It’s beginning to look a lot like a Satanic Christmas in Michigan.

Here’s a prime example of the old maxim “be careful what you wish for” from my home state.

whycelebratechristmasFor reasons I’ve never been able to understand, Christians are always trying to get their religious displays on Government property around this time of year. They claim it’s not because they’re trying to foist their religion on everyone else or to imply that the Government favors their particular religion and everyone knows they’re lying and that’s totally what they want.

They have a problem, however, with that damned pesky Constitution amendment saying that the government is supposed to be neutral about religion resulting in various court rulings over the years that have basically said: Sure, you can put your nativity scene on the lawn of your state capitol/courthouse/city hall/other random government building so long as you allow other religions to offer up displays if they want to. To their great luck for many, many years the only other group that would ask were the Jews so they could slap up a menorah and pretend they were complying with the law. Hell, half the time they’d slap one up even if the Jews didn’t ask because they thought it was fooling everyone into thinking they were being all diverse and shit.

Recently, however, there’s been an increasing tendency for people with other, yucky, religions — or, GASP, no religion at all — of asking to put up their own displays alongside the Christian ones. Needless to say this has caused all manner of hand wringing with some state and local governments deciding they should probably get out of the whole religious display business and banning them from government property (as they should). This came to a head this year as The Satanic Temple has been particularly active in getting permission for displays in Oklahoma (since put on hold due to the destruction of the Christian Ten Commandments display it was meant to offset) and in Florida’s Capitol holiday display.

Here in Michigan we’ve been stuck under a Republican led state congress (both houses) and governorship for several years now thanks to the gerrymandering they managed to get in place during the last census. They like to think they’re pretty smart for having pulled that off so they put their thinking caps on and tried to come up with a way to allow a nativity scene in our capitol while keeping those other, yucky, religions out. What they came up with was a new requirement of no permanent displays. More specifically, any display you put up in the Michigan State Capitol has to be torn down at the end of the day and then put back up the next morning. Surely a rule this tedious would keep out all but the most devout Christians, right?

Satanic holiday display is coming to Capitol

The display, which depicts a snake wrapped around the Satanic cross presenting a book as a holiday gift, will be featured on the northeast lawn at the Capitol Dec. 21 to 23, said Jex Blackmore, a member of the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple. The cross reads, “The greatest gift is knowledge.”

“Encouraging families to have important discussions and to learn from each other and to spend the holidays promoting knowledge … is just something we think is important,” Blackmore, whose phone number begins with the digits 666, said today.

[…] Blackmore said her group requested the display after the Capitol Commission last month received a request for a Christian Nativity to be displayed at the Capitol. With lame-duck lawmakers debating a controversial religious freedom bill, Blackmore said the Satanist display “provides some poignant commentary about the diversity of beliefs represented by Michigan citizens.”

Oops. The folks at the Detroit chapter of The Satanic Temple have someone who is more than willing to comply by the rule of putting it up in the morning and taking it down at night and repeating the process the next day.

Here's what it will look like.

Here’s what it will look like. What a horrible message to convey! They want you to be smart!

That’s not the best part of this story, though. This is:

The Nativity, meanwhile, has been scrapped. Truscott said today the Nativity was approved but the out-of-state person backing it couldn’t find someone to put up and tear down the display each day. That’s necessary because Capitol rules forbid permanent displays.

Truscott said the person behind the Nativity, who hasn’t been named, is still trying to find someone to manage the display.

Cue the outrage from the government flunky who had to approve it:

John Truscott, a member of the Michigan State Capitol Commission, which approved the display, said the commission had to OK it because members were “constrained by the Constitution” and must “recognize everybody’s First Amendment rights.”

But Truscott added, “Personally, I think this is absolutely repulsive and I’m very frustrated by it. I don’t appreciate a group trying to hijack a Christian holiday.”

Fuck you, John Truscott. I don’t appreciate Christians trying to hijack my government to promote themselves. Don’t want a Satanic holiday display at the capitol? Then don’t allow any religious displays at the fucking capitol. It’s really very simple. If you allow one then you have to allow them all and if your prefered group is too fucking lazy to follow the rules you put in place to try and prevent others from participating, well, that’s their fucking problem. Besides, it’s not like the Christians didn’t hijack this holiday from the Pagans to begin with.

Here’s the cherry on top of this cake. Hemant Mehta over at The Friendly Atheist reached out to The Satanic Temple spokesperson about this news story and got the following awesome comment from them:

When Jex first reached out to the Capitol Commission to learn how she could submit our display, she refrained from mentioning that she is a representative of the dreaded Satanic Temple.

Jex was told at that time that the new requirement for holiday displays (that they be taken down each evening and replaced again in the morning) was a result of trying to deter “that group from Florida” — clearly a reference to The Satanic Temple — winning the right to exhibit our holiday display in the Florida Capitol Rotunda.

That’s right. The rule that makes this delicious bit of schadenfreude possible was specifically meant to keep The Satanic Temple out of the Michigan capitol. It’s a mistake to assume your followers are less lazy than any other religion’s followers.

I’m guessing that as this story goes viral the out-of-state asshole who wants to put a nativity at the state capitol will find someone willing to put it up and take it down every day if for no other reason than to ensure the Satanic display isn’t the only one there. Christians get mad when they have to share with other religions as it is. They sure as hell aren’t going to sit by and let some other group, especially Satanists, have the spotlight to themselves. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the rules change again next year.

The TSA is security theater and a huge waste of taxpayer money.

TSA Waste
Created by: OnlineCriminalJusticeDegree.com

Government continues to drag its feet on FOIA requests

Of course it’s hard to say if the feet dragging is intentional or a result of incompetence or lack of resources to fulfill the request, but it still damages the reputation of the government. Especially when they supposedly have such a tight deadline to respond, but no repercussions for not doing so. #seb #FOIA #Government #Politics

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You Have The Right To Know . . . Eventually
by Stuart Shapiro
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens to request information from the government. The government doesn’t necessarily have to provide the information (there are a dozen categories of exemptions to FOIA) but it does have to respond to the request within 20 days. How close does the government get to meeting this requirement?
On Jan. 4, The New York Times received a final response from the Defense Department to a FOIA request made on June 1, 1997. The department …

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The security chip in that fancy new U.S. Passport? It’s made in Thailand.

The U.S. Government has been pushing what they consider a better passport since August 2007. It contains a contactless smart card in the back cover that contains the same data about you as what is printed in the passport itself. The idea is that this is supposed to make passport forgery impossible for the evil-doers of the world. The official website lists off several potential attacks which the cards are supposedly protected against including skimming, eavesdropping, tracking, and cloning.

Which all sounds really good except that since the cards were introduced a number of hackers and researches have demonstrated that almost of the protections in place can be successfully attacked and compromised with very minimal resources. The Wikipedia entry for biometric passports has the details and links about the attacks if you’re interested. It doesn’t help that not all of the security measures are mandated with things such as Active Authentication and Extended Access Control being optional.

In short, cloning data on a passport is not difficult at all nor is burning it to a blank passport, something that was done back in 2006 before they were even being issued regularly. More difficult is modifying the data as there is a cryptographic hash used to verify the data, but that relies on the scanner reading the passport making use of it (not all do).

You’d think, given all of the above, that the government would at least take steps to make sure the chips aren’t compromised before they’re ever issued. Perhaps, say, ensuring that they’re produced in a highly secure facility someplace within the United States?

Don’t be silly. The chips are currently being made in Thailand and have been for years:

Security of U.S. Passports Called Into Question – ABC News

The U.S. government agency that prints passports has for years failed to resolve persistent concerns about the security risks involved in outsourcing production to foreign factories, a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity has found.

“On a number of levels this is extremely troubling,” said Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security . “Something like that ought to be produced only in the United States, under only the most rigorous security standards.” A report on the outsourcing of U.S. passports to high-risk countries can be seen on World News with Diane Sawyer tonight.

Despite repeated assurances they would move production to the U.S., a key government contractor has continued to assemble an electronic component of the nation’s new, more sophisticated passport in Thailand.

The factory is near the same Bangkok suburb where a notorious terrorist extremist was captured in 2003. There have been bursts of violence in the industrial city, Ayutthaya, as recently as last month.

Both the inspector general at the Government Printing Office and the agency’s own security chief have warned specifically against producing the computer chip assembly in the Thai facility. One internal report obtained by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity warned of a “potential long term risk to the [U.S. government’s] interests.”

All this bullshit talk by the Powers That Be about making things More Secure™ and not only are the chips being used easily cloned for a couple hundred bucks, but the factory that’s producing them is in an unstable area of a foreign country where terrorists are known to operate. The reason this is such a concern is because the U.S. Government, in its infinite wisdom, has made owning one of their fancy e-passports a shortcut past some of the more stringent security procedures  — one official describes it as an EZ-pass — that would otherwise apply to people entering the United States.

Oh, but that’s not the best part. No, the cherry-on-top that I just know you’re going to love is the fact that there is absolutely nothing in place to make sure blanks don’t fall into bad guy’s hands:

GPO’s inspector general has warned that the agency lacks even the most basic security plan for ensuring that blank e-Passports — and their highly sought technologies – aren’t stolen by terrorists, foreign spies, counterfeiters and other bad actors as they wind through an unwieldy manufacturing process that spans the globe and includes 60 different suppliers.

This disturbs Rep. John D. Dingell, D.-Mich., who wrote letters to the agency two years ago raising questions about passport production.

“Regrettably, since then, our fears have been realized because the inspector general and other people in charge of security at the government printing office have pointed out that the security is not there,” Dingell told ABC News. “There is no real assurance that the e-passports are safe or secure or are not in danger of being counterfeited or corrupted or used for some nefarious purposes by terrorists or others.”

Feel safer yet? Oh, and there are stolen blanks out there from several different countries including a big heist of U.K. blanks in 2008.

Supposedly, most of the production of the chip has already been moved out of Thailand and officials are pledging to have the last bits moved out by the end of July. Also, as far as anyone is aware, no one has successfully made a forgery of a biometric passport using cloned data and a stolen blank chip. Given the number of vulnerabilities that have already been demonstrated it’s probably only a matter of time before someone figures out how to clone and modify a passport that’ll pass as real.

Sadly, all of the concerns and problems with this system were known by the U.S. back in 2004 having been raised by numerous security and privacy experts. Rather than take the time to address the issues raised they decided to just ignore them instead and pressure everyone else to adopt our flawed standard. That is, after all, the American way.

Republicans still the party of “No.” Block 97 of 101 Federal nominees in one day.

The Republicans still haven’t come up with a better plan than to be as obstructionist as possible. Obama’s been in office for over a year now and there are still dozens of nominees he’s made in that time that have yet to come up for a vote in Congress thanks to Republicans blocking the votes for no reason other than to cause problems.

Yesterday two Democrat Senators tried to clear out a log jam of 101 Federal nominees only to have the Republicans block 97 of them:

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) took aim at this tactic yesterday evening. Employing a “little-used rule adopted in 2007 that requires a Member to report his anonymous hold [on a federal nominee] in the Congressional Record [six days] after a colleague has tried to clear the name,” the two senators took to the Senate floor to try and clear the backlog and ask for unanimous consent for votes on scores of federal nominees.

As Whitehouse and McCaskill began reading the names of stalled federal nominees, the Republicans at first didn’t even appear. Whitehouse then waited patiently for a Republican Senator to arrive on the floor. Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) finally appeared and began objecting to the two senators’ unanimous consent requests, ultimately blocking votes on 97 nominees. The Huffington Post has assembled a video compilation of Kyl blocking Whitehouse and McCaskill’s requests.

“Hopefully by the end of the week we’ll learn who it is in the Senate that doesn’t want them to be nominated, who it is that doesn’t want them to be confirmed,” McCaskill said afterwards. Because of the rule that McCaskill and Whitehouse employed, the senators who have placed the anonymous holds now have six legislative days before they have to reveal who they are to the Congressional Record. However, as the Huffington Post’s Ryan Gram and Ben Craw note, the senators “may be able to wiggle out of going public by dropping their holds and picking them right back up, or teaming up with other Republicans and swapping the holds back and forth. It’s never been tried before.”

The Republicans have managed to drag this process out longer than any of the three previous administrations with some of the people nominated having been waiting since the day Obama took office. If there’s any truth to the Republican claim that “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem” it’s only because they actively work to make the government the problem by leaving key positions unfilled. They don’t give a fuck about you or anyone else as is evidenced by the fact that they are doing everything they can to cripple the government so long as Obama’s in office. Newt Gingrich is even promising that if the Republicans regain a majority in either or both the Senate and House they’ll shut the government down completely. Which worked out so well for them the last time they tried it.

They have no solutions to offer. They don’t give a shit about their constituents. All they care about is not letting the other side have the smallest of victories if there’s anything they can possibly do about it and they will use every obscure rule they can dig up to accomplish that goal.

Economist poll reveals how fucking clueless Americans are about government spending.

Chart from The Economist on spending cuts.See that chart to the left? It’s from this article at The Economist. It’s about a poll they conducted wherein they asked people if they thought the government should decrease the deficit by raising taxes or cutting spending. Cutting spending was the popular choice at 65% with only 5% saying raising taxes was the way to go. So then they asked the question over there on the left and that chart is the result.

As Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones points out:

As you can see, there wasn’t one single area that even a third of the country wanted to cut back on. Except — hold on there! Down in the middle of the table. There is one area that everyone’s willing to trim: foreign aid. Good ‘ol foreign aid. A category that, as Roger McShane dryly points out, “makes up less than 1% of America’s total spending.”

Beyond that, there were only four areas that even a quarter of the population was willing to cut: mass transit, agriculture, housing, and the environment. At a rough guess, these areas account for about 3% of the federal budget. You could slash their budgets by a third and still barely make a dent in federal spending.

So, yeah, cutting spending would be one way to reduce the deficit… if you were willing to actually cut into the programs that cost the most. It’s a shame that all the really expensive programs are the ones most folks don’t really want to cut.

Perhaps they should spend some time actually learning from this excellent infographic poster about the Federal Budget:

You can zoom in and move it around or go full screen to get a better look. That’s the creation of Jess Bachman and he’s been updating it every year since 2004. It really is worth looking at in detail to see where the money goes and you can buy a 24″ x 36″ posted of it at his WallStats website along with several other excellent infographics he’s made.

The point being: It doesn’t help if everyone thinks we should cut spending, but no one can agree on where those cuts should be made. Nobody likes higher taxes, but the only way to have your cake and eat it too is to pay for it. Even if that means using a credit card to do so, which is more or less what the deficit is tantamount to.

With regards to the Collateral Murder video…

The folks at Wikileaks unleashed the following video of American AH-64 Apache chopper gunners opening fire on what they believed to be armed insurgents in Iraq, but which turned out to be a couple of Associated Press journalists and (likely) a bunch of civilians. Later in the video when a van pulls up to try and help one of the wounded journalists the chopper again opens fire killing all the adults and wounding two children in the van. Fair warning: Once seen it cannot be unseen so think about it before deciding to view it:

The Pentagon has been repeatedly hit with Freedom of Information Act requests to release this video over the years and has refused to do so for various bullshit reasons. The real reason they didn’t want to release it is because it’s a monumental fuck up that is embarrassing and which would be used by their critics to denounce the war effort.

I’ve never been in the military so I don’t know a lot about how things are done in a combat zone, but from what I see in this video the soldiers involved acted appropriately – if somewhat callously – based on the information they had on hand; and I can’t really get all that upset about the callousness given the situation they are in. It’s a terrible mistake on their part, but I can’t say they did anything wrong.

The real problem with this video is, as ***Dave points out in his own (much better written) entry on this topic, the fact that the Pentagon tried to hide it:

What I find unconscionable is that, once the evidence was together, the government (or, at least the military) decided to lie.  To not only hide the truth from the world and the nation, but de facto indict the soldiers involved by making what they did effectively too terrible to admit.

If you are honest, and in the right, and fighting on principle, then you admit your mistakes, show you’re trying to learn by them, and move on.  You hold people appropriately accountable. You take responsibility for your actions.  You “man up.”

Instead, now we have this.

The video becomes the very thing you were trying to prevent it from becoming by hiding it. This is why transparency is so important. This is why the government needs to be in the hands of responsible adults who aren’t afraid of accountability.  So that later when you have another fuck up where the soldiers do try to cover it up – such as the botched nighttime raid in Afghanistan that’s been in the news – your commitment to accountability isn’t questioned.

So let me get this straight…

People on the terrorist watch list can’t fly on airplanes, but they can still buy guns and explosives?!?

From February 2004 to February 2009, 963 background checks using the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System “resulted in valid matches with terrorist watch list records; of these matches, approximately 90 percent were allowed to proceed because the checks revealed no prohibiting information,” the GAO report says. About 10 percent were denied.

“Under current law, there is no basis to automatically prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives because they appear on the terrorist watch list,” wrote the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues, Eileen R. Larence.

“Rather, there must be a disqualifying factor (i.e., prohibiting information) pursuant to federal or state law, such as a felony conviction or illegal immigration status.”

Does this seem stupid to anyone other than me? Granted a lot of folks are on the TWL that shouldn’t be, but what’s the point of not letting them fly if you’re going to let them buy guns and explosives?

Government bureaucracy makes a donation impossible.

This news item is illustrative of the problems with government bureaucracy. It talks about how a guy bought a big chunk of marble that he wanted to give to the U.S. Government so they could repair the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that has been in need of repair for decades, but the government can’t take it:

Retired Glenwood Springs car dealer John Haines’ hope of donating a giant chunk of snow -white marble to the federal government to replace the cracked Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery is stalled again.

Haines’ hoped-for donation, which has sat outside the Yule Quarry near Marble since it was cut for the tomb in 2003, didn’t even rate a mention in a 34-page Department of the Army report to Congress this week on replacement and repair options for the deteriorating tomb.

Haines’ donation creates problems for the federal government because it is free and has not gone through a pricey bidding and specification process. A quarry in Vermont has expressed interest in submitting a bid.

This week’s report — the latest in a string of tomb reports done since Arlington officials decided the marble needed replacing 18 years ago — estimates the cost of replacing the tomb’s marble at $2.2 million — $80,000 of that for seeking bids, $90,000 for buying and transporting the marble and the remainder for sculpting.

Got that? They can’t take it because it’s free. Not only has Haines already bought a good chunk of marble, but he bought it from the same Yule Quarry where the original marble came from and he made arrangements to have it transports for free as well. All the government would have to do is carve it and install it, but they can’t because it’s Against The Rules:

“It’s not doable. A citizen can’t just give us any piece of marble and say, ‘This is what we’ll use to replace the tomb,’ ” said Thurman Higginbotham, deputy superintendent of Arlington.

You’d think there would be somebody some place that has the power to say “let’s just use this very generous donation and get the damned thing fixed”, but apparently there isn’t. The cracks, incidentally, started back in the 1930s and have been getting worse ever since. Today they’re nearly 48 feet long on both sides of the tomb and a third crack has appeared. The only attempts at repair so far have involved filling the cracks with grout. Seems kind of silly to ignore an offer of marble from the same quarry simply because it’s free.

Gulf War vet and professional pilot loses job because of “no fly” list. [UPDATED]

The terrorist watch list is such a fucking joke, except that no one who is on it is laughing about it. It’s not a bad idea in principle, but the fact that you aren’t allowed to know if you’re on the list (at least until you get yanked aside at an airport) and you have no means of challenging your inclusion on the list renders it ineffective and unnecessarily troublesome. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect of Soviet-era Russia and not the United States of America. All it seems to have accomplished so far is ruining the lives of innocent people.

Take, for example, this news item about an Gulf War veteran and professional pilot who’s about to lose his job because he’s on the list:

“We don’t know why they’re on the list. They don’t know why they’re on the list. The government won’t tell us why they’re on the list,” said Amy Foerster, an attorney with Saul Ewing, who is providing pro bono counsel and working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Schuylkill County couple on the case, which was filed in U.S. district court.

The suit filed against the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Justice and the FBI, among others, is “unique” because Erich Scherfen, a New Jersey native who converted to Islam in the mid-1990s, is a commercial airline pilot whose flight privileges were revoked in April, said Witold Walczak, the legal director of the state ACLU chapter. On Sept. 1, Scherfen will be terminated by his employer, Colgan Air, despite the airline’s cooperation.

“My livelihood depends on getting off this list,” Scherfen said. What list he is on and which government entity maintains it is unclear, Walczak said. The federal government has declined to acknowledge flight restrictions placed on the pilot.

Yes, the pilot is Muslim and his wife is Pakistani and the natural assumption would be those are the only reasons why they’d be included on the list. It’s entirely possible the government feels it has a valid reason other than his religion and his wife’s country of origin, but they won’t say what their reasoning is. The whole terrorist watch list needs to be seriously overhauled and that’s not going to happen if John McCain gets into office.

After reading this I stumbled across a similar story on CNN.com:

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN)—James Robinson is a retired Air National Guard brigadier general and a commercial pilot for a major airline who flies passenger planes around the country.

He has even been certified by the Transportation Security Administration to carry a weapon into the cockpit as part of the government’s defense program should a terrorist try to commandeer a plane.

But there’s one problem: James Robinson, the pilot, has difficulty even getting to his plane because his name is on the government’s terrorist “watch list.”

That means he can’t use an airport kiosk to check in; he can’t do it online; he can’t do it curbside. Instead, like thousands of Americans whose names match a name or alias used by a suspected terrorist on the list, he must go to the ticket counter and have an agent verify that he is James Robinson, the pilot, and not James Robinson, the terrorist.

“Shocking’s a good word; frustrating,” Robinson—the pilot—said. “I’m carrying a weapon, flying a multimillion-dollar jet with passengers, but I’m still screened as, you know, on the terrorist watch list.”

He’s one of three people with that name that get screened all the time at airports:

[T]here’s the James Robinson who served as U.S. attorney in Detroit, Michigan, and as an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration; and James Robinson of California, who loves tennis, swimming and flying to the East Coast to see his grandmother.

He’s 8.

The third-grader has been on the watch list since he was 5 years old. Asked whether he is a terrorist, he said, “I don’t know.”

Thank goodness the government is keeping us safe from all those terrorist five-year-olds! I feel SO much safer now. Meanwhile I’ve vowed not to fly in this country until they get this shit straightened out.

The sad part is that all three of these people have found a way around the problem. Just change their name slightly:

although the list is clearly bloated with misidentifications by every official’s account, CNN has learned that it may also be ineffective. Numerous people, including all three Robinsons, have figured out that there are ways not to get flagged by the watch list.

Denise Robinson says she tells the skycaps her son is on the list, tips heavily and is given boarding passes. And booking her son as “J. Pierce Robinson” also has let the family bypass the watch list hassle.

Capt. James Robinson said he has learned that “Jim Robinson” and “J.K. Robinson” are not on the list.

And Griffin has tested its effectiveness. When he runs his first and middle name together when making a reservation online, he has no problem checking in at the airport.

So not only is the watch list making life difficult for non-terrorists, but it’s also easily bypassed by a slight change of your name. What do you think the chances are of a terrorist using his real name to get on a plane these days anyway? In the meantime the airlines and the TSA are busy blaming each other and nothing gets fixed.

Thanks President Bush! Your legacy will live on for decades I’m sure. Shame it’s not something positive.