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Change We Can Believe In, III

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Change we can believe in: Expanded e-mail surveillance

The Washington Post reported Thursday that:

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words — “electronic communication transactional records” — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge’s approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user’s browser history. It does not include, the lawyers hasten to point out, the “content” of e-mail or other Internet communication.

But what officials portray as a technical clarification designed to remedy a legal ambiguity strikes industry lawyers and privacy advocates as an expansion of the power the government wields through so-called national security letters. These missives, which can be issued by an FBI field office on its own authority, require the recipient to provide the requested information and to keep the request secret. They are the mechanism the government would use to obtain the electronic records.

As we become a country permanently at war, the authority the federal government requires in order to ensure our national security continues to expand, as relentlessly under Obama as under Bush. We can believe in that.

Here are excerpts from a NYT editorial yesterday:

The administration’s request, reported Thursday in The Washington Post, is an unnecessary and disappointing step backward toward more intrusive surveillance from a president who promised something very different during the 2008 campaign. . . .

President Obama campaigned for office on an explicit promise to rein in these abuses. “There is no reason we cannot fight terrorism while maintaining our civil liberties,” his campaign wrote in a 2008 position paper. “As president, Barack Obama would revisit the Patriot Act to ensure that there is real and robust oversight of tools like National Security Letters, sneak-and-peek searches, and the use of the material witness provision.”

Where is the “robust oversight” that voters were promised? Earlier this year, the administration successfully pushed for crucial provisions of the Patriot Act to be renewed for another year without changing a word. Voters had every right to expect the president would roll back authority that had been clearly abused, like national security letters. But instead of implementing reasonable civil liberties protections, like taking requests for e-mail surveillance before a judge, the administration is proposing changes to the law that would allow huge numbers of new electronic communications to be examined with no judicial oversight.

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Categories: Government, Law, Security

Duel in the Clouds

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, Col du Tourmalet

The Tour de France ended last Sunday. The preceding Thursday, eight days ago, I sat down to write about one of the most memorable stages of this or any tour, but never got past the title and the photo above. So much more happened in the three days that followed, and now it’s long over. But I don’t want the moment to slide by unnoticed, so I’ll say a few words here.

It came as no surprise that that Thursday’s climb of the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenées would be a big one. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck had demonstrated in the Alps and in the three previous stages of the Pyrenées that they stood alone as the top climbers of this year’s Tour, and the climb of the Tourmalet would be the last chance for one to show his superiority over the other. The general thinking was that Schleck had to do so — if in fact he could — in order to build a margin that Contador couldn’t gain back two days later in the individual time trial. (Friday and Sunday would be flat stages with sprint finishes, with no opportunity for the Tour leaders to gain time on one another. The overall lead would come down to head-to-head performances on Tourmalet Thursday and in the time trial Saturday.)

The climb was every bit as dramatic as anticipated. Half way up, as their team support disappeared, Schleck broke away and Contador followed him, leaving all the other Tour leaders behind. (It’s always striking in any Tour how clearly the hierarchy of ability or fitness for that given Tour is validated day after day. No one could keep up with the leading duo, yet in turn, the next four or five top riders roughly were able to stay even with each other, ahead of the others. The differences are small, but they are consistent and repeatable. Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov, in a tight race for third and fourth overall, would ride together all the way up, with Sanchez ultimately gaining 8 seconds on the day to increase his overall lead over Menchov to 21 seconds.)

Schleck and Contador continued up the narrow, twisting road, with crowds lining both sides, leaving only a narrow channel for them to ride through, and with clouds obscuring any view up the road to the coming turns or the finish. It was breathtaking to watch, kilometer after kilometer, with Schleck in the lead and Contador on his wheel. When Schleck made a major attack, Contador caught him in seconds. Just once, Contador attacked, and Schleck tracked him down, passed him, and gave him a hard stare. It was surely clear to both, with 2 or 3 kilometers left, that neither would gain big time on the other. Perhaps around that point, they decided to drop the attacks. Or perhaps not, but there were no visible attacks after that, as Contador continued to ride on Schleck’s wheel. One imagined he would wait for the final 200 meters to take a shot at stage victory. As they passed under the 1k to go banner, by which point fencing normally appears on the road to keep the crowds away and provide room for attacks, there was in fact no fencing. The road remained too narrow for that. With maybe 300 meters to go, the fencing appeared at last, and Contador could attack if he wished. But he didn’t. He came up almost side-by-side with Schleck, then dropped back a bit to let Schleck take the stage. Ten meters past the line, Schleck leaned into Contador and put his arm around him. When they dismounted seconds later, they hugged.

A grand stage. Should they have fought to the last meter? Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. They were destined at that point to finish with no time gap, or a tiny one if either got away. Not enough to affect the overall race. And Contador had reason to be gracious, given his attack a few days earlier when Schleck’s chain came off, the attack that gave him the overall lead.

The next day of the Tour that kept on giving featured the most wonderful sprint finish into Bordeaux. Mark Cavendish, without great leadout teammate Mark Renshaw, showed he could do it on his own, roaring past Alessandro Petacchi (with Julian Dean also passing for second) to win his fourth stage of the Tour. Petacchi’s third-place finish allowed him to reclaim the green jersey of overall sprint leader from Thor Hushovd, but no one doubted that Cavendish was the true king of the sprinters.

Saturday brought the individual time trial, with Schleck just 8 seconds back of Contador and, as noted, Menchov just 21 seconds behind Sanchez in fourth. They departed in reverse order of the standings — Menchov, Sanchez, Schleck, and Contador. On past performance, Schleck might have given up a minute or two to Contador on the day, but he rode better than expected, losing only 31 seconds. He had to settle for second, but he gave promise that he is improving as a time trialist and will be in a stronger position next year to win the yellow jersey. In the race for third, Menchov, with one of the best rides of the day (and by far the best of those riders starting late, with the weather having changed for the worse), was able to gain two minutes over Sanchez and move into third place. One of the oddities of the TV commentary of Phil and Paul was their continued insistence that Schleck was riding a great time trial, whereas Sanchez was collapsing and losing his third place position. Yet, Sanchez finished 23 seconds ahead of Schleck. Not that that had any effect on the overall race. And in terms of expectations, Schleck did ride well, whereas Sanchez, the winner of the 2008 Olympic road race, might have been expected to do better.

Anyway, that was that. All that remained was the ceremonial ride into Paris (for the leaders) and one more mad sprint finish. As long as Cavendish is in the race, every sprint finish has the potential for excitement, and this one didn’t disappoint. As they left Place de la Concorde for the final 300 meters, Hushovd, in a desperate attempt to regain the green jersey, was riding in second position, behind his leadout man Brett Lancaster. But he had no hope, what with Petacchi in third and Cavendish fourth. Lancaster dropped off, Petacchi moved to Hushovd’s left to pass him as a side-view camera focused on them and lost sight of Cavendish. Suddenly, there he was in the background, like a jet, zooming past them all on the right, gaining a three-bike-length lead in a flash. It was a stunning display of dominance, again with no leadout man of his own, and a fitting conclusion to the Tour.

All that remained was the podium appearances. And you know what that means: podium girls. Fortunately, the NYT had a great article on them Sunday, perfect preparation for watching their final appearances. Who knew that the beautiful bestower of the white jersey (for best young rider) was an American from St. Louis, Laura Antoine? There she was, one last time, with Andy Schleck. And there was Lance, with his Radio Shack teammates, saying farewell to the Tour. (Thank God Robin Williams didn’t show up yet again to pal around with Lance. And the less said about Tom Cruise, the better.)

Another Tour gone. I know it’s too early for summer to be over, but a big piece of summer has come and gone way too quickly.

Categories: Cycling

Change We Can Believe in, II

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Change we can believe in: Institutionalizing abuses of the rule of law

It’s hardly news that Obama, having attacked many Bush-Cheney national security policies when he was a Senator as abuses of the rule of law, has since embraced some of them as president. This has had and will have the pernicious effect of converting what might once have seemed the aberrations of an extremist administration into bipartisan normalcy. And we now have a detailed review, released yesterday by the ACLU, that makes this very point. I’ll quote from the press release:

The Obama administration has repudiated some of the Bush administration’s most egregious national security policies but is in danger of institutionalizing others permanently into law, thereby creating a troubling “new normal,” according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Establishing a New Normal: National Security, Civil Liberties, and Human Rights Under the Obama Administration,” an 18-month review of the Obama administration’s record on national security issues affecting civil liberties, concludes that the current administration’s record on issues of national security and civil liberties is decidedly mixed: President Obama has made great strides in some areas, such as his auspicious first steps to categorically prohibit torture, outlaw the CIA’s use of secret overseas detention sites and release the Bush administration’s torture memos, but he has failed to eliminate some of the worst policies put in place by President Bush, such as military commissions and indefinite detention. He has also expanded the Bush administration’s “targeted killing” program.

The 22-page report, which was researched and written by staff in the ACLU’s National Security Project and Washington Legislative Office, reviews the administration’s record in the areas of transparency, torture and accountability, detention, targeted killing, military commissions, speech and surveillance and watchlists. . . .

According to the ACLU’s report, the first 18 months of Obama’s presidency have been marked by a pattern wherein significant achievements for civil liberties have often been followed by setbacks. For instance, the positive step of releasing Justice Department memoranda that purported to authorize the Bush administration’s torture regime was followed by the troubling decision to fight the release of photos depicting the abuse of prisoners in CIA custody. The administration’s commitment to dismantle Guantánamo has been undermined by its assertion of the authority to detain people indefinitely without charge or trial. And prohibitions against torture have been weakened by the failure to hold top Bush administration officials accountable for their role in the torture program.

Categories: Government, Law, Politics

Change We Can Believe In, I

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Change we can believe in: expanding the war in Afghanistan

Yes, Obama did make clear during the election that the war in Afghanistan was the “right” one. I wasn’t happy about his intentions then, and I wasn’t happy about it a year ago, when I quoted Rory Stewart, then a consultant to Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, now a Member of Parliament in the UK. Regarding his advisory role, Stewart explained, “It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.” He added, “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years. They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable.”

Another year later, Congress is passing a supplemental war budget and it appears that we’ll be in Afghanistan for a few more elections. We don’t have money for a second stimulus package at home, but we can send billions to Afghanistan to support a corrupt government, chase a small handful of Al Qaeda members, and keep the Taliban at bay even as the powers that be within the government of our ally Pakistan protect Al Qaeda and support the Taliban.

I’ll leave the final word to Gary Wills, in his post at the New York Review of Books blog three days ago, which I recommend reading in full:

Most presidents start wondering—or, more often, worrying—about their “legacy” well into their first term. Or, if they have a second term, they worry even more feverishly about what posterity will think of them. Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early. It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one. . . .

[T]here has been no follow up on the first dinner, and certainly no sign that he learned anything from it. The only thing achieved has been the silencing of the main point the dinner guests tried to make—that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson. At least four or five of the nine stressed this. Nothing else rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern. . . .

When my turn came, I joined those who had already warned him about an Afghanistan quagmire. I said that a government so corrupt and tribal and drug-based as Afghanistan’s could not be made stable. He replied that he was not naïve about the difficulties but he thought a realistic solution could be reached. I wanted to add “when pigs fly,” but restrained myself.

. . . The President might have been saved from the folly that will be his lasting legacy. But now we are ten years into a war that could drag on for another ten, and could catch in its trammels the next president, the way Vietnam tied up president after president.

Categories: History, Politics, War

Amos Lee in Seattle

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

A few years ago, I heard some Amos Lee song on the radio, or more likely the internet, and promptly bought his self-titled first album. After transferring the music to my computer, I proceeded to play it multiple times a day for weeks, then with somewhat less frequency for a few more months. And by then I was thoroughly sick of it. Not a smart strategy, especially since much of my listening was passive, as I worked or surfed the web, so I was wasting something wonderful.

Initially, I thought I’d make it a point to see Lee whenever he next passed through Seattle. By the time he came, I had lost my enthusiasm. Plus, I may actually have been out of town. I dutifully got his second album, Supply and Demand. Or maybe Gail bought it for me. But by then the thrill was gone.

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the arrival of friends from Glasgow who would be staying with us, Gail saw that Lee would be in town this month and asked Irene if they would want to join us in seeing him. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to join us, but they said yes and I thought it might be fun. Then Gail discovered that he was performing not in a regular concert setting but as part of some sort of festival called GreenNote. I wasn’t feeling so good about our decision at that point, but Gail went ahead and ordered tickets.

Here’s GreenNote’s description of the event:

On Saturday, July 24, GreenNote welcomes Amos Lee to our stage at the Mural Amphitheatre [in the Seattle Center]. What can we say about Amos Lee except that he’s one of the most compelling singer-songwriters in America today, combining folk, soul, and jazz into some great lyrical storytelling. Opening for Amos are two Seattle notables: Star Anna and Ian Moore. This is a 100% net proceed benefit for our beneficiaries [Sierra Club, People for Puget Sound, People’s Waterfront Coalition]. The GreenNote Benefit Concert is being held on the wide, comfortable grassy expanses of the Mural Amphitheatre. An amazing summer night of acoustic music!

The scheduled time for the event was 4:30 to 9:30. I wasn’t keen to lie on the grass for 5 hours. Ultimately we arrived at 6:30, which turned out to be during the lull between Ian Moore and Star Anna. There was a fourth act too, Rocky Votolato, listed at the GreenNote website though not in their homepage blurb.

The event was well run. We must have just missed Moore. After about 15 minutes, the emcee came on stage to talk to us about sustainability and the recycling and composting bins for our garbage, reminded us of the food available from Ballard Brothers Seafood and Burgers, made further comments about green-ness, then introduced someone from People’s Waterfront Coalition. After she spoke, out came Star Anna, with an accompanying guitarist. Looking at her website, I see that he was Justin Davis, a local musician and member of her band. She explained at one point that normally she plays with a full band, but they were going acoustic for the night as part of the GreenNote theme, making reference to the notion that this approach had less impact on the environment. Sustainable or not, the music was excellent. She has quite a compelling voice and we enjoyed her.

During the break before Rocky Votolato came on, we got some dinner from the Ballard Brothers booth. The cycle repeated — remarks from the emcee, remarks from a local Sierra Club representative, music. We weren’t too inspired by Votolato. I don’t know if that was his doing or ours, but we were distracted.

Then more remarks from the emcee, including the helpful note that Amos Lee would be coming on at 8:20. This was at about 8:05. Time for dessert. And at 8:20 sharp, on came Amos.

You know what? He’s fabulous. I felt I was re-discovering his old music, which he played and sang differently from on his albums. He played solo, rather than with his band, and between his voice and guitar playing, he produced a full and compelling sound. He’s also quite the humorist, in an ironic, self-referential way. He finished at around 9:30, then came back to play four more songs, finishing for good at 9:50.

The weather, I should add, was perfect, as it has been for days. An absolutely clear sky, temperatures in the 70s, the Space Needle rising just a couple of hundred feet away, a full moon slowly rising.

A perfect evening. Thank you, Gail. And thank you, Amos.

Categories: Music

Mariners Game

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

We went to the Mariners game two nights ago. Our friend Judy and her family have had season tickets behind home plate since the Mariners’ first season, and from time to time we have been fortunate to sit in their seats. Tuesday night our Glaswegian friends arrived from Scotland to stay with us and Wednesday morning Judy offered her tickets for Friday’s game. That would be seating for four, but if Jessica wanted to join us, there would be seven. So I went online Wednesday and managed to get three more tickets that, to my astonishment, were even better than Judy’s.

Well, better is in the eye of the beholder. Some may argue, as with theater tickets, that you don’t want to be too close. A few rows farther back, with additional elevation, gives a better perspective. Maybe so. But anyway, we had four tickets just a few feet to the first-base side of home plate, 18 rows back, and 3 more another section over toward first base, 9 rows back. Plus, as we discovered when we got there, the two sets of seats were just three seats in — on opposite sides — from a shared aisle. We could hardly have hoped to be closer.

I take this as a sign of just how poorly the Mariners are doing. Can you imagine getting such good seats two days ahead of time for a game against the Red Sox? The only bigger draw in the American League is the Yankees. Maybe. I’m not sure that they are. As we found when we arrived, there were far more people wearing Red Sox jerseys or caps or t-shirts than wearing Mariner gear. Ortiz and Papelbon and Pedroia and Youkilis and Beckett. And a retro Williams shirt. And Yaz. Yet we got seats 9 rows back between home plate and the dugout.

I sat in one of Judy’s seats, 18 rows back. After sitting halfway up the third deck in right field for two games in May, I was astonished at how much more engaged I was for this game. I mean, I expected to be engaged, but the difference was enormous. And it was a close game, with the Red Sox taking a 2-1 lead on Bill Hall’s home run off starter Jason Vargas in the 7th, and that’s how the game ended.

Little did we know that we missed the big story of the game. In the fifth, former Mariner Mike Cameron hit a double to left that left fielder MIchael Saunders retrieved and threw in to second. The ball was overthrown, but Chone Figgins, standing at second, made no effort to get it, allowing Cameron to run on to third. (I might actually have seen Cameron run to third and understood why the crowd was booing if I hadn’t automatically turned to my scorecard and enter Cameron’s double while the bad throw was made.) When the inning was over, an argument took place between Figgins and Mariner manager Don Wakimatsu, when Wakimatsu told Figgins he was being removed from the game for his lack of hustle. As Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times explains,

. . . things deteriorated from there.

In the end, players were jumping in left and right to separate the two and pull each other away. Jose Lopez had his jersey pulled off when a coach yanked him away from the fray. We could not determine whether Lopez was part of the initial fight or a separate one, though the more likely explanation seems that he was merely one of those intervening between Wakamatsu and Figgins. A television replay I saw seemed to suggest that.

. . .

Wakamatsu could not duck the media, so he stood and took questions about it. I asked him why he’d picked this moment to bench a player when there have been numerous instances of bad base running all week and poor situational hitting all week.

“I think you’re talking about base running plays and not all of those are cut and dried,” Wakamatsu said of the prior gaffes that went unpunished. “I thought this was cut and dried.”

So much for having great seats. We were pretty close to the Mariner dugout, but all this occurred hidden from us. Our only clue that something was amiss was Josh Wilson’s appearance to pinch hit for Figgins in the bottom of the inning.

Perhaps the highlight of the game was when I went down to row 9 to join Joel, Jessica, and Liam in the ninth inning. The players were so close. The Mariner on-deck circle seemed close enough to touch. The field appeared level with our seats. As I noted earlier, this isn’t entirely for the good, but it sure makes you feel a part of the action.

You know, I used to be an intense Red Sox fan, and I have my own supply of Red Sox gear. When we were about to head out for the game, with Mariner cap on, I reached into the closet for one of my old Red Sox caps. My plan was to alternate caps as the teams alternated at bats. This did not go over well with Joel, who grabbed the Red Sox cap and threw it in the back of the closet. After a short protest, I decided to bow to his wishes. After thirty years here, I’m now a Mariner fan. If I wasn’t sure, the crowd at the game helped me confirm it. I wasn’t too happy to see all those people in Ortiz and Papelbon and Pedroia and Youkilis and Beckett and Williams and Yaz jerseys. Red Sock go home.

Categories: Baseball

It Arrived

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote a week ago about my extreme unhappiness with Apple, after learning that my iPhone 4 order had been put through wrong and there was nothing they could do about it. My only option was to cancel the order and make a new one. Gail and Joel had already been using their new iPhones for a week. The low blow was when Apple’s rep wished me a great day.

Well, life moves on. I decided to put through the new order with AT&T rather than Apple. The website said I had a two-to-three week wait. But you know what? Five days later, this past Sunday, I got email from AT&T that the phone was shipping via FedEx, overnight delivery. It left Fort Worth on Monday, headed to Indianapolis. Something went wrong somewhere along the line, as it sat in Indianapolis from just past midnight Tuesday morning to late Tuesday afternoon. It didn’t get here by 3:00 PM Tuesday, as it was supposed to. No big deal. It got to Seattle early yesterday morning, was put on a truck at 7:30, and arrived here 12:45 yesterday afternoon.

I opened the box, synced the phone with iTunes on my computer, activated the phone online with AT&T, and that was that. I never thought I’d like AT&T more than Apple, but I do now.

Is it great? You know, it has all these features that the second generation iPhone lacked, like video and speed. And it has a better camera, with both front- and rear-facing lenses. As Apple has been advertising, this allows you to have video chats with another iPhone 4 owner, using the new FaceTime feature, in which your partner can see you or, if you switch lenses, you can show other people or whatever else you want to point the camera at. This is pretty cool, but you do need another iPhone 4 owner to use it with, for now anyway, and you both need to be connected to the internet via WiFi, since AT&T doesn’t yet support FaceTime through their 3G network (too much data for them to handle). Once my iPhone was working, the first thing I did was try to FaceTime Gail and Joel, but it woudn’t work. I then called Joel, and he reminded me about the WiFi issue. They were out at a supermarket, without WiFi.

So, the new iPhone hasn’t much changed my life. At least not yet. I’m happy to have it, but most of what I will use it for I could as well have done with the old one. Except, that speed sure will be appreciated when I’m using the internet.

Steve, I can’t say all is forgiven. But I’m moving on.

Categories: Technology