Wednesday, January 17, 2007


[This article originally ran in the 1.18.07 issue of Metroland Magazine]

With all the giddy hoopla about the Democratic Congress’ “first hundred hours”, with all the posturing and grandstanding about undoing the parade of horrors foisted upon us since 2000, there’s been something conspicuous by its absence. There doesn’t seem to be any great rush to restore the various civil rights that were laid to waste over the past several years.

Sure, marquee issues like the minimum wage and stem cell research are all well and good, but a number of truly startling things have happened to our most basic freedoms, and a few Democrats squawked while these things were going down. The fact may well be that the Dems don’t really care that much. Maybe they’re still afraid that Karl Rove’ll make ‘em look “soft on terror” if they stand up for basic, fundamental freedoms; maybe they think we’re too stupid to notice what we’ve lost (or maybe they realize that the lackey mainstream press hasn’t bothered to tell us what we’re lost); maybe, just maybe, in their little black politician hearts, they like things just the way they are now.

Where to start? How about federal ID cards? Heard about them? It’s kind of sneaky. In 2005, Congress passed a law that requires all states to conform their drivers’ licenses to strict uniform standards. Fair enough, but wait, there’s more! The law then says that in 2008 non-conforming drivers licenses will no longer be accepted for federal “official purposes.” And what’s an “official purpose”? Anything the Department of Homeland Security wants it to be. Transactions at federally insured banks? IDs at federally regulated airports? Yup! So, you see, it’s not mandatory that you have one of these stealth national ID cards. It’s only mandatory of you want to live like a normal modern human being.

And what’s gonna be on your card? Your basic info, plus digitized versions of your photograph and signature, and there could easily be more things like your fingerprints or retinal scans if that’s what Homeland Security wants. And all this information has to be stored by the states in readily transferable and searchable databases for at least ten years, that the states will have to share all your info with other governmental entities, no questions asked. And maybe your license will be loaded with a tiny chip, that can be read remotely by anybody with the right equipment, without you even knowing it.

So, as they say in the old movies set in Nazi-controlled Europe: Zor paypahs? You haff zor paypahs? And the really alarming thing is that you don’t have to even show them your papers. They’ll already have them.

Since the bill authorizing this was tacked onto a 2005 emergency military spending authorization bill, it sailed through the Senate 100-0 and the House 368-58. Just like that. And I don’t see anybody rushing to undo it.

And how ‘bout that habeas corpus? Latin for “you have the body”, habeas corpus represents the right to challenge imprisonment by the government. It’s one of the oldest tenets of Western law, and traditionally, countries that didn’t have it were considered barbaric and profound enemies of basic human rights. China and any of those old dictatorships in South America come to mind. You know, places were people disappear.

The United States joined the club last year when Congress passed the Military Commission Act, which allows the government to detain anyone “engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” as determined by “tribunals” appointed by the President. Basically, the President can decide you’re a bad guy, and you can be picked up and held without charge. Indefinitely. Add to that the current regime’s enthusiastic support for torture, whether done here, at Guantanamo, or outsourced to shady governments in Eastern Europe, and you’ve got a policy paradigm that just pisses all over the United States flag.

12 Democratic Senators and 32 House members voted for this. And despite a lot of wailing and knashing of teeth when the bill originally got passed last year, I haven’t seen any effort yet to reverse this shameful and dangerous law.

The Military Commission Act is, by any rational measure, unconstitutional three or four different ways, most notably through Article 1, Section 9’s provision that “[t]he privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” You seen any invasions or rebellions around here lately? Anybody?

So the law should be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, except now we’re got a Supreme Court packed with Federalist Society neo-con clones. The Court today is a worse and even more disingenuous court that the one that “elected” our President in 2000 (remember that one, where the five conservatives forgot their long obsession with “states’ rights”?), so the likelihood of a reasoned and just decision on something like habeas corpus coming out of the Supreme Court would appear to be somewhere between slim and none. I do not entrust my freedom to the likes of Antonin Scalia.

So write your Representatives. Tell them you’d like our country back, please.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Year End Rapp Up

[This article originally ran in the 1.04.07 issue of Metroland Magazine]

2006 saw the tech world party like it was 1999. After a number of dark years, suddenly the news services were ablaze with new products, services, “strategic partnerships”, and many of these things appeared to have at least a fighting chance of surviving, unlike the madness that prevailed during the first dot-com boom-bust. I still have an old bumpersticker that reads idon’

With power-house computers, massive storage, and broadband connections within the reach of almost everybody, the world seems to be pouring itself into the internet, and there’s plenty of winners and losers in this strange new world where everything is at stake and uncertain, where fortunes are made and lost by invisible movements of micro-digicash and pure speculation about the value of eyeballs, and where people are more inclined to repeatedly watch Mentos-Coca-Cola geysers on YouTube than actually sit down and read a book.

Sony is sure not looking good right about now. First the company got caught putting viruses on its music CDs that gummed up its customers’ computers, and then it had to replace millions of laptop batteries because its old ones had a disturbing habit of catching on fire. Toward the end of the year I was reading some analysts saying that Sony’s future was riding on the success or failure of its new Playstation gaming console, which struck me as remarkable. For one thing, if the entire universe of video games simply vaporized right now, my life wouldn’t change one iota. I wouldn’t even notice. On top of that, I think the world would be a much better place if video games didn’t exist, once the hordes of pimply faced suburban boys figure out something productive to do on sunny afternoons and with their parents’ money. In any event, the fact that anyone would even think that a massive corporation like Sony will rise and fall on the basis of inanities like Grand Theft Auto or Final Fantasy shows just how frail and decrepit the company has become.

And it looks like Sony’s losing the gaming fight big-time. Coming off the holiday season, the clear winner appears to be Nintendo’s Wii system, followed by Microsoft’s Xbox, and with Sony’s new PS3 platform a fairly distant third. And it turns out Sony had created a fake blog written by a fake hip-hop teenager who wanted to help convince his fake friend’s fake parents to buy him a new $600 Playstation! And the fake blogger could help you persuade your parents, too!!! This idiotic exercise in fraud was uncovered pretty quickly, resulting in Sony looking like not just a loser, but a big, lying, deceitful loser.

Microsoft also seems to have trouble getting out of its own way. With its ridiculous Zune MP3 player logging in this week as something like the 19th most popular MP3 player on the market, Microsoft decided to try to hip itself up in the blogosphere and to hype it’s new Vista operating system. Microsoft quietly sent 90 tech bloggers free hot-rodded Ferrari-branded $2500.00 laptops with Vista installed. Well, it was quiet till the machines showed up. Many of the recipients, not particularly big Microsoft fans to begin with, started screaming bloody murder that their views and opinions weren’t for sale, at least not for a $2500 laptop. Non-recipient bloggers, feeling neglected and rejected, wailed inconsolably that (a) they didn’t get a free laptop, which sucks, and (b) even if they had, their views wouldn’t have been for sale either. (The whole episode raised interesting questions about bloggers, journalism, and ethics that we’ll let slide for right now.) Microsoft sheepishly first said that it was providing “evaluation” machines that it wanted returned, then reversed course and said no, they were “gifts” for which Microsoft, like any good K Street lobbyist, didn’t want or expect anything in return. Um-hmm....

And Apple’s had a rough couple of weeks, too. First an investigation showed that some Apple executives had been playing cute with post-dated stock options. Steve Jobs, the only Apple exec that matters, hasn’t gotten any stink on himself, though. Yet. Meantime, a federal judge has refused to dismiss a private anti-trust lawsuit against Apple, claiming that Apple’s tying of its iPods to the proprietary iTunes music format is an illegal restraint of trade. And given that Apple controls something north of 80% of the market, for gizmos and digital music respectively, there may well be something there.

And then there’s DRM, the gooey code the labels and digital music stores stick on digital music so you can’t copy it. People are getting sick of DRM, and little by little, labels are allowing music to be sold without it, and are finding out that the world does not end as a result. Yahoo’s music store has been allowed to sell a number of unencumbered MP3s, and word has it that Amazon is hammering the labels to allow it to sell DRM-free, iPod compatible music, and is staying out of the market until this happens. Which would bust the music market, finally, wide open.