Monday, December 12, 2016

Apple #737: An Election Re-Do?

On Saturday, former CIA operative Robert Baer told CNN that the information he's seen so far about Russian hacking suggests they did interfere in the US Presidential election with the express goal of helping one candidate (Trump) and hindering another (Clinton). He said, "When a foreign country interferes in your election and the outcome is in doubt, . . . I'm not a constitutional lawyer, but . . . I would like to see the evidence, because if the evidence is there, I don't see any other way than to vote again."

So, is this possible?  Could the election not really be over?  Could we be going through the whole thing all over again?

  • One of the other things Baer said was that "If we [the CIA] had been caught interfering in European elections or Asian elections or anywhere in the world, those countries would call for new elections."
  • Since all of this is on an international scale -- Russia involved in US politics, Baer using European or Asian countries as models -- I wondered what international law says about all this.

  • The UN does stipulate in its charter that violent or physical intervention by one country should not be used to sabotage an election in another.  The UN went further in 1965, stipulating that “No State has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal […] affairs of any other State” and that that every “State has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems without interference in any form by another State.”
  • What this has meant in practice is that everybody agrees that no foreign country is supposed to go in and physically alter another country's vote or establish some coup to change the results of an election, or kidnap one of the candidates and assassinate them.  That is, everybody pays lip service to that.  But several countries -- including and especially the US -- have violated that agreement with little or no repercussions.
  • This is when the interference is obvious or violent.  But when it's more indirect -- distributing fliers with false information to get citizens to vote a certain way, pouring millions of dollars into the desired candidate's campaign -- the rules get a lot more vague. Nobody seems willing to define exactly what constitutes this fuzzier kind of interference and what doesn't, nor do they seem willing to do much to try to change such behavior, or to interfere yet again to undo whatever interference happened.
  • So there's been a lot of interference by a lot of countries, in spite of those rules.  One of the most notorious offenders has been the US. Here is a short list of occasions when the US is known to have interfered with, unseated, or downright overthrown the government in another country (NACLA, WaPo, Politico):
    • 1906 US interfered in Cuba's presidential election
    • 1945-1946 US interfered in Argentina's presidential election
    • 1948 US interfered in Italy's presidential election
    • 1953 US interfered in Iran's election for prime minister
    • 1953 US interfered in the Philippine's presidential election
    • 1954 US unseated Guatemala's sitting president
    • 1961 US assassinated the ruler of Congo
    • 1963 US supported a coup against the leader of Vietnam
    • 1973 US supported a coup in Chile that put Pinochet in power
    • 1984 US tried to sabotage Nicaragua's presidential election
    • 2002 US interfered in Bolivia's presidential election
    • 2002 US interfered in Nicaragua's presidential election
    • 2002 US used the IMF to influence Brazil's presidential election
    • 2004 US interfered in El Salvador's presidential election 

General Pinochet and Henry Kissinger shaking hands after the coup & killing of Chile's president. Pinochet's bloodthirsty head of secret intelligence, Manuel Contreras, was a former member of the CIA.
(Image sourced from Steemit)

  • As the US has done such things, so has Russia.  One political scientist finds that US and Russia "intervened in 117 elections around the world from 1946 to 2000 — an average of once in every nine competitive elections.”
  • So, first of all, it's beyond disingenuous for an ex-CIA guy to act all shocked and say that if we had interfered in another country, they would do their election over again. Um, no.
  • Also, pretty much the rest of the world is laughing at us for pointing at Russia and shouting, "Hey! They messed with our election!"
  • But most Americans could give a rat's toothpick about international politics, or the UN, or what we did in the 1950s.  As Jack Goldsmith from Harvard Law put it, this is America this has happened to. 
  • Also, the interference seems different.  They used computers.  They hacked into our stuff.  We've all got phones & computers & everything, so it's like those Russians touched all our stuff.  Then they posted whatever dirty laundry they found (was it even that dirty?) about the candidate they didn't like on a site that some people considered to be rogue but maybe necessary.  It seems like an invasion, a betrayal, and it's scary. Because if they did that, what else could they do?

Screenshot of Fancy Bear website, boasting about having hacked the Olympics' anti-doping agency. No, the Russian government would have no interest whatsoever in the anti-doping agency being undermined.
(Image sourced from VOA)

  • Another reason this situation seems new is that it seems possible that "a presidential candidate of one U.S. party, [Donald Trump], might be working with—or at least supportive of—a major foreign adversary’s efforts to covertly damage the rival presidential candidate.” (again, Jack Goldsmith in the Atlantic)
  • In other words, was it at least partially an inside job?  By the guy we have just elected president?
  • It may be very difficult to draw a direct and clear line from The Candidate to the Russians. The CIA seems to be having some difficulty drawing the line to the Russian government.  They can talk about Fancybear all they want, but was that group operating under orders from Putin or his officials?  If the CIA knows, they're not saying so far, perhaps because they don't want to reveal how they came by the information and risk exposing people working covertly in the field.
  • If they find it difficult to draw one side of the triangle, it might not be possible to draw the other side, from the Russian government to Trump.
  • But maybe proving that wouldn't even need to be possible.  Would it be enough to say the Russians interfered in our election, and we don't care what the UN or anybody else thinks, we want to have a re-do?  Could we do that?
  • I suppose we could do anything, if enough of us decided we wanted to.  There have been election re-dos before. Here are a few very recent do-overs:
  • In all of those situations, the reason for the re-do was because of evidence of some kind of ballot-related fraud, or even the perception of such fraud -- a suspicious increase in the number of absentee ballots, hundreds of thousands of votes untraceable to actual people, tens of thousands of ballots opened too early.
  • In this case, we don't have such ballot-related evidence.  We have a lot of emails, though.
    • Oh, my word, there is a gigantic joke just sitting there.

  • But seriously, folks, a re-do just isn't very likely.  There's no international body that would tell us we had to have one, we probably wouldn't listen to them anyway, and even if some internal group like the Election Assistance Commission or perhaps some Senate committee on elections recommended a re-do, the people who are in charge of things -- Congress -- have to vote for a re-do. And we all know how Congress can hardly ever agree on anything, especially if what's at stake benefits one party over the other.
  • And the problem we're talking about is that fuzzy kind of interference.  What happened wasn't a direct kidnapping or coup, and it wasn't even like the Russians stole a bunch of ballots or changed them.  As UC-Irvine Law professor Rick Hasen put it, “It is very rare for courts to declare a revote, and these do not look like the circumstances where courts would declare one. I have never seen anyone try to redo an election based upon the release of information which influenced voters.” (LawNewz)
  • But even if the snowball's chance happened and Congress decided on a re-do, logistically, how could that even happen?  It takes county boards of elections about 2 months to 100 days to prepare for an election, and that's when they have a lot of advance notice when one is coming.  How would we round up all the voting machines and poll workers and everybody else in time to have a re-do vote before January 20?

It took Haiti more than a year to re-do the election that was declared to be fraudulent.
(AP Photo by Ricardo Arduengo, from Indian Express)

  • So, for all these reasons and more, I think that Robert Baer guy was full of it.  He's generally regarded as knowing his stuff when it comes to CIA matters.  But in this instance, I think he's off the mark.  My suggestion is don't count on a re-do.  Focus your energies elsewhere.

CNN Robert Baer's remarks
LawNewz's opinion on Robert Baer's remarks
Michigan Journal of International Law, Review of UN laws on foreign interference in elections
Foreign Policy Initiative, discussion on Russian interference in foreign elections
Atlantic, opinion on Russian interference, w remarks by Goldsmith
Washington Post, opinion on Russian interference, w/ remarks by Tokaji & Lewis
NACLA, history of US interference in foreign elections
Politico, history of US interference in foreign elections
Washington Post, history of Us interference in foreign elections
Fox2Now, St. Louis election fraud
Fox2Now, St. Louis election fraud part 2
CBSNews, Haiti election re-do
FoxNewsWorld, Haiti election re-do part 2
AFP via Yahoo News, Austrian election re-do
Reuters, Austrian election re-do part 2
Sampson County, NC, Board of Elections, timetable for election preparation
Wayne County, Ohio, Board of Elections, video on planning for an election

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Apple #736: Cabinet Appointments

With all the news about Trump's picks for this or that cabinet position, and particularly about the response to his choice of white supremacist Steve Bannon as his official strategist, I realized I had no idea how this cabinet appointment process works. Lots of people are sending their opinions about Bannon to members of Congress and to Trump himself, but I've been thinking, if these are appointments, what's Congress got to do with it?  Can't Trump just do whatever the heck he wants?  Another politician might listen to people sending reams of letters and postcards to his mailbox, but I doubt Trump would.

So, first, how does the Cabinet appointment process work, and second, if you seriously object to a particular appointee, what can you realistically and effectively do about it?

President Obama's Cabinet attending a meeting in the White House Cabinet room.
(Photo from the White House)

The Few Basic Rules of Appointments

  • Another rule also applies to cabinet positions, and that is a law that was created in 1967 to guard against nepotism in the cabinet. Some people say the law was passed because LBJ didn't like it that JFK made his brother, Bobby, Attorney General. Others say it was created because the office of the Postmaster was staffed with all sorts of cabinet officials' wives.
  • This 1967 law says any public official may not appoint a relative to any civilian position in a department which the official oversees. So, if you're president, you oversee any cabinet position, so all of those are off-limits.
  • But it contains a second provision which says that if the official appoints a relative anyway, in spite of this rule, then that relative cannot be paid. 
      • (Presumably Bobby Kennedy & those pesky wives were already in those positions so they said let's just take them off the payroll.)
  • The upshot of this law is that, theoretically, Trump could appoint all of his children to cabinet positions, and if the Senate said OK, they could hold those positions but not draw a salary.

Slightly edited photo of the Trump children & their spouses, and Melania.
I think Barron would probably not be confirmed as a Cabinet appointee.
(original at Business Insider)

  • Other than these two laws, the President can pretty much appoint as he or she sees fit.

Most Executive Branch Appointments Are President-Appointed Only

  • There's an exception to the Senate-approval requirement, and that is, in general, if the cabinet position is part of the executive branch, or part of the White House, the Senate has no say. Those are all straight-up presidential appointments.
      • Some executive branch positions do require Senate approval, such as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the US Trade Representative, the Director of Science & Tech Policy (vacant as of 2012), the Chair of Environmental Quality, etc.  But the vast majority are Presidential appointments, and many are even career appointments.
  • But all of this means that the Senate has no say whatsoever over who the President chooses to be White House Chief of Staff, or Strategic Advisor, or almost any other White House office position.
  • Which further means that however many e-mails or phone calls or postcards that you may have made or sent to your Senator saying how objectionable you find Steve Bannon's appointment to the White House, your Senator can't really take any action.  You may feel better having registered your opinion with some government official, and doing something to get your opinion heard may be better than keeping silent. Just don't expect your Senator to be able to take any particular action on this point.
  • Why not?  Separation of powers, is what it comes down to.  One branch of government can't dictate to another everything it can & can't do. One of the cornerstones of how our country works.

Many Cabinet Positions are President-Appointed, Senate-Approved

  • But there are many cabinet positions that do depend on Senate approval for confirmation.  Some of those positions include pretty much any office with the word "Secretary" at the start of it. There are scads of presidential appointed-senate approved positions. Here is a very incomplete list of some of them:
      • Secretary of Agriculture
      • Secretary of Commerce (vacant as of 2012)
      • Director of the Census Bureau
      • Under Secretary of Commerce for NOAA
      • Secretary of Defense
      • Secretary of Education
      • Secretary of Energy
      • Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management (vacant as of 2012) 
      • Chief Financial Officer for the Dept of Energy (vacant as of 2012)
      • Secretary of Health & Human Services
      • General Counsel to most governmental departments
      • etc.
The big-name cabinet positions
(Image from Poudre School District)

  • There are over 2,000 upper-level positions Cabinet departments and agencies in the federal government.  I'm not sure what percentage of those positions are ones that Trump is supposed to fill, whether or not the Senate approves them, but I would guess maybe 20%?
      • If you want to see a complete list of all US Government positions along with an indication of whether it's a presidential appointee or a senate-approved position and what the pay grade is, check out this ginormous list of positions, better-known as the Plum Book (last updated 2012).
  • For those positions that require Senate approval, the nominee first of all has to fill out 4 sets of rather exhaustive background paperwork, and one of those sets gets passed to the Senate.
  • The Senate parcels the nominations out to those committees that have jurisdiction over  the agency in question. For example, the nominee for Secretary of Education gets referred to the Senate Committee on Education.  That committee reviews the nomination and may or may not choose to hold hearings to discuss the nominee's qualifications or anything else about the potential appointment.
      • This process of reviewing the nominee by the relevant committee is a de facto way of ensuring that the nominee is qualified for the position for which they're being considered. There is no actual rule in place that says the nominee needs to have any experience whatsoever related to their position. But up to now, that's just what Presidents did. Until the forthcoming administration, Presidents typically nominated people who did have experience, because they didn't want to waste everyone's time by nominating someone who didn't know what the heck they were supposed to be in charge of.
      • Even if an unqualified nominee were proposed, the Senate committee could recommend that the nominee not be approved based on lack of qualification, but there is no agreed-upon standard of qualification. Some Senators might think that a person who was involved in supporting charter schools but had no involvement in public schools whatsoever is qualified to lead the US Department of Education, and there would be little hard & fast basis on which to object to this opinion.
  • If the nominee passes the approval of the committee, the nominee's appointment is put on the general Senate calendar, and the nominee is considered by the Senate in general at that time, and then voted on.
  • The record of the votes is of course duly recorded in the Congressional Record, and the President is also notified of the results of the votes.
  • It used to be that it took 60 yea votes for a nominee to be confirmed. But in 2013, the Democrats voted on and passed the "nuclear option" which changed the rules so that only a simple majority of the Senate was required to confirm a nomination.
      • Republicans warned Democrats when they were discussing this bill that they might not like it so much when they no longer had a majority in the Senate, but Democrats insisted on it, saying there was no other way to get around Republican obstructionism. Harry Reid, who proposed the bill, said he still stands by it and that the voting record will show which Senators support which candidates, however unfit they might be, and the voting public will hold them accountable for that. 
  • So if you really want to object to a particular cabinet appointment that requires Senate approval, methinks you'd better contact Republican Senators (scroll down), especially if you are a constituent of one of theirs.  Telling a Democratic Senator of your objections might be somewhat important, but you'd probably be preaching to the choir. 

This is what Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's confirmation hearing looked like. 

It All Takes a Long Time

  • A wrinkle in all of this is bureaucracy. The business of filling appointed positions is tedious, protracted, inefficient, and it takes forever besides. (Yes, I'm being redundant. I'm demonstrating the facts with my language.)
  • The appointee process is such a problem, there is a project called the Political Appointee Project whose sole purpose is to review the system, track its inefficiencies, and try to recommend improvements. At least 6 independent research groups have conducted numerous studies of the process and issued reports and bulletins highlighting the problems and recommending ways to change and improve the system. Unfortunately, very few of their recommendations have been implemented.
  • One of those problems I've obliquely referred to earlier. When someone is nominated for a position, that person has to fill out 4 exhaustive questionnaires:
      • National security clearance questionnaire
      • Personal data statement to be used by the White House
      • Separate background questionnaire for the Senate's review 
  • It took an act of Congress -- literally -- to revise these forms so people didn't have to provide their name & address & birthdate etc. on each of the 4 forms, but that that information would be asked for only once and it could be shared among all the parties who need it. 
  • In addition to the 4 forms, each nominee is investigated by the FBI to determine if they have any skeletons in their closet.  Perhaps you have some potential lawsuit-worthy deeds in your background, or maybe you have an addiction, or maybe you have some blackmailable offense that somebody could use against you, or "Do you belong to a club that excludes women or minorities?" (Hmm)
  • If the FBI turns up something problematic that you should have indicated on your national security clearance questionnaire, you could be found guilty of committing a felony and fined up to $10,000, or sentenced to up to 5 years in prison, or both.
      • Has anyone asked Trump to complete the National security clearance questionnaire, especially with respect to his dealings with Russia?
  • With all these forms that have to be reviewed, and background checks conducted, with this department and that agency and that office needing to review and rubber-stamp all the materials, the process takes a really freakin' long time.
  • Because of this bureaucracy, according to findings by the Aspen Institute, on average in recent administrations, only about 1/3 of the most vital leadership roles in the government were filled within the first 100 days of a new administration (by May 1).
  • Even if a Departmental Director is installed relatively quickly, they can't do much without a senior staff, and many of those positions remain unfilled for a really long time after the start of a new administration. For example, of the 35 most important appointees responsible for national security there are on average only about 9 in office by May 1.

For example, nearly every office shown here in the Dept of Justice is a Presidential-Appoint, Senate-Approve position. But there are boatloads more that aren't shown here that also require Presidential appointment/Senate approval, including but not limited to the US Attorneys for each state, and many states have more than one. The US Atty for Northern Illinois, Obama's home region, is vacant as of 2012.
(Diagram from Wikipedia)

  • The Aspen Institute recommends that Presidential candidates begin preparing appointees well before the election, so that if they win, they have a team ready and installed as quickly as possible. Obama and McCain both started these preparations very early, while they were still candidates. As a result, "The Obama administration was able to nominate and have confirmed more appointees in the first 100 days than any other President in recent times."
  • Even so, several positions remain vacant, even as late as 2012. Even for the guy who is uber-prepared and efficient, understands how government works and tries to choose people who will get approved, it's still really difficult to fill all the necessary positions.
  • Trump, on the other hand, is woefully unprepared. It was news to him that he had to appoint people to work for him in the White House. Chris Christie was on the ball when he signed the memorandum of understanding that would allow the Obama administration to share sensitive information with the Trump transition team, but when Ivanka's husband sacked Christie because he prosecuted his father & put him in jail, that rendered the MOA obsolete, and it took a couple weeks before Pence signed a new form (see NYT).
  • So Trump is already behind schedule.  Which means even if he does get his major positions figured out somewhat soon, he will still need to get tons of people hired who will actually do the work for his Secretaries of Education and Defense and Commerce, etc.  
  • Which means it might take a while for more of the wheels to start falling off.  And maybe those of us who are not in favor of unqualified, racist, misogynist people being put in positions of power might be able to find local, small-government ways of keeping them from instituting policies that make American more mean than it has already become in such a short time. Here are some general and somewhat vague thoughts on local-government action.

So, even knowing more about how this whole process work, I don't have many specific recommendations for actions to take that can have real effects. I guess my general suggestion is, be vocal but also be local. Here are some resources:

Georgetown Law Library, Executive Nomination Process Guide
[The Plum Book, or] United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, 12-1-2012 
The Washington Post, There are three [unwritten] rules of Cabinet appointments. Will Donald Trump break them? 11-25-2016
The Washington Post, President Trump’s Cabinet picks are likely to be easily confirmed. That’s because of Senate Democrats. 11-18-2016 
A Survivor's Guide to Presidential Nominees, 2013 edition
The Political Appointee Project
The Aspen Institute, The Federal Appointments Process: The Problem and Our Proposed Solutions
Quora, Which laws been enacted to prevent family members of a president from serving in his cabinet?
Huffington Report, No, Donald Trump Can’t Appoint His Kids To His Cabinet [actually, he can], 11-10-2016
Business Insider, Report: Trump was unfamiliar with the scope of the president's job when meeting Obama, 11-13-2016
The New York Times, Firings and Discord Put Trump Transition Team in a State of Disarray, 11-15-2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Apple #735: Truck Weigh Stations

I have had a request!  Daily Apple reader Jamal and his friend Monique wanted to know how trucking weigh stations work. That seemed like a pretty simple question, but when I conversed some more with Jamal, it turned out that he and Monique were wondering, what is to prevent some truck from driving a ton of explosives into some city and blowing it up, as happened in Nice.  They were wondering if those truck weigh stations, by virtue of how they work, would catch something like that.

The second part of this question turned out to be really hard to figure out.

In pursuit of the answer, I have read a ton of truck-driving websites, training manuals, and chat rooms.  I've learned a fair bit about truck driving, a whole lot about truckers' antipathy for the police, the complicated and sometimes adversarial relationship they have with the companies for whom they drive, and I've read more than a few trucker tales (they weren't as good as I was hoping for, or I'd have shared some).  I'll try to distill what I've learned into some usable bites for you to nibble on.  Hopefully by the end of this, we'll have arrived at or close to the answer Jamal and Monique were seeking.

Trucks lining up to get weighed at a weigh station.
(Photo from The Lantech Blog)

What Weigh Stations Are For

I thought I knew how these things work, just from having seen them in action as I drove past.  I was wrong.

  • Originally the weigh stations were constructed to make sure that commercial trucks of 26,000 lbs & above were paying their required fuel taxes.  The weigh stations were built to weigh the trucks to make sure that people weren't trying to dodge those taxes even though their trucks might weight more than 26,000 lbs.
  • Now, fuel taxes are collected quarterly, so the primary purpose of the weigh stations is to make sure the trucks are not exceeding unsafe weight limits.
  • Each of the 3 axles of a commercial interstate truck has a weight limit, as does the total truck: 
    • Steer axle -- front tires on the truck -- < 12,000 lbs 
    • Drive axle -- back tires on the truck, beneath the front of the trailer -- < 34,000 lbs
    • Trailer axle -- tires beneath the back of the trailer -- < 34,000 lbs
    • Gross vehicle weight -- truck, trailer, all cargo -- < 80,000 lbs (sum of the 3 axles)
  • Some of those weights vary in different states, but those are generally correct for most states.  If your total weight exceeds 80,000 lbs, you need to get a special permit which costs money and which takes a lot of time, which can be expensive in its own way.
  • From what I've gathered, these weight limits are in place to protect the safety of other vehicles (more weight = more devastation in a crash) but mainly to keep the roads from getting driven deeper into the ground.
  • These rules about axle weight result in the drivers having to be obsessed not just about how much weight they're carrying, but about how it's distributed over the axles.  You can't just shove all 950 crates of potatoes in the truck and take off; you have to make sure it's distributed throughout the trailer so that none of the axles exceeds its weight limit -- and it also has to be secured so it won't slide around while you're driving. 

Weighing a Truck

  • If one of your axles comes in over weight, you might think that all you need to do is to re-balance the load, but you have to take into account the weight of the fuel, your weight personally when you're in the cab, the weight of the tires themselves, etc.  Sometimes the guy who loaded your crates of potatoes with the forklift has gone off to help someone else, so you've got to figure out a different solution.  
  • One trick is to use what's called the tandem sliders to change the position of the trailer axle (farthest-back tires) beneath the trailer.  Moving the trailer axle closer to the front means it takes weight off the drive axle and more weight onto itself.  Moving it farther back means more of the weight falls on the drive axle.
I need to move the [trailer tires] back – but just a little bit. It takes me a couple of tries, and I find that I’m stuck between two positions. On one, the drives are over, on the other it’s the trailer. Adam and I discuss options. We’re SO close. Maybe a DOT officer won’t care about 100 pounds. But maybe he will. That’s a violation and a fine. Both our record and our company’s record gets a ding for it. I don’t want to take the chance. We joke that Adam could lay across the dash when we go through weight stations. We figure we can leave our fuel below 3/4 of a tank to help.  
  • The fine for being over weight limits starts at $300 and goes up, plus you get a citation on your commercial driving record, which can make it more difficult to get a job with another company.  They're not sure they want to take the risk, so they decide to check their weights on certified scales, or CAT scales.  

Certified CAT scale, typically available at larger truck stops.  Costs $10 to weigh your truck. Drive up, park, go tell the scale operator your trailer number, then get your weight ticket.
(Photo from Somanymiles)

  • Most shippers have their own scales on site, but they're not certified to be accurate so they can be a little off.  If you want an official, totally reliable weight, you can drive your truck to a certified CAT scale.  If your truck comes in with a different weight at a weigh station and you get hit with a fine, CAT will pay the fine.
  • CAT scales are at larger truck stops, and you do have to drive your loaded truck to get to one, so you have to hope there's one close to where you are, and especially for there not to be a weigh station in between you and the CAT scale.
  • Our trucker Robin took her truck to the CAT scale, paid the $10 to use it, and the weights came in just under.
  • The time it took to shift the cargo, re-balance the axles, weigh, re-balance, weigh again etc. until getting to an acceptable weight: 8 hours.
  • The CAT scales give you an official ticket, showing the weight of the 3 axles and the gross weight.  You have to have this with you in your truck in case you get stopped, either by a DOT officer or by a state police officer or by local police.  More on this ticket in a bit.

Ticket from a CAT scale showing the 3 axle weights and gross truck weight.
(Photo from Somanymiles)

Types of Weigh Stations and What Happens There

  • You've seen weigh stations along the highways a million times.  There's an exit ramp with a weigh station sign that says open or closed.  When it's open, the trucks have to pull off the road onto the ramp, drive slowly in front of the little house-like thing that is the station, something mysterious happens, then they drive slowly away.  
  • Sometimes the stations get really backed up with waiting trucks, sometimes only a few are being weighed and other trucks are passing by, and sometimes the thing isn't even open.

Weigh station in use
(Photo from Weighing Review)

  • Different weigh stations work differently.  The old-school kind weigh one axle at a time.  These are time-consuming, since you have to drive one axle onto the scale, get that weighed, inch forward so the second axle is on the scale, get that weighed, then pull farther forward to get the final axle weighed, and then all 3 are added together.
  • Other weigh stations are "one-stop" scales, meaning you pull your entire truck onto the scale and it takes all the weights at once. You do still have to come to a complete stop, though.
  • A newer method which is becoming more common is the "weigh-in-motion" scale or WIM.  With these, you drive slowly over the scale but you don't have to stop.  Some stations don't even require the trucks to pull off the road; the scales are installed beneath the highway so the trucks can drive over them at speed, and the scales record the weight.
  • Another new technology allows trucks to bypass the weigh stations.  They work like the E-Z Pass that you buy to let you go through toll stations because you've already paid ahead of time.
  • First there's a thing with sensors in it that hangs out over the road and scans the vehicles going under it. 

EZ-Pass system used to tell truckers whether or not to pull over & get weighed.
(Photos from Baby & Honey Bear

  • Then there's the part in the vehicle, in this case, a transponder.  If you've got a transponder in your truck, the sensor arm thing will communicate to the transponder.  If it flashes green, you don't have to stop.  If it flashes red, you do.  If you blow past the weigh station even though your thing flashed green, the DOT cruiser will come after you and pull you over and the officer will not be happy.
  • If you do have to stop to get your truck weighed, yours can be one of the lucky trucks that is randomly or not-so-randomly told to pull over for an inspection.  If this happens, you will let loose a stream of curse words, and then try to put on as polite a face as possible when the officer begins speaking to you.
  • The list of things for which your truck may be in violation is very long.  I'm sure I haven't  uncovered even half the things that could get you flagged for an inspection.  But here are some of them:
    • Improper placarding of cargo -- if you've got hazardous stuff on board, you have to have a placard displaying such
    • Equipment is in disrepair -- could be anything from a bad ball bearing to missing reflective tape to rust or chipped paint. This could be your company's fault, as they may not keep up with maintenance as they should and they require you to drive a truck in bad shape. Too bad for you; you'll be on the hook for the fine.
    • Not having a spare tire in the rack beneath the trailer 
    • Unsecured tandem sliders -- this is legitimately dangerous
    • Evidence of erratic or improper driving -- pretty much the same sorts of things that get cars pulled over: seat belt not on, speeding, improper lane changes, failure to signal, etc.
    • Signs of possible impairment due to drugs or alcohol
    • Something about you looks funny
    • You're hauling something the officer wants -- one officer told a guy that, the next time he came through the weigh station, have one of those honey-baked hams he was hauling on the front seat.  He did, the officer took the ham, and the trucker didn't get a fine.
  • Once you've been told you're getting inspected, the officer will ask you for all sorts of documentation that you'd better have handy.  Most truckers have a binder that contains all the official documents they need. Those documents may include
    • Commercial driver's license
    • Cab card -- you are licensed to drive this particular cab
    • Proof of insurance
    • International Fuel Tax Association license (IFTA) -- proof that your company is paying those fuel taxes
    • Scale ticket -- remember the ticket you got from the CAT scales? That thing.
    • Bill of lading -- record describing the cargo the truck is hauling, where it was loaded, and its final destination
    • Medical certification -- this is for truckers hauling greater weights or hazardous cargo; proves that you don't have seizures or aren't going to have a heart attack any moment, that sort of thing
    • Log book -- where you record who the shipper is, what time you left, if you stopped, where & when, etc.  All your movements.  You can't have driven for more than 11 hours at a time; you are required to stop and rest so you don't get fatigued and increase your risk of accidents.  If your company has an electronic log, they recommend you keep a duplicate paper log too.

Sample IFTA license, showing where you're allowed to drive your truck because your company has paid fuel taxes in those locations.
(Image from Iowa DOT

Sample log record showing what the truck driver did when while hauling this load.  You're not allowed to exceed 11 hours' driving time so you don't wind up too tired to drive safely.
(Image from Wikipedia)

  • If anything about any of these documents looks funny, you could get a fine.  If the weights come in too high, you could get a fine.  If the truck has a rust spot and the officer picks at it and finds there's a greater problem going on, you could get a fine.  If you look cross-eyed at the officer, you could get a fine. 
  • The fines are not small.  They can be $2,000 or more.  
  • From what I've gathered, it's usually the driver who has to pay these fines, not the company they drive for.  Plus, you get a citation on your CDL record.  Too many of those -- and it sounds like it doesn't take many before it's too many -- and your company could decide you're too much of a risk and give you the boot.  Not only does that put you out of a job, but you might also have a hard time finding somebody else willing to take you on.
  • There's also the time issue.  The time you're stopped at a weigh station, waiting to get weighed, getting weighed, being pulled over and getting inspected -- all that is lost travel time.  It means your cargo might arrive late at its destination if you don't find some way to make up for it.  Some janky entitled Target customer like me is going to be ticked off that her vacuum cleaner didn't arrive exactly on time because you got pulled over and inspected for having rust on your back bumper.  Janky customer yells at Target, Target yells at the trucking company, trucking company yells at you, and you get fired.
  • To hear truckers tell it, the chance of getting inspected is a total crapshoot, but if it happens, chances are that it won't be good.  Truck drivers hate being inspected, hate being told essentially that they're doing their job wrong, hate the time it takes, hate even risking getting inspected.  So a lot of truckers will do what they can to avoid weigh stations.

Avoiding Weigh Stations

  • Truckers call weigh stations "coops" because they look about as small and not-sturdy as chicken coops.  There's a site called that tells you all sorts of stuff about the weigh stations in each state -- where they're located, how much the toll roads charge, where the cops lie in wait to look for speeders, etc.  If you pay to join, you can find out which weigh stations are open and which aren't, and what route to take if you want to dodge the weigh station entirely.

Typical Coopsareopen map, showing the major highways in each state -- this happens to be Illinois -- with red dots indicating the presence of weigh stations.  You have to pay extra to find out if they're open or not. 
(Map from Coopsareopen)

  • This is very valuable information because not having to stop or even slow down to get weighed saves you time. Avoiding open weigh stations also dramatically reduces the chances you could get flagged for an inspection.
  • Some truckers who know they're over weight but can't fix that problem will take another route to avoid weigh stations.  If they know their company's equipment is shoddy and won't get it fixed, they'll avoid the weigh stations.  A few of them do it just because they hate cops (and yes, some truckers still call the cops "smokey" or "the bear"). 
  • Avoiding weigh stations is so common in some parts of the country -- there are certain highways in Texas where it's really easy to avoid highway weigh stations by driving on surface bypass roads -- that those communities are trying to figure out how to pass legislation to keep truckers from doing this.

From the Officer's Point of View

  • All this is from the trucker's point of view.  They're the ones talking online the most about weigh stations and how they work and what to do while you're going through them, etc.  The police don't say very much, publicly, about that sort of thing.  So there's some guesswork about what they're thinking.
  • But I did find one page that's written from a police officer's point of view.  It tells local police officers not to be intimidated by the "big rigs."  It says they can't afford to be afraid to pull over the commercial trucks when necessary because they may be hauling illegal drugs, or smuggling some contraband, or involved in human trafficking.
  • It's also happened that trucks that have stopped at rest stops near the border crossing will have smugglers stash narcotics or other illegal stuff on the truck without the drivers' knowledge.  Occasionally, smugglers will force drivers to carry stuff for them, on threat of violence.
  • So, this police site tells officers, when you stop a big rig to inspect it, you may possibly be preventing two crimes, one intentional and one not.

State police cruiser having stopped a semi-truck on the highway.
(Photo from Police Mag

  • The site gets into detail about things to look for, and it lists a pretty wide range of stuff.  But ultimately it comes down to one thing: does anything look suspicious?  Are there cross-outs on the bill of lading, or hand-written notes on it?  Do any of the documents look less than official?  Are there any unauthorized passengers?  Does anything about the truck itself look less than official?
  • This goal of possibly uncovering truly illegal activity might be the real reason why they're so anal & picky about the placards on the side of the truck, or rust on the bumper, or whatever.  They might be thinking, hey, this could be a sign that this trucker's not legit, or the stuff he's hauling is illegal.
  • The big tip-off, they say, is how the trucker looks and is acting.  Here are some tips they describe:
Is the driver nervous? Is he sweating? Is he rubbing the back of his neck? Did he just urinate on himself when asked what his shipment was? (It happens.)  Several years ago a large cash seizure was made from a tractor-trailer on Thanksgiving Day. The big rig was being operated by someone who didn't have a commercial driver license (CDL), and was wearing Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, flip flops, and multiple gold chains. Other than the big indicator of not having a CDL, the huge indicator was the fact that the driver did not look, dress, or act like a trucker. Just as you do when you're out stopping cars for drug interdiction, ask yourself, does the story match the person?

Understand that most truckers are hardworking souls just trying to make a living, but they do commit traffic infractions, and some are involved in criminal activity. (from Police Mag)
  • This is fairly typical probable cause-type stuff, with exhortations to be on the lookout for any indicators that all is not as it should be.


But Does It Work?

  • So there's no concerted, let's-sweep-all-semis-from-here-to-Chicago-for weapons, but that might violate a constitutional amendment or two, and various other laws about search & seizure.  What the police can do is pull over or ask to inspect a truck that has apparently violated some rule or other.
  • This doesn't seem like a very reliable way of catching seriously bad stuff.  The potential for someone to sneak by without being caught seems pretty great.
  • On the other hand, the police have caught criminals on their way to doing some pretty nefarious things, and the criminals did give themselves away.  Here are a few examples:
Oct 11, 2015, El Reno, OK -- An Arizona truck driver was pulled over for swerving and weaving while driving. He said he was exhausted from driving all the way to Georgia to help his girlfriend move. So the police suggested he pull over to take a nap.
"Then, out of nowhere, Vasconcelos told authorities he wasn't a criminal and they could check his truck if they wanted to."
Deputies figured they'd better take him up on that, so they searched his truck. They found a loaded pistol on the front seat, and a large metal box forced into the mechanism of the engine which contained $3 million worth of heroin. (KFOR News channel 4)
  • Here's another example:
June 21, 2016,  New York City -- Police pulled over this vehicle as it was about to enter the Holland tunnel because it had a cracked windshield.

(NY Post

Once pulled over, the officer noticed a pistol on the front seat and asked the driver to exit the vehicle. He discovered that, in addition to the pistol in plain view, the driver had been literally sitting on a loaded .45. Further searching found a cache of weapons including an AR-15 assault rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, 4 semiautomatic handguns, multiple ammunition clips totaling 2,000 rounds, including one labeled "Merica."
The driver and his friend traveling with him said they were on their way to a heroin hotel in NYC to rescue his daughter who was hooked on heroin, and any other addict who wanted to be rescued. (NY Post)
  • So, no terrorism connections here, but a pretty obvious indicator that something less than legal might be about to happen.

The Upshot

  • So there's nothing about the weigh stations that is specifically scanning the cargo of a locked truck to see if it's carrying weapons or explosives or anything like that.
  • But what does seem to be going on is the DOT officers who operate the stations and the state and local police who patrol the highways are keeping their eyes open for any indicators that there might be something shady in the back of that truck -- and that could be anything from weapons to drugs to people, and in one case, rotten food.  Most often, if there's something illegal in the truck, it's drugs.
  • So the truckers might absolutely hate and despise weigh stations for the way they can wreck their run and possibly their jobs.  But it seems we do need somebody keeping an eye on things, for that rare exception when somebody really is doing something terrible and should be stopped.

Bonus material: Here's a trucker story posted on Reddit:

My Dad is a truck driver and he likes to tell a story about a Keebler cookie driver who was getting teased on the CB once: he said that the other drivers kept asking him questions, like "Do elves really make the cookies?" And "Are you an elf?" And "How tall are you, anyway?" Dad says this truck driver let the good natured ribbing go on for a while, and then he said, in a deep voice, "Listen, I only drive this truck for the paycheck. I don't ask any questions. I just back the truck up to the tree, and they fill it."

(Photo posted at Whiting Door)

Howstuffworks: Weigh Stations
What Are Truck Weigh Stations For?
How Do You Go Through a Weigh Station?
So Many Miles: Scales and Weigh Stations
Truckers Avoid Weigh Statsion by Dodging the Scales
Coops Are Open
Trucking Industry Forum: Dodging Scales
OTR Pro Trucker: Trucks and Drug Smuggling, a Dangerous Combination
Cleveland Plain Dealer: State Troopers Pull Over Truckloads of Rotten Food
NY Post: 3 arrested with loaded guns, body armor at holland tunnel
Florida Highway Patrol: 2013 Trucking Manual
Washington State Dept of Licensing: Commercial Driver Guide
Illinois Standard for Overweight Trucks
KFOR: Man Tells Police to Search His Truck, More than $3 Million Woth of Drugs Recovered
Police Mag: Stopping Big Rigs
Land Line: "You Don't Mind if I Look Inside Your Truck, Do You?"
Trucking Truth: Staying Alert and Fit to Drive
San Diego Tribune Forum: $3.59 Million to Haul Cargo of Illegal Immigrants
Life as a Trucker: Operating Illegally upon Owner's Request
Life as a Trucker: Crazy Trucker Stories
FBI Archives: Inside Cargo Theft
WBUR Here & Now: Trucking Companies Try to Prevent Contraband Cargo
Trucking Truth: Should Drivers be Blamed if Criminals of Shippers Put Illegal Cargo in Their Trailers?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Apple #734: To the Bernie or Busters Who Plan to Not Vote

I'm breaking from my usual M.O. to deliver what I think is an important public service message.

To those of you who ardently supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary campaign, kudos to you for turning out, for making your voices heard, to surprising people all around the country with your will to carry on.  Now that your candidate did not make the final cut -- and yes, I've seen the reports about the dealings of the DNC; welcome to politics -- many of you are saying, Screw it, this country's politics are rigged, I'm not voting for either of those corporate shills [or insert other insult here], I'm not voting for anybody, I'm staying home.

My response to you is, really?  That's your revolution?  The guy who lit the fire in you didn't achieve his first goal, and so now you're giving up?  Did you only believe the things he said because it was Bernie who said them, or did you believe the things he said period?  Did you agree with him about the need for reform, about the need to do something about the increasing gulf between the 1% and the rest of the country, about campaign finance reform, actually addressing climate change and energy production?

If did agree with all that, and you're going to stay home and not vote, then it must be you sure change your mind in a hurry, or else you give up way too easily.

You showed up for this, how hard could it be to show up at your polling place and cast a ballot?
(Photo by Benjamin Kerensa on Flickr)

The contest for the President of the United States will not be the only item on your ballot come November.  Depending on where you live, there will be races for Senate seats, or House of Representative seats, or representatives in your state government.  There may be local initiatives about how your schools are funded, or your libraries, or your police and fire department.  By staying home, you are saying none of those things matter.

If you think those local contests don't matter, pay attention to how you are treated the next time you go to renew your driver's license.  The next time you go to your public library.  The next time you pick your kid up from school.  The next time you turn on the water faucet in your kitchen sink.  Then tell me that local politics don't matter.

Water from a faucet in a Flint hospital, October 16 2015.
(Photo by Joyce Zhu, sourced from Common Dreams)

Maybe you have decided to not vote because you don't want to support a candidate you disagree with.  OK, that might sound high and mighty, but in reality, by not voting, you are letting somebody else decide for you.  Hasn't Bernie's campaign been all about taking control, using your voice, making sure you're heard?  And now you're just going to drop that whole idea because you didn't get your way in this one race this one time?  You are going to be the one to silence yourself?

People fought for centuries for the right to vote.  If you are a woman or a minority, those who came before you sure as hell fought two and three and ten times as hard for that right.  In some parts of this country, people still have to fight to be allowed to cast a ballot.  And you, because your feelings are hurt, are going to stay home?

How would Bernie have become a Senator and gotten the chance to speak up as he did if people had stayed home and not voted for him?

Maybe your response is, Well, the Democratic machine stole the nomination from Bernie and gave it to Hillary, they just do whatever they want, so what difference does it make how I vote in anything?  To that I say, that's sour grapes bullshit.  It's true, the machine of politics is not a white-glove business.  Scores of TV shows -- House of Cards, Scandal, The Good Wife, etc. -- have been telling us this for years.  But another truth about how politics works is that the fewer people involved, the easier it is to mess with it.  The more people who vote, the more people who actively participate, ask hard questions, investigate what happens and how it happens, the harder it is for others to get away with crap.

If you're so convinced that it's all nefarious back-room dealings that are doing you wrong, then you are doing exactly the wrong thing by throwing up your hands and walking away.  The best way to respond to double-dealing is to stay in the game and make sure it doesn't happen again. In fact, according to this article from the FiveThirtyEight, by showing up to vote in those little elections, or by voting in those smaller down-ballot contests, you might actually be sticking it to the DNC.

I'm not going to tell you which presidential candidate to vote for.  You can vote for your mom if you want to.  (Literally, you can vote for your mom.)  There are all sorts of arguments people make about how a vote for this candidate is really a vote for that candidate, or my vote is going to be canceled out by this other person's vote--blah blah blah, talk to the hand.  The important thing is that you vote.  All those Trump supporters turned out and voted, and look what happened. 

You have the right not to vote, of course. That is a choice you can exercise.  But keep in mind that if you don't vote, if you don't participate, then you are guaranteed to get back exactly what you put in, which is nothing.

There's a lot of time between now and November, so you've got a lot of time to think.  In these coming months, ask yourselves this: was Bernie's revolution about just one man, or was it about something bigger than that?

If you think it was about something bigger, imagine what change you can bring if you vote for candidates and issues that affect your neighborhood streets, your city schools, your state educational system.

Maybe you could still have your revolution.

See all the people in this photo?  They are the reason Bernie got heard for as long and as often as he did.  They -- you -- are the people with the power, whether you know it or not.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

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See also Voting

Monday, July 11, 2016

Apple #733: Zika Bites

There's been so much going on in the news lately -- a lot of it distressing.  I've been trying to come up with a way to respond to that in the context of the Daily Apple, and I have obviously failed.  I'm not sure how I can give some sort of positive message in response to all these people being shot for various reasons, without sounding all Polyanna-ish, and without saying something you haven't already seen 9,000 times elsewhere.  Just know that your Apple Lady is cogitating on all these events and looking for some way to be helpful.

In the meantime, I know one thing I can do that is useful, and that is to find out about Zika mosquito bites.  (I am cringing even as I type this, knowing that people are dying from horrific gunshot wounds and here I am talking about mosquito bites.  But it's all I've got at the moment, and I have to remind myself that it is more important to contribute something than to do nothing.)

So, my question is, when you've been bitten by a mosquito, can you tell if you've gotten a Zika bite?

The Aedes aegypti is the primary vector -- thing that transmits -- the Zika virus.  Only the females sting, so it seems that we're safe from over half the total population of mosquitoes. The trouble is, the Aedes aegypti are extremely common in all sorts of places around the world.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons via The Verge)

  • No.  Bites from a mosquito infected with the Zika virus look and act the same as bites from any other mosquito.
  • You might suspect you've got the Zika if you've got a mosquito bite and you also have
    • a low fever, less than 102 degrees
    • itchy pink rash
    • bloodshot eyes resembling pink eye
    • sensitivity to light
    • headaches
    • joint pains 

This is what the rash from Zika looks like.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • But those symptoms can seem like something else, or there may be only a few present, or you may have been bitten by a Zika mosquito and you could have no symptoms of the virus at all.  In fact, 4 of 5 people who've been bitten by a Zika mosquito do not show any symptoms.
  • The only way to know for sure if you've gotten a Zika bite is to have a blood or urine sample tested within two weeks.  But if you have no symptoms, you have no reason to think you'd need a test done, so you may never know if you've gotten a Zika bite.


  • You may be thinking, if all the thing does to me is make me feel like I have the flu for a week or so, or maybe I feel nothing at all, then what's the big deal?  Who cares whether I get the Zika or not?
  • Because fetuses as young as 19 weeks old whose mothers become infected with the Zika can suffer a very rare type of brain damage that is so severe, their brains stop growing and so do their skulls.  Not only are they born with very small heads, but often the nerves that connect with the eyes and ears do not work properly, they may experience frequent or constant seizures, and they may be unable to move their arms and legs properly.
  • This condition is called microcephaly (very small head). There is no cure. 
  • If a pregnant woman gets the Zika, how likely is it that her unborn child will get the microcephaly?  Experts aren't sure.  Right now, their guesses are anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of pregnancies with Zika resulting in microcephaly. 

This is Sophia. She is 2 weeks old and she has microcephaly. She's having a nap before her physical therapy session at a hospital in Brazil.
(Photo by Felipe Dana from the AP, sourced from Stat)

  • Sometimes the babies of Zika-infected mothers are born with other types of brain defects including Guillain-Barre syndrome. In this lovely scenario, a baby's immune system will attack its nerves that control muscle movement, pain, temperature, and touch. Results can range from persistent tingling to loss of movement to paralysis and difficulty breathing.  It is possible to recover from this syndrome, but it is not fun and for babies it can be very dangerous.
  • If you're a man, you should care because it's possible you could transmit the virus sexually.  More often, the virus is transmitted by mosquito bites, but somewhere around 10% of cases have been transmitted through sexual contact.  Vaginal and anal sex are more likely sources of transmission than oral, but transmission by oral sex is still possible.
  • There is no vaccine for the virus, no way to stop its activity once its infected someone.  If you've got the Zika, the only thing to do is let it run its course.
  • The good news is that if a woman has had the Zika and recovered, and the virus has left her bloodstream, and then she gets pregnant, the baby will not be affected.  She will have developed an immunity to the virus.


  • Even though it is beneficial to be immune to the Zika virus, researchers and medical professionals certainly do not want people going around trying to infect themselves so they become immune.  There have been too few cases for researchers to be certain you might not be exposing yourself to some as-yet-unknown risk. Making yourself sick on purpose is just asking for trouble.
  • The best way to protect yourself against the Zika is to
    • try to avoid getting it in the first place
    • try to avoid passing it on if you've got it
  • Avoiding getting the Zika means
    • Controlling mosquito populations outside your house.
    • Don't give them a place to breed. Since mosquitoes lay eggs in or near shallow water, make sure you don't have places where standing water can develop and be accessible to mosquitoes.  This means
      • Get rid of or cover things like birdbaths, flowerpots, old buckets or trash cans, etc.
      • Tightly cover water barrels
      • If a container cannot have a lid, cover it with wire mesh with holes smaller than a mosquito. 

This is just the sort of environment mosquitoes love. Standing water, a perfect place to lay their eggs.
(Photo by Sam Hames on Flickr)

    • They also tend to hang out in dark, humid places. Spray outdoor insect spray in likely areas, such as under patio furniture, under a deck, behind the garage, etc. 
    • Controlling mosquito activity inside your home
    • Install or repair screens on windows
    • Use air conditioning if possible
    • Drape a mosquito net over your bed 
    • Protecting your person from mosquito bites
    • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
    • The above ingredients are listed in order of effectiveness (DEET is the most effective).   
    • * = don't use on children younger than 3 years old
    • Don't use insect repellent at all on babies younger than 2 months old. For them, make sure their clothing covers all exposed skin and keep their cribs and strollers covered with mosquito netting.
  • Avoiding transmitting the Zika means
    • For 3 weeks after having been in an area where the Zika virus has been identified,
    • Practicing safe sex by using condoms.
    • Or don't have sex at all. 
    • Following the steps listed above to control mosquitoes and to try to keep from being bitten and thus infecting a mosquito who could pass the virus on to someone else.
  • Where have Zika cases been identified?
    • This information changes frequently.  As of this writing, areas range from Mexico and Central and South America, to Egypt and several countries in Africa, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and several countries in Southeast Asia.
    • It has recently also been identified in most states in the US.  Utah is the first state to have seen a fatality from Zika.



  • The Zika virus has been known to exist since the 1940s when it was first isolated from a rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest in Uganda -- hence the name. 
    • (Originally it was spelled Ziika. The word means "overgrown.")
  • The virus was first identified in a human in the 1950s.
  • It is in the same family of viruses as dengue fever and West Nile and some 60 or so other viruses.
  • Incidence was restricted mainly to Africa and tropical parts of Asia.  But in recent years, the virus has spread rapidly.
  • Reasons for the virus's rapid transmission may include
    • increased global travel
    • urbanization (more people moving into mosquito-rich areas)
    • climate change (more areas becoming warmer and friendlier to mosquitoes)
  • It seems that the number of microcephaly cases have risen because the number of Zika cases have risen to a correspondingly increased extent. 

(Image from the New England Journal of Medicine, sourced from Vox)

As the Wesley twins said, much to their own surprise, "Safety first."

Or as one infectious disease specialist who's been studying the virus said, "It's not a verbal exercise. It's people's lives. Babies' lives and welfare are at stake."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika Virus -- a multitude of resources here
The New York Times, Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus, June 24, 2016
Alana Romain, Romper, Does a Zika Mosquito Bite Look Different than Normal Mosquito Bites? [No] March 16, 2016
PBS Newshour, How many Zika-infected infants will develop microcephaly and other FAQs, May 20, 2016
World Health Organization (WHO), The history of Zika virus
The Verge, Climate change and urbanization are spurring outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, February 10, 2016