Friday, July 27, 2007

TSA protecting you from seniors with bad backs

From ABC News:

An unsuspecting senior citizen from Long Island, N.Y. is behind one of the incidents that prompted the TSA to issue a bulletin last week about cases in which they suspect terrorists may have been probing airport security by trying to bring peculiar items on board airplanes.

In her case, Sara Weiss tried to bring ice packs on her flight home.

“I'm not a terrorist. I'm just a 66-year-old woman who's coming back from visiting her son and I have a bad back, so I carry these things,” Weiss told ABC News' Lisa Stark.


Security officers then took her to the bowels of the San Diego airport for three hours of questioning by airport police and others. The first questions stunned her.

“The first thing he said after introducing himself was, 'Do you know Osama bin Laden?' And I thought, 'What?,'” Weiss said.

Oh good lord. Read the rest of the story here.

Giving air time to all sentient beings, and credit to the little bitty dogs

By now you've probably heard the amazing story of Oscar the cat, who seems to sense when a resident of the nursing home where he lives is in their last hours of life.

Less known is the story of Zoey the Chihuahua. From the AP:

Tiny Dog Saves Baby From Rattlesnake

MASONVILLE, Colo. (AP) - Zoey is a Chihuahua, but when a rattlesnake lunged at her owners' 1-year-old grandson, she was a real bulldog.

Booker West was splashing his hands in a birdbath in his grandparents' northern Colorado back yard when the snake slithered up to the toddler, rattled and struck. Five-pound Zoey jumped in the way and took the bites.

“She got in between Booker and the snake, and that's when I heard her yipe,” said Monty Long, the boy's grandfather. The dog required treatment and for a time it appeared she might not survive. Now she prances about.

“These little bitty dogs, they just don't really get credit,” Booker's grandma Denise Long told the Loveland Daily Reporter-Herald.

Bush vows to veto healthcare for children

He's pathetic. Just when you think he's slithered as low as he can go, President Bush says some asinine comment that shows how (a) out of touch, and (b) heartless he is.

On July 10th, Bush vowed to veto a bill with bipartisan support that would add $35 billion to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program over the next five years by increasing federal taxes on cigarettes.

His reasoning? He thinks it means putting more power in the hands of the government by expanding federal health care programs and empowering bureaucrats to make medical decisions. (Ronald Reagan and his '80s neo cons tried that same tired line about too much government expansion, and you know what? They named the biggest new federal building in Washington DC after him! Hypocrites!)

How out of touch is Bush? At a town hall in Cleveland this month, he said “I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.” Spoken like the man he is: someone who has never wanted for anything. Papa Bush and Mama Bush always took good care of their boy, I am sure. And even when he drove his oil company into the ground (and then walked away with a profit) and gouged the city of Arlington when he was an owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, he never had to worry about how the bills would get paid.

That's right, Georgie. Just go to an emergency room. It's not like they'll send you a bill later, or anything.

The Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that S-CHIP will need about $14 billion in new money over five years just to keep covering the same number of children, in part because of rising health-care costs.

Republican Sen. Gordon Smith originally introduced the SCHIP budget resolution in the Senate. Unlike Bush, who is not up for re-election, Smith is defending his vulnerable Senate seat in 2008, in the blue state of Oregon. He, like other Republicans who are breaking with Bush on the war in Iraq, is sensitive to Bush’s domestic policies. Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families just released a poll that says 91 percent of Americans support the expansion of SCHIP to cover more kids.

Repeat after me: January 20, 2009.

House of Reps. to Bush: “Time to Pack Up”

The US House of Representatives has scheduled more votes on Iraq policy next week just before members of Congress go home for the August recess. The Iraq Study Group Implementation Act (H.R. 2574) has strong bipartisan support. This legislation would set the U.S. on a new course in Iraq by making serious regional diplomacy, negotiations with Iraq's warring factions, and U.S. troop withdrawals unavoidable.

Read more on why this bipartisan legislation is the next practical step that Congress should take to change U.S. policy on Iraq.

Urge your representative to cosponsor the bipartisan Iraq Study Group Implementation Act (H.R. 2574) and to vote to attach this legislation as an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill when it comes to the floor of the House in early August.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Update on the Hate Crimes Bill

With Congress trying to unravel so many White House scandals, the Hate Crimes Bill hasn't gotten much press lately. It passed the House of Representatives in May of this year, and has been placed on hold until the mess that is our U.S. Senate can work itself out.

Existing federal law authorizes federal involvement only for hate crimes involving race, color, religion or national origin. The pending Hate Crimes Bill would include a victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.

Please watch the new video from the Human Rights Campaign if you wonder why this is impotant. And then contact your Senator.

Worst interview evah!

I absolutely love Holly Hunter, and can't believe she endured this interviewer with such dignity. It's clear why ABC News Now reporter Merry Miller got her job, and it has nothing to do with her interviewing skills. Or ability to read cue cards. You'll want to turn away, but trust me, you won't be able to.

Blog recommendation: Princess Sparkle Pony

How could you not love a blog that has the tag line:

“I keep track of Condoleezza's hairdo so you don't have to.”
So take a break and visit Princess Sparkle Pony. I think you'll enjoy it.

Iraq refugee crisis nears breaking point

From Amnesty International:

“More than two million Iraqis have now fled the sectarian violence raging in their country and almost two million others are internally displaced,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme. “This is threatening to create an humanitarian crisis that could engulf the region unless concerted international action is taken now.”

Humanitarian assistance reaches a very small minority of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Many refugees interviewed by Amnesty International during a recent visit to Syria said they received no food and that their savings had dried up.

Some Iraqi families have even resorted to forcing their daughters into prostitution to survive. Child prostitution and trafficking of Iraqi children is also said to be on the increase.

“The situation of Iraqi refugees is dire and worsening by the day, despite the efforts of the Syrian authorities and local and international humanitarian organizations,” said Malcolm Smart. “The response of the international community must go beyond accepting token numbers of refugees from Iraq.”

Read the Amnesty press release here.

[UPDATED] About those terrorist “dry runs” ... Ummm, not so much

When the Transportation Safety Administration released a safety bulletin last week, it referred to several “recent suspicious incidents” under the sensational headline, “Incidents at U.S. Airports May Suggest Possible Pre-Attack Probing.” Unfortunately, there's a little discrepancy between the bulletin and reality. Notice the highlights I've made in the two descriptions of this event.

From the July 20th, 2007, official TSA bulletin:

5 July 2007, San Diego, CA–A U.S. Person’s (USPER) checked baggage contained two icepacks covered in duct tape. The icepacks had clay inside them rather than the normal blue gel.
However, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego Harbor Police Chief Kirk Sanfilippo said that wasn't exactly the case. In fact, it's not accurate at all:

Sanfilippo said a routine swab test of the bag indicated the presence of a chemical that is sometimes used in explosives or medications. Inside the luggage, inspectors found cold packs, wrapped in clear packing tape, that were old and leaking.

Sanfilippo said they weren't covered in duct tape and didn't have clay inside of them. “It is a little bit off,” he said of the bulletin.

The chief said a Harbor Police officer found what appeared to be hardened old gel that had seeped out of the ice packs and dried, leaving a clay-like substance around the outside edge of the pack.
I don't know if the Bush Administration thinks that we will all live in a constant state of fear and therefore follow their lead without question. My personal reaction is becoming one of total disbelief in all of these possible terrorist activity stories. And I'm not so sure that's such a great thing either, to be so jaded that I don't take any of it seriously anymore.

Everyone knows the story of the little boy who cried “wolf,” don't they?


As for the cheese incident (not to be mistaken for the String Cheese Incident) at BWI airport, that too is now sounding like an exaggeration of the facts. Today's Baltimore Sun reports that officials are trying to downplay the reports of a possible dry run by terrorists. Although the TSA bulletin has a picture of a block of cheese with some kind of electronic device apparently taped to it inside some plastic, I personally doubt that is a photo of the actual items in question from the BWI incident. According to the Sun:

... a couple's checked baggage contained a block of processed cheese and a charger for a DVD player, which might have substituted for bomb components.

Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said “Every indication was that they were not a threat as passengers.”

It sounds to me like this couple had in their luggage: (1) a block of cheese, and (2) a DVD charger. But not that they were necessarily attached to each other. So this photo distributed by the TSA with their bulletin on July 20th seems more than a little misleading:

Am I getting paranoid? What are your thoughts on this?

What the cable companies don't want you to know

A couple of months ago I cancelled my satellite tv service. I was sick of paying almost $60 a month for hundreds of stations that I have no interest in, and never watched. I mean, really, how many shopping channels do we really need? All the new channels that came on seemed to be geared toward ostentatious consumption. I'd love to watch a travel channel that covered trips I could actually afford. Or a DYI channel that showed projects that the average person might really be considering. You know, like “This Old House” on PBS.

Since then we've been watching regular broadcast tv. Rearranging the rabbit ears almost every time we change the channel; can only get the local PBS station on the tv upstairs (and that's still pretty snowy).

So I was pretty interested to learn from my friends in Boston that they have a very cheap cable package that gives them good reception on the local channels without all the extra channels. I wondered if it was offered in Baltimore, so I did a little research, and guess what: It's offered everywhere!

Here's the deal: the FCC requires that all cable service providers have a basic services tier (it's often called "Limited Basic Service"). According to the FCC, “The basic services tier must include most local broadcast stations, as well as the public, educational, and governmental channels ....”

In Baltimore, that means about 20 channels: the local NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, several PBS stations, 2 C-Span stations, the city government access channel, and the public access channel. It has 2 shopping channels. I guess I can't get away from them entirely. The price in Baltimore is about $11 a month.

You wouldn't know about this from watching the ads for Comcast, would you? When you call them up and ask for it, they know what you're talking about and they'll give it to you without a hassle. But don't look for it on their website, or in any of their ads on tv.

Read the FCC rules here. Then tell all your friends about it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mom and toddler hassled at (Reagan) National Airport over water in a sippy cup

O.k., my travel experience recently was just annoying. Imagine traveling alone with a 19-month old toddler and being hassled, humiliated, and detained for 45 minutes for trying to bring aboard a sippy cup with water on a long flight from DC to Reno, Nevada.

The sippy cup was seized by TSA. Monica wanted the cup back because the sippy cup was the only way her son would drink — and it was a long flight between Washington, DC and Reno, Nevada where she was going for a family reunion. If you’ve ever traveled with a toddler you understand about sippy cups.

So she was willing to spill the water out. Drink the water. Anything — all that she wanted was to be able to have a cup that her 19-month-old toddler could drink from.

Read the rest of the story here.

To briefly summarize, she was detained and questioned extensively about the sippy cup — nothing else in her luggage was examined. During this questioning, which took place in the middle of a public gate exit, some water from the cup spilled on the floor. She was ordered to apologize for spilling the water, and was told to clean it up. A Barney Fife clone, if ever there was one, handed her a roll of paper towels and she got on her hands and knees and cleaned the floor.

It's all on video provided by the TSA as supposed evidence that they didn't hassle the woman. But if you watch the entire video (it's a long 10 minutes or so) it looks like the keystone cops and a stressed out mom. It doesn't give me much faith in the TSA. To me, it looked like a bunch of people in uniform getting their kicks out of ordering her around.

Watch the TSA security video of the incident here.

TSA: blocks of cheese raising concern

An interesting news bit following the announcement by the Transportation Security Administration that it will begin allowing passengers to carry on lighters. An unclassified (but not meant for public distribution) TSA bulletin was obtained by the press yesterday which said that terrorists may be conducting "dry runs" at several airports in the US.

Among the incidents mentioned in the TSA bulletin:

Milwaukee, June 4. A U.S. person’s carry on baggage contained wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese. The bulletin said block cheese has a consistency similar to some explosives.

Baltimore, Sept. 16, 2006. A couple’s checked baggage contained a plastic bag with a block of processed cheese taped to another plastic bag holding a cellular phone charger.

The TSA released another statement today that states this information is simply routine and that "There is no intelligence that indicates a specific or credible threat to the homeland."

But personally, I think we can expect a ban on all dairy products to come very soon.

Wednesday poetry break


This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

— Eleanor Lerman

From today's edition of The Writer's Almanac

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Blog recommendation for today

I guess it's the teacher in me, but what I enjoy most about hosting this blog is that I get to help people look at things a little differently. Maybe you still disagree with what I say, and that's o.k. But at least you understand how someone else might see things. And vice versa — I've learned from you all, as well.

So in that spirit, I recommend checking out BAGnewsNotes, which describes itself as “a progressive blog dedicated to the political picture, and the discussion and analysis of news images.” If you're a news junky (and I think you are if you're still reading this!) then you'll enjoy taking a deeper look at some of the images the mainstream media publishes. Today's image is particularly gripping:

An Iraqi interpreter wears a mask to conceal his identity while he assists a soldier delivering an invitation to an Imam for a meeting with an American colonel.

As well as the analysis behind the image:

The way the Iraqis, including the interpreter, are lined up in a diagonal row, with the American the only one offset, is a fateful piece of geometry given the failure of the U.S. to line up with or get behind its in-country support. The way the interpreter is so completely "out front" is another angular expression of the fateful situation.

Read the rest here.

TSA lifts ban on some items

Air travel today is truly an Alice in Wonderland experience. And now, we're truly going down the rabbit hole. The Transportation Security Administration has announced that it will lift the ban on ... lighters?! Are you kidding me?!

As of Aug. 4, disposable butane lighters, such as Bics, and refillable lighters, like Zippos, will be allowed in your carry-on luggage. The reason given for the change in policy is apparently that it takes too much time and costs too much money to deal with the lighters:

"Explosives remain the most significant threat to aviation," said TSA administrator Kip Hawley. "By enabling our officers to focus on the greatest threats, we are using our officers' time and energy more effectively and increasing security for passengers."

Lighters are the leading item seized at airport checkpoints, an average of more than 22,000 a day. It costs TSA $4 million a year to dispose of them because they contain hazardous materials.

I just experienced this insane world of "airport security," and let me tall ya, I didn't see any lighters being confiscated, but I saw a whole lot of shampoo, lotion, water bottles, and two full cups of perfectly good Dunkin Donuts coffee bought mere feet from the security checkpoint. (And I'm still mad about that coffee!) So I'm not sure I buy this argument that the lighters are such a hassle. My cup of coffee is more dangerous than a lighter?

I'm sorry, but I see no reason for lighters to be allowed on a plane. What possible use would a passenger have for a lighter on a plane? They cannot smoke on the plane, or even in most airports. If there is no public outcry about this, I think I will just move to Canada or something. I mean, there we all are, standing in line at the security checkpoint: barefoot, a quart-size baggie in our hand with 3.4 oz of shampoo (I also must "declare" my bottle of saline solution), moving through the line like sheep.

Kurt Vonnegut, god rest your soul.

Iraq? Yeah, we got a plan

The plan is: stay until at least 2009, according to a report obtained by the New York Times.

The classified plan, which represents the coordinated strategy of the top American commander and the American ambassador, calls for restoring security in local areas, including Baghdad, by the summer of 2008. “Sustainable security” is to be established on a nationwide basis by the summer of 2009, according to American officials familiar with the document.

The detailed document, known as the Joint Campaign Plan, is an elaboration of the new strategy President Bush signaled in January when he decided to send five additional American combat brigades and other units to Iraq. That signaled a shift from the previous strategy, which emphasized transferring to Iraqis the responsibility for safeguarding their security.

That new approach put a premium on protecting the Iraqi population in Baghdad, on the theory that improved security would provide Iraqi political leaders with the breathing space they needed to try political reconciliation.

The latest plan, which covers a two-year period, does not explicitly address troop levels or withdrawal schedules. It anticipates a decline in American forces as the “surge” in troops runs its course later this year or in early 2008. But it nonetheless assumes continued American involvement to train soldiers, act as partners with Iraqi forces and fight terrorist groups in Iraq, American officials said.

Read the rest of the story here.

About those polyps

Well. President Bush is getting all the attention, but it's a little known fact that his polyps held a press conference recently. You can watch it below, if you are so inclined.

I'm sorry. This will be the last mention of George Bush's colon on this blog. But it's kinda funny.

Minimum wage goes up today

Finally, some good news: The minimum wage rises 70 cents to $5.85 an hour today, the first increase in a decade.

I mean, I know that's good news, but who the hell can live on $5.85 an hour? A person working 40 hours a week at $5.85 makes $12,168 a year — before taxes. Fortunately, many states have enacted minimum wage laws higher than the federal standard. Read more about your state here.

Time to get off our collective butt

I returned today with the news that Congress and the White House are in a standoff on the 2008 appropriations bills. Although this may sound like a boring post to start off my return from vacation, it's actually got me pretty fired up.

You see, the war in Iraq is costing us about $12 billion per month. Yes, per month. And while we continue to pour money down this bottomless hole of a mess, our own citizens here at home suffer and our future as a world leader looks grim. In the congressional spending bills are provisions for home heating assistance for low-income Americans. President Bush says it's too much. He also says Congress is planning to give too much money to Amtrak, and he wants that cut way down, too. Oh yeah, and he also wants to cut down spending on Head Start, community centers, and health research.

What kind of nation have we become when we spend billions of dollars each month to occupy and fight in a country where we are not welcome, while neglecting our own citizens? According to Prime Minister Al-Maliki, Iraqi forces are capable and American troops can leave "any time they want." A recent poll of Iraqi citizens found that 47% approve of attacks on US forces. And 80% think that we plan to have a permanent presence in their country (such as military bases) even after the troops are withdrawn.

We are a prosperous nation, but we are like a child when it comes to spending. The Bush-Cheney crowd saw the conflict in Iraq as a child sees a shiny new bicycle. No sense of priorities or empathy for others, just grabbing at what they want at that moment. Childish and irresponsible.

It's time for all of us as American citizens to speak out about where our tax money goes. President Bush has already announced that he will veto any bills that he feels put too much money on domestic spending. Yet he's given a blank check to the mess in Iraq. It's our money that he has been entrusted with, and it's time we made it loud an clear that we want a change. Contact your Senators and Representatives and demand that they stand up to Bush's threats. It's your money he's playing with. All $12 billion a month of it.