Monthly Archives: January 2014

Blue State of the Union, Red State of the Union

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 29, 2014) For those who missed it, or for those who chose to watch something else on television (for North Americans, the Weather Channel was certainly a worthy distraction considering the conditions wrought by Polar Vortex III), President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation.

His address lasted roughly 65 minutes and covered the gamut of what he hopes to accomplish over the next two years of his presidency.

Widely considered by most analysts as eloquent, far-reaching and “feisty” (CBS and NBC both used the “F” adjective, something meant to convey an attitude of delivery just short of “combative”), the President for the first time in many years gave a speech that contained mostly domestic policy, with very little time spent on international relations, terrorism or war.

And as has been the pattern for several years now, dating back to the last couple of State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, the room was notably divided.  There were scant occasions when the president received anything more than polite applause from the Republican members present, and when the Democrats in the room were in standing ovation mode, their GOP comrades sat in smiling silence, or, at the best, engaged in grudging “air” applause.

In fact, the longest stretch of applause came when the president recognized the astonishing sacrifice made by war hero Cory Remsburg.  Remsburg, who was injured badly by an improvised explosive device and has struggled through a slow recovery process, received a ninety second standing ovation from nearly everyone present.  It was a rare moment of genuine unity in a room prone to divisiveness and gridlock.

In all, the President (by my count) was interrupted by applause roughly 75 times, and received ovations at least 20 times.  Predictably, those ovations were mostly the work of Democrats in the room.

But there was an undercurrent of energy to Obama’s address that seemed both genuine, if not a bit desperate.

The President sought last night to jumpstart his second term, and he labelled 2014 “a year of action.”  In the last four months, he has watched as his job approval ratings have fallen across a broad spectrum of polling, and these declines have been the most severe of his presidency.  Even some of the president’s most loyal advocates have acknowledged that there have been problems: a sluggish economy, falling wages, a disastrous roll-out of his health care program, and—perhaps most ominously—another set of poll numbers showing that Americans, regardless of their politics and their economic circumstances, feel pessimistic about their future.  Not merely uncertain, but gloomy.

Thus the emphasis, both by the president, and in the GOP’s response, on crucial domestic issues: jobs, economic growth, opportunity, government spending and health care.
At the core of the debate in the news cycles leading up to Tuesday’s speech was the president’s newfound determination to act—unilaterally, if necessary—on certain policy issues.  Seeking to simply bypass a gridlocked Congress, he plans to act on his own on a short list of priorities.  Some Republicans expressed deep skepticism, and others offered that the president is simply seeking to bypass the U.S. Constitution.  The president’s defenders and spokespersons declared that Obama must act according to his values and his instincts, and that he cannot wait on a deeply divided Congress to climb aboard.

This sets the stage for more heavy combat in Washington, and many observers expect the GOP to make much of the issue of a president engaged in lawmaking by decree or fiat.
But even analysts inclined to support the president observed that his speech was notably short on specifics, and vague on those occasions when he might have been able to easily offer details.  His much-ballyhooed action on the minimum wage, for example, which was initially reported in much of the media as a general increase, in fact is only designed to increase wages of federal contractors—certain types of federal contractors—and only those who will be hired after about March 1.  And though the wage increase is meant to be the first salvo in a plan to raise the federally-mandated minimum wage for all workers, some economists and political observers were skeptical that his $10.10 executive action would have much effect on the larger economy.

Much of the president’s speech focused on the economy and jobs.  Though he was able to point toward the good numbers, such as a general decrease in unemployment, he notably demurred on the issue most troubling to many business analysts and economists—underemployment, people working part-time jobs just to survive, a prevalence of extremely low wage jobs, and the millions of Americans whose unemployment benefits have run out and therefore are no longer “counted” in the monthly statistics.  In this area, Americans seem the most gloomy according to several recent polls.

In these areas especially, the president stressed his willingness to proceed by executive action.  But in these very same arenas we can expect Republican resistance.

Nevertheless, the White House plans to get aggressive with its plan to roll out unilateral presidential action on a number of initiatives.  And even his supporters acknowledge that his inability to find consensus and sway Congress has led him to this position of acting alone.  Further, the President has lost some support even among liberals and progressives, once his strongest backers.  Obama’s conciliatory approach meant that progressives, over time, were dissatisfied with his cozy relationship with Wall Street and big bankers, his deferential approach to the detainee program at Guantanamo, his flip-flop on what he had originally planned to be a fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, his expanded use of drones in the war on terror, and his seemingly easy embrace of the NSA’s surveillance program of data collection.  (See Obama’s Progressive Deficit; Thursday Review, January 27, 2014).

Among the specific things the president requested: an extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which the president hopes will continue to provide tax relief for Americans who fall in the below-middle-income range.  Some Republicans agree with this plan, since it may create a favorable path toward their own opposition of a federally-mandated wage increase.

The president also touched upon his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

“Because of this law,” he said, “no American can ever again be dropped, or denied coverage, for a pre-existing condition like asthma, back pain or cancer.  No woman can ever be charged more simply because she’s a woman.  And we did all of this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare payments flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.”
But Republicans were notably unmoved by the president’s remarks on health care.  During the weekend and in the run-up days before the speech, GOP leaders made it clear that they still regard Obamacare as unacceptable, another indication of the divisions in Washington.  Furthermore, some analysts pointed out that Obama’s claims regarding Medicare costs and prescription prices are inaccurate: some components of those costs have actually increased during that period.

The President also briefly touched on Iran and its nuclear program, an issue, which for some, is of immediate international concern.  Stressing that diplomacy and negotiation must be given a fair chance at success, and pointing to the delicacy of the current negotiations, Obama deferred on the question of sanctions or of a potential future in which military options may be used.

Many in Congress, including some Democrats, are concerned that diplomatic delays may simply enable Iran to proceed in secret with its nuclear program, while simultaneously granting the Islamic state a reprieve form the harshest of sanctions.

And among the other domestic areas in which the president declared his willingness to go-it-alone: the permitting processes for major public works processes, such as highways, bridges, waterways, tunnels and other infrastructure projects and upgrades.  Obama sees fast-tracking those large scale projects as essential to put thousands of people back to work, especially in construction.  But some analysts at the state level suggest that the problem is not permitting but money, and until Congress approves the funds many of the major projects will continue to languish.

The White House plans to refine and sharpen the central message of a president who sees no alternative but to act alone on several major initiatives.

The GOP responses were tactful but blunt: the president does not have the authority to act on many of his economic proposals without approval from Congress.
Related Thursday Review articles:

Obama’s Progressive Deficit; Thursday Review; R. Alan Clanton; January 27, 2014.
The Grinch That Stole Health Care; Thursday Review; Friday, December 20, 2013.

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Obama’s Progressive Deficit

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 27, 2014) By now the famously nasty internal fight within the Republican Party, a civil war that has been waged more-or-less continuously since the GOP’s Election Day debacle in 2012, is settling in to stable battle lines and symmetrical warfare.  Eventually this too will pass, and the GOP will find its way back toward the center, and the electoral happiness it once enjoyed.

Either Chris Christie survives his current troubles, or he does not.  Either Jeb Bush enters into the fray, or he does not.  Others wait closely in the wings: Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan.  The Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to unify and harmonize their narrative, otherwise, they might experience more unhappiness in the face of the steamroller which will be Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Last week the RNC made official its plans to reduce the number of televised debates, to greatly limit primary confrontations, and move the 2016 convention forward to late June—moves expected to bring harmony to what became in 2008 and again in 2012 a noisy, even irrational process.  Make no mistake: the GOP intends to reintroduce discipline to the selection of its nominee, and it aims to make a mantra of Ronald Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment.

Meanwhile, quietly, and behind the scenes, old fault lines within the Democratic Party are rumbling and shifting—again.  It’s traditional, reliable plate tectonics, and it dates back generations.

President Barack Obama, for all his previous five years of popularity and high job approval rating, has seen his numbers plummet dramatically in the last month.  And in the context of the standard red-blue divide, this does not mean that still more conservatives or more followers of Fox News have changed their already negative opinions of the president.  This means that a lot of people somewhere in the center or the left-of-center range on the political spectrum have become deeply dissatisfied.  And some of those folks can be accurately described as progressive—a term meant to define a movement slightly to the left of moderate liberalism.

Furthermore, the president seems to have lost the full confidence of a lot of people squarely in the middle.  Some blame this on the anemic economy, which, despite its two-steps-forward, one-step-backward progress, still seems to linger in an uncomfortable netherworld of underemployment, unreported joblessness, low wages, shrinking benefits and a new health care marketplace which continues to face skepticism and resistance from millions of Americans.

Some blame the president’s current woes on gridlock—that now familiar paralysis which seems to grip any important question which passes through the body politic of Washington, D.C.  But author and journalist Bob Woodward says that it is no longer enough for the president and his minions to continue to blame intransigent Republicans in Congress for the mess.  A president, Woodward says, is essentially the CEO of the big corporation.  And as such, it falls upon the President to lead.  (Woodward, who is hawking his newest book, The Price of Politics, spoke recently at the University of North Florida; Thursday Review will have more on that topic later this week).

s lineage can also be easily traced, through Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, through Walter Mondale and John Glenn, through Dick Gephardt and Al Gore.

In reality it has been slow-going for long-suffering progressives.  They have watched for over 25 years as the Democratic Party, in the name of regaining and occupying the centrist landscape, systematically sheared away much of the agenda closely associated with progressive causes.  The nominations of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry represented for many progressives an organized repudiation of the core values of serious liberalism.  Centrist mergers, like those of Clinton and Gore in 1992, and the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket of 2000, were seen by many on the left as sellouts.  Indeed, the candidacy of Ralph Nader in 2000 was largely a result of a general dissatisfaction by progressives with the tone and tenor of milquetoast moderation found in the vague and uninspiring message of the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

John Kerry’s candidacy did little to assuage their fears in 2004.  In fact, Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush that year was seen as a debacle, one easily avoided had Democratic strategists had even half-heartedly embraced the progressive and lyrical left.  Instead, the ticket was pushed again into the center, pleasing few voters otherwise disposed toward the Democratic Party.

Then, we experienced that feverish and nasty fight between Clinton and Obama in 2008.  Old rifts dating back to the Bad Old Days were exposed, and after the South Carolina primary that year some mature Democrats were envisioning the gruesome specters of 1968 and 1972—history repeating itself with a deeply divided party and a deadlocked convention.

Eventually, in an act of pragmatism, Clinton and Obama resolved their differences.  It reminded many observers that neither party is truly unified, but those fault lines among Democrats are especially deep, and the airspace remains toxic when the forces of moderation, conciliation and realism are in the same room with the idealists and dedicated leftists.

As president, Obama has had his share of dustups with progressives.  Along those on the left, there has been widespread dissatisfaction: slow timetables for withdrawal from Iraq, and later Afghanistan; a sluggish approach to shutting down detainee operations at Guantanamo; an early co-option by Wall Street mavens and CEOs of big business, especially banks; an indecisive approach to long-term energy policy which places little more value in green technology than it places on expanded drilling and unconventional methods of extraction; a seemingly easy embrace of neo-con international views in the war of terror; a dramatic escalation in the use of drones as a lethal tool against jihadists; a willingness to use the Justice Department to arm-twist reporters to reveal sources and engage in covert action against the press; and most especially, Obama’s recent acknowledgement that data harvests and digital surveillance operations by agencies such as the NSA are tools which are here to stay.

Though a few of the aforementioned policies grate upon the nerves of libertarian-inclined conservatives (NSA activity, most especially), almost all of these policy patterns have become inflamed sore points with liberal progressives, once among Obama’s most loyal followers.  If these elements of the Democratic base shear away, some fear the party might again find itself ill-prepared for the realities of the Electoral College in two years.  On the other hand, party moderates fear just the opposite, and they see in the more radical language of Senator Elizabeth Warren (who sounds very much like George McGovern to some) and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio (who sounds like a lot Frank Church) a possible de-alignment, in which Reagan Democrats and centrist elements of the party’s base veer back into the GOP column.

This growing source of friction speaks to the need for the Democratic Party to define itself in the run-up, already in its early stages, to the presidential election of 2016.  Hillary Clinton is seen by many as the de facto front runner (just as she was viewed in 2006 and 2007).  Even the smartest visionaries and the best readers of the crystal ball see few, if any, genuine threats to Clinton’s presumed candidacy on the horizon.

The question then becomes: will Clinton steer herself slightly toward the center, as her husband did in 1992 and again in 96; or will she steer slightly to the left?  And which tack will be the more effective for the party of Obama in the fall of 2016?

Watch closely over the next few days, for some part of that answer may be found on Tuesday night, when the President addresses Congress and the nation for his State of the Union speech.
Related Thursday Review articles:

No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); Thursday Review; August 18, 2013.
Anatomy of a GOP Loss: Part Two; Thursday Review, Road Show; December 12, 2012.

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Two Nations, Indivisible

Two Nations Indivisible

By Thursday Review staff

(Originally published January 9, 2014) The border that separates the U.S. from Mexico is a notoriously troubled stretch of soil and river, and it has only gotten worse in the last few years. That two thousand mile stretch of fence and Rio Grande has given the country south of the border a bad rep, and Mexico’s new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, hopes to begin a process of reform and transformation for a nation beleagured with bad press.

Last summer we reviewed in these pages the 2013 book by Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, Immigration Wars, which—among its many salient points—suggested that the Republican Party’s setbacks in the election of 2012 were in part the result of a narrow and often unenlightened view of immigration.  But this theme was really secondary to Bush and Bolick, for beyond the obvious political finger-pointing, the book’s most important point was that immigration, for the United States, is primarily an economic issue.  And perhaps no country among the Americas—North or South—shares that global market pressure as closely and personally as the United States’ neighbor to the south, Mexico.

A new book by Shannon K. O’Neil, Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead, takes this thesis to the next level, approaching the complex and often emotional issue of the immigration, borders and economic cooperation with care and precision.  O’Neil understands that there is a media and press perception of a deeply troubled two thousand mile border, where chaos, lawlessness and violence seem to rise to new levels of horror with each passing news report.

But O’Neil suggests that these high-profile incidents are only a small part of the larger issues facing the two giant neighbors, and the constant narrative of drug lords, police corruption and illegal border crossings—and that of U.S. Border Patrol agents operating under a state of siege, day-in, day-out—clouds realities and inhibits progress between these nations.

Author (and past Columbia University instructor) O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, has researched and written extensively on Mexico, and her analysis has frequently appeared in magazines like Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, as well as in newspapers like the Washington Post.  Her book reflects this nuanced and balanced approach to the relationship between the two democracies, as well as the economic view of two nations who need each other’s cooperation and shared adaptability if they are to remain competitive in a global economy.

O’Neil also attempts to tamp down much of the hyperbole surrounding the troubled border between Mexico and the U.S., and paints a larger canvas of Mexico as a thriving market and stable democracy, despite its reputation in the U.S. news media (and among many politicians) as lawless, hardscrabble frontier of drug wars, cartel violence and mass murder.  This is expert and sober analysis on a subject which will ultimately affect the vitality and strength of two major world economies.

Read related articles at Thursday Review:
Immigration and the Human Dimension; R. Alan Clanton (book review of Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution; Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick)

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This Just In (Or, How to Break the News)

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 25, 2014):  A couple of days ago on MSNBC, reporter Andrea Mitchell was indeed forced to interrupt an interview with U.S. Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) who was standing there live in Davos discussing, among other small matters, the NSA’s massive surveillance program and the data harvesting designed to track cell phone and land line calls of Americans.

The reason for the sudden, abrupt derailment of this narrative: terrorism in Sochi?  A new deal between Republicans and Democrats for a balanced budget?  Improvements to the Health Care laws?  Dow falling off a cliff?  Nope to all of those.

Andrea Mitchell cut off the Congresswoman to take the erudite and learned daytime viewers of MSNBC to a live arraignment in Miami, where teen star Justin Bieber was facing a Dade County judge for the first time since his arrest for drunk driving.

Yes.  For a brief moment the ghost of Paddy Chayefsky could be seen looming there in the MSNBC studios, a ghastly, partially decayed phantasm nevertheless smiling broadly at his prescience and ultimate vindication.  When one sees the clip for the first time, one can almost hear the argument, from somewhere back in a half-lit production control room, between the craggy, deeply lined William Holden and the manically energized Faye Dunaway.

More than a victory for Chayefsky, it was yet another battle won for a world beholden to Google and its all-powerful rankings, which now—or so it seems—rattle, skew, and otherwise reorder the world of “real-time content,” once called quaintly “the news.”

This just in.  This Justin.

Young Bieber’s bond hearing was, at that instant, far more important in the grand scheme of things than any of the mundane matters facing U.S. citizens…or the average Janes and Joes around the world, for that matter, facing issues of global warming (or global cooling), industrial development, jobs, women’s rights, economic solvency or violent jihad.

And somewhere among the producers and directors off camera, in that twilight of electronic eeriness, headset chatter, multiscreen Sony and JVC displays, glassy reflections and digital illumination, a decision was made—and made easily.  Justin trumps the NSA, or Syria, or Sochi, or school lunches, or cyber-terror.

That Mitchell used the appropriate newsfeed chatter for the jarring transition—we have breaking news from Miami—is in itself an indication of the “broken” nature of news in general.
Justin trumps everything.  Except Miley, Lindsay, Brittney, Kanye, the Kardashians, et al.  And even that great flowing river of egalitarianism and enlightened liberalism at MSNBC could not escape the physics, the awesome attraction.

And by attraction I don’t mean “the bearded lady” at the circus, nor do I mean something along the lines of “Andrea Mitchell is attractive,” concepts easily punctured these days by political correctness or by obsolescence.  I mean attraction the way Stephen Hawking means attraction: holding forth on black holes and event horizons, and imagining, as we have heard in the news lately, that passing into a black hole—if they exist at all—is less like being squeezed into a thread the size of angel hair pasta and more like being fed through the galaxy’s best cross-cut paper shredder.

Imagine the after dinner conversation the other night as Andrea Mitchell sat in the den with her husband Alan Greenspan; the former Fed Reserve chairman asking the senior NBC News correspondent about the highlights of her busy workday (one imagines him sitting with a drink in his left hand, the pages of the New York Times or the latest edition of The Economist in his right, illuminated by the greenish hue of the lamp with politically-correct 23 watt EcoSmart CFL bulb), and Andrea aglow (she’s always aglow) as she broke the news to him.

“Well,” Andrea says gently, “I cut-off a Congresswoman in mid-sentence to cut away to a live video feed of Justin Bieber’s bond hearing.”

So do we blame this state of affairs on Roger Ailes?  Do we blame it on Rupert Murdoch?  Do we blame it on CNN’s new chief Jeff Zucker for his proud plan to have less “news” in the news and more “shows” in its place?  Does the fault rest with a demoralized and rapidly-shrinking newspaper business which was once, to the purists at least, the great balancer which kept journalism the honest broker in a democracy beset by the evolving distractions of TV news, cable fragmentation and the internet.

We’ll have more breaking news on this developing story.

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The End of the Film

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Films

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures/Red Granite Films

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 18, 2014)  For a score plus a century, motion pictures have been shot, edited, distributed—and projected onto the big screen—using film, typically 35 millimeter.

That tradition may soon come to an end as more film production companies and studios continue their transition to fully digital formats.  In a move that promises to have historic importance, Paramount Pictures released a statement to all of its participating theaters that the recent comedy Anchorman II would be the last movie it would release on celluloid film stock.  Industry experts suggest that as Paramount goes, so goes the rest of the Hollywood majors.

Paramount, like some of the other Hollywood majors such as 20th Century Fox, Universal and Walt Disney, has been slowly converting to digital distribution for several years.  Last year several new releases were offered only in digital format to theaters, including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Three factors are now pushing the process of transition even faster.

One is theater conversion.  Now that a vast majority of theaters, especially those who are part of the larger chains, have made the once-expensive upgrade to digital projection as an option, the studios feel they have less to fear from going fully digital.  The major studios no longer worry about missing out on revenue from those few theaters still stuck with traditional projection methods.  Unlike other technology advances (hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars, for example), this chicken and this egg have moved in tandem in their business model evolution.

AMC, for example, working closely with Sony, completed a costly three year transition of its theaters to digital at the end of 2012.  Other major theater chains in North America, the U.K., Europe and Asia accelerated their conversions to digital at the end of the aught years, and now very few of the major theater companies have venues which still project using analog film.

The second factor is cost.  Film—which was never cheap, even in the old days—is now greatly overpriced when compared to digital in cost per unit, and since fewer companies support hardware, maintenance, and supplies for film, the transition now seems unstoppable.  Many theaters have converted fully to digital, and some are now installing satellite systems for direct beaming, or high speed digital platforms for direct downloads and uploads—distribution models that may reduce the cost of acquisition of a single movie to under $100.  A traditional celluloid film could cost as much as $2500 per unit for delivery.

The third big issue is durability.  Film is fragile and subject to costly forms of instant depreciation—including damage from breaks, scratches, heat and humidity, smoke, and a wide variety of environmental factors.  Storage and maintenance of film is costly, and fraught with never-ending issues of deterioration.  Digital distribution and projection bypass these problems and incur virtually no cost, except for computer hard drives and digital projection hardware.

This means that theaters have little reason not to embrace the new business model.
Digital motion pictures are typically cached in a file called a DCP (digital cinema package), which can range in size from 100 to 340 GB.  This means that an entire movie for theatrical projection can be contained on something the same size as a few Blu-ray discs.

Furthermore, advances within the digital realm—lighting, shooting, editing, special effects—have advanced with breathtaking speed, and helping to usher in faster, more nimble ways to produce ever-more-elaborate big screen projects (and some film purists would argue that the new digital processes make producers and directors lazy, since special effects can now do the work or difficult filmmaking must cheaper).  Digital shooting and editing is also easily embraced now by the independent and smaller filmmakers who would have once—in the recent past—found the costs prohibitive.

Also contributing to the business model’s success is the fact that most Americans now watch movies through services like Netflix, through cable operators and satellite companies, or via fully digitized formats such as DVD or Blu-ray.  Conversion directly to these digital pipelines and formats is easy and relatively-cost free.

For these reasons, motion picture industry experts believe that the transition to all-digital distribution will go quickly within the next two to three years.  Paramount’s decision was, in fact, inevitable, and industry experts now believe that 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers and others will soon follow this path.

For those nostalgic about film, there are downsides.  Some see digital distribution as the death knell for what remains of locally-owned, independent theaters, or the art house theaters which specialize in second-run or retrospective showings (examples: the San Marco Theater in Jacksonville, FL, and The Guild in Albuquerque, N.M.).  And the conversion to digital may force some of the remaining indie and smaller theater franchises—those who cannot afford to make the transition to digital projection systems—out of business.

Still, many screenwriters and directors—as well as actors—bemoan the eventual loss of film, and many have joined in a group effort to maintain film.  The preservation of tens of thousands of films now archived in the old format has become a priority for many who still view the craft of the motion picture as an essential analog and photographic art form.

Thursday Review will have more on this topic in the near future.

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Reining-In the NSA, Sort Of

NSA HQ

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 17, 2014)  President Barack Obama announced on Friday an overhaul of the way the National Security Administration manages its controversial metadata program in which the NSA harvests millions of cell phone and land line calls of Americans and foreigners.

Speaking from the Justice Department press room in Washington, the President defended what he called “the vital role” that members of the NSA and other agencies have played in protecting the United States, especially after 9/11, but stressed that a widespread perception has arisen of a government agency engaged in unlimited spying on its own citizens.  The President seemed today to try to strike a balance between the two viewpoints.

“As a President who looks at intelligence each morning,” he said, “I cannot help but feel that our nation needs to remain vigilant.”  The President cited the historical record of American intelligence gathering, from the Sons of Liberty and Paul Revere, to the code-breakers of World War II, to the intelligence gathering capabilities set in motion by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower at the height of the Cold War.

But after 9/11, he said, American intelligence gathering operations were compelled to make significant, transcendent changes.  Along with those changes came overreaches and abuses, the result, he said, of “inadequate oversight.”

Among the highlights of the President’s speech was a list of proposed changes to the way the NSA will gather and manage its information, and changes to the way security agencies approach surveillance.  These changes would include: automatic annual reviews of procedures and policies; added transparency to how decisions are made; an annual review for the purposes of declassification of FISA decision-making; the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside the national security apparatus; and clearer procedures for the collection and analysis of data—emails and phone calls—sent between Americans and foreign nationals.

The President, while defending the role that a national security apparatus must play, nevertheless said that the government should not be in the business of bulk collection and storage of the private phone records of American citizens.  Instead, law enforcement and government security agents will be required to seek judicial authorization—warrants, judge’s signatures, subpoenas—before any government agent or operative can query the data of phone companies or wireless providers.  The new arrangement would, he said, “preserve the capabilities we need without the government being responsible for maintaining the data.”

Obama said that it is a misperception that the NSA harvests and stores actual phone conversations, emails or texts—but only the numbers, times and durations of such calls and data transfers.  Such information is valuable in the interdiction of terror where traditional methods of thwarting terrorist acts are insufficient.  He cited the example of calls made by one of the 9/11 terrorists—calls which took place between San Diego and Yemen.  No comprehensive program existed prior to 9/11 to flag those calls as critical to law enforcement, but under the current metadata program such a call would be more easily identified as significant.

The President, while again stressing that certain overreaches and abuses had obviously occurred, also defended the need for international intelligence gathering operations.  Obama said that foreign intelligence operations are limited to specific missions: counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber-attacks and cyber-crimes, and national or international security.
He stressed that U.S. spy operations are not designed to suppress anti-American opinion or to dissuade dissent, or to gather private information on those with political differences with their government.

The NSA’s massive program, which has been developing and increasing since late 2003, came dramatically to light last spring when a computer contractor and security analyst, Edward Snowden, secreted thousands of pages of documents out of the NSA.  Snowden fled the country, then, first in Hong Kong and later in Moscow, released some of those materials to reporters.  Those leaks revealed the extent of the NSA’s program.

On Friday the President again offered no quarter for Snowden.  “I am not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations,” the President said.  Obama said that the U.S. cannot tolerate its security agents or employees unilaterally revealing the nation’s secrets.

After Snowden’s leaks, the revelations of the NSA’s activities came as a shock to many Americans.  At issue has been the NSA’s latitude to collect such an enormous swath of the personal information of millions of Americans, much of it from phone data—from land line providers and cell phone companies—but also from emails, search engine requests, text messages, uploads and downloads, and other electronic transactions.  The NSA and its supporters have maintained that such extensive harvests of data are necessary to track potential terror threats and security risks.  Opponents of the program—many progressive, some conservative—have said that the program is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution, and specifically tramples on the Fourth Amendment.

The ACLU and libertarian groups have complained that the NSA’s mission has been an overreach of the law, especially the data collection and storage.  By early December events were moving swiftly through the courts.

In December, a Federal judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA’s data collection was not only unconstitutional, but even “Orwellian” in scope and magnitude.  But only weeks later, Federal judge William Pauley of the U.S. District Court of Appeals (Southern District of New York) reversed the lower court decision, declaring that issues of national security and interdiction in potential terror plots trump concerns over privacy.  Several Congressional inquiries were launched, and the President—under political pressure from all sides—established a special panel to review the matter.

Earlier in January, as the issue appeared to be headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court, the President said he would consider the recommendations of that panel and make a decision, presumably a reduction in the NSA’s authority to collect, store and access phone records.
At the end of December the ACLU and others had joined in a new lawsuit, this time using the Freedom of Information Act as its primary legal tool.  Created in 1966, FOIA declares that government activities and actions which involved U.S. citizens are subject to scrutiny and transparency.  Since much of the data being collected by the NSA included the data of American citizens, the ACLU had argued that the NSA was subject to the guidelines set forth under the FOIA.

Some in Congress, and many within the intelligence community, have argued that the surveillance and data collection is necessary to insure the safety of Americans from the threat of terror.

The consensus immediately after the speech was that the President was walking a very tight line, defending the role that the NSA plays in protecting the United States and its allies, but also giving credence to the widely held view of many—on the left and the right—that the NSA had overstepped its mission.  Furthermore, the President, calling for a “transition period,” stressed that some of the proposed changes may take many months or more to implement.

“This debate will make us stronger,” the President said, “and in this time of change the United States of America will have to lead.”

Senator Rand Paul (R. KY) was unmoved by the President’s speech, and in a conversation on CNN minutes later suggested that the issue may still end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.  Senator Paul found the President’s Paul Revere analogy ironic, since the Sons of Liberty were an organization formed to protect Americans from foreign invasion and intrusion.  “Paul Revere was warning us that the British were coming, not that the Americans were coming,” he said.

Some libertarians had already anticipated that the President would propose better internal measures for national security operations to police themselves, and critics of the program since its revelation last spring have suggested that the FISA court process is little more than a closed-loop—one secret agency approving the actions of another secret agency.

“The NSA cannot oversee themselves,” Senator Paul said, “that’s why we separate these powers.”
To read related Thursday Review articles on this topic:

The President, Congress & Reining-In the NSA; Thursday Review; January 9, 2014.

Turnkey Tyranny: Or, If I am Not Doing Anything Wrong, I Have Nothing to Fear, Right?; Thursday Review; January 6, 2014.

The NSA Super Hackers, and Your Cell Phone Secrets; Thursday Review; December 31, 2013.

Thwarting Terror: How Much of Your Personal Data is Enough?; Thursday Review; December 27, 2013.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ObamaNSAreform.html#sthash.5ll1oksL.dpuf

Jackson House: A Place in History

Image courtesy Google Earth

Image courtesy Google Earth

By Earl H. Perkins, Thursday Review Associate Editor

(Originally posted Wednesday, January 15, 2014) The Jackson House was a 24-room boarding house built in 1901, but is now the last free-standing residential dwelling in downtown Tampa.  The two-story wood-frame structure at 851 Zack St. was one of the only places for blacks to stay when visiting the area during segregation, according to the Tampa Tribune and urban explorer Alex Pickett.

Regular travelers slept there, but then there were the stars—Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and the Ink Spots.  The Central Avenue neighborhood’s heyday was the 1940s, but it flourished for several decades after 1900.  There was live music at the Apollo, and many other local bars and nightclubs. Successful doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs lived in houses throughout the area.

“This was considered to be a five-star rooming house,” said Willie Robinson Jr., who inherited the property from his mother, Sarah.  There had been a piano in the parlor, and his mother told him Ella Fitzgerald wrote “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” right there, tapping out the keys as she wrote in a notebook. “The most amazing thing about living in history is this hallway.  Not because of the stars that stayed here, but I can visualize relatives that I didn’t even know.”

Then the federal government came calling in the 1950s.  Citizens have extolled the virtues of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System since its inception, but there’s always a downside to progress.  The feds gutted and bisected tons of black communities throughout the nation, buying the least expensive neighborhoods where the residents possessed little political clout.  Eminent domain sounds like such a passive term, until the federal government shows up and takes everything your family ever worked for.  Most mom-and-pop stores in this country went under if they weren’t located near the newly-constructed interstate highways, or the important secondary roads which fed the interstates.

Anyway, Central Avenue began a slow downhill slide, so those who could began moving out.  The drug dealers and addicts moved in, followed closely by the city code inspectors and their wrecking balls.  Tampa’s urban renewal push in the 1970s wiped out just about everything except the Jackson House, and it received more than its share of demolition threats.  Tampa eventually bulldozed the entire black business district.

“How many houses can we point to that are 100 years old and the whole neighborhood around them is completely gone?” said Fred Hearns, Tampa’s director of community affairs. “It’s a miracle for that house to survive the hazards it could have fallen prey to.”

However, Tax Collector Doug Belden, businessman Marvin Knight and Mayor Bob Buckhorn have banded together and the once-grand building could be making a comeback.
“The word is spreading very fast,” Belden said. “It’s a good community effort.”

There was the civil engineer, then landscaping, window repair and air-conditioning businesses came calling, along with local artists, preservationists and other business people.  Several fundraising efforts are in the works.

Robinson has been attempting to gain backing for the massive reconstruction effort.  After battling for several years, he received local historic landmark designation for the home in 2004. His mother had managed the business for 60 years before passing away in 2006 at 89.  The home is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Florida’s Black Heritage Trail.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/JacksonHouseTampa.html#sthash.ZYODCUPS.dpuf

Who Pays for the Target Breach?

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 11, 2014) Last month’s retail security breach at Target was so bad it didn’t seem possible that it could get worse.  But it did.

Friday morning Target announced that the actual number of people affected by the hacking—which was originally believed to have begun on Black Friday and continued through December 15, 2013—could reach to over 110 million.  And to make matters worse, some of the information stolen by the hackers could include data of people who have never shopped at Target.

Investigators now believe that the hacking took place over a much wider span of time than originally thought, and the data now believed to have fallen into the hands of criminals can include any or all of the following: email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses, birth dates, social security numbers and even PINs.

The FBI and a variety of security experts now warn that millions of Americans are now at risk for not just credit or debit card fraud, but also identity theft.  Law enforcement and online experts have warned people to be wary of emails designed to look like official emails from Target, from banks or credit unions, or from retailers or manufacturers whose products or services overlap with Target (Starbucks, for example), emails crafted to extract or confirm certain forms of data—a process known as phishing.

Target—which operates nearly two thousand stores in the U.S. and Canada—again apologized for the severe inconvenience that the security breach has caused its customers, and said that it would immediately begin offering free credit monitoring for all its U.S. customers.

“I know that it is frustrating for our guests,” said Gregg Steinhafel, Target CEO and president, in a statement released Friday, “to learn that this information was taken, and we are truly sorry they are having to endure this.”

After the first announcement of the pre-Christmas hacking, Target saw sales drop significantly as customers became wary of shopping at Target stores.  During the holiday period Target even offered discounts for merchandise storewide in an effort to keep sales from sagging, but overall sales for Target were 4 percent lower than the year before, and 5 percent lower than the store’s own expectations for the Christmas sales period. Target’s stock prices closed out this past week slightly lower, but some market analysts expect the value to fall further as news of the larger security breach scares off more shoppers in January and February.

In a potentially related development, high-end retailer Neiman Marcus revealed this week that their credit card operations had also been hacked during December.  Neiman Marcus spokespersons said that they became aware of the breach when the company that handles their credit card transactions discovered the cyber-attack late last month, prompting some consumer advocate groups to question why Neiman Marcus did not annouce the security breach sooner.

Like the Target attack, customers who shopped at Neiman Marcus during the affected period may have had much of their credit card and debit card information stolen by the hackers, and store spokesmen said that some fraudulent purchases and transactions had already taken place using the stolen information. – See more at:

http://www.thursdayreview.com/TargetHackAttack.html#sthash.DnyNnc2t.dpuf

Water Rights & the Limits of Growth

A portion of the St. John's River and Murphy Creek near Palatka, FL; image courtesy Google.

A portion of the St. John’s River and Murphy Creek near Palatka, FL; image courtesy Google.

By Earl H. Perkins , Thursday Review Associate Editor

(Originally published December 23, 2013) If you live in Georgia, Florida, Alabama or South Carolina, the Niagara Bottling Company of Ontario, California, has declared war on you, and it’s too late to do anything about it.

One of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing bottled water companies has moved a step closer to winning approval to double the amount of water it draws from the Floridan Aquifer.

The Floridan Aquifer, as defined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is a complex, multichannel system in which water is squeezed though sand, limestone and other natural filtration elements to produce exceptionally clean water.  Some geographic areas of the Sunshine State contain different components of the larger five-part aquifer, such as the Biscayne Aquifer in the south, or the Sand-and-Gravel Aquifer in the western panhandle.

Approval has come from the St. Johns River Water Management District staff, which has recommended Niagara’s permit be modified to allow a daily pumping of 910,000 gallons. The company’s five-year permit was supposed to expire at the end of this month, and it was capped at 484,000 gallons per day. The corporation’s application claims the higher-volume request would have a smaller impact on Florida water resources because it will pump directly from the deeper Lower Floridan aquifer.

Everybody attempts to use fancy data to fight their battles, but the concepts are really not that complicated. Florida is pretty much a tenuous spit of land—mostly sand and limestone—that hangs off the southeastern section of the United States. Powerful people have sucked the water from under the state, then, they built massive high-rise buildings on what remained.

As a direct result, sinkholes (once an oddity, but now commonplace) are destabilizing many areas and essentially wiping out the state.  So Florida’s answer is to throw a Band-Aid on the problem by creating a state-subsidized insurance company for which all taxpayers will be expected to help support.  Everybody hates it when the regular insurance companies just quit offering coverage, but when government declares war on you, then your options become limited.  These small companies didn’t abandon Florida, but were driven out by major corporations and powerful lobbyists.

Niagara employs 120 people at its Groveland bottling facility. I certainly have compassion for those folks, but I also am concerned about potential adverse ramifications on the other 20 million sunshine state residents.

When the district’s governing board approves the permit next month, Niagara will receive permission to pump, bottle and sell Florida water for another 20 years.

Founded in 1963 in California, the company specializes in providing water at the nation’s lowest cost for club stores (like Sam’s), grocery chains, casinos and various retail distributors.  Its modus operandi is to garner grants and subsidies from state and local groups and governmental agencies across America, under the guise of bringing desperately needed jobs.

Their website skips over the fact that millions of people are adversely affected through excessive water withdrawals from aquifers.

The Floridan Aquifer is one of the most productive aquifers in the world and is a major source of groundwater in the southeastern U.S.  It covers approximately 100,000 square miles, providing water for Florida, southern Alabama, southeastern Georgia and southern South Carolina.  Millions of citizens in small communities rely on the aquifer, but it also provides drinking water to major Florida cities including Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando, along with Savannah and Brunswick in Georgia.

More than three billion gallons of water are produced daily, but that number represents less than 30 percent of the actual flow. Freshwater and saltwater come from the aquifer, causing Florida to place drainage wells in the system for desalinization purposes in the multi-use system.  Until recently, water was pumped from the aquifer primarily for industrial and irrigation purposes.  Now everyone wants to make money from water, because it just looks easy and almost free.

The aquifer is extremely important to those who live in the southeast, especially in coastal areas and in places like the Florida Keys, where there is no source of fresh water.  More than 90 percent of Florida water usage is derived from groundwater, located just under the Earth’s surface in soil-pore spaces and in rock formation fractures.

An aquifer is defined as a unit of rock or unconsolidated deposit with the ability to yield a usable quantity of water.

Groundwater is often withdrawn from extraction wells for agricultural, municipal and industrial use.  The water table is where fractures and voids become saturated with water, and groundwater is recharged, naturally flowing to the surface.  The discharges commonly occur at springs and seeps, often forming oases and wetlands.  Groundwater is the liquid flowing through shallow aquifers, but includes soil moisture, permafrost, immobile water in low permeability bedrock and deep geothermal formations.

Water is needed to sustain life, and if Florida’s natural resources are squandered then we will be at someone else’s mercy for all eternity.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/WaterRightsFL.html#sthash.kWW7c4Dk.dpuf

Not Hooked on Nook

Image courtesy Barnes & Noble

Image courtesy Barnes & Noble

By Thursday Review staff

(Published Wednesday, January 15, 2014) Around the holidays, and for weeks afterwards, we hear a lot about the biggest Christmas sellers—those items which seem to fly off the shelves.  A few of this year’s big winners were, of all things, books (the ones printed on paper) and winter clothes, such as jackets, sweaters, overcoats.  Overall most retailers had a modest year, with sales weak because of a variety of reasons: uncertainty about the economy and jobs, and the Target credit card fiasco, which may have had the unintended effect of suppressing consumer use of credit.

Online sales, however, had their best year yet, with web giant Amazon hitting a new record.  According to the U.S. Commerce Department, online sales increased 1.4% in December.  Most analysts say the spike in the sale of winter clothes, ones of the biggest in recent history, was the direct result of a chilly December and the impending Polar Vortex.  Plus, consumers were not able to contend with the severe conditions to get to the stores, and it was easier to simply shop from home.

The results were a win-some-lose-some for Amazon: it gained millions of new orders, but the surge caused delays, including weather-related problems of delivery.

All of this combined to make clothing the big winner.  Consumers demurred on new smart phones, tablets and flat screen TVs, and hoarded thermal boots and insulated jackets instead.  Winter clothing became this year’s big winner.

But what about all that stuff that didn’t sell?  What about those items on the losing end of the Christmas and holiday totals?

Among the small techie items that suffered weaker sales than expected: the Nook, an e-reader device from bookseller giant Barnes & Noble meant to be the true competitor to Amazon’s popular Kindle reader.  Not only did sales of the elegant Nook fail to meet the uptick expectations of Barnes & Noble, sales actually declined substantially.  Nook sales fell by over 60% from last year’s total sales.  The Nook may have been overproduced and overhyped in general, but the real long term problem will be all those unsold Nooks sitting in storage or stuck on retail shelves.

Some business analysts have noted the strange irony, as this year printed book sales increased—or halted some declines charted in recent years—even as Nook sales fell dramatically.

The good news for after-Christmas shoppers: look for drastic price cuts sometime this spring on specific high tech swag.  It’s not a guarantee, but if B&N finally gets around to introducing a newly upgraded Nook, the previous versions of the tablet will become clearance sale fodder.

Thursday Review will have more on the topic of Barnes & Noble, and the demise of the great American bookstore, in the near future.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/NotHookedOnNook.html#sthash.TYiQ6Wvv.dpuf

Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far

CHRIS CHRISTIE BRIDGE ART_crop

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Originally published Monday, January 13, 2014: It’s been a tough ten days for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and now, it just got tougher.

Christie, who has been widely considered a top-tier contender for the Republican Party—and if not the de facto front-runner, sharing that status with other top-name potential candidates, such as Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Rand Paul—is now facing an  existential challenge.

First, there is the matter of that four-day traffic jam on what some call “the busiest bridge in the world,” the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City.  Preliminary evidence and a series of emails seem to suggest that the governor’s top people were behind the traffic snarl, with aides ordering bridge access lane closings as political payback—New Jersey-style—against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not back Christie in last year’s election campaign.

Last week, the governor held a marathon press conference—the longest of his career at nearly two hours in length—during which he held forth for a room packed with reporters and cameras.  Christie maintained at that time, convincingly many have argued, that he did not know that his own staffers had orchestrated the traffic snafu as political retribution.  The lane closings, which occurred last September, created a four-day traffic jam, and resulted in thousands of workers being late for jobs, hundreds of children being late for school, and several instances of emergency vehicles being delayed in the heavy traffic.

Christie apologized for the incident, and told reporters he had been misled and betrayed by his own staff.  State agencies have weighed-in on possible legal action, and a federal probe is under way to determine if federal laws were broken because of the deliberate lane closures.  The lane closures were apparently requested by David Wildstein, an official with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (both states have jurisdictional control over the port system, which in this case also includes some bridges).  Wildstein’s boss, Bill Baroni, told state officials months ago that the lane closures were part of a traffic study, though few officials in the Port Authority—or any other agencies—could confirm that any such study had been authorized.

Wildstein and Baroni each resigned in December, and shortly afterwards U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, asked that federal authorities officially investigate.
Since then, the issue has escalated to the top of the headlines, with emails and text messages indicating a pattern of collusion among some of Christie’s top people.

With Bridgegate now already at a boil, the governor now faces new charges that in the weeks and months after Hurricane Sandy, he misappropriated federal disaster-relief funds—shifting them away from storm clean-up, infrastructure repairs and emergency programs, and using some of the cash instead to pay for an expensive television ad campaign promoting tourism in New Jersey.

The slickly-produced ads, which featured the governor and his family on camera proclaiming that “New Jersey was stronger than the storm,” ran during the same time period as the governor’s political ads during a heated re-election campaign.  In that race he easily beat a challenge from Barbara Buono.  Some Democrats in New Jersey, nevertheless, saw the tourism and business ads as tantamount to political advertising, and a misuse of federal relief money.

The latest accusations were made by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat and a Christie foe, who thrust the charges into the mainstream conversation on CNN this past Sunday.  Pallone believes that a full state and federal investigation is warranted under the circumstances.

Spokesmen for Christie have responded by telling reporters that the ads were produced using guidelines set forth by the federal government which allowed for the state to promote the fact that areas affected by the storm were open again for business and tourism.

Similar ads were produced, and run heavily, across television markets in the south after Hurricane Katrina, and again after the massive BP oil spill which affected beaches, tourist and fishing communities in several Gulf Coast states.  Some funds for the post-oil spill ads were also provided by money from BP, Halliburton and other companies involved, and in the case of the ads in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, political figures did sometimes appear.

Still, Democrats in New Jersey are unmoved by the analogy, and suggest that as governor, Christie should have been more sensitive to the needs and priorities of a state ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, and in their eyes the ads were, at best, a waste of valuable resources—and, at worst, a misuse of federal cash for overtly political purposes.

Further, some say the ads were overpriced: a competing bid by another production company featured storyboards and scripts without personal appearances by the governor. That studio’s bid was nearly $2 million less than that of the company which won the contract to produce the ads.

Some Republicans see the issue of the tourism ads as little more than an opportunity to pile on to a governor already under siege.  “It’s a straw man argument,” one GOP source told Thursday Review, “Chris Christie’s down and this is a way to add insult to the injury.  A few weeks back the ads would have meant nothing, to anyone.  Now everything is on the radar.”

In the meantime, some legal analysts question whether the bridge scandal represents a clear and demonstrable violation of federal law.  Even if federal authorities find that the lane closures were the result of deliberate political payback by top Christie staffers, some feel the feds may have little, if any, legal grounds to pursue; there was no theft of funds and no private gain.  Still, the pressure is on from Democrats in New Jersey and in Washington to bring to a full bore the power of the U.S. government.

For the GOP, the already murky road ahead has either become more complex, or much simpler—depending on your viewpoint.  Christie, who was recently elected to head the Republican Governor’s association, widely considered a final grooming process for top presidential contenders, may or may not survive this ordeal.  If his recent press conference assertions of innocence stand the test of time—which is to say, withstand the multi-front investigations and intense scrutiny of the media—Christie may in fact emerge stronger for having taken action by dismissing some of his top staff.

If, on the other hand, evidence emerges which shows that the governor collaborated in any way with the scheme to shut down access lanes to the bridge, then his road to the White House may be quickly and unceremoniously closed—along with every available access ramp and lane.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ChrisChristieBridge.html#sthash.ey0N2EdL.dpuf

City Buses, Company Shuttles

City Vs Company Buses

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Originally posted January 8 2,014: In a crowded city with major infrastructure challenges and pollution concerns, businesses which offer their own employees access to a company-owned and managed shuttle bus would seem not only a natural fit, but also a gift for the city itself—reducing public transportation demands and minimizing the number of cars on the city’s roads.

It’s a win-win, politically and socially.  Well, maybe not.

In San Francisco, protesters have escalated the issue to the point that the city is now intervening, taking action against several large companies which offer their own shuttle services or privately run transportation systems.

The businesses—among them Google and Apple—employ thousands at various campuses around the city, and to add to their employees’ benefits and improve efficiency (not to mention reducing parking problems at company facilities), operate their own small bus and shuttle lines.  But the city, under pressure from protesters and some politicians, is asking that those companies begin to pay a fee based on the number of stops and the passenger capacity of the shuttles.

The problem, some say, is that the private shuttles use many of the same stops and pick-up points as the city.  City buses, which are expected to run on time between stops, are sometimes being delayed by the private shuttles, which often operate at full capacity.  Additionally, those passengers using the company buses must compete for the same sidewalk or bus stop space as those who want to ride on the public buses.

And there is another problem, more socially complex perhaps.  Those company-owned buses have, for some protesters, become a symbol of inequality and injustice.  Why?  Because workers with jobs at the high tech firms and computer-makers now have access to services for which others are denied, or, at the very least, are required to use because of their economic status in an economy beset by recession and unemployment.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee recently announced a plan wherein the city and those major firms would work together to agree upon appropriate fees to offset the logistical and infrastructure problems.  The plan may also require company shuttles to defer to city buses if their arrivals at the same stop coincide.

Google said it would be happy to cooperate with city officials, and the Mayor stressed that those company shuttles provide an invaluable service to the city by greatly reducing traffic stresses and mitigating air pollution.

But the complaints, especially in some neighborhoods, seem to go beyond merely the inconvenience of the additional buses and shuttles on crowded, narrow streets, and the protesters are making the issue into something larger and more transcendent than the reduction of greenhouse gases. According to the protesters, the issue is injustice and fairness.  Some have jobs, some do not.

In Oakland recently protesters became violent and broke the windows of one bus carrying employees to a Google facility.  Other protesters have blocked passage of the shuttles and have threatened to damage other company buses.  The complaints and protests have been especially ugly in the Mission District, a neighborhood extremely popular with employees of high tech firms, and an area which has become symbolic—to some—for the rapid disconnect technology may have caused in some working communities.

It has become an issue of fairness, for many.  Haves, versus have-nots.  Sort of.

So…a company which employs thousands offers reliable mass transportation to its employees, in the process reducing traffic congestion, pollution and carbon emissions is being protested against because of their…shuttle buses?

We’re not sure if we want to take a position here, so we’ll let you decide.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/CityBusesCompanyShuttles.html#sthash.tVZK3Z04.dpuf

The President, Congress & Reining-in the NSA

Digital art by Rob Shields

Digital art by Rob Shields

The President, Congress & Reining-In the NSA

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Thursday, January 9, 2014): In what may be a significant turning point in the nine-month controversy surrounding the National Security Agency’s wide surveillance program targeting millions of Americans’ cell phones, landline numbers, emails and text messaging activity, the White House is considering a proposal to scale back the NSA’s power to collect and store that data.

More importantly, perhaps, is the specific option of stripping the NSA of its authority to collate and store phone records indefinitely—cell calls or landline calls—for constant data mining or for periodic analysis.  Under this proposal the NSA would be required to seek a court order or subpoena for such data from phone companies and mobile service providers, and then only if the agency could demonstrate probable cause.  One component of this proposal would enable a third party firm or organization to maintain those records, which could be released to the NSA or other agencies only upon court order.

The new proposals come as a result of the special panel convened by President Obama nears completion of its full report on the NSA’s activities, a huge program dating back to the middle aught years when the NSA starting its data-collection and it’s wide sweep of electronic information.

Another key point in the proposed plan, now before the President, involves a significant reduction in the NSA’s ability to spy on foreign nationals, especially political leaders and international organizations.  Among the more explosive revelations to emerge after former NSA employee Edward Snowden secreted thousands of documents out of the NSA was evidence that the U.S. government was spying on foreign leaders, including the cell phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, several European Union market regulators and business negotiators, high level conversations among leaders in Brazil, and even the emails, text messages and phone calls of international organizations.

The documents which Snowden had made available to reporters a few weeks ago showed that the NSA’s interest in those communications among foreign leaders spanned across as many as 30 countries, including U.S. allies Germany, France, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the struggle between the NSA and some civil liberties groups continues its steady progression through the U.S. courts.  Last month a Federal judge had ruled that some of the NSA’s activities—especially those which involved spying on Americans cell phone calls, landline activities, emails and text messaging—amounted to a serious violation of the Constitution.  That judge had called the NSA’s activities “Orwellian” in their breadth and scope.

But later in December, Judge William Pauley of the U.S. District Court of Appeals (Southern District of N.Y.) ruled in favor of the NSA, stating in his ruling that issues of U.S. national security should trump concerns about privacy.  The ACLU, using in part the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), immediately said it would appeal the decision, indicating that its position was based on the fact that the NSA’s programs cast a wide net even with the collection of its foreign intelligence, inevitably dragging in the private information of Americans with no connection to terror or international criminal activity.

The issue seems on a legal trajectory for the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Wednesday of this week, President Obama met with members of a separate oversight board, created by Congress in the wake of the widening turmoil surrounding the NSA’s activities, to discuss other options.  Members of the Congressional oversight board said that they plan to issue their own full report later this month.

The White House, which plans to have a roundtable meeting Friday with the chiefs of several large technology companies, says that the President will discuss his concerns with those business leaders, as well as address their questions.  Since Snowden’s leaks hit the press last spring, reports have varied as he to the extent of cooperation many of these technology companies offered the NSA.  After explosive revelations last week that NSA hackers had developed a backdoor application for harvesting virtually all data from smart phones, Apple Computer to the unusual step of releasing a statement declaring that it had no knowledge of any such app, and that it had not cooperated with the NSA or other security agencies.

Still, some of the earlier documents Snowden had released to the press seemed to indicate widespread—if not sometimes reluctant—cooperation with the NSA’s data harvesting, and those iconic names included AT&T, Microsoft, Verizon, Google, Yahoo, AOL and others.

The White House has said the President is not yet ready to make an official decision, but in the meantime several House and Senate proposals are already making their way through Congress—legislation which, if passed, would greatly reduce the NSA’s latitude in harvesting the data of America citizens.

In contrast, some members of Congress support the key figures in the intelligence community who have petitioned the President to leave the NSA’s surveillance programs intact.  They fear any major dismantling of those programs would open the door to the threat of terror, since those data-mining tools are seen as the most direct path toward intervention and interdiction in terror plots.

To read related Thursday Review articles on this topic:

Turnkey Tyranny: Or, If I Am Not Doing Anything Wrong, I Have Nothing to Fear, Right?; January 6, 2014.

The NSA Super Hackers (And Your Cell Phone Secrets); December 31, 2013.

Thwarting Terror: How Much of Your Personal Data is Enough?; December 27, 2013.

Your Best Secrets Worth Tracking, and Keeping; June 8, 2013.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/NSAgovSpy01-09-13.html#sthash.BHQjlLUf.dpuf

An Inconvenient Chill, Again

 

Photo courtesy of Terry Tindol

Photo courtesy of Terry Tindol

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Originally posted Saturday, January 4, 2014: “I could punch Al Gore in the face,” a friend said to me yesterday, “because this global warming thing is getting ridiculous!”  In the event that some member of his Secret Service or security entourage reads this, she was joking of course.  Besides, I met Mr. Gore briefly, twice actually, in 1990 and again in 1991 in Tallahassee, and he seems a likeable, affable sort.  I would want the responsibility of neither his broken nose nor my friend’s stint in a federal facility.

But, her point was well-taken, at least on the issue of the cold, which I inferred through her jabbing sarcasm.

Indeed, each year—for what seems like seven or eight years in a row—our winters in North America seem to get worse, with unusually heavy storms of snow, ice and sleet, or some combination of all three.  The winters in Europe haven’t been much better, with average winter-month temperatures declining for a five-year period for an area covering two dozen countries.  Just weeks ago there was snow for the first time in generations in parts of the Middle East.

Each year (every year it seems), somewhere along in January or February, we watch television as the handsome faces of Scott Pelley or Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer roll out a carpet of superlatives: recording-breaking cold snap; history-making snowfall; blizzard-of-the-century; massive winter storm.  Remember the massive blizzards of 2010?  There was record snowfall in places like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore.

On CNN, Fox News and the Weather Channel, experts point to huge maps.  Jet streams are identified.  Unprecedented conditions are blamed.  This thing moves this way, and some other big thing slides up to meet it.  El Nino.  La Nina.  No matter.  Yo tengo frio!

Then, the images start: people with shovels digging out from under snow so thick it has broken every record on the books; utility crews working around the clock to restore power to people in multi-state areas; photos and video of more ice hanging from rooftops, tree limbs and cable TV wires than all the frozen water of the last Ice Age; record numbers of people seeking shelter in local facilities.

This week North Americans have watched as their usually chilly January turned (again) into something baffling and nasty—a blast of air so cold that the typical wintery conditions are more like those found in the arctic reaches of Canada or Alaska.  Areas just north of Boston experienced their heaviest snowfall in decades.  Dozens of towns in Vermont and New Hampshire broke their all-time records for low temperatures this week, and it will get even colder in a few days.

The problem, according to some meteorologists, is that an unusual jet stream pattern is sending a lot of ice cold air directly from above the Arctic Circle right into North America, with virtually nothing to filter it or mediate it. The name of this condition is “Polar Vortex.” It’s like a huge wind tunnel connecting the North Pole to the upper Midwest and the Plains States, or so we have been told.

And to make matters worse, the moderating force most commonly associated each season with mitigating this blast of arctic air—the balmy Gulf Coast waters and breezes—have taken the month of January off.  That means no tropical weather systems to push back against all that air coming down that pipeline from Santa’s front yard.  No weekly surge of warm air moseying up from Jamaica or the Yucatan toward New Orleans or Biloxi or Panama City, anything to offer a little mellowing to the mix.

On social media for two or three days we’ve seen hundreds of folks posting images of the snow in their yards, on their streets and sidewalks, or piled up in drifts along their roads and highways.  Well, it could get a lot worse, and it could set an all-time record this month (again).  In fact, North Americans have not seen this much cold, spread out over so many states and provinces, since the late 1960s (again).

Even Miley Cyrus, whose recession-factored wardrobe budget has been cleverly minimized this past year, was forced to reconsider appearing naked in her televised appearance at Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  Instead she wore what looked like a polar bear refitted to match Napoléon’s coronation robes from 1804.

Yes, it’s cold out there.

Much of the media expect us to possess only short-term memories.  That means we are supposed to forget some of those great scientific prognostications set forth in the 1960s, 70s and even well into the early 80s—many of them by highly reputable names and iconic faces, like Carl Sagan—that predicted a general cooling period for the next hundred years or more…as a direct result of (are you ready for this?) greenhouse gases, humankind’s carbon footprint, and industrial development—most especially the internal combustion engine car.

I recall clearly those grim warnings of an impending, man-made ice age, and because I am a hoarder like few others, I still have some of those copies of Scientific American, National Geographic and Omni.  The articles were written by people with lots of two and three-letter combinations of academic initials after their names, and most of them had at least a PhD.  Those magazines are in mint condition (yes, I’m a hoarder, but I’m a hoarder with OCD), and every few years I come across those glossy pages stored neatly in boxes.  I can sit and read those predictions, and my nipples get instantly hard from the bone-chilling thought of that big ice sheet in my back yard.

The upside to all that ice and snow?  No more gasoline-powered lawn mower.  No more electric hedge trimmer.  You see?  I could instantly reduce my carbon footprint.

But that was then.  This is now.  Which means it will snow on my parade every time.  To make sure we all understand that this annual business of “record-breaking cold” and “unheard-of levels of snowfall” are kept in context, we are reminded that all this chilliness does not negate the realities of Global Warming.  The planet is getting warmer, fast.  Just look at all that new beach-front property springing up in Macon, Georgia and Tombstone, Arizona.

A few months back, astute weather fans will recall, world-wide climate gurus and weather experts finally conceded what some scientists had already been saying: the world’s air temperature has, in fact, NOT been rising steadily.  In fact, median air temperatures have been holding steady for 16 years or more.  Instead, we were told just weeks ago, it’s really been the Earth’s water temperature that’s been on the rise, but measurably only for about six to eight years.  And this, we are told, explains why many glaciers and ice sheets have melted and receded.

When this observational logic is employed, global warming proponents often say…well…that such is the difference between “weather” and “climate.”  Maybe so, but it’s also fair to say that there is a difference in the terms “movie” and “film,” for the first term is used by the general rabble who stand in lines for popcorn, Milk Duds and Will Smith, and the second by the literati who know the difference between Godard and Gielgud.  In other words, just because you understand the weather, doesn’t mean you understand climate.

I know, I know. But what about that Russian research ship with its crew of British, Canadian and American pranksters stranded in miles and miles of impenetrable…umm…ice?  What about those multiple “ice-breaker” ships, state-of-the-art (we were told), who themselves got stuck, or had to retreat?  Some oceanographers and scientists now concede that the ice content of the oceans, especially near the polar regions, has grown—inexplicably—over the last three or four years; this, after a decade of seeing those photos from Alaska and Russia showing glacial retreat and open water where thick ice once existed.

I know, I know.  This is all what scientists and climate change experts call “anecdotal” evidence.  Ignore that man behind the curtain.  The Earth is getting hotter, and you can bet the farm (and all that frozen livestock) on that bankable central fact.  Nobody likes being called a “denier” of scientific facts.

Still, try explaining that to the folks in Minneapolis or Fargo or Chicago—sturdy Midwesterners who are no slouches when it comes to the chill—who will be experiencing lows ranging from a brisk 31 below zero to a more balmy 14 below—and chill factors dipping down to 60 below.  The high temperature in Chicago on Sunday: 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Even colder in Green Bay, and perfect for a rugged NFL playoff game.

Well, forget those folks who live in any location that’s a day-trip drive from Canada.  Montgomery, Alabama: 25 tonight, and a prediction of 13 by Tuesday.   Atlanta, Georgia: 30 tonight, and as low as 5 on Monday.  Tampa, Florida:  a balmy 60 tonight, but a brisker 34 on Monday (a possible record-breaker among the record-breakers).  My friends around the Bay will have to put on their socks.

But since this is all anecdotal, I will sell neither my Briggs & Stratton lawnmower nor my Black & Decker weed trimmer just yet.  There will be plenty of time for things to get hot, again.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/GlobalChilling.html#sthash.nKR0kAig.dpuf

The End of Glamour in the Skies

Image courtesy Delta Airlines

Image courtesy Delta Airlines

By Earl H. Perkins, Thursday Review Associate Editor

Thursday, January 2, 2014: They shot down the 747.  No, nobody died, and there was no horrific crash involved, but the iconic Queen of the Skies is being quietly ushered offstage, according to the Associated Press.

The double-decker jumbo jet, which revolutionized air travel and shrunk the globe for several generations, just oozed glamour and sophistication.

“We had four engines when jet engine technology wasn’t advanced,” Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said recently.  “Now jet engines are amazing, amazing machines, and you only need two of them.”

The Seattle-based Boeing recently cut production targets twice in six months, and they’ll be producing 18 during the next two years.  It didn’t sell any 747s in 2013, and some new planes are sent straight from the assembly line into storage.  The company hopes to sell those crafts to Asian countries and other potential overseas markets.

Today’s modern airlines are not interested in large, four-engine planes, preferring newer two-engine jets that burn less fuel and fly the same distance.  If you’re running a big business, you have to watch every penny that goes out the door, and technological efficiency—like labor and job performance—is a logical place to start.

If you look back in the history books, the forerunner of Delta originated in 1924 in Macon, Georgia.  It eventually expanded into a crop-dusting outfit headquartered out of Monroe, Louisiana, aiming to eradicate the boll weevil through spraying from the air.

You can see how well that endeavor succeeded by visiting the boll weevil statue in Enterprise, Alabama.  Cotton crops were wiped out by the millions, and parts of the South had to find alternate products to grow, making a wide swath of southern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia into the peanut capital of the world (several cities lay claim to the title, among them: Smithfield, VA; Blakely, GA; Sylvester, GA; and Dothan, AL, which hosts the annual National Peanut Festival each fall).  Delta’s name originates with its earliest footprint in the skies above the Mississippi River delta.

Delta struggled with air mail and passenger service through the 1930s, competing with Juan Tripp’s Pan Am and Howard Hughes’ TWA, but Delta continued its expansion for several decades.  In 1941 the company headquartered its operations in Atlanta, then a thriving and busy East Coast airport, and now the busiest airport in the world.

Soon Delta became a worldwide force in the air through well-planned mergers and shrewd acquisitions, but it struggled (like most airlines) with labor and equipment costs.  Its Atlanta footprint grew to over 80 acres, all adjacent to (or directly connected to) the massive Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, where it developed equipment repairs facilities and engine maintenance centers.

Delta also opened hub operations in other cities, including New York, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and, after Delta’s merger with Northwest in 2008, a massive center in Minneapolis which employs thousands.  Delta, which purchased a large share of Pan Am’s operations when Pan Am went into bankruptcy in 1991, managed to outlive almost all of its early competitors, becoming the oldest continuously-operating airline in North America and the largest in the world in terms of fleet size, with one of its primary workhorses being the 747 (along with the smaller 727 and 737s).

But, Delta also had to contend with bankruptcy.

The primary problem with a 747 is that, depending on how it is configured, it seats between 380 and 560 passengers, which is wonderful if you sell all the tickets.  But when ticket sales weaken, even a little, the business model suffers.  You’re talking 63,000 gallons of jet fuel, which costs around $200,000, with that cost often being spread across the wallets of the remaining ticket holders or carried on the back of the airline at the end of the day.  Empty seats cost somebody a lot of money.

If you’re flying several jumbo jet flights between Atlanta and Paris daily, then there will be empty seats.  Fuel costs can vary as well, and when coupled with the empty seats, the costs can fluctuate significantly.  It makes for an unpredictable mix.  But since business travelers usually demand several flight options, airlines have coped by choosing to fly smaller planes several times each day.  So, in the complex marketplace of modern air travel, the 747 was doomed.
Oh, but the 747 was an incredible joy to behold back in the day.  It was six stories tall and longer than the distance the Wright Brothers travelled on their first flight, with a range of 6,000 miles.
“Everyone on the flight was dressed up,” said Thomas Lee, a 17-year-old passenger on Pan Am’s inaugural flight from New York to London in 1970.  “After all, it was still back in the day when the romance of flight was alive and thriving.”

The 747’s seated twice as many passengers as a 707, making flights economical and allowing middle-class families to vacation in Europe.  Then there was its role as Air Force One, carrying the president of the United States and his entourage worldwide, piggybacking the space shuttle across the country.

Boeing started building 747s in the late 1960s, with production peaking at 122 in 1990.  It sold 1,418 planes before changing the design in 2011.  Technology and cost hurt the 747, with a list price of $350 million versus $320 million for Boeing’s largest 777.

With the advent of better power and reliability, improved engine efficiency and newer technologies—such as the introduction in 1985 of ETOPS (Extended Range Twin Operations), which allowed far greater ranges for twin engine planes—Federal regulations were modified and soon the 747 no longer had the long-distance routes, such as ocean flyovers, to themselves.*

Within a few years, the twin-engine Airbus A330 and Boeing’s 777 began dominating long-haul routes.

In the recent past, the ultra-fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner has seen 979 orders, versus 31 for the 747-8.

The best customer of all continues to reside in the Oval Office, and politicians needn’t worry about cost overruns because taxpayers pay for everything.  However, Air Force One, which is the world’s most visible airplane, will have been in the air for three decades in 2017.  The fleet consists of two modified Boeing 747-200s, and the Air Force is seeking a four-engine replacement.  Boeing and Airbus are the only Western jet-makers currently able to produce the plane.

Other plane manufacturers have made inquiries, but win or lose, Boeing is doing just fine.  It has a backlog of 4,787 planes, with most of those orders for the best-selling 737.  The company is speeding up production of the 737, 777 and 787, because the bulk of payments are realized upon delivery.

A new version of the 777 is expected out soon, and it will seat approximately 400 passengers.  But take heart if you’re a 747 fan, because most planes will continue to fly for at least three more decades.

*ETOPS allows for 90 minutes to arrive at an airport after the loss of an engine; also, engines have become more reliable and fuel efficient, and these improvements have enabled over-water trips of up to 11 hours on 777s.  Thanks to Leo G. Breckenridge for additonal assistance and research on this article.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/Boeing747.html#sthash.pjNvJRyH.dpuf

Five New Year’s Resolutions That Matter

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By Thursday Review editors | published Wednesday, January 1, 2014 |

Tired of making that same list every year for New Year’s?  For many people, the short list of resolutions will include the same items and priorities, year after year: lose weight, get exercise, eat right, pay off that credit card debt, and perhaps spend less time online reading about the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears.

So why not make a list that contains not only those things you know you can change (how many years have you been promising yourself to use that treadmill or ride that bicycle?), but also some things that will truly matter in the long run?

Here are a few ideas we came up with this week:

Become a local volunteer.  And that doesn’t mean to simply offer to drive the neighbor’s kids to soccer practice.  Volunteer, in a way that will make a genuine difference.  Offer to take meals to shut-ins or the elderly.  Offer to clean house for the disabled.  Locate your nearest chapter of Habitat for Humanity, grab some tools, and roll up your sleeves.  Offer to help teach an adult to read.  Help put together care packages for soldiers, sailors and airmen overseas and in combat operations.  Contact your nearest office of the American Red Cross and find out what they kind of help they need.  These things can be done without ever opening your wallet or your checkbook, and in almost every case they can mean much more than cash.

Choose an overseas emergency relief project and get involved.  Again, this doesn’t require money.  Nearly every city and town has a church, synagogue or mosque where volunteers work to provide essentials for those areas hit by natural disaster.  If in doubt, do a little online research and locate those churches or relief groups with the best programs to get supplies to where they are needed most—the Philippines, or Haiti, to name but two examples where recent natural disasters have affected so many thousands.  If you are brave enough, become a volunteer and travel to the affected country (Thursday Review has friends who have travelled to both of the aforementioned nations as volunteers).

Choose a disaster area in your own country and get involved.  This may require little more than organizing friends and family, renting a van, and driving bottled water and non-perishable foods to the hardest hit areas.  In the United States, tornado, storm and hurricane damage still exists on a massive scale in places as divergent as Missouri and New Jersey.  Carpenters, electricians and roofers are needed, clean-up is still required, and in some cases people just need to know someone cares and can offer help when local and state services are strained.  Grab your work gloves, some heavy duty trash bags, and a few dozen cases of bottled water, and pick a project.  Check online first to see where your help is most needed in the area or region you choose.

Become a friend or mentor to someone in your community.  Again, this requires no money.  There are plenty of churches, synagogues, private groups and other local entities with programs for visitation to the elderly and people shut-in their homes due to physical limitations.  In many cases, even a half hour visit is enough to help someone connect to their community, and to remind them that others care.  And you don’t have to be religious to get involved since many churches gladly accept outside volunteers.  Economic stresses and high unemployment also mean that many single parent-households are at risk, and there will be organizations in your town designed to provide mentoring and family assistance—meals, books for kids, help with homework, teen mentoring, even simple visits.

Get involved in your local schools.  It’s easy to sit back and complain about the condition of public schools in this country.  The perception and the reality may differ, but as a nation we accept the short list of educational problems as a fact: kids don’t learn anything; teachers are too busy or ill-equipped to teach; schools are dangerous places of bullying, drugs, crime and violence.  So get involved as a volunteer, even if you don’t have kids in school.  Contact your local school board and find out how to get connected to an after-school mentoring program, or to programs to help kids with reading, writing, science or math.  Or, just volunteer in the library.  If you’re lousy at math, you might be a wiz at writing—or vice-versa.  Find a way to help those kids at risk by tutoring them on their weakest subjects.  That way you pass along your skills and passions to another generation.

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The NSA Super Hackers (And Your Cell Phone Secrets)

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor

(Originally published Tuesday, December 31, 2013): In a move that will surely escalate the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ACLU filed a new lawsuit against the government in an effort to force the National Security Administration, and those agencies cooperating with the NSA (the Justice Department and the CIA), to disclose the details of a program which harvests metadata from cell phone companies, landline communications firms and internet providers.

The ACLU used the Freedom of Information Act, originally created in late 1966, as its legal wedge.  Last week, Federal Judge William Pauley III, of the U.S. District Court (for the Southern District of N.Y.), ruled that the NSA’s data gathering was not a violation of the Constitution, nor did it conflict with either the First or Fourth amendments to the Constitution (see “Thwarting Terror: How Much of Your Personal Data is Enough?,” Thursday Review).  Judge Pauley had essentially reversed the position of a lower Federal court, which had one week earlier ruled the spy program unconstitutional.

The issue has moved swiftly and dramatically in the past months after Edward Snowden, a computer technician and analyst working for the NSA, leaked thousands of pages of documents to the press.  Snowden fled the U.S., spent a few days in hiding in Hong Kong, then, the young Snowden flew to Moscow, where he resides now pending his possible extradition to the United States.

Snowden’s stolen materials, which he slipped out of the NSA on small thumb drives, exposed the extensive reach of the NSA’s data-harvesting and thrust the issue into the news as Americans became aware that the NSA had been quietly collecting trillions of bits of digital information on virtually every aspect of their lives—telephone and cell phone calls, text messages, emails, uploads and downloads, search engine requests, and messages on social media.

Later, more documents revealed that the NSA’s reach also extended into the private messages and phone calls of foreign leaders in over 30 countries, including the personal calls and messages of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and emails of European Union market regulators.  The U.S. government, according to the ACLU and others, has been using Executive Order 12333, established in 1981 and designed to define operational guidelines for surveillance of non-U.S. targets, as little more than a shield to cover its more comprehensive program of metadata harvesting.

The ACLU, which lost in its court case last week, will now use the FOIA to establish new traction on the issue by demonstrating that in its quest to gather detailed information on the activities of foreign targets, the NSA’s vast net also, inevitably, harvests the personal data and private information of millions of Americans.  Much of the data caught in this wide net will include international calls, emails and text messages initiated or received by Americans.

“The core of the problem,” says Alex Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU, “is that the NSA has, for years, relied upon its authority to gather foreign intelligence as permission to conduct sweeping surveillance of American’s international communications.”

The case will land again in front of the U.S. District Court.  The outcome of that decision will surely propel the case forward—since both the government and the ACLU have indicated they will appeal any adverse ruling—toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
But with each passing day and each news cycle, the problem becomes more complex and more startling.

Early today (December 31) the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, having gained access to some of Snowden’s leaked documents, revealed that one team of NSA super-hackers had developed a way to gain access to tens of millions of smart phones through a set of shrewdly designed backdoor applications.  According to some security experts, the NSA could then track and collate virtually all activity on those phones, including text messages, call origins, emails, files, phone apps and even images.  A team of NSA super-geeks working at a Texas facility may have also developed ways to circumvent virtually any firewall or security system, whether that firewall is for business or personal application—and the implication in some of the leaked documents is that several major technology firms cooperated with the NSA hackers.

In a direct response, and as a way to calm the fears of some of its customers, Apple Computer released a statement declaring that it had no knowledge of any backdoor application being employed by the NSA to hack into Apple iPhones or other products, and stressed that the company had no backchannel pipeline for cooperation with the government.  As of this writing, no other companies affected by the possible NSA hacking had commented publicly.

Der Spiegel also revealed that the NSA’s bag of covert tricks and backdoor solutions may be far more extensive than the most far-reaching assessments a few months ago when the story of the NSA’s program of data-collection first broke in the British newspaper The Guardian.
But the government attorneys, who say that the matter will be resolved in the courts, have consistently taken the position that average citizens have nothing to fear from the collection of such massive troves of personal data.

The issue may ultimately be resolved by the Supreme Court.

The FOIA has always had a thorny, complex exterior.  When it was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, his core concern was that the Act might be used by some individuals or entities to gain access to intelligence-gathering processes crucial to the U.S. at the height of the Cold War and the fighting in Vietnam.  Some things, Johnson reasoned, ought to remain secret, especially in the context of foreign espionage and covert action.

Over the decades, almost all subsequent Presidents have agreed with that assessment, even as Cold War tensions faded and new concerns over terrorism rose to fill the void.  Since the FOIA, in theory, applied only to government matters at home—as it applied to American citizens and their right to know—intelligence gathering operations were largely a different matter entirely, subject to Congressional approval when the limits of executive authority were reached.

In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress and the Executive branch struggled over expanding the scope of the FOIA.  Feeling it politically important, President Gerald Ford initially wanted to expand the FOIA’s reach, but he was dissuaded by some of his closest advisors (including neocons Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld).  Congress nevertheless increased the breadth of the FOIA, and the tide has ebbed and flowed ever since, with limitations and exclusions ushered in during the Reagan years, and modest liberalizations during the Clinton years.  George W. Bush had it both ways, ushering in some restrictions as a way to shield anti-terror operations, but also offering wider accountability in domestic areas, including the information shared by American law enforcement.

Still, almost all presidents have sought—in some shape or form—to shield those processes critical to national security and anti-terrorism operations from public view.  In this sense, all presidents since Johnson have maintained a legal defensive zone as a measure of protecting the government from FOIA intrusions that might jeopardize security or enable potential terror plots.

But the NSA’s new sweeping activities—largely automated and based on sophisticated code—now include the broadly-defined process of collecting virtually all digital data from Americans, without regard to its value to potential terror plots or strategic concerns.  And the new super-secret NSA facility nearing completion in the desert south of Salt Lake City—a massive complex which will house the largest set of computers and file servers on Earth—means that the NSA will have the ability to harvest and track any digital engagement by any American.  This already includes records of land line and cell phone calls, text messages, online purchases, search engine requests, emails, and uploads and downloads of any size or form.

The revelations earlier today in Der Spiegel merely add fuel to an already red-hot fire, and may ultimately lead to strained relations with some U.S. allies—already made nervous by the thought of computers tracking their every move and the image of NSA analysts listening in on the conversations of politicians, heads-of-state, and even average people worldwide.

[This is one of a series of articles Thursday Review plans to prepare over the next few weeks as this story develops.]

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/NSAgovSpy12-31-13.html#sthash.BeEE86Mc.dpuf

The 12 Best Non-Fiction Books of 2013

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor

This past year was a great one for authors of biographies, autobiographies and non-fiction books.  Our book-lovers and writers reviewed many dozens of those books here in these pages, but now that 2013 has come to a close and 2014 starts afresh, here is a look back at a dozen of the best from last year.  In no particular order, here are our 12 favorites.

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Robert A. Caro.  This series has become Caro’s great life work, and this—the presumably fourth in the five-part series—takes us into the heart of one the twentieth century’s most dramatic and pivotal moments, the weeks before and after the assassination of JFK, and LBJ’s sudden thrust into the highest office.  Caro traces the roots of the rift between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, a personal feud which ultimately became one of the sources of a long divide with the Democratic Party.  Well-written and moves the reader swiftly through a remarkable transition in U.S. politics.

Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn’t; Robert G. Kaiser.  This book is a penetrating look inside the inner workings of Congress, as seen through the process of following legislation along its complex and sometimes thorny path—in this case, the Dodd-Frank Act.  Kaiser gives the reader the ultimate inside seat, though the exhausting pace of how Washington works makes this book more like a fast-walk.  This book is a great combination of reporting skill and academic understanding of politics.

To Save Everything, Click Here; The Folly of Technological Solutionism; Evgeny Morozov.  The ultimate send-up and challenge to those who feel that technology—in our current scenario, the internet and big data—can fix the world’s problems.  Morozov makes a frightening case that we have already unwittingly become pawns, some might argue slaves, to the power of dazzling machines.  Morozov’s quaint adherence to human value, human dignity and individualism reminds us that the computers should be our tools, not the other way around.

Tip and The Gipper: When Politics Worked; Chris Matthews.  Matthews expresses here, through great historical retelling, the possibility that politics might again work the way it was meant to function—through compromise, give-and-take, and smart outreach.  Political foes by day, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could not have been further apart, yet they forged remarkable pieces of legislation and achieved a level of national consensus we have rarely seen since.   O’Neil and Reagan never made it a personal fight, and resolved to set the same constructive tone for those who worked around them.  (We will review this book in January 2014).

The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press; Solon Simmons.  This book is a fast read, and enjoyable from start-to-finish.  Simmons traces the origins of what has now become the longest running show in television history, right to the present, contrasting the style of moderators and guests and reminding us that sometimes TV news can still make a difference in its ability to illuminate a subject, issue or political personality through direct conversation.  Meet the Press became the ultimate “insider” TV show, but managed along the way to also be popular with millions of viewers.

Who I Am; Pete Townshend.  We give a nod to the rock and roll biography here, for Townsend’s book—despite its flaw of what feels like occasional short-term memory lapses—is nevertheless as readable and enjoyable as any other of the rock bios out there.  Townsend loved his largely self-appointed role as rock’s great innovator, as well as his almost unrivaled title of spokesperson for the generation—whether it be the Mods or the trendsetters or the next class of youth expression.  Townshend has mellowed, and this book reflects his comfort in upper-middle age.

Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World; Evan Thomas.  This is Thomas’s best book yet, a deep look inside one of the most dangerous periods in world history, and the stretch of time when humankind had at last created the weaponry to destroy itself.  Thomas traces Ike’s patient, quiet path as he balances left and right, hawk and dove, east versus west.  Thomas raises Eisenhower’s stock by showing him to be a master of strategic thought, a gifted manager of other people, all the time maintaining his easygoing image as a comforting, likeable lover of golf and oil painting.

Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles; James C. Goodale.  Mr. Goodale’s book could not have been timed better, arriving as it did months before Edward Snowden leaked troves of information about the NSA’s vast spying program.  In this book, Goodale retells what was arguably the most important freedom-of-the-press case in U.S. history—the story of the Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times only after a high-stakes legal fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Goodale also foretells of a pendulum in full swing again, this time away from the press and in favor of a government that wants to operate in secret—and to collect your secrets with unlimited power.  A very fast read.

Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires; David Folkenflik.  This books takes us deep inside the operations of Rupert Murdoch, arguably the most powerful media tycoon the world has ever known.  Murdoch, whose empire includes over 160 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations and satellite TV operations, as well as Fox News and the Fox TV network, unleashed outrage and political forces with a phone hacking scandal like none other.  The result was the ignominious shutdown of The News of the World, an iconic British newspaper with origins in the 1800s.  Quick reading and enjoyable from start-to-finish.

Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige; Yanek Mieczkowski.  Mieczkowski traces how the Soviet launch of a tiny satellite into orbit around the earth shattered the illusion that the U.S. was preeminent in technology and military affairs, and catapulted Americans into a race against the Soviet’s for domination in space exploration.  This book illustrates how, despite our popular view that John F. Kennedy initiated the age of space, it was Eisenhower who made the first significant moves toward ensuring that the U.S. would remain technologically competitive with the Russians at the height of the Cold War.  (We will review this book later in January 2014).

Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring, and a Journalism Revolution; Andy Carvin.  NPR correspondent Andy Carvin traces, with the skills of an investigative reporter and a good novelist, how the dramatic events of the Arab Spring corresponded closely with the ascension of social media and instant worldwide communication.  Carvin tracks the start of the revolutions with a fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire in front of a municipal building, and how that seemingly small event quickly spread unrest into a dozen countries and led to the downfall of dictators.  Carvin looks closely at the makeshift newsroom—often little more than a laptop or a smart phone—and how these small devices can have large effects on how we see the news.

Immigration Wars: An American Solution; Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick.  Bush and Bolick attempt—with fair success—to untangle the sometimes emotional issue of immigration, pointing out that the GOP’s 2012 losses at the polls were at least partly the result of harsh, sometimes strident positions on immigration, homeland security and border control.  Bush and Bolick see immigration as an economic issue, one which Americans must resolve quickly and intelligently if the U.S. is to remain competitive in a dynamic global marketplace.  This book is a joy to read and can be consumed in one sitting.

Honorable mention goes to some of these other books that nearly made the cut include:  Wilson, by A. Scott Berg (we plan to review it later in January); When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls and Big Business Remade American Politics; Donald T. Critchlow (another one we plan to review very soon!); Who Owns the Future; Jaron  Lanier; The Center Holds: Obama and his Enemies; Jonathan Alter.

Are you a reader of biography, history, politics and culture? Send us your choices for the best books of 2013 and we’ll print them here at Thursday Review. – See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/BestNonFicBooks2013.html#sthash.iWtvJQe0.dpuf