Thursday, June 30, 2005

Courtesy of The Economist

Cartoon courtesy of The Economist, June 25 - July 1, 2005

This segues nicely with a recent article in the NY Times Magazine by Michael Ignatieff, a writer I respect a great deal and whose books have been no small source of neuronal stimulation. The article is Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?. Ignatieff gets into a discussion regarding Jeffersonian democracy and how it's hard to argue that anyone wouldn't want to live in a country where such were the dominating philosophy of governance. I agree, I think everyone is entitled to democracy, and in keeping with that thought Ignatieff then goes onto argue that America is the only country that can in fact export democracy as we seem to be the only ones that believe so strongly in it that we on some level strive to help other countries establish their own democracies.

As always Ignatieff is interesting to read, though here he definitely gets things wrong in my view. He's focusing on the issue of this country exporting democracy as a casus belli for Iraq, and while I concede that this indeed was one of the reasons for our going into that country I feel it's obscured significantly by the way the war was sold to the American people. Many indeed would argue that we went into Iraq to export democracy, that we were going to establish the first democracy in the Middle East and the democracy meme/virus would spread far and wide, and all would be happy. In fact that's a very Jeffersonian perspective, as Ignatieff shares with us part of a piece written by Jefferson before his death:

Democracy's worldwide triumph was assured, he went on to say, because ''the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion'' would soon convince all men that they were born not to be ruled but to rule themselves in freedom.

And I agree, men and women are born to rule themselves --- I believe that, I honestly do. But it's not a meme that you can simply expect a culture to accept on its own, as we seem to expect now in Iraq. This meme grew here in the cauldron of an internal rebellion. We rebelled against what we perceived to be our oppressor at the time, Great Britain, and the rebellion was a well-thought out one, guided within the framework of striving towards an ideal of democracy. Fortunately for us that ideal took root and flourished, but it wasn't a sure thing at the time, nor was it so for a number of decades hence. Yet we're expecting that by simply saying that all men and women desire to be free, that this is a universal truth, that it will take wherever we plant it,
that it will be accepted, and we're the ones to make it so.

More to my main point, which is that Bush sold Iraq as a necessity for our national safety. There was a bad man with bad weapons and we didn't want to give him the chance to use those weapons on us. Moreover he was in cahoots with other bad men who had bad designs on this country. Sadaam must be stopped, was the cry. Of course Sadaam didn't have weapons (Thomas Powers does a wonderful breakdown of the intelligence failures tied to this in a NY Review of Books article, Secret Intelligence and the 'War on Terror', which, along with the questions surrounding the Downing Street memo, makes it hard to believe that Bush wasn't manipulating the facts to get us into Iraq), and there's not a shred of evidence to support that he was in cahoots with terrorists of any flavor, much less al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

So we went into Iraq because this country was threatened, so much so that the threat that we knew was gallivanting through the hills of Pakistan and Afghanistan was no longer the priority, Iraq now was because it was that much more of an important issue. Now, though, the administration is trying to sell us on the idea that we're actually traveling salesman of democracy, and it's costing us nearly 2,000 lives of our own, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives,
and over $200 billion in money for something that's so far removed from being a sure thing that it's not funny, in fact it's down right scary. But what's worse, we weren't sold on this idea from the start, it's plan B in Bush's list of reasons for doing what we're now doing and he hasn't admitted to any failure with regard to plan A, in fact everything's honky-dory on all fronts in Iraq if you're to believe him.

We've an administration that's essentially misguided, if not outright lied, to the American people, and we've damaged our credibility throughout the world. Is it any wonder that the countries we're most interested in trying to convince to change are more inclined to tell us to mind our own business than to listen to hypocritical lectures about changing how they do business?

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Where Evil Lurks

The banality of evil, personified.

Visiting She Falters To Rise I encountered a recent post of hers regarding the BTK killer, Dennis Rader. This guy was the picture of normalcy, though he did have a few quirks, such as his obsessive behavior with regard to executing his job as a "code compliance officer." He was the one that came around to make sure your lawn was cut to spec, that your dog is tied up, anything to do with local "code" that tells you how you should or shouldn't do things. In many places a "code compliance officer" is otherwise referred to as a pain-in-the-buttocks, and it does indeed take a special personality to be really good at this sort of thing (that's not to say all that perform this function are serial killers, but I think most of us get the general idea.) The Times ran Kansas Suspect Pleads Guilty in 10 Murders yestday and here are some excerpts from that piece:

"The former Boy Scout troop leader, married father of two and regular churchgoer pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first degree murder. The killings took
place when Kansas was without a death penalty, so prosecutors cannot seek to
execute Mr. Rader on these cases, but he will almost certainly spend the rest of
his life in prison ..."

"One of Mr. Rader's public defenders said afterward that Mr. Rader's legal team had decided that the case "was not a viable insanity defense." ..."

"Mr. Rader, balding with gray sprinkled in his beard, wore a cream colored sports coat, and a white shirt and dark tie. During his court appearance, he did not appear to be nervous and expressed no remorse as he dispassionately explained how he stalked his victims, and bound and tortured them, before he shot, stabbed, strangled or choked them to death. He went into graphic detail during his testimony and often called his victims by name. Most, he said, were chosen at random."

This man knew right from wrong, but that didn't matter. He had strong sexual fantasies which some aspect of his character didn't allow or help him suppress or otherwise didn't compel him to find help to deal with horrible fantasies --- he likely felt therapy was for sissies or something along that line --- and consequently he went out and killed. But it was more than just the fantasies, he relished the limelight that came with the killing, he savored the news coverage, in fact ultimately it seems that this is what did Rader in as his taunts to local papers asking why they were no longer paying attention to BTK were what allowed law-enforcement to finally get a track on him. This guy compartmentalized his existence, cutting himself up at least three different ways, leading the life of a law-abiding, in fact on some minor level a law "enforcing" citizen on the one hand, a homicidal thrill freak with sexual overlays in another, and then on top of the killer he was some freaky voyeur who got off on what he did when he was being a bad boy. This was a man who saw himself as so pathetic that his existence had meaning only when he had control, and this came at the cost of the lives of ten people --- but yet looking at him no one would have guessed, in fact no one did.

The whole thing reminded me of a book I read some years ago, Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, By Emmanuel Carrere. It tells the true story of a man who went on to
convince family and friends that he had finished medical school, that he was employed by the World Health Organization in Geneva, that he was an investor making extraordinary returns on the money he managed and in turn convinced family and friends to put money in with him which he then used to support his lifestyle and family, and then finally, after 18 years of this, when it all began to unravel, he killed his family (wife and two kids) in an effort to hide what he had done. You'd think the whole thing was impossible, but sure enough it happened. Again, the banality of evil, a man who lived off of his ability to make people believe he was something he wasn't and this would have gone on forever had the house of cards not tumbled down --- but then he's exposed and what does he do? He kills his family and fakes his nearly being killed himself, and it turns out that he killed relatives initially taken in by him who were gradually figuring out what he was up to. Being a con man is one thing, even when you take it to the extreme of playing the con on your own family, but then to resort to murder of those the people you ostensibly love, the only ones who in the end that should have mattered to him, spotlights an extraordinary evil.

Well, one more reminder for me, something attributed to the anthropologist Catherine Baetson, which on some level certainly does apply here, but which is a good reminder for all of us in all aspects of our lives:

"We live with strangers. Those we love most, with whom we share a shelter, a table, a bed, remain mysterious. Wherever lives overlap and flow together, there are depths of unknowing. Parents and children, partners, siblings, and friends repeatedly surprise us, revealing the need to learn where we are most at home. We even surprise ourselves in our own becoming, moving through the cycles of our lives. There is strangeness hidden in the familiar.

"At the same time there is familiarity hidden in the strange. We can look with
curiosity and respect at the faces of men and women we have never met. Learning
to recognize these strangers with whom we share an increasingly crowded and
interdependent world, we can imagine ourselves joined in a single family, perhaps by a marriage between adventurous grandchildren.

"Strangers marry strangers, whether they have been playmates for years or never
meet before the wedding day. They continue to surprise each other through the
evolutions of love and the growth of affection. Lovers, gay and straight, begin in strangeness and often, for the zest of it, find ways to increase their differences.

"Children arrive like aliens from outer space, their needs and feelings inaccessible, sharing no common language, yet for all their strangeness we greet
them with love. Traditionally, the strangeness of infants has been understood as
temporary, the strangeness of incomplete beings who are expected to become
predictable and comprehensible. This expectation has eased the transition from
generation to generation, the passing on of knowledge and responsibility, on
which every human society depends. Yet the gap between parent and child, like
the gap between partners, is not left behind with the passage of time. Today, in
a world of rapid change, it is increasing, shifting into new rhythms still to be

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Gravity and Center


I’m sorry I cannot say I love you when you say
you love me. The words, like moist fingers
appear before me full of promise but then run away
to a little black room that is always dark,
where they are silent, elegant, like antique gold,
devouring the thing I feel. I want the force
of attraction to crush the force of repulsion
and for my inner and outer worlds to pierce
one another, like a horse whipped by a man.
I don’t want words to sever me from reality.
I don’t want to need them. I want nothing
to reveal feeling but feeling --- as in freedom,
or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond,
or the sound of water poured in a bowl.

--- Henri Cole

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Iran's New President: What Difference Does it Make?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

What does the new president of Iran mean to the rest of the world and what does this election mean? The new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an unknown quantity here in the U.S. Even though he was the mayor of Tehran since 2003, he hasn't made much of a mark outside of
Iran itself. So what can we divine from what there is out there about him? The following is some of what's known about the man:

1. He won as a populist candidate. He's considered a man of the people, someone who's down to earth and in touch with the common man. This, more than his hard-line views are more likely to have been the undoing of the "reformist" candidate Rafsanjani, a "cleric" who is widely disliked and closely associated with past and present corruption in the country. Rafsanjani is a rich man who flaunts his power and wealth, as does his family, and who over time has caused a wide range of people to develop strong feelings of dislike towards him. Rafsanjani's last election fiasco was four years ago when he resoundingly lost a bid for a senate seat, a performance he seems to have duplicated in this bid for the presidency. Bottom line, the man is not liked, and it may well have taken a run-down election with him as one of two candidates for president for the Iranian people to finally tune into how much they really don't like him.

2. He's considered to be very devout and very intolerant of corruption. What I've heard from family in Iran is that there's a rash of people trying to get out of the country who've had any association with corrupt goings on there --- the expectation is that Ahmadinejad is going to clean house.

3. He was on the frontline during the war against Iraq. This is a significant thing for a man, especially when one considers the savagery and waste associated with war.

4. He was very involved in the Islamic Revolution which brought Khomeini to power. His ties to the teachings of Khomeini and the Revolution are strong and hold considerable influence on his thinking and actions.

5. He didn't get along well with the reformists. He had problems with Khatami, the reformist president whose term is expiring.

6. His actions while mayor of Tehran, the largest city in Iran, were of a man who's very conservative and a strict interpreter of religious writing, who has no problem imposing that interpretation on the citizens of the country.

7. He's well-educated, with a PhD in civil-engineering, who taught for a time at the university level.

8. In many respects Ahmadinejad is Iran's version of George Bush, though better educated. It's rumored that he even has a problem with malapropisms, similar to Bush.

The fact is that there's little that the president of the country directly controls, so to a large degree the man who occupies the position is a figurehead. But when you consider that a large majority of Iranians did vote for him it causes one to wonder what's going on. My person belief is that this election wasn't so much of an endorsement for Ahmadinejad as it was a loud raspberry to Rafsanjani, a man who had gotten under the skin of a lot of people and who in the end was extremely presumptuous about what he expected to occur on the second election day. Moreover there's a strong sense that I get from the Iranians that I talk to, all of whom are more from the reformist school and as far as I'm aware didn't vote for Ahmadinejad, that of the two candidates Ahmadinejad seems to be the one who would do the most right by the country in terms of cleaning up the corruption and taking care of the people, platforms which played a large role in his getting elected. While the younger citizens in the country seem by and large reformist in perspective, it was pretty clear from the first electoral runoff that a reformist candidate was not going to hold sway, and of the choices available it was felt that maybe Ahmadinejad would get something constructive done during his time in office --- that said, it should be stated this is largely coming from people who are looking at this in some measure of bewilderment themselves, and to some degree trying to find the best message out of what happened.

While it's true that the president of the country has little to say about what goes on there or even internationally with regard to the country for that matter, with the last say in anything of significance coming from the "supreme leader" Ayatollah Khamenei, the president can still
have a significant influence on the people in ways associated with internal control of how they live their lives. Here is where those who voted Ahmadinejad in may regret their decision as it's clear that he favored a conservative interpretation for how Muslims in Iran should lead their lives, in particular the women. How far this will go now that he's president remains to be seen,
though weathervanes to what may come will be tied to those selected for various ministry posts.

The U.S. is still voicing criticism regarding a lack of democracy in Iran. To some degree this is true inasmuch as the unelected Guardian Council and the supreme leader vetted all possible candidates, with the end result being a group of candidates seen as acceptable to them, with one reformist thrown in to keep everyone else happy. This is clearly not a democratic process in any sense that we appreciate it here, but as for anywhere else in the Middle East it's still pretty much the best there is. Of the candidates that were available the electorate turnout in both cases, with the votes held the past two Fridays (it must also be kept in mind that Friday in Islamic countries is the equivalent of Sunday in Christian countries) came close to or exceeded 60%; last Friday's election was on the order of 59.6%. The reality is, regardless of however the
candidates were chosen, the U.S. hasn't had a national election turnout anywhere near that high in a long, long time, and if election day was held on a Sunday I'd hazard to guess that we'd see even less of a turnout.

On the whole, while there are many people who are concerned that there's a conservative who'll be sitting as president, it remains to be seen how this will play out and whether it's going to change much for the country. I'm inclined to believe that the next six months will tell. There's enough indication from Ahmadinejad's past actions to give some concern for how the lives of the people of Iran may regress. That said, there are a lot of things wrong in Iran right now that have nothing to do with religion, and corruption and the misuse of the country's oil wealth top the chart --- from an Iranian perspective Ahmadinejad may well be what the doctored ordered, though it is what the Iranian people clearly wanted, Bush and Rumsfeld's objections aside, and only time will tell what will come with this new twist in the history of a fascinating country.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Yo! Jesus Has Arrived, and He Ain't Happy ...


"For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the
world until now ­ and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut
short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect, those days will be
­Matthew 24:21-22

I bet that some of you are wondering what got into MY Rice Krispies this morning. I was perusing some old material I've accumulated and I came upon something I had saved from Nicholas Kristoff, one of the op-ed columnists for the NY Times. He wrote a piece titled
Jesus and Jihad
on July 17th, 2004. It talks about the "Left Behind" series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and given my train of thought from my last two posts it seemed appropriate to re-visit this.

I'm not sure how many of the LaHaye/Jenkins "Left Behind" books are out there, but there's quite a few and so far they've sold some 60 million of them in total. Here's a chunk of what Kristoff had to say, starting off with quoting a line from the book:

"Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again."

"These are the best-selling novels for adults in the United States, and they have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. The latest is "Glorious Appearing," which has Jesus returning to Earth to wipe all non-Christians from the planet. It's disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.

"If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of "Glorious Appearing" and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it's time to remove the motes from our own eyes.

"In "Glorious Appearing," Jesus merely speaks and the bodies of the enemy are ripped open. Christians have to drive carefully to avoid "hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses."

"The riders not thrown," the novel continues, "leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated. . . . Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they, too, rattled to the pavement."

"One might have thought that Jesus would be more of an animal lover.

"These scenes also raise an eschatological problem: Could devout fundamentalists really enjoy paradise as their friends, relatives and neighbors were heaved into hell?"

Kristoff hit the nail on the head: if something like this had been written in an Islamic country and depicted Christians and Jews getting their comeuppance on Judgment Day, the howls over it in this country would be deafening. I can just see old congressman John Hostettler from Indiana (see Thursday's post if you don't recall him) licking his chops over taking our enemies to task for declaring war on good, God-fearing Christians in this country.

Here we live in a country that depicts itself as extraordinarily tolerant and inclusive, but we have a large contingent of the evangelical faithful who buy this tripe (apparently as much as 60 million of this garbage), who honest-to-God believe that this stuff depicts what God is going to do. They have no problem with the fact that this vision basically dumps all the non-believers into the garbage pail of existence or post-existence, which for many of them is more important. Well, I guess many faithful figure something like this is going to happen to the "other" guy, and oh well they deserve it by virtue of not embracing Jesus. They don't figure that this sort of thinking has any bearing on how they treat the non-believer, or "other" believer before Jesus does the slicing, dicing, frying and flailing --- wow, how cool are these specific Christians, who are so compassionate, understanding, and fundamentally big-hearted and minded enough to overlook the fact that most of us on the planet deserve to be boiled in oil when the big finale finally comes?

I need to clarify something: I don't for a second believe that all Christians think us non-believers or "other" believers are going to fry in oil, or whatever, at the end, any more than all or even many Muslims are proponents of Jihad and blowing up buildings and innocent people on the street. But I have to say I'm amazed how people can take the same book and come up with such totally different messages. In the case of the Bible, which I'm most familiar with, I always focused on "Do unto others as you would have done unto you", "Turn the other cheek", "Be compassionate to the poor and weak", and all these messages that speak to our better natures. I can't recall anywhere that Christ says "Thou must believeth in me as the Son of God or thou will fry in hell, or I'll make filet out of you on Judgment Day", in fact everything that's directly attributed to Christ seems to be pretty much peace loving, understanding, open-minded and generous in every way possible; those who interpret Christ, to include some of the writers in the New Testament, are the ones putting these weird spins on things that pretty much run totally contrary to the man and his message as he overwhelmingly otherwise seems to be depicted.

Well, anyway, my point is that don't think the loonies only exist in Islamic countries, no siree, we have our share here, too. What's even more amazing is that they haven't a clue that what they see as just a literal interpretation of the Bible is just as whacked out as anything Osama Bin Laden and his rationalists have ever come up with out of the Qur'an--- gotta love that ol' good time religion, yes indeed! And on top of this, as you may have gleaned from yesterday's post, these people are doing their damndest to have their skewed point of view represent you by funding institutions like Patrick Henry College, and I'm sure they're thinking of other interesting ways to make your life on Earth here hell before Christ has a chance to on the Judgment Day --- Praise Jesus!

Friday, June 24, 2005

That's it ... The Christian right has simply gone too darn far!!!


"Whether you like it or not!"

So I read my morning blogs two days ago which all helped to ferment in my frontal lobe (or thereabouts, I'm never quite sure where my neural fermenting actually happens) this mess about the Air Force Academy and right wing Christians in politics, and all this was
happening right after finishing the following article, God And Country: A College That Trains Young Christians To Be Politicians in this week's The New Yorker the night before. Talking about nexus points in life, like wow, deja vu or something like that.

The New Yorker article got me to thinking, which I'm sure was its intention given that my guess is the average The New Yorker reader isn't homeschooling their children and wouldn't likely consider footing the tuition for a college like Patrick Henry [henceforth PH], an institution by and large set up to accommodate students who've been homeschooled. I'm going to take pieces out of the article, and to the greatest extent possible (which is to say not consciously, so I appreciate the danger attendant to this) not take anything out of context and sort of comment as I go along. Here I go:

Here we learn a bit about Elisa Muench, a student at PH, and a bit about the college itself:

Muench, like eighty-five per cent of the students at Patrick Henry, was homeschooled, in her case in rural Idaho. Homeschoolers are not the most obvious raw material for a college whose main mission, since its founding, five years ago, has been to train a new generation of Christian politicians. Politics,
after all, is the most social of professions, and many students arrive at Patrick Henry having never shared a classroom with anyone other than their siblings. In conservative circles, however, homeschoolers are considered something of an élite, rough around the edges but pure—in their focus, capacity for work, and ideological clarity—a view that helps explain why the Republican establishment has placed its support behind Patrick Henry, and why so many conservative politicians are hiring its graduates.

This raises an interesting point, at least it did for me. These "future politicians" are being cultivated from a social and academic background that has largely deliberately kept them out of the mainstream of society at large, and this often has started at a very early age --- well, I guess that's why they're "pure". They then go to college, very likely one of the strongest social formative agents of their newly adult lives, where again they're outside the mainstream. Now that's not to say that you have to attend Faber College with the wild and crazy boys of Animal House to know society, or appreciate, and appropriately navigate society as a whole, but how far outside of society are you when you're this far removed from reality as the vast majority of college students and citizens know it? Not sure ...

Indeed, homeschooling is a big deal in the U.S. today, as the article goes on to tell us:

Now about a million and a half children, as many as two-thirds of whom are thought to be evangelicals, are taught at home. Farris [blogger's note: the president at PH] bought the land for the Patrick Henry campus with four hundred thousand dollars from the Home School Legal Defense Association’s reserves; he raised the rest of the money for the college, nine million dollars, from parents and donors such as Tim LaHaye, the author [blogger's note: co-author, actually, along with Larry
Jenkins] of the best-selling “Left Behind” series. LaHaye’s portrait hangs in the main hall.

Just as a heads up, I'll be talking a bit about Tim LaHaye and his "Left Behind" series in tomorrow's post --- Tim has a special place in my heart, yes he does. Anyway, by and large those who are homeschooling their children are doing so with a religious agenda. That's not entirely the case, but it's true for somewhat better than 50% of those being homeschooled. Let me qualify my opinion regarding homeschooling: My personal experience with homeschooled students [not my own children] is that from an academic perspective they're actually very well-educated, on par with their peers as a rule, and often times better educated. More than anything else I attribute this to the active involvement of parents in the learning process of their children, something you don't see as often as you'd like to with students in public schools.

Three times a year, the White House chooses a hundred students for a three-month internship. Patrick Henry, with only three hundred students, has taken between one and five of the spots in each of the past five years—roughly the same as Georgetown. Other Patrick Henry students volunteer in the White House. Tim Goeglein, the Administration’s liaison to the evangelical community, said that the numbers reflect the abilities of the Patrick Henry students, who “have learned a way to integrate faith and action.” For the White House, it is also a way to reach out to its base while building a network of young political operatives.

Well, do you get a sense of favor being bestowed upon Patrick Henry students? I think you should, surely. Do you wonder, like I do, why it's so important to be able to integrate faith and action? I wonder what that means, exactly? Well, it seems pretty clear how the White
House feels about PH, where G.W. and friends are actively cultivating the future Republicans of American.

Now this gives us some clue as to the curriculum at PH, which on the whole doesn't seem bad, but then you can be sure they're not graduating any Nobel Prize in science winners from the place --- ha, they're lucky if they have science majors:

The curriculum for the first two years follows a “Christian Classical” model—basically, Western Civ from a Biblical perspective. Students read Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Locke, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Beckett. They also study Euclidean geometry and biology; the school uses a standard science textbook, but the professor, Jennifer Gruenke, who also has a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, tells students that the earth was created in a week [Blogger's note: For those interested in taking Professor Gruenke's course online, go to PHC Distance Learning: Biology (SCI230DL), where you're told you'll learn the following - Upon completion of this course, students should be able to: Understand the orderly operation of nature as it relates to biological organisms; understand the strengths and limitations of science; integrate knowledge of biology with faith based on biblical principles --- like wow, the two big selling points on the course deal with understanding the limitations vice the power and inspiration of science, and then you get to learn about how to integrate the Bible and faith into biology. Honestly, how'd I miss this stuff when I was getting that biochemistry degree way back when?!? Sign me up, or should it be beam me up?. ] . For the last two years, they switch to a “vocational” model, and receive credit for internships and research projects. Elisa Muench, for example, took a class on how to analyze polls, and is preparing a senior project on political realignments. Most of the students major in government; the few literature majors tend to be girls.

Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, et al., and Oh, by the way, we don't just teach intelligent design here, uh uh, we go for the HARD stuff, we're creationists! ID at least has some semblance of logic to it regardless of however much it may be out to lunch; creationism is from another planet all
together. So we're cultivating our future political leaders from a huge group of homeschoolers who believe in creationism, or at least they're taken through a curriculum where creationism is the explanation for biological development. I myself almost have this sense of visiting the Twilight Zone at this point --- there's definitely a future president in here somewhere, right? Well, according to the article the president of the college certainly thinks so.

Lastly, as I do appreciate that this has gone on overly long for a single blog entry, we have the PH view on women in general:

Elisa [blogger's note: Elisa Muench mentioned above] believes the Bible dictates that “there are different roles for men and women”; as a White House intern, she saw women with young children working “long, long hours,” and she doesn’t want that. Her mother, who had her first child at twenty-seven, tells her that she regrets having waited so long. [Italics is the blogger's emphasis] But the expectation of most of the guys she knows at Patrick Henry—that wives should just “fade out,” that she should instantly take on the identity of a wife and mother “and consider it a blessing”—is not something that she’s comfortable with. “I just think there’s more that God called me to do, and that’s a hard thing to say around here,” she told me.

At PH it seems that it's a really good thing that you ladies have ovaries (those future homeschooled kids gotta come from somewhere), and that you have such great housekeeping skills since you're going to be busy making yourself useful raising those chillin' and cleaning those corners --- Thank you Jesus!

I don't have any problem with someone's faith, Christian or otherwise. I do have a problem with a faith that is out of touch with the world around it and doesn't value women other than for their reproductive and housekeeping skills. But this is apparently where it's expected that the future generation of conservative leaders are going to come from, and it's scary as hell to think that people feel that this is what this country needs. Now to be fair I'm sure that PH is actually just a small response to what would be considered much larger secular training programs at better established schools. But people from those secular schools tend to be a bit more open to the varied nature of the world around them, and tolerant in a way that accommodates as many people as possible, to include evangelical Christians --- gosh, I guess that's why they have a problem as far as the conservative religious right in this country is concerned. Frankly what PH is putting out does indeed concern me, and given how people in positions of influence in this country, be it at the Air Force Academy or on the floor of congress, seem inclined to act with regard to their faith, I'm beginning to believe that we're growing our own version of the Taliban here in this country.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Talk About Dog Chasing Tail --- My God!

Stolen from PostSecret , a totally cool site with some very strange postcards.


Update on Identity Theft

As would be expected, my post on this subject generated some additional information from people who've experienced this problem. That said, I want to share some of what's come my way:

As a victim of identity theft myself, I can attest to the importance of shredding everything even remotely personal.

I still don't know how someone got my SS#, but they did and opened several accounts in my name (with companies that don't run credit checks) before I found out about it.

One hint I was given (after the fact) was to use my initials as much as possible. "M" could be Mary, or Michael, or Marvin, or....

A common theme regarding this problem, as well as an interesting suggestion that I never considered. First, there are a lot of companies out there that will hand over accounts, be it for a credit card or loan accounts at the drop of a hat. Frankly I think there should be a law against this, but as I mentioned in yesterday's post trying to make this happen has been very difficult
due to resistance from the financial community. Here's the reality: There's someone out there willing to help that someone trying to pass themselves as you by making it easy for that person to take on your identity, so limiting the chances for this to happen are what you're striving for.

I hadn't considered using just my initials, but that's a good point and it's something I'm going to endeavor to do in the future, though often enough when your signature is asked for it comes after your card or something else with your full name is provided to you for your signature.

This one from Pablo at the Roundrock Journal:

Regarding Point #2 above: Whenever I am asked for my social security number, I say that I don't happen to have it memorized. (And since my driver's license uses a state-provided number, the SSN doesn't appear there either.) You'd be surprised how easily this profession of ignorance generally pushes aside the "need" for my SSN. Sometimes I'll then face a befuddled clerk who must call for a supervisor (who always "passes" me without the magic number), but usually, they just proceed with whatever needs doing and the SSN never enters the equation again.

This is an interesting methodology, though it entails your having to lie (well, some of us do indeed have a hard time remembering our SSNs, though I'd guess that this is not normally the case.) If you're willing to suffer a white lie and then deal with the potential consequences, which could be not getting the services you're looking for, then this is for you. In Pablo's experience it would seem that there's little to suffer, and it makes me wonder exactly how important is our SSN to those asking for it? Businesses seem to be able manage to work around not having a social security number, so why should they "require" it? Given that it's not that important to them or that they can otherwise come up with a way of getting around not having it, I have to wonder what would occur were one to simply say, "I prefer to not provide my social security number." My guess is that often enough the SSN is used simply because it's the simplest identifying number you have available to you, and the business in question doesn't have to go to the trouble of devising something independent that would cause them potential trouble or expense if instead they simply use your SSN.

And lastly, from my friend Hedwig, we're given a biodegradable way of attending to those pesky pieces of paper with personal information on them that you don't want to get out to identity thieves:

Regarding point 3: if you cannot afford a shredder, buy a few gerbils. They make the best (cheapest) paper shredders you'll ever have (without depending upon electricity), and they are fun pets too! I "fed" all the drafts of my dissertation to my office gerbils, and they happily shredded it within hours, and they peed and pooped on the tiny paper remains, too!

But she provides a caveat to this post in a follow-on comment after another reader expressed enthusiasm (Botanical Girl) about employing gerbils:

One thing to remember about gerbils .. unlike a paper shredder, which will stop shredding your couch when unplugged, gerbils are not similarly controllable.

There is ancient philosophy somewhere in that comment. "Confucius say ... "

In this case, I think it's time for Confucius to say it's time to move onto another subject, James.

Onward Christian Soldiers, Airmen, Politicians, etc.

The "Christianizing", specifically the right wing flavor of "Christianizing", of life in these United States has been getting a lot of attention lately. Yesterday Stygius and Murky Thoughts, who basically defers the writing on this subject to Arthur Schlesinger at The Huffington Post, touched on this subject, which was has also gotten attention at the Times with a few articles about what's been going on at the Air Force Academy, and then this editorial, Zealots at the Air Force Academy.

Stygius brings up an interesting tidbit in his post regarding how the issue of what's going on at the Air Force Academy seems to be playing out in Congress. Congressman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) recently introduced an amendment to the war appropriations bill that said the following:

The amendment makes clear that coercive and abusive religious proselytizing at the Air Force Academy is inconsistent with the professionalism and standards required by those who serve at the Academy.

Now the fact is that this was a bit overboard. There'd been no investigative results to show that anyone at the Air Force Academy has been coerced or abused with regard to their religious beliefs. In fact, if you happen to view the video another congressman says essentially the following: Let's see what the military investigation and the DoD inspector general have to say before we admonish the Academy. Good point. In fact yesterday's Times ran a story on the military investigation, Panel Finds No Overt Religious Intolerance at Air Force [Academy] which tells us that yes, there's been problems but it seems to be more with understanding boundaries than overt coercion or proselytizing; what the DoD inspector general has to say remains to be seen but my guess is that that report will say something very similar to this one. Keep in mind, though, that this is all coming up in the midst of deliberations regarding war appropriations, not a discussion of religious tolerance at the service academies or anywhere else for that matter. It bears mentioning that a third congressman gets up and says, "Hey, we're here to talk about the war and appropriations for THAT. This debate is a good one, but shouldn't we be talking about the business at hand and address this other issue some other time?" God, how logical --- he must have been deranged at the time.

So while Obey is very likely making more out of this than the evidence at the time warrants, and in that way is guilty of taking advantage of the issue for his own reasons, some (not I, I'm from the "Let's see what the investigators tell us before we jump to conclusions" school of doing business) would argue that his was a reasonable response to what the perceived problem is at the Air Force Academy. Ok, but really, he doesn't know the full problem yet so wag a finger or two at him, tell him shame on him for jumping the gun here, and let's get back to the program, and two colleagues of the House actually essentially say this to him in a reasonably delicate way.

Well, we weren't going to have the end of this there, no siree, not at all. Obey had a problem that most of us wouldn't have immediately identified with regard to this issue. Alas, Obey suffers from being a democrat. We have Congressman John Hostettler (R-Indiana) for bringing this to our attention as he went on to read the following in response to Obey:

The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the
United States House of Representatives. It continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being
supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats. Don't get me wrong, Democrats
know they shouldn't be doing this ... But like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians.

You actually have to see this to fully appreciate it, and indeed you can if you didn't take the chance to do so above: video. What's interesting about this is that Obey is speaking off the top of his head when he makes his suggestion for a proposed amendment, while Hostettler came with a fully prepared statement which he proceeds to read verbatim on the floor of Congress. Now I'm still baffled as to how Obey's amendment proposal in anyway amounts to a war on Christianity, or anything close to denigrating or demonizing Christians --- in fact note, Obey doesn't mention Christianity at all. I'm especially fascinated by Hostettler's claim that the Democrats are trying to eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage --- a nice little get around to there being no national religion if you ask me. Hostettler infers that our heritage is in part derived from Christianity, so it's our de facto national religion. Ughhhhhhhhhh ...

Stygius calls this correctly, it's demagoguery in its ugliest guise with its untruths and deliberate attempts to hit buttons intended to incite illogical passions. This form of manipulation seems to be more and more a spectator sport in DC these days. Obey was definitely out of bounds in his trying to reign in the Academy before he fully appreciated the extent of what he was trying to help reign in, there's no question in my mind of that. But Hostettler was looking to stir hatred and otherwise serious bad vibes using baseless claims of Christian persecution. Moreover, he clearly had plenty of time and help to think this one through as his prepared statement made all too clear. Hostettler's shenanigans clearly represents the new face of politics in this country these days, and it doesn't serve anyone, much less the country, well. Exaggeration to the point of pretty near lying is fouling up our fully understanding our problems and what we can do to correct them, in fact it mostly works to keep people from thinking much at all, in fact this tactic depends on people responding without thinking at all. Maybe that's always a part of politics, but of late it seems especially prevalent and it's role in the American political landscape hasn't been like this since the days of good ol' Joe McCarthy, who I'm sure would have made a great right wing Christian republican, though he'd likely have had to give up or otherwise do a really good job of hiding Roy Cohn.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

I'm Gonna be a Crispy Critter for Eternity

Taken from Betty Bowers' Guide to Interpreting the Bible : I'd like to thank Miss Betty for setting me straight about where I'm going in the afterlife --- that's one less thing for me to fret over.

The Vow

Painting by Shirin Madani

When the lover
goes, the vow though
broken remains, that
trace of love
brings down among us
stays, to give
dignity to the suffering
and to intensify it.

--- Galway Kennel

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Identity Theft, Credit Cards, and You: Part II


12 Ways to Help Preserve Your Identity

Ok, enough frightening scenarios/considerations as addressed in yesterday's post and then again in another NY Times article last night, Black Market in Stolen Credit Card Data Thrives on internet, let's get down to the nitty-gritty: what can you do to protect yourself? There are actually quite a few things you can do, some of which are very simple and don't cost much at all, or you can spend up to $100 a year (or more, depending on what you get yourself talked into) to stay on top of your identity and financial information. Let's start with the big one, the thing you should do AS SOON AS YOU FINISH READING bullet #1 below:

1. At a minimum at least once a year have a FREE credit report done on you from the three credit bureaus (this is otherwise referred to as a 3-in1 report, which is a single report which aggregates the individual reports from the 3 main credit bureaus.) Yes, you read this correctly, FREE, and you'd be nuts not to get your FREE report. From Experian we learn:

The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) was signed into law in December 2003. The FACT Act, a revision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, allows consumers to get one free comprehensive disclosure of all of the information in their credit file from each of the three national credit reporting companies once every 12 months through a Central Source.

When you're eligible for a FREE copy of your credit report is determined by what area of the country you live in. Everyone living anywhere but in the Eastern states are eligible NOW. People living in the Western states could get a free report as of December 1, 2004; those living
in the Midwest states were eligible as of March 1, 2005; those in the Southern states as of June 1, 2005; and those in the Eastern states and all U.S. territories are eligible as of September 1, 2005 (if you want a finer break down of the states go to Annual Credit Report.) By this September EVERYONE in the U.S. is entitled to a FREE credit report. Those of you not living in the Eastern states should get your request for a report in NOW. To get that report go once again to the Annual Credit Report site ( to get some additional information on this you can go to The FTC's website on Credit). Once you've done that make sure you then set your calendar so you can get your FREE report every year around the same time.

It's important to understand why this is something you should have. The 3-in-1 report allows you to see all of your extant financial accounts as the credit bureaus have them (which, of course, may not agree with what your records or memory have them) and, most importantly, it allows you to see if any financial activity is going on out there in your name that you're not aware of at all. The 3-in-1 culls financial information from all three of the main credit bureaus that collect financial information on you (they're identified below). So if a loan was obtained, credit card payments made (they'll show if you've been on time or not with your credit card payments), you've purchased a house or car, or you've engaged in any significant financial transaction, you'll see it in this report. The report is also used to determine if you get future loans by helping those making loans determine your credit worthiness. So if there's anything in this report that makes no sense to you, i.e. you don't think you took out that $300K loan, you need to contact the credit bureau concerned to correct the error and then follow up with a new report to be sure things are fixed. In addition, if you find an error you should contact the FTC and the police (see the FTC sites below for more information on this.)

The first time I pulled a 3-in-1 on myself I wound up canceling store cards and other miscellaneous credit cards that I forgot I had. I also learned about loans that were cleared that one bureau maintained were active but the others didn't. Indeed, that first credit bureau report took me two months of letters and phone calls to fix the errors that I found which were either inaccuracies or items I no longer wanted to have hanging over my head (best example of this being credit card accounts I no longer used); fortunately I didn't find anything that indicated that someone was out there trying to be me.

Some would argue that one report per year is not sufficient to adequately track your personal information. I'm inclined towards this thinking myself, so if you feel the same way you want to contact one of the three credit bureaus and have them do a credit report for you which includes all three bureaus at about the six month point from when you get your FREE report (this will cost you about $30, which is well-sepnt money.) The obvious question is why all three, aren't they all tracking the same thing? Of course it's not that simple, and no they're not and even when they track the same things they're not always tracking them the same way. From personal experience you may be clear on 1 or 2 of the reports but have a problem on the third. So the only way to be reasonably sure you have the most comprehensive picture of what's going on with your personal financial information is to get a 3-in-1 report, such as the FREE report you're entitled to every year. Here are the three credit bureau web sites and 800 numbers:

I. TransUnion, 1-800-680-7289
II. Equifax, 1-800-525-6285
III. Experian, 1-800-397-3742

ALL three will sell you a 3-in-1 report. They'll also sell you a lot more, not the least of which being something like TransUnion's ID-fraud watch. TransUnion's service seems to be cheaper than most, with the general idea being that for a fee (in this case $10.95/quarter) they'll keep an eye out for any suspicious financial activity occurring in your name. With this comes $25K insurance to cover any losses suffered in the event of your identity being stolen. I'm not in a position to qualify this service, frankly I think it's more of a money making opportunity for the credit bureaus than it is a legitimate protection for the consumer. But again, I'm not sure. The fact is that this sort of crime is increasing in frequency and if it hits you you can expect to be out a lot more than $44 in a year when it comes to fixing the problem.

My problem with these insurance packages is that it's asking us to pay for something that I believe the financial institutions themselves should be paying for. The main reason it's so easy for someone to use your personal information to co-opt your identity is because the financial institutions themselves MAKE it easy. For them easy credit translates into very lucrative fees, so they want to keep the rules loose for you, or someone acting like you, in order to increase the number of people getting credit. Yes, this increases the chances for fraud or bankruptcy (though your representatives in congress recently made it harder for you to file for bankruptcy with the result being that it's not as easy for you to declare bankruptcy as before, so you're not able to get out of crushing debt, often times due to legitimate emergencies, as easy as it once was, which made bankers very happy --- they now get to hook you on easy credit and then block any efforts for your recovery), but the possible losses from that are less than what they make on pushing credit onto a society that is ADDICTED to credit (ok, I'm being a bit moralistic here, but it's true, sorry.) While there have been proposals to enact legislation to tighten the rules for institutions being able to grant credit and loans, the financial interests have been very resistant to this. So the burden of protecting your name and financial identity falls disproportionably onto you. Now whether $44/year or whatever is paid is worth it or not I can't say, but I would at a minimum recommend you get at least TWO reports a year, your FREE one AND one you pay for separately.

2. Be very careful about giving out your social security number. Unfortunately it's asked for in far too many places where it's not necessary. Your SSN, full name, and address are all that's needed for someone to become you. Many places ask for your SSN and the following questions are perfectly valid for you to ask when you encounter this (you can be denied services if you don't provide your SSN, but whether you really want those services from this particular provider may well be determined by how they respond to the following questions):

• Why do you need my SSN?
• How will my SSN be used?
• How do you protect my SSN from being stolen?
• What will happen if I don’t give you my SSN?

3. Buy a shredder (preferably a crosscut shredder) and shred all documents that contain any information about you that will leave your home. Then DO NOT DUMP WHAT YOU SHRED BY ITSELF. In other words, ALWAYS mix what you're shredding with your house garbage. I shred straight into a waste basket lined with a plastic bag and about every two weeks I dump the contents of that bag into the house trash as I'm taking it out the door;I not only want to make it hard to reconstruct my documents, but nasty, too.

4. Do not have identifying information printed on your checks. Banks will print your name, address, and social security number on your checks if you ask them to ---- don't put anything on your checks besides your name.

5. Minimize the number of credit cards you use. I appreciate that this is possibly easier to say than do, but it limits the possible opportunity to take advantage of you. I have two cards, one I use all the time and is watched over by the same group who caught the Australians mentioned yesterday, and another card which stays at home in a box only to be used in the event I happen to lose the first card. The main card is a travel card with which I rack up points for airline tickets, so consolidating everything into one card makes sense in terms of maximizing points.

6. Reduce the amount of garbage sent to you via the mail, some of which happens to contain information about you that you likely would prefer not to have floating around out there. You can do this by getting in touch with the Direct Marketing Agency (DMA) - note: if you sign up with them online you have to pay a $5 fee. I recommend that you mail in your request to be taken off mailing lists. My personal experience with this is that I have seen significantly less information coming to the house. I haven't gotten a credit card offer in years, and what "junk" mail I do see tends to be from places that I've done business with in the past (that by itself becomes a problem, but at least I'm not getting the stuff which results from my name and address being sold via mailing lists.) However you cut it this reduces the amount of information out there about you and that's good. While you're at it, if you haven't done it already, sign up for the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call registry (I will attest that this does seem to work as since signing on for this we don't get nearly the number of unsolicited calls we once did.) Keep in mind that both of these services expire after a set period of time (usually about five years) so you need to be mindful of renewing the blocks you set in place.

7. Something I just found out at Comptroller of the Currency: If you prefer not to receive pre-approved offers of credit, you can opt out of such offers by calling (888) 5 OPT OUT.

8. Don't carry your SSN card with you, and do what you can to remove anything from your wallet/purse that has your SSN on it.

9. Put a password on your accounts. When I call my credit union I can do nothing with my account information until I provide them a verbal password, the same goes for when I go into the credit union and do business in person. Most banks and financial institutions will do this and it's worth having if for no other reason than that it's an extra block to someone trying to be you.

10. An excellent reminder from Hedwig the Owl regarding those who are seeking employment and have posted their resume on job sites. If you do this you might want to be sure to opt for your being contacted before someone is allowed access to your resume, a document which helps paint a very comprehensive picture of you and what you've done in your life and it also gives an ID thief that much more to go with to make them you. In addition it provides information to scammers who may try to take advantage of you --- "Hello, I'm Dr. Jones from the NIH and we're interested in funding the sort of research you do on blow flies, but we need to confirm some information we have for you in our database. Could you confirm you social security number for us ....".

11. Protect your computer. You can't be sure what your computer has in it that says something about you, but it's a fair bet that there's enough there that quite a lot about you could be reconstructed. It's important that you have a good firewall on your computer (and that includes if you're using just a dialup modem --- they're attacked, too) and anti-viral software to prevent your computer from infections such as a virus or a worm which could harvest information from your computer, such as what you're typing at any given time (called keylogger programs), which is then transmitted out of your computer to someone interested in your information (it's worth keeping in mind that the recent harvesting of credit card information reported in MasterCard Says 40 Million Files Put at Risk was accomplished using a virus or a worm). For those who want a basic firewall I strongly recommend a free one put out by Zone Alarm; it's effective and free for personal use only. A free and very good anti-viral software is from Avast, though you can go to the Freebyte's Guide to Free Anti-virus software to find something that may be more to your liking.

Another thing to do to keep personal information regarding what you're up to on the web hard to find is to clear the temporary files out of your browser (this assumes you're using IE). Anytime I leave a financial site, i.e. one where I provide a password or account information, I go to Tools in my browser tool bar, click on Internet Options, and then I hit "Delete Files". A box comes up asking me if I want to delete all offline content as well and I always select this. Then I hit ok and depending on how much online surfing I've done before hand it takes anywhere from ten or so seconds to 30 or more seconds to clear out the files contained here. Don't hit the button for clearing cookies unless you want to get rid of all of your GOOD cookies, like the ones that let you immediately access your morning paper.

There's much more you can do here, but I would say that this is the minimum you really need to be doing to protect your computer and any information that may be on it. As a rule I'd also recommend not storing any information on your hard drive which would give away your SSN or any other identifying information, but as I mentioned above it's not always possible to know exactly what you have stored on your computer.

12. Here are some online publications which can provide you additional information: Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft; Identity Thieves Can Ruin Your Good Name; and
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft.

Now here's my parting piece of wisdom: You can do ALL the right things and still find yourself running into a problem because your personal information was leaked or stolen from someone or some place that had it. That said the one thing you can do, and frankly these days must do, is be very watchful of your financial information and this is where the 3-in1 reports are crucial. If you aren't watchful, if you're not paying attention, the chances of your falling victim to someone trying to use your identity for their gain goes up considerably. Yes, it sucks and on some level it's not fair --- and, really, if ever there was a metaphor for life in general here it is. That said, be vigilant, be forewarned, and good luck.

P.S. Oh, sorry, but did I happen to mention the FREE credit report that you can get once a year? Oh, I guess I did ...

Addendum: Hedwig comes through with another suggestion. She's right, I didn't explicitly address this and it does bear focusing on. In her own words:

One thing that James did not mention (probably because it is so obvious); you should always check your credit card bills, line by line, against your receipts to be sure that you are always charged the correct amount for your purchases, and to ensure that no one else is making any purchases with your card. Discrepancies MUST be addressed immediately (okay, within a week of receiving your bill, at the latest). I also learned that you must be aware of the precise date that your credit card bill is delivered to your mail box each month (I am) and, if you must, write this date on your personal planner or calendar to remind you. Sometimes thieves will change your mailing address for your credit card bills and thereby steal your credit card account that way.


I would actually go one better and the reason for this is highlighted in Black Market in Stolen Credit Card Data Thrives on internet where we learn that those who steal credit cards assume that they have thirty days from the point at which your last statement goes out before you're going to notice that your card is being used. If your credit card company is legitimately tracking your card they SHOULD pick up on any unusual activity, but to be on the safe side you should look at your credit card statement online as often as possible. I'm anal, I look at it everyday and even then it'll take 48 to 96 hours, on average, for something to post that I used the card for, so you're not likely to catch someone using your card immediately but you won't have thirty days worth of damage done. Keep in mind that with a credit card you can only be socked for $50 if your card information is stolen and misused; in my case my credit card company didn't even hit me for that. If you lose a debit card or its digital information (such as my credit card's digital information being scanned into a portable scanner as discussed yesterday) you could be out your entire account.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Courtesy of The Economist

I'm so puzzled at how it is we spend so much in this country, but yet we seem to get so little for what we spend. Many of these countries have universal healthcare, yet we're still outspending them per person. Something just ain't right.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Identity Theft, Credit Cards, and You: Part I

  • Credit Card Fraud - Approximately 54% of consumers reported credit card fraud -- i.e., a credit card account opened in their name or a "takeover" of their existing credit card account;
  • Communications Services - Approximately 26% reported that the identity thief opened up telephone, cellular, or other utility service in their name;
  • Bank Fraud - Approximately 16% reported that a checking or savings account had been opened in their name, and/or that fraudulent checks had been written; and
  • Fraudulent Loans - Approximately 11% reported that the identity thief obtained a loan, such as a car loan, in their name.

Chart and information take from: Prepared Statement of the Federal Trade Commission on ID Theft

So as to not allow you the opportunity to obtain ANY comfort from the numbers you see above (i.e. you may be thinking they're low, except maybe those for credit card fraud), I must point out that this is from a presentation given in July 2000. Trust me, be assured, these numbers are LOW for now when the numbers are higher, and surely this past Saturday's article in the Times MasterCard Says 40 Million Files Are Put at Risk makes the case that this is a very real problem. If that doesn't bring you around, know that the problem is such that we now have Preventing Identity Theft for Dummies - if there's a dummies book about it, it's clearly something to be paying attention to.

So how concerned should we be? VERY. Here's a tidbit from an article, Personal Data for the Taking by Tom Zeller, that ran in the Times back on the 8th of May (it's not available for free online from the Times, but you can get it from The Hearld Tribune and you can also Google for the article and find it from other sources as well):

Senator Ted Stevens wanted to know just how much the Internet had turned private lives into open books. So the senator, a Republican from Alaska and the
chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, instructed his staff to steal his identity.

"I regret to say they were successful," the senator reported at a hearing he held last week on data theft.

His staff, Mr. Stevens reported, had come back not just with digital breadcrumbs on the senator, but also with insights on his daughter's rental property and some of the comings and goings of his son, a student in California. "For $65 they were told they could get my Social Security number," he said.

That would not surprise 41 graduate students in a computer security course at Johns Hopkins University. With less money than that, they became mini-data-brokers themselves over the last semester.They proved what privacy advocates have been saying for years and what Senator Stevens recently learned: all it takes to obtain reams of personal data is Internet access, a few dollars and some spare time.

Working with a strict requirement to use only legal, public sources of information, groups of three to four students set out to vacuum up not just tidbits on citizens of Baltimore, but whole databases: death records, property tax information, campaign donations, occupational license registries. They then
cleaned and linked the databases they had collected, making it possible to enter
a single name and generate multiple layers of information on individuals. Each
group could spend no more than $50.

Although big data brokers can buy the databases they crave - from local governments as well as credit agencies, retail outlets and other sources that
students would not have access to - the exercise replicated, on a small scale, the methods of such companies.

Getting enough information about you such that a person can open up accounts in your name, which you would never know about, is not hard at all for someone committed to doing so and if someone's willing to put up some money, as little as $65 as Senator Stevens tells us, you can get everything needed to become you, to include your social security number. If that's not a little bit frightening to you it should be, honestly.

I myself haven't had a case of identity theft hit me (not that I'm aware of at least.) I have had a credit card compromised, and in my case in a very unusual way or at least in a way I hadn't thought about before. Feri and I were out getting her a pair of snow boots a little over a year ago --- if you live in RI during a bad winter you know why we were out buying snow boots. Anyway, I put the boots on my credit card and off we went to see a movie. Within 24 hours I'm getting a call from my credit card company asking me if someone who has my card is in Australia going on a shopping spree? No, indeed not. Apparently what happened was that when I used my card someone behind the counter double swiped it, once to allow me to make our purchase, and then again into a portable scanner:

that they likely had attached to their own laptop behind the counter (similar scams have been rigged at ATM machines, and gas stations.) They captured my credit card information and later that night the information was sold to someone on the other side of the world where the cyber-savvy thief or thieves went on a shopping binge. Fortunately my credit card company scans for suspicious activity (I'm sure that they have computers with special programs that look for odd activity on member cards, like how is it a guy who bought snow boots in Rhode Island is six hours later buying luggage and what not in Australia?) and quickly killed the card. I normally check my credit card account online just about every day, but it takes anywhere from 48 to 96 hours, sometimes longer, for a purchase to post to my online account and God only knows how much damage these people could have done to a card that's paid off every month and with a respectable limit on it before I would have seen what was going on.

So I am now a full-fledged member of Club Paranoid when it comes to information related to myself and my card use. I routinely use a shredder to destroy any documents with personal information (it really should be a cross cut shredder or one that makes confetti, but my old straight cut/ribbon cutter works well enough and you'd have to be a pretty darn industrious thief to put together my records, especially after I mix them up with the house trash), I'm more mindful of to whom I give my social security number (I'm still amazed at the number of places that expect you to give it up, or institutions, like colleges and universities, that think it's a great idea to use your SSN as a student identifying number --- aaarrrrrrrrrrgggggggggh!). I also try to be more mindful of where and with whom I use my credit card, but in all honesty that's a lost cause as I would never have suspected losing my card information where I did, how I did, but my credit card company security representative (a nice guy, we had many conversations on the phone) assures me that this type of scam is on the rise so we best all be mindful.

Tomorrow: What to do to minimize identify theft and erroneous financial information.


Courtesy of The Economist

Saturday, June 18, 2005

I stole the pic from The Corpus Callosum, and if ever there was a righteous call to action here's one. Don't sweat taxes, the vote in Iran, terrorist activity in Iraq, OR the Downing Street Memo, get involved in any local efforts to help extricate darling Katie Holmes from the clutches of the monkey-boy:


(well, on Oprah anyway) scientologist (yes, I think I was supposed to capitalize that ... darn):

(oops!!! Sorry, wrong Hollywood Monkey boy scientologist, though this one does look very simian --- now do you see why scientology is bad for you?)

Tom Cruise. If ever there was a cause worth your time and money, this is it.


Picture courtesy of Jai the Pirate at Deviant Art

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream
Come back in tears,

O memory, hope, love of unfinished years.
O dream, how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening would have been Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

--Christina Rossetti

Friday, June 17, 2005

I suppose it's no secret that I've been on something of a rant about Bush and taxes. Yesterday's blog entry highlighted a NY Times editorial about the Bush economy. I believe it was sufficiently trenchant a piece to make clear that many of us not anywhere near being rich are more and more susceptible to a tax bite, while our rich brothers and sisters are finding less and less of their income being taxed, especially unearned income which comes from investments or savings (I'm sorry, I am still past understanding why the money I earn with my sweat should be taxed MORE than the money earned from sitting in an account somewhere accruing interest, dividends, or share value increases which are gained in sales of those shares). I talked about Bush's Stealth Tax Increase a little over two weeks ago, where I got to get into the Alternate Minimum Tax which threatens to take a tax bite out of a larger percentage of the non-rich American people's income, which was decidedly NOT what it was intended for. With that entry two weeks ago I alluded to the fact that Bush had a committee looking into re-vamping the tax code and that we should be seeing the results of that sometime soon (it was supposed to be 31 July.) Which is what brings me to this subject, hardly one people tend to be overly excited about, but again.

Last night I'm reading the following article, White House Delays Timetable for Tax Overhaul. The article's short so let me quote it in its entirety:

President Bush's growing difficulties in pushing through an overhaul of Social Security imposed a new cost today: a delay in his plans for a top-to-bottom revamping of the tax code.

White House officials announced today that Mr. Bush would wait an extra two months for his special advisory panel to make recommendations on tax overhaul, saying that they needed to keep their focus on an unfinished agenda that includes Social Security, a trade pact with Central America and budget issues.

The decision means that Mr. Bush is unlikely to even propose a big tax measure until next year, mainly because administration officials have become far more bogged down on Social Security than they expected to be at this point. The announcement comes as Republican lawmakers are becoming openly pessimistic about their chances of passing a Social Security bill this year, because Democrats remain uniformly opposed and many Republicans are dubious as well.

Shortly after he won re-election last November, Mr. Bush announced plans to push for a historic overhaul of Social Security followed by an equally ambitious effort to purge the income tax of its complexity and perhaps replace it with an entirely different kind of system.

Mr. Bush made it clear that Social Security was the first priority, but his time frame for coming up with recommendations on the tax code made it clear that he hoped to begin work on that issue by the end of this year.

Under Mr.. Bush's marching orders, the bipartisan advisory panel was supposed to come up with recommendations for a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code by July 31. The Treasury Department was then to come up with its own recommendations, with a goal of proposing a measure to Congress before the end
of this year.

That timetable is now all but impossible. The panel will wait until September to issue its recommendations, and Mr. Bush would be unlikely to propose legislation until at least next year.

So here's the deal: Because he's bogged down in trying to change a program, social security, that faces a alleged crisis in about 30 odd years, he wants to put off making changes to a program that's going to be robbing more and more money out of American pockets in the coming years. Assuming he can come up with a tax plan that will make most people happy it'll take at least a year before changes can go through, and the AMT pushes itself more and more into the lives of all concerned. But it's more important to focus on social security rather than the immediate problem of taxes --- righto.

I just sent the following letter to my senators and congressman:


I just read this evening in the NY Times (White House Delays Timetable for Tax
Overhaul) that the president, because he’s bogged down in changing social security, a program facing a crisis (if one should be so generous as to agree that there is indeed a crisis as the president describes it, looming in the future), is pushing back dealing with reforming our tax system. Now the tax system, specifically with regard to the alternate minimum tax, is reaching down into more and more American pockets every year, yet that immediate problem should be put off for correction while we play with figuring out what to do about social security.

I have no clue what the president’s priorities are with respect to people like my wife and I who are threatened by the AMT and a tax system that values with tax breaks unearned income disproportionately to my hard-earned income. I want
to urge you to let the president know that tax reform is a problem today, not
at some point in the future, and the system needs to be fixed now. The president seems to be more concerned about fixing a program that’s not in extremis than he is with unfairly taxing middle-income Americans, and this is just not where I think his priorities should lie. I hope you agree with me and take this message to him.

Thank you.


Feel free to copy and send one of your own (if you're unfamiliar with how to get through to your political representatives please do go U.S. Senate to find your senator, and United States House of Representatives to find your congressional representative; they all have email so you can go directly to their site and send them your thoughts on this issue.)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Let's Gouge the "Not Rich at All"

This ran a week ago in the NY Times. If you didn't take note of it then I'd strongly recommend you do so now. This administration's tax cutting proclivities are going to dig into everyone's pocketbook with the exception of those who are well off. Maybe the reason most Americans seem to go along with this is that they think that somehow they, too, are going to be well off. Think again --- there is no reason for anyone reading this to think that they'll be living in the rarefied atmosphere of the truly well-off, and if you make to the $80 to $400K status, which used to be considered "well off", you'll be doing ok but you'll be paying more tax as a percentage of your income than someone making over $400K; this makes NO sense. I've bolded the parts that I think are most worthy of attention:

June 7, 2005

The Bush Economy

With all of the debate about taxes, the economy and domestic spending, it is hard to imagine anyone supporting the notion of taking money from programs like Medicaid and college-tuition assistance, increasing the tax burden of the vast majority of working Americans, sending the country into crushing debt - and giving the proceeds to people who are so fantastically rich that they don't know what to do with the money they already have. Yet that is just what is happening under the Bush administration. Forget the middle class and the upper-middle class. Even the merely wealthy are being left behind in the dust by the small slice of super-rich Americans.

In last Sunday's Times, David Cay Johnston reported that from 1980 to 2002, the latest year of available data, the share of total income earned by the top 0.1 percent of earners
more than doubled, while the share earned by everyone else in the top 10 percent rose far less. The share of the bottom 90 percent declined.
President Bush did not create the income gap. But the unheralded effect of his tax policy is its unequal impact on the modestly well to do. By 2015, those making between $80,000 and $400,000 will pay as much as 13.9 percentage points more of their income in federal taxes than those making more than $400,000, assuming the tax cuts are made permanent. Below $80,000, most taxpayers will see their share of taxes rise slightly or stay the same. Mr. Johnston's article quotes a prominent economist who argues that people care more about the chance to move from one income class to another (upward, of course) than about income distribution. But during the Bush years, the two main sources of class mobility - a good job and money for higher education - have increasingly failed to materialize for those who most need them. Last week's jobs report from the Labor Department confirmed that a strong labor market recovery has not taken hold. Wages for most working people failed even to outpace inflation in the past year. That might be more bearable if things were rough all over. But the share of economic growth that is going toward corporate profits, which flow to stockholders and bondholders who are concentrated at the top of the income scale, is at historic highs.

Which brings us back to the super wealthy and the merely rich. The divide between rich and poor is unfortunately an old story, but income-class warfare among the top 20 percent of the scale is a newer phenomenon. One cause is that the further up the scale one goes, the more of one's income comes from investments, which under the Bush tax cuts enjoy about the lowest rates in the tax code. But many families making between $100,000 and $200,000 are not
exactly on easy street. They don't face choices anywhere near as stark as those encountered further down the income ladder, but they face serious tradeoffs not experienced by the uppermost crust, particularly when hit with the triple whammy of college for the children, care for aging parents and preparing for their own retirement.

There is something deeply wrong about a system that calls into question a comfortable retirement or a top-notch education for people who have broken
into the top 20 percent of income earners. It starts to seem politically explosive when you consider that in a decade, those making between $100,000 and $200,000 will pay about five to nine percentage points more of their income in federal taxes than those making more than $1 million, assuming the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.

This is not about giving wealthy people more money to invest back into the economy. At this level, it's really about giving more money to those who have nothing to do with it except amass enormous estates for their heirs. Fixing the problem will require members of Congress to summon the courage to say no to a president who wants more for the richest of the rich at the expense of everyone else. We're not holding our breath.

Blogger's note: This affects you, gentle reader, and if you're not complaining about it and demanding that it be changed, it's you in your retirement, your kids, and your kid's kids who'll be suffering from it in the years to come.

More on this tomorrow --- I'm on a rant after reading something in the Times this evening.