October 2014 Archives

weekend warriors

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The Atlantic discusses weekend warrior athletes, referring to "people who cram their exercise into weekend soccer games or tennis matches:"

With long periods of inactivity, interspersed with sometimes-excessive bursts of activity, the exercise habits of the weekend warrior don't fit the recommended model of regular daily exercise. More consistent exercise (an hour of moderate exercise or 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day) has been shown to reduce risk of heart failure by nearly 50 percent. But research appears to at least partially vindicate the exercise habits of weekend warriors, too.

To be classified as a weekend warrior, as the medical literature defines it, one must stuff the recommended weekly exercise requirement of 150 minutes or more into one or two days rather than spreading it out evenly over the week...only 1 to 3 percent of U.S. adults qualified as "weekend warriors."

Significantly, the piece notes that "The bottom line seems to be that even small amounts of vigorous activity--a quick run or a pick-up basketball game--can have significant health benefits:"

Taking it one step further, scientists have investigated how to make the most of a brief workout. One way is to work out in brief, high-intensity intervals of exercise, rather than a moderate but steady jog. [...] Despite the health benefits, there is a potential downside to sporadic exercise--increased risk of injury, especially acute injuries such as muscle strains or tendon injuries.

Attempting to cram a week's worth of exercise into a weekend may not be optimal, public health experts contend, but it seems like it's at least better than spending the weekend on the coach.

I believe you mean "couch"...otherwise, it's a very different kind of physical activity!

For NYT reporter James Risen, "fighting the post-9/11 national security state is a full-time job," as his new book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War explains:

"we had this whole period, 13 years now, where we essentially 'took the gloves off,' in Dick Cheney's famous words, in order to fight a global war on terror. And what Cheney meant by that was deregulating national security, and what that meant was eliminating or reducing or relaxing the rules that had been put in place for 30 years, from the post-Watergate era, which were governing the way in which we conducted national security. [...]

As I mention in the book, there are all these secret new companies that have developed around Washington in particular, in what I call "the homeland security-industrial complex," which is kind of like the military-industrial complex which came before, but is really more secretive and more earmarked toward intelligence and counterterrorism and not so much toward the big weapons systems that were the hallmark of the military-industrial complex.

So it's harder to see and it's harder to keep track of.

From the interview:

How much do we share responsibility for this state of affairs because we're so unwilling to not be afraid?

Yeah, that's a big part of it. Sometimes I wonder how much of it is the media doing that to the American people, and how much of it is really fear.

I tend to think that people are pretty smart, and if you as a politician or as a pundit presented the facts as they really are and not try to overhype them, that [people] would be willing to listen to that. Especially after so many years. I know a lot of people are tired of war so I think, now, the American people are more willing to hear that kind of message.

That's a prime example of market failure--"that kind of message" is not something that is delivered to us by corporate media outlets. Risen continues that "the Bush administration kind of created this national security/counterterrorism apparatus on an ad hoc basis, and did it very quickly and haphazardly:"

What Obama has done is made it more permanent and made it more normal. He's normalized it. And I would argue that's going to be part of his legacy, that he took what Bush set up in a haphazard and ad hoc way and made it more permanent. To me, that is more troubling, because it raise the question: If the war on terror is now a bipartisan enterprise, what political path is there out of this?

Comey's argument

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James Comey said in his Brookings speech that "We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications from information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so." Comey's worries, described as "Law enforcement officials could still intercept conversations but might not be able to access call data, contacts, photos and email stored on the phone" by TPM, are entirely appropriate--not every bit of potentially useful data has even been available to law enforcement, but that point is elided by our surveillance state mentality:

Comey also said the FBI was committed to a "front-door" approach, through court orders and under strict oversight, to intercepting communications. Privacy advocates have long been concerned that that development would create an opening for hackers to exploit. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that federal law protects the right of companies to add encryption with no backdoors and said the companies should be credited for being "unwilling to weaken security for everyone."

"Whether you call it a 'front door' or a 'back door,' weakening the security of a system to enable law enforcement access also opens that door to foreign governments and criminals," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

The Intercept called Comey's argument "pathetic," and wrote that "To make his case, he cited four real-life examples -- examples that would be laughable if they weren't so tragic:"

In the three cases The Intercept was able to examine, cell-phone evidence had nothing to do with the identification or capture of the culprits, and encryption would not remotely have been a factor. [...]

Facing the huge preponderance of evidence that encryption makes us safer, not less safe, Comey realizes he needs some solid evidence to support his side of the argument. But there's a reason he hasn't found it yet.

CDT goes on to argue that "The core tension of this debate is balancing the need for greater government access with our country's long tradition of individual autonomy and privacy:"

When the government calls for reduced security on smartphones, or worse yet, seeks technological backdoors into our devices, we are being asked to expose our personal data to criminals. Any backdoor the government can walk through to uncover evidence will eventually be used by malicious actors to exploit our personal information. [...]

In the end, we are far more secure, individually and as a country, if we are empowered to control the security and privacy of our own information. As we store more and more personal data in our smartphones, we must be given the ability to protect it from sophisticated hackers and criminals. The government vision of national security where only the good guys exploit weak security is not realistic, nor is it globally scalable. We should applaud the companies that take concrete steps to enhance the security of our personal information and encourage more companies to be equally bold.

Judith Miller writes in City Journal:

Without lawful government access to cell phones and Internet devices, Comey warned, "homicide cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free, and child exploitation victims might not be identified or recovered. [...] "Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive."

Comey repeated his warning that sales of such technology would create what he called a "black hole" for enforcement, depriving investigators of the forensic data needed to solve crimes.

But technology experts have argued that strong default encryption is needed to protect users from unwanted violation of their private data by governments and hackers alike.

EFF notes that "the FBI is trying to convince the world that some fantasy version of security is possible--where 'good guys' can have a back door or extra key to your home but bad guys could never use it:"

Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of security can tell you that's just not true. So the "debate" Comey calls for is phony, and we suspect he knows it. Instead, Comey wants everybody to have weak security, so that when the FBI decides somebody is a "bad guy," it has no problem collecting personal data.

But if the FBI gets its way and convinces Congress to change the law, or even if it convinces companies like Apple that make our tools and hold our data to weaken the security they offer to us, we'll all end up less secure and enjoying less privacy. Or as the Fourth Amendment puts it: we'll be be less "secure in our papers and effects."

more Wilde times

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TNR discusses the Walt Whitman/Oscar Wilde tryst (which I mentioned in this post from a year ago) and quotes from David Friedman's Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, which sets up the story this way:

On January 31, 1882, a partially paralyzed man living with his brother and sister-in-law in a row house in Camden, New Jersey, wrote to a friend to tell him of a recent visitor to that home. "He is a fine large handsome youngster," the man wrote of that guest. And "he had the good sense to take a great fancy to me."

Thus Walt Whitman described the day he spent with Oscar Wilde.

Despite all the overblown right-wing fears, same-sex and opposite-sex marriages far equally well:

In a September study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Rosenfeld uses time series data from the How Couples Meet and Stay Together survey (HCMST) to probe the longevity and breakup rates of America's marriages. The HCMST, which began in 2009, is a nationally representative survey of 3,009 couples, of which 471 are same-sex. Rosenfeld's paper reports the breakup rate of the couples surveyed annually through 2012.

The annual breakup rate among married different-sex couples was 1.5 percent. [...] Married same-sex couples broke up at a rate of 2.6 percent per year...

It is also noteworthy that unmarried same-sex couples broke up at about half the rate of unmarried different-sex couples. It is likely that part of the reason for this disparity is that unmarried same-sex couples had already been together almost twice as long their different-sex counterparts at beginning of the survey.


multiple languages

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The suggestion that for a better brain, learn another language continues to gain support as "the benefits of speaking multiple languages extend past just having access to different words, concepts, metaphors, and frames:"

Multilingualism has a whole slew of incredible side effects: Multi-linguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading, and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences, likely from learning grammatical rules and vocabulary; they are more perceptive to their surroundings and therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information (it's no surprise Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots). And there's certainly something to be said for the cultural pleasure of reading The Odyssey in ancient Greek or Proust's In Search of Lost Time in French.

Of course, there's the dementia/decline issue:

More recently and perhaps most importantly, it's been found that people who learn a second language, even in adulthood, can better avoid cognitive decline in old age. In fact, when everything else is controlled for, bilinguals who come down with dementia and Alzheimer's do so about four-and-a-half years later than monolinguals.

Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer in the philosophy, psychology, and language sciences department at the University of Edinburgh, conducted the study and found that level of education and intelligence mattered less than learning a second language when it came to delaying cognitive decline. [...]

This is great news for anyone who is multi-lingual, but, really, it is positive news for everyone. The dementia-delaying effects of learning a second language are not contingent on becoming fluent; it just matters that a person tries to learn it.

what markets want

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Paul Krugman gets my Quote of the Day when he asks, "do those invoking the will of the market really know what markets want?"

We have been told repeatedly that governments must cease and desist from their efforts to mitigate economic pain, lest their excessive compassion be punished by the financial gods, but the markets themselves have never seemed to agree that these human sacrifices are actually necessary. Investors were supposed to be terrified by budget deficits, fearing that we were about to turn into Greece -- Greece I tell you -- but year after year, interest rates stayed low. The Fed's efforts to boost the economy were supposed to backfire as markets reacted to the prospect of runaway inflation, but market measures of expected inflation similarly stayed low.

How have policy crusaders responded to the failure of their dire predictions? Mainly with denial, occasionally with exasperation. For example, Alan Greenspan once declared the failure of interest rates and inflation to spike "regrettable, because it is fostering a false sense of complacency." But that was more than four years ago; maybe the sense of complacency wasn't all that false?

All in all, it's hard to escape the conclusion that people like Mr. Greenspan knew as much about what the market wanted as medieval crusaders knew about God's plan -- that is, nothing.

In fact, if you look closely, the real message from the market seems to be that we should be running bigger deficits and printing more money. And that message has gotten a lot stronger in the past few days.

He concludes by observing that "the truth is that when people talk about what markets demand, what they're really doing is trying to bully us into doing what they themselves want."

Bill Gates wrote a review of Piketty's Capital:

Piketty was nice enough to talk with me about his work on a Skype call last month. As I told him, I agree with his most important conclusions, and I hope his work will draw more smart people into the study of wealth and income inequality--because the more we understand about the causes and cures, the better.

Gates continues by observing that "Piketty's book has some important flaws that I hope he and other economists will address in the coming years. [...] For all of Piketty's data on historical trends, he does not give a full picture of how wealth is created and how it decays:"

More important, I believe Piketty's r > g analysis doesn't account for powerful forces that counteract the accumulation of wealth from one generation to the next. I fully agree that we don't want to live in an aristocratic society in which already-wealthy families get richer simply by sitting on their laurels and collecting what Piketty calls "rentier income"--that is, the returns people earn when they let others use their money, land, or other property. But I don't think America is anything close to that.

(Of course, the concept of rentier economics is neither new nor unique to Piketty.) Dean Baker replies that "Gates gives us a textbook example of the problems:"

While he is undoubtedly smart and hardworking, the key to his incredible wealth was the decision by the Justice Department largely to ignore antitrust law. Gates used classic anti-competitive practices to gain and protect a near monopoly in the market for personal computer operating systems. [...]

While Gates wants us to believe that his software innovations were a great service to the world, most users of his software would probably not agree. His efforts to corner the market may have made him rich, but they slowed down the process of software development.

more Ebola panic

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Once again, the press is doing to GOP's bidding by spreading Ebola panic; Media Matters notes that "At times, Republicans, journalists, and commentators appear to be in complete sync as they market fear and kindle confusion:"

The result is a frightening level of misinformation about Ebola and a deep lack of understanding of the virus by most Americans. Indeed, despite weeks of endless coverage, most news consumers still don't understand key facts about Ebola.

If the news media's job is to educate, and especially to clarify during times of steep public concerns, then the news media have utterly failed during the Ebola threat. And politically, that translates into a win for Republicans because it means there's fertile ground for their paranoia to grow.

Here's the kicker: "two weeks into the domestic Ebola scare and it's often not easy to distinguish who's pushing the doomsday themes more energetically, the media or the Republican Party."

Thanks, "liberal" media!

oligarchy party

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NYT talks about the burgeoning oligarchy party, using Tom Steyer (with a $1.5 billion fortune from hedge-fund management) as a rare left-wing example of money in politics:

Steyer's long-term goal was to build an organization called NextGen Climate Action, which could mirror and oppose the rival private interests who devoted their own fortunes to blocking any action on climate change. Chief among those rivals were Charles and David Koch, the brothers who run Koch Industries. [...]

Steyer, with his $50 million pledge, is one of the most deep-pocketed political arrivistes. But he has a long way to go to catch up with the Koch brothers, whose own group, Americans for Prosperity, already has political operations in every state that Steyer is contesting, along with 28 others. The group says it will spend at least $125 million this year.

I'm still not a huge fan of private money in politics, but at least this seems to be a useful counterweight to conservative fortunes.

AlterNet's observation that conservative states are the biggest porn hounds links "online search traffic from behind closed doors in Jesusland" to the fact that "people in conservative religious states search for adult materials online far more often than people in blue states..." but why? Perhaps "the conservative obsession with controlling everyone else's sexual behavior" is due to Freudian "defense mechanisms:"

• Denial means simply refusing to acknowledge that some event or pattern is real. • Repression involves pushing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the far recesses of the subconscious mind. • Reaction formation is saying or doing the opposite of what you really want but won't allow yourself to express. • Projection means assuming that others share the impulses, feelings, and vices that you find unacceptable in yourself.

The honest truth is that we all have our failings, Christian or not, liberal or conservative. None of us live up to our best intentions or deepest values. What's shameful is not the fact that people find sex arousing and seek it out, even when they feel compelled to do so on the sneak. The problem is hypocrisy and the way that it distorts public policies and parenting, causing real harm to real people. For over a decade, conservatives forced abstinence-only education on young people, insisting that hormone-ravaged teens could "just say no" when they themselves can't.

This epic public health fail contributed to the United States having the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, with devastating economic consequences for young mothers and their offspring. Some thrive despite the odds; many do not. We can do better.

Not with ignorance-based sex education, we can't...


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Wired's piece on the Anonabox backlash is quite a reversal:

...as of Thursday morning, the backlash against that project had become so severe that its total funding was actually ticking down rather than up, as disillusioned backers pulled their pledges faster than others could make them. The comments section on the Kickstarter page had filled with users accusing the project's creators of fraud, many asking Kickstarter to cancel the fundraiser.

More worrisome than whether or not its circuit boards are truly "custom" are the security concerns:

But as the security community has taken notice of Anonabox over the last week, its analysts and penetration testers have found that the router's software also has serious problems, ones that could punch holes in its Tor protections or even allow a user to be more easily tracked than if they were connecting to the unprotected Internet. "I'm seeing these really strange smells and poor practices in their pilot beta code," says Justin Steven, a computer security analyst based in Brisbane, Australia. "It scares me if anyone is relying on this for their security." [...]

In its default state, the Anonabox doesn't password-protect its wireless network. That means that anyone who sets up an Anonabox without changing its settings can have their device completely compromised by a nearby hacker who has the easily identifiable root password. That wireless attacker could disable Tor or even infect the router with spyware that tracks the user's location wherever they take it.

The project's lead is spinning furiously:

Germar argues that all the criticisms of the Anonabox stem from miscommunication, not carelessness or any attempt to scam users. He admits that he should have made clear which parts of the Anonabox's hardware he sourced from China rather than give users the impression he was custom-building the parts from scratch. But he denies the software issues represent real vulnerabilities. Instead, he describes them as issues of user education. Germar says he intended to include warnings in the final documentation to change the router's root password, for instance.

Fred Kaplan pens a critical look at CitizenFour, opining that Poitras "has chosen to leave a lot out:"

If Snowden and company wanted to take down an intelligence agency, they should say so. But that has nothing to do with whistleblowing or constitutional rights.

At one very interesting point in the film, Snowden tells Poitras and Greenwald, "Some of these documents are legitimately classified," and their release "could do great harm" to intelligence sources and methods. He adds, "I trust you'll be responsible" in handling them.

This is what most baffles me about the whole Snowden case. What kind of whistleblower hands over a digital library of extremely classified documents on a vast range of topics, shrugs his shoulders, and says, I'll let you decide what to publish?

He concludes:

It's a gigantic evasion to leak however many beyond-top-secret documents he leaked--some say tens of thousands, some say millions--and then abrogate all responsibility for their circulation to the world.

Slate's Reihan Salam writes in praise of Amazon:

Even if Bezos is in his heart of hearts a villain devoted to driving every mom-and-pop store in the world out of business, the company he's built is very much a force for good. It is a force for good not just because it keeps the Salam household stocked with paper towels, dish soap, rolling ball pens, map tacks, and lots and lots of cheap books, but because it points American capitalism in a better, healthier direction. [...]

When we decide that Amazon is just a little too innovative and a little too tough, what is the message we're sending to the next entrepreneur who is debating whether to take on the thorniest challenges? No, I'm not saying that it's OK for Standard Oil to come along and gouge its customers because we don't want to discourage future robber barons. I'm saying that having the government step in and squash Amazon before it actually uses its (supposed) pricing power to screw consumers will likely yield less innovative entrepreneurship. The only people who will win in this scenario are the mostly wealthy people who own shares in lazily managed companies. Hurray.

Innovative entrepreneurship is exactly what the American economy desperately needs.

I would hardly call Amazon's abusive practices "a little too tough," but Salam seems determined to whitewash the situation. He concludes by saying that "Instead of damning Amazon, we need to be asking why we don't have more companies like it." Salon pegs this as a "silly defense of Amazon" and notes that it leaves out workers:

Tip of the hat to Salam's attempt to spin carrying water for Jeff Bezos as standing up against entrenched power. It's a nice rhetorical move, especially if your audience is socially aware enough to know there's something gauche about reflexively venerating the 1 percent. But as Salam reveals with the second element of his argument, this through-the-looking-glass version of populism is fundamentally hollow. Because Amazon and Bezos shouldn't be celebrated simply for the way they make our nicknacks cheaper, Salam argues, but also for the way they inspire the Peter Thiels and Jeff Bezoses of the future to make everything else better, too. The argument, basically, is that if we come down hard on Amazon now, well, we risk nothing less than a mass exodus into Galt's Gulch.

In contrast to the relative ease of replacing Windows with Ubuntu on his PC, Dan Gillmor wonders who owns his phone:

...when I recently bought a used Samsung mobile phone and tried to replace the bloated, privacy-invading system that comes standard with Samsung's Android devices, I ran into all kinds of trouble. Why? Because Samsung and Sprint, the carrier that handles voice and data for that phone, have decided they--not I--will retain ultimate control over the device I purchased. Oh, I can use it, but only in ways they consider permissible.

This is the lockdown method of modern technology, a growing phenomenon that deserves much wider notice--and, for the most part, condemnation. To put it simply, we are being told that we don't actually own what we buy.

From Kindle e-readers to Keurig coffeemakers, users are facing various lockdown schemes from vendors--that are, at their least objectionable, another way to strong-arm users:

I asked Samsung and Sprint for an explanation of why they are so ardently trying to stop people like me from making my phone a better device. Their responses never quite answered what I considered fairly simple questions. [...]

Imagine how outrageous it would be if Apple or Windows-based computer makers refused to honor warranties if you modified the system in a way they found improper. The fact that we let phone-makers do this speaks to our weird acceptance of captivity when it comes to devices that are, in reality, nothing more than portable computers.

If we had proper consumer-protection laws in this country, it would--with very, very few exceptions--be illegal for manufacturers to lock down devices in this way. But expecting our current political system to favor customers over corporations is almost foolhardy.

And there's a question you should ask yourself when you decide to buy something that contains software and can be connected to digital networks: Who ultimately controls it? You, or the company that "sold" it to you? If the latter, you aren't buying. You're just renting.

infectious paranoia

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The GOP's slick new trick is co-opting the media to infect audiences with Ebola paranoia. As the Ebola outbreak is "dominating the news coverage, it's ripe for fearmongering, and it seems to call out for immediate and effective action by the government...flight bans and closing the border are generally where Republicans fall when they're asked what that action should look like:"

These proposals may sound extreme (and they are) but they give the impression that, in the face of crisis, our elected officials and learned commentators want to get stuff done. [...] This "do something" style of politics is an extremely effective way to prey on irrational fears and get people behind you even if what you're proposing quite obviously won't fix the problem. And Republicans are proving themselves to be very, very good at it. [...]

They're nurturing along the perception that existing policies are failing horribly and the likelihood of outright catastrophe is increasing. The "do something" politicking is the natural outflow from all their efforts to keep people scared. It won't solve the problem - it could even make it worse - but it appeals to the frightened person who's been made to feel that the situation is slipping into chaos and is just looking for something, anything, to be done.


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The Atlantic's piece on defending iPhones points out that FBI head James Comey, is scheduled to give a speech Thursday as "part of a sustained effort to sway the debate over encryption, or what the FBI calls devices 'going dark,' thwarting efforts to solve robberies, kidnapping, and other crimes." Comey's arguments are ultimately misleading and wrongheaded, as Cato's Julian Sanchez explains in "a definitive essay" [wherein] Sanchez debunks the notion that Apple or anyone else is setting an alarming new precedent with its encryption:"

Acknowledging that encryption may nevertheless be growing easier and more prevalent, in a way that will sometimes thwart law enforcement from solving crimes, Sanchez shows that the case against backdoors for law enforcement is nevertheless strong. [...]

I'd only add that, even ignoring all these benefits of backdoor-free encryption, the practice is necessary as a response to a federal government that routinely intrudes into the private communications of Americans suspected of no crime, rather than respecting privacy except in cases where an individualized warrant is obtained. Perhaps if the Bush administration hadn't embarked on an illegal program of warrantless wiretapping, if the telecoms wouldn't have been given retroactive immunity for their unlawful behavior, and if Edward Snowden hadn't shown that U.S. officials lied under oath about a program of mass surveillance, Americans would feel less need to build safes that not even the state can unlock.

Sanchez' essay does indeed note that "criminals have had access to backdoor-free encryption for many, many years before Apple announced its new policy without ushering in a terrifying new age of unstoppable criminals and impotent police." He goes on to provide some much-needed context:

Law enforcement may moan that they are "going dark" when some particular innovation makes their jobs more difficult (while improving the security of law-abiding people's private data), but when we consider the bigger picture, it is far easier to agree with the experts who have dubbed our era the Golden Age of Surveillance. Year after year, technology opens a thousand new windows to our government monitors. If we aim to preserve an "equilibrium" between government power and citizen privacy, we should accept that it will occasionally close one as well.

bad economics

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Economists with bad ideas wrecking things from Lynn Parramore and Jeff Madrick--whose new book Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World Parramore describes as "his latest challenge to the pernicious ideas that have captured the minds and clouded the judgment of huge numbers of orthodox economists and the legions who follow their advice:"

In this brisk and accessible volume, which should be on Econ 101 syllabi, Madrick outlines the wrong-headed propositions, fictitious models, shoddy research, and partisan agendas that have made a reexamination of the entire field long overdue, especially in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. Madrick's book is part of a healthy movement to set the record straight and chart a new direction for an economics that can serve the whole of society and lead to sustainable growth.

Here are some choice bits from their exchange:

Lynn Parramore: Why does the invisible hand (the metaphor used by 18th-century economist Adam Smith to explain what he saw as the benefits of individuals in pursuit of their own interests) get top billing in your list of bad economic ideas? What value judgments come with this model of how the economy works?

Jeff Madrick: Adam Smith's invisible hand is really the hub of the wheel: the other ideas are all spokes. It argues that if we all follow our self-interest and the government stays out of the market--for instance, it should not regulate prices--then the interaction of buyers and sellers will result in the greatest prosperity for all.
The invisible hand ... is only an idea, if a beautiful one. It tells us how a market may work, not how it actually does work. Long after Adam Smith wrote about the invisible hand, as the economics profession became increasingly ideologically conservative, economists came to accept it as a rule, not a hypothesis.

LP: You mention several forces that keep economists committed to bad ideas, like the conformity required for professional success, the pretense that economics is a science akin to physics, and the addiction to simplistic models that do not account for the messiness of the real world. Given these forces, how can we move toward a better economics?

Crisis should have moved us to a better economics, and to some small extent it has. Economists have gone back to the drawing board. They are trying to write finance into their forecasting models, something they completely neglected before. They are a little more humble. But I would say not much. They still think they have a special knowledge that others don't. Thus, they turned the seven bad ideas of my book into rules of thumb rather than hypotheses that have to be adjusted to every new problem.

But it is easier to have a one-size-fits-all solution than to get down and dirty and recognize the limitations of universalist ideas. The notion of economics being akin to physics confers a certain kind of prestige, but it is also easier to measure contributions, even if they are wrong. These ideas are part of the sociology of academia, which badly needs reforming.

Speaking of which, The Economist mentions the need for reforming economics at business school, noting that "the critics say that there are three main things wrong with how economics is currently taught:"

First, the subject has been driven too much by neo-classical ideology, to the exclusion of other interpretations of the dismal science. Heterodox views should be taught alongside orthodoxy, the critics protest. Second, conventional teaching has led to economics becoming more mathematical over the past 30 years or so, which has further narrowed the range of interpretations that students are exposed to. Third, this statistical focus on theories such as the efficient-markets hypothesis meant that the economics profession did not see the last financial crisis coming, or have any answers to it when it hit. They suggest that more emphasis is needed on less statistically-driven areas of the discipline, such as economic history and psychology, as well as the economics of financial crises and banking panics.

The Nation looks at what happens when the workday never really ends:

The "new economy" of twenty-four-hour online shopping, global markets and just-in-time inventory churning, have created a demand for "flexible" labor--rapid-fire changes in schedules, shift-swapping, on-call staff. In a new book, Unequal Time, sociologists Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel survey how time is distributed across this new economic landscape, and finds that flexibility--and its evil twin, unpredictability--is creating a new social order that brings chaos to the workplace and the home. [...]

Employers can capitalize on the system by "staffing lean," hiring fewer workers on the cheap at part-time or just-short-of-full-time hours. Then overtime work practically becomes a de facto mandatory extra shift, even as workers' schedules remain chaotic.

Jobs with the most chaotic schedules are often called "precarious work--a job specifically structured to be unstable," with detrimental effects:

At home, workplace instability aggravates the chaos endemic to poor workers' family lives--manifested in unstable housing, family stress and conflict, and chronic health problems--leaving parents constantly seesawing between workplace misery and domestic crisis.

Organized labor, with its traditional insistence on quality-of-life issues, once helped millions of workers and their families to mitigate the power imbalance--but is no longer there for most of us:

Paid vacation time, paid family medical leave, access to daycare and flexibility for workers to control their schedules according to their needs--these are not simply labor costs, but critical provisions that people need to maintain a whole, dignified life--as caregivers, community members and citizens. Occupying all these roles together lets us live as full-time members of society, and a full-time job shouldn't rob us of that.

The NYT's look at the chaos caused by scheduling technology uncovers "a new collision that pits sophisticated workplace technology against some fundamental requirements of parenting, with particularly harsh consequences for poor single mothers:"

Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. "It's like magic," said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents' routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.

As long as the costs of chaos are externalized, employers have little interest in reducing them:

Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: "How many hours do you work?" and "What do you earn?" [...]

But flexibility -- an alluring word for white-collar workers, who may desire, say, working from home one day a week -- can have a darker meaning for many low-income workers as a euphemism for unstable hours or paychecks.

In addition to the stress of unpredictability, the age of loneliness is killing us:

We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before. [...] Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents - all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.

The media with which so many of us try to assuage our loneliness "speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction," and this can lead to a "generalised obsession with fame and wealth" with its own set of problems:

For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.


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WaPo points out that Piketty's famous r > g relationship [return on capital, r, is significantly greater than the economy's growth rate, g] is not the only factor that drives inequality:

Piketty isn't saying that r>g is why inequality has increased so far. It's why he thinks inequality will keep increasing along hereditary lines in the future.

It's a distinction that most people -- even if they feel compelled to have an opinion on Piketty regardless of their familiarity with his work -- miss. Including, it turns out, the expert economists at the University of Chicago's Initiative on Global Markets (IGM).

Similarly, Slate looks at the conservative contention that Piketty has been rejected by economists:

Sample headline courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis: "Survey: 81% of top economists disagree with the Piketty inequality argument." Except they didn't really. Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century never suggests r>g is the main reason behind the recent rise of inequality. Rather, it theorizes that, in the absence of government intervention, r>g ensures the future concentration of income and wealth.

Kevin Drum notes that "one of the biggest weaknesses of Piketty's argument [is that] r > g has been true for centuries, but the rich have not gotten steadily richer over that time:"

Wealth concentration has stayed roughly the same. Piketty argues that this is likely to change starting around 2050 or so, but this is an inherently iffy forecast since it's several decades in the future. What's worse, he bases it mostly on a projection that economic growth (g) is shortly going to suffer an unprecedented fall. This makes his forecast even iffier. Piketty may be right, but projecting growth rates for the second half of the century isn't something he has any particular expertise in. His guess is no better than anyone else's.

Piketty was working from better--or at least more complete--data than any previous economist, but Drum's caveats are well noted.

National Journal explains how Ebola makes conservatives more conservative and asks, "So why are conservatives so concerned about the southern border in the wake of Ebola? Psychology has an answer:"

According to mounting psychological research, liberals tend to be open to new experiences, while conservatives seek to protect what they already have. Often these mind-sets result in political clashes. But the tension between liberal brains and conservative brains makes sense for survival. There are times when it's important to discover new things, and there are times when it's important to avoid dangers. The tension between those two strategies is what has fueled human political conflict for millennia as groups argue over how a society should be run. But it has also kept us alive.

Through this evolutionary lens, conservatism is a strategy to protect a society from harm from both outsiders and diseases. Ebola hits this exact conservative nerve--it's a deadly disease from a foreign country. Ebola is activating all the evolutionary alarms of the conservative mind.

This morning's news that a second Dallas nurse contracted the virus will certainly accelerate the drive to demonization and xenophobia. It's not the constant Chicken-Little demeanor of conservatism that's the problem--it's that they're always worried about the wrong things. Liberia needs more body bags (not to mention 1 million more suits and masks, as well as 2 million more gloves), but the GOP's border fixation will worsen the crisis. They can read a chart of exponential growth of Ebola infections,


but an impending climate catastrophe elicits reactions such as outright denial, creating conspiracy theories, or aggressively deliberate increases in pollution (such as those "rolling coal" cretins):


Infinitesimal numbers of fraudulent votes stoke Republicans' fears, but untold thousands of votes suppressed warrant no concern whatsoever. "In many cases," he continues, "these beliefs are no doubt quite sincere. However, the sincerity of a belief has no relevance to its truth:"

Republicans have argued for voter ID laws by contending that they will prevent fraud. However, investigation of voter fraud has shown only 31 credible cases out of one billion ballots. As such, this sort of fraud does occur--but only at an incredibly low rate...the evidence is that the laws that are allegedly aimed at preventing voter fraud actually serve as voter suppression measures, mostly aimed at minority voters.

It would seem that the laws and policies allegedly aimed at voter fraud would not reduced the existing fraud (which is already miniscule) and would have the effect of suppressing voters. As such, these laws and proposals fail to protect the rights of voters and instead are a violation of that basic right. In short, they are either a misguided and failed effort to prevent fraud or a wicked and potentially successful effort to suppress minority voters. Either way, these laws and policies are a violation of a fundamental right of the American democracy.

It's this sort of barely-disguised underhandedness that leads Salon to ask whether their fear-mongering is a
"cynical turnout strategy:"

Some 56 percent of Americans say the government is prepared to handle Ebola, including 61 percent of Democrats. But that number is flipped on its head when you ask Tea Party voters: 57 percent of them say the government is not prepared, as do 54 percent of rural voters. So two core components of the GOP red-state base coalition don't trust the federal government, in the person of President Obama, to keep them safe - and there's some political opportunity for Republicans in those numbers.

Republicans have "a generic two point lead over Democrats in the coming midterm elections, 46-44," but:

Democrats are leading Republicans in among registered voters in the top-11 Senate races, 47 percent to 42 percent. So Democrats should expect losses, but it's still not looking like a wave year. Unless Republicans can use Ebola and ISIS to drive out their voters, and Democratic voters stay home.

It seems more and more like strategic ignorance at work...

In "From Papyrus to Pixels," The Economist looks at the books/ebooks imbroglio, and remarks that "to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point:"

Books are not just "tree flakes encased in dead cow", as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.

Books like de Officiis have not merely weathered history; they have helped shape it. The ability they offer to preserve, transmit and develop ideas was taken to another level by Gutenberg and his colleagues. Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the Reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as "On the Origin of Species"; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

Asserting that "Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot" seems rather naïve given the amount of spying enabled by devices that is impossible with paper books.

ProPublica notes that North Carolina businessman Baker Mitchell "appears to be thriving" in the education field, as "millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell's chain of four nonprofit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls:"

The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell. Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings. Unlike with traditional school districts, at Mitchell's charter schools there's no competitive bidding. No evidence of haggling over rent or contracts.

The schools have all hired the same for-profit management company to run their day-to-day operations. The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell. It functions as the schools' administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff. It handles most of the bookkeeping. The treasurer of the nonprofit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell's management company. The two organizations even share a bank account.

Mitchell's management company was chosen by the schools' nonprofit board, which Mitchell was on at the time -- an arrangement that is illegal in many other states.

The panopticon under which his teachers labor ("Mitchell and other top administrators could watch teachers in their classrooms via surveillance cameras installed in every classroom, in every school") is, of course, quite different from what the pubic is able to see of him:

Mitchell himself has taken a hard line against disclosures of financial information concerning his for-profit companies. For private corporations, he wrote on his blog in July, "the need for transparency is superfluous" and is simply a mechanism for the media to "intrude and spin their agenda."

RMS wore an "IMPEACH GOD" button while traveling. After receiving kudos for it (in Texas, no less!), he noted that "a rather strange conversation ensued on the subsequent flight:"

...a flight attendant said, "I feel offended by your button. Please take it off."

I responded, "I don't see why you should feel offended, unless ... you're not a god, are you?"

She: "No, but I believe in god."

I: "Well, I don't."

She: "But you're putting your views all over me!"

I: "Actually, I'm putting them all over me. I can't make you wear such a button, and I wouldn't try."

At that point, she let the issue drop.

I didn't find a button anywhere, but there's a sticker here:


comics kink

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Katha Pollitt examines Wonder Woman's kinky feminist roots by reading Jill Lepore's "hugely entertaining new book" The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Pollitt describes her creator William Moulton Marston as "equal parts genius, charlatan, and kinkster:"

Marston had a lot of help from his wife, Elizabeth Holloway (we have her to thank for "Suffering Sappho," "Great Hera," and other Amazonian expostulations), as well as from his former student Olive Byrne, with whom he and Holloway lived in a permanent ménage à trois that produced four children--two from each woman.

Pollitt notes that after Marston's death, Holloway and Byrne

...lived together happily for 43 more years, raising their children and working, Holloway for Metropolitan Life, Byrne, eventually, as [her aunt Margaret] Sanger's personal secretary. When they visited Sanger in Tucson, they slept in the same room. Perhaps they found their Paradise Island in the end.

I wonder (ha!) how Lepore's book compares with Tim Hanley's Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine from earlier this year.

excusing religion

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Reza Aslan purports to explain what the New Atheists get wrong, but does a far better job of illuminating his own errors:

If I were to put the difference in those worldviews in the simplest way ... someone like Sam Harris or Bill Maher sees religion as defining people of faith, their values, their motivations, and I see people as defining their religion. I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don't derive their values from their religion -- they bring their values to their religion.

A large part of the problem, though, is that believers tend to not recognize this--they claim instead that their personal biases (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) are eternally perfect and unchanging, just like the god in which they believe. Aslan continues:

In the United States, just two centuries ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their conflicting viewpoints, they used the exact same verses. That's the power of scripture, it's the power of religion: It's infinitely malleable. We do not read scriptures that were written 5000 years ago still because they're true -- we read them because they're malleable, because they can address the ever-evolving need of a community, of an individual, because they can be shaped to whatever one's political ideology is. You have Christians in the hills of Guatemala who view Jesus as a liberating warrior who takes up arms against the oppressor, and Christians in midwestern Chicago who believe that Jesus wants you to drive a Bentley. Who's right? They both are! That's why Jesus matters.

Jesus matters because his words are contradictory enough to be infinitely malleable, and therefore cited as supporting evidence for opposing views? Does Aslan not see the coherence and internal consistency problems here? Apparently not, because he finds fault with atheists instead:

Most of my intellectual heroes are atheists, but they were experts in religion, and so they were able to offer critiques of it that came from a place of knowledge, from a sophistication of education, of research. What we're seeing now instead is a sort of armchair atheism -- people who are inundated by what they see on the news or in media, and who then draw these incredibly simplistic generalizations about religion in general based on these examples that they see. [...] The great irony is that a lot of these New Atheists, memes when it comes to religion, they tend to read the scripture more literally than most religious literalists do.

Similarly, he decries the "almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion:"

And to me, there's a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic -- people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

Here are some additional remarks, courtesy of digby:

To assume that the religion itself is the reason rather than the excuse for this violent extremism is to miss the point entirely. There are reasons and we'd damned well better figure out what they are and do our best to deal with this thing in a way that makes sense. [...] We are a very powerful country and can do terrible damage if we decide to wage a holy war like this. But we are not invulnerable. To create even more enemies out of ignorance and bigotry is scary. No, it's insane.


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Alex Ross' 2008 piece on "The Legend of Lenny" has the aura of magic about it:

In 1984, when I was fifteen and living in Washington, D.C., I stopped by the National Cathedral to watch Leonard Bernstein conduct a rehearsal of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection." [...] Like so many people in the late twentieth century, I was a small object swayed toward a life in music by the gravitational pull of the meandering planet Bernstein.

Speaking of Mahler, this photo shows Lenny ecstatically conducting the symphony's finale a few years earlier:


Here's a wider view of the same moment:


ease vs. effort

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Google is making us dumber, reports Ian Leslie at Salon, noting that "In a remarkably short period of time, we have become habituated to an endless supply of easy answers. You might even say dependent:"

One day, the gap between question and answer will disappear. I believe we should strive to keep it open. That gap is where our curiosity lives. We undervalue it at our peril.

The piece notes the importance of effort:

It's hardly surprising that we love the ease and fluency of the modern web: our brains are designed to avoid anything that seems like hard work. The psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the term "cognitive miser" to describe the stinginess with which the brain allocates limited attention, and its in-built propensity to seek mental short-cuts. The easier it is for us to acquire information, however, the less likely it is to stick. Difficulty and frustration -- the very friction that Google aims to eliminate -- ensure that our brain integrates new information more securely. Robert Bjork, of the University of California, uses the phrase "desirable difficulties" to describe the counterintuitive notion that we learn better when the learning is hard. Bjork recommends, for instance, spacing teaching sessions further apart so that students have to make more effort to recall what they learned last time.

The minimal exertion involved in typing a search string into Google and clicking "I'm Feeling Lucky" offers far fewer memory events to trigger any sort of recall later--no wonder the piece observes that "the idea we should outsource our memories to the web [is] a short-cut to stupidity:"

The less we know, the worse we are at processing new information, and the slower we are to arrive at pertinent inquiry. You're unlikely to ask a truly penetrating question about the presidency of Richard Nixon if you have just had to look up who he is.

Ian Leslie's book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It might well be worth a look.

Remember the anti-"czar" mania that gripped the Right as soon as Obama was elected? This might help your memory:

Obama has more czars than the Romanovs - who ruled Russia for 3 centuries. Romanovs 18, cyberczar makes 20. -- John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 30, 2009

FactCheck points out that McCain is now singing a different tune when it comes to Ebola:

McCain: I would say that we don't know exactly who's in charge. There has to be some kind of czar.

Salon's Jim Newell snarks about the Right's sudden reversal:

They want a "czar" now? They want an administration point-person coordinating the response? That's reasonable. So reasonable, in fact, that there already is such a person. Lisa Monaco is the administration's top Homeland Security advisor who's serving as the White House's point-person on Ebola. (Another logical choice would be the Surgeon General, a.k.a. the country's "top doctor." But there's only an acting Surgeon General right now. President Obama's nominee for the post, Vivek Murthy, has had his confirmation held up in the Senate for months because the NRA doesn't like his opinions about guns. No, really.)



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Is it true that Maher's defense of Islamophobia doesn't make any sense?

The debate has been framed as a discussion over the nature of liberalism but that is, frankly, to give Maher's bigotry far too much credence. Maher called Islam "the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing," a statement which, when deconstructed, is a textbook illustration of bigotry.

For a start, religions don't do or think anything - people articulate ideas or act in the name of religion; Affleck was spot-on when he queried whether Maher had somehow determined the "the codified doctrine of Islam." And he was even more accurate when he lambasted Maher's attempt to play on white victimhood by casting himself, a highly influential TV host, as part of an oppressed group whose voice was somehow being suppressed on issues relating to Islam and Muslims -- all the while demonizing Islam and Muslims, largely unchallenged, on primetime Television.

One of the other participants, Sam Harris, explains the mechanics of defamation with this out-of-context quotation:


Harris writes, "I know one thing to a moral certainty, however: Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean," and quotes the source passage at length. He continues:

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they've made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant--even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

Another writer familiar with Islam, Salman Rushdie, offers his perspective on "this new age of religious mayhem" (h/t: Friendly Atheist):

"It's hard not to conclude that this hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today." [...]

"A word I dislike greatly, 'Islamophobia', has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. But in the first place, if I don't like your ideas, it must be acceptable for me to say so, just as it is acceptable for you to say that you don't like mine. Ideas cannot be ring-fenced just because they claim to have this or that fictional sky god on their side.

Rushdie hasn't been under threat of death for a quarter-century (since The Satanic Verses in 1989) because Islam's adherents are too civilized. Salon, however, states that the poll cited by Maher and Harris is wrong:

As Harris further elaborated, there is "abundant evidence that vast numbers of Muslims believe dangerous things about infidels, apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, and martyrdom." The "abundant evidence" in question--which popped up in many previous debates on the same topic--comes mainly from one source: a 2013 wide-ranging Pew Research Center survey examining religion-based beliefs and attitudes in 39 countries.

The author questions "not the methodology of the respected research Institute, but rather the genuineness of the answers provided by many of the 38,000 individuals it surveyed:"

Just picture the typical polling interview. Imagine you live in a country where Islam is the religion of the State, where criticizing the religion (let alone leaving it) is a criminal offense, where the educational system and the pervasive state media gang up every day to hammer that Islam is the highest moral norm ever--where, hell, even the opposition (mostly made of Islamist groups) does nothing but double down on religious intransigence... And here comes the Pew pollster, a total stranger with a list of disturbing questions pertaining to religion--questions to which the wrong answers can get you in trouble in many ways... Not the best conditions to conduct a credible opinion poll. [...]

If the religious opinions of Muslims are questionable, then so is their adherence to religion in the first place. I'm not saying that no citizen from Morocco to Indonesia genuinely adheres to Islam. I'm just stating the obvious: no one knows how many really do--and no one will ever know until people are free to form and state their religious opinions freely. This has an important implication: all of the mainstream Western debate about what 1.6 billion Muslims think is built on the false premise that... there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the first place.

(The poll is here.)

Salon describe the premiere of CitizenFour as "electric" and speculates about an Oscar:

"Citizenfour" is an urgent, gripping real-life spy story that should be seen by every American, and quite likely by everybody else too. No matter how much you think you know about the Snowden affair, the film provides important new context and surprising new facts, as well as an up-close personal encounter with the 21st-century's most famous whistleblower.


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The National Institutes of Health reported that we could have had an Ebola vaccine by now, if not for a decade of budget cuts. Dr Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, remarks that "NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001:"

"Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready." [...] "We would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference," he said. [...] "Money, or rather the lack of it, is a big part of the problem. NIH's purchasing power is down 23 percent from what it was a decade ago, and its budget has remained almost static."

What does the Right believe about all this? Corpulent conservative Erick Erickson claims that fat lesbians got all the Ebola dollars (yes, really):

Erickson's post, titled "Fat Lesbians Got All the Ebola Dollars, But Blame the GOP," cites an NIH-funded study examining why lesbians confront higher rates of obesity; the research is in line with other demographic studies examining public health challenges, but Erickson seized on the study to wage a demagogic attack on the agency for frivolously "studying the propensity of lesbians to be fat." He also attacked CDC research on gun violence and smoking cessation.

What a douche.

On a larger scale, Salon points out that the Right's anti-government mania is harming America, and that "most of the media coverage of the politics of Ebola to date has centered on whether President Obama has adequately and/or honestly dealt with the disease:"

"I remain concerned that we don't see sufficient seriousness on the part of the federal government about protecting the American public," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters. Cruz is probably the wrong guy to talk about seriousness: his government shutdown forced the NIH to delay clinical trials and made the CDC cut back on disease outbreak detection programs this time last year.

I find myself wondering: When, if ever, will the political debate over Ebola center on the way the right-wing libertarian approach to government has made us less safe? [...] The GOP's anti-government crusade has hampered our ability to face the Ebola challenge. In an election year, there's nothing wrong with Democrats saying that clearly.


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Amazon's monopoly must be broken up, writes TNR's Franklin Foer:

Shopping on Amazon has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly.

That term doesn't get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart. Unlike U.S. Steel, the new behemoths don't use their barely challenged power to hike up prices. They are, in fact, self-styled servants of the consumer and have ushered in an era of low prices for everything from flat-screen TVs to paper napkins to smart phones.

In other words, we're all enjoying the benefits of these corporations far too much to think hard about distant dangers.

We worried about high prices and ignored the threat that the monopoly actually delivers to our doorstep--low wages:

In its pursuit of bigness, Amazon has left a trail of destruction--competitors undercut, suppliers squeezed--some of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome. [...] In effect, we've been thrust back 100 years to a time when the law was not up to the task of protecting the threats to democracy posed by monopoly; a time when the new nature of the corporation demanded a significant revision of government.

This quote from Louis Brandeis is great:

In an essay he wrote for Harper's Weekly in 1913, he excoriated the consumer who cared only about short-term prices: "Thoughtless or weak, he yields to the temptation of trifling immediate gain, and, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage, becomes himself an instrument of monopoly."

Much like WalMart, Amazon's "Growing profit margins depend, therefore, on continually getting a better deal from suppliers." As a result, Amazon's share of all new books sold is 41%--a number that climbs to 67% for ebooks. Foer surmises that "publishers will continue to strip away costs to satisfy Amazon:"

And more attention will fall on a strange inefficiency at the heart of the business: the advances that publishing houses pay their writers. This upfront money is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism. Advances make it financially viable for a writer to commit years of work to a project.

But no bank or investor in its right mind would extend that kind of credit to an author, save perhaps Stephen King. Which means that it won't take much for this anomalous ecosystem to collapse. [...]

In confronting what to do about Amazon, first we have to realize our own complicity. We've all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place. But it has gone beyond seduction, really. We expect these kinds of conveniences now, as if they were birthrights. They've become baked into our ideas about how consumers should be treated.

These expectations help fuel our collective denial about Amazon.

The Nation discusses how Amazon legally cheats workers, a major component of this denial:

No other company embodies the mantra "Time is money" quite like Amazon, with its seamless mastery of "just in time" logistics and round-the-clock online retail hours. But inside the cavernous warehouses that ship its goods, there are real people, and their time is not so preciously valued. So the Supreme Court is weighing their right to fair pay against the profits of an e-commerce Goliath. [...]

From a worker's perspective, the dilemma is felt through what they sacrifice for that end-of-the-day security screening. How many kids' birthday parties or school plays were missed because mom got stuck on an unexpectedly long line that day? As Ross Eisenbrey of Economic Policy Institute points out:

The 25 minutes the Integrity Staffing employees spend waiting in line for their security check is time taken away from them and from their families. It might not seem like much, but it amounts to 2 hours a week and 100 hours a year, which would involve real money if it were paid at time-and-a-half for overtime. And what if the warehouse workers had to wait an hour to get screened? How long the screening takes is up to the employer.

As a former Amazon warehouse wage slave, I can attest that desperation can drive one to sacrifice quite a lot.

Columbus Day

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As today is still celebrated as Columbus Day, this excerpt from An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is especially appropriate, particularly the statement that "Any true history of the United States must focus on what has happened to (and with) Indigenous peoples--and what still happens:"

In the United States the legacy of settler colonialism can be seen in the endless wars of aggression and occupations; the trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education; the gross profits of corporations, each of which has greater resources and funds than more than half the countries in the world yet pay minimal taxes and provide few jobs for US citizens; the repression of generation after generation of activists who seek to change the system; the incarceration of the poor, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans; the individualism, carefully inculcated, that on the one hand produces self-blame for personal failure and on the other exalts ruthless dog-eat-dog competition for possible success, even though it rarely results; and high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence.

This excerpt from Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus: What Your History Books Got Wrong points out that "Our history books not only imply that few people lived here, they also picture most of those who did as primitive," and ThinkProgress examines Columbus' real legacy:

Columbus, while remembered as a hero by many, was brutal to the native people. In his quest to find gold, he enslaved them, working thousands to death; brutalized them; and murdered them. [...]

Native Americans in what is now the United States would continue to be killed by later settlers in enormous numbers, have their land stolen by the government, and see their rights trampled on. This is Columbus's legacy, and the effects of his violent campaign and the decades of oppression afterward can still be seen today in the huge disparities between the Native American population and the population in general.

In a slightly more humorous vein, see this:

Dean Baker's observation that the deficit hawks are furious that the deficit is dropping is interesting:

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for the 2014 fiscal year that just ended was $460 billion, considerably lower than they had previously projected. This puts the deficit at 2.7 percent of GDP. At that level, the size of the debt relative to the economy is actually falling.

Not only is the deficit down sharply from its levels of 2009 and 2010, when it was near 10 percent of GDP, it is below the levels that even the deficit hawks had targeted back in those years. In other words, even if we had followed the lead of deficit crusaders like Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the deficit would be no lower today.

If anyone thought this would make the deficit hawks happy, they are badly mistaken. They are furious.

He then notes that "the deficit hawks have a bigger agenda:"

As just about everyone now knows, the major story in the economy over the last three decades has been the massive increase in inequality. The share of income going to the top one percent has roughly doubled since the 1970s, from 10 percent to 20 percent. As a result, most workers have seen almost none of the gains from economic growth over this period.

There are many people who would like to see this upward redistribution reversed, or at least not see the income gaps get still larger. A range of policies, from raising the minimum wage and more union friendly labor policies, to taxing Wall Street and full employment trade and Federal Reserve Board policy have been pushed to ensure that workers get their share of the economy's growth.

By contrast, the deficit hawk gang is perfectly happy to see this upward redistribution continue. After all, they and their patrons have been the beneficiaries.

What remains largely unsaid is that "the deficit hawks' agenda...is about getting people to obsess on the cost of their own retirement and to ignore the rich people who are stealing them blind." Paul Krugman explains how righteousness killed the world economy, observing that it "appears to be stumbling" and wondering "Why does this keep happening?"

After all, the events that brought on the Great Recession -- the housing bust, the banking crisis -- took place a long time ago. Why can't we escape their legacy?

The proximate answer lies in a series of policy mistakes: Austerity when economies needed stimulus, paranoia about inflation when the real risk is deflation, and so on. But why do governments keep making these mistakes? In particular, why do they keep making the same mistakes, year after year?

The answer, I'd suggest, is an excess of virtue. Righteousness is killing the world economy.

The punitive obsession that ignores debt relief has its roots in this righteousness:

In America, the famous Rick Santelli rant that gave birth to the Tea Party wasn't about taxes or spending -- it was a furious denunciation of proposals to help troubled homeowners. In Europe, austerity policies have been driven less by economic analysis than by Germany's moral indignation over the notion that irresponsible borrowers might not face the full consequences of their actions.

So the policy response to a crisis of excessive debt has, in effect, been a demand that debtors pay off their debts in full. What does history say about that strategy? That's easy: It doesn't work. Whatever progress debtors make through suffering and saving is more than offset through depression and deflation.

Sean McElwee looks at your brain on money and examines the psychosis of plutocracy:

The Internet is replete with apologias for the rich. They are thinly sourced and even less well thought. The goal is simple: to justify the unjustifiable chasm between the rich and poor, globally and within our nation. But the irony is that, rather than being better than the rest of us, in many ways the rich are worse.

Paul Piff and his co-authors, who have done extended research on the behaviors of the wealthy, find that lower class individuals are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than upper class individuals. In another study, they find individuals with expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers and pedestrians. Further, in laboratory experiments, wealthy participants were more likely to take valued goods, cheat, lie and endorse such behavior. These studies have support from other sources. For instance, the wealthy actually donate less to charity as a share of their income than the middle class. Their giving is more dependent on the economic climate than the middle class.

The trouble is that "in a society that worships wealth, those with wealth are worshipped as well:"

Many defenders of the rich argue that the rich are special and therefore merit special treatment. (Charles Murray has gone as far as to argue that the rich should preach their virtues to the poor.) Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy have individually earned their place in society. But this is unlikely. Numerous studies find that financiers are vastly overpaid, and hedge fund managers, even the best, rarely beat the market. CEOs are also vastly overpaid, and largely benefit from a shift in tax policy that allows rent-seeking to flourish.

A famous economist once wrote,

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

News flash: It was Adam Smith. [This is yet another example of the Right not being familiar with their own venerated books.]

All humans all delusional. It is only the rich who have that delusion fostered. All humans are, to some extent, assholes. But only rich people can get away with it.

women in comics

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538 looks at women in comic books, noting that "To say the comic book industry has a slight gender skew is like saying Superman is kind of strong:"

Comic books -- much like the film industry they now fuel -- vastly under-represent women. The people who write comic books, particularly for major publishers, are overwhelmingly men. The artists who draw them are, too. The characters within them are also disproportionately men, as are the new characters introduced each year.

Some exceptions--the young Muslima Ms Marvel, the new female Thor, Batgirl's non-cheesecake costume--get good press, but "these recent advancements don't make up for the fact that women have been ignored in comic books for decades:"

When we zero in on the 2,415 DC and 3,342 Marvel characters with gender data who appear at least 10 times -- the set of characters that probably gives the most consistent view of what we see on the page -- female characters make up only 30.9 percent of the DC universe and 30.6 percent of the Marvel universe.

538 also observes that "Both [the Marvel and DC] universes have steadily come closer to gender parity, but each still faces a difficult-to-overcome imbalance."

And while it's not too surprising that so few women appear in comics today, people are talking about characters like the new Thor and Ms. Marvel because they feel change is happening in an industry and community that for years has had unwelcoming attitudes toward women.

(The LGBT community could make a similar complaint.)


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This Wired article pitches its readers on the merits of the Anonabox anonymizing router, hoping that "routing all your traffic through Tor may be as simple as putting a portable hardware condom on your ethernet cable:"

Anonabox's security hasn't yet been audited [but] its creators point out that it will be entirely open source, so its code can be more easily scrutinized for errors and fixed if necessary.

Anonabox alone won't fully protect a user's privacy. If you use the same browser for your anonymous and normal Internet activities, for instance, websites can use "browser fingerprinting" techniques like cookies to identify you.

From the KickStarter page:

Reliable Anonymity

The anonabox has been developed and refined for the sole purpose of running the open source software Tor, considered the best and most secure way to access the Internet anonymously. All traffic coming out of or going into your computer or network is encrypted this way. The result is strong, secure anonymity. Using the anonabox hides your location, as well as all the other personal data that leaks through ordinary Internet use. We noticed also that pageload times and end user experience is significantly faster than when running the Tor browser bundle software, because all the hard work is being done in the background by the anonabox.

Open Source Security

No more backdoors! The anonabox provides better security than most available products because it is completely open source, and open hardware. Anyone can audit and browse the code, or download hardware schematics. For this reason, it is guaranteed to be free from the documented back-doors and security flaws common to other commercially available routers. We welcome developers from around the world to create their own uses for the anonabox. We believe the device belongs to them and they are free to modify it any way they like.

[10/20: After numerous questions about the Anonabox during the past week, the Kickstarter has been suspended.]

Commenting on Pat Buchanan's 1992 declaration of a "culture war ... for the soul of America," Politico's Bill Scher remarks that "This week, nearly every Republican and conservative movement leader stood quietly as the Supreme Court effectively extended equal marriage rights to more than half of the country." He goes on to list the GOP's three biggest culture war losses (abortion, birth control, and marriage equality) and remarks that:

Pat Buchanan was never going to see his dream of an America without abortion or gays. But it was not preordained for Republicans to lose the culture war so completely. Bad strategic choices of their own making boxed them in a corner, leaving them no choice but to surrender at the courthouse steps.

soaking the rich

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The NYT begs of us "don't soak the rich" via Edward Kleinbard's assertion that "the American tax system already is the most progressive in the developed world"--a claim that I thought warranted further scrutiny. I checked into Foreign Affairs' "America the Undertaxed" article, which noted that "Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, little redistribution of income [and] the overall U.S. tax system is only mildly progressive:"

In fact, the United States currently taxes top earners at some of the lowest effective rates in the country's history. Data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) show that the top one percent of taxpayers paid an average federal income tax rate of 23 percent in 2008, about one-third less than they paid in 1980, despite the fact that their incomes are now much higher in both real and relative terms. [...]

In Europe, regressive taxes are matched with highly redistributive states. In the United States, mildly progressive taxes are matched with a not very redistributive state. As a result, the United States experiences greater inequality than most other advanced nations, with the tax-and-transfer system doing little to alleviate it.

Kleinbard claimed later in the piece that "reducing inequality is not about where the money comes from, but where the money goes, and how much of it is spent:"

The better response to income disparity, then, is not to tax the rich more, but to boost revenue over all so that government can invest more, and offer higher quality social insurance programs. [...] To address troubling trends in income inequality, we need more government, not less. But we do not need steeply higher marginal income tax rates to yield a richer, more equal and happier society.

FDL takes apart his argument:

Kleinbard isn't relying on the arguments of Modern Money Theory to make his case: he says the government needs revenues to support the spending programs he favors. He doesn't want to soak the rich, so he intends that increased revenues come from the middle of the income distribution. That leaves us with the bizarre notion that a nation that is willing to cut food stamps for the poorest part of the population will happily pay more taxes to fund some other programs that benefits the poor. It's an astonishing argument. [...]

Kleinbard writes "A chief executive who earns 200 times as much as her typical employee does not get 200 times the benefit from our investments in highways." That's true. She gets a lot more benefit than 200 times. Without those highways, she doesn't have a job. That applies to the entire oligarchy.

Soak 'em!


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Spencer Ackerman writes of the CitizenFour documentary that "its 114 minutes crackle with the nervous energy of revelation" and calls it "a triumph of journalism and a triumph for journalism:"

It may be too late to change people's minds about Snowden, at least so soon after his leaks. But the Snowden who Poitras shows - hair tousled, resisting his attempts at styling it - is determined, sincere and human.

Friendly Atheist takes issue with Reza Aslan's dismissive comments on Sam Harris:

"Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don't go around writing books about neuroscience."

FA's retort is very much on point:

For my money, Aslan is well qualified to discuss religion. He's clearly applied himself to the topic in a scholarly fashion - and even if he hadn't, he'd still be more than welcome to think and agitate and write about the field, letting the strength of his reasoning carry him through the marketplace of ideas.

And the same is true for everyone else. Very much including Harris. [...] But even if Harris were a mere armchair scholar whose day job was carpentry or teaching high-school English, the only thing that would matter is how solid his ideas are and how appealing his writing.

Everything else is vanity and churlishness.

Thomas Frank interviews Elizabeth Warren, whom he describes as "the single most exciting Democrat currently on the national stage." They discuss college tuition, consumer protection, and regulatory capture before Frank mentions his disappointment with Obama:

In 2008, I thought I had a candidate who was going to address these things. Right? Barack Obama. Today, my friends and I are pretty disappointed with what he's done. I wonder if you feel he has been forthright enough on these subjects. And I also wonder if you think that someone can take any of this stuff on without being president. You know, there are a lot of good politicians in America who have their heart in the right place. But they're not the president. Well anyhow. You understand my frustration...

I understand your frustration, Tom and, actually, I talk about this in the book. When I think about the president, for me, it's about both halves. If Barack Obama had not been president of the United States we would not have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Period. I'm completely convinced of that. And I go through the details in the book, and I could tell them to you. But he was the one who refused to throw the agency under the bus and made sure that his team kept the agency alive and on the table. Now there was a lot of other stuff that also had to happen for it to happen. But if he hadn't been there, we wouldn't have gotten the agency. At the same time, he picked his economic team and when the going got tough, his economic team picked Wall Street.

You might say, "always." Just about every time they had to compromise, they compromised in the direction of Wall Street.

That's right. They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over. So I see both of those things and they both matter.


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Andrew O'Hehir's "Atheism, Islam, and Liberalism" observes--correctly--that "talk-show hosts and movie stars (just for instance) aren't necessarily the best people to bring nuance or thoughtfulness or clarity to these conversations" about atheism and religion. He goes on to remark that "despite President Obama's claim that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state, the group's extreme version of religious orthodoxy is clearly an important part of its allure:"

But when a radical militia group waving a flaming ideological sword has successfully lured the major Western powers into yet another self-destructive Middle East war, it's legitimate to wonder who is behaving rationally and who has lost their minds. Religion is driving us crazy, and the disorder is by no means limited to believers.

He continues:

One side insists that the only important question is whether the truth-claims of religion are actually true; the other side says that question doesn't even matter, and then wonders what "truth" is, anyway. It's the overly literal-minded versus the hopelessly vague.

What we see in discussions about religion in general and Islam in particular is a version of the same problem: People who barely speak the same language talking past each other, either making grand claims that refute themselves or raising legitimate questions that the other side ducks. [...]

At this point, Harris and Maher have become war trolls and fellow travelers of Dick Cheney, without even realizing it. [...] He and Maher have provided covert aid and comfort to bigots who firebomb mosques or beat up "Muslim-looking" people at the mall, while officially being horrified by such hateful actions. They're analogous to polite Southern whites of 1955, who did not personally use the N-word and found the Klan distasteful, but who never questioned the fundamental rightness of white supremacy.

The Atlantic's Crispin Sartwell comments on irrational atheism, and asserts that "The aging 'new atheists'--Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example--pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science:"

It pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion--neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith...

"I have taken a leap of atheist faith," he writes, standing rather close to religionists and claiming that "the atheist too, is deciding to believe in conditions of irremediable uncertainty, not merely following out a proof:"

Religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on institutions and relied on the Church's authorities and dogmas. But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on "reason" or "science" without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data. Religion at its best treats belief as a resolution in the face of doubt. I want an atheism that does the same, that displays epistemological courage.

National Journal reports that Edward Snowden disagreed with journalist Jane Mayer's assertion that NSA spying programs are legal:

Snowden disagreed, saying he "would dispute that no crimes have been shown." He pointed to government officials who appear to have lied to Congress under oath, and said the programs have been routinely abused by employees.

"We have had serial abuse from NSA agents spying on exes, lovers ... never prosecuted. That's a felony," he said. [...] "These programs themselves are unconstitutional [and] I am confident that the Supreme Court will agree these programs went too far."

Snowden cited a ruling by a federal judge last year that found the National Security Agency's bulk collection of American phone records likely unconstitutional as one reason for his confidence. He also noted that two presidential advisory panels have raised concerns about the lack of judicial oversight of the agency's programs.

Glenn Greenwald discussed a Snowden documentary called https://citizenfourfilm.com/ CitizenFour:

CITIZENFOUR, the new film by Intercept co-founding editor Laura Poitras, premiered this evening at the New York Film Festival, and will be in theaters around the country beginning October 24. Using all first-hand, real-time footage, it chronicles the extraordinary odyssey of Edward Snowden in Hong Kong while he worked with journalists, as well the aftermath of the disclosures for the NSA whistleblower himself and for countries and governments around the world.

Greenwald also mentions this "seemingly banal" detail:

In July of this year, Snowden's long-time girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, moved to Moscow to live with him...the fact that he is now living in domestic bliss as well, with his long-term girlfriend whom he loves, should forever put to rest the absurd campaign to depict his life as grim and dank.

Here's The Nation's sneak peek at an exclusive interview with Snowden. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen write that "We recently met with the courageous whistleblower for over three hours in Moscow for a wide-ranging conversation on surveillance, technology and politics...a longer edited version will be published in a forthcoming issue." The highlight was this comment about patriotism:

Edward Snowden: You know, people sometimes say I broke an "oath of secrecy," that was one of the early charges leveled against me. But it's a fundamental misunderstanding, because there is no oath of secrecy for people who work in the intelligence community. You're asked to sign a civil agreement, called "Standard Form 312," which basically says, if you disclose classified information they can sue you, they can do this, that and the other. And you stand at risk of going to jail. But you are also asked to take an oath, and that's the oath of service. The oath of service is not to secrecy; it's to the Constitution--to protect it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That's the oath that I kept, that James Clapper and Keith Alexander did not.

Here's the trailer for CitizenFour, which will be released on 24 October:

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