Archives for category: Technology

Earlier this week, prior to the disastrous 2014 election results, I raised the question of whether my, or your, individual vote really matters anymore—whether anything would change regardless of which way we voted, or whether we voted at all. I was enormously frustrated and cynical when I wrote that, but I was also pretty much correct: under our current two-party system, the individual doesn’t count for much.

The American Unwinding Continues
Image from George Packer’s The Unwinding, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2013).

The mainstream media’s reading of the election results has been predictably superficial; the local media’s reading even more so. Yes, the Republicans won handily. Voters were unhappy, so they voted for “change.” This is of course starkly ironic, in that Americans heartily disapproved of Congress and Republican obstructionism before the election. Now we’ll have more of the same.

Still, one should never give up. What is the way forward?

For Democrats at every level (local, regional, statewide, national), the message needs to be sharper and stronger if the party is to stand for anything at all. Here in Greene County, I have nothing but admiration for Democrats who brave the odds and run for office (though I’d like to see them more dynamic and outspoken). But as regards the 19th Congressional District, I have to ask: what the hell was the party thinking? Surely Democrats will be able to come up with a more plausible candidate from this region the next time Gibson runs for reelection.

Timid, wishy-washy stances on every important topic contributed to the piss-poor showing of Democrats and progressives on Tuesday. A Democratic candidate in Ohio who wouldn’t even admit to voting for the president? Cuomo at the top of the Working Families ticket? (That party paid dearly for its mistaken “compromise.”) Candidates who were unwilling to address climate change or economic inequality? No wonder most people stayed home, or voted for the other side to voice their dissatisfaction (contrary to their own interests though that vote may have been).

Zephyr Teachout, who ran strongly against Cuomo in the Democratic primary, had this to say about the midterm results.

And the national news that Democrats lost—well, that’s a sign we need to return to our core progressive values with Elizabeth Warren-style populism if we’re going to win, not a set of manufactured milquetoast messages with no real ideas behind them. People feel powerless—we should address that honestly and directly, and take on the monopolists that are rigging the system. We need a trust-busting, pro-public school, clean energy Democratic Party that is unafraid to speak the truth and refuses the trickle-down ideology. So let’s keep up the fight.

She’s not talking about Hillary Clinton in 2016, folks.

I almost decided to ignore this election. Yes, the country is in dire straits and the stakes are indeed high. But it’s likely this election will have almost zero impact on any of our nation’s most important problems. For the first time in my life I’m tempted to skip voting altogether.

Vote Blue—Power to the People
Vote Blue 2014 POWER TO THE PEOPLE logo by Jeff Dombrowski.

And yet … there are differences. So you can argue citizens have a duty to choose, so as to minimize destructive outcomes. Chris Gibson is widely viewed as a nice guy, but that is no reason to vote for him, as this editorial makes clear. As for the rest of tomorrow’s choices, progresssive voters would do well to vote the Working Families Party line, with the exception of the choices for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. There, the vote should go for Green Party candidates Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong, and tomorrow’s election will somehow make a difference.

A breath of political fresh air rolled into Woodstock last night, as Zephyr Teachout and her Whistleblower Tour bus pulled up around 9 PM to address supporters waiting at the funky/charming Havana Club Bar & Grill at the Woodstock Lodge. She’d been slated to appear at 8:30 but was running late from an address across the river in Columbia County. The Havana Club’s patrons didn’t mind—Zephyr was worth the wait.

title
Zephyr Teachout at the Havana Club. Photo: Tom Pletcher.

Ms. Teachout was nearing the end of her second full day of the Whistleblower Tour, which kicked off in midtown Manhattan Wednesday at One57, the billionaires’ residence built by Extell. The theme of the tour is endemic corruption in New York State, and the way ordinary people have been ignored in the current political process. Economic inequality and lack of opportunity are among the inevitable results, which Teachout vows to address in her bottom-up underdog campaign.

She was absolutely terrific, despite having spent a long day on the tour: sincere, engaging and compelling. And she’s got some strong momentum going, too: the New York Times declined to endorse her opponent, Cuomo the Lesser, and urged people to vote for Zephyr instead, in order to “send a message.” Yesterday the Times decided to endorse her running mate, Tim Wu, for Lt. Governor. Wu is vastly preferable to the conservative and hypocritical Kathy Hochul, just as Zephyr Teachout would be an enormous improvement over Mario Cuomo’s autocratic, unlikeable son.

Among her ideas to revitalize the upstate economy: big investments in 21st Century energy sources and modernized transportation systems. You’d have to dig deep into Cuomo’s idea bank to find any thoughts on improving things upstate, and what you’d come away with is casinos (a day late and a dollar short, as they say).

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu deserve the support of every progressive New Yorker, and they need your support now, with only 11 days to go until the Sept. 9 primary. Please volunteer or donate as you can.

Here in upstate New York, bad telecommunications service is taken for granted. Many areas lack wireless service. Most areas lack adequate broadband. And—something I hadn’t known—it turns out that New York State ranks third in the number of people with no telephone service whatsoever.

rotary dial telephone
Can we improve NY’s telecom infrastructure? Photo: Wikipedia.

Now someone is finally trying to do something about the state’s lagging telecommunications infrastructure. Last week, the Communications Workers of America, along with 16 other organizations including AARP, Common Cause, Consumers Union, Citizen Action, the Working Families Party and the NYS AFL-CIO,
filed a petition to the New York State Public Service Commission requesting a formal investigation of the state of the telecommunications industry.

The new Connect New York Coalition was joined by approximately 75 elected officials, including the Mayors of Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, Kingston and Poughkeepsie and many state assembly members and senators (though not Pete Lopez—no surprise there— or Cecilia Tkaczyk, which is a surprise).

The petition seeks to address these concerns:

  • The state’s unacceptably high ranking in the number of people with no phone service
  • A 500% increase in basic telephone service rates
  • Corporate plans—especially Verizon’s—to starve and abandon legacy landline service
  • The refusal of telecoms to expand broadband service to rural areas and many upstate cities
  • The steady deterioration in service quality and telecommunications infrastructure

This is very important stuff, and addressing it is long overdue. The quality of New York State’s telecommunications service has a direct impact on each individual citizen as well as the state’s overall economic well-being. The Connect New York Coalition’s petition to the Public Service Commission is a necessary first step toward improving telecom quality.

You can download a copy of the Coalition’s press release (in .docx format) here. For additional information, contact Dan Levitan of BerlinRosen Public Affairs, 646-200-5315 or dan@berlinrosen.com.

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.

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.

A December 4 article by Kyle Adams, one of the few local reporters I can stand to read, highlighted Greene County’s utter lack of progress in developing adequate broadband service. In fact, Greene’s record in this regard is so dismal that it warranted a visit from the federal government’s Government Accountability Office. The office is trying to determine the efficacy of the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service Broadband Loan Program.

In Greene’s case, of course, that efficacy is non-existent. Zero. Zilch. This is true primarily because Mid-Hudson Cable (identified only as “a small telecommunications company” in Adams’s otherwise straightforward article) declined a Rural Utilities Service broadband loan.

According to Warren Hart, the County’s way-overdue-for-replacement director of Economic Development, Tourism and Planning, Mid-Hudson declined the federal loan because of “the high administrative burden involved”. “It was just too much for this small company,” Hart said.

Warren Hart points out a vast expanse of nothing.
Warren Hart points to a vast expanse of nothing.
Photo credit: Kyle Adams/Columbia-Greene Media.

As someone who recently paid Mid-Hudson several thousand dollars to run a cable to my house, I’d maintain that Mid-Hudson calculated it would be more profitable to continue its business as usual, where extending service to anyone not served under the sweetheart town contracts it’s negotiated requires that hapless new customer to pay through the nose for the privilege.

Hart went on to lament that the county’s scanty broadband infrastructure is a handicap compared to more urban counties (as though this were just a geographic fact of life, and not a consequence of decisions made or not made by the county’s business and political leadership). He was joined in his hand-wringing by Jeff Friedman, executive director of the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce, another organization not noted for its succcessful track record.

I’m not sure which is worse: the continued false promises of improved broadband service from Congressman Chris Gibson on down to politicos at the local level, or the continued absence of said broadband service, with no improvements on the horizon.

Wait, though—Warren Hart has a plan. “Plan A,” he said, is to marry wireless broadband Internet service to the emergency communications towers planned throughout the county. The first such tower, at Windham Mountain, is expected to be completed in spring 2014. It is being constructed to improve emergency communications, though, not to provide broadband service. Hart nevertheless “hopes it will” provide broadband service.

No Plan B was mentioned.

Bradley Manning’s sentence of 35 years for disclosure of damaging classified U.S. government information is not a punishment that fits his crime. For one thing, it is far greater than the punishment meted out to any other leaker in recent history. For another, the military judge found Manning innocent of the most serious charge against him, “aiding the enemy”. Finally, many of the documents Manning disclosed to WikiLeaks, which has been curiously silent on his sentencing, would have automatically been declassified in 25 years—why should his sentence exceed that time frame?

Bradley Manning
Bradley Manning photo: the Guardian

Set aside the extenuating circumstances—we know that Manning was emotionally disturbed and wrestling with gender/identity issues (the Army knew as well, but did nothing about it). Even given his erratic behavior and state of mind, most rational people who have followed his case conclude that Manning’s motivations were good; that he really felt the American people should be aware of some of the things the government had kept secret (the murder of civilians and journalists, for example). Manning displayed none of the discrimination and finesse of Edward Snowden, who selectively culled damning information of illegal U.S. spying on its own citizens, selectively released it, and managed (so far) to elude the sort of clumsy, disproportionate punishment Manning has received.

The simple fact is, the American people DID deserve to know about the secrets Manning uncovered, just as they deserved to learn what the N.S.A. has been up to, courtesy of Edward Snowden. Both men arguably acted in the best interests of their country. Neither deserves prison time.

It’s said that Manning plans to ask President Obama for a pardon next week. That is very unlikely to happen. But even if Obama does not pardon Manning, history will.

Now and then the local political scene produces a shining event, one that’s bright with the promise of better things to come. One such occurrence took place yesterday at Blue Stone Farm in Catskill, when New York State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk attended the Greene County Democratic Committee‘s annual picnic and promised to turn Greene County blue.

Even the weather joined in, with sunny blue skies and low humidity—perfect for attracting a large crowd. Well over 100 Democrats were in attendance and they applauded heartily as Tkaczyk and Greene County Committee Chair Doreen Davis outlined local Democratic priorities. The urgent need to supply local broadband service—an issue that Chris Gibson once tried to co-opt—was met with roars of approval. So too was the determination to tackle local issues that Davis recently outlined in the Daily Mail, issues like Greene’s high unemployment rate, poor health care delivery systems and lackluster economic development.

Since these are all issues this site has highlighted in the past, the afternoon generated plenty of optimism. And so did the presence of Tkaczyk and Davis, two of the brightest stars in the political firmament.

Now that we know U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson is going to be around for another couple of years, it’s time to take a look at what he’s been up to lately. In addition to voting “Yes” on legislation to avert the “fiscal cliff” (having earlier renounced his pledge to never raise taxes), Gibson sent a recent email to constituents outlining what he says are his top priorities.

These are (taken from the email):

1) “Address our country’s future fiscal solvency and enact policies that grow our economy and help hardworking Americans.” Sounds reasonable, if rather generic. Are further attacks on Social Security and Medicare subsumed in that “future fiscal solvency” phrase?

2) “Pass into law a full five-year farm bill that gives certainty to our family farms and allows them to remain a vibrant part of our local communities.” This speaks to the Representative’s constituency, but does little to address economic growth in the 19th Congressional District per se.

3) Lyme Disease.

4) Expanding access to broadband.

5) “Ensuring our veterans have the services and benefits they need….”

Which of these things is not like the others?

If you answered “Lyme Disease,” kudos to you. Lyme Disease has been rampant in upstate New York for a while now—that horse has left the barn. Combating its effects is a worthy thing to do, but perhaps not a top priority for a U.S. Congressman in an economically slumping district. As for expanding access to broadband, that too is a worthy goal, and something that would actually be of great economic benefit. It would be terrific if Gibson actually did something to address it this term, as opposed to holding meaningless symposia on the topic.

Except for the broadband item, which addresses economic growth indirectly, Gibson does not include improving the local economy as one of his top priorities. (Item no. 1 above is national in scope, and too generic to count.) That seems shortsighted, to say the least. But, it’s very early in the new year, and in Gibson’s new term. Let’s see what he does to address what he says are his priorities, paying particular attention to his efforts to expand access to broadband in the district.

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