The US Forest Service should change its name to the US Fire Service

Click to enlargeKPCC

Vehicles stopped on Highway 101 in California

This year’s wildfire season has just started, and it’s already bad. The west is still charred from last season’s burns, and hotter weather has been drying out the landscape’s surviving trees. Meanwhile, climate change is making fire season longer. The end result is a monstrous bed of fuel and weather conditions perfect for an apocalyptic season.

And starved of reasonable funding, the agencies charged with staving off the burn are already running into questions of how to pay for fighting the inferno. The problem is simple: Firefighting costs are rising, but funding can’t keep up…

One possible fix? Get really big fires reclassified as natural disasters — which would let the agency dip into bigger pool for the nastiest infernos.

“If you look at all the fires in a year, 1 percent — the big ones — account for 30 percent of suppression costs,” says Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. “These expenditures can be treated as natural disasters.” At a June 23 meeting, agency leaders kicked that idea through the latest draft of the Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act. They’ve been trying this for years, but keep getting stymied by a combative Congress.

Instead, the agency has to borrow money from other forest health programs to help keep fires at bay. Normally, that money would be used to fight invasive insects, clear buildups of undergrowth, and monitor disease outbreaks — things that keep the forest from becoming even more of a tinderbox. But as wildfire conditions worsen, the agency keeps on borrowing more from itself. Two decades ago, firefighting burned through about 16 percent of the agency’s budget. Today, that percentage is around half. “Eventually, the US Forest Service will become the US Fire Service,” says Bonnie.

In the meantime, the vicious fire-borrowing cycle is having a disastrous impact on America’s national forest health. Fungal outbreaks, beetle infestations, and other catastrophes weaken the trees. When those trees die, they become fuel.

Like in California. Last week the USFS announced that the southern Sierra Nevada is cluttered with at least 66 million dead trees, which is bad news for the region’s drought-stressed forests. Dead trees create ladders for fire to climb up and spread through the crown. That’s how the 7,500-acre Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara threatened to take a chunk out of coastal Los Padres National Forest—before fire season even officially got going…

So, forests are dealing with a new millennium’s fire hazards. But the suppression funding structure is still stuck in the ’90s. According to Bonnie, the current wildfire act will need some serious changes before it stands to reverse wildfire trends…He is hopeful that a revised act will have no trouble getting bipartisan support, but he says Congress would have to act quickly to make anything happen by September. And if they don’t start calling catastrophic burns what they are — natural disasters — the only thing left for the Forest Service to manage will be some dry, bare, charred mountains.

Poisonally, I think Robert Bonnie is stuck in a time warp. One where the threat of civilian death and destruction forces bipartisan action in Congress. He’s talking about getting a bill through that combo of Do-Nothing/Know-Nothing political hacks before the election in November.

Congress – especially the House – just proved they’re not capable of bipartisan legislation against the Zika virus. They only offered a Bill with requirements to defund Planned Parenthood, cut Medicare and Obamacare. A zero-sum definition of Public Health.

Modern-day debtor prisons in El Paso challenged in federal court

Levi Lanephoto/Lorne Matalon

El Paso has a policy on its books that allows the city to jail people who cannot pay their traffic fines. Now a lawsuit filed in federal court is challenging that policy, saying it violates citizens’ constitutional right of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Levi Lane was stopped by El Paso coppers driving home from the night shift at a dog food factory. He let them search his car. Nothing wrong.

…The story changed immediately when the officers ran Lane’s license. “They found out that I had, like,13 traffic warrants,” he recounted. That translated to approximately $3,400 in unpaid fines…

“From there on out, story over,” he said. “My registration was expired and I didn’t have any insurance. And I couldn’t update my registration because of the lack of insurance prior to that.” Lane had decided decided to roll the dice — and drive to his overnight work shift — because buses in El Paso don’t operate around the clock. He lived across town and needed the work…

…Lane was brought into court later that morning. He pleaded guilty to his previous offenses. He could’ve gone home then and there if he could pay a portion of the outstanding fines. He couldn’t.

And here’s the issue: both federal and state law say you can’t jail someone for non-payment unless you first have a hearing to see if that person is really unable to pay. If they can’t, the Supreme Court, Texas law, and the Justice Department all say alternatives like a payment plan, reduced fines or community service must be considered. Lane never had that hearing…

Citing Lane’s case, a state-funded legal aid program has launched a federal lawsuit against the City of El Paso…”The basis of the case is that the City of El Paso has an unconstitutional debt collection process,” said Brian Jacobi, an attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. He is part of the team representing Levi Lane in this case.

Jacobi showed me a city memo dated 2006 which states that people with outstanding tickets who are caught must pay one quarter of their debt-right away. “They’re told, pay 25 percent, maybe qualify for a payment plan. Can’t do that? Pay in full. Can’t do that? Go to jail…

This not an abstract legal debate limited to El Paso. Since September, similar lawsuits have been filed in Washington state, Mississippi and Louisiana.

RTFA for details on this case and others. No shortage of municipalities where conservative beancounters come up with ideas befitting a novel by Charles Dickens – instead of a United States of America governed by constitutional law that decided centuries ago that laws and judicial systems can’t be used to punish people for their poverty.

Why is Congress clueless about tech? Beancounters killed the committee!

When the draft version of a federal encryption bill got leaked this month, the verdict in the tech community was unanimous. Critics called it ludicrous and technically illiterate — and these were the kinder assessments of the “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016,” proposed legislation authored by the offices of Senators Diane Feinstein and Richard Burr.

The encryption issue is complex and the stakes are high, as evidenced by the recent battle between Apple and the FBI. Many other technology issues that the country is grappling with these days are just as complex, controversial, and critical—witness the debates over law enforcement’s use of stingrays to track mobile phones or the growing concerns around drones, self-driving cars, and 3-D printing. Yet decisions about these technical issues are being handled by luddite lawmakers who sometimes boast about not owning a cell phone or never having sent an email…

This wasn’t always the case. US lawmakers once had a body of independent technical and scientific experts at their disposal who were the envy of other nations: the Office of Technology Assessment. That is, until the OTA got axed unceremoniously two decades ago in a round of budget cuts.

Now, when lawmakers most need independent experts to guide them through the morass of technical details in our increasingly connected world, they have to rely on the often-biased advice of witnesses at committee hearings — sometimes chosen simply for their geographical proximity to Washington DC or a lawmaker’s home district.

Ashkan Soltani, who recently served as chief technologist to the Federal Trade Commission, says it’s important to have experts who are not lobbyists or activists with an ax to grind and do not represent companies that stand to profit from the decisions lawmakers make. Tech and science geeks, he says, can “basically be an encyclopedia for how things work, and can really help policymakers get to a good outcome,” he told WIRED. “We had that in the OTA and that went away, and I think that was a huge mistake.”…

The lack of tech expertise on Capitol Hill has never been more glaring than in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. Revelations about the NSA’s extensive spying programs made it obvious that lawmakers who conducted oversight of these programs lacked the ability to comprehend the level of surveillance modern intelligence agencies can do with the sophisticated technologies available to them today. As a result, many politicians briefed on the surveillance programs were unable to pose the right questions about the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of phone records and email metadata. After the secret phone records program was exposed in 2013, President Obama insisted that “every member of Congress” had been briefed on it. But these were legal briefings “to explain the law” relevant to the program. Lawmakers didn’t understand the extensive surveillance the government could do simply by mining the metadata around the calls that people make to one another—data that can reveal a lot about a person’s activity and the people with whom they associate.

“Most members of Congress don’t know enough about science and technology to know what questions to ask, and so they don’t know what answers they’re missing,” former Congressman Rush Holt told WIRED.

RTFA for a big chunk of useful history. Useful, that is, to folks interested in understanding the ill-founded results of incompetence in office.

There isn’t any likelihood of OTA being reinstated as long as Tea Party Republicans and Blue Dog Dems campaign for re-election by answering questions about climate change, sexual identity, pollution and poisoned water with a canned statement starting with “I’m not a scientist…”

Cartoon of the day

If Republicans had their way – especially the Tea Party flavor – signs like this would be back up everywhere.

I’m old enough to have worked in municipal departments where those signs hadn’t yet faded away. The politics that went with the signs are still very much a part of American culture.

Yes, the cartoon deals accurately with a part of the problem.

American bankers/retailers cheap out on improving security

Adding a PIN is so difficult, eh?

New technology about to be deployed by credit card companies will require U.S. consumers to carry a new kind of card and retailers across the nation to upgrade payment terminals. But despite a price tag of $8.65 billion, the shift will address only a narrow range of security issues.

Credit card companies have set an October deadline for the switch to chip-enabled cards, which come with embedded computer chips that make them far more difficult to clone. Counterfeit cards, however, account for only about 37 percent of credit card fraud, and the new technology will be nearly as vulnerable to other kinds of hacking and cyber attacks as current swipe-card systems, security experts say.

Moreover, U.S. banks and card companies will not issue personal identification numbers (PINs) with the new credit cards, an additional security measure that would render stolen or lost cards virtually useless when making in-person purchases at a retail outlet. Instead, they will stick with the present system of requiring signatures…

Chip technology has been widely used in Europe for nearly two decades, but banks there typically require PINs. Even so, the technology leaves data unprotected at three key points, security experts say: When it enters a payment terminal, when it is transmitted through a processor, and when it is stored in a retailer’s information systems. It also does not protect online transactions.

American corporations inside the retail purchasing loop are perfectly willing to expand that to four key points.

Retailers and security experts say it would make more sense for the United States to jump instead to a more secure system, such as point-to-point encryption. This technology is superior to chip-and-PIN, which first was deployed about 20 years ago, because it scrambles data to make it unreadable from the moment a transaction starts.

But the newer technology would cost as much as twice what the chip card transition will cost…

Moreover, some security experts say that mobile payment services such as Apple Pay, a service from Apple that stores data on the cloud, have the potential in coming years to secure payments without the need to swipe or tap a card at all…

Rick Dakin, who is advising a group of banks on payment security, said no industry standard exists for the newer point-to-point encryption systems, and banks and card companies are hesitant to make large-scale investments before the standards are set.

Apparently, 20 years isn’t sufficient time to adopt standards in the United States.

Banks and card companies said a chip card alone can make stolen data less useful for hackers and the technology has worked in reducing counterfeit card fraud in Europe and elsewhere.

Security experts said the shift cannot prevent massive consumer data breaches of the sort that recently hit Target and Home Depot. But the technology will make it more difficult to use stolen data.

The installation of 15 million payment terminals that can read chip cards in the U.S. will cost approximately $6.75 billion. Banks are expected to spend some $1.4 billion to issue new cards and another $.5 billion to upgrade their Automated Teller Machines according to Javelin Strategy & Research.

Beancounters live and die on hindsight – and this is another case of crap decisions being worthless.

What would this conversion have cost in 1995 dollar$? How many billion$ have been lost to fraud, counterfeit credit cards and identity theft? All it took in the first place was a willingness to make security a priority.

Beancounters will make dogs redundant as well as coppers!

They are the fearless and loyal public servants whose roles include rescuing mountaineers, keeping public order and fighting organised crime.

But even Scotland’s much-loved police dogs are not immune to the cuts and economies sweeping through the nation’s eight forces as the move to merge them into one continues.

The unprecedented operation will eventually see thousands of jobs go as savings of £1.7 billion are sought over the next 15 years through more efficient working and reducing duplication. Positions from the rank of chief constable downwards are being axed.

Now the focus has turned to the country’s dog units, with the number of dogs operating in Scotland to be reduced next year.

While it is unclear at this stage how many dogs will be made redundant, one senior officer warned that when the country’s eight forces merge into one single police authority cover must not be compromised, particularly where the dog units are used in year-round mountain rescue search efforts.

Scotland’s forces currently have 135 dogs, including breeds such as German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, Labradors and spaniels used in a wide variety of roles from mountain rescue to drug detection.

Dogs that are retired will be found new homes or stay with their handlers…

A spokesman for Police Scotland said: “One of the main aims of police reform is to increase access across Scotland to the wide catalogue of specialist operational support functions, which includes mounted sections and dog units.

“Currently all eight forces maintain their own specialist functions and if further assistance is needed, for example from mounted policing from Strathclyde Police, it is done through mutual aid request.”

Just fill out the appropriate form in triplicate and pop it into the interdepartmental email queue.

The beancounter’s pledge of efficiencies – of course – is only measured in gold and silver. Number of lives saved, criminals apprehended, safety aided by prompt and skilled response means something to the grunts in police work and line officers. Certainly.

Bureaucrats who spend their entire career stuffing lives and deaths into a spreadsheet can’t be counted on to recognize the usefulness of a human being in the right place at the right time. Or a dog.

A hidden cause of the Benghazi tragedy – Beancounters!

For conservatives, the Benghazi scandal is a Watergate-like presidential cover-up. For liberals, it a fabricated Republican witch-hunt. For me, Benghazi is a call to act on an enduring problem that both parties ignore.

One major overlooked cause of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is we have underfunded the State Department and other civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security. Instead of building up cadres of skilled diplomatic security guards, we have bought them from the lowest bidder, trying to acquire capacity and expertise on the cheap. Benghazi showed how vulnerable that makes us…

Though embassies have contingents of Marines, consulates and other offices do not. And the missions of Marines, in fact, are to destroy documents and protect American government secrets. It is the Diplomatic Security agents who are charged with safeguarding the lives of American diplomats…

Unable to hire contractors, the Diplomatic Security Service rotated small numbers of agents through Benghazi to provide security, on what government officials call temporary duty assignments, or “TDY.” Eric Nordstrom, the Diplomatic Security agent who oversaw security in Libya until two months before the attack, recently told members of Congress that though he twice requested 12 agents he was rejected – and told he was asking for “the sun the moon and the stars…”

Other State Department officials also say that the reliance on contracting created a weakened Diplomatic Security Service. They said department officials, short on staff and eager to reduce costs, nickeled-and-dimed DS security requests…

Democrats have blamed Republicans for the lack of funding. They point out that House Republicans rejected $450 million in administration requests for increased Diplomatic Security spending since 2010. They say Senate Democrats were able to restore a small part of the funding.

But these partisan charges and counter-charges ignore a basic truth. Resource shortages and a reliance on contractors caused bitter divisions between field officers in Benghazi and State Department managers in Washington…

One problem that can afflict any bureaucracy – of any flavor, smooth-running and efficient or bumping along the bottom – people in power who begin to think they’re spending their grandmother’s money. If people succeed in useful appropriations, if circumstances call for changes, additions and supplements – they are unwilling to turn loose the pursestrings.

I don’t care what induced their neurosis – it needs to be remedied.

Some RBS Ulster Bank accounts won’t be functioning until 16 July

Customers of Ulster Bank could end up going without a fully functioning bank account for an entire month…More than a fortnight after a technical problem sent the bank’s computers into disarray, many customers are still experiencing difficulties accessing accounts and processing payments, with some reporting that vast sums of money have disappeared in the system…

The chief executive of Ulster Bank, Jim Brown, apologised to customers, who he said had every right to be frustrated, adding: “Our efforts to fix this are paying off, and over the last few days we have been able to gain a much clearer picture about when we expect all systems to be largely back to normal. WTF?

We expect gradual and significant improvements for our customers and each day we will see more transactions processing, fewer problems with our systems, and less inconvenience for our customers.” Brown thanked other banks who had worked with his own to help process payments.

Accounts are supposed to be up and running again as normal at NatWest and RBS, but customers have been told to check their balances after it emerged that some had personal loan repayments debited twice.

Also, on NatWest’s website several customers are reporting that cheques paid into accounts on 25 June have still not cleared.

This is more than the usual geek rationale: garbage in = garbage out.

Creative excuses are starting to spin inside banking circles. They all devolve to incompetent decisions made – governed by beancounters overruling everyone.

New Jersey capitol [temporarily] survives toilet paper emergency

City employees are flush with relief today after officials with Mayor Tony Mack’s administration said they’d moved forward with an emergency purchase of toilet paper and paper towels as supplies dwindle in city buildings.

Meanwhile, Mack’s office announced last night it had accepted donations from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to provide a six-month supply of toilet paper…The move ends a stalemate between council and Mayor Tony Mack’s administration that has lasted since September when council first rejected the $46,000 contract over concerns about a $4,000 price tag for hot drink cups.

Stocks of toilet paper have been dwindling for weeks and are nearly depleted at City Hall and police headquarters. The emergency contract with the Pennsauken-based Amsan authorizes the city to purchase $16,000 worth of toilet paper, paper towels, and toilet-seat covers…

In a letter to Mack earlier this week, PETA offered to step in with a six-month supply of toilet paper for city buildings. The catch: it’s printed to say, “Slaughterhouses are so filthy that more than half of all meat is contaminated with fecal bacteria. Wipe cruelty from your diet. Go vegan. PETA.”

“If Trenton’s City Council cannot reach an agreement today, I have a cheeky solution that will help offset your financial troubles and call attention to public health and cruelty to animals at the same time,” PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman wrote. “This unique bathroom reading material would help city employees consider a vegan diet, and prevent their health from going down the toilet.”

Meanwhile, Dyson is donating 15 of its Airblade hand-dryers, machines that produce 400-mile-per-hour sheets of wind that push water off hands instead of drying them with the use of a heating element.

“Using paper to dry hands can be costly and creates waste,” said James Dyson, inventor of the machines. “With Airblade, our engineers have developed a way to dry hands hygienically and efficiently.”

The company claims the machines can dry 22 pairs of hands for the cost of a single paper towel and could generate $220,000 in savings over five years.

Sounds like the City Council would probably refuse to pay the electric bill for the hand dryers, as well.

Dontcha love beancounters?