Monday, June 17, 2013


No Sift next week. The next articles will be posted on July 1.

At the hands of the press,
and in the eyes of the Government,
I fell from grace.
I too became a dissident.

-- Thomas Dolby, "Dissidents" (lyrics, audio)

This week everybody was talking about Edward Snowden

And that misses the point. If you're talking about Snowden -- whether he's a hero or a traitor, why he did it, what should happen to him, etc. -- then you're not talking about the NSA, what it's doing, and what should be done to corral it.

The NSA loves that.

So no matter how many bright shiny objects the establishment press tries to distract you with -- look! his girl friend is a pole dancer! -- keep your eye on the ball. The issue that matters is the NSA, not Snowden. I flesh those ideas out, and cover what else we learned about the NSA this week, in Edward Snowden Is Not the Issue.

You know who does do a good job of laying out the issues? Juice Rap News.

and Syria

The Obama administration has become convinced that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels. And governments can't be allowed to do that, so we have to do something. But that doesn't mean we know what to do, or how not to get sucked into another long war with nothing to win.

The British newspaper The Independent reports that Iran is sending 4,000 members of its Revolutionary Guard to help Assad. It frames Obama's move to arm the rebels as the U.S. taking sides in the region-wide sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia.

Foreign Policy explains why the Pentagon has been dragging its feet on intervention.
With some notable exceptions, top brass believe arming Syrian rebels, creating a no-fly zone and intervening in other ways militarily, amounts to a risky approach with enormous costs that won't likely give the Syrian opposition the lift it needs.

And at that point do we say, "Oh well, at least we tried."? Or do we have to go in deeper to justify what we've done already?

and Turkey

Turkish protestors make Les Miserables their own. I wish that didn't fill me with foreboding. I can't say I really understand what the Turkish protests are about, but this article helps.

and DNA patents

Maybe my cynicism level has gotten too high. I was sure that a few of the corporatist justices on the Supreme Court would figure out a way to justify granting patents on naturally-occurring human DNA; I wouldn't have been totally shocked if that view had won a 5-4 majority. Eventually, I figured, some mega-corp will patent lungs and charge the rest of us royalties for breathing.

Didn't happen.

Instead, Thursday the Court unanimously decided that "separating [a] gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention" and is therefore not patentable. The decision specifically applied to Myriad Genetics' claim of a patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes implicated in breast cancer. Because of those patents, Myriad had a monopoly on testing for those genes and was able to charge high prices. (Angelina Jolie launched those tests into the headlines a few weeks ago by having her apparently healthy breasts removed after seeing her results.)

But I wrote about Apocalyptic Optimism

It's easy to be an optimist if you think the right people are in power and have things more-or-less in hand. But Gar Alperovitz's What Then Must We Do? and David Graeber's The Democracy Project are upbeat books by people who think our current system is falling apart.

and how to make the NSA's job harder

I try out some simple anonymizing tools in Herd Immunity Against Online Spying.

and these things also caught my eye


In one of the year's most fascinating political surprises, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (famous for the anti-immigrant "papers please" law S. B. 1070) succeeded in pushing Obamacare's Medicaid expansion through the legislature. Brewer had begun carrying out her threat to veto every bill until Medicaid expansion passed.

300,000 Arizonans will now get health insurance. The Medicaid expansion is important because it rationalizes healthcare for the working poor. Currently, many of them wait until health problems get out of hand, then go to the emergency room, generating huge bills they can't pay. Some of those costs are absorbed by the hospitals (who make it up by overcharging the rest of us), and some costs eventually are borne by cities and states. Since the cost of Medicaid expansion is largely borne by the federal government, Arizona saves money by agreeing to it.

Nate Silver says the odds of a second Massachusetts Senate upset are slim.

Undoubtedly some everyday sexual harassment -- pinching, grabbing, leering, etc. -- is done with conscious malice. But I suspect most harassers have just never tried to imagine what being on the receiving side is really like. So they think: "It's a game", "women expect it", "it's no big deal", "they should be flattered", and so on. Well, for those guys, there's this video:

Parody news sites are getting harder to spot. They're more subtle than they used to be, and the level of craziness in real news keeps going up. So fools quite a few people with stories like Texas Board of Education Revises Textbooks: Slaves were “Unpaid Interns”.

Every news-satire site should adopt Newslo's help feature: the Show Facts button at the bottom of each story. Clicking it highlights the parts of the story that are true.

After another Republican man says something stupid about rape, Ta-Nehisi Coates comments on the value of diversity:
If you are not around people who will look at you like you are crazy when you make stupid claims about other people's experiences, then you tend to keep saying stupid things about other people's experiences.

Diversity in positions of power isn't just a kumbaya thing or a way to buy off politically important minorities. If you're about to embarrass yourself, your party, or your country by saying something stupid about (or doing something stupid to) people you don't understand, a diverse leadership group has ways of shutting that whole thing down.

Ah, the perverse state government of Scott Walker's Wisconsin. While the legislature has been in the process of passing one of those war-on-women forced-ultrasound laws, the amount of dissent tolerated in the galleries has been shrinking. Thursday they hit a new low: Women who protested by putting duct tape over their mouths were removed from the gallery. Somebody want to explain to me again how conservatism is all about freedom?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Plugging In

How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.

-- George Orwell, 1984

They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.

-- Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower

This week everybody was talking about the surveillance state

In a series of revelations made through The Guardian and The Washington Post, whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed how the NSA collects information on everyone, even people who have no connection to terrorism and have not done anything to raise suspicion.

In PRISM and Privacy, I collect links to the key articles and discuss how to think about them. (My conclusions are more radical than you probably expect.) But whether you click through to that or not, you should watch this 12-minute interview Glen Greenwald did with Snowden in Hong Kong on Thursday.


and Republican reform

Last Monday, the College Republicans told their party how it needs to change if it's going to appeal to young voters. They wrote an insightful report, but I doubt the GOP will be able to follow their advice. I put the details in a separate article, Smart Kids.

and you also might be interested in ...

Tennessee is one of several Republican-dominated states that are refusing federal money to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Their substitute program can only be explained by The Daily Show.

Another front on which corporate personhood has been advancing for decades: Corporations claim First Amendment rights in situations that don't look anything like free-speech cases.

Isn't it interesting that -- at the precise moment in our history when inequality is skyrocketing, when corporate profits are rising and wages shrinking -- we have a corporate-funded movement that blames the failures of our inner-city public schools on lazy teachers and their unions?

I learned journalism on my high school newspaper. That makes me a dinosaur, because high-school papers are going extinct.

Speaking of high school, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a fabulous article explaining why he was such a bad student. When he speaks to students now
I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination. My belief is that, if I can get them to understand the "why?" of education, then the effort and hard work and long study hours will come after.

Coates is largely self-educated in adulthood. The problem wasn't that he was lazy or stupid.
I recall sitting in my seventh-grade French class repeating over and over "Il fait froidIl fait chaud." Why was I learning French? Who did I know that spoke French? Where is France? Do they even really talk like this? Well, yeah, they kinda do. I figured that out at 37. And now I find myself clutching flashcards, repeating "Il fait froid. Il fait chaud."

He believes poor black kids in inner-city schools want to be rappers or athletes (and work pretty hard at it sometimes) because that's the only kind of wonder they get to see. If they understood education as a way to open up more wonder, they might work pretty hard at that too.

Remember the guy at CPAC from the White Students Union? The guy who wondered why Frederick Douglass would need to forgive his owner for "giving him shelter and food"?

What if you were his fiction-writing professor, like Ben Warner? Warner's article in Salon is a meditation on the ambiguities of remaining in human relationship with people despite their politics, despite your inability to influence them.

Finally, it doesn't get any cooler than ...

a treehouse made of mirrors.

Monday, June 3, 2013


I'll start with you, Erick. What makes you dominant and me submissive?

-- Megyn Kelly, to fellow Fox News pundit Erick Erickson

This week everybody was talking about "breadwinner Moms"

A Pew study about ... well, it's hard to say exactly what it's about, as I outline in Category Error -- the problem with that "breadwinner mom" study  ... anyway, it set off a hilariously neanderthal discussion by this all-male panel on Fox Business Channel.

which prompted this on-air butt-kicking by Fox News' Megyn Kelly.

Fox's Greta Van Susteren wasn't directly stereotyped (because her bio doesn't mention any children), but she wasn't buying it either:

Have these men lost their minds? (and these are my colleagues??!! oh brother… maybe I need to have a little chat with them) (next thing they will have a segment to discuss eliminating women’s right to vote?)

But rather than poke fun at Fox-pundit ignorance, I'd rather ask one of my favorite questions: Why are we having this discussion?

I think it's because Pew threw together groups of people whose combination produces a big eye-catching number and a scary graph, but who really don't belong together. Pew then gave its new category a catchy-but-inaccurate name that contributed to the term becoming a stereotype.

The media then had an ignorant, stereotype-driven discussion because what else could it do? Pundits who paid attention to the full diversity of the category and restricted themselves to true statements -- they had nothing interesting to say.

and "court packing"

The D. C. Court of Appeals is the second-most-important American court after the Supreme Court. It had a conservative majority until President Obama finally got a nominee Sri Srinivasan confirmed last month. Now it's 4-4. But there are three other vacancies, and rumor has it that the administration is planning to submit three nominations at once -- a strategy Jonathan Chait calls "obstruct this". If Senate Republicans try to block all three, that would make a clear case for the Senate to end the filibuster on presidential nominations once and for all.

Hilariously, Senator Grassley referred to this possibility as "packing the court" a phrase that points back to an FDR proposal to change the Constitution. Somehow, a president using his constitutional power to nominate candidates to fill vacancies is equivalent to a constitutional amendment.

The longer version of the Republican argument is that the D.C. Appeals Court's workload doesn't justify full staffing. But the Constitution provides a proper way to address that concern: Congress establishes all courts inferior to the Supreme Court and can change their size if it so chooses. But of course, you need a majority to do something like that, and Republicans don't have one. This is one more example of their anti-democracy, rule-from-the-minority tactics.

Dylan Matthews provides everything you need to know about the situation.

and saving the world by making lots of money

Dylan Matthews' Join Wall Street, Save the World started a lot of discussion. The article describes the earn-to-give path, where young people aim for high-paying careers, with the goal of living simply and giving a lot of money to organizations that save lives.

I've got a whole range of short reactions:

  • I'm not going to criticize anybody who is making a serious attempt to save the world.
  • The argument about whether this path is better or worse than choosing a career that helps people directly is misguided. People should do what they're good at and what makes sense to them. Anything else invites frustration and burnout.
  • A related path is the one I'm on: Make money to fund yourself doing something you think needs doing. My two main talents are in mathematics and writing. I saved a lot of the money I made as a mathematician so I could retire early and try to raise the public consciousness through writing.
  • Praiseworthy as it is, charity is no substitute for social justice. Charity mitigates the injustice of the system, but doesn't change the system. Tolstoy's What Then Must We Do? begins with his attempt to use his income as a Russian aristocrat to help the poor of one Moscow neighborhood. But his failures convince him that the underlying structure of the Russian economy is too corrupt for this to work. Our situation is different, but the challenge he raises deserves attention.
  • If you're going to join the corporate power structure to do good, you need to be careful that you don't do more evil in your job than your money can undo. If you make your money writing climate-denial propaganda, I don't care who you give it to.
  • Earn-to-give is a tough path to follow, because of the constant temptation to spend the money on yourself. I'm curious what the young people in the article will do if they have kids; it's very hard to say no to the put-my-kid-on-the-path-to-Harvard temptation, which can eat as much money as you can throw at it.
  • If you're going to pull this off, you'll need a high degree of self-awareness and a well-tuned bullshit detector, because you're always one rationalization away from screwing it all up.

But I wrote about how to route your money around corporations

Not perfectly, of course. The economy is so dominated by corporations that you really can't avoid them if you're going to lead anything like a normal life. But probably you can avoid them a lot better than you do. I list my suggestions in Starve the Corporate Beast.

and you also might be interested in ...

Modern Successinterviewed Noam Chomsky. Some noteworthy observations:

  • He identified himself as an anarchist, and then defined anarchism like this: "It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them.  ... And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just."
  • He differentiates anarchism from libertarianism: "what’s called libertarian in the United States ... permits a very high level of authority and domination but in the hands of private power: so private power should be unleashed to do whatever it likes.  The assumption is that by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society."
  • "commercial advertising is fundamentally an effort to undermine markets.  We should recognize that.  If you’ve taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices.  You take a look at the first ad you see on television and ask yourself … is that it’s purpose?  No it’s not.  It’s to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices.  And these same institutions run political campaigns.  It’s pretty much the same: you have to undermine democracy by trying to get uninformed people to make irrational choices."

We got a wake-up call about genetically modified organisms (a.k.a. Frankenfood) when

the United States government disclosed this week that a strain of genetically engineered wheat that was never approved for sale was found growing in an Oregon field.

The wheat itself is probably no big deal in public-health terms. (Monsanto engineered it to resist its Roundup herbicide, and we're already growing and consuming vast amounts of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. So most likely it's either harmless or the harm has already been done.)

The disturbing aspect of this story is that Monsanto says it stopped testing this wheat strain in 2004. So how did it wind up in an open field? Where else is it growing? And if that seed escaped the laboratory and got into the wild, what else could escape?

This event raises a worry that even Monsanto, the U.S. government, and other GMOs-are-harmless believers have to take seriously: If laboratory strains can't be controlled, U.S. grain exports in general could become suspect.


The headline says that a majority oppose Obamacare. But if you look deeper, an even bigger majority wants at least Obamacare.

Two Oregon bakeries assert that their Christian values won't let them make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, and that it violates their religious freedom to make them serve that part of the public. But a local news organization had its reporters call in to order cakes for other kinds of celebrations -- for divorces, out-of-wedlock births, and so on. Strangely, Christian values didn't come into play.

Pro Publica puts some context around the IRS scandal.

Joe Muto was a liberal mole inside Fox News.

Bye-bye, Michele Bachman. Humorists of all kinds will miss you.

A convicted felon contradicts the NRA: Illegal guns are not really that easy to get.

Peter Rollins, author of the new book The Idolatry of God, shares his unusual take on Christianity.