Wisconsin Upholds Warrantless GPS Tracking By Cops

From the Chicago Trib:

Wisconsin police can attach GPS to cars to secretly track anybody's movements without obtaining search warrants, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
However, the District 4 Court of Appeals said it was “more than a little troubled” by that conclusion and asked Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate GPS use to protect against abuse by police and private individuals.
As the law currently stands, the court said police can mount GPS on cars to track people without violating their constitutional rights—even if the drivers aren't suspects.
Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.

The facts and legal analysis of this case read just like the kind of law school 'hypo' I sweated so hard over.

Here's what happened:

Sewage Sows Superbugs

Wastewater treatment plants create a hedonistic mating ground for antibiotic-resistant superbugs that are eventually discharged into streams and lakes.

A new study sampled water near five sewage plants around Ann Arbor, Michigan, and found superbugs—bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics—up to 100 yards downstream from the discharge point in the Huron River. (Next: the researchers are going to look further than 100 yards away.)

While the total number of Acinetobacter bacteria left in the discharge effluent declined dramatically after treatment, the remaining bacteria were significantly more resistant to multiple antibiotics than upstream bacteria.

Ooops.

Some strains resisted as many as seven of eight antibiotics tested.

Twenty or 30 years ago, antibiotics would have killed most of these strains. But multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria have emerged as a serious global health issue thanks to the overuse and abuse of antibiotics.

The researchers conclude the problem isn't that treatment plants aren't cleaning the water. It's that they aren't equipped to remove antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals entering the treatment plants.

Therefore wastewater treatment becomes a fertile brew for the creation of superbugs. Good bacteria grow and replicate along with the bad and in the confined space they share resistant genetic materials, effectively selecting for multidrug resistance.

Wow. Unintelligent design in action.

Here's my favorite part of the press release about this paper in Science of The Total Environment: "While scientists learn more about so-called superbugs, patients can do their part by not insisting on antibiotics for ailments that antibiotics don't treat, such as a common cold or the flu."

Patient, heal thyself.

Getting to Sixty

Senate Republicans blocked their first Obama administration appointee on Wednesday, successfully filibustering the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of the interior department. Democrats needed 60 senators to force a final vote on Hayes, but failed, 57-38.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid voted with the Republicans so that he can bring a motion to reconsider in future. Democrats stand a decent chance of winning a re-vote—in addition to Reid's vote, they would pick up three Democrats who were absent on Wednesday. Hayes isn't the only potential casualty. The GOP is also planning to filibuster Dawn Johnsen, Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. So far, the Democrats can't stop them—Reid told Roll Call Wednesday that he doesn't yet have the votes he needs to overcome a filibuster.

So it seems that Republicans' strategy of using the filibuster to try to block anything they possibly can is succeeding. Use of the filibuster more than doubled between the 109th Congress, when the Republicans last had control of the Senate, and the 110th, when the Democrats took over. Republican filibustering has continued at that previously unprecedented pace in the 111th Congress.

Democrats did not filibuster early Bush administration executive branch nominees like Jay Bybee, who held the job Johnsen has been nominated for. (Bybee was confirmed by a voice vote.) Matt Yglesias writes: "I think it’s pretty obvious that the trends over the past 5-10 years are pointing in the direction of constant filibustering leading to the total paralysis of the American government."

If Yglesias is right, and constant filibustering will be the rule for the considerable future, Republicans might want to reconsider their obstructionist tactics. The Economist's (anonymous) Democracy In America blog explains that "in the long run," more filibustering is "really bad for Republicans":

Sixty seats are hard to come by; for a party to soar from 45 to 60 seats in two elections, as the Democrats did in 2006-2008, is almost unheard of. And no Republican thinks his party will achieve that soon.

The GOP has not won 60 seats since the Senate became a 100-member body, after Hawaii and Alaska became states. The last time it won 60 percent of the seats in the upper house was 1920. It has literally not held 60 seats in a century. So the standard being set here can only lead to sclerosis.

Will Republicans heed the warning? I doubt it. They haven't had much success recently in the long-term planning department.

Wednesday was a big day for torture-related news, so here's what you need to know:

  • Philip Zelikow, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice and the author of an anti-torture memo that he thinks Dick Cheney wanted destroyed, testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He outlined the campaign he and a few other Bush administration officials waged to change both the policy and the legal framework surrounding the treatment of terrorism suspects. They were, of course, unsuccessful.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's (D-RI) subcommittee on Administration Oversight and the Courts, which held the hearing, released two unclassified 2005 memos that argued against the Bush administration's detainee treatment policies. I outlined the highlights of the anti-torture memos on Wednesday afternoon.

America's Most Hated Industry

Charles Duhigg has a terrific piece about the credit card industry in the upcoming issue of the New York Times MagazineHere's an excerpt:

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.

....Testing indicated that Martin’s predictions, when paired with other commonly used data like cardholders’ credit histories and incomes, were often much more precise than what the industry traditionally used to forecast cardholder riskiness....Data-driven psychologists are now in high demand, and the industry is using them not only to screen out risky debtors but also to determine which cardholders need a phone call to persuade them to mail in a check. Most of the major credit-card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve their cash.

Credit card companies used to be serious about extending credit only to customers they thought would pay their bills.  But then life changed, and they realized that they could make more money by deliberately extending credit to poor risks, encouraging them to overspend, and then dunning them with an endless stream of fees, penalties, and increased interest rates.  They were helped along in this by laws that allowed them almost insane levels of freedom to screw customers while protecting them from the results of their own folly.

But even the United States Congress wasn't enough to prevent them from taking huge losses during the current recession, so now they're getting serious about evaluating credit risks again.  Which is good.  Except for one thing: do we really want credit card companies making these decisions based on the results of bizarrely opaque data mining experiments?  If you're turned down for a card because you don't pay your bills on time, that's one thing.  But if you're turned down because you bought some generic motor oil — and 37% of generic motor oil buyers are poor credit risks — is that fair?  Is that something we want to allow?  What happens when it turns out — and it will — that a lot of this data mining correlates strongly with sex, race, age, religion, and ethnicity?  This is something we ought to start thinking pretty hard about.

But while you're thinking about it, read the rest of Duhigg's piece.  Especially be sure to read down to the section that describes how card companies like Bank of America are perfectly willing to cut distressed cardholder debt in half just for asking ("Much of what they’re paying, after all, is fees and interest that Bank of America itself tacked on"), but that instead of letting distraught customers know this they cynically and studiously create elaborate faux "friendships" over the phone so that customers feel obligated to their new pals.  It's nothing illegal.  But it is disgusting, indecent, and unscrupulous.  And they wonder why they're the most hated industry in America.

Factlet of the Day

Tyler Cowen passes along the news that Americans used to chew their food 25 times before swallowing, but today the average is down to ten chews.  Interesting!  But how do we know this?  Has it been measured?  Here's the original source for the claim:

The modern American diet is mostly made up of "easy calories."  According to Gail Civille, a food-industry consultant and the owner of Sensory Spectrum, Americans of the past typically had to chew a mouthful of food as many as 25 times before swallowing; the average American today chews only 10 times.

In part, this is because fat, which has become ubuiquitous, is a lubricant. We don't eat as much lean meat, which requires more saliva to ready it for swallowing.  "We want food that's higher in fat, marbled, so when you eat it, it melts in your mouth," says Civille.  Food is easier to eat when it breaks down more quickly in the mouth.  "If I have fat in there, I just chew it up and — whoosh! — away it goes."

John Haywood, a prominent restaurant concept designer, agrees.  Processing, he says, creates a sort of "adult baby food."  By processing, he means removing the elements in whole food — like fiber and gristle — that are harder to chew and swallow.

Hmmm.  That's certainly plausible, but I still want to know where those exact figures come from.  I demand proof.

A Senate judiciary subcommittee released copies of two unclassified 2005 Bush administration anti-torture memos at a hearing on Wednesday. A third anti-torture memo, written by Philip Zelikow, a former aide to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is in the process of being declassified. Last week, Zelikow told Mother Jones that he suspected Vice President Dick Cheney was behind an effort to "collect and destroy" all copies of that memo. Zelikow also disclosed the existence of additional anti-torture memos last week, and the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was able to obtain them for Wednesday's hearing.

Kim Jong Il runs the show in North Korea, but like any self-respecting Bond villain, he does so with the help of a coterie of rubber-stamping yes men. Indeed, politically connected women are few in the Hermit Kingdom. At least that's how it appears in a leadership chart produced by the Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center. The chart, though unclassified, was not meant for public release, but was obtained by Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. One of the more interesting things about the chart, aside from its gender inequality, is that fact that none of the Worker's Party's Central Control Committee members are pictured. Add to that the ominous red borders around government officials who "neither appeared in nor been mentioned by name in North Korean media throughout 2008." Where they are (and whether they may have run afoul of the Leader) is a big unknown. The leadership family tree compliments a January 2009 chart explaining the supposed power structure of the North Korean regime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote of the Day - 5.13.09

From conservative Jerry Taylor, writing at National Review Online:

The question for conservatives is this: Do you want President Obama to succeed in painting the Republican party as the party of Rush Limbaugh? Given his sub-Nixon popularity figures, I can’t believe I’m causing a firestorm by suggesting the answer here is probably “no.”

Oh, but he is causing a firestorm.  As near as I can tell, not a single person at NRO is coming to Taylor's aid.  They like being the party of Limbaugh.

In other news of the ongoing intellectual collapse of the conservative movement, Politico's Roger Simon reports that the Republican National Committee will meet in an extraordinary special session next week to approve a resolution rebranding Democrats as the “Democrat Socialist Party.”  Yippee!  They're like five-year-olds in a sandbox.  I can't wait to see what NRO thinks of this.

How to Screw Your Constituents

Matt Yglesias watches the sausage grinder at work on the Waxman-Markey climate bill and is especially outraged at so-called moderates who insist that a large fraction of carbon emission permits should be given away, rather than auctioned off:

The moderate bloc [...] has portrayed itself as concerned with the climate crisis but worried about the tradeoffs with short-term economic growth. But the concession they’ve forced here doesn’t do anything to boost short-term growth. Instead, whereas auctioning the permits would have made rich people bear most of the cost of reducing emissions, by giving the permits away you make poor people bear most of the cost.

The environmental impact of the two methods is similar, and the overall costs are similar. But the moderates acted swiftly and decisively to reallocate a portion of the costs onto the backs of the poor. And they’ve done so specifically under guise of looking out for the interests of the working class. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

In a way, this is even worse than Matt makes it out to be.  As I understand the politics of the situation, the problem is basically regional: a lot of moderates come from the midwest and the south, where they rely on coal-fired plants for the bulk of their electricity.  These plants emit more carbon than even other fossil-fueled plants, and way more carbon than hydro or solar plants.  And to make it even worse, most of these states have done very little to become more energy efficient over the years.  Put all this together and the bottom line is that carbon pricing hits them much harder than it hits, say, California.

This means that any bill that raises the price of carbon is disproportionately painful for the midwest and the south.  So they want relief.  Now, you can argue that global warming is such serious stuff that they shouldn't be given any, but let's face it: this kind of regional politics is pretty standard stuff.  It's hard to get too bent out of shape about it.

Except for one thing: it won't work.  The theory here is that giving away permits to coal-fired plants means they don't have to raise prices.  After all, the permits are free.  And this means that voters in the midwest and the south won't start hauling out their pitchforks and throwing out incumbents because their electric bills have gone up.

But guess what?  The electric utilities are going to raise their prices anyway.  Kevin Drum explains:

The economic theory involved is a little hairy, but those permits have a value on the open market, and that means that in many cases marginal producers can make more money selling their permits than by producing power. They'll only be willing to produce power if they can raise prices enough to make the power-producing business more profitable than the permit-selling business, and eventually everyone will jack up prices to follow suit.

This may sound abstract—even a bit fantastical—but it's absolutely real. In fact, when permits in phase one of Europe's ETS system were handed out for free, electricity prices rose and power companies pocketed a windfall profit (which Britain's Department of Trade and Industry estimated at about $1.1 billion a year in the UK alone). Dale Bryk, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), puts it bluntly: "If you ask them point-blank if they'll charge customers for free permits, they won't tell you. But they know they will."

If moderates were demanding free permits because they wanted to keep electric prices in their states low for a few years while they work on converting to new power sources, that would be one thing.  We could argue about whether it's a good idea, but at least it's normal, understandable stuff.  But that's not what they're doing.  Prices are going to go up regardless, and the free permits do nothing except provide windfall profits to operators of coal plants.  The moderates pushing this "compromise" either don't understand basic economics, in which they case they need to learn some, or else they understand it perfectly well and like the idea of screwing their constituents in order to provide a bonanza for coal plant operators.  In either case, yes, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.