kept in other locations. It’s just more hamfisted intimidation tactics, and it’s not likely to work well for the Cameron government. Fortunately.

It’s become clear that we can trust absolutely nothing that the NSA says about its programs, and that Congress should have the same expectation. It’s time to clean house and start over. Neuter these fucks. Remind them who they work for, and put to rest forever the bullshit “well, if you knew what I know, but can’t tell you, you’d be happy I was doing $Illegal_thing in your name” defense.

Things I Wish I Knew

How, when I was checking in at exactly 24 hours prior to my flight, my boarding pass for my Southwest flight home tomorrow is A52.

I get the first 15 are reserved for Business Select. That’s fine. But I refuse to believe that 36 other people checked in before I did.


HOWTO: Win Any Bourbon Argument

Many, many Heathen have called my attention to this surprisingly witty bit from Esquire:


Create a founder’s legend.

  • It was Stonewall Jackson’s favorite bourbon, but they only started making it again in the 1960s after the owner talked to his great-granddad, who fought at Chancellorsville, and only gave up the recipe in a cloud of dementia and the certitude that all Yankees were dead and wouldn’t be able to drink it.

  • The owner is a hardcore Libertarian who began making this for barter because Jimmy Carter was going to impound all American gold. You haven’t heard of it, because until recently he wouldn’t let anyone buy it with fiat currency.

  • The recipe was a total accident. It only turned out this way because a colt kicked a barrel and changed the mash at just the right moment. That horse’s name? Citation.

Or, under lines to use about mouth feel and taste:

  • If you drink it in a perfectly still room, you will get hints of lily, mocha and leather, and you can hear the first time your mother smiled when she looked at you.

A bit on the Bechdel

The Bechdel Test is a means to get a reasonable guess as to the treatment of women in any given movie. To pass it, a movie must

  • Have at least two named, female characters
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something other than a man.

That seems really simple, but it’s shocking how few films actually pass it.

However, it’s also very important to note that failing it doesn’t make the movie bad, or even suggest that the movie treats women as decoration. As a friend of mine noted, the Bechdel Test is sort of like the BMI for movies: superficially useful, but a crappy way to measure the whole effort. The current poster child for this issue is Pacific Rim, which fails the Bechdel, but features a deeply fleshed out female character (Mako Mori) who has a distinct and independent narrative arc that isn’t dependent on a male character.

To address this, a new test — the Mako Mori Test — has been proposed. A film passes the MMT if it has

  • at least one female character
  • who gets her own narrative arc
  • that is not about supporting a man’s story.

It’s not quite as pithy — Bechdel was initially formulated as something like a joke pointing out how male-dominated film is — but it’s probably more accurate.

Today’s Winner for Government Thuggery: The UK!

The journalist who’s done most of the first-line reporting on the Snowden saga is a guy named Glenn Greenwald. Over the weekend, Mr Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained upon arriving at Heathrow Airport for nine hours on obviously trumped-up reasons. In the UK, nine hours is the legal max before they must charge you, which is not an amazing coincidence. (Mr Greenwald, an American, and Mr Miranda, a Brazilian, make their home in Rio.)

In addition to being detained, though, the Heathrow officials impounded Miranda’s cell phone, laptop, and memory sticks, ostensibly to search for “terrorism” evidence or some other such bullshit; the real reason for both the detention and the confiscation is obviously to harass Mr Greenwald.

This is complete bullshit.

From Greenwald’s column today:

[T]hey obviously had zero suspicion that David was associated with a terrorist organization or involved in any terrorist plot. Instead, they spent their time interrogating him about the NSA reporting which Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I are doing, as well the content of the electronic products he was carrying. They completely abused their own terrorism law for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism: a potent reminder of how often governments lie when they claim that they need powers to stop “the terrorists”, and how dangerous it is to vest unchecked power with political officials in its name.

Worse, they kept David detained right up until the last minute: for the full 9 hours, something they very rarely do. Only at the last minute did they finally release him. We spent all day – as every hour passed – worried that he would be arrested and charged under a terrorism statute. This was obviously designed to send a message of intimidation to those of us working journalistically on reporting on the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ.

Before letting him go, they seized numerous possessions of his, including his laptop, his cellphone, various video game consoles, DVDs, USB sticks, and other materials. They did not say when they would return any of it, or if they would.

Fortunately, it’s stirred up quite a bit of inquiry from Labour pols in Britain. What’s not cool is that apparently the White House knew beforehand.

More Guardian coverage here.

Schneier is paying attention to the NSA’s excesses. So should you.

At this point, I don’t think it’s at ALL hyperbole to say the Internet as it exists today is one of the happiest accidents in human history. Because of its convoluted history, it became a free-for-all space and, in some ways, a lawless frontier. This allowed a billion flowers to bloom based on a very simple foundation, and is anathema to control and censorship; John Gilmore famously distilled this principle as “the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

Governments — even, or maybe especially, ours — don’t like this lack of control. They don’t like that proper encryption makes it almost impossible to read anything they like. So the NSA is effectively commandeering the Internet, and will continue to push for more invasive surveillance and control unless they are stopped.

Help stop them. Here’s Bruce:

It turns out that the NSA’s domestic and world-wide surveillance apparatus is even more extensive than we thought. Bluntly: The government has commandeered the Internet. Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we’ve learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it’s easier that way.

I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight.

Do you remember those old spy movies, when the higher ups in government decide that the mission is more important than the spy’s life? It’s going to be the same way with you. You might think that your friendly relationship with the government means that they’re going to protect you, but they won’t. The NSA doesn’t care about you or your customers, and will burn you the moment it’s convenient to do so.

We’re already starting to see that. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are pleading with the government to allow them to explain details of what information they provided in response to National Security Letters and other government demands. They’ve lost the trust of their customers, and explaining what they do — and don’t do — is how to get it back. The government has refused; they don’t care.

It will be the same with you. There are lots more high-tech companies who have cooperated with the government. Most of those company names are somewhere in the thousands of documents that Edward Snowden took with him, and sooner or later they’ll be released to the public. The NSA probably told you that your cooperation would forever remain secret, but they’re sloppy. They’ll put your company name on presentations delivered to thousands of people: government employees, contractors, probably even foreign nationals. If Snowden doesn’t have a copy, the next whistleblower will.

This is why you have to fight. When it becomes public that the NSA has been hoovering up all of your users’ communications and personal files, what’s going to save you in the eyes of those users is whether or not you fought. Fighting will cost you money in the short term, but capitulating will cost you more in the long term.

How the NSA is lying to you

The EFF has a handy rundown of the positively Orwellian bullshit coming out of our “intelligence” community. Here’s an example:

Another tried and true technique in the NSA obfuscation playbook is to deny it does one invasive thing or another “under this program.” When it’s later revealed the NSA actually does do the spying it said it didn’t, officials can claim it was just part of another program not referred to in the initial answer.

This was the Bush administration’s strategy for the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”: The term “TSP” ended up being a meaningless label, created by administration officials after the much larger warrantless surveillance program was exposed by the New York Times in 2005. They used it to give the misleading impression that the NSA’s spying program was narrow and aimed only at intercepting the communications of terrorists. In fact, the larger program affected all Americans.

Dept. of Surprising Facts

Via Kottke, we find this article that details the ages of the key participants in the American Revolution as of July 4, 1776.

  • Marquis de Lafayette was 18; so was James Monroe
  • Gilbert Stuart was 20, as was Aaron Burr
  • Alexander Hamilton, 21
  • James Madison, 25
  • Thomas Jefferson, 33
  • John Adams, 40
  • Paul Revere, 41
  • George Washington, 44
  • Samuel Adams, 53

You sort of expect that they were all older men at the time, but that’s really not the case at all.

Yeah, about that NSA thing?

Turns out they CAN actually read our email. They just promise not to without a really good reason.

Oh, and they get to decide what a good enough reasons is, and they’d don’t have to tell us.

Books of 2013, #34: Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #13)

Lucky #13, for sure. Child was off his game in the prior one, but back to a much better form here. This time around the enemy is a bit more au courant, but not clangingly so; Reacher has been in a post-9/11 world for a few books now, and given his lifestyle it was inevitable he’d have to battle terrorists and well-meaning but dimwitted fascist pseudocops.

Anyway, it’s a return of compulsively readable form for Child, which is refreshing after the train wreck of Nothing to Lose.

Alarmingly, I will note that there are only five more books in the series at this point, counting the one that won’t be out in hardback until the fall. I’m not sure what my junk food of choice will be when I run out of these. Nominations? (I think I’m safe through the end of calendar 2014 at least, so no hurry.)

So, with all the illegal bullshit the NSA is doing, you may have forgotten something else

Civil forfeiture remains an enormous problem. Basically, law enforcement can confiscate anything they like, and it’s on you to try to get it back. Due process doesn’t apply.

In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

Go read it. It’s long; it’s from The New Yorker. But you need to read it. A critical fact here is that law enforcement organizations have grown fat and happy on the ill-gotten gains that civil forfeiture brings, and are loathe to back away from it as a result because it directly benefits them, and never mind the people they’re stealing from.

“But that won’t happen to me!” you may think, but you’d be wrong. It just takes a few corrupt officers to create a Tenaha situation. For a while, maybe it won’t happen to nice, upper-middle-class white people who can afford lawyers and a court fight — but it won’t stay that way. And it’s utter BULLSHIT that this happens to anyone, regardless of race, class, or wealth.

Is it a powerful tool? No one contests that. But it’s a tool the government should NOT have, because it’s so prone to abuse. There’s no real recourse for the victims, and insufficient oversight of the criminals in charge. As with most problems with law enforcement or prosecutorial misconduct, their fundamental immunity from any personal consequences to their actions exacerbates the problem.

To recap:

  • The government has the capability to eavesdrop on every call and email, and the laws that govern this ability are state secrets that cannot be challenged in court.
  • The government has asserted its right to declare someone and “illegal combatant” — basically, enemy of the state — and asserts that, in so doing, it is free to imprison, punish, or torture that person without due process, and without opportunity for judicial relief.
  • The government can and does confiscate private property without compensation on trumped-up charges with only the slimmest of chances of getting anything back.

If we do not insist that this shit STOP with a furious quickness, it’s game over for this so-called land of the free. It’s not about what Obama might do with these powers; it’s about what a bad guy might do. Or a misguided good guy. We should never give the government a power that we would not want our worst political enemies to have, but we’ve been asleep too long, and the state has gradually acquired several such powers under cover of the (utterly bullshit) war on drugs, or because of 9/11.

It’s time to stop it.

Still not freaked out about spying, Snowden, and the governmental hysteria around it?

Yeah, go read this.

tl;dr: the secure email provider Snowden used has shut down, citing cryptic governmental action. In his closure notice, the firm’s founder notes this:

This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.

He’s not wrong. Market reaction to the Snowden revelations is likely to cost US cloud and hosting firms a pretty penny. Sure, a Swedish firm might give up data to the Swedish government, but right now it’s the US government’s actions that disturb everyone who’s paying attention. Sweden, for example, hasn’t sent anyone to be tortured in Syria lately.

Books of 2013, #33: vN, by Madeline Ashby

This one is one of those “big idea” science fiction books. What if, Ashby wonders, we had self-aware synthetic humans in today’s world? Take it further; wonder about love and marriage and kids. Take it one more step, and build your story around the “child” of a mixed couple: human father, “vN” (for Von Neumann) mother. In the world of the book, the child is really only the offspring of the mother; the synthetics are technological, not biological, and so an actual hybrid is impossible. Toss in a sprinklings of Asimov and set the ball rolling, and you’ve got most of Ashby’s novel.

It’s mostly fun, but begins to collapse under the weight of its own ideas well before the end. I find this is an issue in lots of SF: the writer’s “what if” engine goes into overdrive, and more and more ideas get grafted on, and before long the narrative is stuck in a bog of individually interesting notions that, taken together, create a mess.

Still, vN is a debut. Flawed as it is, it still suggests more interesting work to come form her pen. I doubt I’ll bother with the sequel, but I really would like to read what she comes up with next, once she’s done with this world.

Books of 2013, #32: Countdown City: The Last Policeman Book II

You may or may not recall that my first 2013 book was Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman, which I read in one sitting on January first. It’s the tale of a fairly green police detective chasing an apparent suicide that doesn’t look quite right — and set in a world with an expiration date. An asteroid is bearing down on the Earth; the expectation is that virtually no one will live past the following October. This sets in motion a number of events and changes in society, and it’s teasing out these effects where Winters does his best work, at least in the first volume. It’s not that the story is substandard; it’s just that he does such a good job with the worldbuilding that you get a little distracted.

The balance is better with book 2, Countdown City. The clock’s kept moving; by now, we’re inside 3 months. The asteroid is now set to impact the far side of the world, so we’ve added refugee issues to the challenges being faced by the people in Winters’ world. The plot this time is less obvious, and plugs into the impending doom a bit more directly even if it starts with a conventional missing-persons case (which, in this world, are never “conventional” — people run away or commit suicide with alarming regularity). As before, though, I sort of feel like Winters whiffs the ending. Not so much that it ruins the book, and no so much that I don’t want to read the final book (due next summer), but enough to be annoying.

Also annoying: Winters and his editor made some seriously rookie mistakes here when it comes to firearms. In 2013, that’s just silly; gun people are one of the original nerd tribes, and will happily set you straight about any number of concepts. For example, it should’ve been easy for them to find out that SIG Sauer doesn’t even make a revolver — and that, to be honest, nobody the age of Winters’ cop would be using a wheel gun anyway.

Winters compounds the problem by invoking a sniper rifle with a military designation (M140) that’s either made up or so obscure as to be a poor choice. Since there IS a Marine sniper rifle called the M40, plus a couple others based on the M14, it’s easy to see where the error came from, but that doesn’t completely excuse it. if you’re going to be specific, get it right. Being less specific to finesse your lack of knowledge on a given subject is no sin, as long as you don’t destabilize your plot; in both cases, Winters would’ve been safe avoiding the specific reference.

Books of 2013, #31: Bourbon, Straight by Charles Cowdery

Cowdery is a well-regarded bourbon blogger and writer; as I’m a fan of the spirit, I sought out his book, which I think he self-published. It’s a bunch of solid articles, but it lacks the editing polish and overall coherence we associate with big-publisher books. That’s a nit, though; Cowdery’s book is a compulsively readable survey of the history of bourbon — which is a pretty fascinating tale. Aging, for example, comes late to the party; 18th century American corn whiskey was, typically, unaged and therefore clear. (Why bourbon is typically aged much less than Scottish whiskys is also an interesting tale, by the way.)

Cowdery also gives us a great survey of who, actually, is making bourbon today. It’s fewer people than you’d think — there’s no end of contract distilling and label opaqueness. The bourbon boom that happened after this book went to press have just made those problems worse. (Seriously, look at a bottle and see if you can really and truly tell where the whiskey was made. Odds are, you can’t, but for a very small number of brands.)

Anyway, it’s a good and quick read, but it might be worth waiting to see if Cowdery plans to update it in light of the modern developments in the whiskey market. Even if he doesn’t, though, it’s worth your time.

You are not safe.

“Sure, NSA’s looking at everything, but I’m not a terrorist, so I’ve got nothing to worry about, right?

Maybe Obama won’t do it. Maybe the next guy won’t, or the one after him. Maybe this story isn’t about you. Maybe it happens 10 or 20 years from now, when a big war is happening, or after another big attack. Maybe it’s about your daughter or your son. We just don’t know yet. But what we do know is that right now, in this moment we have a choice. Are we okay with this, or not? Do we want this power to exist, or not?