Category Archives: Politics

Restore the Fourth (that’s an amendment, y’all)

So, here’s another cross-post from Vermont Vigilance:

Tomorrow is America’s 237th birthday. I mean, its 208th 29th birthday! (Lookin’ good, America!)

To celebrate, why not join your fellow Americans in protesting the government’s callous disregard for the Fourth Amendment — the one that protects you against “unreasonable searches and seizures”.

There will be a coordinated set of protests nationwide rallying under the banner “Restore the Fourth”. As of now, there are sixty of them, so there is probably one near you. To find your local rally, go to this site:

Via reddit, here is a list of other things you can do to get involved and make a difference:

Snowden in Russian Airspace, Eventual Destination Unknown

So, the Guardian is reporting this morning that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong — legally, since the Hong Kong government had not yet agreed to requests from the US to detain him. As of 5:20 this morning (Eastern Time), he was “over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors”. This was sourced to the WikiLeaks twitter account, meaning that the only way this story could be more of the moment is if Snowden married Zooey Deschanel and returned with her and three hand-raised dragons to reconquer the Oval Throne (ICYMI).

Update: Sorry. Should have made clear. The flight Snowden is was headed for Moscow, and was scheduled to land about now (9:25am Eastern). The WikiLeaks legal team is working to find a democratic country that would be willing to offer asylum.

Rumor is that his target destination may be Venezuela.

Update #2: Snowden has applied for asylum from Ecuador.

What you missed at Edward Snowden’s AMA

So, earlier today, the Guardian hosted a question-and-answer session with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Sort of like a Reddit AMA, but with less ham-fisted sexual innuendo. People were able to submit questions via comment, or via Twitter.

I thought the whole thing was excellent. Like many people, I’ve been trying to withhold judgment on Snowden’s motivations. But after reading this, I’m strongly inclined to believe that his motives are pure, and that he is displaying the type of heroism that our country desperately needs.

Or, if he is actually a villain with some sort of mysterious ulterior motive, he is the sort of charismatic genius supervillain you never see outside of the movies, and I look forward to seeing the schematics for his secret volcanic undersea lair.

I’ve posted a few of the highlights below. If you’re really short on time, here are the highlights of the highlights:

the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.

Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American

This country is worth dying for.

And here are the more extended highlights

Q (Glenn Greenwald): Why did you choose Hong Kong to go to and then tell them about US hacking on their research facilities and universities?

A: First, the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.

Second, let’s be clear: I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Q (Gabrielaweb): Why did you wait to release the documents if you said you wanted to tell the world about the NSA programs since before Obama became president?

A: Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.

Q (MonaHol): Ed Snowden, I thank you for your brave service to our country.

Some skepticism exists about certain of your claims, including this:

I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email.

Do you stand by that, and if so, could you elaborate?

A: Yes, I stand by it. US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection – policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection – a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the “widest allowable aperture,” and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn’t stop being protected communications just because of the IP they’re tagged with.

More fundamentally, the “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

Q (Spencer Ackerman): Edward, there is rampant speculation, outpacing facts, that you have or will provide classified US information to the Chinese or other governments in exchange for asylum. Have/will you?

A: This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk “RED CHINA!” reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.

Q (@KimberlyDozier): US officials say terrorists already altering TTPs because of your leaks, & calling you traitor. Respond?

A: US officials say this every time there’s a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.

Further, it’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.

Q (Ryan Latvaitis): What would you say to others who are in a position to leak classified information that could improve public understanding of the intelligence apparatus of the USA and its effect on civil liberties?

A: This country is worth dying for.

Gene Patents Overturned — and Scalia’s Weird Dissenting Opinion

So, the Supreme Court just ruled that Myriad Genetics does not, in fact, have the right to patent two naturally occurring human genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. This is good news, because . . . well, because patenting a gene is total bullshit.

If you’re not familiar, these two genes are important because genetic variation in their DNA sequences has been linked to breast cancer. So, the sequence of your DNA in these two genes can reveal if you have a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer. It was exactly this sort of test that prompted Angelina Jolie to undergo a preemptive double mastectomy.

The problem is that the tests were really, really expensive, because of Myriad’s patents. So, the immediate consequence of the ruling should be that the prices for these tests should come way, way down.

The opinion (PDF here, if you’re interested) focuses on the difference between “discovering” something — like the sequence or location of a gene — and “creating” something — like a thing that can be patented. So, a gene is a naturally occurring thing that can not be patented. However, if you take the mRNA from a gene and reverse-transcribe it to make cDNA, this new thing might still be patentable. But, the ruling explicitly notes that the cDNA would be a creation because of the removal of introns. So, cDNA from a single-exon gene might not be patentable.

The ruling explicitly states that it offers no opinion on the patentability of genes that have had their DNA sequences deliberately altered — leaving that question for another day.

It also points out limitations of the ruling with respect to plants. The goal here seems to be to ensure that this ruling is not interpreted as invalidating any plant patents covering plant strains that have been developed through selective breeding.

That all seems pretty straightforward. The ruling does seem to leave a number of issues surrounding the patenting of genetic material unresolved, but it is quite clear about which issues it is kicking down the field.

But then there’s this bit of weirdness at the end.

The opinion is pretty much unanimous, which is always nice. Except for a little, tiny bit of dissension from Antonin Scalia. Here is the complete text of his dissenting opinion:

I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.

I actually thought Part 1-A of the ruling was a little weird when I first read it. Not because it said anything strange or controversial, but because it read sort of like a Wikipedia entry on basic genetics, and contains a lot of details that don’t seem particularly relevant?.

Here’s the full text of the part of the ruling about which Scalia says, “I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms. See generally Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent andTrademark Office, 702 F. Supp. 2d 181, 192–211 (SDNY 2010). The human genome consists of approximately 22,000 genes packed into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each gene is encoded as DNA, which takes the shape of the familiar “double helix” that Doctors James Watson and Francis Crick first described in 1953. Each “cross-bar” in the DNA helix consists of two chemically joined nucleotides. The possible nucleotides are adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G), each of which binds naturally with another nucleotide: A pairs with T; C pairs with G. The nucleotide cross-bars are chemically connected to a sugar-phosphate backbone that forms the outside framework of the DNA helix. Sequences of DNA nucleotides contain the information necessary to create strings of amino acids, which in turn are used in the body to build proteins. Only some DNA nucleotides, however, code for amino acids; these nucleotides are known as “exons.” Nucleotides that do not code for amino acids, in contrast, are known as “introns.” 

Creation of proteins from DNA involves two principal steps, known as transcription and translation. In transcription, the bonds between DNA nucleotides separate, and the DNA helix unwinds into two single strands. A single strand is used as a template to create a complementary ribonucleic acid (RNA) strand. The nucleotides on the DNA strand pair naturally with their counterparts, with the exception that RNA uses the nucleotide base uracil (U) instead of thymine (T). Transcription results in a single strand RNA molecule, known as pre-RNA, whose nucleotides form an inverse image of the DNA strand from which it was created. Pre-RNA still contains nucleotides corresponding to both the exons and introns in the DNA molecule. The pre-RNA is then naturally “spliced” by the physical removal of the introns. The resulting product is a strand of RNA that contains nucleotides corresponding only to the exons from the original DNA strand. The exons-only strand is known as messenger RNA (mRNA), which creates amino acids through translation. In translation, cellular structures known as ribosomes read each set of three nucleotides, known as codons, in the mRNA. Each codon either tells the ribosomes which of the 20 possible amino acids to synthesize or provides a stop signal that ends amino acid production.

DNA’s informational sequences and the processes that create mRNA, amino acids, and proteins occur naturally within cells. Scientists can, however, extract DNA from cells using well known laboratory methods. These methods allow scientists to isolate specific segments of DNA — for instance, a particular gene or part of a gene—which can then be further studied, manipulated, or used. It is also possible to create DNA synthetically through processes similarly well known in the field of genetics. One such method begins with an mRNA molecule and uses the natural bonding properties of nucleotides to create a new, synthetic DNA molecule. The result is the inverse of the mRNA’s inverse image of the original DNA, with one important distinction: Because the natural creation of mRNA involves splicing that removes introns, the synthetic DNA created from mRNA also contains only the exon sequences. This synthetic DNA created in the laboratory from mRNA is known as complementary DNA (cDNA).

Changes in the genetic sequence are called mutations. Mutations can be as small as the alteration of a single nucleotide—a change affecting only one letter in the genetic code. Such small-scale changes can produce an entirely different amino acid or can end protein production altogether. Large changes, involving the deletion, rearrangement, or duplication of hundreds or even millions of nucleotides, can result in the elimination, misplacement, or duplication of entire genes. Some mutations are harmless, but others can cause disease or increase the risk of disease. As a result, the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs.

So, what do you think Scalia is objecting to? Is he just signaling that he thinks that the details of the molecular biology are not important here? Is it the claim that “Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms”? Is he unable to affirm with his own belief that G pairs with C? That uracil substitutes for thymine in RNA? That humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes?

Please share your most outlandish conspiracy theories in the comments!

“You don’t need privacy if you’re not doing anything wrong” cuts both ways, Mr. President.

So, last Friday over at Slate, Emily Bazelon posted a nice piece on the problem with the NSA’s PRISM program, revealed last Wednesday in the Guardian and the Washington Post. Bazelon expresses surprise and concern over the fact that many of her colleagues just don’t seem that concerned about the revelation.

Bazelon’s article includes the best Freudian typo I’ve seen in a long time. Near the end of the article, she takes on President Obama’s reassurances that there is really nothing to worry about. In addition to the fact that “it’s nothing to worry about” is a bald-faced lie, she notes that

it is depressing to watch this president become a misleading parser of words in the service of arrogating authority.

I don’t know if that was intentional, but I love it.  “Aggrogating” is probably just an innocent typo, but it is a fortuitous one, as it invokes “aggro”, which is slang for aggressive.

It was in common use a while ago — I want to say maybe the 90s? — as in “Dude, I’ll give back your Nirvana CD. No need to get all aggro about it!”

Today, I think it is primarily used in the context of online gaming to describe NPCs (non-player characters) who will attack characters without provocation. And this, of course, is exactly the danger inherent in giving unlimited surveillance abilities to the government.

For the record, I personally find it extremely concerning that the NSA is scooping up all of this data, whether or not it is technically legal. In fact, most concerning is the fact that all is that the decisions about what, exactly, is legal have been, and continue to be secret (see, e.g., this piece by Noah Feldman).

A new poll suggests that most Americans are actually okay with government surveillance and loss of privacy (at least when the polling question includes the word “terrorism”). Now, personally, I disagree with most Americans on this one (because there is too much potential for abuse, because systems put in place to deal with terrorism invariably get applied to other things, and because I think that most people’s cost-benefit analysis goes haywire as soon as you say “terrorism”).

However, let’s say for the moment that most Americans would justifiably allow government surveillance of their online activity for the sake of protection against possible terrorist attack. Well, in that case, why the need to lie to people about it? Why has the legal interpretation of the Patriot Act been done in secret?

“You don’t need privacy if you’re not doing anything wrong” cuts both ways, Mr. President.

And I, for one, am not at all reassured that this sort of surveillance system is not going to lead to the aggrogation of authority.

This GIF is the perfect metaphor for contemporary capitalism

So, have a look at this gif. This nifty optical illusion was the winner at the Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest 2010. (Link includes the video this gif is taken from, as well as the other finalists from that, and other years. Warning, only click the link if you can afford to spend the next couple of hours obsessively getting your mind blown. Boom!)


How is that like capitalism, you ask?

The central economic myth of America is that it is a frictionless meritocracy. If you work hard, you’ll get ahead, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from. The corollary of that is that the people who are ahead got there through hard work, that they have earned everything they have.

In fact, the right-wing version of the myth goes further. It says that the rich have become rich in spite of the obstacles that have been put in their way, like the minimum wage, a (barely) progressive tax structure, organized labor, and government regulation.

In that version of the myth, wealth flows towards the top, just like those balls in the gif roll towards the center. This somehow magically happens, in spite of the fact that those ramps are clearly pitched down away from the center, in spite of the fact that those greedy redistributionists are continually trying to steal the hard-earned money of millionaires and billionaires to pay for their “roads” and their “education.”

What is revealed when the structure is rotated is that, no, actually, those ramps are pitched down towards the center. The ramps are just cleverly constructed so that, when viewed from just the right angle, it looks like they slope the other way, and that the balls are rolling uphill.

What the 2008 financial crisis, and the various more recent events — from interest rate manipulation (LIBOR) to money laundering for terrorists (HBSC) to the impotence/complicity of government regulators (too big to fail / too big to prosecute) — have shown is just how sharply the ramps of our economic system slope towards the center, despite the protestations of the plutocrats who sit at the bottom of that well gobbling up all of the wealth that falls in.

At the moment, the battle over the future of our economy and of our civilization is focused on this issue of perception. The people who benefit from the current rigged system are working as hard as they can to ensure that you keep on looking at our economic system from that one special perspective, the one where the rich are miracle workers who can make balls roll uphill.

So do yourself a favor. Take a walk around our economy. Look at it from a variety of different angles. Sure, look at it from the point of view of the investment banker, of the white-collar professional, of the successful small business owner. But also look at it from the point of view of the recent immigrant with poor English, of the college graduate with $100,000 of student debt and an offer of an unpaid internship, of the single parent of a child with a crippling developmental condition, of the victims of predatory lending schemes, of the third-generation homeless.

You’re going to discover that the economic playing field really is not very level. But I think you’ll discover that if you look at it from anything other than a position of extreme privilege, the slope of that playing field is not necessarily in the direction we are taught to think it is.


International Ronin

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog (original here)

In the wake of that article that recently came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (covered here), I’ve received a few e-mails suggesting that there may be some confusion out there regarding the geographical scope of the Ronin Institute. So, I thought I would just take a moment to try to clear that up.

In concept, the Ronin Institute is a global institution. After all, the future of scholarship is international (just as the future of most everything is). As far as we are concerned, location and national citizenship do not matter. What matters is your work and your citizenship in the community of scholars.

That being said, from a legal perspective, we are incorporated in the United States, and our tax-exempt status was granted here. So, the US is the only place where we have a formal, legal, corporate presence. Similarly, my knowledge of the way that systems of scholarship and funding work is primarily limited to the US system. I basically understand other systems to the extent that they are similar to the US system. This means that, in practice, we might be able to provide the best support to scholars who are US citizens and/or who are in the US. However, as our network (both the Research Scholars affiliated with Ronin and other, like-minded institutions) grows, it will encompass a broader range of circumstances and systems.

We are envisioning two main types of activities. One is to help independent scholars to apply for research funding, including permitting them to apply through the Ronin Institute. For certain types of funding agencies (like government agencies), the fact that we are a US non-profit probably matters, and we may be in a position only to support applications from people in the US. Similarly, if you are in the EU, we might not be in a good position to help you to apply for EU funds at the present time.

Most private foundations are much less constrained on this dimension. Likewise, we expect that most donations from individuals could be disbursed to scholars (e.g., in the form of scholarships for conference travel) without too much concern over nationality and residency.

So, what’s the take-home message here? Well, I’m imagining that you are an independent scholar living outside the US. You’re saying to yourself, “Hey, this Ronin Institute thing is pretty cool. I wonder if I could join? Or should I start my own institute where I am?”

The answer is “Yes” and “Yes.” If you are committed to pursuing scholarship at the highest level, are actively engaged in research, and would like to join our community, get in touch with us at, and we can discuss the process. And, if you’re feeling ambitious and energetic, build something local as well!

Rough Day for Liberal Tigers Fans

So, remember how there was this election? And how there was this guy Nate Silver who said that Obama was going to win the election? But the all the conservatives everywhere were like “Nuh-uh!” because they weren’t going to just listen to some “blogger” who was using his “math” and “statistics” to pursue his gay agenda of using mind control to hand over the United States over to the one-world government and forcibly relocating all of the suburbanites? I mean, what about the conventional wisdom of Peggy Noonan’s friends?

Remember how he then became the darling of everyone on the left, who were all able to embrace his analyses while patting themselves on the back for being reality based? Because, in this case, reality did, in fact have a liberal bias that was, in fact, more extreme than that of the liberal-bias machine of the Main Stream Media. (Someone should come up with a clever, dismissive name for them, maybe “Lame Stream Media”! Ooh, I like that!)

Remember how part of you wondered what would have happened if the statistical analyses of Nate Silver (or the equally awesome – but much funnier – Sam Wang) had pointed towards a Romney victory? Would conservatives have embraced the hard-nosed, numbers-based approach? Would liberals have set up hysterical unskewing sites?

Well, here’s our chance to find out.

We need to collect together all the people who were Obama supporters and Nate Silver fans, and who are also Detroit Tigers fans. We then need to see what they have to say about the column that Silver wrote yesterday.

In it, Silver lays out, with his typical clarity, the case that Miguel Cabrera does not deserve to be the American League MVP, despite his being the first triple-crown winner since the debut of Laugh-In. Rather, on purely statistical grounds, the MVP should go to Mike Trout of the California Angels Anaheim Angels Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Purely based on his performance as a batter, Trout provided greater added value to his team than Cabrera did to his. Beyond that, Trout was a huge asset both as a fielder and as a baserunner. Cabrera, by contrast, provided a net negative contribution to his team in fielding and baserunning.

Really, the only argument in Cabrera’s favor is that he won the triple crown. The triple crown! That’s a real achievement, and he should be rewarded for it. But should he be rewarded with the MVP? Or should that go to the most valuable player? If we apply the conventional meanings of the words “most,” “valuable,” and “player,” the MVP should go to Trout.

Maybe we could come up with something else to honor Cabrera’s extraordinary accomplishment in earning the triple crown. How about, I don’t know, the triple crown? (Last three words said extra loud, slack-jawed, and condescendingly.)

I’m just saying. If you spent October laughing at Karl Rove and Dick Morris (and who didn’t, really), but think that Cabrera should win the MVP, you’re not a realist. You’re a partisan who happens to have been on the right side of reality in the election, but who is now on the wrong side of reality in baseball.

Florida Man Commits Suicide over Election

So, if you want to feel better about all the Texans in your Facebook feed who are threatening secession in the wake of Barack Obama’s reelection, here’s something even stupider. The stupider thing comes from Florida, naturally. Henry Hamilton, a 64-year-old resident of Key West, apparently committed suicide on November 8, after claiming that “if Barack gets re-elected, I’m not going to be around.” Empty prescription bottles for Xanax and Seroquel (for the treatment of schizophrenia) were found in the condo Hamilton shared with his partner, Michael Cossey.

The report in the Miami Herald raises a few questions:

First, the article says that Hamilton was the “owner of Tropical Tan on Duval Street.” Who the hell lives in Key West, Florida, and goes to a tanning salon.

Second, Hamilton wrote “Fuck Obama!” on his will before killing himself. Does anyone know if this entails a legal obligation on his partner to have sex with the president?

Third, why do articles like this one always end with lines like this: “President Obama, a Democrat, defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win a second four-year term”? Why not “A ‘prescription’ is a document created by a medical professional that gives a patient access to a controlled substance, typically for therapeutic or palliative use”?