The Onion: Americans hire a lobbyist

Americans hire a lobbyist:

“The goal is to make it seem politically advantageous for legislators to keep the American people in mind when making laws,” Weldon said. “Lawmakers are going to ask me, ‘Why should I care about the American people? What’s in it for me?’ And it will be up to me and my team to find some reason why they should consider putting poverty and medical care for children on the legislative docket.”

The Onion proves once again why it’s America’s Finest News Source. I wish that an article like this wasn’t so spot on.

Airplane security and the media

This morning, there was a posting at AnnArbor.com that had the general “we are at war, toughen up” sort of tone that we’ve seen in the years since 9/11. I want to see less of that in the media, because it’s giving the wrong impression about the situation. Rather than going by that feeling that we are less safe, it’s better to turn to statistics and realize that we are, in fact, probably as safe as we want to be. Here is the comment that I posted at AnnArbor.com, reposted here because of the interesting links and what they represent:

I can certainly agree with your call for people to report suspicious activity, though “normal people” have been known to report suspicious activity around completely normal other people, where trained security people would not. Thanks for that video link, because that can help to improve the kinds of things that those of us not trained in security can spot!

I’d like to highlight some alternative views of the overall situation that tend to get ignored in the media around events like this one. For example, air travel in the 2000s is the safest it’s been since the 1960s and is incredibly safe:

http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/01/skies-are-as-friendly-as-ever-911-al.html

Put another way, “The chances of being hurt by someone who got past airport security, even without things like the full-body scanners being deployed after this latest panic, are smaller than dying in your dentist’s office from an anaesthesia error.”

http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2010/01/big_numbers_and_air_travel.php

Another way to look at the Christmas Day incident is that security actually worked:

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/01/christmas_bombe.html

Reality is unpredictable and it’s impossible (and undesirable!) to get to 100% secure:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/01/opinion/01brooks.html?emc=eta1

I think it pays to focus on the things that truly make us more secure, rather than the security theater we are subjected to every time we fly. Bruce Schneier: “Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/12/separating_expl.html

I sincerely hope we can see more of *that* kind of discussion in the media.

Humanizing the TSA

In 2009, it’s likely cliché (maybe even passé) to complain about things that you see around the security checkpoints at airports. For example, today I saw a mother removing tiny sandals from a baby’s feet to put them in a bin for x-ray scanning. I’m pretty sure that I’ve read before that the whole “shoe bomb” thing was overplayed. I’m more certain, though that a pair of baby sandals are not a risk. Maybe if the bad guys can hire away James Bond’s Q, baby sandals will become a risk.

The sadder thing that I saw, however, was the posters with a photo and bio of a TSA employee. I’ve certainly seen these in the past, but I hadn’t really thought about why they were there. The only thing I can imagine is that they’re there to “humanize” the TSA employees. It’s sad that such a thing is necessary. I’m sure that TSA employees have taken tons of verbal abuse over the past few years, and these posters are probably there to deter that.

Yelling at a TSA employee is not only likely to ruin the day of someone who’s just a normal person, it’s not going to do you any good. Those people are not empowered to do anything. If you have a complaint, wouldn’t it make more sense to complain to the TSA itself? Or complain to your congressperson? Or on your blog or twitter?

Obama starts up the change engine

Obama takes steps to reverse Bush climate policies | U.S. | Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama began reversing the climate policies of the Bush administration on Monday, clearing the way for the government to allow states to set stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

Immediately after the 2004 election, I announced that I’d be saying “I told you so” to the folks that voted for Bush. I was certainly correct. Bush’s second term was terrible, and I’m quite happy that we voted for a break in policies.

Obama has been in office for less than a week. He’s got a lot of problems to deal with in his presidency (not all of which are Bush’s fault, mind you, but they certainly have gotten worse under Bush). You can certainly tell that he’s making some changes, starting with the executive orders on ethics and transparency and then in today’s change in direction for the EPA.

Sure, Obama will have his missteps, but I’m happy to see what he’s starting off with.

The big banks: too big to not fail

I’ve been sick the past couple of days and have been watching movies to pass the time mindlessly. I signed up for Netflix at a handy time, and was able to watch via Watch Instantly. I watched some entertaining movies, but I also watched a couple of documentaries. Netflix has a nice collection of documentaries available via Watch Instantly.

One that I watched was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. One idea that the movie put forth was that Enron’s partners were complicit in Enron’s fraud. The mark-to-market accounting was key to how long Enron was able to keep its house of cards up, but they needed to keep getting new infusions of cash to keep things going. The companies that bought into Enron’s continued existence certainly didn’t look very deeply at Enron’s ability to keep on paying. One, Merrill Lynch, even temporarily took some barges off of Enron’s hands to pull them off of Enron’s books. A bunch of banks bought into Enron’s LJM2 company which was used to pull more debt off of Enron’s balance sheet.

Arguably, Enron was a complex business and it was hard to understand all of the workings of the company. But, if you’re a bank that is considering investing, isn’t that a red flag? Complexity certainly doesn’t seem like a feature to me. The banks could have been taking it on faith and Andersen’s good name that Enron was turning out fantastic performance, but a writer for Fortune magazine managed to sniff out the trouble. You’d think the people forking over billions in investments could too.

I also watched a bit of Maxed Out. The movie talks about big banks’ predatory lending practices and how targeting people who will have trouble paying is good business for them. These are many of the same banks that invested in Enron.

Those are also many of the same banks that got bitten earlier this year when those bad mortgages they’ve been taking on (and CDOs they’ve been invested in) finally came back to bite them for real.

The phrase “too big to fail” has been bandied about, with respect to some of these companies. It occurred to me that maybe the converse is true. These companies are too big to not fail. They have so many executives and independent businesses that are out to produce outsized returns and win big bonuses that some of them are likely to take irrational risks and lose giant sums of money. With enough leverage, the amount of money lost could be enough to sink the parent company.

So, if these companies are going to run themselves in such a way as to allow these kinds of losses, they should also be allowed to fail. Or they shouldn’t be allowed to get “too big to fail”.

I do also think that a focus on quarterly profits and day-to-day stock prices, rather than the long term health of a business, is another thing that leads to problems like Enron and bad mortgages.

By the way, I know that all documentaries come with biases. I am sure there are other sides to these stories. However, there are plenty of indisputable facts out there. It’s grating that we, as citizens who are footing the bill for these mistakes and as shareholders in these companies, are not being looked after by Congress and Boards of Directors.

McCain’s behind: Quick! who can we attack?

SCENE: Unnamed strategy room in the West Wing.

Bush: Hey, Gatesy. Look, our boy M.C. Cain is running a bit behind in the polls. This economy thing is really a drag. We need to do something militaristic to make M.C. look like the choice.

Gates: What do you have in mind?

Bush: Maybe we can bomb someone, or invade someone? How about Iran? They’re downright Un-American!

Gates: Sir, with all due respect we’re already stretched a bit thin with our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bush: Well, c’mon. There’s gotta be something. That’s what I pay you for. Figuring out who to invade. What can we afford?

Gates: I think I’ve got a free helicopter in Iraq. We could send that into Syria. Take out a couple of civilians.

Bush: Syira? Are we at war with Syria?

Gates: Of course not. But, that would certainly stir things up a bit.

Bush: Gotcha. Okay, let’s rock and roll!


What could lie behind Syria raid?

Whatever the local military factors involved in this US operation, it would be unthinkable to imagine that an incursion into Syria would not require a policy decision at a high-level.

Major shock: Eavesdropping powers abused without oversight – Glenn Greenwald – Salon.com

This is not surprising:

In the most unsurprising revelation imaginable, two former Army Reserve Arab linguists for the National Security Agency have said that they routinely eavesdropped on — “and recorded and transcribed” — the private telephone calls of American citizens who had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. The two former NSA employees, who came forward as part of journalist James Bamford’s forthcoming book on the NSA, intercepted calls as part of the so-called “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” whereby George Bush ordered the NSA in 2001 to eavesdrop on Americans’ calls in secret, without first obtaining judicial approval as required by the law (FISA). That illegal eavesdropping continued for at least six years — through 2007.

[From Major shock: Eavesdropping powers abused without oversight - Glenn Greenwald - Salon.com]

It’s just sad. President Bush has done so much damage to our country in so many ways. This is why it’s disappointing that the clock has run out to impeach Bush.

McCain: Palin’s Conversations Not Indicative Of Her Positions

The Huffington Post starts off with this fun recap of last week’s campaigning for John McCain:

Last week was probably the worst week of the campaign for John McCain, and this week seems to be starting off equally rocky. In recent days, McCain has stated that the fundamentals of the economy are strong while the stock market was crashing. He “suspended” his campaign and canceled his debate appearance while purchasing web ads saying he “won” the debate before he announced that he would participate in the debate after all. He canceled an appearance on Letterman, stating he was “on his way to the airport” to race back to DC to help avert economic catastrophe, while he actually went to another nearby CBS building to be interviewed by Katie Couric (he actually did not leave NYC until the following day after giving a morning talk).

[From Dawn Teo: McCain: Palin's Conversations Not Indicative Of Her Positions]

and ends with a humdinger:

In all due respect, people going around and with sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that’s a person’s position. It’s a free country, but I don’t think most people think that’s a definitive policy statement by Governor Palin, and I would hope you wouldn’t either.

While it’s certainly not a definitive policy statement, you wouldn’t expect someone to say something that’s completely contrary to what they believe.