Saturday, March 26, 2011

Earth Hour Regrets

So a couple of hours ago was "Earth Hour," where people were supposed to turn off their lights to symbolize something about saving energy or Earth or the environment, all of which are probably good causes but I hate symbolic gestures because too many people think "making the gesture" equals "actually doing something." So I paid no attention to Earth Hour this year, as I did the year before.

On the other hand, in the past year I've had to sacrifice precious closet space to make room for my stockpile of incandescent light bulbs. The US is banning their retail sale in a couple of years, so I need enough incandescents to last the rest of my life since their presumptive equivalents, CFLs and LEDs, both emit bleak, headache-inducing illumination no matter what kind of lampshade or stained glass I shine them through. And many of the people who support the incandescent-bulb ban are the same ones making a big show of complying with Earth Hour so they can Make A Difference, so I suppose it's good when they're distracted by meaningless gestures rather than run around banning something else they don't like.

So in retrospect I wish I'd supported Earth Hour, or written blog posts a couple days in advance saying "This Earth Hour thing planned for Saturday -- it's useful and productive and if you go along with it you get bonus points toward Good Person status."

I'll try to remember next year.

Gallivanting Around The Web

Over at, I use an extremely simple mathematical formula to figure out that in most American markets, housing prices still have a long way to fall.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TSA: Damning American Catholics To Hellfire Eternal Since Its Inception

Among the myriad reasons I’m glad I’m not Catholic, there’s this: Catholics say despair is a sin, and after all the cool, exciting, makes-for-a-great-story sins I’ve committed it would really suck if I wound up condemned to Hell for what boiled down to never outgrowing my Goth phase. “Are you freaking kidding me?” I’d say when St. Peter turned me away from the Pearly Gates and summoned a demon to torture me forever (though if the demon were a US government operative, respectable mainstream American media outlets would say I was not tortured, but merely subjected to “enhanced interrogation”). “I was an atheist stripper who wrote blasphemous poetry in her spare time, and you’re condemning me for being depressed?”

Of course, you need not subscribe to any religious principles to figure despair worth avoiding; it may not be a sin but it still corrodes your soul. Yet the more news I read about the TSA, the harder it is to maintain any genuine optimism (as opposed to optimistic self-delusion). Even finding news about the TSA is a struggle these days; the media downplayed the issue long before events in Japan and Libya justifiably dominated the front pages.

But I belong to various anti-TSA online groups, which every day find and post obscure local stories that would’ve been national front-page news back when the media still cared about things like “civil liberties” and “the right to travel freely within the borders of my own country without being felt up by government agents so lacking in morality and intelligence, they actually think diddling innocent travelers all day is a noble and worthwhile act, and Americans have no right to be angry.”

Just look at the past week and change: the Department of Homeland Security argued in court that it has the right to strip-search every airline passenger, if it wants to. A congressional committee held a hearing on the nude scanners, and TSA initially skipped out on it, proving yet again that the rogue agency doesn’t even pay lip service to notions like “accountability to the public” or “consent of the governed.”

An alleged “calculation error” (or possible “deliberate lie”) resulted in TSA misreporting scanner radiation levels by a factor of ten; that is, the scanners emit ten times the radiation TSA previously claimed. Still, John Pistole wants to deploy another 275 of the scanners in airports throughout the country, and there’s talk of moving them out of the realm of transportation altogether, and installing them in schools, federal buildings, shopping malls and other public places.

An honorably discharged Marine Corps veteran – a Muslim man married to a Christian woman – was put on the No-Fly List and visited by the FBI after exchanging e-mails with a local imam on “how to raise children in an interfaith household.”

(Think of the outrage that story alone would have generated back when the American media still took the constitution seriously enough to care about threats to it: the FBI reading an American citizen’s private correspondence; the FBI assuming “discussing childrearing matters with your clergyman makes you a potential terrorist"; the FBI not even having sense enough to suspect “people devout enough to consider ‘religious terrorism’ as a career generally aren’t the ones in interfaith marriages.” It’s also worth recalling Bruce Schneier’s excellent description of the No-Fly List: “a list of suspected terrorists so dangerous that we can't ever let them fly, yet so innocent that we can't arrest them - even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act.”)

And all the while, TSA agents were too busy groping travelers’ genitalia or stealing money from travelers’ luggage to notice any knives or guns being smuggled through checkpoints.

Yesterday, the group We Won’t Fly put out a press release demanding a “No-Fry Zone” in airports. I’ve already written about legislators in a handful of states promoting bills protecting passengers from TSA assault. Will any of this matter? I don’t know. It’s almost half a year now since TSA officially decided “the ritualized humiliation of travelers” made an acceptable substitute for actual “transportation security.” But TSA was unconstitutional and pointlessly invasive from its very beginning; a quasi-law enforcement agency with the motivational motto “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.” is exactly what you want if you’re the generalissimo of a third-world banana republic, but can’t co-exist with a healthy republican democracy claiming to respect human rights and individual freedoms.

Is TSA merely an aberration, or an ominous harbinger of my nation’s future? The question’s gloomy enough to contemplate, without the added worry that knowing the answer might result in a mortal sin. Lead us not into temptation; lead us not into despair.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Everybody Knows That The World Is Full Of Stupid People

Just when I found myself staggering beneath the weight of a few remaining shreds of faith in humanity, reactions to the catastrophes that struck Japan soon relieved me of that burden.

First, I almost abandoned my firm “commitment to personal freedom” principles just long enough to advocate mandatory sterilization for those bigots who responded to news of the Japanese earthquake, tsunamis and nuclear disaster with cracks about karma and Pearl Harbor. (By their logic, my American self shudders to contemplate proper karmic payback for “genociding the natives so you could take their land” or “buying millions of people kidnapped off another continent and turning them into slaves.”)

But at least the karma pundits don’t—I’m guessing—subscribe to the latest insane conspiracy theory, which is: the US military caused the earthquake with its HAARP weather-control device. (I don’t want to link to anything, but Google “US military caused Japan earthquake” if you don’t believe me. Over four million hits without the quote marks. Bye-bye, faith in humanity! Don’t let the door hit your non-existent self in your non-existent ass on your way out.)

I asked one adherent how charging electricity into the atmosphere is supposed to make tectonic plates shift position relative to each other and Earth’s mantle, and apparently it’s because sometimes, before volcanoes erupt or earthquakes rumble, there are electrical discharges into the atmosphere, so maybe it works in reverse. The guy also suspects Obama ordered the tsunami because he’s afraid the Japanese might get too cozy with China, to the detriment of the US. (The notion “China and Japan get too lovey-dovey” is a common theme in many alt-history timelines, though not so much in ours.) I guess Obama thinks if we hit the Japanese with a tsunami they'll … not want to develop better relationships with their immediate neighbors.

The person who explained this to me, incidentally, lives in the United States even though he’s absolutely convinced that on September 11, 2001, the US government killed 3,000 of its own citizens, destroyed valuable real estate and framed the Saudis for it. If I seriously thought the government did that I’d talk about it all the time, as the conspiracy’s adherents are wont to do. But first, I’d get the hell out of the United States because I’d figure a government evil enough to kill 3,000 of its own people – including lots of rich white people – wouldn’t have the slightest qualms about ensuring a poor mouthy blogger who Exposed Their Secrets had a sudden fatal accident. And if the military has a deadly weather- and earthquake-generating machine, it'll have no qualms about going after anybody who exposes it. Bradley Manning could tell you a thing or two about that.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

TSA: Is This The Backlash We Need?

Behold history in the making: in anno Domini 2011, a mere 796 years after England's Magna Carta established that even kings must follow the law, American state legislators are starting to think mandates like "sexual assault is verboten" should apply to agents of the government, too.

Of course, that was always the case until the TSA (actual motivational motto: "Dominate. Intimidate. Control.") decided "ritualised humiliation of travelers" made an acceptable substitute for "transportation security."
That's the opening of my latest column in today's Guardian. But I confess to a bit of dishonesty in writing it: the column's tone sounds far more optimistic than my mood actually is.

Serious question, my fellow Americans: what the hell happened to our country? I have online news alerts set up to inform me whenever the media reports on the TSA anywhere in the land, and literally every single day my inbox fills with new atrocity stories, each of which would've been national front-page news before the US lost its collective mind. Now it's merely background noise, ignored and unnoticed by most. Maybe TSA is relying on an updated version of Josef Stalin's callous calculation: "One traveler sexually assaulted by a TSA agent is a tragedy. One million travelers sexually assaulted by TSA agents is a statistic."

Right now, in America, we have "actual elected lawmakers" -- Republican and Democrat both -- going up against "unelected political appointees" a la Janet Napolitano and John Pistole. The lawmakers have the Constitution and public opinion on their side; the appointed bureaucrats have neither.

Time was when I'd've confidently predicted, "A bipartisan coalition enjoying broad popular support and strong constitutional backing will surely triumph against a handful of bureaucrats gone wild." But where the abusiveness of a runaway TSA is concerned ... I don't know. I just don't know anymore.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Nurse Ratched Handles National Security

My country is dying. Maybe my country is dead. The political entity known as "the United States of America" is still alive and kicking, and will likely remain so for centuries to come, but the ideals it once claimed to stand for are gone. Freedom, justice, liberty ... no. But there's this: "If American soldiers gun down unarmed journalists from a helicopter, or American contractors pimp out prepubescent little boys to serve as sex toys at Pashtun warlord parties, the government should ignore those criminals and instead go after Bradley Manning and Julian Assange for exposing them."

And now that Manning is in custody, the military forces him to sleep naked every night and report for attention naked the next day, but they claim they're doing this for Manning's own good, because they're afraid he'll commit suicide and when people feel suicidal you should treat them in the most degrading and dehumanizing fashion possible, to help them find life worth living again.

I've heard the arguments in support of the military here, the arguments Manning deserves all this and more, because national security blah blah terrorism and poor agents in the field who might die because Wikileaks exposed them. But the Department of Defense (note to non-Americans: that's the Orwellian name of the US government agency responsible for waging our country's wars) had the chance to vet the Wikileaks documents before their release, and refused. Any secret agent who suffered or might one day suffer from the Wikileaks revelations could have been saved, except the American war department let them be exposed in order to score points against Bradley Manning.

But if the potential for dead field agents truly does justify the military's treatment of Manning, then Karl Rove should sleep naked in his own cell at Quantico, after exposing Valerie Plame. Unlike Wikileaks, Rove didn't even offer the Department of Defense the courtesy of a chance to vet the information before he leaked it to the media.

Incidentally, here's what article 13 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice says regarding Punishment prohibited before trial:
No person while being held for trial, may be subjected to punishment or penalty other than arrest or confinement upon the charges pending against him, nor shall the arrest or confinement imposed upon him be any more rigorous than the circumstances required to insure his presence, but he may be subjected to minor punishment during that period for infractions of discipline.
The authoritarian apologists bleating about "the rule of law" as though it somehow justifies Manning's shameful treatment should maybe -- just maybe -- stop kissing totalitarian ass long enough to contemplate the consequences of what they're endorsing: if the government itself has no respect for the rule of law, why the hell should anyone else?
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