Samuel Emil Blum, August 28th, 1920-January 9th, 2013

Samuel Emil Blum.

My father, Sam, was born on this day 93 years ago.  He was born in the Bronx but raised in Stelton, New Jersey.  He lived a long and full life that included events, achievements, failures, friends, and experiences that mark all of our lives.  He was exceptional in his modesty and fun to be around.  I was lucky to have him more as a friend than as a parent for the past thirty-five years.  Dadwdonkey

More Snake Oil, Y’all.

A US Attack on Syria based on supposed use of chemical weapons:  UTTER F’N Bullshit!  Syria knows the US, Britain and France are waiting for any pretense to launch an attack and their going to unleash chemical weapons?

“It’s called snake oil, y’all and it’s been around for a long long time.”  Steve Earle

Three Unrelated Gems

Three Unrelated Gems

ONE: April Rain Song, by Langston Hughes LangstonHughesI think of this poem often. In August with longing; in January with contempt.

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

TWO: Surya Singh’s Oft Stated Hierarchy of Indian Driving Skills.

1: Taxi driver
2: Lorry driver
3: Government bus driver
4: Delhi service long route driver
5: Owner car driver (A privately owned car driven by a personal hired driver)
6: Owner driver (A privately owned car driven by its owner)
7: Owner wife driver (A privately owned car driven by the owner’s wife. Yes, I grasp the sexist nature of the assumption. Thank you very much.)

Tuk Tuk

Tuk Tuk

8: Tuk Tuk Driver (Tuk Tuks are ubiquitous inner city motor powered rickshaws. Tuk Tuk rides are like taking LSD but with greater color, fear, cows, donkeys, and dogs                 9: Rich man’s son driver (A privately owned car driven by the owner’s son)


Surya Singh


Singh with other Drivers


Surya Singh toured my friend Bruce and I around the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, India for 18 days in October of 2013. He is a wise, proud, and insightful Rajput man. Much of his knowledge derives from his eighteen-year career driving a taxi. Driving in India is like nothing else and nowhere else in the world. Surya Singh became my brother and his kindness and knowledge opened up India beyond anything we could have found on our own.

Not to be confused with the American notion of taxi drivers, Indian Taxi drivers are generally used for touring people around the hazardous world of Indian roads. They are a professional class and take great pride in their positions. “Singhsab,” on more than one occasion would recount the hierarchy of Indian driver’s ability.


Three: Beautiful Souls, by Eyal Press.

“Resistance to authority often begins not with grand gestures carried out in the name of abstract causes but small, modest actions that rarely seem unusual to the people carrying them out.”

 Beautiful Souls, by Eyal Press describes the actions and circumstances of individuals who resisted participating in crimes against humanity. It’s an account of why people do or do not have moral courage dissecting some mechanisms allowing and stopping people from committing crimes they know are wrong. Worth a read. Short book, not depressing at all.


Oarfish. Real! Real!

OarfishpaintingYou may have seen the news item yesterday about a “sea monster” that was found on the beach in Spain.  It was initially thought to be the remains of an Oarfish, a stunning creature that is worth knowing.  The remains turned out to be a shark skeleton, but it prompted me to spend some time looking at Oarfish pictures.  Oarfish are a ribbon like fish that can grow quite long and large.

The greatest work of my life was as a fisheries biologist on Soviet and Japanese fishing vessels in the late 70’s and early 80’s when I worked as an “Observer” for the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Every day brought something new from the ocean and I have seen more than a few bizarre and extraordinary creatures.  Oarfish4Fish are deeply etched into my being. I dream about them, admire them, and often wish I were one.


The Morning After


“Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being.”
Jean Paul Sartre – Being and Nothingness

I have no idea what Sartre means. I once read a book by Sartre titled The Transcendence of the Ego for a philosophy class. I even wrote a paper about it though I couldn’t understand a word.

What I do know is that the the morning after a full moon like the one we had last night, I wake up thinking about things like this and wonder what the psychiatry wards and prisons were like last night.

Which The Greater Crime? Oh no Harpo!

OprahVery uncomfortable am I poking fun of Oprah, whom I admire.  News that Oprah was the “Victim” of racism in a Zurich, Switzerland shop the other day when a clerk refused to show her a $35,000 purse tickled a raw proletarian nerve just a wee bit. pursesNo doubt Oprah was profiled by a bigoted clerk who saw her black skin and thought her unable to afford the purse> But victimized? Yes, I understand the deeper significance of this, but really, O, a $35,000 purse?


Snowden Considered

snowdenI’ve been sitting on a piece about Edward Snowden for a while. Snowden’s revelations pose complex questions. I think it is better to avoid falling into firm positions like- “It’s a great thing what Snowden did” or a cynical and Machiavellian “Get real, there really are bad guys and it’s good we can find them before they kill us.

I’m not sure where to begin so I begin with Daniel Ellsberg. ellsberg

Mention the name Daniel Ellsberg today and the likely response, by any who remember his release of the Pentagon Papers, will be admiration for a courageous man of conscience. Ellsberg was a key policy analyst working for the Pentagon and the Rand Think Tank Corporation whose access to reports he had helped author he stole, photocopied, then leaked to the New York Times. Ellsberg divulged highly classified information from a study of US decision making in Indochina (Vietnam) commissioned by former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The embarrassing and essential part of the study was that our own military understood that our policies regarding Vietnam were flawed and that the war was futile. pentagonpapers

Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; 42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come.mcna

The war became his personal nightmare. Nothing he did, none of the tools at his command — the power of American weapons, the forces of technology and logic, or the strength of American soldiers — could stop the armies of North Vietnam and their South Vietnamese allies, the Vietcong. He concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life.

From NYT Obituary Robert McNamara, July 6, 2009.

The reasons cited by McNamara (and many others within the government) for keeping the The Pentagon Papers (aka History of U.S. Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968) secret were they would give aid to foreign governments and also jeopardize sources of information that were gathered clandestinely. Does this sound familiar?   One must ask if the tens of thousands of Americans who died for what McNamara and others understood was wrong, might have been spared had the leak occurred earlier?

Ellsberg, like Edgar Snowden and the recently convicted Bradley Manning, was a highly classified insider with access to a nation’s secrets. Unlike Manning or Snowden, Ellsworth initially was more politic and tried to bring to the attention of members of the Senate and Congress information which he believed was vital to the public who might then engage in reckoning the direction the nation in Vietnam.

Ellsberg tried to work within the system before he turned over the documents to the press. He also knew his actions were criminal and expected to be jailed for them. In fact, Ellsberg was inspired in his actions by resistors who were being imprisoned for refusing to serve in the war. Today, Daniel Ellsberg has almost an heroic status as a man whose epiphany of conscience overrode his sworn duty to preserve secrecy.

So you see, Mr. Snowden is not the first to let the cat out of the bag and leaders, whether LBJ, Nixon, George W Bush, or Barack Obama, do not take kindly to having their secrets revealed. Nixon said this about Ellsberg,

“The sonofabitching thief is made a national hero and is going to get off on a mistrial, and the New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents…What is the name of God we have come to?” President Richard Nixon (Oval Office discussion, May 11, 1973)

Indeed, Ellsberg did not go to jail for what he himself accepted as criminal. Ellsberg’s revelations were delivered into an America that wanted the war to end and the tide of public opinion was with him. Misters Snowden and Manning may not be so fortunate.

Onward. Bradley Manning was convicted for stealing and turning over to Wiki leaks a vast archive of state secrets. Manning will likely never see anything but a prison cell for a very long time. At the time of this writing, Edward Snowden has received temporary asylum protection by Russia (One must certainly worry about any one who depends on Vladimir Putin for their personal welfare.) Snowden certainly knows that he will be judged a traitor if he returns to the United States, whether by capture, extradition, or voluntarily.

Is Snowden another Ellsberg? Is he a traitor, a dupe, a hero for revealing our government’s extensive surveillance of its citizens?  Does it matter that Snowden could have leaked the information clandestinely but instead chose to do so openly?

A respected friend of mine, who might fairly be described as a liberal Democrat, believes Snowden is at best a fool but more a traitor. Other like minded people I know feel the same way but grow uneasy when I ask them if they would think negatively of Snowden had his revelations come during the Bush/Cheney administrations. And, my point in asking that question is that ultimately the issue of revealing secrets comes down to trust.

That the government has access to everything did not come as a big surprise to anyone. You would have to be an idiot to believe the government cannot find out anything they want about you at any time. The issue turns on oversight as much on surveillance and intelligence gathering. It’s not that we don’t understand the power of the government to spy on us, but a question of who has access, by what authority, how will they use it, and how are individuals protected from the abuses of clandestinely gathered information that has no bearing on national defense.  To me, the violation is not strictly that the government has this power but rather that they we are considered unworthy to be consulted about the nature of the surveillance. This is at the core of the ideal of a functioning democracy: the consent of the people.

By oversight I do not mean a partisan FISA court stacked with appointments by Chief Justice Roberts who rubber stamp each and every request to spy on citizens, but rather oversight with substantial guarantees that the rights of innocent people are not subject to the abuse of arbitrary power. Oversight is a tricky affair.

The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC, also called the FISA Court) is a U.S. federal court established and authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal law enforcement agencies. Such requests are made most often by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Congress created FISA and its court as a result of the recommendations by the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee.[1] Its powers have evolved and expanded to the point that it is has been called “almost a parallel Supreme Court.”[2]

fisaMy congressman, who fancies himself a progressive and likes to walk at the end of parades and pick up horse dumplings, has been remarkably silent about Snowden. He, like many in Congress, probably knew about the massive domestic spying. He and countless others enjoy being privy to this program of surveillance and because they were on the inside become infatuated with the privilege of power.

That a significant bi-partisan tide is mounting to address the potential abuses of this surveillance speaks to power of Snowden’s revelations. If there was no leak there would be no significant conversation.

Hmm… What about Wiki leaks and about Bradley Manning?

It has become common to speak of the Post 9/11 age, a world of Osama Bin Ladens, terrorists, secret cells, dirty bombs, and a myriad of threats to “our freedom.” It would be naive to believe that there are not real threats to our safety and I am thankful for the efforts of those who work with great skill to counter these threats. But we are also living in the Facebook and Social Networks age where the profound reach of information gathering and the slow erosion of privacy is fueled as much by by commerce as by national security.

All governments say, “If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear.”  Power always justifies its tactics by claiming the law is on their side and that they are protecting the people.  But this does not address how easily even those whose judgements and sentiments may previously have been noble will be corrupted by power and information. It’s human nature to use any leverage you can obtain for things such as power, money, sex, control, to silence one’s critics or destroy one’s enemies. That seemingly insignificant tidbit revealed about your life, your internet surfing habits, where you shop, what movies you watch that is of no significance for ferreting out a terrorist may give someone leverage to bend your behavior to their will.


lives of othersIn the 2006 German film The Lives of Others, director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck addresses the perverted and power of state surveillance in Communist East Germany. While the film focuses on the specific surveillance of one of Germany’s leading writers and his circle of creative friends, it could have been about the countless thousands of citizens the totalitarian state deemed a threat.

The film’s develops around the escalating surveillance of one of the nation’s leading writers. What originates in political surveillance escalates into lechery when the head of the Stasi uses his power for sexual leverage against the writer’s actress lover. In the East German police state every action and thought was under surveillance and all words and deeds were used against individuals for any number of nefarious reasons. Such is human nature that given access to private lives, the state or any one of its representatives may use that knowledge to black mail, bully, imprison, or kill.

“The Stasi was one of the most ruthlessly intrusive spy agencies ever to have its records exposed to public scrutiny. Stasi listening agents kept track of when and what their subjects ate, when they visited the toilet and how often they had sex with their spouses or others. Its inner workings were exposed after the thawing of relations between East and West Germany in the 1990s and many Germans still remember the desperate fear that comes from being spied on by one’s neighbors.”stasi

That was the totalitarian communist regime of East Germany, a cold war aberration that the United States held up as a sick and dangerous model of power gone too far like its Soviet counterpart the KGB (which I had first hand experience of while working for the United Sates as a biologist on Soviet ships in the late 1970’s and 1980’s). Surveillance states were traditionally thought of as the antithesis of all things American, just as the naive amongst us never thought our nation would torture prisoners.

I now quote from an article by Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Washington Bureau, from an interview he conducted with former Stasi agent, Wolfgang Schmidt. (The entire article is enclosed at the end of this post)

A former agent of the Stasi, the much-feared East German communist secret police, has said that the recently revealed NSA spying program would have been his agency’s “dream come true” because it has collected “so much information, on so many people.” Wolfgang Schmidt, 78, said in an interview with McClatchy newspapers that it is “the height of naivete” to think that the information will never be used against U.S. citizens.

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” Schmidt said. As a lieutenant colonel in the Stasi, he said that technology limited the secret police’s ability to satisfy its voracious appetite for information. Their listening devices, he said, could only spy on 40 telephone lines at once. Targets had to be prioritized. To take on a new spying subject, an old one had to be let go.”

“The retired spy said his mind reels at the notion of being able to capture data from millions of cellphones and computers simultaneously. “So much information, on so many people,” he marveled to McClatchy.”

“Privacy concerns have recently been raised about spying undertaken by the U.S. and British governments as more and more revelations have come to light about the National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance programs both domestically and abroad. President Barack Obama and other U.S. government officials have repeatedly attempted to reassure the public that the programs are only being used fairly and judiciously to track criminals and terrorists.”

“Schmidt, however, warned darkly that this kind of data collection has a dark side, that even though the U.S. government has claimed that the gathered data serves no nefarious purpose, it someday will.”

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

So where does this leave us? Who are the defenders of freedom? Congressional leaders, FISA Court representatives or Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Do we trust our government or those who blow the veil of secrecy off of everything and spark a debate about what is acceptable and what is not? Have we moved beyond governments as the arbiters of what is to be kept secret?

Secrecy and surveillance will not go away: ever! No leak will ever stop nations from conducting their business away from the critical eyes of its citizens. That reality is something we live with knowing that there are times when we benefit from that and at other times we are threatened by it.

As Edward Snowden dangles in limbo (God help the man whose life is in the hands of Vladimir Putin)putin both parties in the US Congress and Senate have united around legislation to protect what remains of the private lives of others in the United States.  Whether they can put the genie back into the bottle remains to be seen

Before I sign off on this I would like to share one of my favorite quotes. Often attributed to Thomas Jefferson it apparently was common to many other statesman of the Revolutionary War era, the same statesmen who authored the Bill of Rights and constructed a nation in some measure to make certain that no government could destroy the dignity and personal liberty of its citizens.  There was a healthy dose of protection from the abuse of power written into the doctrines at the foundation of this nation.  Here’s the quote:

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” eternal vigilance

A multi-edged knife is that quote for sure, one that can support the type of surveillance Edward Snowden revealed, or one that offers praise to him for stopping us from destroying the essence of our own creed.

I must be honest by saying that I support what Edward Snowden has done. History will be a more significant judge.  (END)

Enclosed below is the entire article about the former Stasi agent.

By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Washington Bureau

BERLIN — Wolfgang Schmidt was seated in Berlin’s 1,200-foot-high TV tower, one of the few remaining landmarks left from the former East Germany. Peering out over the city that lived in fear when the communist party ruled it, he pondered the magnitude of domestic spying in the United States under the Obama administration. A smile spread across his face.

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.

In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.

“So much information, on so many people,” he said.

East Germany’s Stasi has long been considered the standard of police state surveillance during the Cold War years, a monitoring regime so vile and so intrusive that agents even noted when their subjects were overheard engaging in sexual intercourse. Against that backdrop, Germans have greeted with disappointment, verging on anger, the news that somewhere in a U.S. government databank are the records of where millions of people were when they made phone calls or what video content they streamed on their computers in the privacy of their homes.

Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

U.S. officials have defended the government collection of information since word of it broke in newspaper stories based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The records are used only to track down terrorists overseas, officials say. The collection has been carefully vetted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a body of U.S. judges whose actions are largely kept secret. There is no misuse.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, tried to provide an out for President Barack Obama, offering as a possible explanation for the sweeping nature of the U.S. collection efforts that “the Internet is new to all of us.” She was roundly mocked for that statement, and her administration appeared far less forgiving more recently, when similar spying charges were leveled against the British government.

Germans are dismayed at Obama’s role in allowing the collection of so much information. Before his presidency, hundreds of thousands of Germans turned out to hear him speak in Berlin. During a visit last week, the setup was engineered to avoid criticism: Obama spoke to a small, handpicked audience, many from the German-American school. Access to the Brandenburg Gate, the backdrop for his speech, was severely limited, as was access to Berlin’s entire downtown.

As many Germans as heard Obama speak turned out at quickly arranged protests, including one by self-proclaimed tech nerds near the historic Checkpoint Charlie, where U.S. soldiers welcomed visitors from the communist sector of Berlin for four decades with a sign, “You are entering the American sector.” One demonstrator added this coda: “Your privacy ends here.”

The center-left newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung took Obama to task over the surveillance issue. “Governments do not have the right to conceal broad lines of policy,” the newspaper wrote. “President Obama is operating according to an odd maxim: ‘I am doing a lot of the same things that George W. Bush did, but you can trust me because I am the one doing it.’ Not even Obama is deserving of that much trust.”

“Everyone knows that gathering so much information is bullshit,” said Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy adviser. “It’s a total breach of trust by the government. This is how a society destroys itself.”

For 15 years, the Stasi tracked Weisshuhn’s every move and conversation. His Stasi file, which he, like many other Stasi targets, reviewed after the Berlin Wall collapsed, ran to 9,000 pages. He was shocked, and he’s quick to stress that the United States shouldn’t be compared to the totalitarian East German state.

“But that doesn’t mean the president gets a free pass,” he said. “The United States is an open society. This is a problem that must be honestly addressed and fixed.”

Weisshuhn shares a common German perception on the scandal: Snowden, who’s been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking news of the domestic spying, isn’t the bad guy.

“In our case, we thought we were being paranoid until we saw what they’d gathered and realized we’d been naive,” Weisshuhn said. “Here, it’s not the whistle-blower who is wrong, it’s the gathering of information.”

Germans, especially those raised in the east, are unconvinced by arguments that the sweeping collection of information is used only to track terrorists. The assertions by U.S. officials that unspecified attacks have been thwarted don’t persuade them, either. They haven’t forgotten the fear of living under a government that used vague threats to justify blanket spying. In East Germany, the threats came under the banner of disloyalty to socialist ideals. In the United States, the monitoring programs come under the banner of anti-terrorism.

Dagmar Hovestaedt is the spokeswoman for the German Stasi Records Agency, which showed 88,000 people last year what the Stasi had gathered on them. She said the U.S. should consider doing the same.

“This is a study on how to deal with the information the NSA is now gathering,” she said of her archive. “To say that the NSA is the equivalent of the Stasi is too simplistic, but the people who are spied on do have a right to know what was learned about their lives, what they had hoped to keep private that was not. Transparency is essential.”

Still, she noted that Stasi victims have a large advantage in finding out what was studied.

“It’s easy to make information available when it was gathered by a state that no longer exists,” she said.

Stefan Wolle is the curator for Berlin’s East German Museum, which focuses in part on the actions of and reactions to the Stasi. What becomes clear when studying the information the organization gathered is the banality of evil: Simple pieces of everyday life are given much greater importance than they deserve when a secret organization makes the effort to gather the information.

“When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew,” he said. “A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other.

“The lesson,” he added, “is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.”

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