2013 - %3, June

Saturday Supermoon Blogging - 22 June 2013

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 11:58 PM EDT

A quick break from work. Here is tonight's supermoon rising over the dome of the Greek Orthodox church across the street from me. Enjoy.

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Britain's NSA Is Listening to Your Phone Calls

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 8:58 PM EDT

Yesterday, the Guardian revealed that GCHQ, Britain's version of the NSA, has been running a program called Tempora that taps fiber optic cables coming into the country. GCHQ claims that Tempora gathers more metadata than any NSA program, and provides access to 600 million "telephone events" each day:

The Americans were given guidelines for its use, but were told in legal briefings by GCHQ lawyers: "We have a light oversight regime compared with the US". When it came to judging the necessity and proportionality of what they were allowed to look for, would-be American users were told it was "your call".

...."The criteria are security, terror, organised crime. And economic well-being."....The categories of material have included fraud, drug trafficking and terrorism, but the criteria at any one time are secret and are not subject to any public debate....An indication of how broad the dragnet can be was laid bare in advice from GCHQ's lawyers, who said it would be impossible to list the total number of people targeted because "this would be an infinite list which we couldn't manage".

As far as I know, it's still an open question whether NSA does the same thing with fiber optic cables that make landfall in the U.S. Obviously NSA would like to. The fact that we dedicate an entire submarine to tapping underseas cables makes this pretty obvious. But I don't think anyone has ever produced any firm documentary evidence one way or the other.

I'm busy with other work today, so I don't have time to write anything lengthy about this. But I missed posting about it yesterday, so I wanted to make sure to get to it today.

Counting Down the Days Until Google Reader Dies

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 12:10 PM EDT

I received a tweet yesterday asking me what I did to replace my beloved Google Reader, which ascends to tech heaven on July 1. Answer: After a vast amount of detailed research, I switched to NewsBlur. OK, maybe it wasn't a vast amount. Basically, Austin Frakt said it worked pretty well, and most of the other options wouldn't work for me (they were Mac only, Firefox only, etc. etc.), so I made the switch.

NewsBlur works pretty well. It has a few minor drawbacks and a few minor improvements over Google Reader, plus one major drawback and one major improvement. The big drawback is its lack of search. It's no surprise that Google would excel at this, and it was a feature I used all the time since I routinely forget where I've seen things. The big improvement is that it extracts full posts even from partial feeds, which is really nice. Overall, though, it works well enough that I anted up the $24 subscription fee, in hopes that it will stay around for a while.

And as long as we're talking tech, here are a couple of questions for you. First, is there any way to buy a Kindle e-book from Amazon UK? For reasons almost certainly due to unfathomable publisher politics of some kind, the book I want isn't available in the U.S. in electronic form. Since I work from a computer with an American IP address, and my Amazon account is linked to an address in California, I'm guessing this is basically impossible. But I'm open to suggestions.

Second, last night my mother got an iPad. Hooray! But it doesn't work. Boo! This means a trip to the Genius Bar, I suppose, but I have a lot of geniuses who read this blog, so I'll try you first. Here's what happens: when I connect it to my Wi-Fi network, it works for about five or ten seconds and then loses the connection. If I forget the network and reconnect, it works again for about five or ten seconds. Elsewhere in my house, I have two iPhones, another iPad, and an Android tablet that all connect fine (and stay connected). Anybody have a clue what's going on?

Apparently Edward Snowden Was Never a Big Fan of the NSA

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 11:16 AM EDT

The LA Times reports on Edward Snowden:

A self-taught computer whiz who wanted to travel the world, Snowden seemed a perfect fit for a secretive organization that spies on communications from foreign terrorism suspects.

But in hundreds of online postings dating back a decade, Snowden also denounced "pervasive government secrecy" and criticized America's "unquestioning obedience towards spooky types."

At least online, Snowden seemed sardonic, affably geeky and supremely self-assured. In 2006, someone posted to Ars Technica, a website popular with technophiles, about an odd clicking in an Xbox video game console. A response came from "TheTrueHOOHA," Snowden's pen name: "NSA's new surveillance program. That's the sound of freedom, citizen!"

If you were applying for a job at Mother Jones, that wouldn't be a red flag. But for a job with the NSA? Kinda seems like it might be.

Flooded Calgary Warned the Worst Is Yet to Come

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 3:47 PM EDT
Twitter user @ShaneKeller posts a photo of the Calgary Zoo almost completely underwater. @ShaneKeller/Twitter

Flood waters from two rivers that converge on the Canadian city of Calgary have paralyzed mass transit, shuttered downtown, and closed schools, as thousands received emergency evacuation notices yesterday and this morning. And locals are being told the worst floods in decades are not over yet. "We are still expecting that the worst has not yet come in terms of the flow," Mayor Naheed Nenshi told CBC News on Friday.

You can find a helpful map of the most affected areas here. There have been no reports of fatalities.

In the last 48 hours, more than six inches of rain have fallen in the Calgary area alone, and CBC is reporting that more is on its way, with the highest amounts expected west of Calgary.  The city reports that the Elbow River crested this morning and water levels in Bow River are expected to remain extremely high for several days. That has prompted nearly a dozen emergency warnings of flash flooding, burst banks, and overflowed dams in the province. All Calgarians have been asked by local authorities to refrain from non-essential travel. Locals are also being encouraged to boil their water in seven Calgary communities to stop the spread of infection. According to the officials, 1500 people have sought out emergency shelters across the city.

Fast-moving debris from the flood also ruptured a pipeline carrying "sour gas"—a stinky, toxic gas comprised of one percent hydrogen sulfide that can be deadly if inhaled—in Alberta's Turner Valley, prompting further evacuations. Crews have reportedly contained the leak.

Calgary flooding
Flooded Calgary streets after torrential rainfall caused two rivers to overrun their banks, forcing the evacuation of thousands. Bandit Queen/Flickr

Flooding has also forced the closure of the last two days of the Sled Island music festival, which featured more than 250 bands plus comedy, film and art events at 30 local venues, and stranded its organizers in a generator-powered Calgary hotel. "It is a huge disappointment for all of us for sure, because we've been working so hard to put this together," said Maud Salvi, the event director, by phone. "I think we're just all trying to accept the fact that there's nothing we can do." Logistics are being complicated by wide-spread power outages at venues across the city,

Twitter user Connor Deering seemed to sum up some of the Canadian spirit in the face of adversity: "Since the city is shut down, may as well just start drinking". You can see the power of the flood waters from Thursday in this supercut: 

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 June 2013

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

We're back to quiltblogging this week. Unfortunately, Marian is gone and I forgot to ask for deets about the quilt. So I'm just going to say that it's....um, a patchwork quilt. It kinda reminds me of this. In other cat news, my sister draws my attention to a cat running for mayor in the Mexican city of Xalapa. His slogan: "Tired of voting for rats? Vote for a cat." The head of Veracruz's electoral institute is not amused. "It is important to vote for the registered candidates," she implores. "Please." However, since Xalapa's cat looks a lot like Inkblot, I think he's well qualified. Vota por un gato!

UPDATE: OK, I have the scoop. This is a Charm Square Quilt. Apparently, 5-inch squares of fabric are called "charm squares," and this quilt was made from a package of charm squares. So there you have it.

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US Is More Involved in Syria Than You Think

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 2:52 PM EDT

David Cloud of the LA Times continues to provide some of the best reporting from Syria. A couple of months ago he reported that the Pentagon had deployed about 200 troops to Jordan, near the border of Syria, with instructions to help deliver humanitarian aid "and to plan for possible military operations, including a rapid buildup of American forces if the White House decides intervention is necessary." Today he has more:

CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year, months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.

....The training has involved fighters from the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel groups that the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance, said a U.S. official, who discussed the effort anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose details.

The number of rebels given U.S. instruction in both countries since the program began could not be determined, but in Jordan, the training involves 20 to 45 insurgents at a time, a rebel commander said....The two-week courses include training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles, as well as 23-millimeter anti-aircraft weapons, according to a rebel commander in the Syrian province of Dara who helps oversee weapons acquisitions and who asked his name not be used because the program is secret.

It's obvious that President Obama is genuinely hesitant to intervene further in the Syrian civil war. Unfortunately, it's also obvious that there's more intervention going on all the time, and it's happening in ways that can easily escalate. Cloud's reporting on this has been invaluable, and it deserves more attention than it's gotten.

"The Bling Ring": An Artful, Fun Examination of Why Hating America Is Often Completely Justified

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 2:05 PM EDT

Blang Rang.

The Bling Ring
A24
87 minutes

Emma Watson is developing a habit of robbing the homes of Hollywood celebrities. Earlier this month, ensemble comedy This Is the End (sort of a Left Behind for potheads) hit theaters. That film, set in Los Angeles during the Rapture, features Watson brandishing a gigantic ax and angrily stealing food from James Franco's house. In The Bling Ring, Watson assumes a similar role, burglarizing the homes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge.

Watson plays Nicki, one-fifth of the "Bling Ring," a group of disaffected, bored, fashionista teenagers who decide to rob the houses of famous people. (The rest of the crew is played—with commendable Valspeak dedication—by Katie ChangClaire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, and Israel Broussard.) Their months-long crime spree snags them a small fortune in jewels, clothing, booze, and designer bags.

As you might have heard, this film is based on actual events. Writer/director Sofia Coppola adapted journalist Nancy Jo Sales' amazing 2010 Vanity Fair article (now a 268-page book) profiling the Bling Ring, a.k.a. the "Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch." And Coppola did so in a way that emphasizes blunt sentiment and sly commentary over exploitative cinematic impulses. "Sofia and I met several times over the year she was writing the script," Sales writes in an email. "I was a fan of the director's and knowing her work there's no way it could have turned into an exploitation flick...It's a dark story, a cautionary tale."

A predictable avalanche of infamy and giddy public fascination followed the arrests of the real-life Bling Ringers. "Think of a major news organization and they were [at the Bling Ring hearings]," Sales says. "The New York Times put it on the cover of the Sunday Styles section." What followed the requisite press coverage was a cyclone of ill-gotten, reality-TV-abetted fame that wasn't so much a train wreck as it was a heaving paroxysm of America's worst voyeuristic and material tendencies. (To understand exactly what I mean, watch this psychotic slice of television.)

Sofia Coppola wanted to do everything she could to avoid further fueling the stardom of the real-life Bling Ring—hence her script's heavy fictionalization and the name changes. For the same reason, I'm declining to print the Bling Ring members' real names, and will not delve into their post-arraignment exploits. Instead, I will direct you to Sales' riveting Vanity Fair story and encourage you to watch the film's insane trailer here:

The movie is artful and wickedly fun, and pulled off with a welcome maturity. To get her cast in character, Coppola had them stage a mock home invasion. "I believe it was her sister-in-law's house," The Bling Ring star Israel Broussard tells me. "She gave us a detailed list, by brand name, color, designer of the cloths we needed to get in the closet, shoes, handbags...[Sofia] gave us an address, the list, and told us to hop in the minivan and go!" The scene in which the Bling Ring raids Paris Hilton's house was filmed on-site—the socialite opened up her Beverly Hills mansion for the cast and crew to recreate the robbery. Hilton's home is located in a mega-wealthy gated community where film crews aren't permitted. So Coppola and company had to sneak in, shoot the sequences, and get the hell out of Dodge. "[Paris] was very gracious," Broussard says. They then made their swift getaway—an exit befitting the story of the adolescent gang they unlovingly portray.

The Bling Ring gets released on Friday, June 21. The film is rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin cohosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

Step Inside the World's Largest Solar Boat

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 1:13 PM EDT

The solar plane will land in New York City soon, but its water-borne counterpart is already here: Early this week the world's largest solar-powered boat steamed into lower Manhattan and docked in small marina, usually reserved for multimillion dollar yachts, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center tower. The three-year-old ship, dubbed "Turanor" after a term for solar power in The Lord of the Rings, is on a tour of the Atlantic from its home base in southern France, documenting how the warming sea is shifting the Gulf Stream, a powerful cross-ocean current that drives the weather of Europe and West Africa.

It's Amateur Hour (Again) in the House of Representatives

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 12:52 PM EDT

A friend emails me to provide today's media/political analysis:

So, I'm just waiting for the inevitable piece from Ron Fournier asking why and how Obama and the Democrats could have let the Farm Bill debacle in the House occur. Or, how this demonstrates a lack of leadership in Washington, particularly by Obama. Or, how the leaderlessness of the White House is infusing into the House through some osmosis-like process and corrupting John Boehner.

Or, just the typical "I don't know much about all this stuff, but I know that Obama is in the White House and the usually guaranteed bi-partisan Farm Bill died in the House, so there you go."

Most of the reporting on this has been he-said-she-said stuff about which party is to blame for the bill going down in the House. But what very few of these pieces point out is that Democrats weren't expected to produce more than 40 votes in the first place. In the end, they only managed to produce 24, thanks to Republican insistence on squeezing in one final gleeful, screw-you amendment at the last minute, courtesy of the GOP's tea party wing. If they'd left well enough alone, they probably could have kept all 40 Democrats on board. But so what? Even if Democratic support had stayed firm, the bill still would have lost. It didn't lose because of Democrats, it lost because the Republican leadership couldn't control the amendment process and then couldn't count noses in their own caucus. As Nancy Pelosi said, it was amateur hour.