Obama-Bush profits again: U.S. Defense officials still cannot say what happened to $6.6 billion but it was probably stolen, wars continue apace

Remember when $6.6 billion went “missing” after huge quantities of $100 bills were shipped to Iraq in 2003-2004?
Now President Barack Obama’s government are, according to Sydney Morning Herald author Paul Richter, “finally closing the books on the program that handled funding for reconstruction in postwar Iraq” and it’s a doozy: President “no looking back”‘s council tells us the money was probably stolen. I know, incredibly obvious, right?

Twenty-one giant C-130 Hercules cargo planes each carrying $2.4 billion cash went to Iraq and somehow the cargo went unaccounted afterwards. Stuart Bowen, special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, said the missing $US6.6 billion might be ”the largest theft of funds in national history”. While the Pentagon said they could track down the money given enough time, six years later it seems the money is still not able to be tracked. Isn’t that what a thief would say?

As bad as a $6.6 billion theft is, keep in mind that trillions of dollars are spent on all the occupations, invasions, and bombings the US heads up today: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, saber-rattling against Iran, …all while Americans are suffering from an illegal and unchallenged foreclosure wave, a larger gulf between the rich and poor than ever before, and no clear indication the American government cares about its citizens woes.

Is any of this really a surprise? How bad do things have to be before millions of Americans find the time to protest in all the major cities at the same time (so as to clearly show solidarity)?

Blender Institute videos are well worth paying for

I have been an avid supporter of the Blender Institute videos for a long time (as you can see from many posts to this blog). One reason is they treat their users well: works are licensed to share (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). I encourage you to purchase the videos, share, and enjoy!

For all of the videos: Everything else (video tutorials, HTML, and so on) Blender Foundation | www.blender.org

Magnatune partners with library, patrons win sharable music

Magnatune, a music label where you can download and share all of the tracks in their entire catalog, has struck a deal with the Library system of Ann Arbor, Michigan so that library system’s 107,801 registered cardholding patrons can login to a library-made web-based system and easily download Magnatune tracks.

Unlike loaning physical media many patrons can get the music without a trip to the library, many patrons can get tracks simultaneously, and unlike the typical corporate label music these tracks can be legally shared because Magnatune licenses tracks to its members under the Creative Commons by-nc-sa v1.0 license.

Screenshots of the web interface and links to relevant statistics about their library system are available on Magnatune’s blog.

The library paid a $10,000 flat fee in a licensing agreement that runs through June 30, 2012.Ann Arbor Chronicle

Are more libraries doing deals like this? I figured librarians are the vanguard of caring about non-DRM works, so striking deals like this with media organizations that care about their listeners and artists should be a no-brainer.

Some good causes undermine their own efforts with bad substitutes for real action

I was recently asked to consider signing onto an electronic protest against the US’ Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) recent suspension of a blogger who linked to websites that allegedly distributed copyrighted movies without license. A group called “Demand Progress” rightly complained:

Brian McCarthy ran a website, channelsurfing.net, that linked to various sites where you could watch online streams of TV shows and sports networks. A couple months ago, the government seized his domain name and on Friday they arrested him and charged him with criminal copyright infringement — punishable by five years in prison.

We just obtained a copy of the complaint (below) that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made against him — and they don’t even allege that he made a copy of anything! Just that he ran what they call a “linking website” which linked to various sites with copyrighted material. Under that sort of thinking, everyone who’s sent around a link to a copyrighted YouTube video is a criminal.

This is another shocking overreach by DHS and ICE — a steamship-era department that’s proving once again that it doesn’t understand the Internet. We need to push back — and fast — before they try to lock up more Americans.

Demand Progress

Demand Progress raises good points and I think that linking to anything ought not be a crime, no matter what one links to. However:

  • the way Demand Progress collects petition signatures undermines their effort. Anyone may put in any name, email address, and zipcode into their website’s form and that address is sent feedback as if they were a signatory to Demand Progress’ petition. No verification is done to make sure the person who uses that email address wasn’t the victim of someone else signing them up for Demand Progress’ feedback (which. if unsolicited, could rightfully called spam). As a result of this any claim DemandProgress.com’s claims of petition popularity are suspect and dismissable. Nobody knows how many of the alleged signatures are actually people interested in supporting the complaint.
  • email is cheap. Handwritten letters, phone calls, and in-person support are all more meaningful. It’s easy to manufacture a large set of email addresses and make it look like a large group of people support your cause. It’s not easy to get people to send handwritten letters or postcards to their Congressional representatives, or phone into a Congressional representative’s office complaining about something and demanding specific action. In-person action is far more convincing than names in a spreadsheet. Marching in the street is, therefore, more convincing than a group of names, email addresses, and zipcodes.

As long as people think clicking a button is a good approximation for political organizing, the status quo wins. Political organizing is more about identifying and doing the legwork that needs to be done, not caving into someone’s objection that it’s too hard to catch someone else’s attention and settling for a self-selected poll.

Corporate parties love torture: WikiLeaks reveals innocents held at Guantánamo

From today’s Democracy Now! headlines a WikiLeaks leak that is making mainstream news as well:

WikiLeaks Documents Reveal Over 150 Innocent Men Knowingly Held at Guantánamo

The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has begun releasing thousands of secret documents from the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The documents reveal the Bush and Obama administrations knowingly imprisoned more than 150 innocent men for years without charge. In dozens of cases, senior U.S. commanders were said to have concluded that there was no reason for the men to have been transferred to Guantánamo. Among the innocent prisoners were an 89-year-old Afghan villager and a 14-year-old boy who had been kidnapped. Some men were imprisoned at Guantánamo simply because they wore a certain model of Casio watches, which had been used as timers by al-Qaeda. The documents also reveal that the journalist Sami al-Hajj was held at Guantánamo for six years partly in order to be interrogated about his employer, the Al Jazeera news network. Al-Hajj’s file said he was sent to Guantánamo in order to “provide information on…the al-Jazeera news network’s training programme, telecommunications equipment, and news gathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan.”

Democracy Now! 2011-04-25

More on this from The Guardian/UK (1, 2).

If you like torture, vote for a Democrat or a Republican for US Congress or President. It won’t matter which candidate or party you pick because apparently you’ll get state-sanctioned torture either way. The illegal, unethical, and ongoing occupations (and commensurate torture) are the preeminent moral and fiscal issues of our day. Virtually all other issues the US faces pale in significance to American occupation. Virtually all other issues the US faces can be remedied if not fixed outright by ending American occupation. That’s because of how much the US spends on occupation (1, 2, and later Stiglitz would say his early estimates were lowballs).

Not only was Obama’s promise to end the prison at Guantánamo a weak promise, the promise was never made good. Guantánamo’s prisoners can be easily moved to Bagram or one of a number of secret prisons the US maintains around the world.

Update 2011-04-26:

Tell the FSF how you think they are doing!

Free Software Foundation’s new executive director John Sullivan wants you to give him your feedback and criticism. Specifically, he wants to know:

By what measures do you judge the success of the FSF’s public advocacy campaigns, and how do you think they have been doing?

As he says, “it’s all fair game. Please share your thoughts, impressions, and criticisms with me at <johns@fsf.org>”.

Update 2011-05-06: John Sullivan reiterated his invitation to tell him what you think the FSF should do noting he’ll be starting a closer read of the letters I’ve received so far and that about 75 of you have responded so far, which should keep me busy for a while. But I would love to have more. Thanks!.

Why let someone else choose what you’re allowed to read?

In 2009, Amazon.com took away copies of purchased electronic books sold through Amazon’s “Kindle” book service. Amazon.com’s embarrassment at being caught was widely disseminated in the mainstream press and Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, wrote apologetically about the incident.

In December 2010, Selena Kitt, erotic fiction author, told us Amazon did it again:

On December 9, 2010, I was contacted by CreateSpace (Amazon’s Print on Demand service) who publishes my print books. They informed me that my title, Back to the Garden, had been removed for violating their “content guidelines.” When I consulted their guidelines I found them so vague as to be useless””were they saying my content was illegal? Public domain? Stolen? Offensive? (All of these were on the list). When I inquired as to the specifics of the violation, they were not forthcoming, and sent a form letter response stating that Amazon “may, in its sole discretion, at any time, refuse to list or distribute any content that it deems inappropriate.”

On Sunday, December 12, the print title that had been removed had now disappeared from the Kindle store, as well as two of my other titles, Naughty Bits and Under Mr. Nolan’s Bed. I have over fifty titles selling on Amazon, all of them in erotic fiction categories. The only thing these three singled-out titles had in common, besides being written by me””they were all erotic incest fantasy fiction.

Selena Kitt

(I didn’t link Kitt’s book titles to Barnes & Noble as Kitt did because Barnes & Noble sells another proprietary-driven eBook reader called the “Nook”. Since the Nook runs proprietary software, it too can be controlled by someone other than the owner. Therefore switching from Amazon’s proprietary device to Barnes & Noble’s proprietary device is merely jumping between masters. What’s called for is switching to freedom, even if that means doing without an eBook reader.)

Kitt says other erotic fiction authors experienced the same thing she did. But Amazon hadn’t just taken the eBooks from their virtual shelves; that would be merely unfortunate for the authors looking to sell copies of their texts. Amazon had removed the copies already sold to Kindle customers…again!

When some of my readers began checking their Kindle archives for books of mine they’d purchased on Amazon, they found them missing from their archives. When one reader called to get a refund for the book she no longer had access to, she was chastised by the Amazon customer service representative about the “severity” of the book she’d chosen to purchase.

So, how much is it worth to you to have the freedom to read what you want, retain full control of whatever reading device you own where only you decide what is on that device, and retain what you get even if your reading choices no longer comport with a businesses idea of appropriateness? You wouldn’t let someone take books off of your bookshelf, why let publishers or vendors remove eBooks from your reading device?

This is not really about Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or the Swindle and Nook reading devices; sure, this unquestionably justifies not doing business with proprietary software vendors including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. DRM stories are primarily about your freedom. Every DRM story is really about why you should value your freedoms to read, copy, build upon, and retain works.

Google book settlement rejected for good reasons

Background

Straight from Judge Chin’s opinion, “In 2004, Google announced that it had entered into agreements with several major research libraries to digitally copy books and other writings in their collections. Since then, Google has scanned more than 12 million books. It has delivered digital copies to the participating libraries, created an electronic database of books, and made text available for online searching.”. Google’s project affects so many people outside the also has policy for copyright holders to contact them and opt-out of the digitization, indexing, and republishing process should they object to their work being republished. Enter the usual benefits from widespread sharing and easy access to digital information, but wait—isn’t this just well-funded widespread commercial copyright infringement?

Why should this project deserve professional participation from libraries but not well-organized grassroots networks sharing copyrighted digital works without license? Or why didn’t the old Napster system get librarian’s help when they effectively helped people share digital copies of copyrighted sound recordings without license?

Usually when someone goes to the trouble to distribute a huge collection of copyrighted work without license they’re called on the carpet for it and stopped, typically with a settlement that pays off some allegedly representative organization. In this case a lot of people found fault with the idea that Google would be given (apparently exclusive) permission to digitize and reproduce (in part or whole) lots of books. They filed letters describing their views to Judge Chin. But in this case I don’t see anyone calling for criminal punishments for well-organized corporate, commercial, copyright infringement. Where’s the call to talk to US Congresspeople about increasing penalties for corpoate copyright abuse? Apparently it’s okay to be a corporate copyright infringer but not a grassroots copyright infringer.

Various takes

Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive wrote about this highlighting the advantage of decentralized dissemination of the works.

We are in favor of building a digital library system that has many winners, but the Google book settlement seems like a bridge too far. We are sorry that it had to go this way, but the monopolistic aspects of the settlement do seem problematic.

That copyright holders are being spoken for strikes me as a greater problem with the proposed settlement; as the judge said, “Absent class members who fail to opt out will be deemed to have released their rights even as to future infringing conduct.” due to the opt-in nature of this settlement. The judge rightly saw this as ridiculous because “A copyright owner’s right to exclude others from using his property is fundamental and beyond dispute.” and “it is incongruous with the purpose of the copyright laws to place the onus on copyright owners to come forward to protect their rights when Google copied their works without first seeking their permission.”.

I appreciate the interest of building a digital library but I’m not sorry the settlement was rejected because it was preposterous. Until copyright law is changed to allow non-commercial verbatim copying and distribution in any medium for all published works (which I think copyright law should allow), I don’t see why librarians would (as many libraries are) handing over books still in copyright to be scanned and made a part of Google’s collection. The US can have whatever copyright policy its citizens wish to have, so go about changing the law and making it allow what you really want to do. Librarians must know they don’t have license to reproduce another’s work regardless of the benefit to the public; this can’t possibly be news to them; is this not contributory copyright infringement? These concerns seem far more important to me than the monopoly for Google this settlement attempted to create because I imagine the monopoly wouldn’t last for long had it been granted—how hard could it be to argue that some other party should get to infringe copyrights like Google has been doing?


The EFF acknowledges that its argument against the settlement on the basis of loss of privacy was not, in the judge’s view, a reason to reject the settlement, but EFF still headlined its blog entry “Google Books Decision: “The Privacy Concerns are Real”” quoting a passage from the opinion. The privacy concerns struck me as a red herring; if other parties can leverage the same permission Google got (as I believe they’d eventually be able to do) there would be someone who would reproduce the works in a way that privacy is preserved (download a file from a place that doesn’t track you or get a copy from a friend and read it anywhere you want anytime). I too want to read privately but I don’t see this as being a particularly salient issue for this agreement. Any popular database has the same privacy issues EFF talks about Google’s book database having, but we don’t discourage people from building interesting databases. The more useful and easily-accessed a database is, the more people’s queries will reveal their intent in using the database. Is there something about this database unique to Google? Plenty of other organizations track accesses across time, users, and searched-for content.

Arduino: The Documentary

An informative new documentary is out about Arduino, “an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software” (source: arduino.cc). You can find all sorts of free software to use with your Arduino board so you can make a lot of interesting devices: robots that crawl, 3-D printers to make other real-world objects, blinking light controllers, and tons of other things. Your imagination is really the limit of what you can do with Arduino.

Arduino comes with inseparable freedoms because Arduino’s environment is built to give you the freedom to explore whatever you want: Arduino software is licensed to share and modify under the GNU General Public License and this software has been ported to run on any operating system, Arduino’s getting-started documentation is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License so share and alter that to your taste too (so long as you pass on the freedoms you got), and the Arduino Uno board works with any computer that has USB (which is virtually every computer you’ll use). You are empowered to do all sorts of interesting things with Arduino, as participants in the documentary attest to.

Download:

Glenn Greenwald’s scathing critique of “Progressives” mostly right-on

In light of US President Barack Obama’s recent appointment of what Glenn Greenwald calls “JP Morgan’s Midwest Chairman, a Boeing director, and a long-time corporatist — Bill Daley” Greenwald posted another mostly spot-on article in which he criticizes so-called “Progressives” who blindly support the Democrats regardless of what that party does:

Progressives who do this will tell you that this unconditional Party support is necessary and justifiable because no matter how bad Democrats are, the GOP is worse. That’s a different debate. The point here is that — whether justified or not — telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any self-interested, rational politician — meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle — will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional. And they’re well-advised to do exactly that.

Generally, another slam-dunk for Greenwald who has a habit of great writing. I think the major theme of Greenwald’s post comes from Frederick Douglass’ famous quote

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.
Frederick Douglass

Progressives who go along with the Democrats to get along will get whatever horrors that party dishes out. Douglass was correct then and he’s correct now.

I don’t agree with some of Greenwald’s minor points made along the way:

  • MoveOn.org and Rachel Maddow are either not progressives or the word “progressive” has become just another way to say “blind Democrat party supporter”. I’ve never found Maddow’s show to be that compelling (I’ve mentioned some of my disagreement with her perspective on this blog). MoveOn.org never fails to rally behind Democrats at election time, much like the Nation magazine with their periodic anti-Nader editorials published around election time. I’ll be surprised if Maddow doesn’t fall into line supporting the Democrats closer to election time.
  • I don’t think the debate over who is worse is as separate a debate as Greenwald says: I don’t think either party is worse overall; I think both Democrat and Republican parties are roughly equally horrible and I believe they support mostly the same big-ticket issues: endless war/world dominance or empire, reduction in civil liberties, running up the cost of government, ecological disaster. Any issue where large sums of money or power are at stake generally find bi-partisan support in the US Congress. Unconditional Party support is never justified as it’s a sure road to being ignored.

While it’s perfectly rational for any candidate to ignore anyone who asks nothing for their support (“support” meaning: vote, campaign contribution, or staffing time on their campaign) the Left has long behaved as if they’re ignorant of the message they send when they behave in this way. I don’t see how the Left or Progressives can expect to maintain their number of supporters when they boast blind Democratic Party support.

I no longer think highly of the Left or Progressives because too many of the Progressives I come across (in person, reading their work, or having worked with them on political stuff in the past) blindly support Democrats and believe in voting Democrat because “[Republicans] are worse” and, just as Greenwald said, are horribly offended when their elected leader doesn’t heed their views. For me, Progressives who do this merely support corporatism, the single thing that undergirds all the horrible stuff the US is involved in.

As a result I have stopped caring about who becomes US President or which of the two US corporate-run major parties leads Congress. I know the same policies will be furthered no matter who wins. Greenwald’s articles point out how one party is no better than the other; you can skim Greenwald’s blog posts and find posts on major issues where Obama’s Democrats kept G.W. Bush’s policies intact or made them worse.