And Sure Enough, Things Got Worse

Posted by WiredSisters on March 17th, 2017 filed in Democracy, History


It was one of those poster people put up on their cubicle “walls.”  This one said, “They told me, ‘Cheer up.  Things could always be worse.’  So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse.”  It calls to mind some of the “centrist” blather about how liberals have been claiming ever since 1968 that the current GOP candidate (or incumbent) was the worst ever.  “Crying wolf,” they call it, and blame the liberals who engage in that kind of analysis for 45 getting elected.  I’m not quite sure about the logic of that last step.  But the fact is that, with the possible exception of Gerald Ford[1] and Bush Senior[2], every Republican president since 1968 has been the worst yet, until his successor came along.  Which is why I wince whenever somebody tells me 45 isn’t the worst imaginable.  No, he’s not, but he is definitely the worst yet, and just soothing ourselves with the notion that he isn’t the worst imaginable leaves us waiting anxiously for the next worst yet—Attila the Hun, perhaps, or Ivan the Terrible. Caligula? Nero?  For history buffs this is a really scary exercise.

To be specific, Nixon was a certifiable crook, and managed to leave the White House one step ahead of the sheriff.  But he made some good Supreme Court choices, and founded the EPA.  By the standards of today’s conservatives, he was a flaming liberal.   (So was Barry Goldwater, in 1964, by the way.  At least culturally.)

Then along came Reagan.  I am told that most people cut him a lot of slack because at least he had charm and charisma.  I think I was born with an inadequate supply of charisma receptors, because Ronnie never pushed any of my buttons.  But at least he cared whether people liked him.  And despite his tough talk about budget-cutting, his actual budgets weren’t all that bad (well, I worked at EPA for a couple of years of his administration, and it was kind of disheartening, but OTOH he never proposed obliterating it.)

Dole, who ran against Clinton in 1992, was at least a genuine war hero, and didn’t take himself too seriously.  Bush Junior was clueless, the spoiled son of a rich and powerful man.  He got us into what some analysts call a war of choice, which I prefer to call a recreational war. That was in 2003.  It’s still going on and has pretty much trashed the entire Middle East and North Africa.  But he has kind of improved with age, now that he is out of office. While he was in office, however, he was definitely the worst ever.  Until November 2016.

My point is that characterizing each new GOP candidate or incumbent as “the worst ever” was not “crying wolf.”  And insisting that the current GOPnik isn’t the worst imaginable is just asking for the next one to be worse.  This is helpful only for writers of dystopian sci-fi, and only for so long as they are allowed to keep writing.

[1] Ford was a decent and relatively unambitious president, who paid serious attention to cleaning up the mess after the Vietnam War, and pardoned many of the resisters.

[2] Bush Senior, when he wasn’t selling his soul to the Religious Right, took his obligations of service to the voters seriously.  His conduct of the Gulf War was remarkably sane.  He took the advice of his senior military advisers, especially Powell.  If this seems like faint praise, that’s only because at the time, we didn’t realize how much worse a president could be.

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John Bellinger, at Lawfare Blog, on why Gitmo was opened and why it should be closed

Posted by Sappho on March 13th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary


Guantanamo Redux: Why It was Opened and Why It Should Be Closed (and not Enlarged)

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More on Wikileaks and the CIA

Posted by Sappho on March 13th, 2017 filed in Computers, News and Commentary


My early political awareness was shaped by the Church Committee hearings, in the wake of the Nixon Administration, on the activities of US intelligence agencies. The NSA and the FBI spying on Martin Luther King. The CIA engaging in weird assassination plots against Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Etc. I get the mistrust of US intelligence agencies. Some wariness of intelligence agencies is justified. For any government. If you have a group of people who do things in secret, it’s tempting to use them to do things that you want kept secret, not only from foreign powers, but from your own population. It’s important, for any country, to watch, and regulate, the watchers.

But there are a couple of things to remember, here. First, governments do have legitimate reasons for secrecy. Diplomacy, with all of its boons to peace, can’t easily take place if governments can’t have enough secrecy to allow negotiations to take place, and frank evaluations of foreign governments to be supplied to our own government. Second, though intelligence agencies can be abused, their fundamental purpose – supplying our government with information to guide our foreign policy – isn’t intrinsically wrong. Third, we do have laws restricting what our intelligence agencies can do. These include, for instance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, written to stop the domestic surveillance abuses exposed by the Church Committee. Before we assume our intelligence agencies are breaking these laws, maybe a little evidence? Rather than taking for granted that of course any technology that’s been developed for use against foreign adversaries is also employed against our citizens?

Finally, Wikileaks has some reliability issues. And here I come to today’s link on Vault7, Nicholas Weaver’s post at Lawfare Blog, How Wikileaks Hacked the Media. An excerpt:

Wikileaks actually has a very strange track record of credibility. There is no indication yet that they have deliberately manipulated documents (apart from one case of suspicious exclusion) and, more surprising, no indication that someone else has successfully tricked them into distributing false information. Wikileaks relies on this, as it means that the press will trust the content. Yet Wikileaks’s own statements are rightly viewed as completely untrustworthy.

Consider Wikileaks’ framing of the claim that “the CIA had 24 “weaponized” Android “zero days.” A study of the actual document in question shows that most exploits target old Android: version 4.4 or earlier, which was considered insecure back in 2016 when these documents were stolen. Old Android doesn’t meet the security requirements of a teenager, and to claim that such exploits are weaponized zero-days is patently false. One of the claimed “zero-days” targeted Android 2.3.6, a version dating back to 2011!

By dumping a massive amount of data at once, Wikileaks simply overwhelmed the press and ensured that reporters couldn’t process the data….

This is a pattern with Wikileaks. Their document dumps appear to be generally accurate. But their descriptions of what their documents show are often way off the mark. And because the dumps are so large, and hard to process quickly, often what hits the news is Wikileaks’ version of what the document dump says, not what it actually says.

Consider the claim that CIA malcode reuse is a “false flag” that allows them to impersonate Russia. As Weaver points out in the post linked above, and as others have pointed out, UMBRAGE does no such thing; it’s a library to allow the efficient reuse of code, with programmers following the time honored programming technique of learning from others. And consider that Wikileaks, which is now suggesting that the CIA hacked the DNC as a false flag operation to pin on Russia, previously insisted that the same operation was carried out by a lone Romanian hacker, and then that it was an inside operation, where Sidney Rich leaked the data and then got killed by Hillary Clinton. Come on, Wikileaks, it can’t be all three!

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Cancer Moonshot

Posted by Sappho on March 12th, 2017 filed in Health and Medicine


Today is the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. At this time, I remain cancer free. I am grateful to the doctors and nurses who treated me, and to the medical researchers who developed my treatments.

Today, also, Joe Biden spoke at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas about the Cancer Moonshot. Here is his whole speech.

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On #askWL

Posted by Sappho on March 10th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary


Julian Assange is (or was, I haven’t checked whether it’s now happening or just happened) live streaming something or other. There’s an associated Twitter hashtag, #AskWL, with questions friendly and hostile. I find it darkly amusing. For instance, among the tweets with the #askWL hashtag, I find this gem:

No way @POTUS44 Obama didn’t know about massive @CIA hacking/spying!

Um, yeah. The CIA is the Central Intelligence Agency, an agency that exists for the purpose of spying. There is no way Obama didn’t know that the CIA did a whole bunch of spying. Likewise, there is no way that George W. Bush didn’t know. Or that Clinton didn’t know. Or that George H.W. Bush didn’t know. Or that Reagan didn’t know. Or that Carter didn’t know. Or that Ford didn’t know. Or that Nixon didn’t know. Or that Johnson didn’t know. Or that JFK didn’t know. Or that Eisenhower didn’t know. Or that Truman didn’t know.

FDR, though, knew nothing of CIA spying. But only because that same spying was at the time being done by the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services.

Was it supposed to be a brand new revelation that spying now also involves computers and smartphones?

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More #Vault7 links

Posted by Sappho on March 9th, 2017 filed in Computers, News and Commentary


Sean Gallagher at Ars Technica on the CIA and geek culture:

There are lots of technical details on the Central Intelligence Agency’s software development process for espionage tools in the documents dumped by WikiLeaks earlier this week—many of which we’ll take a closer look at over the coming days and weeks as even more documents are published. But there’s one thing that’s immediately clear from perusing the personal pages of CIA Engineering Development Group software developers that were included in the dump: they are like the rest of us in tech. The liberal use of Internet memes, animated GIF images, as well as gamer- and pop-culture references sprinkled throughout the serious business of building software to support CIA’s espionage mission makes this leak look like a peek inside any random development team’s internal Wiki….

Joseph Cox at Motherboard on a new Rand study of zero day exploits:

But one crucial thing has been missing from the zero-day debate: data. Now, a new study from the RAND Corporation aims to change that by using details on over 200 zero-day vulnerabilities, and tries to shine light on questions such as how long zero-days remain undetected, or what percentage of them are discovered by more than one party.

According to the report, the dataset spans some 14 years, from 2002 to 2016, and over half of the vulnerabilities included are still unknown to the public.

The first major finding is that the average life expectancy of a zero-day exploit and its underlying vulnerability is fairly long: 6.9 years, or 2,521 days.

A quarter of the vulnerabilities do not survive to a year and a half, the report continues, and another quarter live for over nine and a half years….

Krebs on Security has a detailed analysis of what’s in this Wikileaks dump:

Some of the exploits discussed in these leaked CIA documents appear to reference full-on, remote access vulnerabilities. However, a great many of the documents I’ve looked at seem to refer to attack concepts or half-finished exploits that may be limited by very specific requirements — such as physical access to the targeted device.

The “Weeping Angel” project’s page from 2014 is a prime example: It discusses ways to turn certain 2013-model Samsung “smart TVs” into remote listening devices; methods for disabling the LED lights that indicate the TV is on; and suggestions for fixing a problem with the exploit in which the WiFi interface on the TV is disabled when the exploit is run.

ToDo / Future Work:
Build a console cable

Turn on or leave WiFi turned on in Fake-Off mode

Parse unencrypted audio collection
Clean-up the file format of saved audio. Add encryption??

According to the documentation, Weeping Angel worked as long as the target hadn’t upgraded the firmware on the Samsung TVs. It also said the firmware upgrade eliminated the “current installation method,” which apparently required the insertion of a booby-trapped USB device into the TV.

As limited as some of these exploits appear to be, the methodical approach of the countless CIA researchers who apparently collaborated to unearth these flaws is impressive and speaks to a key problem with most commercial hardware and software today: The vast majority of vendors would rather spend the time and money marketing their products than embark on the costly, frustrating, time-consuming and continuous process of stress-testing their own products and working with a range of researchers to find these types of vulnerabilities before the CIA or other nation-state-level hackers can.

Krebs’ post also supplies links to other analyses, of which I am stealing a few (I owe all the links below to Krebs):

Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg, in Wikileaks’ CIA Revelations Look Like a Dud for Now, writes

… If you didn’t know before that spy agencies could apply these tools and techniques, you’re naive, and if you think it undermines the attribution of hacker attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other targets, you’ll be disappointed.

There is little content in the dump to support these panicky reactions. Nothing in it indicates that the CIA has broken messenger encryption, as Open Whisper Systems, the software organization responsible for Signal, has been quick to point out. The CIA can only read messenger communications if it plants malware on a specific phone or computer; then it can harvest keystrokes and take screenshots. This is not about mass surveillance — something that should bother the vast majority of internet users — but about monitoring specific targets….

Some of the vulnerabilities probed by the CIA were in Cisco routers, which carry a lot of the Internet’s traffic.

Craig Dods, a researcher with Cisco’s rival Juniper, wrote an analysis of the Cisco bugs, but, between the time Krebs read the LinkedIn post and the time I got to it, all the technical details had been removed (I’m guessing that lawyers were involved, whether in Juniper’s legal department or in Cisco’s).

A Cisco blog post reports

Since none of the tools and malware referenced in the initial Vault 7 disclosure have been made available by Wikileaks, the scope of action that can be taken by Cisco is limited. An ongoing investigation and focused analysis of the areas of code that are alluded to in the disclosure is underway….

An preliminary analysis by Cisco of the disclosed documents follows; as a software quality assurance professional, I was particularly interested in:

It would also seem the malware author spends a significant amount of resources on quality assurance testing – in order, it seems, to make sure that once installed the malware will not cause the device to crash or misbehave.

Oh, that sounds like a fun job! Hey, CIA, if you want someone to test your spy malware to make sure it doesn’t cause devices to crash or misbehave, I’m currently in the market for a job. Just look me up on LinkedIn and send me an InMail.

(OK, not seriously planning to work for the CIA. Among other things, I expect to be employed again at a job I like long before anyone at the CIA is likely to notice this post. But, from the point of view of sheer fun, testing CIA malware does have a certain appeal.)

Finally, we have this interesting extended conversation, at the CIA, of how to learn from the NSA’s mistakes: What did Equation do wrong, and how can we avoid doing the same?

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A round up on #Vault7

Posted by Sappho on March 8th, 2017 filed in Computers, News and Commentary


Wikileaks has a habit of making dumps of data that are in one sense significant and informative, and in another sense overhyped. Consider even CableGate. Huge that Chelsea Manning got all of those State Department cables to Wikileaks. But advertised with a sense of “now you can see the underhanded doings of the US government” that didn’t hold up when you actually read the cables. And I did – the colorful account of the Caucasus wedding, the doubts about Turkey. I read some of the cables on Wikileaks, and others in Wikileaks’ then partners, the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. I even struggled with my meager French and Spanish (much less serviceable than my German) to read bits and pieces in Le Monde and El Pais. I read reactions in Greek and Turkish papers (as you might expect, the Hurriyet Daily News followed the story closely), and in the various African papers aggregated at AllAfrica.com. And, yes, the cables were revealing. But what they mostly revealed was US diplomats properly doing their jobs (which, along with help to US citizens and negotiation with foreign governments, do include giving the State Department frank accounts of what is going on in other countries, so that our government’s policies can be well informed).

I do sympathize with Chelsea Manning, vulnerable and brave, the victim of bullies sensitized by her experience to the suffering of the victims of war. As someone who once held a security clearance, there is no way I’d have done what she did, and I judge her leak to go way beyond reasonable whistle blowing (there are legitimate reasons for diplomats to send the kinds of confidential communications that were leaked, and there was a real cost to these leaks). But she seems to have overreached with the best intentions, and I’m glad Obama pardoned her and that she didn’t serve her full term. (And there’s a whole other post I could write about some of the overreactions to CableGate, such as the e-mail warning students at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs to refrain from accessing WikiLeaks cables. The fact that the government had legitimate concerns about the damage done doesn’t make all the responses right.) My point is, even when a Wikileaks story is genuinely newsworthy, they’re often not quite the dragon slayers they make themselves out to be, and at least some of what they reveal is people doing their jobs, according to the policies that we more or less already knew were in place. Email dumps about Hillary show her in favor of free trade? Imagine my surprise! We already knew that she was for free trade before she became, of political necessity, a TPP skeptic.

There are plenty of criticisms that people can make of US State Department policies. And plenty of criticisms that people can make of Hillary. But, if you actually read the documents, you find that the criticisms to be made after reading them are generally the same criticisms you’d make before reading them, that people are surprisingly close, in secret, to what you’d have expected of them from what you knew of them in public.

So it is with #Vault7. The fact that someone got, and leaked, this secret CIA cache is huge. But just what does the dump tell us? And what, that you might have believed from a cursory glance at Twitter, turns out not to hold up?

And here, after my long-winded preamble, I get to my round up.

Errata Security corrects some misconceptions about the CIA hacking tools in question.

The CIA didn’t remotely hack a TV. The docs are clear that they can update the software running on the TV using a USB drive. There’s no evidence of them doing so remotely over the Internet. If you aren’t afraid of the CIA breaking in an installing a listening device, then you should’t be afraid of the CIA installing listening software.

The CIA didn’t defeat Signal/WhatsApp encryption. The CIA has some exploits for Android/iPhone. If they can get on your phone, then of course they can record audio and screenshots. Technically, this bypasses/defeats encryption — but such phrases used by Wikileaks are highly misleading, since nothing related to Signal/WhatsApp is happening. What’s happening is the CIA is bypassing/defeating the phone. Sometimes. If they’ve got an exploit for it, or can trick you into installing their software….

There’s no false flags. In several places, the CIA talks about making sure that what they do isn’t so unique, so it can’t be attributed to them. However, Wikileaks’s press release hints that the “UMBRAGE” program is deliberately stealing techniques from Russia to use as a false-flag operation. This is nonsense. For example, the DNC hack attribution was live command-and-control servers simultaneously used against different Russian targets — not a few snippets of code….

Etc. Check out the linked post for lots more.

Bruce Schneier writes

If I had to guess right now, I’d say the documents came from an outsider and not an insider. My reasoning: One, there is absolutely nothing illegal in the contents of any of this stuff. It’s exactly what you’d expect the CIA to be doing in cyberspace. That makes the whistleblower motive less likely. And two, the documents are a few years old, making this more like the Shadow Brokers than Edward Snowden. An internal leaker would leak quickly. A foreign intelligence agency — like the Russians — would use the documents while they were fresh and valuable, and only expose them when the embarrassment value was greater.

Nick Weaver writes at Lawfare Blog

The story here isn’t that the CIA hacks people. Of course they do; taxpayers would be right to be annoyed if that weren’t the case. The CIA’s job, after all, is collect intelligence, and while its primary purview is human intelligence, hacking systems interacts synergistically with that collection. The actual headline here is that someone apparently managed to compromise a Top Secret CIA development environment, exfiltrate a whole host of material, and is now releasing it to the world. The compromise appears to have occurred in February or March 2016.

The dump itself is mostly developer notes and Wiki-type contents, probably from a private Atlassian development coordination server based on automatic-text in a PDF. It describes a large variety of tools targeting a whole host of platforms, ranging from Cisco routers to iPhones to Samsung Smart TVs. Technically, there really are no big surprises; these are all systems we would expect the CIA’s hackers to target.

Herb Lin, also at Lawfare Blog, adds

First, I echo Nick’s observation that it’s hardly a surprise that the CIA has a bunch of its own hacking tools. Indeed, if they didn’t, I’d say someone ought to be fired.

Nothing in the documents suggests how, if at all, any of them have been used. In particular, nothing released as yet indicates they have been used against Americans. And it’s the CIA’s job to gather intelligence from non-Americans. Whether you think that’s a legitimate mission is an entirely different issue than the release of the Vault7 documents.

The Wikileaks press release says that the CIA hoarded vulnerabilities rather than disclosing them, and thereby compromised the security of the affected devices. No evidence has emerged that the CIA planted vulnerabilities, so in fact, the actor most immediately responsible for compromising the security of the affected devices is Wikileaks itself….

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The difference between Yes, Minister and the derin devlet

Posted by Sappho on March 6th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary


“Deep State” is a translation of the Turkish term “derin devlet”; in Turkey it refers to a shadowy group of non-democratic individuals who formed a state within a state (including the occasional military coup). “Yes, Minister” is a satirical British show (with a sequel, “Yes, Prime Minister”) about the interaction between an elected official and the civil service. What people have recently been calling the “Deep State” in the US is more “Yes, Minister” than “derin devlet.”

Claire Sadar, co-editor of Muftah’s Iran, Iraq, and Turkey pages, writes in What Is the “Deep State” and Does America Have One?

… the “deep state” is a misnomer when it comes to describing the phenomenon being witnessed in the United States. As Nate Schenkkan, an expert on Central Asia and Project Director at Freedom House succinctly stated, “it is not a deep state if everyone involved is a government official.” It is also incorrect to use the term “deep state” if the only weapon being wielded against the government is information. Information can topple a regime, but only if democratic institutions, the press, and civil society are functioning properly.

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Samantha Power’s tribute to Vitaly Churkin

Posted by Sappho on March 1st, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Peace Testimony


As my friend Cheryl Rofer puts it, “This is how professionals interact.”

I’ve been clear that I don’t want Trump’s version of a Russia reset, one where the one constant in his changeable foreign policy appears to be a Russia policy that does more or less whatever Putin wants, and where that friendliness toward Russia appears to be motivated more by Trump’s interests (his susceptibility to flattery, his appreciation for Putin’s help with the election) than our country’s interests. Nor am I fond of the Russia friendliness of those among Trump’s associates who seem to see in Putin some great savior of white Christendom.

But I do respect the work of diplomats, among my country’s rivals as well as among my country’s allies, to find peaceful solutions. As Samantha Power puts it,

I was America’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 2013 until President Trump took office, and over the last few years I was probably Ambassador Churkin’s most visible foe. He faithfully defended President Vladimir V. Putin’s deadly actions in Ukraine and Syria.

At the same time, Vitaly was a masterful storyteller with an epic sense of humor, a good friend and one of the best hopes the United States and Russia had of working together. I am heartbroken by his death.

Vitaly Churkin, RIP.

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On the travel ban, an intelligence report, and responses by Foreign Service officers and international affairs scholars: links

Posted by Sappho on February 25th, 2017 filed in Blogwatch, News and Commentary


From the Wall Street Journal: Donald Trump Rejects Intelligence Report on Travel Ban

The report, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, came from Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. It said that its staff “assesses that country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” …

“The president asked for an intelligence assessment. This is not the intelligence assessment the president asked for,” a senior administration official said. The official said intelligence is already available on the countries included in Mr. Trump’s ban and just needs to be compiled.

From Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey at Lawfare Blog, Memo to the NSC: Check Out Some Databases at the State Department before Finalizing that New Executive Order

We received this morning an extraordinary message from a group of Foreign Service officers.

… inquiry from a Foreign Service officer who has done consular work abroad. Writing for a small group of three other colleagues, this individual begins by noting Lawfare’s prior “advice for civil servants about the ethics of service under the Trump administration” and goes on to seek out ethical advice about how to best handle certain specific concerns facing Foreign Service officers. Namely, this group is worried that the rollout of the executive order on immigration—both the initial order and the forthcoming substitution—is taking place without consideration of important, available data.

This email was triggered in part by a report I read today on CNN.com, which details the White House’s efforts to collect evidence that the seven countries named in the original E.O. have “all been exporters of terrorism into the United States.” We have questions about whether the administration analyzed records from the State Department or other agencies prior to forming this immigration policy. If those records have not been analyzed, that would tend to support the concerns voiced by intelligence officials in this article, who suggest the administration is seeking evidence to justify its policy, rather than crafting policy based on all available evidence. There is of course lots of sensitive data that is held within the federal government. But there is no need to even discuss that in order to illustrate the hypothesis that not all relevant government-held data is being consulted in the E.O. drafting process. There are plenty of databases the fact of which are matters of public record which represent at least the surface of what the Administration should be considering here.

More at Lawfare Blog.

Charli Carpenter at Duck of Minerva posts an open letter from international affairs scholars, We Have Studied the World. President Trump Should Too.

Recently, President Trump tweeted that people should “Study the world!” to understand his foreign policy. As scholars of international relations, we have studied the world, and we are concerned that the actions of the President undermine rather than enhance America’s national security.

… But our knowledge of global affairs, based on history, scientific fact and experience, tells us that many of the policies Trump has undertaken thus far do not advance these goals. Instead, they have made Americans less safe.

First, the President presented his temporary travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations (and all refugees) as a measure to protect the US homeland from terrorist attacks. Yet this move will make our country less safe, not more. First, the vast majority of terrorist attacks on US citizens come from “home-grown” terrorism and are carried out by non-Muslims: the ban does nothing to address this. Second, countering transnational terrorism requires transnational coordination, and this ban impedes our ability to coordinate with our allies abroad. Finally, studies show terrorists are strengthened when governments over-react: indiscriminate intolerance feeds radicalization by driving moderates into the arms of radicals. We are confident the travel ban will likely reinforce anti-American sentiment and strengthen terror networks while weakening US intelligence capacity.

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Gene of the day: DRD4

Posted by Sappho on February 18th, 2017 filed in DNA, Genealogy


Now that I have mapped, in at least some cases, from which grandparent I and other family members have inherited particular segments of DNA (I may explain how this is done in another post), I have been having fun seeing which genes I may have inherited (one copy at least) from particular ancestors.

Usually this takes me to genes whose function is a little obscure to me, though my mother may, when I supply her with the information, be able to make more of the gene. For instance, I have determined that my mother inherited her copies of the RYR3 (Ryanodine Receptor 3) protein coding gene from her mother’s father and her father’s mother, while her brother inherited his copies from his mother’s mother and his father’s father. This gene affects the release of calcium from intercellular storage. My mother knows all about such things, but I, as a simple computer geek, do not.

DRD4, though, is a gene whose possible function is more accessible to lay people, since it’s one of the few genes possibly associated with a personality trait. But I have to put a bit of emphasis on possibly. In the first place, we have to remember that personality traits, even if partly genetic, also have a heavy environmental component. Besides this, it seems that the evidence isn’t entirely in on the effects of this gene; here is what a 2002 article by Beth Azar found at the APA web site has to say:

Finding any real “personality” genes is decades away. But researchers have a good start….

To date, there are only two real candidate genes that anyone speaks of with any confidence. The first potential link is between some behaviors related to the Big-Five trait novelty-seeking and a gene that produces the protein responsible for creating a dopamine receptor called DRD4. While some studies have failed to replicate this connection, others have identified a link between the DRD4 gene and other traits linked to novelty-seeking, such as drug abuse and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The indication is that this gene–or perhaps some other gene related to it–may influence all these interrelated characteristics.

So, I can’t be sure whether my DRD4 gene influences my novelty-seeking or lack thereof (though it’s apparently a more likely link than for most candidate personality genes). But I do know where I got one of my copies of DRD4, for this is a segment that I have mapped.

I inherited my maternal copy of my DRD4 gene from my great-great-grandmother Hannah Burton, who was born in Lancashire, England, married a barrister named James Gooden, and followed him first to South Africa and then to California.

Perhaps, then, I owe a tiny bit of my personality to her.

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what goes around comes around

Posted by Topaz on February 12th, 2017 filed in Uncategorized


If all undocumented farmworkers in California were deported, the crops will not be picked. If the crops are not picked then the farmers will have financial problems. If the farmers have financial problems then they will charge more. If the farmers charge more then the people who are so concerned about undocumented workers are taking jobs away from US citizens will pay more for food. If they need to pay more then they will complain about prices,

Perhaps they will be angry at the state of California. Trump said the state was “out of control”. Will this be used are another reason for antagonism?

Then again, the oraville dam is flooding. Some residents of Oroville ave been told to evacuate. Te dam isunder the supervision of the Army Corp. od Engineers. Some dams in California are under sttate controll and some are Army Corp. of Engineers. I understand that at least one engineer said that it did not matter wat they found, there was no money to repair them. Another example of our failing infrastructure.

My question is whether Trump will “punish” California by refusing to declare a state of energency. Will he create an alternate reality where the federal government and the Corp. of Engineers have no responsibility whatsoever for the dam.

What then? Judicial action?

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On Darwin and slavery

Posted by Sappho on February 12th, 2017 filed in History, Race, Science


Sometimes Twitter’s an endless loop of “someone is wrong on the Internet.” But other times, you can learn interesting new things. Today’s discovery:

Karen James ?@kejames
For #DarwinDay, a review of Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution: https://ncse.com/library-resource/review-darwin-s-sacred-cause

An excerpt from the book review:

The result is fascinating and provocative. Written with much of Darwin’s flair and energy, Desmond and Moore tell an under-told story of how Darwin’s repugnance at slavery continued throughout his life, flaring up at times with all the emotional intensity of when he saw a female slave whipped in Argentina and an old lady’s collection of screws kept to crush the fingers of recalcitrant slaves. This book does the great service of humanising Charles Darwin. We see how keenly-fought debates over the nature of non-white peoples, their ultimate origins, even their capacity for interbreeding, occupied much of Darwin’s time and helped shape the reflections which led him to his mature theory. Along the way the reader receives a vivid, detailed, and utterly engaging lesson in the racial debates of Victorian Britain and America, with believers in a single origin for all humans as described in Genesis pitted against the often pro-slavery exponents of polygenesis, the idea that each race had been created separately. It is in the context of these conflicts, fought out in clubs and societies but with implications for plantations and slave markets, that Darwin formulated an evolutionary riposte to the polygenists. Or so Darwin’s Sacred Cause argues.

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More self-published short stories at Smashwords

Posted by Sappho on February 11th, 2017 filed in Fiction


I have now self-published ten short stories at Smashwords. These stories are temporarily free (through the end of the month), in the interest of maybe getting reviews for some of them. My Smashwords author page is here. The short stories (some of them short story length, others more flash fiction length) are:

Declutterers, Inc.

A Little Sister’s Tale (part of the series: The Fall of the Ubagane Empire)

The Chaplin’s War (part of the series: The Fall of the Ubagane Empire)

The Chaplin’s Rescue (part of the series: The Fall of the Ubagane Empire)

Blood Will Tell

Crazy for You

Dear Reader

In Her Dreams

Tempting a Ghost

Tower of Babel

I have half a dozen other short stories waiting to be published once I have drawn covers for them.

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Who said that names can never hurt you?

Posted by Topaz on February 7th, 2017 filed in Uncategorized


  • I am not a “dummie”.
  • I am not a whiner.
  • I am not a loser.
  • I am not a total loser.
  • I am not a sore loser.
  • I am not any <adjective> loser.
  • I do not have sour grapes.
  • I am not a buttercup.
  • I am not a poor little snowflake.
  • I am not a cry baby.
  • I am not a hater.
  • I do not have my opinion while you have yours, when mine are verifiable facts.
  • There is not my truth and your truth.
  • I have already given him a chance

Why do people say these things to me in order to me to shut up?

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Woe to thee, O land!

Posted by Sappho on February 4th, 2017 filed in Bible study


And here’s the passage that caught my eye today, as I read through Ecclesiastes a chapter at a time:

Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!

Ecclesiastes 10:16

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Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.

Posted by Sappho on February 3rd, 2017 filed in Bible study


I am reading through Ecclesiastes, and came across this passage in my reading today. The passage reminds me of an odd fact.

A. J. Jacobs, a not particularly devout Jew, decided, as an exercise, to spend a year following all the commandments that he could find in the Bible (Christian and Jewish), and to write a book about his experience. His experience was varied. But one thing that struck me was that one of the “commandments” that he actually found meaningful was this one, “let thy garments be always white,” something that even the most literal minded reader of the Bible would likely take as a metaphor rather than a commandment.

I think this says something about the meaning of ritual, even rituals that really, when you come down to it, are more personal than anything else.

If you find it a helpful reminder to yourself, it’s probably a good idea to keep doing it.

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Religious Freedom is Dogmatic Slavery

Posted by WiredSisters on February 2nd, 2017 filed in Abortion, Catholic Worker, Law, Marriage, Moral Philosophy, Quaker Practice, Sexuality


(One More for Orwell)

These days, every time I see the phrase “religious freedom,” I wince.  Once more a good name for an honorable principle has been defiled.  “Religious freedom” used to mean the moral right of an individual or group to follow the principles of its religion.  It’s what the First Amendment guarantee of “free exercise of religion” is supposed to protect.  It is what the conscientious objector clauses in military regulations and the Selective Service Act are supposed to protect. There is even a conscientious objection clause in immigration law, stating that an applicant for US citizenship who has religious objections to the requirement to pledge to bear arms for the US can be exempted from it.  The Amish have similar exemptions, by law or custom, from various license plate requirements for wheeled vehicles, and schooling requirements for children.  Many pacifist groups and individuals have advocated a similar exemption in federal tax laws, permitting them some accommodation under the Internal Revenue Act regarding paying taxes for military purposes.  Most such objectors are willing to pay taxes for non-military purposes, such as Social Security, environmental protection, and national parks, and are asking only for assurance that their individual tax monies will be directed only for such purposes.

Whatever one may think of that argument, it follows logically the pattern for conscientious objection exemptions from military service—that it, it affects only the person or group requesting the exemption.

Now, a whole new class of “religious liberty” exemptions have been created, having to do with same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception. What they have in common is that they do not merely create rights of the objectors to practice the customs of their own faith, but a right for them to abrogate the rights of third parties, such as persons applying for same-sex marriage licenses and health insurance beneficiaries seeking reproduction-related health care.

These new “religious freedoms” are accepted by many conservative religious groups, apparently because those groups think the people whose rights they are restricting have no religious principles of their own, and their mere secular preferences are trumped by the religious rights of conservative Christians.  But in fact, many mainline religious denominations consider responsible use of contraception not merely a secular option, but a religious mandate.  Similarly, many such denominations recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry, and the obligation of such couples to enter into matrimony “solemnly, soberly, and in the fear of God” (Book of Common Prayer marriage service) rather than just shacking up.  These are not cases of religious rights versus secular options, but of competing religious rights.  It is well-settled First Amendment law that the government may not favor one religion over another.  The only right religious individuals and groups have against the general public is to be left alone by them—not to deny them their own right to be left alone.

And more recently, many of the “get tough” rules having to do with feeding homeless people (or pigeons, for that matter), or providing food, shelter, and other necessities to undocumented aliens, actually forbid practices many religious groups and individuals consider basic to their faith.  We no longer execute people for refusing to burn incense to Caesar.  But we are perfectly willing to jail people for practices which faithful Catholics consider works of mercy and practicing Jews consider mitzvoth.  That’s real  religious freedom, and it is in more danger than ever these days.

CynThesis

 

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Proud Daughter of an Immigrant

Posted by Sappho on January 31st, 2017 filed in Daily Life, News and Commentary


The sidewalk was thick with signs (my friend Vivian estimates about 200 people in all). There was a sign quoting Republican Representative Mimi Walters’ words from last year, about Trump’s then campaign promise of a Muslim ban, back at her. There was the “I’m With Her” sign that took an old Hillary sticker and pointed the arrow at a picture of the Statue of Liberty. There was the sign quoting Abraham Lincoln, and the sign quoting Desmond Tutu, and the sign announcing “Legal Visas! Let Them In!”

But her sign caught my eye, “Proud Daughter of an Immigrant.”

“Me too!” I said.

I am, in fact, the daughter of an Greek immigrant. I’m also a daughter of the Mayflower. And a daughter of the people who met the Mayflower on its arrival. I am an American mixture of things.

She is the daughter of a Persian immigrant. And a stay at home mother who is working on her master’s. And an American.

We shared stories. I told her about my father growing up under Nazi occupation, and she told me about her family’s enthusiastic embrace of American freedom. About her toddler. About her worries, on seeing the rules so suddenly changed.

Who knows who will be kept out, when already acquired visas are meaningless, and people with green cards have been detained? I have a Palestinian friend who reports that a family member of his, though not from any of the seven countries in the executive order, was held for hours without being allowed water, or a trip to a restroom, or access to lawyers or family. I have a college friend who tells me a Persian friend of hers, though in possession of a green card, was detained for three days before being released.

Proud Daughter of an Immigrant tells me how she copes.

“I check the news every two days,” she says, “and then I go to a protest. So that I can take that energy and do something constructive.”

The right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. What can be more American?

Please, please, let these grievances be redressed.

First they came for the Muslims. And here, in California’s 45th Congressional District, we said, hell, no.

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Bearing false witness

Posted by Sappho on January 29th, 2017 filed in Bible study, Quaker Practice


The Bey paused and released his grip, seeming to collect himself.

“At the same time, you must take care not to bear false witness. It is, according to Muhammed at least, among the four great sins.”

The Oracle of Stamboul

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. Exodus 20:16

When I read Exodus as a child, my interpretation of these words was, simply, that the ninth commandment was one against what we call defamation. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. As an adult, I’ve learned that some consider it a general command against lying.

For all that the Quaker testimony of integrity says that we are not to lie at all (or at least not unless we’re hiding Jews in our attic to keep them safe from Nazis), I have always found that my childhood reading resonates more for me than the “don’t lie at all” reading. For one thing, it fits the text more; there’s a qualification there to the lies we shouldn’t tell. For another, however bad lying in general may be, some lies really are worse.

A little over 60 years ago, a woman named Carolyn Bryant told a lie about a boy named Emmett Till. She has now admitted the lie. Till had, perhaps, wolf whistled at Bryant, or perhaps lisped in a way that was mistaken for a whistle. For this offense, Bryant’s husband kidnapped the young teenager, beat him brutally, and killed him. And Carolyn Bryant gave false testimony against Emmett Till at her husband’s trial, claiming that the boy had not only whistled, but grabbed her and made lewd sexual remarks. As a result, a man was able to murder a boy and get off scot free.

False testimony against your neighbor. Not just any old lie.

Thinking back on Emmett Till, if Muhammed did say this was one of the four great sins, perhaps on this point Muhammed was right.

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Links: Russia, Turkey, Trump, Pussy Hats, Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

Posted by Sappho on January 29th, 2017 filed in Blogwatch


From Duck of Minerva: WPTPN: Different Paths to Regional Economic Hegemony: Russia and Turkey Compared

From Ottomans and Zionists: Welcome to the Jungle (about the uncertainty as to just what Trump’s Israel policy is).

A semi-hopeful note from Lawfare Blog on Trump’s Self-Defeating Executive Order on Interrogation:

… People forget that under the Bush administration, the DOD in 2003 successfully revolted against aggressive interrogation techniques that the DOJ has at the time ruled lawful, and that the CIA interrogation and black site program had basically ground to a halt after 2006 in light of the changes in the law forged by the Detainee Treatment Act and Hamdan. They forget that the CIA refused, after the DTA but before Hamdan, to accept a DOJ interpretation of the DTA that would permit a return to waterboarding….

Pentagon rejects notion that Defense Department is trolling Trump on Twitter.

A Guardian article on a Michigan town where people who aren’t following the news all that closely think Trump’s first week went just great.

Der Spiegel, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, reports on a neo-Nazi group called Combat 18.

The case for removing Bannon being an achievable goal.

Trump’s new immigration restrictions risk violating international law and cutting foreign allies’ support.

John Holbo at Crooked Timber on Moral Polarization and Many Pussyhats (the piece by Will Wilkinson that he links is also interesting).

An old friend of mine reflects on the Women’s March in LA, including thoughts on next steps (Swing Left, Indivisible, Votivator, gatherings).

Thoreau at High Clearing reflects on Trump and Russia

I want to clarify something: I actually think that improved relations with Russia would be a good thing, overall. Taken in a vacuum, I’d have no problem with a President who wanted to ease off the tensions with Russia. We can talk about exactly how/when/where to do that, but the general principle of warming things up a bit is perfectly fine with me.

My problem with Trump is that on any other foreign policy topic he’s basically a giant jerking knee….

Gregory Eran Gronbacher at Patheos on Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land.

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