My Raccoon Nemesis

One night last week one of our cats (Tweety) was outside late. I went out on the back deck and ended up face to face with a raccoon. I'm not sure which one of us was more scared. I went back out 10 minutes later and ran into him again and retreated inside without Tweety.

A little while later I heard what I thought was Tweety and the Raccoon in a fight to the death. I ran out to try to help Tweety and found him waiting at the back door totally unscathed and looking no worse for wear. He didn't even appear to have been in a fight.

The next day we found the raccoon in our back yard. My best guess is that Tweety spooked the raccoon and it fell off the deck.


Numerous calls to various town offices revealed that this is something "the man of the house" is supposed to deal with on his own. So I went out and dug a grave.

Burying something that was once alive, even if it did scare the crap out of me when it was, is a humbling experience.  It's physically hard work and it gives you time to think:

All I was trying to do was to clear a path for my cat to come inside. As scared as I was in doing so, it appears the raccoon was more scared, making me at least partially responsible for his death.  In the end he wasn't so much a nemesis as a hungry guy with strange eyes, looking for food on my back deck.

My encounter with this little guy is making me think twice about the power I wield day to day.  A smile here, a kind gesture there... I bet they go a long way.  Maybe even as far towards doing something good as the simple act of spooking a raccoon went the other way.

Saturday Night Live's Version of the Couric/Palin Interview

When SNL stops writing their own dialogue and nearly quotes your actual answer to a question on a $700 billion bailout, it's time to... It's time to... What exactly do you do with a person that is 36 days away from potentially being the VP of the United States and is so clearly out of her depth that you're afraid she might mistakenly push the button when she thinks she's ordering room service?

Google reader users will need to click through to the blog to see the video. It's worth it.

The near quote was at (time stamp 3:00 | 6:49 in the video below). Here's the actual footage where Palin gave that answer. The SNL clip would be way funnier if it were further from the truth.

First Kiss

IMG_3456 Tonight the kids were playing their favorite game "Tackle Daddy" on the living room floor.  It's kind of a rough game, and getting rougher as the boys get bigger. Even so, recently Allison has decided she's big enough to join in. She really seems to like tumbling around.

Eventually things got quiet as the boys started wearing down. We were all just laying there catching our breath when Allison leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

My first kiss.

Barack Obama's "Plan For Change" Message - I like it.

First some history: The past two weeks there have been a lot of attack ads on TV. Some from the McCain Camp have been staggering both in their falseness (read "outright lies") and in their sleaziness. I wrote about one of McCains nastier ads a few days ago.

Meanwhile, we're at war on multiple fronts, Texas is actually under water (think Atlantis), the economy is going in the crapper, and for some reason my tax dollars are still paying for oil subsidies even though oil companies are recording the largest profits ever recorded in the world.

That last one is more of a personal gripe, but otherwise we're talking about near cataclysmic events and McCain is campaigning by making up lies and calling his opponent names. For Bob's sake take about a real issue!

Well, today Barack Obama took out a 2 minute ad where he talks about what he's planning to do and invites people to read the details of his plan on his website. Here's the ad:

I like it! It's a start. It's not yet the level of debate we need, but it is a great first step towards talking about policy.

Puzzle Master

Puzzle Master

In the past few weeks Conner has a found a hobby.  Give him any wooden puzzle, and he'll put it together.  He just has a knack for it!

The other night we took out this new pirate puzzle. He just sat there, ate an apple, and put it together.  Happy as a clam...

Tomato Thieves

Alex's 5th birthday

I love tomatoes. Just add a little salt and pepper... Delicious! One of the perks of growing tomatoes in my garden is I get them all to myself. No one else in the house likes tomatoes.

Until this year...  My tomato plants were producing lots of fruit and I came home from work one day with a hankering for a treat.   I went out to grab a hand full of cherry tomatoes to find the plant totally barren.

Allison somehow explained to the boys that she liked tomatoes.  So Alex and Conner went out, picked the plant bare, and hand fed her every tomato.  Half of me is really glad the boys take care of her.   The other half wants his tomatoes back.

John McCain Has Redefined Sleazy

I've been trying really hard to focus on the positive aspects of the candidates I support rather than demonizing their opponents.  Demonizing is cheap, easy and while it may get you votes it hurts our country.

Personal attacks and fear mongering work because they engage to our more primitive nature. It this fight or flight nature that allowed us to evolve while other species died out.  They work because when we perceive danger we don't think we simply react. And that means we don't bother to think about policy or whether the danger is real.

So when I explain, in detail, how John McCain has redefined sleazy by fabricating lies and playing them on TV to scare parents of small children, I hope I provided enough detail that you're able to determine wether or not he's a complete scumbag. As of today I think he is.

Here's what happened:

This week Barack Obama began campaigning on his education policy. That is, he put forth the ideas for education policies he says he will support and his reasons for supporting them. He even talks about how he'll pay for them. You can take him at his word or be skeptical of his motivation as a politicion in the heat of a presidential campaign, but either way you can't deny that this is a policy discussion. And in my opinion one worth having.

John McCain ran the following libelous TV advertisement in response:

This ad, which is nauseatingly inaccurate, would have you believe at 3 things:
  1. Based on the imagery and music - Obama is missing a chromosome. 
  2. Based on the narrative - That Obama has accomplished nothing in his time as a Illinois State Senator or a US Senator other that a sex education bill.
  3. Based on the narrative and out of context news quotes - That Obama wanted kids in kindergarten to be forced to either watch "educational pornography" or learn to use contraception as part of a sex education class.
That last one sounds harsh, and maybe you can come up with some additional horrible interpretations, but no reasonable person can conclude that this ad was meant to do anything but make you think that John McCain's opponent wants kindergarten to know everything there is to know about sex.

And the thing is, it's not true. did an excellent job of debunking all the points and subtle messages in this ad. Every horrible scary bit of McCain's ad is false.

Bottom line:
  1. There was a sex education bill Obama voted for in the Illinois State Senate.
  2. By voting for it Obama did support age appropriate sex education for grades K-12.
  3. By voting for it Obama also supported letting parents opt out of having their kids in these classes.
In order to come to conclusions John McCain would have us believe, you'de have to dig up some very hard-to-find un-passed legislation from the Illinois State Senate, and then ignore  99.9% of the text (everything except the words "Sexual" and "K-12") .

McCain did exactly that, and then paid for that ad to run on TV in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin, as well as on the Discovery channel.  At the end of the ad he says "I'm John McCain and I approve this message."

So what John McCain really said is:
I, John McCain, made up a story about Barack Obama to make it appear that he's clinically retarded senator who's never accomplished anything and wants to turn your 5 year old into a sexual deviant. I'm John McCain and I approve lying to scare Americans into voting for me.

But lets be very specific. The legislation in question is SB0099 "An Act Concerning Education". McCain's ad takes the specific text, starting on page 9 line 21, out of context by specifically leaving out all of the words except "Sexual" and "k-12". Here's the exact text:
21        (105 ILCS 110/3) (from Ch. 122, par. 863)
22        Sec. 3.  Comprehensive Health Education Program.
23        (a)  The   program   established  under  this  Act  shall
24    include,  but  not  be  limited  to,  the   following   major
25    educational  areas as a basis for curricula in all elementary
26    and secondary  schools  in  this  State:  human  ecology  and
27    health,   human   growth   and  development,  the  emotional,
28    psychological,    physiological,    hygienic    and    social
29    responsibilities of family life, including sexual  abstinence
30    and   prevention  of  unintended  pregnancy  until  marriage,
31    prevention and control of disease, including age  appropriate
32    instruction  in  grades  K  6 through 12 on the prevention of
33    sexually transmitted infections,  including  the  prevention,
                            -10-     LRB093 05269 NHT 05359 b
 1    transmission and spread of HIV AIDS, public and environmental
 2    health,   consumer  health,  safety  education  and  disaster
 3    survival, mental health and illness, personal health  habits,
 4    alcohol,  drug use, and abuse including the medical and legal
 5    ramifications of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use, abuse during
 6    pregnancy,  sexual  abstinence   until   marriage,   tobacco,
 7    nutrition, and dental health.
And a bit further down on page 10:
14             (2)  All  course material and instruction in classes
15        that teach sex education and discuss sexual  activity  or
16        behavior shall be age and developmentally appropriate.

My son is 5 years old and started kindergarten last week. If what was suggested in McCain's ad were true I'd never let the school get near my son. But I've read every word of  SB0099 "An Act Concerning Education" and it's the policy I want my school to follow. It's a perfectly reasonable set of rules to follow to provide an age appropriate set of skills to kids in grade K-12. But you don't have to take my word for it, read it yourself!

And after you read it, watch John McCain's ad again and see if you hear him say what I heard.

I'm John McCain and I approve lying to scare Americans into voting for me.

I have lost all respect for McCain. He's running a criminally libelous campaign, in an effort to distract Americans from the fact that he is completely unwilling to have a policy discussion. My guess is he doesn't want to talk policy because he thinks he'd lose an actual policy debate. But unless he engages Barack Obama in an honest debate we'll never know.

I'm Paul Russell and I'm supporting Barack Obama for president because I think he'll do a good job based on his the types of bills he proposes (source), his proposed tax plan, his use and understanding of technology, his successful effort to make government more transparent, and his clear superiorority to any of his opponents when it comes to foreign policy judgment.

Figuring Out FISA - Part III - The Pride of Rube Goldberg

This is the last of three posts titled "Figuring out FISA". My look into what the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 means and why the US Senate voted for it. 

Part I covered the lead up to the 4th amendment.  Part II covered the lead up to FISA and the craziness that lead up to the FISA Amendment Act of 2008.

Our story picks up with a guy named Barack. He was (actually is) a Senator in the US Congress and the democratic nominee to become the 44th President of the United States of America.  Barack's message was one of hope and change and his supporters held him to a very high standard.

On July 9th, 2008 the US Senate passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and Barack voted in favor of it.  This made a lot of people very angry, and has been widely regarded as a bad idea.1

In order to understand Barack's reasoning and people's resulting anger we first need to look at the details of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

Rube Goldberg would have been proud of this legislation. It's so complicated it will make you weep.  The best analysis I found is in this post by Jim Burrows.  What I've gleamed from Jim and others is that the  FISA Amendments Act of 2008 basically did 10 things that fall into 3 categories:

Adds New Government Powers
  1. Permits the government not to keep records of searches, and destroy existing records (it requires them to keep the records for a period of 10 years).
  2. Prohibits the individual states from investigating, sanctioning of, or requiring disclosure by complicit telecoms or other persons.
  3. Removes requirements for detailed descriptions of the nature of information or property targeted by the surveillance.
  4. Increased the time allowed for warrant-less surveillance to continue from 48 hours to 7 days.

  5. Removes or Restricts Government Powers

  6. Requires FISA court permission to wiretap Americans who are overseas.
  7. Prohibits targeting a foreigner to eavesdrop on an American citizen's calls or e-mails without court approval.
  8. Allows the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them.
  9. Allows eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided the government files required papers within a week.
  10. Prohibits the government from invoking war powers or other authorities to supersede surveillance rules in the future.

  11. Telecom Immunity

  12. Retroactive Civil Immunity: Protects telecommunications companies from lawsuits for "'past or future cooperation' with federal law enforcement authorities and will assist the intelligence community in determining the plans of terrorists."
  *The majority of the above text was blatantly plagiarized from Wikipedia.

With the exception of the Telecom Immunity this legislation doesn't seem nearly as horrible as people have made it out to seem.  When I started reading it I was expecting 1984 but what I found was relatively superficial changes to the existing FISA law.  Where it really falls down is in the same place the Patriot Act fell down. It fails to put a reasonable set of checks and balances into the changes they make to address the technical challenges that have evolved over the last 30 years.

Failing to establish checks and balances can not be understated.  It's a really big problem and another step on the path to a 1984-esque world.   If I had to pick something to be mad about it would be the lack of checks and balances.  But that didn't seem to get many people's attention.  People basically focused on Telecom Immunity.

And that brings us back to Barack.

When Barack voted for the FISA Amendments Act of 2008  he enraged a lot of his supporters who felt that the Telecom Immunity was a huge mistake.   He made an attempt to respond to complaints but his response, thin on a description of the complexities of the legislation, did little to dispel peoples concerns about Telecom Immunity.

And so it was on this one issue, and without actually understanding the details of this Goldbergian-labyrinth of a piece of legislation, that most people gathered their virtual torches and pitchforks and let their wrath be known.  They felt angry and betrayed.

And that is where my story began.  I was sitting here, really pissed off, trying to figure out what happened. For a few weeks following the vote for the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 I was a member of the Get FISA Right Group and shared their anger.   

From my first post

... and I realized that I didn't actually know what I was talking about.  I had become convinced the statute was a bad idea and didn't understand what it did or why Obama and a majority of the Senate voted for it.  And yet I was against it...  Mad, but clueless; pretty much your average American.

I didn't like being clueless so I jumped into research mode and quickly found myself in a labyrinth of American history and legal ambiguity that gave way to a moderately informed opinion of the FISA Amendment Act of 2008.

So now that you have the back story of FISA here is what I think happened:

There are three theories as to why Obama voted for the legislation.
  1. Telecom Immunity: He actually wanted to get the telecoms immunity.
  2. Presidential Election Politics: Barack had been getting pummeled by his opponent on his ability to stand up to the terrorist threat. Voting for this legislation took away some of McCain's ammunition in that area. 
  3. Other: There was something else in the legislation that he determined important enough to compromise on the parts he didn't like.
Let's take them one at a time...

1. Telecom Immunity Support

Laurence Lessig wrote an blog post entitled The immunity hysteria providing an elegant explanation of why Telecom Immunity was not the issue. We both agree, but I'm no Lessig so my take is a little simpler.

Obama had consistently voted against Telecom Immunity in amendments to this legislation.  Using I attempted to determine if Obama was bought off by the Telcos similar to the majority of democrats in the house that changed their vote, but I didn't find anything useful. Obama doesn't take money from PACs (Political Action Committees) which is how they bought off the democrats in the house. If he did get bought off, I couldn't find it in the piles of presidential campaign money people were throwing at him at the time.

Regardless, the standard operating procedure for a Senator, who's vote isn't needed for legislation to pass and doesn't want to piss off his constituency, is to stay home.  Just don't vote.

The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 passed 69 to 28 in the Senate. It wasn't even close. Obama didn't need to vote "yes" and the legislation still would have passed.  He could have stayed on the campaign trail like McCain did, and tell his constituents he tried his best but he was completely outnumbered.

But he showed up and voted "Yes!" That says to me that reason #1 "Telecom Immunity Support" was not his reason.

2. Presidential Election Politics

Maybe... I'm speculating here, but it seems to me Obama did himself more harm than good by voting yes. He took a lot of heat before and after the vote from his own people and even voted counter to Hillary Clinton, who's supporters he's desperately trying to woo.  McCain didn't even show up!

Kieth Olberman disagrees on this point. He's of the opinion that:

  1. The legislation is fundamentally flawed and relatively harmless
  2. Obama had already paid the political price for the vote
  3. Voting might help deal with McCain attacks on Obama's stance on Terrorism.

Here's Keith Olberman's special message to Obama where he outlines his take on the situation.

As much as I'd like this not to be the case, there's really no reasonable way to suggest that presidential politics had nothing to do with Obama's vote.  Rather it's very likely the case that it was at least part of the reason for his vote.

Even so, when I ask myself how I might have voted there's another reason to consider a "Yes" vote.

3. Other: Limiting Executive Power

When I looked back at where FISA came from (George II, Writs of Assistance, The US Constitution The 4th Amendment, and Watergate) there was an undeniable relationship between the evolution of the laws and the increasing limit on executive power.

When I looked at the Patriot Act and the Unitary Executive claims that George the 43rd has used to systematically dismantle the Constitution the part that stood out more than any of the laws protecting citizens from their government was a simple fact:

All the laws in the world are mute if you have a unitary executive that can use claims of war to circumvent the laws.

And while constitutional lawyers labor long into the night arguing the legality of a Unitary Executive, the simple fact is there was no place in any of our laws that specifically said "No. The president can't claim war powers in order to circumvent surveillance laws."

Weaved inside the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 was item #9 from above. The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 prohibits the government from invoking war powers or other authorities to supersede surveillance rules in the future.

And there you have it.  A reason to consider a compromise.

Assuming that FISA needs technical updates, which it does, and the rest of the oversight is already broken, which the NSA wiretapping scandal proved, what is in this legislation that is actually worth trading every American's god given right to sue someone?

I'm not sure what I would have done if given the chance to trade Telecom Immunity for the ability to limit presidential power. 

In the end...

In the end it unfortunately doesn't matter. By the time I post this everyone will have forgotten about the FISA vote.  The government will continue being bought and at 8k per changed vote it's embarrassingly easy to buy them!   More importantly, the lack of oversight will allow the government to do whatever they want.

As for me, I've stepped back from being upset about the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and can't really find fault with Obama's vote.  Rube Goldberg would have been hard pressed to write legislation with more moving parts.  More importantly, I'm not sure I would have voted differently.

We live, at least in name, in a democracy that by its very nature it requires compromise.  While watching the Telecoms get their pants sued off sounds amusing, stopping a president from using war powers to circumvent privacy laws seems much more useful.  As for the rest of the provisions of the legislation, at best there's no change and at worst it's an incremental step towards a crappier system.

The big thing that changed for me in researching FISA is that I've become a stronger supporter of the Change Congress movement.  All of this FISA insanity is merely a symptom of a broken system.  We have a government that works for the highest bidder and until we deal with that problem by eliminating everything but public funding for elections all of this other stuff is just noise.

1. That sentance plagerized from Douglas Adams.

Allison at Story Land

While I was on a business trip in TX the kids went to Story Land again! Allison was rockin' the cute as usual.



Allison Tunnel