Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Reddest of Herrings

Whenever there is a terrorist massacre, it galvanizes advocates on one side or the other to call for actions that are, at best, peripherally related to the attack and are sometimes overreactions. For example, the Paris attack brought out the immigration xenophobes who stonewall rescue of Syrian refugees trying to escape an untenable situation – lumping all of them with the terrorists. When a lone shoe bomber fails to bring down a jetliner, we are immediately placated by the TSA telling us to take off our shoes at airports.  When a gunman terrorizes a school, gun safety advocates use these tragedies (justifiably) to spur efforts to protect our children and teachers.

And when a 9/11 or Paris attack emerges from the shadows where these despicable organizations live, there are calls to weaken internet encryption approaches in the name of preventing future attacks.

Much of the traffic on the internet is encrypted using algorithms that government agencies can’t crack. We know this because those algorithms are in the public domain and if there were a backdoor hack available, it would probably be divulged by a whistleblower, an academic paper, or a high school teenager.

Internet encryption is important to protect banking and other personal information. Because of the very nature of the Internet, we have no control over where traffic is being relayed, and unencrypted traffic might as well be posted on a bulletin board in Times Square.

Now, government agencies and terrorism experts are calling for the security of the Internet to be drastically weakened. In the name of preventing terrorism, They want to impose regulations that would require encryption software to have a “back door” – a master key that the NSA and other agencies could use to decrypt any and all internet traffic. Their claim is that since terrorists use uncrackable encryption, it makes it harder for agencies to prevent attacks.  This is a red herring – it has nothing to do with terrorism or protection from attacks.

Because the uncrackable algorithms are already available, there’s nothing to stop terrorists from using them. Even if the U.S. bans these public-domain tools, our enemies can get them in other countries. By requiring a back door, government and their corporate sponsors will have unfettered access to the activities of ordinary Americans. Sure, there will be claims that safeguards will be put in place. But unscrupulous politicians, corporations, and criminals will eventually find these so-called protected entrances.

So if these suggestions that have been prompted by the fear of terrorism are implemented, ordinary Americans will suffer and the terrorists will continue to use already available tools. Some people might have a false sense of security, but the terrorists will have won yet another battle.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Martin O'Malley vs Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley have a lot in common. Most notably, both are running for President and neither of them has a chance of capturing their party’s nomination. Christie is only 124 days older than O’Malley. Both are white male Catholics who governed east coast states. Both are former chairmen of their respective party’s governor’s association. Both were governors during the national recovery from the Bush Recession. But that’s where the similarities end.
O’Malley, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, had a great degree of success in Maryland during the recovery. Christie, a conservative-to-Tea Party Republican, governs a state that is still floundering in comparison to neighboring states.
While neither man will become President in 2016, presidential ambitions are persistent and we may see an O’Malley-Christie contest down the road. Both are relatively young and have many presidential campaign seasons ahead of them.

And there’s no love lost between the two men. Back in 2011, O’Malley came to New Jersey to speak at the State Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner. This video contains some of his remarks about his New Jersey peer. (It should be noted that O’Malley was one of only a handful of top-tier Democrats who came to New Jersey to campaign for Barbara Buono in 2013.) In the video, O’Malley is flanked by former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and former State Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bernie's Right. TMac is Wrong.

Whenever something newsworthy happens, political candidates of all stripes spew out fundraising e-mails regardless of the topic. This week’s Democratic debate was no exception.

One such e-mail I received was from Congressman Tom MacArthur. While his $5 million campaign in 2014 was mostly self-funded, it seems that he now wants us to send him money so he can have a second term.

In his e-mail, MacArthur’s people wrote:

Last night's Democrat Presidential debate blew me away. One of the candidates actually said that the biggest threat to U.S. national security was CLIMATE CHANGE!
 Not ISIS. Not a nuclear Iran. Not Putin. Not a President who plays politics with our defense budget. Climate change.

The candidate that MacArthur refers to is Senator Bernie Sanders. From the debate transcript:

Moderator Anderson Cooper: Senator Sanders, greatest national security threat?
 Senator Sanders: The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.

No matter how deep in denial MacArthur and his ilk are, Senator Sanders is spot on.

Human beings are fragile creatures. We evolved (sorry, GOP) over the centuries to live in a narrowly-defined climate. We can survive cold and hot temperatures, but not extreme heat. We can survive in an atmosphere consisting of 21% oxygen, but not significantly less. We need clean water to drink. But the continuous burning of fossil fuels is making our planet less habitable and no one really knows how far we are from the tipping point for human civilization.

Governor Martin O’Malley also correctly identified climate instability as one of the top threats to our survival. He mentioned mass migration as one consequence. As people desparate for food and water move to areas more habitable, it will make the current Syrian refugee crisis seem like a walk in the park.

But don’t take Senator Sanders’ or Governor O’Malley’s word for this. Consider the analysis by the Department of Defense and other national security organizations:

[T]he U.S. Department of Defense, the G7 Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board, and many other military experts agree that climate change a top national security threat. In fact, the Department of Defense's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review stated that climate change impacts, such as resource scarcity and severe weather, are "threat multipliers" that will create conditions that can "enable terrorist activity." That's one reason why the Pentagon is already preparing for the impacts of climate change.[1]

No doubt ISIS and a nuclear Iran pose significant threats to America. Dealing with these threats won’t be simple. Just like dealing with Nazi Germany or secessionist states was not simple. But without the basic elements that sustain life on earth, those threats pale in comparison.

[1] - Accessed October 14, 2015

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Should We Prolong or End Unnecessary Suffering?

This week, former Jesuit student and current governor of California Jerry Brown signed a law that makes his state the fifth in the nation to offer solace and relief to certain terminally ill patients.

California’s “Death with Dignity” act is modelled after a similar law in Oregon that gives people with less than six months to live the option to accelerate their inevitable dying process by prescribing medication that enables them to die peacefully at the time and place of their choosing.

There’s a bill that would extend these choices to New Jersey residents who find themselves in similar tragic situations. The bill is supported by a diverse, bi-partisan group of legislators ranging from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) to the Assembly Minority Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon (R).

There are multiple of safeguards in the bill that would ensure the patient is not making a decision under coercion, and experience in Oregon demonstrates that this option is not being misused.

Opposition to giving people this choice is huge. Some oppose on religious grounds, but people need to remember that this aid in dying initiative is totally optional and one’s religious beliefs should never be imposed on someone else. Others like Governor Christie oppose the bill for political purposes. He would rather cater to the misnamed “pro-life” crowd and see prolonged suffering of someone who is severely ill than allow that person the choice of how to end the final chapter of life.

We won’t see enactment of death with dignity as long as Christie is governor. But he won’t be in that office forever. It’s time to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering and enact New Jersey’s  Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Americans United Puts Cape May City Government on Notice

The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia and the accompanying World Meeting of Families (which may bring 2 million people to Center City) presents many challenges regarding the Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
Because the Pope is a head of state, the normal security afforded to a person in that position does not present a constitutional problem. But there is also a religious aspect to his visit.

Recently, the Cape May city government announced that they will be streaming a live broadcast of the Papal Mass in their Convention Center and one of the outlets handling ticketing will be their City Hall. This is clearly a case of the government promoting a religious event.

When this was brought to the attention of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they sprang into action. They sent a letter to the Cape May city government (see the letter below) outlining how the event, as currently planned, may violate both the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions. Appropriate judicial precedents are cited, and AU goes on to provide suggestions on how this event may be provided without government sponsorship.

Pope Francis' popularity among Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic is unprecedented. But the organizers of his visit need to pay as much attention to the Establishment Clause as they do to safety and logistics.

Disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of AU because I believe the First Amendment clearly requires separation of church and state.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Memo to the Kentucky Clerk who Refuses to Allow Gay Couples to Marry

After the courts determine that your actions constitute dereliction of duty, you will probably want to pursue a new career. I wish you luck in that and hope you make a wise choice. But please don’t choose engineering as your next career.

You see, according to the Bible (1 Kings 7:23), the value of π, a mathematical constant used extensively in the engineering community, is exactly 3, not the irrational number 3.14159… that “science” claims it is. (Perhaps to you, that’s why it is “irrational.”)

So if you choose to pursue an engineering career and decide that the Bible commands you to use the value 3, I’m afraid that any bridges you design will not stand up for long.

Maybe to you and your Republican friends, bridges that don’t collapse are not important, but please be advised that this is very relevant to the rest of us.

So please, once you leave government service (even though your “service” to the people is unconstitutionally selective), do us all a favor and pursue a career in something more benign, like gardening.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New Jersey Residents: Chris Christie Just Gave Your Money to Exxon

If you're a New Jersey family of four, do you have $4,000 lying around waiting to be squandered away? Well, you're too late. Chris Christie just gave that money to his big oil patrons and a judge agreed with him.
Today, Christie won his suit in court that allowed him to give $8 billion to Exxon by letting them go almost scot free for their pollution of dozens of sites in New Jersey. Instead, the taxpayer will be stuck with the cleanup bill over the next 20 or so years. That works out to about one thousand dollars per New Jersey resident. So Christie continues to bow down to the oil interests that he hopes will propel him to the White House while you and I are stuck with polluted ground water and contaminated soil.

Let's Focus, People!

I don’t know if I should be puzzled or disappointed in the way Hillary Clinton is being treated. (For the record, I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter, but Hillary would be a better president than any of the GOP contenders.)

The coverage she gets focuses not on issues, but on trumped-up scandals (no pun intended.) Is that the fault of the media, or is the media just echoing public sentiment? The discussion around Hillary should focus on her moderate approach to social issues and her conservative approach to foreign policy and trade. But Benghazi and e-mail seem to be what the public is getting.

The same applies to Chris Christie. Yes, his culpability in Bridgegate says a lot about his character, but at the end of the day, that’s not where the important issues are. We should be talking about his dismal record on New Jersey’s economy, his tendency to put cronyism ahead of competence, and his disdain for the rights of the people of the state.

Talking about Clinton’s emails, Bernie’s hair, or Christie’s cronyism takes away from the serious discussion about issues that affect us all. Let’s focus, people.