Lots of political ups and downs in recent days. This is generally the way politics go, of course, but the localized nature of these events makes them stand out more than usual.


Bad news from the top down. Cuomo photo: NY Times.

Starting at the micro level, here in Greene County, what’s up with Windham town supervisor and former police chief Stacy Post? Investigative officials apparently removed a computer from her town hall office in recent days, and also searched her condo on Route 23 in Windham. Why this was done has yet to be announced, and the American way is to presume someone innocent until proven otherwise. Still, at this neighborhood level of politics, where we can see how someone is performing, even a hint of impropriety added to the inefficiency and outright dysfunction of most local officials is hard to stomach.

That’s why Will Pflaum’s recent win against longstanding corruption in Columbia County is so satisfying. I’m referring to the discredited attorney Tal Rappelyea, who routinely billed for more than 24 hours a day while some Columbia officials turned a blind eye. This situation ain’t over, but it’s nice to see a good guy win one.

Far less inspiring is recent news concerning high-profile Democrats at the state and national level. Let’s start with the 19th Congressional District, where newcomer Sean Eldridge plans to take on incumbent Chris Gibson this fall. Although Eldridge has already locked up Democratic support for his run, his campaign so far has been a disaster. At least it has according to normally liberal-leaning outlets like Huffington Post, Politico and Slate. Even WAMC’s outspokenly liberal Alan Chartock weighed in, calling Eldridge “cookie cutter”.

This is not to say that you should go out and vote for Gibson this fall. But the fact that someone with money to burn can come in and lock up regional Democratic support early on, then go on to generate this sort of widespread negative coverage, is just goddamn depressing. Eldridge has obviously chosen to overpay the wrong handlers.

Finally, that brings us to our “progressive” Democratic Governor, Mr. Andrew Cuomo, widely hated in these rural parts for the SAFE Act he proposed and passed. Last year, to great fanfare, the governor announced an “independent” Moreland commission to investigate state corruption. “I work for the people, and I won’t stop fighting until we all have a government that we can trust,” Cuomo said at the time.

Well, he’s stopped fighting and we still don’t have a government we can trust—Cuomo disbanded the Moreland commission, amid reports that the commission was being micromanaged and interfered with by members of the Governor’s own staff. Fortunately, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara plans to pick up where Cuomo left off.

Bharara was sharply critical of Cuomo’s decision, as was the New York Times: this editorial sums the situation up nicely. Be sure to read the comments accompanying the Times article above, which savage Cuomo’s starkly ego-driven political ambitions and general phoniness. Again, it’s just goddamn depressing.

Here we go again—in just the past week, we’ve had asinine gun-rights eruptions both locally and around the country. It is a disease, and it’s spreading rapidly.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the physician that President Obama nominated to be the next Surgeon General, knows that gun violence in America has reached epidemic proportions, and should be treated like the societal illness it is. But because he sees gun violence as a public health issue, the NRA and its Republican/Tea Party allies are doing everything they can to derail his nomination.

Meanwhile, down in Georgia, the NRA and the Republicans have sent an incredibly idiotic pro-gun measure to the governor’s office for his signature. Now you’ll be able to take your gun into a bar or bring it to the airport. Brilliant.


A George state representative applauds his handiwork. Photo: NY Times.

Closer to home, the Rev. John Koletas of the Grace Baptist Church in Troy raffled off a new Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle in church after a service dedicated to the “Christian values” exemplified by the Second Amendment. Outstanding. Way to go, Rev.

And if handing out semiautomatics in church strikes you as absurd, then here’s a little something on a lighter note: the Columbia County Board of Supervisors recently voted to deny the use of the official Columbia County seal in any correspondence relating to the NY SAFE Act.

Wow—no use of the Columbia County seal! Now that’s serious.

It was Ghandi who said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” By this standard, America has a long way to go. People without financial, intellectual or emotional resources do not fare well in this country. And animals, who cannot speak for themselves, are abused with appalling frequency.

Buster’s Law dates from 1999, when a teenager soaked a Schenectady house cat named Buster in kerosene and burned him alive. The law elevated animal abuse to a felony offense, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Both punishments seem far too lenient for someone who would deliberately inflict such suffering. Still, making animal abuse a felony does represent a step forward.

Now State Assembly Members Didi Barrett (D–106) and Jim Tedisco (R–112) are leading an effort to create a registry of convicted animal abusers under Buster’s Law. The statewide registry would be available to law enforcement, district attorney’s offices, humane societies and animal welfare and rescue organizations. Convicted animal abusers on the registry would be legally prohibited from keeping pets. In addition, animal abusers would have to undergo a mandatory psychiatric evaluation and register annually until a court declares they are “fit” to care for animals, based on psychiatric test results.


Photo: didibarrett.com.

This addition to Buster’s Law should be of some help in reducing animal abuse in our state. It would do nothing to address the crimes of factory farming—which continue to reflect poorly on our country’s lack of empathy for “lesser” creatures—but it would at least make it less likely for a truly sick person to be able to kill or torture household pets repeatedly. And that is definitely worth pursuing.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the prospects of Catskill making a comeback, and how the town’s best chance lay in the “creative economy” vision of Nina Sklansky and her Catskill Action Team. Shortly thereafter, this vision was borne out in the announcement of a new farm-to-table restaurant on the site of former Mayflower Café on Main Street, scheduled to open this April.


Watch this space for a new destination restaurant.

Now Sklansky has upped the ante by purchasing the property at 404 Main in Catskill. She plans to lure another destination restaurant for the 2500-square-foot ground floor, and develop the rest of the building in other interesting ways to be determined. By investing her own money and creativity on behalf of the town’s development, Sklansky underscores her belief in and commitment to Catskill’s potential—and helps bring that potential closer. We wish her, her new building and the town every success.

Today, February 11, is The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance. I’ll leave it to you to visit the link and contact your elected officials (Congressman Gibson will likely be receptive). Many people and organizations are behind this first drive to pass the USA Freedom Act and implement other reforms to reign in NSA spying.

What I’d like to do in this post is give you a brief outline of how to do a better job of protecting your privacy online.

First, a word of warning: there is currently no foolproof way to guarantee your privacy, online or anywhere else. But a lot of talented people are working to change that, and I think we can look forward to better privacy safeguards down the road. I hope we can, anyway.

The Fundamentals

It makes a difference which operating system you use. Windows is far and away the most vulnerable, but both Microsoft and Apple have likely cooperated with the NSA despite their official denials. I’d trust OS X over Windows, but the open source Linux is safer than either.

I’m sure most of you aren’t going to switch to Linux to gain increased privacy online—there are a fair number of technical hurdles involved for ordinary users. That being the case, you need to pay attention to the software you use.

Open source software is safer than proprietary software. This is true for the simple reason that anyone can view the code. Therefore, you should use open source apps whenever possible.

Internet Browsing Software

Firefox is the only major open source browser. It is safer than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome or Apple’s Safari. It is safer still if you use the HTTPS Everywhere extension, which encrypts connections to many sites. Still, even with Firefox, your browsing isn’t truly safe.

For genuinely safe browsing, use the Tor Browser Bundle. Tor software hides your location and prevents anyone from seeing your web travels or logging your web searches. The browser itself is based on an enhanced version of Firefox. The Tor Browser Bundle is easy to install, easy to use and available for all platforms. Even today, it should protect your browsing from the NSA.

Email Software

Currently, email—like chat or any social network—is pretty much a lost cause. It’s not safe, period. If you want to have minimal protection, then use the open source Thunderbird (from Mozilla, like Firefox) in conjunction with GnuPG encryption (Thunderbird has a plugin to enable this). But real security is down the road a ways, in the form of projects like Dark Mail.

The Cloud

Like Dropbox? So do I—but it and every other cloud storage provider has been targeted by the NSA. A safer alternative may be BitTorrent Sync, currently in beta. Because this service doesn’t store your files on a company-controlled server (or any server, for that matter), your data should theoretically be safer.

Bear in mind, though, that the NSA has succeeded in shipping computers from name-brand manufacturers with secret radio transmitters inside. These machines are compromised even if they never connect to the Internet. And if the NSA should decide to target you through a back door built into Windows or OS X to install a keylogger on your machine, there’s absolutely nothing that can help you. That’s how bad the situation currently is, and why we need serious reforms.

Before President Obama’s State of the Union address this evening, please take a moment to watch this short video on one of the country’s most urgent issues: gun violence.

Last night, at an organizational meeting of the Greene County Democratic Committee in Cairo, Sean Eldridge received the party’s endorsement for this year’s 19th Congressional District race against incumbent Chris Gibson.

The endorsement was a foregone conclusion but interesting nonetheless—Eldridge addressed the assembled group (it was the second time I’ve heard him speak), and he’s good. He does represent a convincing alternative to the Republican Gibson, and in the recently reconfigured 19th District, he stands a fighting chance.

Sean Eldridge
Sean Eldridge. Photo: seaneldridge.com.

Eldridge and his husband Chris Hughes represent something of a new wave in American politics: gay progressive power brokers. Both are young, bright and accomplished, and they enjoy substantial financial resources to support the goals they believe in.

Hughes co-founded Facebook while at Harvard and is the source of the couple’s fortune. He purchased and now publishes and edits the venerable journal, The New Republic. Hughes was also the coordinator of online organizing for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, an effort that was hugely successful and has influenced political campaigns ever since.

Eldridge runs Hudson River Ventures, based in Kingston, which has funded many area businesses, as well as the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz, which is working to bring cutting-edge manufacturing technology—including 3D printing—to the region. Eldridge was also instrumental in getting marriage equality passed in New York, and he is involved in efforts to increase environmental protections and reform campaign finance laws.

He is sharp and quick on his feet, in contrast to his sometimes plodding Congressional opponent. In fielding questions from the audience last night, Eldridge gave succinct but compelling answers which underscored his progressive views on a wide range of subjects, including economic inequality, NSA spying and gun control. (I do wish progressive politicans didn’t feel the need to preface their remarks on gun control with lines like “I myself am a gun owner,” but that’s another story.)

In short, Sean Eldridge is an exciting new candidate who has a solid chance of unseating Chris Gibson this fall.

Yesterday’s long-awaited speech by President Obama on government spying and citizens’ privacy rights was largely anticlimactic. Most observers expected superficial, cosmetic “fixes”, and that is precisely what the president delivered. The NSA will basically continue to scoop up whatever it wants, whenever it wants, with very little oversight.

Don’t give up hope, though—Obama’s compromised stance on national security vs. privacy rights is unlikely to be the last word.

As Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, put it: “Now it’s up to the courts, Congress, and the public to ensure that real reform happens, including stopping all bulk surveillance—not just telephone records collection.”


NSA: Eyes and Ears Everywhere. Graphic: Wikipedia.

Some groups were more critical still. Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International, said Obama’s remarks would be remembered as “music on the Titanic”. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, added that the government “is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the constitution”.

There’s already action in the works to go further toward genuine reform. The USA Freedom Act sounds uncomfortably like the Patriot Act, and in fact it was co-launched by one of the Patriot Act’s authors, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, together with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Sensenbrenner has had grave second thoughts about the way the Patriot Act turned out, and the USA Freedom Act is intended to counter some of the earlier bill’s worst effects. 120 congressmen have already signed on, including our local Congressman Chris Gibson.

There are other powerful forces lined up against NSA overreach as well. One is the Reform Government Surveillance group founded by some of technology’s biggest companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft. They want to undue the damage that NSA spying revelations have done to American business interests abroad, which has been substantial.

The NSA also has powerful allies, though, and true reform will not be easy. But I believe we can go much further than the president suggested yesterday. I work in the technology sector, and I’ll outline some personal steps you can take to protect your individual privacy in a future post.

In yesterday’s Daily Mail, Catskill Village President Vincent Seeley is quoted as saying that he met with representatives of a casino developer to explore the possibility of building a casino in Catskill.

“Essentially, they reached out to me through contacts in the industry to set up a meeting,” Seeley said. “They were very, very interested in the Point.”

To his credit, Seeley acknowledges that a casino may not be the best possible route to Catskill’s future.

“Regardless of whether or not a casino is the right fit for our community, which is something we will ultimately decide as a community, we will use the information [from the casino representatives’ meeting] to make Catskill a more attractive place for development,” he said.


Credit: Nina Sklansky and the Catskill Action Team.

It could be argued that Catskill is already an attractive place for development, albeit of a very different kind. Catskill resident and advertising whiz Nina Sklansky and her Catskill Action Team are doing brilliant promotional work with their Catskill the Village campaign and website.

I can easily see Catskill evolving into a more down-to-earth and affordable version of Hudson, with plenty of restaurants and shops to attract visitors, and plenty of real-estate bargins to attract creative new residents. In fact, over time the Catskill-Hudson nexus could become a pocket “creative economy” somewhat like the towns of the Berkshires.

So the question is not really whether Catskill can come back, but how it should come back. A casino in Catskill seems a long shot, but if it happened the village and town would be profoundly transformed, and quickly. This transformation would probably not be for the better. The Catskill Action Team’s vision for the future seems far more likely to produce a happy outcome. If you’re interested in helping to make that happen, you can drop them a line here.

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