First, review this fine cautionary tale available here, courtesy of the ACLU:

Now, I am no great fan of the ACLU, but credit where credit is due, this piece sums up the dangers of all those clever national IDs, government administered programs, linked databases, and GPS-enabled devices nicely. In fact, just two short years later, much of what is portrayed already exists:

  • businesses use caller-ID to recognize phones and link to customer information
  • even if the government didn’t give it out, businesses would certainly use a national ID number as a key—just as they use the SSN currently
  • your home address, birthday, name, etc. are all already keyed to the current equivalent of a national ID—your SSN
  • where you work is almost certainly on file—didn’t they ask the last time you applied for credit or a loan?
  • cell phones with GPS currently do broadcast your location to services that request that information—unless you configure them not to
  • businesses already assign delivery areas or prices by risk of the neighborhood—as those living near shady areas know—and as crime stats become more instantly available, this can only increase
  • as businesses partner to offer shared customer incentives, exchanging information about recent purchases and coupon offers is becoming commonplace
  • certainly whether your cards are maxed out is easy—a quick query to each card could do that

And some things, which have not yet come to pass (as it were) are terrifyingly likely:

  • currently legislation protects your health care information, but either government-run healthcare or single-payer schemes would require releasing it to the government at the least
  • legislation to allow the government to regulate food and lifestyle choices for health is already proposed—once the government’s actually paying for health-care, what will happen
  • currently the health-care industry and insurance industry would love to be notified about people’s purchases and force them to sign waivers—unlike them, government can actually enforce such desires
  • in our climate of constant fear of terror attacks, does opening travel itineraries to public scrutiny seem farfetched?

Horrifyingly, the only thing which seemed utterly ridiculous was libraries ever voluntarily making your reading choices public. But on the other hand…

Clearly some of what is portrayed is fine, even useful, but some is frighteningly Orwellian.

So where should the line be drawn? Where does the scenario presented cross the line from convenience to surveillance? As technology advances it seems increasingly impossible to effectively compartmentalize information, so should we assume that whatever the government knows about us will find its way into private hands? And just how much should the government know about us, anyway?

Discuss amongst yourselves!

So deep is the hate-juice among some conservatives for John McCain that they favor an opponent over the possible (likely?—in this crazy campaign, I’m not going to say that) nominee of their own party. Jimmie Dobson has been rumbling again, for instance, and Limbaugh has been working himself into a faux-frothing-at-the-mouth fury. This more or less reminds me of the hard-core Green Party Nader voters of 2000. It’s a long standing theme in American politics going back decades when a party splits into its component factions. But nothing tops this little gem:

Of course, it’s been making the rounds and chances are good you’ve seen it already, though if you haven’t, watching Colmes’ reaction to Ann is damn funny. No, if there’s anything new to this, it’s Ann’s little line on John McCain “he has led the fight against torture at Guantanamo” about a minute in. Has “torture” been turned into a one-word talking point? WTF?

Mind-twisting quasi-logic of the John Yoo variety I understand (he is a law professor after all), but Ann goes out of her way to correct Hannity when he uses the term “interrogations”. Props for being honest, I guess, but… whoa. Chuck Norris in the movies might do that, but I’m not sure where the Chuckster stands on it in real life, and Chuck does know the difference, though evidently some conservative commentators don’t understand that ’24’ is a TV show. (Anyone know?)


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ObFascism Tag: Can’t you just see Ann as one of Josef Goebbels’ girlfriends in a different life?

What do Islamofacism, methamphetamine production, tort lawyers, and homemade fireworks have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the seemingly inevitable process of destroying the childhood Chemistry Set. A.C. Gilbert, in 1918 was titled the “Man who Saved Christmas” with his innovative ideas of packaging a few glass tubes and some common chemicals into starter kits that enabled a generation to learn the joy of experimentation, and the basis for the scientific method of thought.

Chemcraft Set Gilbert Set
Chemcraft Chemistry Set Gilbert Chemistry Set

Some of Gilbert’s original sets included such items as sodium cyanide, radioactive samples (complete with a Geiger counter), and glass blowing kits. I will freely admit that one of the first things I did with my chemistry set was to attempt to make an explosive. I remember mixing up chemicals that evolved free chlorine gas and having to evacuate the house. I remember mixing potassium nitrate and sugar to make rocket engines and quickly evolving to higher specific impulse fuels. I remember the joy of finally obtaining some nitric acid which allowed me to nitrate basically everything in the house (cotton for gun cotton, glycerine and alcohol for nitroglycerine). So yes, I have to admit that there is a risk involved. But this is how people learn. Sometimes knowledge comes with pain — one-shot induction.

Today however, the Chemistry Set is toast. Current instantiations are embarrassing. There are no chemicals except those which react at low energy to produce color changes. No glass tubes or beakers, certainly no Bunsen burners or alcohol burners (remember the clear blue flames when the alcohol spilled out over the table). Today’s sets cover perfume mixing and creation of luminol (the ‘CSI effect’ I suppose).

In some States, you need a FBI criminal background check to purchase chemicals. Some metals, like lithium, red phosphorus, sodium and potassium, are almost impossible to purchase in elemental form. This is thanks to their use in manufacturing methamphetamine. Sulphur and potassium nitrate, both useful chemicals, are being classified as class C fireworks (here is a good precursor link). Mail order suppliers of science products are raided. Many over-the-counter compounds now require what is essentially a (poor) background check. Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny. Where does this trend end? Ten years from now, will the list include table salt, seawater and natural gas — precursors to many industrical chemicals?

Then there is the liability issue. Of course some people buy into the lets be safe at any cost and assert that much chemistry can be done without explosions and stinky fumes. If a ladder manufacturer is under a constant barrage of liability suits, imagine the torrent of litigation directed to those giving a child a set of potentially dangerous chemicals. Its a CHILD, for God’s sake. [Oh, I’m sorry, for a minute there I was waxing Democrat.]

Yet there is still a little hope. Although Thames and Kosmos can’t ship their sets with the full range of chemicals needed to perform their listed experiments, at least they provide a list of sources from which to acquire them (assuming the appropriate permits, licenses, fees, FEES, background checks, and did I mention fees.) What is at stake here is no less than the future of America’s competitiveness and the innovation the make the United States the magnet for international entrepreneurs and scientists. Without the chemistry set, will we have scientists and innovators, or just a country of rock stars, political commentators and movie idols.

[Author’s Note: This article is primarily a result of my frustration in trying to acquire a few hundred grams of potassium carbonate for an electrolyte solution.]

Update: See also Sightings in the Wild on this blog.

Once again, the subject of torture has become the topic de jour, suitable for front page fodder. Now for me, listening to Joan Rivers for more than two minutes is cruel and unusual punishment, such that it makes one want to retire to the local sawmill to relax and avoid the nasal screeching. So biting analysis of current red carpet fashion trends aside, what can we say about torture?

First and foremost, there is substantial evidence that prolonged torture can produce whatever testimony is desired by the torturer. It is this argument that is used to establish that torture is a useless and misbegotten tool of interrogation and that the United States of America should never stoop to its utilization. Before proceeding along these lines, it is instructive to compare some methods of torture that have been well documented and in frequent use over the last few centuries of civilization. I might add that many of these were not taken to be cruel and unusal punishments, just standard fare.

One of my favorites, used in the nautical realm, is keel-hauling. In this instantiation, the subject is bound with separate ropes, one binding his ankles and another his hands. He is ‘turned off’ the bow of the ship with a rope on either side and dragged to the stern of the ship, passing his body under the keel of the ship. Not so bad one might say if the bloke was really good at holding his breath. An understandable misconception if you are envisioning smooth streamlined steel hulls. But during the epoch when this was prevalent, hulls were primarily wood, and wooden hulls became fouled by the tendency for small marine creatures (mollusks and barnacles) to attach themselves to the hull. A clean hull within three months would become totally encrusted dropping five to ten knots off of the hull speed. Barnacles are shellfish with particularly nasty sharp edges on their shells so keel-hauling a bloke is the equivalent of pulling him over a cabbage grater with very large teeth. Needless to say, the ability to hold one’s breath was not a significant determining factor. The survival rate was generally low enough that the threat of keel-hauling was sufficient to make the most recalcitrant subject open up like a book.

One favorite of the Middle Kingdom consisted of having the subject ingest the sprouts of small plants which would proceed to grow in the subject’s intestines causing extreme pain. And with all of that accumulated acupuncture knowledge, the location of ganglia clusters and accumulation of nerve endings provided ample opportunity for inventive interrogation techniques. Bamboo shoots under the fingernails is one example — the fingers are a very high nerve density area.

Ah — Merry Ole Englande. One interrogation technique extensively used was the drawing and quartering procedure. Granted that this method was somewhat terminal, useful only for extracting the last expression of truth before facing the final arbitrator. In this procedure, ropes were attached to each arm and each leg and then to horses. After the ropes were tensioned, the horses were prodded to walk forward with the result that the thighs and upper arms were dislocated from their joints, and I mean ‘hyper-extended’. Following this procedure, the quartering consisted of using a sharp axe to separate the already extended limbs. It should be noted that the head was allowed to remain attached so that the appropriate confession could be obtained (interspersed, we assume with screams). Again, perhaps cruel, but by no means unusual.

American Indians, those noble inhabitants of the southeast (before forceable relocation to the southwest), devised a plan where by the subject was buried to the neck. Confessions were a matter of timing — did the interrogator get his answer prior to the wild animals and crows getting their desserts. Once in the southwest where digging was difficult, the subject was tied to hills of fireants, sometimes with sweet sap from trees and plants rubbed into the hair.

As one can see, the list can go on and on in ever more graphic detail. We won’t even get started on the Spanish Inquisition. After all, anything done in the name of God, and with the moral authority of saving your immortal soul, simply can’t be cruel and unusal punishment.

The US Navy Seals utilize a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program to harden special forces troops. This is a case where the training involves cruel and unusual procedures specifically because it is believed that the enemies of the US will use such methods on our forces. This training allows forces to know what to expect (and likely provides motivation for the ‘evasion’ portion of the training.) So the US certainly does use torture—specifically on its own troops as a training aide. This brings to light a minor point—if torture is of limited efficacy, why train people to resist? Why not just instruct forces to capitulate and tell the enemy what it wants to know? The answer is that once you provide information you are of no further use, and can be eliminated (read killed). So survival is, in part, an exercise of holding off sufficiently long to deny the enemy a reason to eliminate you.

The part that people seem to miss is that all of this is an exercise in psychological warfare. People want the United States to be viewed as that “shining beacon on the hill” and above such despicable behavior as actually torturing people. While we would like to engrave in a stone tablet the noble statement that the United States will never participate in cruel and unusual punishment or condone torture, the minute we do so puts the United States at a severe disadvantage. Yes, it might be policy that torture is never used, but as soon as that policy is made public, and the enemy becomes aware of it, captives will clam up and spout words like ‘Miranda’ or ‘Habeas Corpus’ knowing full well that they only have to wait. al Qaeda will have a training program in American criminal law faster than you can say IED.

By not enunciating a policy, the United States has the psychological advantage — the perpetrator doesn’t know for sure that he won’t be tortured. After all, it is likely that torture is the standard procedure in his home kingdom, so it would be prudent to assume that the United States would do it also. It is the thought of torture, not torture per se, that evokes the desired response. What the perpetrator needs to know is that if you mess with the US, bad things will happen. Period. End of Story.

Certain politicians are using the noble sentiment of the people of the United States, who by and large find torture abhorrent, to serve their narrow political ends. Most of them likely know better (or perhaps I give them too much credit), but the short term political gains outweigh the benefit to the United States at large. The techniques which have been shown to be effective, and have reportedly been used, don’t approach the barbarity of the techniques developed by the early Spanish (Inquisition), the Dutch (“keel-hauling”), native Americans (ant-hills), and even Genghis Khan or Pol Pot.

Pundits may debate the ethics of torture and presume to hold America to a higher standard, but when America plays by the rules, and the other side has no rules, has memorized your rulebook, and games the system, the game gets tiring rather quickly. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, but it’s not necessarily in our interest to broadcast what that standard is.

“Sir, what were you thinking? The World Trade Center site is the most sensitive place in the American heart, and you must have known that visiting there would be insulting to many, many Americans,” Pelley [asked].


“Why should it be insulting?” Ahmadinejad [replied].

Interview with 60 Minutes

Many innocent people were killed there. Some of those people were American citizens obviously. We obviously are very much against any terrorist action and any killing. And also we are very much against any plots to sow the seeds of discord among nations.

Ahmadinejad later in the Interview

Pity poor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, puzzled President of Iran. He’s awfully confused about what all the fuss is about. All he wanted to do is visit Ground Zero in New York City, pay his respects to the victims of the 9/11 attack, and, just possibly, make some sort of statement about how bad terrorism is and how tragic 9/11 was. Of course, just whom he believes is responsible for 9/11 might be a question, given his penchant for odd revisionist theories about other historical events. But charity compels us to accept that he really isn’t sure why his presence there should be so disturbing. In fact, he’s sure it’s all just a misunderstanding.

And, doubtless, there could be some misunderstandings, so let’s take a moment and clear them up. Here’s a list of things Iran isn’t responsible for:

  • 9/11 – that was al Qaeda, a fanatic Sunni Muslim group not Iran, a fanatic Shia Muslim country
  • al Qaeda – that was Pakistan’s creation, in part with American funds sent to help fight the Soviets not Iran’s, which supported different vicious fanatics with other funds
  • Saddam Hussein – really, Iran did its best to get rid of this jerk in the 1980s, and sadly their best just wasn’t good enough
  • the Gulf War – Iran sat this one out, happy to see the Sunni nations beat themselves up, and even got a few fine Iraqi planes out of it

So, if anybody is mad at Mahmoud for this stuff, you should drop it, because it’s not really his fault.

On the other hand, there are a few small things that Iran is responsible for, and I’m thinking these might just have some bearing on why we just don’t like poor Mahmoud. These minor things include:

So, quite a legacy of support for terror and violence, frequently against American interests or allies. (I guess that’s why they’ve been on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism every year since 1984.) But all of this is dwarfed, of course, by the piece de resistance:

Since these insurgents are, after all, killing and maiming American soldiers (not to mention droves of Iraqi civilians), well, Mahmoud, you can pardon our suspicion that your tears for the victims of 9/11 are not exactly heartfelt. Especially when we recall your governments various working agreements with al Qaeda in years past. Call us sensitive, but we feel that if you’re actively trying to kill our soldiers, maybe you don’t have our best interests at heart. Let’s face it, there’s a term for countries like yours, and that term is: enemy nation.

And let us not forget Iran’s ongoing quest to develop the biggest bomb of all. That also makes us just a tad bit nervous, and makes us worry a bit that perhaps your stop by New York is for more than just sightseeing. A little pre-target recon, perhaps? Surely not, but you can see why we might be a little nervous, Mahmoud. Perhaps you and the nation you lead might consider actually acting like you want peace and stability instead of sowing chaos and terror in your neighbors and region.

And maybe, one day, you might consider apologizing for sacking our embassy, kidnapping its staff, blowing up a bunch of our other embassies, sponsoring hijacking and murder around the world, and taking an active interest in killing our soldiers in Iraq. In other words, before you start tooling around our cities, you might want to take some action to move your country out of its well-deserved doghouse.

I just wanted to bring a very important story to the attention of our readers. Many people read the news articles about how Bush’s unconstitutional warrant-less wiretapping helped to arrest countless terrorists, something we were told we couldn’t doubt as Bush’s spymaster director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, unequivocally stated it as fact. However, many have missed the follow up story. Buried deep in the newspapers and broadcasts is the news that Mike McConnell has admitted to lying on this issue.

You see, it turns out that McConnell later admitted that none of the information used to arrest these terrorists was harvested using the anti-American and deceptively named “Protect America Act”. Looks like Bush’s golden goose has just been turned into pâté. McConnell even admitted that the information he gave congress was not at all truthful. Hopefully Congress will have the sense to charge him with the crimes he has committed, after all the Republicans reminded us under Clinton that lying to Congress was “The Biggest Deal Ever ™”.

Yet another point of proof of the truth of President Eisenhower’s timeless statement:

Un-American activity cannot be prevented or
routed out by employing un-American methods;
to preserve freedom we must use the tools that
freedom provides.”

Edit: Turns out the lies run deeper than expected. The military had already discovered these terrorists before the illegal wiretaps were even started.

-Angry Midwesterner

In a move of extreme brilliance, US Officials removed the ban on lighters for commercial flights. When asked why this move was made, Kip Hawley, the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration said,

Taking lighters away is security theater. It trivializes the security process… The No. 1 threat for us is someone trying to bring bomb components through the security check point. We don’t want anything that distracts concentration from searching for that.

While I applaud the general idea of getting rid of the obscene clutter of useless security theatrics, I have to question the logic of someone who thinks that passengers should be allowed to bring pressurized explosives on a flight, but not toothpaste, mouth wash, or Diet Coke. Furthermore, unlike common toiletries, there is absolutely no need for someone to bring tiny frangible containers of butane on a flight, given that all flights have been non-smoking since 1989.

I applaud the savings this move will bring to US tax payers (an alleged $4 million annually), I think we would all be safer and more secure if the US Gov’t would cut the entire $6 billion waste it is currently funneling into the Theatre of Security Administration every year. I mean, it isn’t as if our bags weren’t x-rayed prior to the creation of TSA, after 9/11, and I can think of plenty of safety features which could be purchased for $6 billion a year that would be far more productive than the current stage production.

-Angry Midwesterner