Timothy Edgar—former national security counsel for the ACLU, former deputy for civil liberties in the George Bush administration, and the first-ever director of privacy and civil liberties under President Obama—says that using terrorist watchlists to ban gun sales doesn't pose a civil liberties problem. After all, we already use these lists to prohibit people from boarding airplanes:

According to the Supreme Court, both the right to keep and bear arms and the right to travel are fundamental liberties. The right to travel is exercised far more frequently. While there were 23 million gun sales requiring a background check in 2015, there were almost 900 million travelers on domestic and international flights serving the United States in the same year.

....While using the terrorist watch list to prevent gun sales would inconvenience those who may be on the list by mistake, there is no reason to fetishize the 2nd Amendment over other rights. The no-fly list causes inconvenience and hardship, but not even the ACLU thinks it should be abolished because it understands the need to keep terrorists from boarding airplanes. Preventing terrorists from buying weapons is just as necessary.

This is a rather cavalier description of the ACLU's stand on no-fly lists:

We filed a landmark challenge to the No Fly List in which a federal judge struck down the government’s redress process, ruling that it “falls far short of satisfying the requirements of due process” and is “wholly ineffective.”...A bloated, opaque watchlisting system is neither fair nor effective. A system in which innocent people languish on blacklists indefinitely, with their rights curtailed and their names sullied, is at odds with our Constitution and values.

"Due process" is the key phrase here: the US government should never be able to revoke fundamental liberties based on mere suspicion. This doesn't necessarily mean that suspects are entitled to a full-on court hearing, but due process does mean something substantive, speedy, and fair. An appeal to the same agency that took away your rights in the first place doesn't count in my book—especially when that agency is literally bound by no rules about what it does and doesn't have to tell you about why you've been blacklisted. That's how the no-fly list works, and the appeal process in Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed ban on gun purchases would be at least as bad.

In any case, I have a question for Edgar and other proponents of both the no-fly list and the gun ban: what other fundamental liberties should the government be able to ignore in the name of fighting terrorism? This isn't a frivolous question. If these two rights can be taken away, what's the argument for not restricting the right to free speech of people on terror watchlists? Or fair trials? Or self-incrimination? Or freedom of religion? Or cruel and unusual punishment?

This kind of question is too often treated as nothing more than the juvenile hysteria of civil liberties purists who see fascism around every corner. But think about where we are. The right to travel freely has already been effectively eliminated. Eliminating the right to bear arms has a pretty good chance of passing Congress. George Bush plainly had no qualms about cruel and unusual punishment, and there's no telling if he ever got close to allowing the torture of American citizens. Donald Trump gets loud cheers when he proposes substantial infringement on Muslim freedom of religion. Warrantless surveillance is now so normal it barely merits a yawn. And we hear endlessly these days about jihadist recruiting via social media, which suggests—to use Edgar's phrasing— that preventing terrorists from using Facebook might be just as necessary as keeping them off airplanes.

We're not close to fascism. But when a former counsel for the ACLU argues that taking away a constitutional right is OK because we've already taken away another one, it's not very hard to see the slippery slope in action. By that logic, there's literally no right that's safe for anyone who's ever been investigated for terrorist connections by the FBI. As tempting as it is for frustrated liberals to exploit a horrific massacre in order to pass something—anything—related to gun control, this is the wrong way to go about it.

Josh Marshall says that Donald Trump's meltdown of the past few weeks is just what happens when a fast-talking hustler moves from the cozy confines of a friendly audience to the harsh outside world where his longtime act is met with wariness and ridicule:

The Trump world is based on a self-contained, self-sustaining bullshit feedback loop. Trump isn't racist. He's actually the least racist person in America. Hispanics aren't offended by his racist tirades against Judge Curiel. He's going to do great with Hispanics!

....Trump's problem is that the general election puts him in contact with voters outside the Trump bubble....That creates not only turbulence but turbulence that builds on itself because the interaction gets in the spokes of each of these two, fundamentally different idea systems. You're seeing the most telling signs of that with the growing number of Republicans who, having already endorsed Trump, are now literally refusing to discuss him or simply walking away when his name is mentioned.

Like a one-joke comic trying to move up from the local nightclub circuit Trump is bombing now that he's facing a more cosmopolitan audience. And that prompts me once again to share Al Franken's description of what happened to high-flyer Rush Limbaugh in the early 90s when he decided to see if he could move beyond the narrow confines of his radio show:

Whenever he's ventured outside the secure bubble of his studio, the results have been disastrous. In 1990, Limbaugh got what he thought was his chance at the big time, substitute hosting on Pat Sajak's ailing CBS late night show. But the studio wasn't packed with pre-screened dittoheads. When audience members started attacking him for having made fun of AIDS victims, he panicked, and they had to clear the studio. A CBS executive said, "He came out full of bluster and left a very shaken man. I had never seen a man sweat as much in my life."

Limbaugh later apologized for joking about AIDS and promised to "not make fun of the dying." But by early '94, he had forgotten the other lesson: he needs a stacked deck. This time disaster struck on the Letterman show. The studio audience turned hostile almost immediately after Rush compared Hillary Clinton's face to "a Pontiac hood ornament." Evidently, that's the kind of thing that kills with the dittoheads, but Letterman's audience wasn't buying.

This is Donald Trump's new world. Sure, the dittoheads are still there. And they're enough when you're just trying to win the local nightclub circuit that calls itself the Republican Party these days. But it's not enough to win a general election.

There's no reason to post this today in particular, but 2016 is the 70th anniversary of the Roosevelt dime. Huzzah! It holds the US record for longevity in design: aside from dates and mint marks, it's remained unchanged for its entire 70 years.1

There's an interesting story about that design. Obviously Franklin Roosevelt is on the obverse and the symbol for the March of Dimes, which was closely associated with Roosevelt, is on the reverse. But there's more. At the time of Roosevelt's death in 1945, the Soviet Union was still an ally against the Axis powers in World War II, and there was a strong pro-communist clique within the US Mint's Bureau of Engraving that wanted to memorialize our alliance with "Uncle Joe" Stalin. They settled for quietly engraving his initials right below Roosevelt's bust. Unfortunately for the clique, by the time the dime was released to the public in 1946 the Soviet Union was no longer an ally and the red scare was well underway. When Stalin's initials were discovered, conservatives went ballistic and the Mint had to quickly come up with some kind of plausible cover story. Luckily, the artist who drew Roosevelt's bust was named John Sinnock, so that was the story they settled on. The initials had nothing to do with Stalin. It was just an unfortunate coincidence that Sinnock shared Stalin's initials.

But it really is Stalin's initials on the dime, and they're there to this day. You can see them pretty easily with a magnifying glass. In fact—

What's that? You don't believe this? Well, of course not. That's because everyone reading this blog has at least a room-temperature IQ. Modern US coins all feature their designers' initials, which is why you can see VDB on the Lincoln Cent, GR on the Kennedy half dollar, and so forth. But in the right-wing fever swamps of the 1940s, a lot of people really did believe that these were Stalin's initials.

So you see? Americans have always been a little bit crazy. Or even a lot crazy sometimes. We should all just feel lucky that Donald Trump wasn't president at the time. He would have insisted on the dime featuring his initials, not some loser artist's. And initials probably wouldn't have been enough. He would most likely have directed the Mint to engrave TRUMP on every coin issued during his tenure. No conspiracy theory would have been necessary to know where that came from.

1The Washington quarter lasted 67 years, 1932 to 1999, before it was changed for the state quarter series. The record holder for a single side of a coin is the Lincoln cent. Its obverse hasn't changed in the 107 years since its introduction in 1909.

The IOC has upheld the ban on Russian track and field athletes at the Rio Olympic Games, and Russia is naturally upset. "We have done everything possible since the ban was first imposed to regain the trust of the international community," the Russian Ministry of Sport insists. So how are they treating the whistleblower who provided reporters with all the details of Russia's doping scheme at the Sochi Olympics?

Russia has opened a criminal case against the former director of its antidoping agency, after his allegations that Moscow had systematically provided performance-enhancing drugs to its Olympic athletes....Russia’s Investigative Committee said Saturday it was opening a case against Grigory Rodchenkov for alleged abuse of authority in his role as head of the Russian antidoping agency, Interfax reported.

....In a series of interviews Mr. Rodchenkov detailed Russia’s intricate scheme of providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, with his own participation, and using law enforcement authorities to help cover up the traces in urine samples.

See? Russia is showing its full cooperation by ensuring that the guy who eventually ratted them out is suitably punished for his years of cheating on their behalf. Now, you may or may not approve of this, but as Donald Trump would say, it shows strength. And Donald appreciates strength. Unfortunately, his favorite strongman has turned on him:

Russian President Vladimir Putin walked back some of his previous praise for U.S. presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump on Friday at a forum....Asked about previous comments in which he complimented Trump, Putin said they were misinterpreted, saying he had only ever called Trump “flamboyant,” Reuters reported.

“He is, isn’t he?” Putin said Friday, smiling and prompting applause from the audience. “I did not give any other assessment of him.”

I suppose Trump will have to tweet something tonight about what a loser Putin is. That'll show him.

Friday Cat Blogging - 17 June 2016

Hilbert and Hopper get along fine, but they don't cuddle up together much anymore. Yesterday they did, however, when Hilbert decided to barge into the pod that Hopper had already staked out. Usually she gives up pretty quickly when this happens (you can almost feel Hopper mentally rolling her eyes and then heading off to some Hilbert-free spot), but this time she held her ground. Aren't they adorable?

And speaking of adorable, yesterday I wrote a post wondering what the hell Donald Trump meant by this: "Every time you turn on one of those aircraft carriers it costs you probably a million bucks. I'd say, don't turn it on. The captain would say, we want to show you how great these engines are working. No, I don't want to hear it, just don't."

Well, a reader from Denmark emails to suggest that this was—wait for it—a Reaganesque reimagining by Donald, who told this story years ago about his own yacht. As soon as he started talking about things that float on the water—i.e., aircraft carriers—his mind apparently drifted back to his own personal experience with things that float on the water—i.e., the ill-fated Trump Princess megayacht. And if my reader is right, a captain of the Trump Princess once wanted to show off his ship's engines to the boss, who was horrified at the potential expense of firing them up.

This totally makes sense, since Trump is so self-involved that everything always relates back to himself in one way or another. And it also makes sense that he might not have wanted to fire up the engines in his yacht—especially since he was in the process of going bankrupt at the time—whereas it makes no sense at all to worry about "turning on" the engine of a nuclear-powered Nimitz-class supercarrier. So: can anyone verify this? Did Trump originally tell this story about his own yacht, and somehow drifted back in time when he was talking about aircraft carriers yesterday?

And now, since you've all been so patient about me sneaking a Trump story into a catblogging post, on to the cats.

Word + LinkedIn? Sounds Great!

Randall Stross is not looking forward to the blessed union of LinkedIn and Microsoft Office. In particular, he's not happy with what he saw in a presentation explaining how the merger will benefit all of mankind:

I’m not a Microsoft shareholder myself, but I am one of the 1.2 billion users of Microsoft Office, and I was baffled to see my workhorse word-processing software show up in the rationale for this deal. Mr. Nadella supplied one explanatory clue in an email that he sent to Microsoft employees. “This combination will make it possible for new experiences,” he wrote, such as “Office suggesting an expert to connect with via LinkedIn to help with a task you’re trying to complete.”

....My version of Word, a relatively recent one, is not that different from the original, born in software’s Pleistocene epoch. It isn’t networked to my friends, family and professional contacts, and that’s the point. Writing on Word may be the only time I spend on my computer in which I can keep the endless distractions in the networked world out of sight....Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” said the move reflected a failure to understand what writers need. “Most of the most innovative writing tools now on the market position themselves precisely as distraction-free platforms,” he said.

Elon Musk once called Stross a "huge douchebag…and an idiot," which makes me like him already. But he's way off base here. Let's dispense with the obvious first: If this feature ever shows up in Microsoft Word, you'll be able to turn it off. It will take ten seconds. Not every new feature is the next Clippy, for chrissake.

I could just stop there, but what's the fun in that? Here's the bigger problem: Stross is a historian. Kirschenbaum is an English professor. They are the kind of people who think of writing as a profound, solitary activity. They lose themselves in their writing. They want to be left alone. They want to concentrate on the blank screen.

In other words, they represent about 1 percent of real-world writers. Kirschenbaum is right that there are lots of "innovative" writing tools these days that compete with each other to be the most distraction free. You can read about them here. Or if, like me, you think this is one of the most idiotic hipsterish trends to hit computers in a long time, you can read about it here. Either way, their market share is as minimal as their interfaces. Most people aren't such delicate flowers that a small array of icons and menus destroys their ability to pound out a few paragraphs.

More to the point, Stross needs to acknowledge that Word is designed for ordinary business folks who write data sheets, emails, memos, and other ephemera. They don't care too much about distraction-free writing because the whole concept is a joke: the average workplace is full of distractions all the time, from every possible direction. What's more, your average office drone writes about stuff related to their business and their industry. Getting hints about who might help with an estimate for the size of the left-handed screwdriver market probably sounds pretty handy.

If integration with LinkedIn ever makes it to Microsoft Word, I myself will turn it off faster than you can say "WTF is this?" And then I'll get back to work, none the worse for wear. Millions of others, perhaps, will try it out and find it useful. Who knows? Away from the ivory tower, it might turn out to be a handy thing.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Beijing: Apple iPhone Violated Chinese Patent

A dispute between Apple Inc. and Chinese regulators broke into the open after Beijing’s intellectual property authority said the design of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus violated a patent held by a Chinese company.

Yawn. Yet another cell phone patent dispute. Except for one thing: "Beijing" is not being used here as a metonym for "the Chinese government." It means Beijing. The city of Beijing, which apparently has its own intellectual property authority. Do other cities also have their own IP authorities? Yes indeed:

Civil enforcement of IPR in China is a two-track system. The first is the administrative track....Set up in the provinces and some cities, these local government offices operate as a quasi-judicial authority and are staffed with people who specialize in their respective areas of IP law. If they are satisfied with an IPR holder’s complaint, they investigate. The authorities can issue injunctions to bring a halt to the infringement, and they can even enlist the police to assist in enforcing their orders.

How about that? Cities can't award monetary damages, but they can order your product off the shelves. And that's not all these local IP offices do. They also celebrate IP:

China Intellectual Property Week 2016, which ran from April 20 to 26, held a range of activities to help increase the public's IP awareness....Local authorities across China have, since 2009, organized a series of activities in late April — collectively known as IP Week — to celebrate World IP Day on April 26....Yantai, Shandong province....Huzhou, Zhejiang province....Zhuzhou, Hunan province....Nantong, Jiangsu province....Harbin, Heilongjiang province.

I didn't know that China has IP authorities scattered around in cities all over the country. Nor did I know there was a World IP Day. Truly, the world is more wondrous than I ever imagined.

Has anyone noticed that old-school political science was thoroughly vindicated this year? Sure, Donald Trump is a cretinous demagogue who shouldn't be allowed within a thousand miles of our nuclear codes. But political science has nothing to say about that. What political science does say is that voters tend to elect candidates who are closer to the center.

And they did. Trump's bottomless ignorance and lying aside, he was a populist candidate who was fundamentally more centrist than modern tea-party ultras like Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. On the Democratic side, despite all the drama, Hillary Clinton ended up beating Bernie Sanders pretty handily. Of the serious candidates with real backing, the two most centrist candidates ended up winning.

How about that?

POSTSCRIPT: Obviously Jeb Bush is the big hole in this theory. Well known, great credentials, lots of money, plenty of party backing, relatively centrist, and...he went nowhere. Of course, the median voter theorem doesn't guarantee that the median voter will like any candidate who happens to be fairly centrist. In the end, it turned out that Jeb was just a terrible campaigner.

Russian Track and Field Banned From Rio Olympics

The IOC has voted to ban Russia's track-and-field team from the 2016 Olympics due to its widespread and relentless doping operation:

Days before Friday’s vote, the World Anti-Doping Agency released information calling into question the credibility of Russia’s reforms. The agency said the testing authorities from the United Kingdom, in collecting urine samples, had been threatened by members of Russia’s Federal Security Service and that many athletes — a significant number of them track and field competitors — had evaded authorities to escape being tested.

Many athletes outside Russia had agitated for the vote to happen as it did. In recent weeks, Olympians have called on sports officials to conduct further investigations into the extent of the cheating of which Russia has been accused, extending across the spectrum of sports.

“Athletes have been losing sleep,” said Lauryn Williams, a track and field and bobsled athlete from the United States. “You can’t have faith in anybody who is Russian.” Whistle-blowers have provided further details on the clandestine doping scheme the report described. Fearing for their safety, at least three of them have fled to the United States.

The Times graphic above shows just how sophisticated the Russians were at the Sochi Winter Olympics. To evade the Javert-like doping cops at the IOC, they...drilled a hole in the urine collection room and passed bottles back and forth. I wonder why no one else has ever thought of that?

The Snake Oil Salesmen of Syria Are Back

I'm not quite sure why this is such big news, but apparently it is:

Dozens of State Department employees signed and submitted a memo early this week urging the Obama administration to adopt a more aggressive stance against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, including the use of military force.

The 51 signatories to the document, which was sent through the department’s internal “dissent channel,” were largely mid-level diplomats based in Washington and overseas, including a Syria desk officer and the consul general in Istanbul....The memo calls on the administration to respond to the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria — where at least a quarter of a million people have been killed in five years of civil war and nearly half the population has been internally displaced or has fled the country — with air attacks and other “stand-off” weapons, fired from a distance without troops on the ground, to force Assad into U.S.-led negotiations to end the conflict.

I just don't get it. If you want to argue for a massive ground campaign to wipe Assad off the map, fine. I disagree, but at least we're talking about something real. Air strikes and "stand-off" weapons, by contrast, are a joke. Those just aren't going to make a significant difference—aside from possibly prompting Russia to get back into the air strike business too, that is.

This stuff never stops. Everyone wants a miracle cure in the Middle East: the mythical "just right" military response that doesn't involve ground troops; won't get any Americans killed; and doesn't take very long—but that will be magically effective anyway. It's nuts. There are rare, specific occasions where this kind of thing might work: protecting a vital dam, supporting an allied offensive, etc. But in general? Forget it. You either fight a war or you stay out. This idea that we can be effective in a massively complex tribal conflict without getting our boots muddy is wishful thinking. It's not a miracle cure. It's snake oil.