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In Other News, 734 Street Signs May be Replaced by 2146


I think it may be impossible for this “fact” from Science News to be disproved.

Morning Mystery Mushroom

After a few days of hard rain, these fungal fruiting bodies appeared in my garden this morning, with bright red stalks and slick grey tops. Does anyone know what species this is?

mystery mushroom

What Are The American Values That The Campaign For American Values Supports?

The Campaign for American Values is a Super PAC, and as such, it likes to keep a lot of secrets. There are a few things that the Campaign for American Values is up front about, however, and those include its agenda, which is to… uh… support American values.

What are American values, anyway?

The United States of America is a democracy, which means that our society is set up to encourage people to have vigorous, open disagreements about the values that they regard as important. American values center around a diversity of opinion. No single organization, therefore, could honestly claim to represent American values.

That makes the Campaign for American Values inherently incoherent…

… unless, maybe, once upon a time, when the nation was smaller, and newer, all Americans agreed upon the same values. Maybe, an organization could claim that by representing these original universal values, it is representing authentic American values. So, then, maybe the Campaign for American Values could find representatives of American values from that time, from among the founders of our nation, and support a return to their values.

Let’s see, who was among the famous founders of our nation. How about Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, who took Fort Ticonderoga from the British? Ethan Allen certainly had values. He even wrote a book about his values, called The Oracles Of Reason, in which he declared, “I am no Christian,” complained that, ”we are under the tyranny of priests, since as it ever has, it will be their interest to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith,” and commented, ”That Jesus Christ was not God is evident in his own words.”

So, does the Campaign for American Values PAC take up these old-fashioned American values of repudiating Christianity? For some reason, no. The largest recipient of money from the Campaign for American Values in 2014 is an organization that is dedicated to preventing Americans from getting married.

That’s a curious thing, because, try as I might to find an historical figure from the days of the American Revolution who believed in stopping people from getting married, I just can’t find one.

“We Need Smith” Follows Americans Elect in Hilarious Footsteps

Do you miss the audaciously loopy drama of the 2012 political corporation Americans Elect? If so, don’t fret; you’re just going to love “We Need Smith,” a new, mysterious effort to promote political candidates for national office.

Do you miss Americans Elect’s unintentionally self-deprecating PR-talk? You’ll love “We Need Smith.” Leader Patrick Caddell’s case for “Mr. Smith” appears in a recent Huffington Post article:

“Caddell and a team of allies are using the study as a springboard to launch We Need Smith, a populist version of the Americans Elect effort that flopped in its campaign to draw a corporate, centrist presidential candidate into the 2012 election with the promise of tens of millions of dollars in backing. Caddell argues that the Americans Elect approach was wildly out of touch and that popular disaffection with the two parties does not mean that voters crave a bland centrist. What they want, he thinks, is someone in the mold of the Jimmy Stewart character who challenged government corruption in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’”

Either the leaders of “We Need Smith” haven’t actually watched “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” or they’re guessing that their targets haven’t watched the film. If you’ve watched the film, you know that Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith character has no idea what he’s doing, has no idea how the Senate works, signs documents without reading them, is manipulated into serving private moneyed interests, punches reporters who point out his incompetence, is distracted from work to chase after a fellow Senator’s daughter, goes sightseeing instead of working on the Senate floor, and only starts to complain when he is personally threatened. This is what we need more of in national politics?

Do you miss Americans Elect’s patriotic stock photos? Do you miss the references to an “outside” “non-partisan” “movement” written by DC beltway partisans in a corporate office? You’ll love “We Need Smith.”

Splash Page of We Need Smith, with American Flags a-Flyin'

With its rippling flags, you just know that the We Need Smith splash page is patriotic. It would vote on the shores of Normandy right now if that sort of thing were legal. But is it really “outside the broken Washington system”? Er, not so much; it turns out that the three named leaders of “We Need Smith” are right-leaning Washington, DC insiders. Patrick Caddell has been a presidential aide and pollster, and for his current gig rails against liberalism as a token “Democrat” at Fox News and as a columnist at the conservative Breitbart site. Bob Perkins has held leadership positions in the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee. Scott Miller is an advertising executive who has advised the Bush/Cheney campaign and the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee; this year, he gave money to the Republican National Committee.

Together, they aren’t leading a grassroots social movement; they’re running a company called Armada Publishing, and it is that company which launched “We Need Smith”.

Do you miss Americans Elect’s repeated refusal to name its donors? You’ll love “We Need Smith.” Publicity materials for “We Need Smith” declare of its ideal candidate that he/she would “Require every group that lobbies the government to disclose all of its donors. Smith does not want to limit free speech, but the people have a right to know who is speaking.” Yet “We Need Smith” has failed to disclose any of the sources of the funding for its political operations.

Do you miss the way Americans Elect hid its platform behind vague, meaningless language? You’ll love “We Need Smith.” The following are the “positions” that “Candidate Smith” must hold:

“Candidate Smith says our broken political system is failing all of us. Special interests and lobbyists control the politicians and the politicians keep getting elected because they divide us against each other and make single issue promises to buy our support. Smith says we can’t change anything with the usual politics, and the usual politicians, and the usual interest groups. We need new leaders from mainstream America, like Candidate Smith, who take on the political elites and special interests and put the American people in charge again.”

Look closely: those are no positions at all. But they sure do sound good, just like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.

If this kind of tricksy political drama gives you the giggles, be sure to follow “We Need Smith.” We can hope for many unintentional laughs from this outfit in the election seasons to come.

Safe Haven For Emerging Secular Americans

secular safe zoneMy earliest memories of religion are experiences with harassment. Living in communities where Christianity was the norm, I was openly nontheist when I was young. Other people didn’t want me to be that way. I got nasty notes in my locker telling me to accept Jesus or else. There were taunts on the playground. Even my public school teachers lectured me that I should be going to church. All the while, local Christian groups pushed their religious rituals into public events, so that everyday I had to stand apart from the crowd.

As an adult, I’ve learned to deal with these challenges, and I’ve moved to a community that is more accepting of cultural diversity than most. However, it’s not easy to be a young secular person in most places in America. In many places, Christians don’t merely have cultural dominance. They control local governments and public institutions, and as been recently seen in Greece, New York, they often use that power to promote their own religion to the exclusion of others, and to marginalize atheists and religious minorities.

Secular Safe Zone is a network that seeks to help people who are moving into a secular identity. The group explains, “Secular Safe Zone is working to build a network of Allies to provide community and support to non-theists around the nation. To accomplish this, the Secular Safe Zone program trains Allies and Facilitators to create safe spaces for non-theists and encourage acceptance, understanding, and tolerance. Allies are also trained to recognize and respond to issues of discrimination, harassment, and bullying that non-theists may come up against.”

Campaign Finance Reform at Reform.to: 96.2% Democratic, 1.4% Republican

Docdawg has written a detailed blog post explaining that of the 15 congressional candidates agreeing to the slate of campaign finance reforms listed at reform.to between July 29 and August 5, every single last one is a member of the Democratic Party. The time frame of July 29 to August 5 is important, because as DocDawg notes this was the last chance offered by the Mayday Super PAC: if congressional candidates didn’t announce their support for at least one of the campaign finance reform proposals at reform.to, the Mayday Super PAC just might fund their opponent in the race.

Looking at the entire list of congressional candidates at reform.to, including those who’d announced support for reforms before July 29, we can see a list of 210 unique congressional candidates on board with the reform.to agenda (some are listed more than once because they support just one of the reform.to proposals). What’s the partisan breakdown of this larger group?

Campaign Finance Reform Proposal Supporters as members of Congress, by Party: a Pie Chart regarding the set of candidates from which the Mayday.us target might be chosen

202 members of the Democratic Party. 4 Independents. 3 Republicans. 1 member of the Libertarian Party. Support for campaign finance reforms listed at reform.to runs at 96.2% Democratic and just 1.4% Republican.

Some pundits are fond of saying that support for campaign finance reform “crosses partisan lines” in America. That may be true among voters, but one would have to stretch wildly to claim it’s true among politicians.

The Buddha That Would See No Evil

The Buddha is supposed to have been dedicated, like no other person before him, to the effort of perceiving the world as it is, and sharing that perception with others.

I found it amusing, for this reason, to find the collection of three Buddha statues you see below, representing the classic motif: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.

I can’t say that I find this offensive, as I don’t have a problem with mashups of religious icons with popular symbols in irreverent ways. I wonder, though, whether there are any Buddhists that find this sort of thing offensive. Anyone want to express outrage? Any riled up wannabe bodhisattvas out there?

buddha see no evil

Citizens 4 Ethics In Government

Yesterday, a political action committee called Citizens 4 Ethics In Government spent tens of thousands of dollars to prop up the re-election campaign of U.S. Representative Scott DesJarlais, a Republican from Tennessee’s 4th congressional district.

There are ethical questions about Citizens 4 Ethics In Government’s interference in the 4th district race. Almost all of the money being spent by the Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAC comes from people associated with a company called Healthmark Ventures. Healthmark Ventures owner Andy Miller had ethical problems of his own in the 2012 campaign season when he used the Citizens 4 Ethics In Government PAC to launch political attacks against an opponent of congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik at the same time he was serving as campaign manager for Zelenik. Miller was forced to resign in disgrace.

islam rising billboardAndy Miller is also involved in the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, a group with a name that sounds harmless enough, but has been cited by Islamophobia Watch as one of the world’s most virulent anti-Muslim organizations. TFC has supported an activist who calls for the banning of the Koran and has conducted training sessions for police in Tennessee about how to fight back against an Islamic uprising that TFC asserts is taking place, and has organized a conference called Sharia and the Islamization of America.

The Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAC also seems to have a blind spot for the ethical problems of Congressman DesJarlais himself, who was reprimanded and fined for violating professional ethics when he was caught having sex with two patients while serving as their medical doctor. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government has listed DesJarlais as among the “most corrupt” in Congress.

“If they are innocent they should have nothing to fear” Check #1: Alan Turing

“Innocent people are sure to be spied upon, but if they are innocent they should have nothing to fear.” — Jack McCully, August 4 2014

“If you are innocent you should have nothing to fear and you will most probably not be noticed.” — Myrmidon, February 24 2014

“So this is surveillance! The innocent should have nothing to fear! Only the guilty!” — Osibisa, May 7 2013

“What some see as excessive serveillance, so long as we’re not filmed jacking off in the bathroom, and to use a cliché, the innocent should have nothing to fear.” — Magnetic North, November 8 206

Do the innocent truly have nothing to fear from intrusive surveillance? Let’s check that.

Check #1: Alan Turing, the cryptographic and computing expert who helped defeat Nazi Germany by cracking the Enigma code. He was more than innocent; he was a hero.

But the British government placed him under surveillance. Did they discover that he had committed any treasonous or terrorist acts? No. They only discovered that he was gay. For being gay Alan Turing was publicly humiliated, criminally convicted, chemically castrated and castigated so harshly that a few years later, desperately despondent, he committed suicide.

Alan Turing was innocent. But because his government was zealously bigoted, Alan Turing had a lot to fear.

“Commander Vimes didn’t like the phrase ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’, believing the innocent had everything to fear, mostly from the guilty but in the longer term even more from those who say things like ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’.”

– Terry Pratchett, Snuff

Why Is The FBI Withholding Privacy Reports About Its Spying Programs In The USA?

Yesterday, Jim noted that, despite promises of reforms of extraordinary spying powers created under the FISA Amendments Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has failed to create the position of Public Advocate that was recommended by a Presidential commission at the end of last year. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies seems to have been appointed to create the appearance of the reform of extraordinary powers of governmental spying against Americans created under the Homeland Security regime. If there are enough stories about commissions recommending specific actions, many people begin to assume that some sort of concrete reform is actually taking place.

Another story in this area shows that a false appearance of accountability in spying programs isn’t limited to the FISA court. On Friday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation. EPIC is seeking information about the FBI’s spying programs in the United States that is supposed to have been made public, but never has been.

Under the E-Government Act the FBI is required to conduct privacy assessments of its programs that collect personal data in the course of its investigations in the United States. The FBI is then required to make these privacy assessments public.

EPIC has noted that, in defiance of the E-Government Act, the FBI has failed to provide the public with privacy assessments of many of its spying programs, including programs that use advanced electronic surveillance technology such as facial recognition, drones, and automatic license plate readers along American roadways. The EPIC lawsuit seeks to make these secret assessments public, as they are supposed to be.

The FBI’s practice of circumventing the process that is supposed to keep its spying ethical and in accord with Americans’ constitutional rights is just one example of the way that the federal government is defying efforts to rein in its Big Brother surveillance powers. Given this defiance, extreme action on the level of defunding spy agencies is called for.

Unfortunately, on the very same day EPIC filed its lawsuit, the U.S. House of Representatives made it clear that it intends to take no such strong action. Only 8 members of the House voted in opposition to continued funding of the NSA’s unreformed spy operations.

Despite NSA Review Panel Recommendation, Public Advocate Position at FISA Court Goes Nowhere

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is supposed to stop abuses of warrantless surveillance power. But out of the thousands of requests for warrantless surveillance made this decade by the administration of President Barack Obama, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has not rejected a single request. Not one. This isn’t surprising; all of the members of the FISC have been appointed by authoritarian Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and only the government with its pro-surveillance stance has any voice before the court.

On December 12, 2013, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies issued its final report containing 46 recommendations regarding warrantless surveillance. One of these recommendations, Recommendation 28, declares that “Congress should create the position of Public Interest Advocate to represent privacy and civil liberties interests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.” H.R. 3159, introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff, would do just that. But the House of Representatives has done nothing to consider the bill, not even in committee. The bill has only 2 cosponsors: Rep. Mike Quigley and Rep John Carney.

H.R. 3361, the “USA FREEDOM ACT,” originally contained a provision instituting the position of public advocate to represent privacy and civil liberties concerns. But the Obama administration acted behind the scenes to gut the bill of its more effective provisions, and so the creation of a public advocate position was cut from the final version of the bill. The final version of the USA FREEDOM ACT was so flawed that a majority of its original cosponsors voted against its passage.

Despite the recommendation of the President’s NSA Review Panel in December 2013, the Public Advocate position at the FISA Court shows no sign of actually being created. A court stacked by an authoritarian Chief Justice that only hears the government’s position and hasn’t turned down a single request of the government for electronic surveillance in this whole decade shows every sign of continuing on the same course. With less than a handful of exceptions, our representatives in Washington, DC haven’t lifted a finger to change that course.