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Everyone Is Now Officially Banned From Whining About Presidential Vacations. Forever.

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 10:59 AM EDT

Yes, yes, yes: sign me up as a charter member of the movement to STFU about presidential vacations. Both sides do it. Bush got hit with criticism from Democrats. Obama gets it from Republicans. Clinton got it. Reagan got it. Fine. We're all guilty. Now let's just stop.

No more golf mockery. No more charts showing how many days Bush took off compared to Obama. No more whining about how this week—yes, this very week!—is the worst week ever in history for a vacation because the world is in crisis. You know why? Because there's always a crisis somewhere in the world.

So that's it. Don't argue about it. Just stop. Right now. It is officially the stupidest thing in the world.

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20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

An estimated 15,000–20,000 people showed up for what would be the last public execution in the United States.

Around 5:20 a.m., August 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea was led to the gallows in Owensboro, Kentucky for robbing, raping and murdering Lischia Edwards, a 70 year old woman. Bethea was black, Edwards was white. He confessed to committing the crimes, but was only charged with the rape. Unlike a murder conviction, which would have carried a maximum sentence of death by electrocution at the state penitentiary, a rape conviction allowed for the convicted to be publicly hanged in the county where the crime occurred.

In this Friday, Aug. 14, 1936 file picture, a large crowd watches as attendants adjust a black hood over Rainey Bethea's head just before his public hanging in Owensboro, Ky. Bethea, a 22-year-old black man convicted of raping a 70-year-old white woman, was the last person killed in a public execution in the United States.  AP
 

The hanging drew national media attention–largely because the Sheriff of Daviess county was a woman. As Sheriff, Florence Shoemaker Thompson would be responsible for actually hanging Bethea (though she wound up not pushing the lever to the gallows' trapdoor). The media circus surrounding the hanging prompted the Kentucky General Assembly to amend the law in 1938, no longer required convicted rapists to be hanged in the county seat where the crime occurred.

Where is Governor Jay Nixon?

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 11:58 PM EDT
@darth says it all
@darth says it all @darth/Twitter

Five days ago, Ferguson, MO, cops shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown, and the outrage of area residents—and the country—has grown day by day. Jay Nixon, the Democratic governor of Missouri whose name has been floated as a possible 2016 candidate (VP or, if Hillary doesn't run, even presidential), has been notably absent. Yesterday he finally issued a brief statement. And today, as St. Louis County Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at protestors and arrested reporters from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, he's been silent on the conflict.  So I wondered:

And I'm far from alone. Here's a small sample:

Update: Looks like he finally heard all the criticism:

Update: Governor Nixon has released a statement:

"The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.

"I have been closely monitoring the situation and will continue to be in communication with local leaders, and I will be in north St. Louis County tomorrow. As Governor, I am committed to ensuring the pain of last weekend’s tragedy does not continue to be compounded by this ongoing crisis. Once again, I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time."

Sure I'm not the only one wondering why he isn't in north St. Louis County tonight.

Incredibly Powerful Photo of Black Students at Howard University

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 11:28 PM EDT

Check out this amazing photo taken earlier today at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C. Twitter user @The_Blackness48 posted it, explaining that it wasn't so much a planned rally as a bunch of students already gathered for a meeting on freshman move-in "and we also felt we needed to respond to the Mike Brown issue."

 

Here's another powerfully sad image from earlier today, this one from Ferguson. Hope these kids grow up in a safer world.

Arizona State's Chip Sarafin Just Became the First Publicly Gay Player in Major College Football

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 7:25 PM EDT

Arizona State University offensive lineman Edward "Chip" Sarafin revealed he is gay in a newly published magazine profile, making him the first active player in major college football to come out publicly.

Although his conversation with Compete—a Tempe-based LGBT sports magazine—marks the first time Sarafin has told his story to the media, he said he came out to his teammates last spring. "It was really personal to me," he said, "and it benefited by peace of mind greatly."

Sarafin, who is a fifth-year senior earning a master's degree in biomedical engineering, has not played in a game in his four years as a Sun Devil. With his announcement, he follows in the steps of current St. Louis Rams linebacker Michael Sam, who came out to the media after completing his college football career at the University of Missouri, and the University of Massachusetts' Derrick Gordon, who became the first openly gay men's college basketball player just months ago. Sam tweeted his support shortly after the news broke:

Arizona State football coach Todd Graham had this to say about Sarafin in a statement Wednesday:

We are a brotherhood that is not defined by cultural and personal differences, but rather an individual's commitment to the Sun Devil Way. Chip is a fifth-year senior and a Scholar Baller, a graduate and a master's student. His commitment to service is unmatched and it is clear he is on his way to leading a successful life after his playing career, a goal that I have for every student-athlete. Diversity and acceptance are two of the pillars of our program, and he has full support from his teammates and the coaching staff.

Sarafin, who plans to become a neurologist, is currently helping develop a lightweight, sturdy carbon-fiber football helmet. He does outreach with younger athletes, educating them on the dangers of playing through concussions. He says he strives to be the type of person who "gives back to everyone and loves his family."

The Latest Court Case Didn’t End the NCAA As We Know It. The Next One Might.

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 4:50 PM EDT
NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis

On Friday, a federal judge made college sports history when she ruled that the NCAA could not deny players from profiting from the use of their likenesses on TV or in video games. In doing so, Judge Claudia Wilken laid down two rules: (1) Schools can put up to $5,000 a year in a trust for athletes; and (2) they can offer more comprehensive scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college.

Many NCAA watchers have argued that the ruling in O'Bannon v. NCAA doesn't change much, contrary to what some thought a year ago. For example, schools in the rich, successful power conferences already were moving to beef up scholarships. In the sense that the NCAA suffered a manageable setback, some have argued that it actually came out on top. But, they say, the NCAA might not be so lucky the next time around.

That's because its upcoming legal battle could kill the governing body as we know it. Representing four former college athletes, big-time sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler is targeting the NCAA and its five biggest conferences—the Atlantic Coast, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific 12, and the Southeastern—in an effort to dismantle the NCAA's "amateur" system entirely. In a powerfully worded claim, he writes that the defendants "have lost their way far down the road of commercialism," adding that their refusal to pay student-athletes is "illegal," "pernicious," and has brought "substantial damages…upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others." The offering of scholarship money, he writes, is not nearly enough. "This class action is necessary to end the NCAA's unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law."

The athletes represented in Jenkins v. NCAA—all onetime Division I basketball and football players—aren't seeking damages, but rather an injunction that would make the status quo illegal, open up athlete compensation to market forces, and basically blow up the NCAA as currently constructed.

"My instinct is that the NCAA probably feels better about winning the Jenkins case than it did before the O'Bannon decision," says legal expert Michael McCann.

Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire, finds that outcome unlikely. "My personal belief is that none of these cases are going to be a death blow to the NCAA," he said over the phone. If anything, he says, the outcome of O'Bannon boosts the NCAA's chances in the Jenkins case, especially since Wilken's decision highlighted the limits of antitrust law and didn't come out in favor of endorsement deals for high-profile players. "My instinct is that the NCAA probably feels better about winning the Jenkins case than it did before the O'Bannon decision."

Still, Jenkins is by far the broadest and boldest challenge to the NCAA's amateurism system yet, and Kessler's involvement is an enormous boost to the cause. He's a giant of sports law, having won the fight to secure free agency for NFL players in 1992, and his clients have included the players' associations of the NFL and NBA, Tom Brady, and Michael Jordan. The NCAA, not to be outdone, has spent $240,000 on its congressional lobbying efforts this year, already shattering past spending records with months left to go in 2014.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples figures that the outcome of Jenkins, and the future of the NCAA, will come down to the "lifeline" Wilken tossed the NCAA: her opinion that paying college athletes more than a small amount (like $5,000 per year) could harm college sports. If the NCAA's lawyers can make the case that fans would abandon college sports if athletes were paid pro-level salaries, the association will likely survive. If Kessler can persuade otherwise, then the NCAA as we know it could be history. "The ultimate winner," Staples writes, "will be the one with best lawyers."

McCann suggests, however, it may not even come to that. "This is the kind of case that could get settled," he says. "Maybe it is resolved internally. Maybe the NCAA and conferences will get together and make some changes. The O'Bannon case took five years. This case was filed earlier this year…There may not be a resolution on this for a long time."

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Take Two: What's Behind the Religious Conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 3:49 PM EDT

Earlier today I recommended a Fareed Zakaria video about the roots of the current civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Sam Barkin, a professor at UMass Boston, emails to say that Zakaria's history is faulty:

While reading your post of about an hour ago on arming the Syrian rebels, I clicked on the embedded video of Fareed Zakaria's five-minute historical primer. He makes what seems to be a compelling case about the historical complexities of Syria. There's just one problem. His history is wrong. Really quite wrong, in a way that makes me worry about his analysis.

He claims that three contemporary countries in the Levant—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—were intentionally set up by the European colonial countries with minority-rule governments, explicitly for divide-and-rule purposes. In Iraq, it's true, the monarchy was Sunni (it also wasn't Iraqi, but that's a different story). The British did deal with the local elites, as they tended to do in their protectorates, and the local elites were by and large Sunni, but that was a pre-existing condition.

However, in the two French-protectorate countries, Syria and Lebanon, the French at no point tried to empower minorities at the expense of ethnic/religious majorities. In Syria, which is roughly three-quarters Sunni, almost all of the heads of state and government until 1970 (it may in fact be all of them, I didn't have the patience to check) were Sunni. The central role of the Shiite Alawites in the security service did not begin until after Assad senior consolidated power after the 1970 coup. And I can assure you that the French were not fans either of Assad or of the Ba'ath party more generally. Lebanon, meanwhile, was designed by the French specifically to be Christian majority (in fact, the French redrew the map of Lebanon in 1920 to ensure such a majority). The Christians probably remained a majority in Lebanon into the 1960s.

So telling the story of Syria (either current Syria or Greater Syria) as one of a history of sectarianism and minority rule is simply historically factually wrong. And it leaves me wondering if Zakaria really doesn't know the history, or if he's taking some serious historical liberties in order to make his point.

In a nutshell, Barkin is saying that only in Iraq can you argue that a minority-rule government was originally installed by a colonial power. In Lebanon it was a case of demographic changes turning a Christian majority into a minority, and in Syria the minority Alawites took power long after the French had withdrawn. Zakaria is right that in all three cases, conflicts between religious minorities and majorities are still central to what's going on today, but the historical backdrop is more complicated than he allows.

I thought this was worth passing along. Anyone else care to weigh in?

The Paperless Office Has Beaten Out the Paperless Bathroom After All

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 3:12 PM EDT

Back when I was in the document imaging business, we joked that the paperless office would become a reality about the same time as the paperless bathroom. In other words, even those of us in the biz didn't really believe in the hype of the paperless office.

I haven't paid much attention to any of this for well over a decade, but today John Quiggin comes forward to tell me that, in fact, the paperless office is finally starting to come true:

Paper consumption peaked in the late 1990s and has fallen sharply since 2005....The annual rate of decline (-0.9 per cent) is unimpressive in itself, but striking when compared to the growth rate of 5.7 per cent observed from 1985 to 1999, at a time when talk of the paperless office was particularly prevalent. Compared to the ‘Business as Usual’ extrapolation of the previous growth rate, office paper consumption has declined by around 40 per cent.

....Of course, the “paperless office” myth wasn’t just a prediction that digital communications would replace paper one day. It was a sales pitch for a top-down redesign of work processes, which, for the reasons given by Sellen and Harper, was never going to work.

That's interesting, though not too surprising. It takes a long time for habits to change, and sometimes you just have to wait for old generations to retire and allow new ones to take their place. I imagine that 20- and 30-somethings are way more comfortable with a purely digital information flow than folks in their 40s and 50s, and that's probably responsible for much of the decline in office paper use since 2005.

As an aside, I should add that top-down redesign of work processes sometimes gets a bad rap that it doesn't deserve. For casual work processes it doesn't work that well, and the hype of the 90s really was overdone. But there are also lots of clerical production processes that are highly rule-bound and can be redesigned just fine. Insurance claims agents these days almost never see a piece of paper, for example. It's all scanned and indexed so that everything—both paper and digital documents—can be viewed on screen instantly.

And I wouldn't be surprised if even casual work processes become far more digital in the fairly near future, especially as software gets better, cloud storage becomes commonplace, and high-speed connectivity becomes all but universal. If you can look up movie times on your phone, you can keep track of schedules and due dates on your phone too. That sounds like something of a pain to me, but I'm 55. I'll bet if I were 25 it would sound a whole lot more attractive than being forced to work with messy bundles of paper that can't be searched and have to be carried around everywhere to be useful.

Quote of the Day: Honda Is Keeping Car Thievery Alive

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 1:23 PM EDT

From Josh Barro:

One of the factors that keeps car theft going in the United States is the reliability of old Hondas.

Think about the advertising possibilities! Hondas are built so tough that thieves want them no matter how old they are. If you're wondering what this is all about, Barro is explaining why car thefts in New York City have declined by 96 percent over the past couple of decades. In a nutshell, the answer lies in high-tech ignitions:

The most important factor is a technological advance: engine immobilizer systems, adopted by manufacturers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These make it essentially impossible to start a car without the ignition key, which contains a microchip uniquely programmed by the dealer to match the car.

Criminals generally have not been able to circumvent the technology or make counterfeit keys....Instead, criminals have stuck to stealing older cars. You can see this in the pattern of thefts of America’s most stolen car, the Honda Accord. About 54,000 Accords were stolen in 2013, 84 percent of them from model years 1997 or earlier, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

This has created a virtuous circle. Only old cars are vulnerable, and they aren't worth much. That makes it less lucrative to run illegal chop shops, which makes it harder for thieves to sell their cars. This in turn allows police forces to concentrate more resources on the small number of thefts (and chop shops) remaining.

In any case, it turns out that Hondas remain the most stolen cars in America because they're still worth something even if they were built before 1997. Looked at a certain way, that's a badge of pride. In another decade, though, even Hondas from the Seinfeld era won't be worth stealing. And that will put car thieves almost entirely out of business.

Arming the Syrian Rebels Wouldn't Have Stopped ISIS

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 12:42 PM EDT

Did the United States make a huge mistake by not aggressively supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army back in 2011-12? Did this decision produce a power vacuum that prompted the rise of ISIS in Iraq? Marc Lynch says no to the first question:

The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve....Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective.

....Syria’s combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was therefore the worst profile possible for effective external support....An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels would never have been easy, but to have any chance at all it would have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid. That would have meant staunching financial flows from its Gulf partners, or at least directing them in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, U.S. aid to the FSA would be just another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.

And he says almost certainly no to the second question as well:

The idea that more U.S. support for the FSA would have prevented the emergence of the Islamic State isn’t even remotely plausible. The open battlefield and nature of the struggle ensured that jihadists would find Syria’s war appealing. The Islamic State recovered steam inside of Iraq as part of a broad Sunni insurgency driven by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloody, ham-fisted crackdowns in Hawija and Fallujah, and more broadly because of the disaffection of key Sunni actors over Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism. It is difficult to see how this would have been affected in the slightest by a U.S.-backed FSA (or, for that matter, by a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, but that’s another debate for another day). There is certainly no reason to believe that the Islamic State and other extremist groups would have stayed away from such an ideal zone for jihad simply because Western-backed groups had additional guns and money.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.

Supporters of more aggressive military action have an easy job: all they have to do is point out what a mess the Middle East is today. And they're right: it's a mess. The obvious—and all too human—conclusion to draw is that things would be better if only we'd done something different three years ago. And the obvious different thing is more military support for the Syrian rebels.

But this is a cognitive error. Most likely, if we had done something different three years ago, the entire region would still be a mess—possibly a much worse mess—and we'd be right in the middle of it, kicking ourselves for getting involved in yet another quagmire and wondering if things would have gone better if only we'd done something different three years ago. Except this time the "something different" would be going back in time and staying out of things.

It's human nature to believe that intervention is always better than doing nothing. Liberals tend to believe this in domestic affairs and conservatives tend to believe it in foreign affairs. But it's not always so. The Middle East suffers from fundamental, longstanding fractures that the United States simply can't affect other than at the margins. Think about it this way: What are the odds that shipping arms and supplies to a poorly defined, poorly coordinated, and poorly understood rebel alliance in Syria would make a significant difference in the long-term outcome there when two decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely changed anything? Slim and none.

Read Lynch's entire piece for more detail on why intervention would almost certainly have been doomed in Syria. And, once again, I recommend the five-minute primer above from Fareed Zakaria about what's at the core of the Syrian civil war and why it's highly unlikely that we should be involved. It's well worth your time.