House budget negotiators averted yet another showdown by meeting much of the federal government’s projected fiscal year 2015 spending gap with proceeds from the sale of phone data on U.S. citizens that the National Security Agency has been collecting since 2001 under the USA PATRIOT ACT.
“We know NSA’s data collection has been controversial, but at least we were able to solve a very real problem with it, and that’s to get our fiscal house in order without resorting to showdown tactics and last-minute deals,” says House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“I think what we’ve done today is a model for forging solutions going forward,” says Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “I’m proud of the level of cooperation we had from both sides of the aisle. I can say without hesitation that if we work together like this on future budget issues, we can address even the toughest issues on behalf of the American people, which is what they elected us to do.”
Under the deal, tens of millions of phone data records collected by the NSA will be sold to corporations and foreign governments for tens of billions of dollars, which is more than what negotiators needed to forge a deal.
The deal addresses future shortfalls as well, by making available additional NSA phone data sets for other sales, although which data and how much was left to NSA to decide. “We have more phone record data than we know what to do with, frankly,” says NSA Director Keith Alexander. “We have tens of millions of records we can sell each quarter, so I can see this influx to the federal budget reaping rewards for quite some time.”
What’s more, says Alexander, most of the data is completely useless. “Guys lying to their wives, employees making lame excuses to get our of work—I mean, most of the phone conversations we’ve tapped are really innocuous conversations that people have every day. If foreign governments and corporations want to buy this crap, I’m happy to sell it to them.”
Alexander says he’s been surprised at the level of interest among some governments to get the records. “Maybe they’re looking for material they can share with their TV producers for sitcom ideas? I don’t know. Most of it puts me to sleep.”
In their joint statement announcing the budget agreement, Ryan and Van Hollen said if the sale of the data proceeds well over the next three years, they’ll consider authorizing NSA to sell other data assets, including records on American’s Internet use, cable TV viewing habits, and Amazon purchases. “The NSA has it all, so why just sit on it?” the lawmakers say in their joint statement. “If buyers want to know how badly Americans spend their time, let them pay for it. We have plenty of this crap to sell.”
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Don’t expect quick processing of your Social Security check today. Agencies throughout the federal government have closed in response to heavy cloud cover over the city, preventing the sun from shining and threatening rain. “All federal empoyees, with the exception of essential employees and national security personnel, are instructed to stay home during today’s extreme weather event.” Kevin Longley, director of personnel management for the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement today. “We expect federal agencies to resume normal operations tomorrow, although if current conditions persist, we expect to issue a revised update calling for a second day of closure.” More.
Alarmed at a rash of high-profile data breaches at big U.S. retailers like Home Depot, a task force of scientists and engineers looking at computer safety and privacy have called on lawmakers to add 16 letters to the English alphabet. They’ve also called for the addition of three numbers to the number scale, but that recommendation was not included in the final report as task force members look at how that could be done, since the number scale is universally understood to be based on the 10-digit system and any change would be difficult to administer. More.
OTTOWA—Tired of living in the shadow of its much larger southern neighbor, Canada yesterday officially changed its name to Not USA and unveiled a new flag that government officials say is designed to tell the world that Canada is its own country and not simply a northern outpost of the United States. “Not USA has a long and proud history,” says Stephen Harper, prime minister of Not USA, formerly known as Canada. “With our new name and flag, we’re celebrating our unique place in the community of nations. People forget that Not USA defeated the United States in several key battles in the War of 1812 and beat the U.S. in the 2010 winter olympics hockey championship. What’s more, Not USA is the largest country on earth by land mass, has more ice than any other country, and is the world’s largest producer of maple syrup and moose souvenirs.” More.
BEIJING—China this week released its plan to dominate the world by 2020 and also host a summit on the overfishing of red herring in the South Sea. “This is China’s century and we are determined to assert our interests globally in accordance with our stature as the one true superpower,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a news conference here yesterday. China is the world’s largest country by population, with 1.36 million people, not counting ethnic Uighurs, and the world’s second largest economy, with a gross domestic product of $16.1 trillion. That is about $1 trillion less than the United States, although that gap is expected to close within the next 18 months because of America’s declining productivity and “black president,” the plan says. More.
Saying it’s tired of sitting on the sidelines for the majority of compositions in the English language, the letter Q announced today its secession from the English alphabet and a ban on all uses of the letter Q in subsequent English compositions. The letter Q also says it’s reviewing its ties with French, German, Spanish, and other Indo-European languages, but for now, it’s willing to stay in those Latin-based languages until further notice. “For thousands of years the joke has been on the letter Q,” says the letter Q in its Declaration of Secession, delivered simultaneously to the American Library Association, the British Library, the National Library of Canada, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Webster English Dictionary, the Associated Press, and the Chicago Manual of Style. “But no more. As of today, the letter Q is not available for your use.” More.
The English Language Institute removed “utilize” and “cleanse” from the English language today as part of the organization’s long-term plan to trim the language of unnecessary words. The words were recommended for removal by the organization’s Word Removal Committee last month and approved for elimination by the board of directors today. “We grow attached to words, so it’s never easy to say goodbye to them, even when they’re unnecessary,” says Nigel Porter, president of the English Language Institute. “But for the long-term good of our language, today’s actions were necessary and long-overdue.” According to the Institute, “utilize” has long been used as a complex variant of “use,” but it was found to have no meaning beyond “use.” More.
I know part of being a fireman is washing the fire truck when you have down time, but I have to tell you honestly that I don’t really like doing it. The truck is big and it’s got a lot of accessories on it, hoses and knobs and ladders, which makes it hard to wash, but even if it were as slick as a sports car, I still wouldn’t much like doing it. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite parts of my job. More.
For the longest time I enjoyed going on walks with my master. He would give me a call, “Buster!” and when I came rollicking up, excited about what awaited us outside the walls of our house and outside the confines of our yard, he would attach my leash and off we would go. Sometimes we would go right, which I call the “Annie Poodle Route,” because Annie the Poodle lives down that way, and I always leave my calling card by the corner of her fence (along with a million other dogs!). And sometimes we would go left, which I call the “Fred the Mean Dog Route,” because Fred the Mean Dog lives down there, and you can be sure I don’t leave my calling card by his house! More.
Researchers at Oxford University have bestowed upon Canada the dubious distinction of being the most boring of the six countries that comprise what’s known as the Anglosphere: Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States. “We think it’s important that this matter be settled once and for all,” says lead researcher Nigel Clappe, lecturer in political science and demographics at Oxford University. “Up until this point, people have been identifying the most boring country based on nothing more than their own gut feeling. And that wasn’t helping anybody.” More.
Saying it’s impossible to be mad when you skip, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for leaders around the world to take up skipping, the “hippity-hoppity” gait that comes so naturally to children. “If you remember the last time you skipped, you will no doubt remember feeling frisky and carefree,” Ban said in a statement released today. The U.N. last week passed a referendum declaring the week of Dec. 18-25 World Skipping Week, which the international organization hopes will inspire people everywhere to skip rather than fight. More.
WASHINGTON—America’s super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) is responsible for the dreaded “Heartbleed” virus that has infected servers worldwide, according to documents leaked by former U.S. security contractor Edwin Snowden. The documents show that NSA developed Heartbleed as part of its massive MYSTIC anti-terrorism surveillance operation. The virus “enables security personnel to monitor Internet traffic flowing through half a million U.S. and European-based servers,” according to a highly classified briefing NSA officials made last summer to security experts at European intelligence agencies. The briefing was part of the large trove of classified documents on NSA surveillance passed along to news outlets last year by Snowden, who is living under asylum in Russia. More.