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John Oliver Takes on the U.S. Prison System with Puppets

By: Zach Tomanelli Monday July 21, 2014 12:00 pm

If you haven’t been watching HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver you’re really missing out. Oliver takes advantage of the weekly format to devote long segments to topics that don’t often get a hearing from other late night comedians, let alone the corporate news media — often with hilarious results.

Last night’s episode provided a perfect example as Oliver spent 17 minutes eviscerating the national disgrace that is the U.S. prison system. He touched on everything from our unfathomable incarceration rate to the ineptitude of Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels to the horrific effects of prison privatization. Come for the cogent analysis of mandatory minimum sentencing laws; stay for the puppet sing-along breaking down overcrowding and racial profiling.

When you’ve finished watching, add your name to FDL’s petition to the Bureau of Prisons telling them not to renew Corrections Corporation of America’s contract for its for-profit immigrant prison in Youngstown, Ohio.


Jumping Into the Bitcoin Bubble

By: Zach Tomanelli Monday December 30, 2013 2:17 pm

When the Bitcoin bubble popped earlier this month, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to jump into the market and see what all the fuss was about.

Bitcoin, for the uninitiated, is a digital currency introduced in 2009 by a developer with the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. It is not a physical currency, but rather a digitally maintained public ledger of transactions called the blockchain. When somebody buys Bitcoin, the blockchain is updated to reflect the change in ownership, and again when that person uses the Bitcoin. This is not done with names, but rather anonymous addresses – hence Bitcoin’s designation as a “cryptocurrency.”

The blockchain is maintained by Bitcoin “miners” who are rewarded with newly minted Bitcoin. The mining process originally could be done by any individual with a computer and some tech acumen, but it was purposefully designed to become increasingly more complex, to the point where it now requires tremendous computing power to mine new Bitcoins.

Bitcoin is not 100% anonymous, however, as a savvy individual could use the anonymous addresses from the blockchain to determine the identity of a Bitcoin owner. Nevertheless, it provides greater anonymity than other online transactions such as credit cards and Paypal.

The currency was recently catapulted into the national consciousness when the U.S. government shut down the Silk Road black market, seizing $28.5 million in Bitcoin and arresting its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, AKA Dread Pirate Roberts. This once-obscure cryptocurrency has been steadily gaining value in 2013 and was recently the subject of a congressional hearing.

It was around this time that our publisher, Jane Hamsher, asked if I would be willing to conduct an experiment. My mission was simple: try living on Bitcoin for a week in New York City and write about it. I’m a pretty good candidate for the experiment – I don’t have any children, pets or a mortgage, so I can really only harm myself by doing this. I also live in a city with excellent public transportation, have a steady internet connection and a job – all of which could be major advantages to maintaining a Bitcoin lifestyle.

I began monitoring Bitcoin as its price reached an all-time high and subsequently came tumbling down on the news that the People’s Bank of China would stop financial institutions from selling, trading or storing Bitcoin. Prices plummeted from their late-November high of more than $1,100 per Bitcoin to $522.23 last Wednesday. This was not the first time Bitcoin sustained a serious price tumble (the currency is notoriously volatile), but it was one of the largest devaluations to-date.

As I write this, prices have slightly rebounded to $740/BTC, so perhaps reports of Bitcoin’s demise have been a bit premature. Nevertheless, most Bitcoin observers consider China’s move to be a serious blow to the perceived viability of the cryptocurrency. Bitcoin has already had issues related to theft and fraud, with one user losing as much as $500,000 worth of Bitcoin after being hacked. However, the Chinese crackdown revealed yet another danger for potential investors: it is not completely free from the whims of governments.

I’m not really interested in Bitcoin from a speculative, money-making perspective as most of its investors are – I’m curious about its viability as a useable everyday currency, both online and in the ‘real world.’ So with all this uncertainty, risk and money on the line (and prices at their lowest point in weeks) now sounds like the perfect time to jump on this crazy train!

I want this experience to be as helpful to others as possible. So before I embark on the adventure of living on internet money, let me lay out some of my plans, limitations, ideas and hopes going forward. I’ve done a lot of research, but I’d love the help and input of all of you out there as well.


I’ll probably spend my week on Bitcoin sometime after the new year. It will take a little time to acquire the Bitcoin. I’ve setup a wallet, the software where one “holds” his bitcoins, but I am still researching the various exchanges where one can purchase Bitcoin. This is an important and complicated first step and if anyone has any recommendations in this regard please leave them in the comments.


I’m a Bitcoin novice. I’m not a hacker nor am I an economist with an expertise in monetary policy. I’m hoping to learn more about the technology and economics behind Bitcoin and communicate that via these posts, but I won’t be teaching anyone how to mine Bitcoin.


It’s worth pointing out up front that this is by no means a perfect experiment, nor will I truly be living only on Bitcoin: My rent will already be paid for (I’m fairly certain my very old-school, Italian landlord would smack me upside my head if I suggested paying him in cryptocurrency), as will basic utilities like heat and electricity (although I’d be interested to learn if there were ways to pay these via Bitcoin). Perhaps most importantly, my smartphone, laptop and internet connection are all already paid for. Obviously these are the most essential items to living a Bitcoin lifestyle – so somewhat ironically, it would be very difficult to ascertain Bitcoin without fiat money.


I want this to be an interactive experience. I’m certainly not the first person to attempt living on Bitcoin. Kashmir Hill had an excellent series in Forbes earlier this year where she did exactly the same thing. In fact, living on Bitcoin will be easier for me as I work from home and don’t have to worry about the mundane challenge of commuting. So I want to use this opportunity to really evaluate Bitcoin’s usefulness beyond mere practicalities. I want to discover the breadth of items a person can buy and tasks a person can accomplish with Bitcoin, and I want our readership to help suggest those tasks. Can I see a movie with Bitcoin? Get a beer? If you know the answers to these, share them. If you have other questions, share them. We’ll do this together.

Progressive Fall Film Preview – 2013

By: Zach Tomanelli Thursday October 17, 2013 10:28 am

The weather is getting colder (at least here in the Northeast), and that usually means more interesting and challenging fare is moving into the cineplex. Here’s a look at some of the films being released this fall that might most intrigue progressives (trailers in the playlist below):


Inequality For All (In theaters now)

While this is hardly the first documentary to address the issue of growing inequality in the U.S, reviews indicate it is one of the best to do so.

Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, Inequality for All debuted at Sundance in January where it took home the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award. The film invites comparisons to An Inconvenient Truth, as it’s structured around a public lecture from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Reich details exactly how inequality has exploded in the U.S. over the course of the past three decades and discusses the effect this having on our society and democracy. The film is currently in limited release.

The Fifth Estate (In theaters October 18, 2013)

The early reactions to this film – which chronicles the establishment and rise of WikiLeaks – have not been promising.

Julian Assange has called it a “massive propaganda attack” on himself and his staff. WikiLeaks called the film a “geriatric snoozefest.” And most recently, the Guardian released a letter from Assange to Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Assange in the film), telling the actor he will be used to present a “debased truth.”

None of this is exactly surprising: I did not expect WikiLeaks to warmly embrace a film based on questionable source material, nor did I expect a Hollywood studio to greenlight a subversive, nuanced take on an organization that is pretty high on the government’s shit list. Nevertheless, I’ll wait to see the film before passing final judgement. And, yes, I will see the film. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument that dishonest propaganda should be boycotted and ignored. However, I tend to subscribe more to the view that we should engage with any material that deals with issues important to us, and when necessary work to correct any misconceptions caused by that material.

The fact is, people will see this movie and it will cause a discussion on leaks, privacy and whistleblowing. We need to be a part of that discussion in the same way civil liberties advocates pushed back on some of the false narratives regarding torture and the war on terror presented in last year’s Zero Dark Thirty.

Mediastan (Available On-Demand Now)

If you do avoid The Fifth Estate and still want to get your fill of WikiLeaks-cinema (or if you saw TFE and just want an extra helping of Julian Assange, Non-Cumberbatch Edition) – check out Mediastan.

The documentary, co-produced by WikiLeaks and Sixteen Films, was deliberately released as an alternative to The Fifth Estate. Dubbed a “WikiLeaks road movie,” the film details Operation Cablerun – the 2011 operation in which a team of undercover WikiLeaks journalists traveled to central Asia and attempted to get local news outlets to publish the diplomatic cables obtained by the organization.

Assange described the film thusly: “This is journalism in extremis. This is how it is done. This weekend, instead of wasting your time and money on Hollywood propaganda, why not get all your friends around and spend your time watching MEDIASTAN instead?”

Wolf of Wall Street (In theaters November 15, 2013 – maybe?)

A few weeks ago, reports indicated the latest Martin Scorsese – Leonardo Dicaprio collaboration might be delayed until next year after Scorsese submitted a 3-hour cut of the film. But more recent stories indicate the adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name may be back on track for a 2013 release.

Tonight’s Webinar: “May Day 2012 – Activism Across the Country”

By: Zach Tomanelli Wednesday April 18, 2012 1:26 pm

Tonight at 8 p.m. eastern, Occupy Supply will be hosting a free online discussion titled “May Day 2012: Activism Across the Country.”

Space is limited; click here to register.

The historical significance of May Day as a day to organize for workers’ rights makes May 1 an ideal moment for Occupy to enter a new stage of activism and continue to amplify it’s message calling for economic and social justice, marking the start of what some are calling the American Spring.

Occupations everywhere are planning on marking May 1st in their own unique way. Some places have organized general strikes, while others are putting together smaller community-based actions. At tonight’s webinar we’ll talk about the significance of this day, discuss the different activism taking place and share strategies for successful protest.

John Washington of Occupy Buffalo will lead off the discussion with a talk on May Day’s importance and its connection to the Occupy Movement. He’ll also talk about the call for a general strike and how different occupations plan to take part in it.

He’ll be joined by Jackie Wilson, also of Occupy Buffalo and Interoccupy. Jackie will share the May Day planning review that has taken place through Interoccupy and will gives examples of different actions being planned by Occupations across the country.

We also hope to hear from a variety of other occupiers and liaisons about their ideas for May 1 activism, as well as their strategies for effective, peaceful protests.

If you are an occupier, or know of one who is participating in a May Day action – please join the webinar this evening and share your plans with us.

The presentation portion of our webinar will be recorded for everyone, but we will not record the Q&A portion so that people may speak freely.

As always, tonight’s discussion is open to the public – occupier, activist or supporter.

I hope you can join us on the webinar TONIGHT, 4/18 at 8pm Eastern.