A little birdie told Congress

Since I couldn’t find a list of twitter feeds from the US Congress, I made one today.

Now you can get a snap-shot of our legislators highest priorities, as captured in 140 characters at a time, at twitter.com/CongressBirdie/legislators.

In case you’re curious how I did it without painstakingly searching each congressperson’s name and username to add to my list by hand, I’ll let you in on my little my secret: I relied heavily on a few open source projects to automate the process. To find the Twitter IDs, I simply looked them up from the very excellent Github project unitedstates/congress-legislators. Then I used the Python Twitter Tools module to chat with the Twitter API to create the list and add all the legislators in bulk.

Life wasn’t exactly as easy as all that, though. I had to make a little tweaks in order to gather all the tweets. First, there is an easy-to-fix bug in the Python Twitter Tools package. You need to make sure it knows how to POST to lists/members/create_all command. Right now employs a GET request—and that doesn’t work. It looks like at least one other person has run into the same problem. If you run into the problem, you can read how I fixed it.

But Twitter didn’t handle my create_all request as they promised. The documentation claims you can add up to 100 users to your list at a time, but that wasn’t my experience. Instead, I could only get the API to add legislators 25 at a time. But that’s a small price to pay for democracy.

And this list is active! In the time it took me to write this post, the list reported 13 new tweets. Your tax dollars hard at work.

Wiser not wetter

While I’ve been training for the 1000-meter flatwater sprint all week, sadly, all of my workouts have been on land. The rental facility that I use stops issuing kayaks after 6pm this time of year. My work schedule keeps me from Cambridge into the mid-evening and therefore quite dry. I’ve been scheming ways to get onto the water in the early morning or later after I get back home, but until then, I’m bound to the gym. The weekends are another story, however. And to ready myself for tomorrow’s lesson, I returned to the river to practice on my own.

There was a bustle at Paddle Boston when I arrived around 11:30 am. A line emanated from the tent which guards the entrance to the dock where newcomers must sign waiver forms and hand over IDs. Another line wrapped around the small cabin that houses the cash register for paddlers who had just returned. No one looked too wet. And as a matter of course, a third line filled the docks which are already crowded by life jackets, paddles, and boats. Despite all of the people there, very few of them were workers. School is about to start and many of the staff are college students on summer vacation. With September just a few days away, most of the attendants have quit, leaving one exasperated woman to man the boats with only occasional help from her tiny dog.

Initially she told me to hop into a recreational kayak. I felt bad asking for a sea kayak instead; I didn’t want to be trouble. She let out something between a sigh and huff and disappeared for a moment. When she returned, I had a sky blue sea kayak. The fin on the bottom was exposed. She reached for the cord to retract it and mentioned to me, “This is how you pull in the.”

Skeg,” I interrupted to let her know that I was an insider, too.

“Yeah,” she replied. Her pace was a little slower and tone a little warmer than before. “Well, get in. I’ll push you in water from here since there’s such a line.” Trying not to sour my new friendship, I did as she said silently and swiftly. I signalled my readiness with a brief nod.

“Well, aren’t you going to adjust your foot pegs?” she asked. To be honest, I didn’t remember how far down the pegs were supposed to be. During my lesson the week before the instructor had adjusted them for me. My feet were on them. And that seemed right. So, I replied quickly, “They feel good.” What a mistake.

Once I was in the canal, the winds seemed to kick me side to side. The boat tottered beneath me in reponse. My abs clenched. For a moment, I forgot to breathe. And then I began what I could remember of the forward stroke. Toe-to-hip. Turn to the other side. Toe-to-hip. Turn and repeat. Somehow I was more unsure of myself than I was my first time out. The water was less familiar and I was more afraid of falling in. Still, I inched out of the canal.

Now in the open Charles, I suddenly realized that my right foot was up further than my left. And I remembered how I was supposed to sit in the kayak: somewhat frog-legged, with knees pushing on the braces on either side of the hull under the coaming. Damn. My foot pegs were too far down and uneven, and I could already feel my hips straining. I headed upstream under the Longfellow Bridge toward the only landing I could remember, up near the Harvard River Houses and Week’s footbridge, where I could stop to rearrange the pegs.

The entire time, my boat kept lurching to the right. I thought it might be the wind pushing me to one side. The week before, the entire class kept floating to toward the shore as a pack. I put my paddle down to check which direction the currents would take me. To the left! “Ah, so it is me,” I thought. My paddling was so lopsided, it overcame the wind. Every few strokes I paused to right my course. It was those mismatched and misplaced pegs. I picked my knees up higher against the boat. That seemed to help. I looked around at the other craft on the water. Everyone else appeared to be going straight. Then the wind picked up again.

It’s really amazing how low to the water you are in a kayak. Waves that you would never bother to notice from land suddenly command your attention by force. It was hard for me to gauge their size, a few inches, possibly a foot but probably less. But when you’re only three feet above the water, ripples become mountains. After being batted to the side by a small caravan of waves, an old Anglo-Saxon poem the Seafarer popped into my mind. When I discussed it in a waterless meeting room for a college course on Old English poetry years ago, my analysis was sharp. With all the comfort and courage that only cowards could have, I judged the author and his culture as small and afraid. They believed in monsters; I did not. But there, floating alone in my 13-foot boat, all that dross about the grim cold ocean and terrible tossing of the waves and unforgiving gale started to make sense—despite its being a tame New England summer day.

I turned around and headed home, still lurching to the right. This time with help from the wind.

Class is at 8:30 tomorrow morning.

Love that Dirty Water

Today marks the beginning of my Olympic career. This morning I went to Charles River Canoe & Kayak for the first of two introductory lessons on paddling. The class began at 8:30am on one of the small lawns that punctuate the Kendall Square biotech ghetto. There our instructor, Bob, led eight nervous adults through basic kayaking anatomy, including rudimentary rescue techniques.

Before long we were on the docks and in our boats. After a quick adjustment of the foot rests we were in the water practicing our forward strokes, side sweeps, backward sweeps, J-leans, bracing and edging. Our three-hour tour of the canal ended with three water rescues. I demonstrated flipping and re-entry first. Soon enough, I want to learn to roll. (I may need stronger obliques, though.)

With enough practice, hard work, and friendly support, I think I can make my splash in the world of competitive paddling within three years. Dear readers, kindly keep me honest. Look for me on the River again, tomorrow after work but before sunset.

Populate URLs in Your Javascript with Django

All this Olympics has inspired me. I’ve decided to train for the summer games in Rio and to pursue my hobbies in full force. The former requires me to learn to kayak; the latter, to program, program, program.

I’m building a fun web-app game on top of Django. And I want to make it dance with a little Javascript. I really like that I can look up the URLs of my pages by an internal name in templates using the {% url %} tag, but unfortunately that functionality isn’t available to me inside my static media—particularly, I’d like to be able to reverse look-up URLs in my site’s javascript, but I don’t want to have to render the file each time it gets served.

After hunting around for a while, I figured, “Why not just render to Javascript once, fill in all the links, and be done with it?” So that’s what I did. And it doesn’t take much.

I wrote a custom command called populate_urls that consumes a template (in this case, my Javascript) and spits out the finished product with all the holes filled in by Django and its handy URL resolvers. Then I stash its output in my static directory and pretend the whole thing never happened.

from __future__ import print_function

import sys

from django.core.management.base import BaseCommand
from django.template import Template, Context

class Command(BaseCommand):
from __future__ import print_function

import sys

from django.core.management.base import BaseCommand, CommandError
from django.template import Template, Context

class Command(BaseCommand):
args = ‘
help = ‘Populates the URLs in the template. If no output filename is supplied, renders the template to standard out.’
traceback = True

def handle(self, *args, **options):
if len(args) < 1: raise CommandError("You must supply a template.") with open(args[0], 'r') as templatefile: template = Template(templatefile.read()) context = Context() with sys.stdout if len(args) < 2 else open(args[1], 'w') as output: print(template.render(context), file=output) [/sourcecode]

Maybe even better than winning Jeopardy five times

Happy new year. Here’s the latest politically-minded letter I’ve sent: it’s to Richard Cordray, the new director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You’ve missed several other letters since my last post. I’ll try to be more faithful about recording them here.

You can send a letter of support, inquiry, or disdain through this form. I sent my message in a card from Elizabeth Warren, though.

Dear Director Cordray,

I’m glad your appointment to the CFPB went through. Please accept my warmest congratulations.

I hope you will direct this agency to take action on behalf of all Americans—be they poor or wealthy, young or old, unemployed or working. All of us need people in a position of action to represent our best interests and redress large, national damages caused by greed and deceit run out of control.

I would be especially happy if your agency would think of and suggest ways the public can be more civically involved in consumer financial protection. Washington and those that work there seem far away to many Americans. Please include us in the process; bring Washington nearer to the people.

To a happy a new year,
Joshua Reyes
A concerned but optimistic citizen

Prophecy and Betrayal by Clark, Lytle, Geduldig & Cranford

Recently this morning, Chris Hayes reported on a memo to the American Bankers Association, a lobbying group which aims to influence law-makers to make laws that favor, well, the banks. Read a copy of it for yourself. (A scanned PDF courtesy Chris Hayes, a searchable plain-text version.) This thing sounds like something straight out of a conspiracy theory story, but the ABA confirm they’ve received it. So, sadly, I guess this is the real deal.

The memo summarizes in very plain language how big-time propaganda systems work. You pay us a lot of money to cook up dirt, spin our cause until it’s palatable for the majority, and then mobilize the masses against their own interests to support ours, stamping out grassroots campaigns and bullying politicians who might stand in the way as we go.

The point of this memo is clear: the Occupy Wall Street movement reminds people who were hurt by the financial crisis that the banks and their lobbying for massive deregulation are very responsible for the economy’s sorry state—a fact attested by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report; consequently the banks need to protect their political interests and get ready to for the upcoming elections.

There were a few things that stood out to me. First, the entire tone of the memo pitches a clear the-banks-and-our supporters-versus-everyone-else mentality. The memo explicitly names who the “and our supporters” are. According to this memo, bankers could, for some indefinite period of time, count on members of the Republican party to defend the interests of Wall Street companies. They’re worried that political pressure from groups like Occupy might change the tide. Here’s the full paragraph that reads all too transparently. (The emphasis is my own.)

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Democratic party or even President Obama’s re-election team would campaign against Wall Street in this cycle. However the bigger concern should be that Republicans will no longer defend Wall Street companies—and might start running against them too.

As it’s stated, you might think that it’s common knowledge that the Republicans have been defending the banks. The danger is that they might stop. That is, unless you pay us to manipulate the American people. What’s worse, though, is how entirely remorseless these guys are. They even go out of their way to point out that many Americans who were hit hard by the recklessness of the banks are going to have a lean holiday season. Why is this bad? It might alter their vote.

This combination [of frustration on the political left and right] has the potential to be explosive later in the year when media reports cover the next round of bonuses and contrast it with stories of millions of Americans making do with less this holiday season.

Yikes. Which is more important, banker bonuses or the millions of Americans who are suffering because of a economic collapse created by large financial institutions aided by intense governmental deregulation? The authors say which side they’re on and they presume the reader feels the same way.

The second thing that’s really interesting to me in this memo is actually somewhat prophetic, and not just because they dated the memo by about a week in the future. The quotes I gave above already hinted at this point: right, left, it doesn’t matter, everyone is upset with the banks. And everyone is a lot of people. That’s Occupy’s mantra, right? We are the 99%. And in case you forgot, that’s a big number.

Well-known Wall Street companies stand at the nexus of where OWS protestors and the Tea Party overlap on angered populism. Both the radical left and the radical right are channeling broader frustration about the state of the economy and share a mutual anger over TARP and other perceived bailouts.

So this recent op-ed by Sarah Palin in the Wall Street Journal must have been terrifying. (I suggest you read it, it’s surprisingly sane even if it is essentially a plug for one of her staffer’s books.) Palin basically decries lobbying, or at least wants to make the process more transparent, and suggests specific solutions— make Congress subject to the Freedom of Information Act, for example. I can’t tell if she actually believes what she’s written, but many of her ideas have good potential.

By the end of the editorial, Palin starts to show her “maverick” roots and this time in a somewhat profound way. She reaches out to the Occupy movement to say, look, we’re not so different. Wall Street is bad. Their deep pockets can buy votes. Their predatory lobbyists are good at their jobs. They fight for big corporate interests that aren’t aligned with American people. Turn your attention on the politicians who receive these gifts. You have the power to act. I wish she had gone a little further and actually said, “Vote.” In Palin’s own words:

This call for real reform must transcend political parties. The grass-roots movements of the right and the left should embrace this. The tea party’s mission has always been opposition to waste and crony capitalism, and the Occupy protesters must realize that Washington politicians have been “Occupying Wall Street” long before anyone pitched a tent in Zuccotti Park.

And that’s exactly the sort of message this CLG&C memo warns against: political action from all sides for financial reform and regulation. It seems the Occupiers have caught on, too. They’re running commercials on ESPN and, wait for it, the O’Reilly Factor. I wonder whether these two groups will coalesce. Until then, watch the commercial here.

The third thing that jumped out at me is that the banks shouldn’t just be afraid of the ideas of Occupy, but of Occupy itself.

It may be easy to dismiss OWS as a ragtag group of protestors but they have demonstrated that they should be treated more like an organized competitor who is very nimble and capable of working the media, coordinating third party support and engaging office holders to do their bidding. To counter that, we have to do the same.

Clark, Lytle, Geduldig & Cranford promise to dig up dirt on Occupy leaders and undermine them, and therefore the movement they stand for, with a smear campaign. This might be trickier than they let on. The Occupy movement doesn’t, at least to me, appear to have a central leadership that outsiders like me can point to. Every time I see or read an interview I get a new face. It’s easier to discredit a handful of well-known, well-associated leaders. It’s next to impossible to pull records on an amorphous collection of anonymous demonstrators. Isn’t what that V movie was all about, after all? I hope the folks at Occupy resist the urge centralize their PR. Their relative anonymity is one of their strongest assets. That and the fact that the general tenets against corporate and political corruption are right.

So this memo suggests conventional print, radio and TV ads to combat negative bank press, as well as monitoring and leverage of social media sites. Sure. That’s usual, but they had one more idea that was a little shocking to me. It goes by the name of coalition planning. Since no one will trust the banks, these guys will hire and plant community leaders to plan and organize public support for the banks, but secretly. No one should know that they’ll be taking orders from the banks and doling them out to their unsuspecting supporters. It’s like making prisoners dig their own grave and smile about it! Here’s what ABA would get if they signed up with these guys:

Individual companies under threat by OWS and its adoption by Democrats likely will not be the best spokespeople for their own cause. A big challenge is to demonstrate that these companies still have political strength and that making them a political target will carry a severe political cost.

We will produce a report identifying traditional and non-traditional allies, intellectual support and politically important economic footprints that could ultimately form the basis of a broad coalition (rather than the narrow D.C. definition of a coalition) who can help carry our messages and organize supporters.

Notice how threatening their language is. These guys are not fooling around.

A strong placement [of paid advertisement that “combat OWS messages and provide cover for political figures who defend the industry”] early in a transition to adopt the OWS movement will send a powerful political signal about the risks of carrying that through.

We need to show politicians that if they stand for the American people and against corporate greed, we will stand for them during elections. Write to your senators and congresspeople to tell them what is important to you and why you will vote.

Business sense

At the behest of a friend of mine, I’ve decided to pick up a copy of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report. Weighing in at 690 pages and 2.2 pounds, this bad boy is a behemoth of economic reporting. For those of you who prefer free, electronic copies of books, swing by FCIC website to get a full version in stunning PDF.

I’m only a few pages in, but already I’m impressed by those massively irresponsible rogue investment houses. For example,

[A]t the end of 2007, Bear Stearns had $11.8 billion in equity and $383.6 billion in liabilities and was borrowing as much as $70 billion in the overnight market. [pp. ix-xx]

Those are big numbers, and it’s hard for me to really wrap my ahead around whether $383.6 billion in liabilities is offset by the equity the company held. Being a lay person (who’s trying to learn more) in big financial matters, I’m not sure whether that sort of thing is common, sustainable, reasonable or downright foolish. So let’s do what scientists like to do with things they don’t understand: translate them into equivalent systems that they do understand. The borrowing habits of Bear Stearns were equivalent to

a small business with $50,000 in equity borrowing $1.6 million, with $296,750 of that due each and every day. [pp. xx]

Whoa. That doesn’t sound all prudent to me. How about to you?

So when Illinois congressperson Joe Walsh starts screaming at his constituents (here and follow-up here) at an Uno’s in a Chicago suburb that

it’s not the private marketplace that created this mess. What created this mess was your government, which has demanded for years that everybody be in a home…And we’ve made it easy as possible for people to be in homes

you’ve got to wonder whether he’s right. Or at least watch his rants on Youtube. But to Joe’s point, was it a misguided government conspiracy to make sure Americans have roofs over their heads that sent the economy spiraling out of control? According to the Financial Crisis Report, the answer is no.

True, for decades the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has listed affordable housing as one of its goals. Based on textual evidence and interviews, the behavior of government supported entities like the now infamous Freddie and Fannie were only marginally effected by the goals for affordable housing. In fact, a lot of the people buying up property already had homes! By the June of 2005, one out of ten home sales went to an investor, speculator, or individuals buying a second home [p. 5].

My friend’s grandparents have pointed to legislation that banned banks from black-listing whole communities from loans, a practice known as redlining, as a major cause for the collapse of the housing market. They’re talking about the Community Reinvestment Act which set expressly to combat redlining. Banks commonly denied individuals and businesses, primarily in substantially non-white neighborhoods, without regard to the creditworthiness of the applications because the entire neighborhood was deemed too risky. Chances are if you lived in a black community, the banks simply said no even if you could pay. The Community Reinvestment Act tried to make sure banks and savings and loans would lend, invest, and provide services to communities that deposited money in the banks—a sort of, you put in, we’ll put out sort of arrangement. So how much did these government policies contribute to the financial crisis?

Well, according to the report, not significantly.

Loans made by CRA-regulated lenders in the neighborhoods in which they were required to lend were half as likely to default as similar loans made in the same neighborhoods by independent mortgage originators not subject to the law. [p. xxvii]

In other words, the policies seemed to offer some protection, consistent with financial soundness! Anti-redline loans were better loans. Looks like level-headed, carefully crafted regulation can actually help stabilize markets.

I’m willing to believe Joe, but, Joe, help me out. Give me some facts I can check.

Keep the Internet Open: Update

Last week, the Senate voted on SJ Res. 6, that piece of legislation that stated plainly: Congress disapproves of openness on the internet. That is, that companies should be able to block your traffic on the internet unless you paid for it. Fortunately, the resolution was rejected (by a slim margin of four votes). See the tally here.

Imagine how this sort of deregulation would work in the phone industry. Phone companies could monitor who were calling, listen in to what you were talking about, and then decide how much to charge you accordingly. Would you want the phone companies listening in to your phone conversations and then deciding how much to charge you based on what you said? “Oh, he’s calling his sister again—I bet he’d pay more to talk to his family.” “Her doctor is about to say something important, that phone call’ll cost extra.” Eek.

The FCC has been charged with the responsibility to make sure the internet remains open, transparent, and is free from blocking and unreasonable discrimination. According to the FCC, if it’s legal, you can do it and the internet providers should respect that. Since this policy seems like a good idea to me as it promotes technological innovation and rightful consumer protection, I was shocked that Scott Brown voted to dismantle openness on the internet. I’ve written to his office for an explanation for his vote. I’ll let you know the reasons if they respond.

I’m thankful to Kerry for supporting net neutrality. And I’m surprised and pleased to see that the White House had the backs of the American people, even if a near majority of the Senate didn’t. In an official statement, the President openly opposed SJ Res. 6 because he is in favor of job creation. And this resolution would have stifled technological innovation. Good work.

As an aside: in the end Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Kelly Ayotte did vote for big business. If anyone can tell me how this resolution would have helped families, consumers, the poor, and/or children in Massachusetts, Maine, or New Hampshire, I’d like to know!

Keep the Internet Open

The internet is this country’s greatest, most used, and largest public library. Nearly a year ago, the FCC adopted FC 10-201 to keep the doors of the internet open to American citizens. In this regulation, the FCC cites evidence that broadband providers had been covertly blocking or degrading Internet traffic, and that cable companies have financial incentive and ability to shut things down even more.

Here’s a summary of values stated in the report:


1. Today the Commission takes an important step to preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation, investment, job creation, economic growth, competition, and free expression. To provide greater clarity and certainty regarding the continued freedom and openness of the Internet, we adopt three basic rules that are grounded in broadly accepted Internet norms, as well as our own prior decisions:

i. Transparency.
Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network
management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their
broadband services;
ii. No blocking.
Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and
iii. No unreasonable discrimination.
Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.

We believe these rules, applied with the complementary principle of reasonable network management, will empower and protect consumers and innovators while helping ensure that the Internet continues to flourish, with robust private investment and rapid innovation at both the core and the edge of the network. This is consistent with the National Broadband Plan goal of broadband access that is ubiquitous and fast, promoting the global competitiveness of the United States.

But NO! Senator Kay Hutichson (R-TX) introduced S.J. Resolution 6 to the Senate floor to strike down openness and transparency on the internet. The resolution states in plain English that Congress is against openness on the internet! If passed, this resolution will make the FCC unable to ensure the doors of the world’s greatest public library stay open to the public. This resolution is job-killing, innovation-stalling, and education-thwarting.

The resolution is so short, I’ll post its contents in their entirety for you to see for yourself:

Disapproving the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission with respect to regulating the Internet and broadband industry practices.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress disapproves the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to the matter of preserving the open Internet and broadband industry practices (Report and Order FCC 10-201, adopted by the Commission on December 21, 2010), and such rule shall have no force or effect.

Today I called Scott Brown’s office in DC to tell him to vote NO on S.J. Res. 6. The number is (202) 224-4543. Do you use the internet? Do you plan to use it in the future? If so, then please call your senators to tell them to vote for American innovation and against S.J. Res. 6.

p.s. — If you live in Maine, ask Olympia Snowe (202) 224-5344 and Susan Collins (202) 224-2523 how this resolution will create jobs in Maine. If you live in New Hampshire, ask Kelly Ayotte (202) 224-3324 whether this resolution will help New Hampshire families make ends meet. They must believe it will. They co-sponsored the resolution, after all.

Hell under Earth

Dead Sea bathers

Above: During a trip to visit my family in the mid-west, my aunt bade me watch a Christian documentary on the geography of hell and the history of the End of Days. The film took an archaeological perspective; the kind that unearths incontrovertible, physical evidence that the Bible, and therefore the narrator’s interpretation of it, is true. At one point, the narrator pinpointed seven portals to hell on a map. Thankfully all of gates were under water. Most of them, deep beneath the ocean. The closest to the surface, though, was under the Dead Sea. Being the lowest point on Earth, this was the most likely the first gate to open when the the unholy demon army of hell decided it was finally time to consume the world. I was about eleven, and I had trouble sleeping that night.

Then in February of 2011 I went to the Dead Sea. It was plenty hot, but not quite hellish. The surrounding mountains crumble into coarse, rocky sand. Local agencies import outside sands for the beach, which are deposited regularly by large construction machinery for the bathers. The water is so salty that crystals fall out of solution and form large balls on the sea floor. (They make great souvenirs.) The salt that remains in solution coats your body and makes your skin slick as you bob up and down in the water. Remember not to shave before taking a dip—the small cuts burn. Do not get any water in your eyes. Life guards forbid the use of goggles, as they allow swimmers to be less vigilant.

Despite the inhospitable environs and poor air quality, no one seemed to notice how dangerously near to the doorway of the Prince of the Air we all were. I don’t know why hell’s army would be pick such a terrible, uninhabited place to emerge. If I were in charge, we’d march from somewhere lush and populated. Watch out, Brazil. But again, what do I know about waging war against humanity? [Full size (4.6Mb)]

Water Wizz, Wareham, MA

Above: So, this summer I was much happier to visit Water Wizz in Wareham, MA. It’s my favorite water park on the Cape. As far as I know, it’s well away from large demonic activity. The park itself is small, but not depraved. And the Pirate’s Plunge is super fun! [Full size (4.6Mb)]