Archive for June, 2006
In a “sharp rebuke of President George W. Bush’s tactics in the war on terrorism,” the U.S. Supreme Court declared the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay unlawful.
“We conclude that the military commission convened to try (Salim Ahmed) Hamdan lacks power to proceed because its structure and procedures violate” the international agreement that covers treatment of prisoners of war, as well as the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court majority.
The President, who considers himself all powerful and above the law, said, “Screw You – we’re doing it anyway” and ordered the execution of all five justices who voted against him. Oh, no wait – that’s not right:
At the White House, Bush said he had not fully reviewed the ruling and would consult with the U.S. Congress to attain appropriate authority for military tribunals. “We take the findings seriously,” he said.
So am I the only one who sees the irony here? We are such lawless bastards that we threw these guys in jail with no trial, but then the judicial process back home got them in front of the SCOTUS twice – once to win their right to sue the government, and then again to have their trials declared illegal. Name me another country that policies itself so dilligently.
NOTE: Please spare me the standard Bush bashing on this. I’m talking about how our country responded, not the administration. I realize that this isn’t ideal – the prisoners’ victories are largely Phyrric, in that they sat in jail for two years while we worked all this out. I also realize that Bush’s comment above could be nothing more than words, and “consult with Congress” could be code for “put this in a drawer and never think about it again.” Also it’s very easy to say you’ll consult with Congress when your party controls both houses of Congress, and will likely pass a law saying, “the President can do anything the Supreme Court says he can’t do.”
BUT: It would be very, very difficult for us to continue holding the trials in Guantanamo, given this SCOTUS ruling. If we tried, the media (and a great many of our politicians) would be all over it and the administration would have yet another meal of “Egg a la face.” Also, if Congress passes a law on this, they’ve got to face their constituents in an election year, so whichever way that goes, there’s a better than average chance that the people will get their way. Also, this kind of thing puts us in serious danger of ignoring important congressional discussion topics like preventing flag burning, outlawing gay marriage, and evicting illegal aliens.
So there are plenty of upsides…
I got an e-mail asking me to register my blog at OyMap.com. It’s billed as a regional index of websites (in case you’re looking for websites published by people who live near you, I guess?)
The presence of “Oy” in the title, suggests it has something to do with Judaism, and that they probably found me because my last name is a common Jewish name.
In any case, it seems relatively harmless, so I gave it a shot.
Now you know. Moving on…
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on how SWIFT messages work, but I have worked with/for Wall Street firms for more than a decade, so I do know a thing or two about them. The more I read about this story, the more I am dumbstruck at the apparent lack of knowledge being displayed (or, as is more likely the case, ignored for political purposes). So, some facts that might help:
- A very large majority of banking institutions worldwide use the SWIFT network to send inter-bank messages. This is Metcalfe’s Law at work – the more people that use the network, the more valuable it becomes.
- Many financial institutions have invested money to build the SWIFT network, and each of them collects a portion of the fee that SWIFT charges for each message sent.
- Because of the above, most banks go through a process called Netting, in which transactions of the same type are added together (both positives and negatives to come up with the “net” value, hence the term), and the netted transaction is sent through the SWIFT message. This is what recent articles are talking about when they say “typical transactions between domestic banks are not in the database.” Simple cash or wire transfers between American banks can be netted down to minimize the SWIFT messages (and hence, the associated fees), leaving no record of the individual transactions in the SWIFT database. However, when someone is wiring a foreign currency to a middle-eastern country, for instance, the odds of being able to net that transaction on a given day are relatively slim, so the record is available for surveillance.
- Similarly, the account numbers contained in the SWIFT messages are typically not the customer’s account numbers, but the bank’s internal settlement account numbers. This is a little complicated, but it relates back to the netting concept described above. Basically, the bank balances each customer’s account of a given type (say US Dollar Cash Equities) against an internal account of their own, and then settles with other banks against that internal account. As above, this minimizes the number of messages traveling between banks, which minimizes the fees they pay. It also has the fortunate side effect of minimizing the amount of personal information available to anyone studying the SWIFT database. Unusual transactions (e.g., those in rarely used currencies or rarely used financial products) may have only one settlement account per customer account, or the bank may choose to do inter-bank settlement directly with the customer account number. Again, this wouldn’t affect a very large majority of Americans (or citizens of other countries, for that matter.
Based on the above, I think it’s fair to say that those calling this an “abuse of power” or an “invasion of privacy” are being somewhat disingenuous. The probability of personal information being present in this data decreases dramatically as the ubiquity of the transactions increase. In other words, the more common your banking business is, the less likely it will be available for “spying.”
It’s also a bit disingenuous to call this a secret. The 9/11 Commission Report makes several mentions of the US monitoring Al Qaeda’s money movements, and Al Qaeda’s attempts to foil them. For example, Page 171:
Al Qaeda frequently moved the money it raised by hawala, an informal and ancient trust-based system for transferring funds. In some ways, al Qaeda had no choice after its move to Afghanistan in 1996: first, the banking system there was antiquated and undependable; and second, formal banking was risky due to the scrutiny that al Qaeda received after the August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, including UN resolutions against it and the Taliban.
And this from Page 185:
The second major point on which the principals had agreed on March 10 [,2002] was the need to crack down on terrorist organizations and curtail their fund-raising.
The embassy bombings of 1998 had focused attention on al Qaeda’s finances. One result had been the creation of an NSC-led interagency committee on terrorist financing. On its recommendation, President [Clinton] had designated Bin Ladin and al Qaeda as subject to sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. This gave the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the ability to search for and freeze any Bin Ladin or al Qaeda assets that reached the U.S. financial system. But since OFAC had little information to go on, few funds were frozen.
In July 1999, the President applied the same designation to the Taliban for harboring Bin Ladin. Here, OFAC had more success. It blocked more than $34 million in Taliban assets held in U.S. banks. Another $215 million in gold and $2 million in demand deposits, all belonging to the Afghan central bank and held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, were also frozen. After October 1999, when the State Department formally designated al Qaeda a foreign terrorist organization, it became the duty of U.S. banks to block its transactions and seize its funds.
And one of the report’s 41 recommendations deals specifically with this kind of a program (Page 382):
Recommendation: Vigorous efforts to track terrorist financing must remain front and center in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The government has recognized that information about terrorist money helps us to understand their networks, search them out, and disrupt their operations.
This recommendation goes on to say that “The U.S. financial community and some international financial institutions have generally provided law enforcement and intelligence agencies with extraordinary cooperation, particularly in supplying information to support quickly developing investigations.”
Anyone who knows anything about the banking industry (and I think it’s safe to assume that Al Qaeda fits into that category) knows that the primary international financial institution referred to here is SWIFT. After all, there aren’t that many international financial institutions and SWIFT is far and away the largest and most popular.
Which brings me to another point – it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that this revelation will lessen or eliminate the effectiveness of the program. Al Qaeda has been seeking out non-SWIFT ways to transfer money between banks since before 9/11/01, but doing so severely limits their ability to transfer funds. In most cases, SWIFT is their only choice, and the knowledge that we’re monitoring those messages doesn’t help them in the least.
On a political note, I offer only this thought: The Bush administration has been criticized for doing too little to fight terrorism, for not having a plan, for being incompetent and disorganized, etc. As these secret programs are revealed – tracking of phone calls to foreign lands, data mining of all dialed phone numbers in search of patterns, and analysis of inter-bank financial data, aren’t the administration’s critics inadvertently providing rather compelling proof of a comprehensive strategy, formulated and put into action by the Bush administration just after the 9/11 attacks?
I applaud the diligence with which our civil liberties are protected, and would encourage healthy debate on the topic (although I don’t see what benefit is gained by divulging specifics such as the SWIFT network). Any national security measure, by it’s very definition, creates civil liberties concerns, and the fact that we spend so much time focused on these issues is part of what makes this country different from most others.
Those concerns aside, though, the existence of these programs suggest to me a concerted effort by our leaders to protect us – not just with words, but with actions as well.
I was on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center on 2/26/93 when the first bomb went off, and I was in 195 Broadway about two years later when some nutcase tried to blow up the subway with a mayonaise jar filled with gasoline. So it comes as no surprise that two weeks after my first visit to the Sears Tower, a group of terrorists got caught discussing a plan to blow it up. Not that I’m taking any of this personally or anything…
Apparently, these guys had “aspirations, but not the means” to pull off such an attack. They were caught when they approached an FBI informant who they thought was an AL Qaeda operative.
A few thoughts:
1) These guys weren’t necessarily all that dangerous (although they could have been if they had actually reached Al Qaeda), but we slam our intelligence agencies when they screw up, so it’s good to see them get a pat on the back when they nail something cold.
2) For those who believe privacy concerns have gone out the window, I believe this is the first time in history that an FBI director took time to explicitly state that “whenever we undertake an operation like this, we would not do it without the approval of a judge. We’ve got search warrants and arrest warrants and the like.” This is also a good thing.
Even now (4:15PM, EDT), it’s only the number two story, behind (another) scare story about (another) secret program to collect data about American citizens (this time, financial data). These stories, which are so full of news cataloging that they’re starting to look like they come from a template, are becoming more and more obscure and less and less relevant to the issue of privacy they supposedly address.
Of course, various Democratic congressmen and an ACLU official blindly condemmed the program as “abuse of power” and the like, while showing little or no knowledge of what the SWIFT network actually is. The Times, amazingly, did so little research on it, that it doesn’t even seem to know that it’s an acronym (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), and keeps spelling it in proper case (“Swift”).
Oh my God, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this until just now…
For a very, very long time, I’ve been having trouble using Outlook 2003 as a POP3 client for my Yahoo mail account. The replication would download everything in the Inbox just fine, but when it started to download the messages in Yahoo’s Bulk folder (the place where it puts potential spam), it would randomly fail with a mail server error (either 0x800CCC90 or 0x800420CD). The failure point was never predictable – sometimes it would fail on the first message, sometimes it would get through dozens of messages and fail then. Sometimes, I would simply click “Send/Receive” again, and the same batch of e-mail that generated the error would work fine. I even found that moving the mouse around or scrolling the scroll wheel while the messages were downloading helped prevent the error (maybe it had something to do with keeping the client side from going idle? I don’t know – it sounds strange to me, but I’m very sure it helped…)
This problem was particularly annoying because when the download doesn’t finish, Yahoo doesn’t delete the mail from the server. So if I walk away from my machine with Outlook running, and it has this problem after the 50th message, I might get 9 or 10 copies of those fifty messages on my hard drive. The only way to stop it was to go to the Yahoo Mail website and manually delete the already downloaded mail.
I spoke with Yahoo when it first started happening, and they sent me here and closed the support ticket. The problem is that this is a known bug with Outlook Express, not Outlook 2003. I tried the fix anyway, but to no avail.
So tonight, it hits me: the problem is only with the Bulk mail folder. For some reason, it never has a problem with the regular Inbox. So I shut off the Spamguard feature, which makes it send all the mail to the Inbox! Now, not only does the download work, but it goes faster than before, and there’s no scrolling or clicking required on the client end.
The problem remains unsolved, but it’s no longer my problem! Hallelujah!
Just to wrap-up the UK story:
Another successful day in the office. We split up at the end of the day, so I had to make my way back to the hotel, change clothes, and then head out to Picadilly Circus to meet a colleague for dinner. It’s amazing how 24 hours in a new city is enough to get you oriented. I was able to navigate the Tube (including adding money to my Oyster card and transferring lines halfway through the trip), and was able to walk around downtown London enough to find the hotel and Picadilly. Next time I’m there, it’ll take even less time to get my bearings, I’m sure…
As for the evening, we had dinner at a small Italian place right off Trafalgar Square (by the way, why is that one a square, while everything else is a circle/circus?) After that, we walked toward Buckingham Palace, and then down the Thames’ bank to see Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben, and the Millenium Eye. By the time we got to Big Ben, it had grown dark. IMHO, Big Ben’s much more impressive when it’s lit up at night. At any rate, it was great to see some of the sights before heading home.
And oh, by the way, for all the political bickering that goes on around here, there is still something indescribably comforting about touching down in the United States after having been away.
More goings-on from the UK:
We had a successful day at work, including navigating the commuter trains to & from the office. Here’s a neat fact, by the way: some of the commuter trains divide in the middle of their trips, with the first four coaches (cars) going to one destination and the second four going to another. So you can get on the right train at the right time and still wind up in the wrong place! This must be why Britons don’t fall asleep on commuter trains as often as Americans do.
Of course, they still haven’t solved the same problem we have in the States, namely: how in the name of all that is holy am I supposed to figure out if I’m in the first four cars? It’s not like I can get out of the train and count them. My only real option is to start walking forward until I’m either in the front car, or can see the front car from where I’m standing (i.e., the second car). If they’re going to make announcements like that, why don’t they just list the car numbers. And if they’re not going to list the numbers, why did they bother numbering the cars at all?!? <soapbox>
Anyway, after work, we grabbed some fast food and headed over to a stereotypical English pub to watch a World Cup Match (Brazil def. Croatia, 1-0). Great fun (and Guiness) was had by all. I know this isn’t really news to anyone (not even me), but these folks root for soccer teams like they’re the New York Yankees. I will admit, though, soccer is a whole lot more exciting when you’re in a room with a couple hundred drunk Europeans who are really excited about it.
Two folks asked me during the game if I was from Brazil. I guess my New Yawk accent is fading… ;-)
OK, so a quick summary of what I did today:
- Woke up at 6AM Eastern Daylight time.
- Went to work at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, across the street from NBC World Headquarters.
- Took a train to a plane to a train to a taxi cab and checked into the historic Langham Hotel in London at approximate 4AM EDT the following morning. Historic, by the way, is defined here as having many winding hallways between the eleva…oh, sorry – the lift and my room. I’m pretty sure I’ll never find my way off the third floor (which is really the fourth floor, since the lobby is “G”, not “1″) again.
- The Langham Hotel is across the street from BBC World Headquarters, so the whole trip is basically a tour of the world’s largest television studios.
Three interesting points about the cab ride:
1) The cabbie called me “governor.” I seriously thought they only did that in the movies.
2) A few blocks before my hotel, we drove past Baker Street. Yes, that Baker Street. According to the cabbie, 221b did not exist when Conan Doyle wrote the books, but the tourists started coming in search of it, so now there’s a small museum there with an English Bobby posted outside, just for the tourists to take pictures. The website contends that it was built in 1815, occupied by Holmes and Watson (two fictional characters) from 1881-1904, and is “faithfully maintained for posterity exactly as described in the published stories.” Tourists…
3) The cabbie also told me that BBC headquarters is where television was invented. Turns out he’s almost right. This was the site of the first mass broadcast, although the invention actually encompassed several people working over a number of years. Still, pretty cool…
I should also point out that this is the first post on this blog during which I’m really not sure if I Should Be Sleeping. On the one hand, it’s 5AM now, on the other hand, I took many small naps between the hours of 6PM last night and 2AM this morning, while flying over here. I’m not really tired, so I’m on the Internet instead of lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I guess I’ll know for sure by this evening, when I’ll probably wind up at some English pub watching World Cup socc…oh, sorry – football.
Goodb…oh sorry, Cheers! Man, it’s going to be a long couple of days…
Inspired by Jeff Porten, I finally went ahead and wrote the query to pull back search phrases people used to access this blog. I’ll try to check in once a month or so like Jeff does, so we’ll know what people are looking for (and what they’re actually finding). Anyway, let the fun begin:
- Billy Joel concert review (3 / 1,100,000)
- What prevents crime (4 / 7,590,000)
- bad billy joel songs (>100 / 2,510,000)
- microsoft outlook 2003 is not responding (>100 / 3,360,000)
- anna kornikova nude pictures (68 / 81,800)
- jeff porten (12 / 68,500)
- baby duck (7 / 1,140)
- grease platypus (>100 / 79,100)
- scotus interruptus (25 / 591)
- congressional decorum <>100 / 147,000)
- i’ll be watching you from above <>100 / 22,400,000)
- sleeping with someone (>100 / 26,100,000)
- is sleeping with your children ok (>100 / 10,900,000)
- leahy wiretapping (3 / 120,000)***
- embarrasing photos of people in their underwear (>100 / 25,000)
***: Jeff’s How people find me, May version, in which he points out that I “still kick [his] ass” on the “leahy wiretapping” query, now ranks #2, ahead of my post, which is #3. I’m sure that in a couple of days, this post will outrank his. So at what point are we just intentionally messing with the Google algorithm?
Well, it’s election time again and the conservative, Republican President has low approval ratings, so it must be time to talk about same-sex marriage again. Before we begin, let me establish two facts:
1) I don’t believe for a second that we’re discussing this in an attempt to change anything about the laws governing marriage or the U.S. Constitution. This is a political ploy intended to make the conservative base feel better about President Bush, who campaigned on this position in both 2000 and 2004. Since it really won’t affect public policy much and I disagree with his position, I’m more than happy to just hang around until the issue goes away.
2) I, personally, would be thrilled to see same-sex couples granted the full rights and privileges of marriage as it exists today in the United States. My thoughts below are more about what I think is the best practical approach to helping those who are disadvantaged by today’s laws. I do not presume to speak for these folks, and fully recognize their right to tell me to mind my own business and go away.
OK, now that we’ve covered that, here is what I perceive to be the problem: There are many different definitions of marriage in the United States today, and allowing same-sex couples the right to marry under one definition has significant implications under another. People for whom a given definition is prominent, therefore, see the objections of another group (who are using a different definition) as wrong-headed, bigoted, or hateful. In order to have a rational debate that might actually resolve some of the inequalities in the current law, it’s important to clearly delineate these groups and their definitions.
Clear as mud, right? Let me try some specifics. When my wife and I got married, I believe we did three things simultaneously:
1) We made a sacred vow to love each other for the rest of our lives, and to live our lives as partners in everything we do.
To some people, this concept, in and of itself, defines marriage. Note that it doesn’t require government or religious sanction. All it requires is two people who share a common definition of the word “sacred.” People in this group often say things like “Do we really need the piece of paper?” In doing so, they voluntarily opt out of the various benefits and protections afforded to married couples under state and federal law.
2) We participated in a Jewish ritual that has remained basically unchanged for thousands of years.
In the Jewish religion, this ritual actually involves the signing of two binding contracts. The Ketubah, written in the original Aramaic, which spells out the rights and responsibilities of a Jewish husband and a Jewish wife, and the Get, which is a sort-of Jewish pre-nuptual agreement, in which the husband promises to give the wife the religious equivalent of a divorce if the marriage should end (without it, according to Jewish law, the woman would be unable to remarry).
To some people, being married in the “Eyes of God” is of paramount importance. A Justice of the Peace wedding, to these folks, would not constitute a “real marriage,” despite its financial and legal implications for the couple.
3) We signed a binding contract with the State of New York and the federal government of the United States.
This document, called a Marriage License, entitled us to a Marriage Certificate. That certificate guarantees us various benefits and protections under U.S. law. It governs, among other things, the way in which we would inherit each other’s money and maintain custody of our children upon one of our deaths, our right to share health insurance, the way we pay our taxes, our ability to jointly own property (e.g., a home), and many other important domestic issues.
To some people, a legal marriage is of the utmost importance. In fact, many people dispense with any sort of religious ritual and get married in a courthouse by a Justice of the Peace (a government official).
I’m sure there are many other definitions of marriage, but let’s just examine these three for a minute.
Regarding #1, those who oppose same-sex marriage have long since lost the battle. Gay men and women have been living together as spouses for decades, and there is nothing anyone else in the world can do to stop them. This is such a universal truth that it is rarely argued in the debate over same-sex marriage.
Regarding #2, most of the world’s major religions define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This has been true for millennia, and quite frankly, I can’t imagine it changing now. I also suspect, although I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself, that most same-sex couples have strong disagreements with the major religions on homosexuality in general, and as such, don’t much care to have their marriage defined or blessed by a particular church/temple/mosque/etc.
Regarding #3, the laws in 49 of the 50 states (Massachusetts being the exception) provide these benefits and protections only to man/woman marriages, and deny them to same-sex couples that have the same kind of relationship. The effects of this situation can range from inconvenient (the need to explicitly adopt your spouse’s children) to tragic (the inability to inherit a spouse’s estate or collect his/her life insurance claim after an unexpected death, if proper documentation isn’t established beforehand).
When the political debate over this issue is conducted, it is my strong belief that the proponents of same-sex marriage argue for equal recognition under the law (definition #3), and the opponents argue that expanding the definition of marriage would violate God’s law (definition #2). The relatively low polling numbers for same-sex marriage and the relatively high numbers for gay rights suggest that many who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds would be happy to grant same-sex couples the benefits and protections that the law provides man/woman married couples.
One solution to this conundrum has been to create a new category under the law called “Civil Unions,” which could be granted the same rights and privileges as married couples, but leave the concept of marriage consistent with the prevailing religious views. Unfortunately, the term “civil union” has become synonymous with those that oppose same-sex marriage, and has come to be seen as the “not-really-a-marriage marriage,” calling up images of the “separate but equal” arguments that preceded the Brown vs Board of Education case in 1954. This turn of events, in my opinion, has cost many same-sex couples a legal avenue to secure the benefits and protections that they so desperately need and deserve.
So what’s left? Another option that has been kicked around in the blogosphere (and maybe elsewhere) is to eliminate the term “marriage” from U.S. law, and make it the exclusive purview of religion. In a sense, this amounts to converting all marriages to civil unions (in a legal sense). Couples could profess their undying love for each other by themselves (#1), get married in a church/temple/mosque (#2) and create a Civil Union in the eyes of the government (#3) to secure the above-mentioned rights. This, in my opinion, is a promising solution, but it does not come without it’s detractors. Those who are married in a civil ceremony, for instance. They consider their relationship a “marriage” today, and probably would not take kindly to being told they are not married, simply because they did not go through a religious ritual recognized as a marriage. There are also people who did go through a religious ceremony, but still see this plan as a lessening of their marriage in the eyes of the government, and therefore oppose it.
At the end of the day, the religious concept of marriage (#2) and the legal concept of marriage (#3) are two separate concepts. However, people view the laws of the land as a reflection of what our society accepts as permissible. Some religious people see a variance between the #3 definition and the #2 definition as a rejection of their religious principles by American society, and therefore oppose it.
This posture, coupled with the negative, “separate but equal” reaction to using a different legal term, creates a semantic paradox. And while it is semantic in nature, it is causing real financial and legal pain for thousands of couples across the country, and so it must be resolved.
I believe the solution lies in stressing the distinction between #2 and #3 above, and working in good faith to make both groups happy. This would involve either agreeing to separate terminology (with appropriate guarantees of equal protection) or agreeing to use the same term to refer to the different concepts, with broad understanding that a change in one does not imply a change to the other.
The current status of this debate – that of political football – erodes the likelihood of either scenario playing itself out and, as such, hurts Americans in very real and immediate ways.