Tuesday Reads: More Trump-Russia Shoes Drop (and Other News)

Good Morning!!

Breaking News Update: This story broke while I was writing this post:

NBC News: Cleveland Facebook Killer: Steve Stephens Dead in Car After Pursuit by Pa. Police.

The nationwide manhunt for Steve Stephens, the man accused of posting video of a murder to Facebook, ended Tuesday when his body was found in a vehicle in Erie, Pa., police said.

Pennsylvania State Police confirmed to NBC News that Stephens had been spotted by Pennsylvania State Police shortly before 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. After a brief pursuit, police said Stephens shot and killed himself.

A couple more shoes dropped this morning in the endless Trump-Russia saga.

Bloomberg reported more details about Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s involvement in the campaign and transition. Bloomberg’s sources tried to downplay the notorious Seychelles meeting between Prince and a Putin aide and confidant and claimed it had nothing to do with Trump. Prince was often in Trump Tower, but was sneaked in through the back way to avoid being seen.

Yet over a two to three month period around the election, Prince met several times with top aides as the incoming government took shape, offering ideas on how to fight terror and restructure the country’s major intelligence agencies, according to information provided by five people familiar with the meetings. Among those he conferred with was Flynn, a member of the transition team who joined the administration and was later dismissed, some of the people said. He discussed possible government appointees with people in the private sector, one person said. Prince himself told several people that while he was not offering his advice in any official capacity, his role was significant….

The meetings occurred in Trump Tower, the administration’s transition office in Washington and elsewhere, according to people familiar with them. In one informal discussion in late November, Prince spoke openly with two members of Trump’s transition team on a train bound from New York to Washington. He boarded the same Acela as Kellyanne Conway and they sat together. Joining the conversation at one point was Kevin Harrington, a longtime associate of Trump adviser Peter Thiel who is now on the National Security Council. They discussed, in broad terms, major changes the incoming administration envisioned for the intelligence community, as recounted by a person on the train who overheard their conversation.

The article also discusses Trump’s involvement with Peter Thiel who, along with Prince, made large contributions to a PAC run by Robert Mercer (who got Bannon and Conway involved in the Trump campaign).

A longtime critic of government defense and security policies, Prince advocated a restructuring of security agencies as well as a thorough rethink of costly defense programs, even if it meant canceling existing major contracts in favor of smaller ones, said a person familiar with the matter.

Newsweek has a story on Steve Bannon’s ideological ties to Russia.

Bannon, a former banker turned film producer and right-wing polemicist, has praised not only Putin but also a brand of Russian mystical conservative nationalism known as Eurasianism, which is the closest the Kremlin has to a state ideology. Eurasianism proclaims that Russia’s destiny is to lead all Slavic and Turkic people in a grand empire to resist corrupt Western values. Its main proponent is Alexander Dugin. With his long beard and burning blue eyes, Dugin looks like a firebrand prophet. His philosophy glorifies the Russian Empire—while Bannon and the conservative website that he founded, Breitbart News, revived the slogan of “America first,” which Trump later adopted in his campaign….

Yet Bannon and Dugin have common cause in the idea that global elites have conspired against ordinary people—and the old order must be overthrown. “We have arrived at a moment where the world is discovering a new model of ideologies. The election of Trump shows that clearly,” Dugin tells Newsweek.

Bannon, in turn, seems to admire Dugin—as well as Putin’s Russia—for putting traditional values at the heart of a revival of national greatness. “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin] is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism,” Bannon said at a Vatican-organized conference in 2014. “When you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of [Putin’s] beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism.” Bannon declined to respond to Newsweek’s questions about his position on Russia and Dugin.

Bannon and Dugin’s speeches and writings indicate that their common enemies are secularism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism—and what Dugin calls the “globalized and internationalist capitalist liberal elite.” In both Bannon’s and Dugin’s worldview, the true global ideological struggle is between culturally homogenous groups founded on Judeo-Christian values practicing humane capitalism on one side and, on the other, an international crony-capitalist network of bankers and big business.

Bannon’s fix for the world is to revive the nation-state—precisely what Putin’s Kremlin is promoting as it backs anti–European Union candidates from Hungary to France. “I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” Bannon told an audience of Catholic thinkers at the Vatican by video-link from the U.S. in 2014. “Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism. [People] want to see the sovereignty for their country; they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan–European Union, or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up, where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”

It’s not clear to me how Bannon can accept the obvious “crony-capitalism” of the Trump family crime syndicate.

There are more rumors than ever going around that indictments could be coming out of the Trump-Russia investigation, and it’s difficult to know what to believe. I’m just trying to be patient and keep an open but skeptical mind. I did come across a couple of interesting pieces on Rudy Giuliani and Carter Page respectively. They are both too long and complex to excerpt, but here are the links:

Grant Stern at The Stern Facts: Is Rudy Giuliani The Mastermind Behind The Trump Russia Dossier’s Massive Oil Deal?

From Bright Young Things, an interview with Carter Page that contains quite a bit of background information: A Conversation with Carter Page.

Also, Boris Epshteyn has a new gig on conservative radio: Sinclair Announces the Addition of Boris Epshteyn.

On the Kleptocracy front, Ivanka is reportedly cleaning up in the meetings she’s been attending.

The Associated Press: Ivanka’s biz prospers as politics mixes with business.

SHANGHAI (AP) — On April 6, Ivanka Trump’s company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world’s second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago….

As the first daughter crafts a political career from her West Wing office, her brand is flourishing, despite boycotts and several stores limiting her merchandise. U.S. imports, almost all of them from China, shot up an estimated 166 percent last year, while sales hit record levels in 2017. The brand, which Trump still owns, says distribution is growing. It has launched new activewear and affordable jewelry lines and is working to expand its global intellectual property footprint. In addition to winning the approvals from China, Ivanka Trump Marks LLC applied for at least nine new trademarks in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Canada and the U.S. after the election.

The commercial currents of the Trump White House are unprecedented in modern American politics, ethics lawyers say. They have created an unfamiliar landscape riven with ethical pitfalls, and forced consumers and retailers to wrestle with the unlikely passions now inspired by Ivanka Trump’s mid-market collection of ruffled blouses, shifts and wedges.

Using the prestige of government service to build a brand is not illegal. But criminal conflict of interest law prohibits federal officials, like Trump and her husband, from participating in government matters that could impact their own financial interest or that of their spouse. Some argue that the more her business broadens its scope, the more it threatens to encroach on the ability of two trusted advisers to deliver credible counsel to the president on core issues like trade, intellectual property, and the value of the Chinese currency.

Some updates on the situation in North Korea:

Vanity Fair: Donald Trump Stumbles Toward War In East Asia.

How President Donald Trump intends to resolve the growing North Korean crisis remains unclear, though whether that is by design or reflects a lack of a coherent foreign policy is a matter of some debate. Over the past several weeks, as Kim has moved aggressively to advance his nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration has telegraphed a wide range of possibilities as to how the U.S. might respond. Last month, during his first major diplomatic tour of Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that “the policy of strategic patience has ended” and that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence repeated that line while making a surprise appearance on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries, which have been locked in a military standoff since the suspension of the Korean War in 1953. “North Korea will do well not to test his resolve or strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” he added.

While the era of strategic patience may be over, the Trump administration is clearly taking some kind of strategic steps. Last week, the president announced that he had ordered an “armada” of military ships, including the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson and several nuclear submarines, to sail toward North Korea. NBC News reported that the National Security Council had presented Trump with a list of potential responses to North Korea, including moving missiles to South Korea or outright assassinating Kim. And while the White House quietly dismissed a subsequent report that Trump was prepared to launch a pre-emptive conventional strike if Kim reached for the nuclear trigger last weekend, as he had been expected to do, the president warned that the North Korean problem “will be taken care of” one way or another. On Monday, Pence also said that the U.S. would be open to securing the region “through peaceable means, through negotiations,” suggesting that Trump may be coming around to Beijing’s way of thinking.

The ambiguity of Trump’s warnings, combined with the credible threat that he might be crazy enough to see them through, has yielded some results. China appears to be working more closely with the U.S. then before to increase pressure on Kim—cooperation that Trump suggested on Twitter that he had bought by backing away from labeling China a “currency manipulator.” And Kim seemed to have called off his expected nuclear test—for now.

Is Trump embracing Nixon’s “madman theory” of foreign policy, or is he just plain crazy? It seems kind of a dangerous policy when you’re facing off against another madman.

A couple more links:

The Guardian: US military considers shooting down North Korea missile tests, sources say.

Vox: An expert warns that a preemptive strike on North Korea would lead to “very big war.”

What stories are you following today?


Thursday Reads: The “President” is Mentally Incompetent

Good Morning!!

Breaking stories this morning:’

— First, Rep. Deven Nunes is “temporarily stepping aside” from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, according to the AP. Details to come. According to MSNBC, Trump himself wanted this to happen because he’s “concerned about his dropping poll numbers.” We’ll learn more as the day goes on, but it seems more likely that this decision probably comes from Prince Jared.

Nunes released a statement saying that left-wing groups had made baseless charges against him to the ethics committee, and he’s made this decision even though the complaints are politically-motivated. Democratic ranking member gave a brief statement in which he said he appreciates Nunes’ decision and looks forward to working with Rep. Conaway (R-Texas) who will now lead the investigation.

— Second, Paul Ryan held a press conference this morning to pretend that Trump-Ryancare is still alive. Supposedly the House is reaching consensus around a high risk pool–something that would never work to lower premiums for everyone. They’re all going home for Easter break soon, so we’ll see what happens when they come back. IMHO, this is just a face-saving effort by Ryan.

The Dallas News has a “developing” story on Conaway taking over: Texas’ Conaway takes over Russia meddling probe, as embattled Intel chairman steps down.

WASHINGTON — Texas Rep. Mike Conaway is taking the helm of the House-led probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, after embattled Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes agreed to step aside Thursday.

Conaway, a Midland Republican, is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and a member of the Intelligence Committee. He chaired the Ethics Committee several years ago — considered one of the more thankless tasks in Congress, given its role in policing and occasionally punishing colleagues.

He’s one of the few CPAs in Congress. Before his election in 2004, one of his clients was the oil firm owned by future president George W. Bush.

Also happening today:

President Xi Jinping of China

NBC News: Trump and China President Xi Jinping to Meet, ‘Set a Framework’ for Relations.

As Donald Trump gets set to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a tête-à-tête at the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida on Thursday, experts say it’s time for the U.S. leader to let his past hostile comments about the Asian powerhouse fade with the Florida sunset.

Trump must start building a solid personal relationship with his counterpart and open a starter dialogue on a number of sensitive issues between the two nations, analysts add.

“Well, it’s going to be very interesting, nobody really knows, we have not been treated fairly on trade, no presidents taken care of that the way they should have, and we have a big problem on North Korea, so we’re going to see what happens,” Trump told Fox News on Thursday about his upcoming meeting with Xi.

“I’ll tell you we’ll be in there pitching, and I think we’re going to do very well” Trump added.

While the Chinese are strategic and conservative in their policy and diplomacy maneuvers, Trump has earned his reputation as brash and somewhat unpredictable, often venting governing frustrations on Twitter in 140 characters or less.

“[The Chinese] know that you cannot conduct foreign policy by Twitter, by tweeting, and brashness,” former Ambassador to China Max Baucus told NBC News.

I’m sure the Chinese know that all they have to do is say nice things about Trump and he’ll give away the store. He’s going to get played. I just hope it won’t be too damaging.

Mitch McConnell is determined to get Neil Gorsuch through the Senate despite a Democratic filibuster, and it looks like  he will exercise the so-called “nuclear option.” The sad fact that Gorsuch is obviously guilty of plagiarism doesn’t seem to matter to Republicans.

Now I want to move on to what I  believe is the most important story for the U.S. and the world right now.

After yesterday, I’m convinced that nothing that happens in the news is more important than the fact that the man who is pretending to be “president” is not only completely unqualified but also mentally unfit. There is something seriously wrong with Trump’s cognitive processes, and whether it’s dementia, drugs, or simple stupidity, we’re all in deep trouble.

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman

Did you read the transcript of the interview Trump gave to The New York Times yesterday? I want to quote two sections of it here. During a discussion of the Gorsuch nomination, Trump claimed that Democrats have told him privately that they really don’t object that much to the pick, and here is his example:

TRUMP: Elijah Cummings [a Democratic representative from Maryland] was in my office and he said, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.”

HABERMAN: Really.

TRUMP: And then he went out and I watched him on television yesterday and I said, “Was that the same man?”

[Laughter.]

TRUMP: But I said, and I liked him, but I said that was really nice. He said, in a group of people, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.” And then I watched him on television and I said, “Is that the same man that said that to me?”

Did Trump somehow confuse Elijah Cummings with some other black man? WTF is he talking about, why don’t these reporters press him on it? This “interview” could easily pass as an evaluation of a mental patient by two psychiatrists. Here’s another section in which Trump claims that the story of Susan Rice’s unmasking of U.S. persons when she was Obama’s National Security Adviser is “a massive story.”

I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it’s a massive, massive story. All over the world, I mean other than The New York Times.

HABERMAN: We’ve written about it twice.

TRUMP: Huh?

HABERMAN: We’ve written about it twice.

TRUMP: Yeah, it’s a bigger story than you know. I think —

HABERMAN: You mean there’s more information that we’re not aware of?

TRUMP: I think that it’s going to be the biggest story.

New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush

THRUSH: Why? What do you think —

TRUMP: Take a look at what’s happening. I mean, first of all her performance was horrible yesterday on television even though she was interviewed by Hillary Clinton’s P.R. person, Andrea Mitchell [the NBC News journalist]. Course you’ve been accused of that also.

HABERMAN: Mostly by you, though.

TRUMP: No, no, no. Mostly by a lot of people. So you know, we’ll see what happens, but it looks like it’s breaking into a massive story.

THRUSH: What do you think are — what other shoes are there to drop on this?

HABERMAN: Yeah, what else could we learn on this?

TRUMP: I think you’re going to see a lot. I think you’ll see a lot.

HABERMAN: In terms of what she did and in terms of [unintelligible]?

TRUMP: I think in terms of what other people have done also.

HABERMAN: Really?

TRUMP: I think it’s one of the biggest stories. The Russia story is a total hoax. There has been absolutely nothing coming out of that. But what, you know, what various things led into it was the story that we’re talking about, the Susan Rice. What’s happened is terrible. I’ve never seen people so indignant, including many Democrats who are friends of mine. I’ve never seen them acting this way. Because that’s really an affront on them, you know, they are talking about civil liberties. It’s such an affront, what took place.

THRUSH: What other people do you think will get ensnared in this? Can you give us a sense? How far this might extend

HABERMAN: From the previous administration.

TRUMP: I think from the previous administration.

THRUSH: How far up do you think this goes? Chief of staff?

TRUMP: I don’t want to say, but —

THRUSH: President?

TRUMP: I don’t want to say, but you know who. You know what was going on. You probably know better than anybody. I mean, I frankly think The Times is missing a big thing by not writing it because you’re missing out on the biggest story there is.

Why are these NYT reporters (Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush) patronizing Trump like this? I guess they are drawing him out to demonstrate that he’s a simpleton, but shouldn’t this be treated as a national emergency? The “president” is not well. No wonder there are always multiple “minders” in the room when he’s speaks publicly. Why are so many people pretending that this is somehow normal? We are facing multiple foreign crises right now and we have an incompetent “president” whose 36-year-old son-in-law appears to be running the government.

Yesterday’s Trump press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan was just as embarrassing. Trump spouted a lot of stream-of-conscientious nonsense about how disturbed he was by the chemical attack in Syria and that he had changed his point of view, and reporters pretended he had actually said something meaningful. Here’s the NYT story, for example. Yet Trump said nothing to explain what his policy was previously or what he had changed it to. He even went through that song-and-dance about how he won’t tell anyone ahead of time about what he’ll do “militarily.” This man is nuts, and the press should start saying so.

As Rachel Maddow pointed out last night, Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is every bit as incompetent as the “president.” Tillerson made a statement a couple of days ago that basically gave Asad permission to do whatever he wanted to the Syrian people. Business Insider reports:

Tillerson told reporters while he was in Turkey last week that the “longer-term status of President [Bashar] Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”

The remark signaled a shift in the US’s official position toward the Syrian strongman. Though they were criticized for failing to act against Assad, President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry had long called for Assad to step down in a monitored transition of power.

The US’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, took an even stronger position than Tillerson, telling reporters that the administration’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

Haley’s comments stood in stark contrast to those of the previous UN ambassador, Samantha Power, who directly confronted Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies during a UN Security Council meeting in December with a fierce address.

“Three member states of the UN contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you,” Power said at the time. “You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame?”

And of course there’s the growing threat from North Korea, which Tillerson also likely aggravated. The Week: Rex Tillerson says the U.S. has ‘spoken enough about North Korea,’ won’t comment on latest missile launch.

Not long after the news broke that North Korea launched a missile into the Sea of Japan, Tillerson released a brief statement Tuesday night confirming the launch of “yet another intermediate-range ballistic missile,” adding two very terse sentences: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” If you seek words of comfort in these uncertain times or angry declarations and threats of retaliation, Tillerson made it clear you had better look elsewhere.

If this is the secretary of state’s way of hinting he wants out of the job, Tillerson should know by now that all he needs to do is tag Jared Kushner, say, “You’re it,” and call it a day. Catherine Garcia

Here’s Charles M. Blow: Creeping Toward Crisis.

I am racked with anxiety that our buffoonish “president” — who sounds so internationally unsophisticated and who is still operating under a cloud of illegitimacy — is beginning to face his first real foreign crises.

What worries me most is that he seems to have no coherent plan, at least not one that he is willing or able to communicate. “I don’t show my hand” isn’t a strategy to conceal a plan as much as one to conceal the absence of a plan.

His statements are all bluster and bungling and bosh. Our commander in chief is not in full command of his emotions or facts or geopolitics.

We may sometimes think that the absurdity of Trump’s endless stream of contradictions and lies ends at the nation’s borders, but it doesn’t. The world is watching, and the world is full of dangerous men who see killing as a means of maintaining and exerting power. They see in Trump a novice and know-nothing, and they will surely test his resolve.

Trump has exposed himself to the world as an imbecile and burned through American credibility with his incessant lying. Even many of our allies seem confused and worried about where we stand and how we plan to proceed.

Trump is full of pride, obsessed with strongman personas, and absent of historical and geopolitical perspective. This is the worst possible situation. The man who could bring us into military engagement is woefully deficient in intellectual engagement.

Please go read the rest at the NYT.

It will clearly be another busy and chaotic day in politics. What stories are you following?


Tuesday Reads

Good Afternoon!!

It’s another busy day in tRumpville–not for him, of course, just for us peons. King Donald is so bored that he went out to meet a White House tour group this morning.

So the Muslim ban is back with a vengeance. Plus the GOP “health care” plan is out and it’s even worse than anyone imagined. Dakinikat wrote about tRump’s immigration policies yesterday, but we’re getting more details this morning. As for Ryancare or trumpcare or whatever the f$ck you want to call the health insurance plan from hell, it looks like it will be dead on arrival.

On top of all that Russia and Wikileaks released a bunch of CIA files to try to distract everyone from the antics circus clown they put in charge of what used to be the USA. I don’t have room to write about everything, but here are a few reads to get you started.

Politico: Trump plan pays for immigration crackdown with cuts to coastal, air security.

The Trump administration wants to gut the Coast Guard and make deep cuts in airport and rail security to help pay for its crackdown on illegal immigration, according to internal budget documents reviewed by POLITICO — a move that lawmakers and security experts say defies logic if the White House is serious about defending against terrorism and keeping out undocumented foreigners.

The Office of Management and Budget is seeking a 14 percent cut to the Coast Guard’s $9.1 billion budget, the draft documents show, even as it proposes major increases to other Department of Homeland Security agencies to hire more border agents and immigration officers and construct a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The budget numbers mark the most detailed breakdown yet about how President Donald Trump envisions restructuring DHS to meet his pledge to halt illegal immigration and deport some of the millions already here.

Overall, DHS would get a 6 percent boost to its budget, to $43.8 billion. But to help pay for that, the administration would slice the budget of the Coast Guard and cut 11 percent in spending from the TSA — reductions that critics say would weaken safeguards against threats arriving by sea or air.

OMB also wants to cut 11 percent from the budget of FEMA, which oversees the national response to disasters such as floods and hurricanes.

The stupid is strong in this one. Obviously the mass deportation agenda has absolutely nothing to do with national security.

Speaking of national security, tRup appears to be mostly ignoring the international crisis being fomented by North Korea–at least he has said nothing publicly about how he plans to handle it. Rex Tillerson hasn’t said anything about this situation either. Has anyone seen or heard from him?  The Washington Post reports: North Korea says it was practicing to hit U.S. military bases in Japan with missiles.

North Korea was practicing to strike United States military bases in Japan with its latest barrage of missiles, state media in Pyongyang reported Tuesday, and it appeared to be trying to outsmart a new American antimissile battery being deployed to South Korea by firing multiple rockets at once.

Kim Jong Un presided over Monday’s launch of the four missiles, “feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in a statement that analysts called a “brazen declaration” of the country’s intent to strike enemies with a nuclear weapon if it came under attack.

“If the United States or South Korea fires even a single flame inside North Korean territory, we will demolish the origin of the invasion and provocation with a nuclear tipped missile,” the KCNA statement said.

The four ballistic missiles fired Monday morning were launched by the elite Hwasong ballistic missile division “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan,” KCNA said. The United States has numerous military bases and about 54,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, the legacy of its postwar security alliance with the country.

Three of the four missiles flew about 600 miles over North Korea and landed in the sea, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone off the Oga Peninsula in Akita prefecture, home to a Japanese self-defense forces base. The fourth fell just outside the zone.

One thing that’s happening is that the US is sending an anti-missle defense system to South Korea, according to NBC News:

The United States has begun shipping a controversial anti-missile system to South Korea after North Korea test-launched four medium-range missiles on Monday, U.S. officials told NBC News.

The system, called THAAD, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is an anti-missile system designed to counter a threat like that from North Korea.

Other THAAD systems are already active in Hawaii and Guam to defend against North Korea, but the shield hadn’t yet been deployed to South Korea — a scenario that Beijing has denounced as a “clear, present and substantive threat to China’s security interests.”

Two mobile launchers landed in South Korea late Monday, part of a missile defense system that the U.S. military says is meant to defend the country against a North Korean attack.
U.S. Forces Korea

I wonder if tRump will give us a heads-up if he decides to start a war with China and North Korea? Huffington Post: North Korea Warns Of ‘Actual War’ Over Military Exercises.

North Korea said on Tuesday it would pursue its nuclear deterrent and weapons program as huge U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises it says model a “pre-emptive nuclear attack” against Pyongyang continued.

South Korea and the United States, which led condemnation of North Korea’s latest missile tests at the Conference on Disarmament, said their military drills were to test defensive readiness against possible aggression from the North.

North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Choi told the United Nations-backed forum that the allies’ annual exercises were “a major cause of escalation of tension that might turn into actual war”.

“The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is firm in its determination to further bolster its defense capabilities with a nuclear deterrent as a pivot so as to put an end to danger of nuclear war caused by the United States,” Ju said.

During the 90-minute session, envoys from more than 20 countries, including North Korea’s main ally China, as well as Britain, France, Russia and the United States, condemned North Korea’s test-firing of four ballistic missiles on Monday.

On the health insurance (definitely not health care) bill, here’s Sarah Kliff at Vox: The American Health Care Act: the Republicans’ bill to replace Obamacare, explained. Also at Vox, Ezra Klein: The GOP health bill doesn’t know what problem it’s trying to solve. You’ll need to go read both of those–there’s much too much to excerpt.

But here’s a little news from the ridiculous Jason Chaffetz. Think Progress: GOP congressman says Trumpcare will force people to choose between new iPhone and health insurance.

During a Tuesday morning appearance on CNN, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) suggested that under Trumpcare, Americans will face some tough choices — like buying an iPhone or making sure they can see a doctor.

Pressed by CNN’s Alisyn Camerota about whether he’s concerned Trumpcare’s reduced tax incentives and lack of individual mandate will result in less people having insurance, Chaffetz said, “Well, we’re getting rid of the individual mandate. We’re getting rid of those things that people said that they don’t want.” ….

The cost of a new iPhone 7 without a contract is roughly $700. By comparison, the per-capita cost of health care in the U.S. last year was $10,345. Even when insurance coverage that defrays some of that cost is factored in, Americans still spend way less on phones than they do on health care….

If too many healthy people decide to forego health care they don’t think they’ll need in favor of new phones under Trumpcare, prices will go up for those remaining in the health insurance market, creating a “death spiral.”

Chaffetz is such a nasty man, to paraphrase tRump on Hillary.

CIA headquarters in Langley, VA

The New York Times on the Wikileaks story, which sounds very serious: WikiLeaks Releases Trove of Alleged C.I.A. Hacking Documents.

WASHINGTON — WikiLeaks on Tuesday released thousands of documents that it said described sophisticated software tools used by the Central Intelligence Agency to break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions.

If the documents are authentic, as appeared likely at first review, the release would be the latest coup for the anti-secrecy organization and a serious blow to the C.I.A., which maintains its own hacking capabilities to be used for espionage.

The initial release, which WikiLeaks said was only the first part of the document collection, included 7,818 web pages with 943 attachments, the group said. The entire archive of C.I.A. material consists of several hundred million lines of computer code, it said.

Among other disclosures that, if confirmed, would rock the technology world, the WikiLeaks release said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services had managed to bypass encryption on popular phone and messaging services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to the statement from WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate Android phones and collect “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

The source of the documents was not named. WikiLeaks said the documents, which it called Vault 7, had been “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.”

WikiLeaks said the source, in a statement, set out policy questions that “urgently need to be debated in public, including whether the C.I.A.’s hacking capabilities exceed its mandated powers and the problem of public oversight of the agency.” The source, the group said, “wishes to initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons.”

The documents, from the C.I.A’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, are dated from 2013 to 2016, and WikiLeaks described them as “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” One former intelligence officer who briefly reviewed the documents on Tuesday morning said some of the code names for C.I.A. programs, an organization chart and the description of a C.I.A. hacking base appeared to be genuine.

It will be very interesting to see how tRump responds to this disastrous situation, which obviously is the work of his buddy Vladimir Putin.

Here’s an interesting article by Noah Feldman at Bloomberg on tRump’s accusation that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” phones in tRump Tower: Trump’s Wiretap Tweets Raise Risk of Impeachment.

The sitting president has accused his predecessor of an act that could have gotten the past president impeached. That’s not your ordinary exercise of free speech. If the accusation were true, and President Barack Obama ordered a warrantless wiretap of Donald Trump during the campaign, the scandal would be of Watergate-level proportions.

But if the allegation is not true and is unsupported by evidence, that too should be a scandal on a major scale. This is the kind of accusation that, taken as part of a broader course of conduct, could get the current president impeached. We shouldn’t care that the allegation was made early on a Saturday morning on Twitter.

The basic premise of the First Amendment is that truth should defeat her opposite number. “Let her and Falsehood grapple,” wrote the poet and politician John Milton, “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

But this rather optimistic adage only accounts for speech and debate between citizens. It doesn’t apply to accusations made by the government. Those are something altogether different.

In a rule of law society, government allegations of criminal activity must be followed by proof and prosecution. If not, the government is ruling by innuendo.

Shadowy dictatorships can do that because there is no need for proof. Democracies can’t.

Thus, an accusation by a president isn’t like an accusation leveled by one private citizen against another. It’s about more than factual truth or carelessness.

Read the rest at the link.

What else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a terrific Tuesday!


Lazy Saturday Reads

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Good Morning!!

Maybe it’s just me, but I think today must be the slowest news day yet in 2014. I’ve gathered a hodge-podge of reads for you, some that look back over the past year and some current news stories that I found interesting or humorous. So here goes . . .

Looking back, I think the biggest story of this year has been the many events that have revealed how racist the United States still is nearly a century-and-a-half after the end of the Civil War and more than a half century after the Civil Rights Movement.

In the news yesterday: Driver Destroys Mike Brown Memorial, Community Rebuilds By Morning. From Think Progress:

A memorial set up in the middle of Canfield Drive where teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in August was partially destroyed Christmas evening when a car drove through it. Neighbors and friends of Brown quickly came together to clean up the damage, rebuild the site, and call for support on social media….

Activists on the ground also reacted angrily to the Ferguson Police Department’s public relations officer, who told the Washington Post, “I don’t know that a crime has occurred,” and called Brown’s memorial “a pile of trash in the middle of the street.”

Since Brown’s death, the memorial has been a key gathering place for protests and prayers, and a receiving station for those that poured in from across the country to pay their respects and demonstrate against police brutality. Supporters also had to rebuild the memorial in September after it burned to the ground.

Also from Think Progress, photos of the some of the people who were killed by police in 2014.

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As you can see, most of them have black or brown skin.

Sadly, we know Brown and Garner were just one [sic] of many people who died at the hands of police this year. But a dearth of national data on fatalities caused by police makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact number of deaths. One site put the total at 1,039.

What we do know is that police-related deaths follow certain patterns. A 2012 study found that about half of those killed by the police each year are mentally ill, a problem that the Supreme Court will consider 2015. Young black men are also 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than young white men, according to one ProPublica analysis of the data we have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also compiled data which shows that people of color are most likely to be killed by cops overall. In short, people who belong to marginalized communities are at a higher risk of being shot than those who are not.

Go to the link to see a table showing which groups are most likely to be shot by police.

Mother Jones has released its yearly list of top long reads of 2014. First on the list is The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men, by Chris Mooney. It’s about the unconscious prejudices that plague all of us. A brief excerpt:

On the one hand, overt expressions of prejudice have grown markedly less common than they were in the Archie Bunker era. We elected, and reelected, a black president. In many parts of the country, hardly anyone bats an eye at interracial relationships. Most people do not consider racial hostility acceptable. That’s why it was so shocking when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to games—and why those comments led the NBA to ban Sterling for life. And yet, the killings of Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and so many others remind us that we are far from a prejudice-free society.

Science offers an explanation for this paradox—albeit a very uncomfortable one. An impressive body of psychological research suggests that the men who killed Brown and Martin need not have been conscious, overt racists to do what they did (though they may have been). The same goes for the crowds that flock to support the shooter each time these tragedies become public, or the birthers whose racially tinged conspiracy theories paint President Obama as a usurper. These people who voice mind-boggling opinions while swearing they’re not racist at all—they make sense to science, because the paradigm for understanding prejudice has evolved. There “doesn’t need to be intent, doesn’t need to be desire; there could even be desire in the opposite direction,” explains University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek ….

We’re not born with racial prejudices. We may never even have been “taught” them. Rather, explains Nosek, prejudice draws on “many of the same tools that help our minds figure out what’s good and what’s bad.” In evolutionary terms, it’s efficient to quickly classify a grizzly bear as “dangerous.” The trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes to form negative views about groups of people.

But here’s the good news: Research suggests that once we understand the psychological pathways that lead to prejudice, we just might be able to train our brains to go in the opposite direction.

Read much more at the second link above. Go to the previous link to see the 13 other stories on MoJo’s list of the magazine’s best 2014 long reads.

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Also from Mother Jones, a list of “the stupidest anti-science bullshit of 2014.” Check it out at the link.

Another “worst of” list from The Daily Beast: 2014: Revenge of the Creationists, by Carl W. Giberson.

Science denialism is alive in the United States and 2014 was yet another blockbuster year for preposterous claims from America’s flakerrati.  To celebrate the year, here are the top 10 anti-science salvos of 2014.

1) America’s leading science denialist is Ken Ham, head of the Answers in Genesis organization that built the infamous $30 million Creation Museum in Kentucky. He also put up a billboard in Times Square to raise funds for an even more ambitious Noah’s Ark Theme Park. Ham’s wacky ideas went primetime in February when he debated Bill Nye. An estimated three million viewers watched Ham claim that the earth is 10,000 years old, the Big Bang never happened, and Darwinian evolution is a hoax. His greatest howler, however—and my top anti-science salvo of 2014—would have to be his wholesale dismissal of the entire scientific enterprise as an atheistic missionary effort: “Science has been hijacked by secularists,” he claimed, who seek to indoctrinate us with “the religion of naturalism.”

2) Second only to Answers in Genesis, the Seattle based Discovery Institute continued its well-funded assault on science, most visibly through Stephen Meyer’s barnstorming tour promoting his book Darwin’s Doubt. I was a part of this tour, debating Meyer in Richmond, Virginia in April. Meyer’s bestselling book is yet another articulate repackaging of the venerable but discredited “god of the gaps” argument that goes like this: Here is something so cleverly designed that nature could not do on her own; but God could. So God must have designed this. Meyer insists, however, that his argument is not “god of the gaps” since he says only that the anonymous designer was “a designing intelligence—a conscious rational agency or a mind—of some kind” and not the familiar God of the monotheistic religious traditions. For his tireless assault on evolutionary biology and downsizing the deity to fit within science, I give Meyer second place.

Go over to TDB to read the rest of the list.

Donald Sterling and Ray Rice

Donald Sterling and Ray Rice

Also in this vein, Talking Points Memo offers a list of worst sports stories: From Donald Sterling To Ray Rice: 2014 Brought Out The Worst In Pro Sports.

The past year brought out the worst in professional sports players, owners, and fans alike, from domestic violence scandals in the NFL to the removal of racist team executives in the NBA.

Of course, shockingly bad behavior wasn’t limited to major league football and basketball alone. The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, was just sentenced to probation for drunken driving. FIFA was enough of a mess to inspire a 13-minute Jon Oliver segment ahead of the World Cup this summer.

But even the most casual sports observer understands what’s at the center of the Washington Redskins naming controversy, or can form an opinion on whether Ray Rice should be allowed to play football again. The NFL frequently surfaced in the headlines this year for all the wrong reasons, and its domination on this list suggests the league needs to get its act together on a couple fronts.

Check out the list at the TPM link above.

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Recently, I posted some links about the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone With The Wind and the racist attitudes it portrayed. Today Newsweek published a piece about the efforts to curtail the racism in the movie before it was filmed and released: Fixing Gone With The Wind’s ‘Negro Problem’

In the spring of 1938, Rabbi Robert Jacobs of Hoboken wrote to Rabbi Barnett Brickner, chairman of the Social Justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Soon the David O. Selznick Studios of Hollywood will begin production of the play ‘Gone With The Wind.’ The book, a thrilling romance of the South, was shot through with an anti-Negro prejudice, and while it undoubtedly furnished almost half a million people in this country with many glowing hours of entertainment, it also in a measure aroused whatever anti-Negro antipathy was latent in them.”

Rabbi Brickner in turn wrote to Selznick. “In view of the situation,” he wrote, “I am taking the liberty of suggesting that you exercise the greatest care in the treatment of this theme in the production of the picture. Surely, at this time you would want to do nothing that might tend even in the slightest way to arouse anti-racial feeling. I feel confident that you will use extreme caution in the matter.”

Brickner wrote a similar letter to Walter White, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. White also wrote to Selznick, suggesting Selznick “employ in an advisory capacity a person, preferably a Negro, who is qualified to check on possible errors of fact or interpretation.”

In his reply to White, Selznick wrote, “I hasten to assure you that as a member of a race that is suffering very keenly from persecution these days, I am most sensitive to the feelings of minority peoples.” He added, “It is definitely our intention to engage a Negro of high standing to watch the entire treatment of the Negroes, the casting of the actors for these roles, the dialect that they use, etcetera, throughout the picture.

Read the rest at the link.

At Daily Kos, David Akadjian offered a list of 21 Ayn Rand Christmas Cards–a satire, of course, but Akadjian learned that Rand actually did send out Christmas cards, despite her atheism. Here are some of her odes to a selfish Christmas.

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I’ll wrap this post up with some current news stories:

USA Today: Thousands gather to honor slain officer in New York.

The Guardian: North Korea calls Obama a ‘monkey’ as it blames US for internet shutdown.

USA Today: North Korea suffers another Internet shutdown.

Seattle PI: Woman who bared breasts in Vatican square is freed.

Washington Post: Baby gorilla shunned by other gorillas to switch zoos.

Washington Post: Pakistani forces kill alleged organizer of school massacre.

The Telegraph: More than 160,000 evacuated in Malaysia’s worst ever floods.

Special for New Englanders from the Boston Globe: Will The Rest Of Winter Have Lower Than Average Snowfall?

What else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a stupendous Saturday!


Tuesday Reads: Utter Exhaustion Edition

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Good Morning!!

I finally arrived in Boston yesterday after driving for three days. With the days so short, and the nights so dark, I ended up having to stop for the night earlier than I would have in the summer. I was tired last night, but I’m even more exhausted this morning. Everything hurts, and my brain isn’t working properly. I’m supposed to drive up to New Hampshire for Christmas, and I have no idea how I can do that.

I’d like to write a beautifully organized post, but I don’t think I’m capable of it. So here are some news stories that caught my flawed attention this morning.

Another police officer gets away with murder, this time in Milwaukee. From the Journal-Sentinel:

In one of the most highly anticipated legal decisions in recent memory, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced Monday that former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney will not be charged in the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton at Red Arrow Park.

Chisholm determined that Manney’s use of force was justified self-defense.

Hamilton’s family has repeatedly called for Manney, who has since been fired, to face criminal charges.

Speaking to supporters outside the federal courthouse in Milwaukee, Hamilton’s brother Nathaniel said he and the other family members would not waver in their determination.

“We deserve justice,” he said. “Justice is our right.”

As you’ve probably already guessed, Dontre Hamilton was a black man, and Christopher Manney is white. This is getting to be a regular thing, and it’s really getting old. The police unions can complain all they want. The simple truth is that police officers are killing a hell of a lot of black men.

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The NY Daily News reports that the Department of Justice will review the shooting to determine whether Hamilton’s civil rights were violated.

There’s been some pushback on the claims by police unions that protesters of police-involved deaths like those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and government officials who sympathized with their families are responsible for the recent murders of two NYPD police officers in Brooklyn. Here’s an essay by Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Time Magazine: The Police Aren’t Under Attack. Institutionalized Racism Is.

According to Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” For me, today, that means a time to seek justice and a time to mourn the dead.

And a time to shut the hell up.

The recent brutal murder of two Brooklyn police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, is a national tragedy that should inspire nationwide mourning. Both my grandfather and father were police officers, so I appreciate what a difficult and dangerous profession law enforcement is. We need to value and celebrate the many officers dedicated to protecting the public and nourishing our justice system. It’s a job most of us don’t have the courage to do.

At the same time, however, we need to understand that their deaths are in no way related to the massive protests against systemic abuses of the justice system as symbolized by the recent deaths—also national tragedies—of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Michael Brown. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the suicidal killer, wasn’t an impassioned activist expressing political frustration, he was a troubled man who had shot his girlfriend earlier that same day. He even Instagrammed warnings of his violent intentions. None of this is the behavior of a sane man or rational activist. The protests are no more to blame for his actions than The Catcher in the Rye was for the murder of John Lennon or the movie Taxi Driver for the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Crazy has its own twisted logic and it is in no way related to the rational cause-and-effect world the rest of us attempt to create.

Those who are trying to connect the murders of the officers with the thousands of articulate and peaceful protestors across America are being deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protestors. This is the same strategy used when trying to lump in the violence and looting with the legitimate protestors, who have disavowed that behavior. They hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted. Shaming and blaming is a lot easier than addressing legitimate claims.

More at the link.

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The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have each editorialized on the issue.

WaPo: The blame game over police deaths in New York goes too far.

LA Times: Protesters didn’t cause slayings of New York police officers.

The Daily Beast: The NY Police Union’s Vile War with Mayor De Blasio.

And from HuffPo: Police Unions ‘Standing Down’ After Controversial Comments In Wake Of NYPD Shooting.

Despite all the complaints about Obama’s leadership from Republicans, the economy is growing; and wealthy Americans sure seem to be doing okay.

The Hill, GDP grows by 5 percent as US economy picks up strong pace.

The economy grew at a 5 percent rate from July to September, the fastest pace in 11 years.

The strong growth recorded by the Commerce Department adds to the sense that the economy is approaching full speed for the first time since the recession of 2008 — and since President Obama was first elected….

The government found consumer spending grew by 3.2 percent from July to September, compared to 2.5 percent in the previous quarter.

The Commerce Department also shifted its estimate for the second quarter, finding strong growth of 4.6 percent between April and June. That’s up from its previous estimate of 3.9 percent.

Reuters, Dow Tops 18,000 for First Time on Upbeat GDP Report.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average broke through 18,000 for the first time Tuesday, propelled higher by a better-than-expected report on the economy in the third quarter. If the Dow closes above 18,000, it will have taken the index only six months to climb there from 17,000.

It took only seven months to get from 16,000 to 17,000.

The market’s rise has been good news for Americans who own shares, including the wealthy, corporations, financial firms and workers with retirement funds and pensions invested in stocks. For those who don’t own shares, it could mean a widening wealth gap, however.

How much wider can it get?

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But there’s also good news for us ordinary folks. From CNN, 89 straight days of lower gas prices.

The streak, the longest on record according to AAA, has shaved nearly $1 off the national average price of regular gas, taking it to $2.38 a gallon for the first time in five years. September 25 was the last day prices were higher for drivers. That day they increased by only a tenth of a cent. Prices have tumbled 36% since the high of the year, which was back in late April.

Not only have they been falling, but the plunge in gas prices has been picking up speed, tumbling nearly 2 cents between Monday and Tuesday.

Prices were 15 cents higher only a week ago and 44 cents higher a month ago. In numerous cities — including Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Topeka, Kansas — the average price now stands less than $2 a gallon, according to AAA. Springfield, Missouri became the first state to break the $2 average price last week. Missouri drivers are enjoying the lowest statewide average price at $2.05 a gallon.

The plunging price of oil — a 50% drop off the cost of barrel of crude since April, is the main driver in the gas price slide. But there are many other factors also affecting prices. Weakening economies in Europe and Asia, as well as more fuel efficient vehicles worldwide, have all cut demand for gasoline.

Unfortunately, I can testify that gas prices on the New York Thruway are still very high, with regular priced at close to $3.00 a gallon.

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North Korea suffered a major internet breakdown yesterday. Was the NSA responsible? The CIA. If so, good work! From Reuters, North Korea’s Internet links restored amid U.S. hacking dispute.

North Korea, at the center of a confrontation with the United States over the hacking of Sony Pictures, experienced a complete Internet outage for hours before links were restored on Tuesday, but U.S. officials said Washington was not involved.

U.S.-based Dyn, a company that monitors Internet infrastructure, said the reason for the outage was not known but could range from technological glitches to a hacking attack. Several U.S. officials close to the investigations of the attack on Sony Pictures said the U.S. government had not taken any cyber action against Pyongyang.

U.S. President Barack Obama had vowed on Friday to respond to the major cyberattack, which he blamed on North Korea, “in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

Dyn said North Korea’s Internet links were unstable on Monday and the country later went completely offline. Links were restored at 0146 GMT on Tuesday, and the possibilities for the outage could be attacks by individuals, a hardware failure, or even that it was done by North Koreaitself, experts said.

Matthew Prince, CEO of U.S.-based CloudFlare which protects websites from web-based attacks, said the fact that North Korea’s Internet was back up “is pretty good evidence that the outage wasn’t caused by a state-sponsored attack, otherwise it’d likely still be down for the count”.

Almost all of North Korea’s Internet links and traffic pass through China and it dismissed any suggestion that it was involved as “irresponsible”.

So what happened then, I wonder . . . . ?

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Here’s a story that should please JJ: Dish Network dumps Fox News, setting off social media war on Facebook.

Satellite-TV provider Dish Network dropped the Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network on Saturday night after the companies couldn’t come to terms on a new distribution contract, reports TVNewser.

According to Fox Executive Vice President of Distribution Tim Carry, contract talks have broken off and nothing is happening, depriving Dish’s 14 million subscribers of Fox News’ “fair and balanced” approach to current event coverage.

“Our phone line is open, we’re willing to talk,” Carry said. “Am I negotiating right now? I’m not.”

Executives at Dish say Fox is playing hardball with them by attempting to use the news channel as  leverage to increase fees for their sports and entertainment channels normally covered by separate contracts.

“It’s like we’re about to close on a house and the realtor is trying to make us buy a new car as well,” said Warren Schlichting, Dish Network’s Senior Vice President of programming. “Fox blacked out two of its news channels, using them as leverage to triple rates on sports and entertainment channels that are not in this contract.”

Hahahahaha! The Fox fans in Banjoville must being going nuts. But at least they can watch Turner Classic Movies.

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And here’s some even more scary news for racist Southerners. From Raw Story: Southern whites have more black DNA than whites in the rest of US: study.

Some of the states with the most racially charged attitudes towards African-Americans are also the states where the most whites have black ancestors, according to a recently released study.

Researchers examined 145,000 DNA samples provided to genetic testing company 23andme for ancestry analysis to determine that at least six million Americans who called themselves white had 1 percent or more African ancestry.

The study published this month in the American Journal of Human Genetics found that whites in the South were far more likely to have at least 1 percent black ancestry than any other part of the country.

“European Americans with African ancestry comprise as much as 12% of European Americans from Louisiana and South Carolina and about 1 in 10 individuals in other parts of the South,” the authors wrote….

And black Americans living in the South also had more African ancestry than any other region of the country. African-Americans in West Virginia and Oregon had the lowest percentage of African ancestry.

So . . . . what stories are you following today? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a terrific Tuesday!


Friday Morning Reads

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Good Morning!!

I’m quite a bit behind schedule this morning. I’m still in Indiana with my Mom, and we had to have some workmen come by this morning. I’m also trying to get organized for my drive back to Boston over the weekend, so I’m somewhat tired and stressed out.

Anyway, I’m working on a post that I will put up either later today or when I get back home. For now, here’s a TGIF link dump/open thread.

Today’s top stories

The Sony Hack is getting lots of attention.

NYT editorial, Sony and Mr. Kim’s Thugs. Here’s the gist:

Corporations, even large ones like Sony, cannot stand up to a rogue state and shadowy hacker armies all by themselves. That’s why the Obama administration needs to take a strong stand on this and future attacks. Officials said on Thursday that they were considering a “proportional response.”

Retaliation by the Obama administration over this attack would risk escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and between North Korea and Japan, where Sony’s corporate parent is based. However, there are things the United States can do. Although there are already heavy sanctions on North Korea, there may be ways to inflict more economic pain.

Washington could seek an international panel to investigate the attack and demand condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. The United States also needs to work with Japan and South Korea, two other regular targets of North Korean hacking, to improve their defenses and develop common responses like imposing sanctions.

China, North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, remains the best check on the Kim regime; experts say most North Korean hackers are based in China. But China has its own history of hacking American government and industry computers and has resisted Washington’s requests for talks on how to handle hacking attacks and their aftermath.

The international community needs to speed up work on norms on what constitutes a cyberattack and what the response should be. If China and the United States are unable to work together in this critical area, the Internet will become a free-for-all and everyone will pay the price.

The Inteview

CNN, Watch out world: North Korea deep into cyber warfare, defector says.

Jang Se-yul, who defected from North Korea seven years ago, told CNN that he thinks there are 1,800 cyberwarriors in the agency stationed around the world. But he says even the agents themselves don’t know how many others work for the secretive group, called Bureau 121, whose mission is to “conduct cyberattacks against overseas and enemy states.”

The South Korean government thinks Bureau 121 is the agency at the heart of numerous cyberattacks from North Korea against elements in foreign countries, a government official who requested to be anonymous told CNN on Thursday.

North Korea’s hacking capabilities have become a global talking point recently, after a massive hack of Sony Pictures — the studio behind “The Interview,” a comedy depicting the assassination of Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Un. That was followed by warnings that the movie not be shown in theaters…

CNN, Washington outraged over Sony decision.

From Hollywood to Washington, the outrage is spreading over Sony Pictures’ decision to cancel a movie release following a cyber attack and threats from a group of North Korea-backed hackers.

Politicians urged Sony not to back down in the face of threats tied to the release of the controversial comedy “The Interview,” and then began lashing out when the studio made it clear it has no further plans to release the film, which depicts an assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un….

FBI investigators tracked the hackers who broke into Sony’s servers, published private information and threatened moviegoers back to the North Korean regime, U.S. law enforcement officials told CNN on Wednesday. The North Korean regime slammed the movie this summer as “terrorism and a war action.”

And despite the hackers’ threat to attack movie theaters, the Department of Homeland Security has said “there is no credible intelligence” supporting an active plot against movie theaters.

Deadline Hollywood, Hollywood Cowardice: George Clooney Explains Why Sony Stood Alone In North Korean Cyberterror Attack.

EXCLUSIVE: As it begins to dawn on everyone in Hollywood the reality that Sony Pictures was the victim of a cyberterrorist act perpetrated by a hostile foreign nationon American soil, questions will be asked about how and why it happened, ending with Sony cancelling the theatrical release of the satirical comedy The Interviewbecause of its depiction of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. One of those issues will be this: Why didn’t anybody speak out while Sony Pictures chiefs Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton were embarrassed by emails served up by the media, bolstering the credibility of hackers for when they attached as a cover letter to Lynton’s emails a threat to blow up theaters if The Interview was released?

Read the interview with Clooney at the link.

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The Daily Beast, Paramount Bans Showing ‘Team America’.

Three movie theaters say Paramount Pictures has ordered them not to show Team America: World Police one day after Sony Pictures surrendered to cyberterrorists and pulled The Interview. The famous Alamo Drafthouse in Texas, Capitol Theater in Cleveland, and Plaza Atlanta in Atlanta said they would screen the movie instead of The Interview, but Paramount has ordered them to stop. (No reason was apparently given and Paramount hasn’t spoken.)Team America of course features Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, as a singing marionette.

Apparently, both Team America: World Police and The Interview are chock full of racist memes about Asians.

North Korea Is Not Funny. Let’s be clear: The Interview isn’t a courageous act of defiance against a dictator, by Adrien Hong at The Atlantic.

In recent months, the uproar over The Interview, a comedy about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has triggered an escalating set of reactions: retaliatory threats from North Korean officials; a sophisticated cyberattack on Sony Pictures, reportedly orchestrated by North Korea; a pledge by the hackers to physically attack theaters showing the film; and now, on Wednesday, Sony’s decision to cancel the movie’s December 25 release altogether, as movie-theater chains began backing out of screenings. The latest development is an act of craven self-censorship and appeasement—a troubling precedent by the Free World’s leading culture-makers. But rightful calls to defend freedom of expression and go ahead with the movie are also mixing with a far more dubious strain of thinking: that the film itself is a form of defiance against a dictatorial regime. It is not.

Kim Jong Il puppet from "Team America World Police."

Kim Jong Il puppet from “Team America World Police.”

In The Interview, directed by the Canadian comics Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, a celebrity journalist (James Franco) and his producer (Rogen), tired of producing meaningless content, score a major scoop: an interview with Kim Jong Un (Randall Park). The CIA learns about the trip and recruits the two to kill the leader—a task that, judging from reports and leaked footage, someone eventually succeeds in doing.

This film is not an act of courage. It is not a stand against totalitarianism, concentration camps, mass starvation, or state-sponsored terror. It is, based on what we know of the movie so far, simply a comedy, made by a group of talented actors, writers, and directors, and intended, like most comedies, to make money and earn laughs. The movie would perhaps have been better off with a fictitious dictator and regime; instead, it appears to serve up the latest in a long line of cheap and sometimes racism-tinged jokes, stretching from Team America: World Police to ongoing sketches on Saturday Night Live.

It’s a thoughtful article. I need to go back and give it a careful read.

In other news . . .

Bloomberg View, Hillary Clinton Secretly Pushed Cuba Deal for Years, by Josh Rogin.

Although President Barack Obama is taking the credit for Wednesday’s historic deal to reverse decades of U.S. policy toward Cuba, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she was the main architect of the new policy and pushed far harder for a deal than the Obama White House.

From 2009 until her departure in early 2013, Clinton and her top aides took the lead on the sometimes public, often private interactions with the Cuban government. According to current and former White House and State Department officials and several Cuba policy experts who were involved in the discussions, Clinton was also the top advocate inside the government for ending travel and trade restrictions on Cuba and reversing 50 years of U.S. policy to isolate the Communist island nation. Repeatedly, she pressed the White House to move faster and faced opposition from cautious high-ranking White House officials.

After Obama announced the deal Wednesday, which included the release of aid contractor Alan Gross, Clinton issued a supportive statement distributed by the National Security Council press team. “As Secretary of State, I pushed for his release, stayed in touch with Alan’s wife Judy and their daughters, and called for a new direction in Cuba,” she said. “Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on power.”

But according to the progs, Hillary is a triangulating warmonger. Hmmmmm . . .

ABC News, 5 Sweeping Changes Recommended for Secret Service After Fence Jumper Enters WH.

A bipartisan, independent panel scrutinizing the U.S. Secret Service after a man with a small knife in his pocket jumped the perimeter fence and made it deep inside the White House is recommending sweeping changes at the agency.

The Secret Service’s “paramount mission” of protecting the president and other high-ranking officials “allows no tolerance for error,” and a “single miscue, or even a split-second delay, could have disastrous consequences for the nation and the world,” warns the panel’s final report, commissioned by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson after the September breach.

Read the recommendations at the link.

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The New Yorker, The Unidentified Queen of Torture, by Jane Mayer.

The NBC News investigative reporter Matthew Cole has pieced together a remarkable story revealing that a single senior officer, who is still in a position of high authority over counterterrorism at the C.I.A.—a woman who he does not name—appears to have been a source of years’ worth of terrible judgment, with tragic consequences for the United States. Her story runs through the entire report. She dropped the ball when the C.I.A. was given information that might very well have prevented the 9/11 attacks; she gleefully participated in torture sessions afterward; she misinterpreted intelligence in such a way that it sent the C.I.A. on an absurd chase for Al Qaeda sleeper cells in Montana. And then she falsely told congressional overseers that the torture worked.

Had the Senate Intelligence Committee been permitted to use pseudonyms for the central characters in its report, as all previous congressional studies of intelligence failures, including the widely heralded Church Committee report in 1975, have done, it might not have taken a painstaking, and still somewhat cryptic, investigation after the fact in order for the American public to hold this senior official accountable. Many people who have worked with her over the years expressed shock to NBC that she has been entrusted with so much power. A former intelligence officer who worked directly with her is quoted by NBC, on background, as saying that she bears so much responsibility for so many intelligence failures that “she should be put on trial and put in jail for what she has done.”

Instead, however, she has been promoted to the rank of a general in the military, most recently working as the head of the C.I.A.’s global-jihad unit. In that perch, she oversees the targeting of terror suspects around the world. (She was also, in part, the model for the lead character in “Zero Dark Thirty.”)

According to sources in the law-enforcement community who I have interviewed over the years, and who I spoke to again this week, this woman—whose name the C.I.A. has asked the news media to withhold—had supervision over an underling at the agency who failed to share with the F.B.I. the news that two of the future 9/11 hijackers had entered the United States prior to the terrorist attacks. As I recount in my book “The Dark Side,” the C.I.A. got wind that one of these Al Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Mihdhar, had obtained a multiple-entry visa into the United States eighteen months before 9/11. The agency also learned, months before the attacks, that another Al Qaeda operative, Nawaf al-Hazmi, had flown into Los Angeles. Yet the C.I.A. appears to have done nothing. It never alerted the F.B.I., which had the principle domestic authority for protecting the U.S. from terror attacks. Its agents had, in fact, been on the trail of at least one of the hijackers previously, but had no way of knowing that he had entered the United States. Nor did the C.I.A. alert the State Department, which kept a “TIPOFF” watch list for terror suspects.

KUT.org, Austin TX, Sexist Comment by Austin Police Officer: Isolated Incident or Part of Broader Culture?

Police Chief Art Acevedo suspended two officers in November for making jokes about rape victims. The Austin Police Association said at the time that the respective three-day and five-day suspensions were “fair and appropriate.” The incident took place after a local attorney had released a video in which the two Austin police officers are laughing and one of the officers comments: “Go ahead and call the cops. They can’t un-rape you.

Recently, offensive comments were made to KUT’s reporter Joy Diaz, while she was covering a police-related story….

Just to set the scene, this reporter was at the police union’s building waiting to interview the head of the union. That’s when veteran officer [Andrew] Pietrowski approached me and started talking about the media fall-out over the video tape of NFL running back Ray Rice punching and knocking out his then-fiancé in a hotel elevator. Rice was suspended by the NFL and was released by his team.

Pietrowski says the event was blown out of proportion by the media. That’s when he explained.

“Now, stop and think about this. I don’t care who you are. You think about the women’s movement today, [women say] ‘Oh, we want to go [into] combat,’ and then, ‘We want equal pay, and we want this.’ You want to go fight in combat and sit in a foxhole? You go right ahead, but a man can’t hit you in public here? Bulls–t! You act like a whore, you get treated like one!”

Pietrowski retired from the force after learning that KUT planned to reveal his comments on the air.

S0 . . . . what else is happening? Please post links to the stories that interested you in the comment thread, and Happy Friday!


Monday Reads: “Christmas Is At Our Throats Again.”

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Good Morning!!

It’s only 10 days until Christmas, and I really can’t wait until the whole dreadful thing is over and we can go back to normal life. Even though I generally ignore “the holidays,” no one can really avoid being affected by the insanity of it all.

On Sunday, The New York Times published a piece about the empty feeling so many people have at this time of year. The author is Arthur C. Brooks of the {gag!} American Enterprise Institute, but I’m trying to ignore that too for the moment. He opens with a supposed quote from Noel Coward: “Christmas is at our throats again.” I can’t believe I’ve never heard it before.

Abundance Without Attachment

“Christmas is at our throats again.”

That was the cheery yuletide greeting favored by the late English playwright Noël Coward, commemorating the holiday after which he was named. Less contrarian were the words of President Calvin Coolidge: “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”

Which quotation strikes a chord with you? Are you a Coward or a Coolidge?

If you sympathize more with Coward, welcome to the club. There are many more of us out there than one might expect. A 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans were bothered “some” or “a lot” by the commercialization of Christmas. A 2013 follow-up confirmed that materialism is Americans’ least favorite part of the season.

Call it the Christmas Conundrum. We are supposed to revel in gift-giving and generosity, yet the season’s lavishness and commercialization leave many people cold. The underlying contradiction runs throughout modern life. On one hand, we naturally seek and rejoice in prosperity. On the other hand, success in this endeavor is often marred by a materialism we find repellent and alienating.

Read the rest if you’re interested. I have some issues with the author’s point of view; if he’s really into nonattachment, why is he employed by the AEI?

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I also came across this piece from last December 20 in The New Republic. It’s a reprint of an essay from 1990 by James S. Henry.

Why I Hate Christmas

Although for many years Christmas has been justified on the grounds that it is “merry,” rigorous quantitative analysis establishes that the opposite is the case. Despite claims advanced by proponents that the holiday promotes a desirable “spirit,” makes people “jolly,” etc., the data show that the yuletide time period is marked by environmental degradation, hazardous products and travel, andperhaps most importantinefficient uses of key resources. The holiday is an insidious and overlooked factor in America’s dwindling savings rates, slack worth ethic, and high crime rates. Nor does Christmas truly fulfill its purported distributional objective: the transfer of gifts to those who need them. Moreover, the number of people rendered “joyous” by Christmas is probably equaled or excelled by the number made to feel rather blue. In short, as shown below, although Christmas is an important religious observance that provides wintertime fun for children (who would probably be having fun anyway), it fails the test of cost-effectiveness.

Christmas consumes vast resources in the dubious and uncharitable activity of “forced giving.” First, it is necessary to factor in all the time spent searching for “just the right gifts,” writing and mailing cards to people one ignores the rest of the year, decorating trees, attending dreary holiday parties with highly fattening, cholesterol-rich eggnog drinks and false cheer, and returning presents. Assuming conservatively that each U.S. adult spends an average of two days per year on Christmas activities, this represents an investment of nearly one million person-years per season. Just as important is the amount that Americans spend on gratuitous gifts each year$40 billion to $50 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly retail trade sales. Extra consumer spending is often considered beneficial because it stimulates the economy, but the massive yuletide spike creates numerous harmful externalities.

Mistargeted giving is one indication of this waste. According to New York department stores, each year about 15 percent of all retail dollar purchases at Christmas are returned. Allowing for the fact that many misdirected gifts are retained because people feel obliged to keep them (such as appliances, tablecloths, etc., which must be displayed when the relative who gave them to you comes for a visit), and allowing for the widespread inability of children to return gifts, this indicates that up to a third of purchases may be ill-suited to their recipients. Christmas is really a throwback to all the inefficiencies of the barter economy, in which people have to match other people’s wants to their offerings. Of course, money was invented precisely to solve this “double coincidence of wants” problem. One solution would be to require people to give each other cash as presents, but that would quickly reveal the absurdity of the whole institution.

“Forced giving” also artificially pumps up consumption and reduces savings, since it is unlikely that all the silly and expensive presents given at Christmas would be given at other times of the year. One particularly noxious aspect of Christmas consumption is “conspicuous giving,” which involves luxury gifts such as Tiffany eggs, crystal paperweights, and $15,000 watches that are designed precisely for those who are least in need of any present at all (“the person who has everything”). Most such high-priced gifts are given at Christmas; the fourth quarter, according to a sampling of New York department stores, provides more than half the year’s diamond, watch, and fur sales.

Read the rest at the link. The points are actually more relevant today in the era of the new Robber Barons than it was in 1990.

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Now to the news of the day.

A hostage crisis developed in Sydney Australia yesterday and it is still going on. One armed man was holding as many as 15 hostages inside the Lindt Chocolat Cafe. There appears to be some connection with Islamic terrorism, but it’s not clear yet if this is a lone wolf or or someone actually connected to the Islamic State. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Efforts by police to negotiate a peaceful end to a siege of a cafe in the heart of Sydney’s CBD are continuing well into the night.

Police said they are dealing with an armed man, who has been holding an undisclosed number of hostages at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Martin Place since about 9.45am.

Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told an evening media conference that police were in contact with the suspected gunman, adding that “we are only dealing with one location”.

“Our plan, our only goal tonight is to get those people who are currently caught in that building, out of there,” Mr Scipione said. “Rest assured, we are doing all we can to set you free.”

Some hostages have now escaped. There’s lots more information at that link.

More from the LA Times:

Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed late Monday that the gunman appeared to have “a political motivation,” and local media reported that the gunman was trying to obtain an Islamic State flag in exchange for some of the hostages.

Two people inside the cafe had been seen pressed up against the window holding a black flag with Arabic writing early in the siege, which began about 9:45 a.m. local time. The flag appeared to say: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

The gunman claimed to have planted four bombs, two inside the cafe, and two elsewhere in Sydney, local media reported. Authorities declined to “speculate” about reports of explosives.

“I can’t speculate on what may or may not be, and that would be very unhelpful at the moment,” Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said at an evening news conference. “At the moment we know that the person we are dealing with is armed.”

She declined to call the incident a terrorist act. “We still don’t know what the motivation might be,” she said, adding that authorities “want to resolve this peacefully.”

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Sony Pictures is warning media outlets not to publish their hacked e-mails. From The Washington Post: 

After days of silence, Sony Pictures Entertainment acknowledged a voluminous, embarrassing leak of internal e-mails and other materials on Sunday, warning numerous media outlets in a strongly worded letter against publishing or using the “stolen” corporate data exposed by unidentified hackers.

The materials, particularly e-mails, provided an extraordinary glimpse inside one of the world’s best-known corporations. The initial stories based on the materials went viral and absorbed days of coverage last week, illuminating the high-powered dealings, petty squabbling and ego that can define Hollywood.

The company threatened legal action against news organizations that failed to heed its request, a strategy some legal scholars say would have a rough time passing muster under the First Amendment, which protects freedom of the press. Though no one has accused any news organization of participating in the theft, the letter appears to be a gambit to stop news outlets from reporting the documents.

Sony’s action came just as the hackers, who call themselves the “Guardians of Peace” reportedly threatened another dump of stolen data. The hackers have demanded the company withdraw an upcoming comedy based on a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

So the rumors that the hackers are from North Korea is true then?

The contents of the leaked data, which some analysts suspect may be linked to a North Korean regime furious over the release of Sony’s movie “The Interview,” included information on Sony’s salaries, business dealings, private health records and executive correspondence. Those letters revealed what’s been described in media reports as a racially insensitive conversation involving President Obama and disparaging remarks about some of Hollywood’s biggest actors, including Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio.

There’s much more at the WaPo link.

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After Elizabeth Warren’s speech in the Senate last week, many in the media are stepping up their efforts to get Warren to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination. It’s truly horrifying–almost an exact repeat of what happened in 2008 when the progs who now hate Obama’s guts–and eventually the Democratic establishment and the meda–handed the nomination to Obama, a candidate with only two years’ experience in the Senate. Obama at least had some political experience as a state legislator; Warren doesn’t even have that. And where would the money come from?

Some links to explore:

Wonkblog: Elizabeth Warren was told to stay quiet, but she didn’t – and it’s paying off.

WBUR Boston (NPR): Sen. Warren Warns That Spending Bill Sets Dangerous Precedent.

Huffington Post: The Speech That Could Make Elizabeth Warren the Next President of the United States.

Don’t get me wrong; I applaud what Warren is doing. But do we really want to nominate another presidential candidate based on one speech?

There’s been another police involved shooting of an unarmed black man–this time in Houston.

From the Houston Chronicle: Police: Man shot during traffic stop in southwest Houston.

Two police officers opened fire on an apparently unarmed man during a traffic stop in southwest Houston Friday night, allegedly shooting him three times for not following commands.

HPD officers pulled over the car the man was a riding in for an illegal lane change around 9:30 p.m. on Buffalo Speedway near West Fuqua.

According to authorities, the male passenger — identified by family as 38-year-old Michael Paul Walker — failed to obey orders and started to reach under his car seat.

“They saw the doors open up, one of the officers gave repeated verbal commands to stay inside the vehicle, then the officer went to brace the door to keep him (the passenger) inside,” said Houston Police Department spokesman Victor Senties. “At one point he had his arm all the way under the seat, right up to the elbow, as if he was trying to grab something … The officer gave him commands to show his hands … at that point the officer was in fear of his life and that of his partner.”

The officer fired at the man. Initial reports suggest that Walker then got out of the car and was walking around the parking lot of a convenience store before he was shot again.

“The suspect got out of the vehicle … he was digging into his pockets and waist band,” said Senties, adding that the second officer also shot the suspect.

Yeah, whatever. I don’t believe anything cops say anymore.

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Raw Story has a report from a witness to the shooting: Bystanders plead with unarmed black man to ‘lay down’ after Houston police repeatedly shoot him.

Laquesha Spencer told Local 2 that she was yelling at Walker, “‘Lay down, they are going to shoot you. They are going to kill you.’ And I guess he was in shock, he had already been shot three times, because I heard multiple gunshots.”

As Walker was stripping down, the partner of the officer who first shot him opened fire, striking him again. Police then charged and handcuffed Walker, who was taken to the hospital where he is listed in serious, but stable, condition.

Walker’s sister, Laura, said she believes the police used excessive force and is already pursuing legal action. “He didn’t even have a gun,” she said, “he’s never owned a weapon.”

At least this police shooting victim is in the hospital, not dead.

Also from Raw Story, an update on events surrounding the police shooting of John Crawford for holding a toy gun in an Ohio Walmart store: Ohio cop threatens sobbing girlfriend with jail after police gun down man in Walmart.

Police aggressively questioned the tearful girlfriend of a young black man they had just shot dead as he held a BB gun in an Ohio supermarket – accusing her of lying, threatening her with jail, and suggesting her boyfriend had planned to shoot the mother of his children.

Tasha Thomas was reduced to swearing on the lives of her relatives that John Crawford III had not been carrying a firearm when they entered the Walmart in Beavercreek, near Dayton, to buy crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars on the evening of 5 August.

“You lie to me and you might be on your way to jail,” detective Rodney Curd told Thomas, as she wept and repeatedly offered to take a lie-detector test. After more than an hour and a half of questioning and statement-taking, Curd finally told Thomas that Crawford, 22, had died.

“As a result of his actions, he is gone,” said the detective, as she slumped in her chair and cried.

I’ll end there. I have a few more links for you that I’ll post in comments. What stories are you following today?