If you wondered, is the US a Police State? The answer is – yes.

Over the last few months, the citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States have been regaled with stories of how the Government of the United States has been invading their privacy, opening their mail, listening to their phone calls, and generally monitoring their daily lives.  Of course, this is all in the name of security and to protect the public from the bad guys.

Up to this point in time, the revelations have been about how the National Security Administration are capturing your metadata, but not actually listening to your calls or reading your mail in real-time – they claim. But we have always suspected that other aspects of our life were under scrutiny.

Today, we got our answer:

The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information. (New York Times)

What starches my socks is not that the TSA is doing this.  We pretty much knew they were doing this, even if we did not know they were doing this. No, what really galls me is that the TSA has a new program, called TSA Pre, which:

…allows select frequent flyers of participating airlines and members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs who are flying on participating airlines, to receive expedited screening benefits. Eligible participants use dedicated screening lanes for screening benefits which include leaving on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving laptops and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags.

And to get this benefit, you have to fill out an on-line application, have an in-person interview and, most importantly, pay the TSA for the privilege every five years!  Currently the fee is $85.  Now some frequent flyer programs include this in the ticket price, but for the average Joe Flyer, you are on the hook.  Yet the TSA is already doing a complete scan before you board for free!  OK, so it is not really free.  I have already paid for it with my taxes, fees, and other departure costs rolled into the ticket.

So what is the point?  Already, the United States has more secure screening processes in place, compared to the rest of the world.  I can leave my shoes and belt on in Europe and Canada.  The x-ray machines can already pick out my laptop.  And frankly the screening outside the US is much better than what the TSA is doing.  So why should I be paying the TSA?  They already know more about me than I do.  I have already paid the fee, several times over, and they already have done the in-person interview, every single time I fly.

I am opposed to the police state the United States has become.  There are a number of reasons for this. But to charge the flying public to go through security is really taking the cake. As the saying goes: There’s a sucker born every minute. Clearly the American public is the sucker, and their own government is taking advantage.

Congress Has One Job

onejobThe Congress of the United States, the House of Representatives in particular, has one job, spelled out in the Constitution.

In Section 7 of the Constitution:

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

And Section 8:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

So, it is the House of Representatives sole job to allocate the resources that allows the government to function.  This is everything from keeping the lights turned on to keeping the web sites operational and more importantly, serving the American people. And they have failed.

The Affordable Care Act, which the Tea Party is holding the country over a barrel for, is a flawed law. It has issues, bugs, and serious problems. And frankly, I do not think it will do what it was designed to do.  It is not Universal Health Care as it is known in Canada or the EU.  It is not a panacea. But at the moment, it is the law, and the Tea Party does not have the votes to repeal it.  You would think that after more than 40 attempts at repealing the law they would get the message, but clearly they have not. And the Republican leadership is certainly not doing their job, which is leading. Instead they have caved and are following the lemmings over the cliff and taking the rest of the nation with them.

Congress has one job.  And it cannot even manage to do that effectively.  Again.

On Snowden

Whether or not you think Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain, he is getting the politicians to say a number of interesting things.  Take for instance, this blurb from Paul Ryan (R-WI) that was replayed on the CBC news on Monday evening:

If we are not able to convince our allies or other countries to help us with this, that doesn’t speak very well to how we are being viewed in the world, it does speak well to our credibility.

Let me highlight one part of this: …it does not speak well to our credibility.  What Mr. Ryan does not understand, or at least does not seem to grasp, is that the credibility of the United States is pretty much a joke in the rest of the world.  And the Snowden leaks are only the latest example of why the United States is the butt of the world’s jokes.

There have been several reports, reported by the BBC, and the CBC, but surprisingly not by any US news outlet of how trade with the EU and the United States is in rough shape because of US policies, public or not, on issues like transparency of government, crime and punishment, climate and environmental issues,  and of course, privacy.  The Snowden revelations are only the latest bit of glass being thrown into the international communities eyes.

This is a global economy.  Information is, for the most part, is available with a few key strokes, not just the unclassified, but much of the so called classified information, if you have the time and patience to sort through the minutia to find it.  Big data sifting can be done with almost any server today, so if you want to know what is going on, it is not hard to find out.

Yet there are many in the United States that do not want to know what is going on and see all of this as a great blow to the efforts and image of the United States.  To these individuals, Mr. Ryan included, I say this.  The image of the United States was irreparably damaged when the United States invaded a sovereign nation with little more provocation that they might have had weapons of mass destruction, and, having found nothing, did not so much as say sorry. Further, has left the country in worse shape economically and socially than when they invaded it.  And that is only one of many events I can point at.

I cannot help but laugh at the politicians and other pundits that are worried about the credibility of the United States.  You should worry more about other, more critical things.  This one is a tempest in a tea pot, designed to distract from the fact that these same politicians are the same ones that allowed the NSA to do this in the first place.

Deja Vu all over again

The average American has a very short attention span.  Fortunately, there are some who remember what has gone before.  A talking head this morning pointed out that the Oklahoma City Bombing occurred on April 19, 1995.  The bombing in Boston occurred on the celebration of “Patriot’s Day,” the third Monday in April, but the official day is…April 19.

Neither Oklahoma or Boston is the first act of domestic terrorism, nor will it likely be the last.  And yes, I fully expect, once the officials in charge have sorted the mess, they will find it was an act of domestic terrorism.  What concerns me is not that it happened, but that there are Americans that feel this is an appropriate way to protest their government. And calling it terrorism really gives it more of a spotlight than it deserves.  It is murder, pure and simple, and the perpetrators are murderers.  Nothing more. They are not patriots or freedom fighters, they are murderers, slimy, bottom feeders that should be put out of our misery and not given any more of a platform than a swift drop and a sudden stop.

Sadly, this will only make the police state that has evolved since September 11, 2001 only worse.  And in that regard, we all lose.

California “bans” Mapping Apps

A recent ruling in California bans drivers from using mapping apps like Google Maps, after a man was caught while checking his smartphone for directions. (Autoevolution)

Raise your hand if you still have a paper map book in your car? Raise your hand if you have a third party GPS in your car (a Garmin or some on board system). Raise your hand if you update either of them more than once a year? Raise your hand if you live in an urban area?

Chances are you answered yes to the last one but no to the others. Which means that the way you navigate is by some form of on-line, cell based mapping application. One of the questions I keep asking myself and my elected leaders, who thus far have not answered, is how to I get from place to place, when the tools to navigate are not allowed anymore? Am I supposed to print out detailed maps and carry them like me like old fashioned map books? Clearly, according to California, the answer is going to be “yes.” But what is worse, is the with the rise of the GPS device, the map book publishers essentially went out of business over night. I have not seen a current paper map of my region in at least three years, which means the maps I still have are grossly out of date, missing new roads, showing roads that no longer exist and a comedy of other errors.

Do not mistake me. I am all for laws that punish distracted driving. But this current spate of new laws for old purposes is little more than political window dressing. Distracted driving was around long before cell phones and will be around long after they are legislated out of vehicles. But not everyone has a car mounted GPS, either because of the cost of the upgrade or the practical reason of “but I have it on my phone and I am already paying for the service.”

This is not to say that electronic maps are always accurate. Apple proved that with their poorly thought out mapping app released as part of iOS 5, but the point here is that if you do not have a GPS, or you do not know the area, you are now unable to use one more critical tool to help you navigate your way. And that could be the difference between life and death.

My Doctor Is My Dealer*

Let me start by saying that I am not generally opposed to modern pharmaceuticals.  As a sufferer of kidney stones, I am very happy that morphine and its opiate relations are available to me.  But I have to wonder if we, as a nation, are not using modern pharmaceuticals a bit too much.  For example, at a recent physical, I was told my cholesterol was outside the norm.  So rather than tell me to lose 40 pounds – which would be a good idea and a goal I have – I was put on a commonly prescribed statin drug. One described as clean, meaning few side effects and few interactions. For grins, I will take it for a while and see what happens, but I will work harder at losing the weight.

Further, two reports made me sit up and take notice that this is getting worse, rather than better.  The first was that more than 25% of boys have been diagnosed as ADHD.  The second was that 1 in 50 children are suffering from an Autism spectrum disorder.

1 in 4 boys are suffering from ADHD?  And the solution for this is to medicate them?! ADHD is characterized by either significant difficulties of inattention or hyperactivity and impulsiveness or a combination of the two. Without getting into it too far, this describes most boys between the ages of 2 and 30 (and a number of teenage girls too). I am sure there is a standard by which the rather subjective definition of significant is, but I am also wondering if part of the problem is a simple lack of exercise. I do remember growing up, that we had a lot of running around.  Sports, recess, after school sports, and walking back and forth to school.  Today, not so much.  As I have written numerous time, we are seeing a serious decrease in exercise in schools.  Recess is almost non-existent, sports are more standing than participating, and we all know that walking to school is almost a vanished skill. So I am skeptical that medication is really the answer.  Or even the primary solution.

Autism is a little bit harder though.  The new guidelines lump a whole mess of spectrum disorders under the heading of Autism and do not take into account the level of severity.  Again, autism is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.  We are all familiar with the gross levels of autism, but again I have to wonder if we have not gone too far in the diagnosis.  Under these descriptions, I could be suffering from it, to some extent.  Of course, there are no drugs currently available, although I heard that a study into an Alzheimer’s drug might help some of the more severely affected sufferers.

This is not to say that there are individuals who are bona fide sufferers.  Clearly and without question.  But based on the two survey’s, these numbers are going up, not down, which begs the question – are we over targeting people that are not really suffering from these (or other) diseases, or has the genetics of humanity finally failed? Only time will tell.

* From Robin Williams’s sketch on Drugs, Alcoholism, And More Drugs, on Weapons of Self Destruction

Wal-Mart Shows The Way

Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves (Bloomberg)

While the article is about the loss of business by Wal-Mart to other cost conscious retailers, that fragment caught my attention.  Further, Wal-Mart says the problem is not stock:

Our in stock levels are up significantly in the last few years, so the premise of this story, which is based on the comments of a handful of people, is inaccurate and not representative of what is happening in our stores across the country

So, if the stock is there, why is it not on the shelf? Especially with the unemployment rate at 7.7% (est), roughly 4.8 million people are looking for work. But Wal-Mart cannot find enough people to get stock on the shelves? I find this baffling. But only slightly.

Clearly there are a couple of factors at work, but I cannot exactly come to any conclusion which one is having the most impact. It could also be a combination of factors. Here are my thoughts. First, those looking for work are not looking for a minimum wage job.  They are professionals, with mortgages, student loans, and credit cards to pay off, much less be able to feed and clothe their families. Second, I am willing to be that if Wal-Mart is paying minimum wage, it is only just paying it. In those areas of the country without a stated minimum wage, they are paying much less.  Which makes it hard even for those willing to accept those jobs to make ends meet.  Third, they cannot find skilled workers. I have said this before, but there are a large percentage of the population that simply are not able to function in our modern society.  Either because of illiteracy, and in this case I mean being unable to either read, write, do basic math, or use basic tools like scanners and registers, or because of work status. Not all immigrants are illegal, but most human resource departments do not have the proper training for evaluating the documents that are needed to get a job, and thus they are turned down, rather than put the company at risk.

And yet the companies, including Wal-Mart, will not invest.  As stated further down in the article:

Adding five full-time employees to Wal-Mart’s (WMT) U.S. supercenters and discount stores would add about a half- percentage point to selling, general and administrative expenses…about $448 million a year.

Half a percentage point, which would be passed onto consumers who are barely able to pay the prices of these goods in the first place. Which really is the bottom line. If they raise their prices, people will not shop there, further increasing the flight. Or so the business logic goes. I do not buy it though.  I believe that most people would rather pay a little more for good quality goods, and good service, rather than the lowest price. I would argue that the chickens are coming home to roost.

Wal-Mart is discovering that lowest price is not the be all and end all of retail success. Sadly, this comes at a point when they have almost entirely crushed out of existence all of the potential alternatives. Leaving the shopping public with few, if any, alternatives.

Wake Up Congress, Time To Get To Work

While the political machinery is recovering from its collective hangover, the average American got up and went to work, and that buzzing they heard was the Congressional alarm clock. And this time they cannot afford to hit snooze any longer.

The media calls it the fiscal cliff, officially it is called Sequestration.  Most in DC are looking at it as the single largest layoff of federal contractors and employees in the history of the Federal Government. If Sequestration is not managed, it will do more to damage the American economy than the housing and banking fiascoes combined. Impacts are estimated to be as large as a billion dollars in lost revenues and millions of people unemployed.

Now I am not going to blow sunshine and flowers. The Federal government I broken, bloated, and needs some serious retooling, but wholesale, uncontrolled cuts are not the way to achieve this. In fact it has contributed to the sluggish recovery as companies that would have been hiring in October actually began laying people off because of the uncertainty caused by the lack of commitment, heck the lack of action by Congress on resolving this issue.

This all started, way back in early 2011 when the United States needed to raise its debt ceiling.  How and why they got to this stand-off is a long, tortuous road, but they got there, and the Congress, that group of power hungry politicians who never ran from a chance to avoid working while scoring political points, kicked the can down the road in a showdown over something they varnished with fiscal responsibility.  It was as far from it than you could get, and they did it in such a glorious fashion, you could hear the backslapping of congratulations all they way to Arlington.  Along came the Supercommittee, a non-solution to a non-solution and of course, they came up with no solution.  But there was no time to resolve this.  Congress was too busy trying to repeal the Affordable Care act (33 times, in fact) and trying to get re-elected, so yet again, they hit the proverbial snooze button and businesses, already nervous, started shaking like an addict in withdrawal. And their shaking has resulted in a the sloughing of a number of jobs on the fringes of the core, but there is less and less to slough and the time for serious cutting is drawing close.

The election is over.  It is now time for Congress to get back to work and fix the myriad of issues, outstanding decisions, and tasks that they have put off for far to long.  Call it a Lame Duck session if you will, but these last few months of this session of Congress will be the most important and most impactful in the history of the country.  Because if it is not, it will prove to the American people how little the Congress cares about them.  And given how low an opinion America has of Congress, that will not be a good thing.

Inconceivable! I do not think you know what this word means.

The quote, from the movie The Princess Bride was uttered after several, so called inconceivable events had occurred.  I had similar thoughts this morning when I read in USA today, this quote by Mohammad Umma:

I see the US government allowed the Web to spread this link all over the world without limiting freedom, without banning it…America tells us they are the country of freedom, democracy, and tolerance…

The link he is referring too is a short video that apparently paints the Islamic prophet Mohammed in a vulgar, insulting manner, which, as we all know by now is a no no, at least if you are the least bit Islamic.  I have not seen the video, nor do I really care about the video.  But I need to point out to Mr. Umma that he might want to pick up a copy of a dictionary since he clearly has some misconceptions about what  freedom, democracy, and tolerance mean.  One thing it does not mean is that the government, or anyone else on the Internet, would ban or otherwise impinge on the distribution of any link, video, document, or picture, regardless of who it made fun of, up to and including her own President.  In fact there is a small cottage industry devoted to mocking the President, various religions, and radical groups out to better the world.  To think that the United States would block the distribution of a video mocking Mohammed is in fact counter to all of the foundations of the words democratic and free.

If you put yourself on the public stage, you are going to be subject to ridicule.  If you do not wish this, you have two options: 1) Get off the stage, or 2) Get a better message.  Clearly Mr. Umma, and others of his ilk do not like those options because they have chosen what is behind door number 3: Violence.  And unfortunately for Mr. Umma, and the band of thugs that follow this path, it only puts them forward on the public stage, and subjects them to yet more, well deserved ridicule.  Inconceivable! 

September 11 – A Day to Mourn And A Day to Remember

On this the 11th anniversary of September 11, we should all take a moment to mourn and to remember.

We should mourn the failure of those to follow the protocols and processes put in place for their safety and remember those who lost their lives because of it.

We should mourn the lack of leadership shown by our elected officials and remember those who sacrificed their lives because of it.

We should mourn those who did not learn from history and remember those who have been forced to remember it for us.

We should mourn the loss of our rights and privileges and remember those who took them from us.

We should mourn the loss of our security and remember that  it takes more than money to restore it.

We should mourn those who use fear to drive us and remember that there is nothing to fear, but fear itself, and that we do not have to be afraid.

We should mourn those who continue to spend our money to keep us safe and remember that there are still far too many deaths from traffic accidents, guns, and legal medications in a year than all terrorism deaths in the history of the country.

On this day, America should hang its head and mourn what has been lost, and remember what it has cost.