Kevin Drum

Cellphone Companies Are Working to Track Your Every Move

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 12:48 AM EST

Your cellphone company knows what you did today—whether you want them to or not:

Verizon and AT&T have been quietly tracking the Internet activity of more than 100 million cellular customers with what critics have dubbed “supercookies”.... Consumers cannot erase these supercookies or evade them by using browser settings, such as the “private” or “incognito” modes that are popular among users wary of corporate or government surveillance.

....Privacy advocates say that without legal action, in court or by a regulatory agency such as the FCC or FTC, the shift toward supercookies will be impossible to stop. Only encryption can keep a supercookie from tracking a user. Other new tracking technologies are probably coming soon, advocates say.

“There’s a stampede by the cable companies and wireless carriers to expand data collection,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group. “They all want to outdo Google.”

Is there any hope for reining in this stuff? I'm pessimistic. The vast majority of users just don't seem to care, and even if they do, they can usually be bought off with something as trivial as an iTunes download or a $10 Groupon discount. On the flip side, the value of this data to marketers is enormous, which means it can be stopped only by some equally enormous opposing force. But what? Government regulation is the only counterweight of similar power, and there won't be any government action as long as the public remains indifferent about having their every movement tracked.

So this gets back to basics: How do you get the public to care? Business as usual won't do it. It's going to take something big and dramatic that finally crosses a line and starts to make people feel nervous. That hasn't happened yet, but it might in the future. Stay tuned.

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Arizona School District Cutting Contraception from High School Biology Text

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 8:48 PM EST

Via Steve Benen, here's the latest from Gilbert, Arizona:

School district staff here will "edit" a high-school honors biology textbook after board members agreed that it does not align with state regulations on how abortion is to be presented to public-school students.

....The book in question, Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (Seventh Edition), has a chapter that discusses abstinence, birth-control methods, tubal ligations and vasectomies and drugs that can induce abortion.

....The board made its decision after listening to a presentation from Natalie Decker, a lawyer for Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom....Decker did not recommend a way to change the book but said it could be redacted or have additional information pasted in. "The cheapest, least disruptive way to solve the problem is to remove the page," board member Daryl Colvin said.

This whole thing is ridiculous, and the prospect of taking a razor blade to p. 547 of this textbook is cringe-inducing. Hell, as near as anyone can tell, the book doesn't even violate Arizona law, which requires public schools to present childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion. Apparently there are just some folks in Gilbert who don't like having the subject presented at all.

Still, ridiculous as this is, I do have a serious question to ask. I checked, and this is not a "Human Sexuality" text or a "Health and Family" book. It's straight-up biology: photosynthesis, genes, evolution, eukaryotic cells, vertebrates, nervous systems, hormones, the immune system, etc. etc. So why, in a generic biology textbook, is there a special boxed page devoted to specific technical means of contraception in human beings? That really does seem like something pasted in to make a point, not because it follows naturally from a discussion of reproduction and embryonic development in class Mammalia.

So....what's the point of including this in the first place? To annoy conservatives? To satisfy some obscure interest group? If this book were used in a sex ed class, that would be one thing. It would clearly belong. But in a standard biology text? I don't really get it.

We Still Don't Have a Real Plan in Iraq

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 2:00 PM EST

In the LA Times today, David Zucchino takes a long look at the state of the Iraqi army, and he comes away pretty unimpressed. He begins with the collapse of two divisions during the battle for Mosul last June:

Shehab and others in his battalion describe Iraq's security forces as poorly led and sparsely equipped....Discipline is ragged, men disappear or go on leave at will, and commanders list "ghost soldiers" while collecting their paychecks, they said.

....The U.S. military has not explained how a few more months of "advise and assist" will create a functional army after years of training was followed by wholesale desertions in Mosul and in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad....Asked how many Iraqi security forces are combat-ready today, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg, said the command could not provide an estimate. He suggested asking the Iraqi army.

....Officers in one of many units that collapsed in Mosul, the 2nd Battalion of Iraq's 3rd Federal Police Division, said their U.S. training was useful. But as soon as their American advisors left, they said, soldiers and police went back to their ways. "Our commanders told us to ignore what the Americans taught us," Shehab said. "They said, 'We'll do it our way.'"

....Retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, in charge of Iraqi training in 2007 and 2008....estimated that up to 60% of the army could be combat effective if properly led and backed by U.S. advisors and airstrikes. But he questioned whether 1,400 advisors can reconstitute a badly fractured force in a matter of months.

"I don't know what they're doing, frankly," Dubik said of the advisors. "I see us as very slow on the uptake politically and militarily. Ultimately, we will need more advisors and trainers."

In a sense, there's nothing new in this report. But it underlines the fact that we've never been given even a remotely plausible plan for how our training mission in Iraq is supposed to work. Apparently that's because we don't really have one, and it's frankly unclear if even the military advisors who are doing the training really believe in their own mission.

It's a mistake to think of ISIS as some kind of superhuman force that inevitably destroys anything in its path. When all's said and done, it's still no more than ten or twenty thousand fighters taking advantage of sectarian divisions to assert tentative control over Sunni areas of Iraq. Nonetheless, we've seen this movie before in the mid-2000s, and it took years of effort—involving far, far more than 1,400 advisors—combined with the eventual revolt of Sunni chieftains to finally regain control of Iraq. And even that was temporary thanks to the unwillingness of the Iraqi leadership to make even a pretense of forming an inclusive government. Without a political reconciliation, it turned out that our military victories were hollow.

Apparently the air campaign against ISIS has been somewhat effective—if not at turning them back, at least at preventing their further spread. But a broader victory requires both the political compromise that evaded us last time, as well as a plan for rebuilding the Iraqi army. We should be very nervous when no one seems able to provide even some routine happy talk about how our 1,400 advisors are going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It's hard to see where this goes from here.

AP: Ferguson Flight Restrictions Aimed at Media, Not Public Safety

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 12:05 PM EST

Yesterday, after making a Freedom of Information request for audio recordings of FAA traffic managers in St. Louis, the Associated Press reported that flight restrictions around Ferguson during the Michael Brown demonstrations probably didn't have anything to do with police safety:

"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press....At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there."

....The conversations contradict claims by the St. Louis County Police Department, which responded to demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, that the restriction was solely for safety and had nothing to do with preventing media from witnessing the violence or the police response.

Police said at the time, and again as recently as late Friday to the AP, that they requested the flight restriction in response to shots fired at a police helicopter. But police officials confirmed there was no damage to their helicopter and were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed "rumors."

We are all shocked and surprised, aren't we?

Whatever Happened to Sharyl Attkisson?

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 10:47 AM EST

I don't want to belabor this, but I wonder if any of Sharyl Attkisson's friends can write something trying to explain to the rest of us what happened to her? As near as I can tell, she was a pretty good, hard-nosed investigative reporter for years. She didn't have any Watergates to her name, but she dug for stories that weren't widely reported and came up with angles that often embarrassed those in power. She was worth following.

And then came the age of Obama. Was this just coincidence? It's hard to say, since her unraveling seems to have started in 2011 with some absurd reporting about the link between vaccines and autism, which has nothing to do with politics. But it was a sign of something. Writing about the vaccine/autism link might have been defensible ten years ago, but by 2011, when she took it on, it was about as well debunked as astrology. It was purely and simply crank science, but Attkisson was apparently unable to recognize this.

Next up was Attkisson's reporting on the Fast & Furious scandal. Taken by itself, it was decent, hard-hitting stuff, if a little overwrought. But it also pulled her into the warm embrace of Obama's right-wing media critics, and that led her on a path straight to Benghazi, the black hole of right-wing conspiracy theories. At this point she seems to have gone completely down the rabbit hole, utterly convinced that something—something!—happened in Libya that the Obama White House was desperate to cover up. Her reporting became so detached from reality that eventually she left CBS News, convinced that the network was deliberately pulling its punches on topics like Benghazi and the initial Obamacare website fiasco.

With the upcoming publication of Stonewalled, her descent seems to be complete. She's now convinced that the Obama administration was so panicked about her Benghazi reporting that it hacked her computer, stole her passwords, and deleted her work files. Unfortunately, her claims are simply laughable. She describes problems that anyone with even a modest digital IQ recognizes as routine computer glitches. She makes claims about surveillance that suggest the NSA is less sophisticated than a bored teenager. She backs up her claims via interviews with shadowy sources who sound as if they were plucked from a bad Nicolas Cage movie. Finally, in the coup de grace, a few days ago she posted a video of her word processor going haywire. She thinks it's retribution from government hackers for her Benghazi reporting. But it seems far more likely that it's just a case of her Delete key getting stuck.

So what happened? Was Attkisson always on the edge? Or is this a genuinely bizarre case of Obama Derangement Syndrome taking over someone's life? There's a story here, but I can't tell if it's shameful or just sad. I'd like to know.

Conspiracy Theories and The Narrative: A Case Study in Iowa

| Sun Nov. 2, 2014 11:06 AM EST

Long-suffering centrist Norm Ornstein wants to know why the national media has ignored the outlandish tea-partyish views of Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate from Iowa. He thinks it's because reporters have already chosen a narrative for this year's campaign, and the 2014 version of The Narrative™ says that the GOP establishment finally vanquished the tea party this year after suffering through humiliating losses in 2012 by loons like Sharron Angle and Todd Akin:

The other day, The Washington Post carried a front-page profile of Joni Ernst by feature reporter Monica Hesse. The piece was particularly striking—a long, warm, almost reverential portrait of a woman candidate charming Iowans by doing it “the Iowa way”—no doubt, an accurate portrayal by a veteran journalist. Hesse did suggest, in passing, that Ernst has taken some controversial positions in the past, such as supporting “personhood,” but emphasized that she has walked them back. Not mentioned in the piece was Ernst’s flirtation with one of the craziest conspiracy theories, or her comments on dependency—or her suggestion that she would use the gun she packs if the government ever infringed on her rights.

....Of course, this does not mean that the press has a Republican bias, any more than it had an inherent Democratic bias in 2012 when Akin, Angle, and Mourdock led the coverage. What it suggests is how deeply the eagerness to pick a narrative and stick with it, and to resist stories that contradict the narrative, is embedded in the culture of campaign journalism. The alternative theory, that the Republican establishment won by surrendering its ground to its more ideologically extreme faction, picking candidates who are folksy and have great resumes but whose issue stances are much the same as their radical Tea Party rivals, goes mostly ignored.

There are several things going on here, all of them related:

  • As Ornstein says, once a campaign narrative gets locked in stone, it guides all subsequent coverage, regardless of whether it really fits all the facts.
  • For some reason, conservatives get a pass for holding wacky views unless they do it in a particularly boorish way (see Akin, Todd). When they chatter about, say, the Agenda 21 plot to take over our neighborhoods, it's taken as little more than a routine show of tribal affiliation, not a genuine belief in nutball conspiracy theories.
  • More generally, campaign reporters simply don't care about policy. It's boring, and anyway, commenting on it tacitly suggests that they're taking sides. So they write about it as little as they can.
  • The flip side of this is that campaign reporters are smitten with campaign strategy. Far from being disgusted by candidates who successfully hide their real views, they consider it a sign of savvy. Only bright-eyed idiots tell voters the truth about themselves.

And so we end up with puff pieces about Ernst's folksiness and repeated coverage of Bruce Braley's chicken battles. Agenda 21, personhood, privatizing Social Security, and other far-right hot buttons get buried by the simple expedient of Ernst refusing to talk to reporters about them and then being rewarded for it by reporters who admire her "control" of the press.

Obviously Ernst isn't my cup of tea, but if the citizens of Iowa want to send a right-wing loon to the Senate—well, it's their state. As long as they do it with their eyes open, they should go right ahead. But if they send a far-right loon to the Senate because they mistakenly think she's actually a cheerful, pragmatic centrist, that's not so OK. And if the press is helping her put over this charade, the press ought to take a good, long look in the mirror. They don't need to take sides, but they do need to tell the truth.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 31 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 2:02 PM EDT

I thought cats were supposed to get gradually calmer and more mature as they aged. Not these two. They're now 11 months old, and apparently they went nuts during my stay in the hospital. Now that I'm back, they're still going nuts. Every scrap of paper in the house has to be kept at least six feet off the ground or else it gets shredded. When does the calming down part start?

At the moment, I'd settle for training Hilbert not to leap on my stomach unexpectedly. This is not good for people with bad backs. It. Needs. To. Stop.

Left and Right Agree: Cat-Calling Is Menacing and Disgusting

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 1:56 PM EDT

A few days ago, anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback posted a YouTube video of a woman walking through Manhattan for ten hours and being subjected to repeated and demeaning cat-calls. So what did conservatives think of this? Here's Christine Sisto at National Review:

Most of the criticisms of this video are basically, “Since when is saying ‘good morning’ harassment?”.... The “harassment” comes from the intent. A woman doesn’t believe that a man genuinely wants to know how how her day is going when he shouts it at her as she walks by him on the street....Anyone with a modicum of common sense who watches the video can see that these men weren’t interested in wishing a random person a pleasant day.

....Whatever the cause of cat-calling may be, it should stop....A societal change is needed, one that can start with a guy not clapping his buddy on the back for telling some girl how much he enjoys her assets. Maybe, someday, we ladies can walk to work in peace.

Here's Jay Nordlinger:

Christine Sisto has written about “cat-calling.” I’m so glad she has tackled this subject — it’s important. I have witnessed cat-calling my entire life, as we all do. In the main, I have not found it innocent, sweet, and breezy, as in a Warner Bros. cartoon. (“Hey, toots! Nice gams!”) I have found it menacing, disgusting, and semi-assaultive.

And here's Jonah Goldberg:

I’d note that this practice pre-dates the rise of rap music by decades if not centuries or millennia. The issue isn’t race, it’s manners. Good manners are taught for the most part by good parents, good schools and good peers. I agree with Christine that Hollaback is spitting into the wind here. I also agree that catcalling should stop and that the only thing that can stop it is a societal change. But such a change would require a lot more than a few videos, no matter how viral. And it would also require the progressive Left to take on challenges much stiffer than bullying already well-mannered people to police their micro-aggressive grammar on elite college campuses or in obscure chatrooms. And that’s why I don’t think it will stop anytime soon.

Goldberg, unfortunately, simply can't pass up the opportunity to somehow shift the blame for continued cat-calling onto the PC left. That's shopworn and witless. But at least he's against it. On the whole, then, good for National Review for not pretending that cat-calling is yet another innocent bit of fun that humorless liberals are trying to deny the rest of us. It's disgusting and it should stop. At least we all agree about that.

Republicans Attack Democrats For Supporting Republican Demands

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

Getting deep into the weeds of local congressional races isn't my thing, but it's certainly been intriguing this year watching Republicans attack Democrats for being willing to accept Republican positions on various issues. Until now, the most egregious example of this came from Karl Rove's Super PAC, which has attacked several Democratic senators for supporting a plan to raise the retirement age of Social Security—an idea that Republicans have been promoting for years. Chutzpah!

But now we have a new contender in the sweepstakes for sheer partisan hypocrisy. Dylan Matthews tells us today that in Arizona a Republican contender is attacking Democrat Ron Barber for.... supporting a budget compromise engineered by tea party darling Paul Ryan.

The flyer, which apparently comes from the Arizona Republican Party, is on the right. Note the Arizona GOP's thundering denunciation of Ryan's "bone-chilling" budget, which "cut vital assistance programs." That's all true, of course, and many Democrats held their noses and voted for the deal. But there's no question that all the bone-chilling stuff came straight from the fever swamps of the Republican Party. They're the ones who refused to extend unemployment benefits and demanded cuts in food assistance.

We've heard a lot this election cycle about Democrats running away from President Obama. Are we now going to see stories about Republicans running away from Paul Ryan and his fellow budget ideologues? Probably not. But we should.

Democrats Like It When Forecasts Show Democrats Winning

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 9:59 AM EDT

Justin Wolfers shows us an intriguing example of confirmation bias today. It turns out that Leo, the New York Times election forecasting model, bases its forecasts on running hundreds of simulations and then taking an average. But readers who want to play around can go ahead and toss the dice themselves, generating their own random simulations. So what do readers do?

This is where confirmation bias comes in. If you’re convinced that the Republicans are going to win but your first two spins suggest a Democratic victory, you may feel deflated; perhaps you’ll spin again, in the hopes that you’ll finally get to see what a Republican victory looks like....85 percent of the time that your first two spins show a Democratic victory, you’ll keep spinning, perhaps hoping to see a Republican victory.

The same logic says that those who see the Democrats as likely to win are more likely to spin again after seeing the Republicans win in their first two spins, and once again, 85 percent of you do so.

Presumably readers are smart enough to know that these really are just random rolls of the dice that don't mean anything. Only an average of hundreds of simulations is meaningful. And yet, many of us play the dice-rolling game anyway. Why?

Properly speaking, I'm not sure this is actually confirmation bias. I suspect that partisans just want to avoid a feeling of hopelessness. Sure, the official results will tell them that, say, Democrats have a 34 percent chance of holding the Senate, and that should be enough. But it's not. Democratic partisans want to see the concrete possibility of a Democratic win. Rather than confirmation bias, this shows a human preference for examples vs. statistical forecasts.

Now, I'd expect that Democrats would do this more than Republicans. After all, if Leo says Republicans have a 66 percent chance of winning, that should make Republicans pretty happy. Why bother running even a single simulation that might spoil the good news? Unfortunately, Leo's data doesn't tell us if this happens, because it doesn't know who's a Democrat and who's a Republican. But I'll bet I'm right.