Books of 2014, #15: No Place to HIde, by Glenn Greenwald

(Finished July 30; I’m stupid behind on these posts.)

By now, everyone knows the name Edward Snowden, and what he did, and what he gave up to do what he did — and what challenges he may still face if the US government ever gets their hands on him. But do yourself a favor and read this book, because you really don’t know the whole story, and you really — still — have no idea how egregious the NSA’s behavior has been.

No Place to Hide is equal parts expose and thriller; the initial chapters detail how Greenwald was contacted by Snowden, and the tradecraft he had to learn in order to communicate with him. Snowden was very, very careful, and for good reason: as we’ve seen, his disclosures have been pretty explosive.

The second part of the story is Greenwald’s analysis of what’s been released so far: explaining the absurd, illegal, unconstitutional overreach of the surveillance in terms anyone can understand (and therefore be outraged by). These programs are ongoing, and are likely to remain issues in campaigns for some time to come, but we wouldn’t even know about them if it weren’t for Snowden.

The intelligence community is, obviously, totally bananas for all these programs, and why wouldn’t they be — it’s a spy’s wet dream to have access to this kind of data. But letting intelligence operatives decide where the line between “reasonable surveillance” and “criminally dangerous big brother shit” is a recipe for disaster.

Greenwald also gives us a pretty exhaustive history of surveillance, including a discussion of the effect this kind of “total information awareness” has on free (and not-so-free) societies. (Hint: it’s not good.)

Of course, the NSA isn’t acting in a vacuum here; there’s been a general failure of the press to act as a real check on government for a long, long time. Today, they so love their access that they’re completely unwilling to call out lies and bullshit. It’s much safer to regurgitate press releases without challenging anything. N.B. that it’s absolutely, unequivocally true that the Times knew about the wiretapping in 2004, before the election, and failed to tell anyone; something this explosive could have easily changed the election results.

But this is where we are: we have a powerful and craven intelligence (and law enforcement) community that views even dissent as unAmerican and dangerous even in the absence of actual wrongdoing or lawbreaking. This leads to a malignant expansion of state power, and cries out for someone to say something and at least begin the conversation in public about how much we’ll put up with. The press wasn’t doing it. Snowden and Greenwald have, and for that we all owe them a debt.

Castle Doctrine? Only for white people.

Say you’re asleep in your house. Say you’re awoken by some goon breaking into your home through a window, so you reach for your pistol to defend your home, property, and family. It is, after all, Texas; if a kid in a hoodie is threatening enough in Florida, then surely someone breaking into your house is threatening.

Gotcha! It was actually a no-knock marijuana raid (that found no drugs, and certainly found nothing to suggest the resident was a kingpin), and you just killed a cop! (A cop who has, posthumously, been awarded a Star of Texas by the governor.)

Oh, you’re also black, so it should come as no surprise that the prosecutor wants to kill you for having the unmitigated gall to defend your home against unknown intruders.

N.B. that nothing found in the raid was actionable at all. They’re trying to execute this guy for shooting at intruders. Which, of course, sounds a lot like another case I remember.

Oh, and further note that the Killeen cops were executing a no-knock, surprise warrant — basically, the most violent sort of raid — in pursuit of a drug now legal for personal use in two states. Whether or not this kind of violent, retrograde enforcement of pot prohibition is a good idea or good use of resources is left as an exercise to the reader.

Police be accountable for murdering black people? Don’t be silly.

An Ohio grand jury has refused to indict the (white) cops who gunned down an unarmed, unthreatening shopper in a Wal-Mart for committed the crime of “holding a toy gun while black.”

There is video evidence that he was doing absolutely nothing that could be construed as a threat. This was straight up murder, and it should surprise absolutely none of you that the cops will get off scott free.

Be aware of what events like this, with no actual consequences for the muderers, mean to a significant portion of the country. Recognize that displays like this and actions like this in the wake of such crimes make it very, very clear that a huge chunk of law enforcement think they’re doing absolutely nothing wrong.

This must change. The longer we allow this to go on, the more we fundamentally damage our society. Hold violent cops accountable, personally and criminally. Limit the powers of police to use force for no good reason. Create real consequences for overreach. End asset forfeiture. And stop recruiting ignorant bullies into LEOs.

And now a word on Whiskey

As I noted before, there’s been a bit of an explosion in the bourbon and American whiskey market in the last few years. As a consequence, there’s lots of bullshit on the shelves — bottles made by marketers, full of sourced juice, with utterly fictional histories and backgrounds, positioned in such a way as to ABSOLUTELY mislead customers.

This is shitty behavior.

Fortunately, the liquor world is one of the first places to have gotten actual truth-in-labeling laws, and so the words on a liquor bottle actually MEAN something if you know what to look for.

Probably the most egregious label bullshit is hiding the provenance of the whiskey. N.B. that the word “produced” really just means “bottled.” If the bottle doesn’t say where it was distilled, then the odds are the marketers don’t want you to know. Pick another bottle; good whiskey is proud of where it comes from.

The next thing to look for is what the bottle claims it contains. The truly shitty operations will sell things like “spirit whiskey,” which is basically grain alcohol with some flavorings designed to mimic actual aged whiskey. This stuff is bullshit, and you should not buy it. Look for things that actually claim to be bourbon whiskey or rye whiskey.

But that doesn’t solve much; the “bourbon” name doesn’t mean as much as you think it does (for example, it doesn’t have to be from Kentucky). To be called bourbon, according to the Feds:

  • Produced in the US
  • The mash bill (mix of grain) must be 51% or more corn
  • It must be distilled at less than 160 proof
  • It must be age at 125 proof or below
  • It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels

Note that there is no minimum aging required, nor is there anything about additives and flavorings. Adding shit to bourbon is completely legal, and shitty distillers and “producers” do it all the time.

The next step is what you need to look for: if it says “straight bourbon,” it can contain no additives and must be aged in those barrels for at least 2 years. Realistically, there’s no reason to buy something that isn’t straight.

A straight bourbon with no age statement on the bottle must be aged more than 4 years. (Oh, and the age statement must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle; blending is okay, and is done all the time to produce a consistent product.)

A bourbon labeled “blended” may have coloring, flavoring, and other spirits (i.e., grain alcohol) added, but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon.

“Bottled in Bond” is an even more serious distinction. You won’t find a lot of marketing whiskey done this way, but (hilariously) the 1897 Bottled in Bond act was passed to regulate unscrupulous whiskey sellers who used coloring and flavoring and whatnot to dupe customers. Sound familiar?

BIB bourbon must meet all the requirements of straight bourbon, plus:

  • It must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least 4 years
  • It must be bottled at 100 proof
  • It must clearly state the identity of the distillery and, if different, the bottling location
  • It must be the product of a single distilling season and one distiller at one distillery

Wisdom from Vonnegut

Found over at Merlin’s joint:

[When Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

Warning: The Criminal Justice System Will Eat You Alive

And they absolutely do not care if you’re guilty or not. In fact, they’ll work miracles to incarcerate you or kill you. And there will be, of course, no consequences for railroading anybody.

  • Consider the example of a man picked up for a minor drug possession charge who somehow managed to commit suicide with a gun undiscovered by two searches, and while his hands were cuffed behind is back!
  • Or about about the sad tale of Tyree Threatt, who is facing charges for a mugging committed in June 27. However, the state admits that on the day in question, he was in jail. Never mind the alibi; make bail or sit in jail some more, because the prosecutors would rather “work it out at trial.”

The real problem is that this is exactly what they SHOULD have done

The CBC is now warning Canadians that US law enforcement will pull them over and steal their cash.

They are absolutely right. Asset forfeiture is a major revenue source for LEOs nationwide, so there is little reason to expect a cop to do anything other than seize whatever they can get away with. They have the power to do so, even if no crime has been committed and no arrest made.

This is, of course, bullshit.

31.76 miles.

43-year-old Jens Voigt was successful in his Hour attempt, and blew the prior record of 49.700 kilometers out of the water with 51.115. That’s 31.761 miles.

Just by way of comparison, I’ll add a stat of my own. I am an enthusiastic amateur, nowhere nearly the fastest person I ride with, but I’ll put this out there: GarminConnect tracks a few metrics, and one of them is your best time over 40km, which is 24.85 miles.

My PR over that distance, set during the Katy Flatland ride in July, is 1:14:46, at an average speed of 19.9MPH. Voigt covered 40 kilometers today in a hair under 47 minutes.

Today, at noon, Jens Voigt will attempt something extraordinary

He’s going for the Hour.

The Hour record in cycling is simple: how far can you ride in a single hour on a track bike? It’s done inside, alone, on a velodrome, and is more than a little bananas. Eddy Merckx set a record in 1972 that stood for twelve years; the current record is 30.9 miles, set in 2005 by Ondrej Sosenka, is only about a fifth of a mile farther than Eddy.

The WSJ has a backgrounder, but the real fun is that there will be a livestream on the Trek site.

Velo News has more, including his playlist.

Tune in.

In which I am geeky about day length

Somehow, I made it 44 years without every really paying attention to the day to day differences in the time the sun sets. My agrarian ancestors would be horrified, I’m sure, but for most of my working life the only real question was “is it going to be light outside when I leave the office?”

In the summer, the answer is yes.

In the winter, the answer is no.

And for most of my life, that’s all I noticed.

But a couple months ago, I started riding with a group at West End on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the ride starts at 6:30, which is much earlier than the rides I’d done in the past. This summer has been great for my cycling; I’ve lost weight and gotten stronger, both of which have made me faster. The route to the ride doesn’t change, so I could gauge my progress by what time I pass certain points, and especially what time I get home.

The first thing I noticed was that my “great ride” finish time got closer and closer to 8:00; a couple times, I even got home BEFORE 8.

The second thing I noticed was that not only did I never turn on my headlight, but most of the riders I was with didn’t even bother to bring one. Sure, if you took breaks and didn’t plan to finish until the bottom half of the 8:00 hour, you’d need one, but if you mashed hard and kept moving you really didn’t need to bother at all in June (earliest sunset: 8:17, on the first), or in July (8:15, on the 31st)

Of course, after July 1, days start getting shorter again, and by mid-August I was using my headlight on the last parts of the ride even though I was finishing at the same time.

I started to wonder — never having bothered to care before — about the rate at which the day was getting shorter. I’d blithely assumed the change was linear at first, but there’s every reason for it not to be. It’s just that I never had cause to notice it before because I’d never been outside consistently during the time in question.

Being a giant nerd, I went looking for data. It wasn’t hard to find. This month the changes from Tuesday to Thursday, and especially from Thursday to the following Tuesday, have been especially pronounced; the table quantifies it, but in a way I didn’t anticipate.

The surprise was that yes, the acceleration IS there in the last half of the year — but it had already happened. Each day in September is about 1:45 shorter than the previous one; there’s almost no variance at all. The first was 1:44 shorter than the last day of August, and the 30th will be 1:46 shorter than the 29th.

The giant jumps happened two months ago. July first was only 22 seconds shorter than the last day of June, but by the end of the month the delta had ballooned to 1:17. The change in August wasn’t as huge, but it’s still much bigger than September: 1:19 on August 1 to 1:42 on the 31st.

I just didn’t NOTICE until September, because (a) the average day-to-day change in July is so much smaller and (b) if I’m honest, I admit that the need to use my headlight made me much more conscious of the rate of change.

But those big bites in September really do drive the point home. There’s only about a nine minute difference in daylight between July 1 and July 31, but those 1:45 changes add up quick in September. The 30th is more than half an hour shorter than the first.

My ride on the 11th had three and a half minutes less sunlight than my ride on the 9th, just two days before. My ride tonight will have nearly NINE minutes less sunlight than my ride Thursday.

tl;dr: Orbits and seasons, man.

Airport Mall Cops Attempt to Screen Passenger POST-FLIGHT

Christ, these goons are ridiculous.

The short version is that Minneapolis man has, for some reason (and there’s no reason to assume it’s a valid reason), been placed on the “extra scrutiny” list by the TSA — but they somehow managed to forget to give him the third degree before boarding. So, obviously, the logical thing to do is screen him after the flight.

Um, right.

Fortunately, the passenger simply refused to comply and walked away, since the TSA has no power to detain you. (They did threaten to call the Denver police and have him arrested, which is remarkable in and of itself, and entirely aside from the fact that it’s a completely empty threat.) And, of course, the DHS and TSA won’t actually discuss why this man is on the extra scrutiny list, even with the man himself, so there’s no way to resolve the situation.

Dept of Whiskey Dishonesty

We’ve been watching the bourbon boom for a while now, and enjoying it very much. The sudden growth of the market, though, has led to some very shady practices. Chief among them is the creation of “Potemkin” distilleries that exist only on shelves. What I mean by this is a whiskey brand that doesn’t actually make any of its own whiskey — they just buy juice from elsewhere and apply marketing. (This is distinct from distilleries like Yellow Rose that are using sourced whiskey (e.g., their rye) to secure brand identity and shelf space as they ramp up their production of actually no-shit distilled-in-Texas bourbon. YR isn’t too honest about the provenance of the rye, but they’re doing it in service of a properly labeled product, at least.)

Chuck Cowdery explores one such example from right here in Texas: the “1835 Bourbon” you may have seen around that, unbelievably, asserts right on the label that it’s made in Texas. It is not.

I’ve had it. It’s pretty good whiskey, and only a little overpriced for the quality. But it’s not by any stretch from Texas; it’s absolutely sourced juice from Indiana or Kentucky. The fact that the bottle doesn’t include a distillation site is the only piece of actual honesty on the label.

Moreover, it’s got no age statement, and omits the “straight” portion of the appellation, which is a confusing set of markers if you know how to read a whiskey bottle.

The lack of an age statement means, by law, the whiskey must be at least four years old. But the absence of “straight” usually means the produce is less than TWO years old, or fails to meet other rules regarding the term (additives, etc.).

Hey Chief Heathen! How about those new iPhones?

You know what i know at this point. It’s been 2 years; I’ll probably get one, but it’s not clear yet which. I’ll definitely get the 128GB model either way.

By the by, if you’re curious about how the sizes actually stack up, Ars Technica has this handy PDF template you can print out that’ll give you a sense for their sizes.

I was surprised to learn this, but despite all the chatter about how huge the 6 Plus is supposed to be, it turns out it’s about the size of two standard checkbooks stacked on top of each other (3×6 inches).

  • The iPhone 6 Plus is 6.22 x 3.06.
  • The regular iPhone 6 is 5.44 x 2.64.
  • An iPhone 5 is 4.87 x 2.31.

So, what do watch people think of the Apple Watch?

Glad you asked.

This analysis is really astute and spot on, I think. Some bits:

The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350. There is nothing that comes close to the fluidity, attention to detail, or simple build quality found on the Apple Watch in this price bracket. The Sistem51, for example, is a very cool, inexpensive mechanical watch. But it feels like it costs $150 (for the record, I bought one and adore it). Then, for closer to the price of the Apple Watch, you could own this, which is, well, downright horrific in just about every conceivable metric. Seiko does offer some nice things at $349 or less, but again, they feel like they cost exactly what they do. The Apple Watch feels like a lot of thought went into it, and no doubt it did. It feels expensive.


The Apple Watch, in its own way, really pays great homage to traditional watchmaking and the environment in which horology was developed. We have to remember that the first timekeeping devices, things like sundials, were dictated by the sun and the stars, as is time to this day. The fact that Apple chose to develop two faces dedicated to the cosmos shows they are, at the very least, aware of the origins and importance of the earliest timekeeping machines, and the governing body of all time and space – the universe. (Sidenote: this “Astronomy” face will make it super easy to set the moonphase on your perpetual calendar. #watchnerdalert)


Apple paid great attention to detail with this new wrist-bound peripheral, and it shows the Swiss that it is possible to have great design at low costs. That is the most exciting thing about the Apple Watch for me – it will push the Swiss to take the sub-$1,000 mechanical watch category more seriously.

Now, do I want one? Only maybe. I’d have to see one first. But I suspect later iterations will be even more interesting, so it does seem likely that, eventually, I’ll pick one up even if it’s not in 2015.

Dept. of Hilarious Compliance

I can’t decide which of these stories is more awesome:

  • In this one, we learn of a mysterious casino in Las Vegas only open one day every two years. Why? Because of a quirk in casino licensing law, the license is tied to a location and remains valid as long as it’s in business one day in the previous two years. The new owners of one site tore down the old building, and haven’t gotten around to building a new one, but they keep the license good by bringing in a trailer full of slots at least every two years and opening THAT as their casino.

  • This one is even funnier. In Indiana, apparently, joints that sell booze by the drink must also have food service available at all times. The linked menu for the Bank Street Brewhouse in New Albany includes such delights as canned soup and microwaved hot dogs with no condiments, both at $10.

Doing the right thing has a time limit.

Sometimes, outcry produces the right outcome, but it only really happens BECAUSE of outcry.

When this happens, it’s not an example of moral leadership or even moral fiber. It’s the logical equivalent of expressing regret that you got caught, not that you did something wrong in the first place. And that’s exactly where the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens are today.

Sure, Ray Rice has been fired after TMZ (no link) released video that there is no way the NFL hadn’t already seen. Sure, the NFL has finally suspended Rice “indefinitely,” which probably means for at LEAST a year, or however long it takes for people to forget.

But they knew all the facts well before TMZ forced their hand with the video. Their actions now are because they couldn’t get away with the wrist slap anymore, not because they’re strong moral people.

Nobody gets pissed off like Olbermann, and so for this I’ll just direct you to his incendiary rant. (Doesn’t it sort of seem like “incendiary rant” is a term Keith just fucking OWNS now?)

As far as the NCAA is concerned, Reggie Bush was a bigger problem than Sandusky

That’s the inevitable takeaway from the NCAA’s announcement yesterday that Penn State is off probation.

USC got popped with a 2 year bowl ban and lost 30 scholarships after Reggie Bush took money as a student. Penn State’s ended up with the same bowl ban, but a loss of only 20 scholarships.

Fuck. That.

What IS it about football that makes people lose their goddamn minds?

A Dee-luxe Apartment in the Sky

Gulf carrier Etihad has a new class of service on some long haul flights: Residence. There’s one per A380. It’s a 125 square foot, three-room suite usable by one or two guests. Yes, it includes its own bathroom.

Residence on Abu Dhabi to London costs a cool $21,000 each way, but that’s a pretty short flight by comparison. For a real long haul — say, London to Sydney via Abu Dhabi — you’re looking at forty grand each way.

Click through. There’s video.

Dept. of Amusing Stats

Just a bit ago, my brother called to find out the amount we’d paid for taxes on our farm property this year. I didn’t know offhand, so I went to my bank to find out. Not recalling when I’d written that check, but knowing I probably wrote very few checks this year, I just asked it to give me a list of all the checks I’d written in 2014.

There were three. One to the AC guy, one to the tax guy, and one to the State of Mississippi.

(Where’s my IRS check, you wonder? Well, turns out, back in April I couldn’t find my checks, so Mrs. Heathen wrote that one.)

Sorta makes me wonder how my former employer is doing, but not really enough to check — though the fact that they don’t even have a site of their own is sort of telling.

I smell a lawsuit

The Air Force has, apparently, reinstated a regulation requiring personnel to swear an oath to God as part of re-enlistment.

Nonbeliever Air Force personnel are, needless to say, not terribly pleased by this. I’d love to know whose idea this was.