Does Christianity demand communism or at least socialism?

Here’s an arresting opinion in the Sunday New York Times, Review, Nov. 4, p. 4, “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?”, by David Bentley Hart, a Notre Dame fellow (Richard Harmon’s fighting Irish) and author of “The New Testament: A Translation”.

Pastor David Ensign at the Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA has in the past talked about the hyper-socialism of early Christianity. It was not a political mass movement in the sense of more modern history, as this was not possible then.  It was more a refuge, a passage from one trying circumstance to the next world.  It was like living on a spaceship. One wonders if this comports with the idea of a science fiction writer describing an advanced civilization without the presence of currency or money (a strictly human invention as far as we know, most of all block chains and bitcoin, which might indeed be “universal”).  At the end, Hart admits that modern civilization is impossible without the idea of property, at least personal property.

Hart discusses the idea “koinon”, or common, and one’s life in koinonia, literally expected to become a koinonikoi, a member of a hive.  Accumulated wealth is viewed as having been stolen from the labor of others, the ultimate surrender to the ideology of some sort of Marxism, and maybe the whole ide of the “New Man”, as recently explored by the Cato Institute Oct. 16 in the forum, “Terror, Propaganda, and the Birth of the ‘New Man’; Experiences from Cuba, North Korea and the Soviet Union.”

I’ve seen a little of this by visiting a couple of intentional communities, especially “Twin Oaks” in central Virginia in early April 2012  (report).

(Posted: Sunday, Nov. 4, 2017 at 11 PM EST)

Puerto Rico power crisis: could other parts of the U.S. have a similar catastrophe from just “natural causes”?

Given the news about the expectation for very long term power outage in Puerto Rico (following Hurricanes Irma and especially now Maria), the Foundation fr Resilient Societies has circulated its testimony before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from June 17, 2017, as a pdf, link here.  Resilient Societies (or “ResilientGrid”) believes that similar catastrophes can cascade on the US mainland from “natural causes” as well as enemy attack or sabotage, especially with climate change.

There are some relevant stories in the regular and conservative media.  The Chicago Tribune, in a story by Steven Mufson, explains how the major power utility there was already bankrupt. Fox Business quotes the FEMA director as saying restoration will take six months.

The power company was using old technology (burning oil) and reflected the general financial problems for the territory.  It’s worth mentioning that these problems already had the potential to harm some retirees living off accumulated investments, if their portfolios had invested in the territory’s bonds or in other riskier overseas ventures.

Nevertheless, ResilientGrid (based in New Hampshire) believes that the dire forecast for the territory warns what could happen to a populated region of the continental United States, especially the Northeast, if a major failure were to occur.

While extreme solar storms or enemy E3-level EMP are mentioned as risks, especially on some conservative websites (given the current crisis over North Korea), the ResilientGold paper shows that more ordinary breakdowns could lead to self-reinforcing and cascading failures.  Once a failure has lasted more than a couple days, backup systems start to fail.  The paper mentions perverse incentives in some utility companies to cut corners on resilience.

The paper particularly emphasizes a failure 14 years ago, in August 2003, related to an incorrectly configured loop in Ohio.

I recall a day line power failure in New York City in July 1977, in lower Manhattan, when I lived on 11th St.  I worked on the 17th floor of a building om Wall Street at the time.  Elevators did not run, but I actually climbed the stairs once that day.  I was in good shape then.

Power in many areas of lower Manhattan, below 34th Street, were without power for a week after Hurricane Sandy because of a poorly located transformer, not high enough off water.

I also recall having no phone service for six weeks in 1975 in lower Manhattan after a telephone company building fire in lower Manhattan.

The devastation of Puerto Rico raises the question of my post Aug. 2, whether people hundreds of miles away should be prepared to host families if a whole area of the nation becomes uninhabitable for a while or even permanently.  This fortunately has not happened on a large scale with Harvey or Irma.  It did with Katrina.  In the future, how would the financial system handle real estate that suddenly has zero value?

Picture of power outage in Manhattan from Sandy, wiki.

(Posted: Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 at 3:30 PM EDT)

“Stability” really matters, for people who already have capital (earned or inherited)

OK, I am “retired”, and I “depend” on past accumulated wealth, much earned but some inherited, to keep these blogs going because they don’t pay for themselves.  They don’t require much money (or Piketty-style capital) to run in the grand scheme of things, but they depend on stable infrastructure, security, and stable economic and personal circumstances for me.

Yes, stability.  And judging from the “outside world” events of recent weeks, it doesn’t sound like something I can count on as much as I have.

For most of my adult working life, I was very much in command of the possibility for my own mistakes to undo me and possibly end my stable I.T. career (as with bad elevations into production).

But early in my life I was forced to be much more aware of eternal demands by the community I was brought in.  Gender conformity had to do with that.  Then came the military draft and Vietnam.  There was an expectation of eventually having a family even if running a gauntlet that could expose me to some personal fair share of community hazards.  This had much more to do with my own “mental health” problems in the age 19-21 range than I probably realized (including a brush with nihilism in 1964).

It is true, of course, that my employment could be affected by outside business events like mergers and takeovers, but in my case these actually worked out in my favor.  And earlier in my work life I was concerned about staying near a large city (New York) where it would be easier for me to “come out”;  the energy crisis was actually a threat to my mobility, as was potentially NYC’s “drop dead” financial meltdown when I was (finally) living there.

So it is, in retirement.  If you have accumulated wealth, you want the world to be stable so you don’t have to watch your back, and face sudden expropriation because of political deterioration (maybe combined with a natural catastrophe).  You want to believe if you pay your bills, make good choices, and play by the “rules” you will be OK.  And you find people knocking for attention your life, and you have to deal with the knowledge that they didn’t have the situational stability that “you” did.

It’s possible to find one’s life suddenly becomes a political bargaining chip. For example, Congress could try to means-test Social Security recipients (even current one) as part of its debt (and debt ceiling) issue.

I have to say I do have a gut reaction from “extremists”, whether associated with Communism (North Korea) or radical Islam, who make threats that sound personal, as if they saw someone like me as a personal enemy.  I do understand the racial contact, that some people will take statements (hate speech) made on the alt-right that way, also. But combativeness has become a problem that I had not anticipated throughout most of my working life.

It is true, also, that the most extreme scenarios from foreign enemies could reduce me personally to nothing.  The conservative Weekly Standard, after 9/11, liked to use the term, being “brought low” because of the resentment of others.  In the North Korean threat, there are many nuances.  The right wing talks about EMP, and the major media refuses to mention it.  It could become a real threat, but my own probing of the utility world suggests it is making some progress in making transformers less vulnerable (to “E3” threats, also posed by extreme solar storms).  (The power companies won’t say exactly what they are doing, for good security reasons.)  Personal electronics, cars, and data can face threats from a different mechanism (“E1”) which actually might be easier for an enemy (including retaliation by the DPRK) to pull off.  This is a developing topic that the major media just doesn’t want to cover yet (outside of cyberwar, which is better known, as with the psychological warfare implications of the Sony hack).

I have to say, too, that for one’s life to come to an end out of political expropriation or violence is particularly ugly.  I was privileged enough to avoid Vietnam combat, and I was “safe” enough not to get HIV, which previously could have been the most dangerous threats I faced.  I was economically stable for my entire work career, which sometime after 9/11.  I did have some family cushion.

The basic reaction from most people is to “belong” to something bigger than the self.  I think all this relates to “the afterlife” and I won’t get into that further right here. In retirement, I’ve had to deal with constant reminders of how narrow my capacity for personal intimacy can be, even if it can be intense in the right circumstances.  Yes, now I have to throw the “psychological defenses” (Rosenfels) to maintain my personal independence and stop being dragged into the causes as others.  Solidarity alone seems rather alien to me, even if I can’t count on affording that kind of attitude forever.

Again, as to the “belonging” idea, throughout history, individuals have suffered because of the actions of their leadership.  In Biblical times, it was considered morally appropriate that all members of a tribe be punished together for “disobedience” (to “Jehovah”).  In modern times, it’s the “everybody gets detention for the sins of one in middle school” problem,

I want to reemphasize my intention so see all my own media initiatives through.  That includes getting a novel out in early 2018, trying to market a screenplay, getting some of my music (written over 50 years, some of it embedded in two big sonatas) performed.  The best chance to make some of this pay for itself would be to get some (perhaps conservative) news outlets interested in some of my blog content, especially in undercovered areas (power grid security, filial responsibility laws, downstream liability protections in online speech scenarios including copyright, defamation, and implicit content (which can include criminal misuse like trafficking).  The intention is to help solve problems in non-partisan manners away from the bundled demands common with “identity politics”.

I tend not to respond to demands for mass “solidarity” with so many other causes, and I usually am not willing to “pimp” someone else’s causes as my own.  But I realize I could be riding on partially unearned privilege, which can become dangerous.  Indeed, having inherited wealth subsumes a responsibility to address needs as they arise;  to ignore them would be tantamount to stealing. I tend to think that helping others is easier if you are in a relationship or have had kids (that became an issue when I was working as a substitute teacher).  I think there can be situations where one has to be prepared to accept others as dependents and “play family” (and this often happens in estate and inheritance situations anyway, although it did not specifically in my own situation). We saw this idea in films like “Raising Helen” and in the TV series “Summerland”.

I’ll mention that it looks like I’m selling the estate house and moving out in October. That would remove the hosting opportunities for now; but, after downsizing, it could make other volunteering much easier and even open up the possibility of volunteer travel (although I need to stay “connected” at all times when traveling as it is now).

I have to add that taking on dependents grates against complacency. It means more willingness to sell other people’s messages rather than on sticking to your own.  Our culture has developed a certain split personality: resistance to sales people or middlemen and to being contacted by cold calls (the robocall and cold call problem), yet an expectation of voluntary personal generosity and inclusivity online.

The sudden announcement of the intended termination of DACA is a good example of how instability affects those less fortunate. Although I really believe Congress will fix it in the required six months, today “dreamers” would have to deal with employers or schools who are uncertain as to what their legal status might be in less than a year.

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017, at 7 PM EDT)

We need to be prepared, as a nation, to house people quickly after catastrophes

I can remember, even living in Arlington having returned to look after Mother, the shock in that late August morning of 2005 learning when I got up that Hurricane Katrina had been much worse than expected.

I would volunteer some time at the Red Cross in nearby Falls Church (mixing the shifts with substitute teaching at the time) finding with many callers there was very little we could do but tell them to wait hours on the line for FEMA.

Over time, a few hundred people settled temporarily in the DC area.  Many more settled in Texas, and I believe that in some cases families, or especially individuals, were housed in private homes.  I at least wondered if we could be asked to do this.  I’ve entertained this kind of emergency before (May 18, 2016).

The Sunday before Hurricane Sandy (which came inland on a Monday night in late October 2012) the pastor at an Arlington VA church gave a sermon on “radical hospitality”. Fortunately, there was little damage in this area from the storm.

I’ve also documented on this blog some of the issues with hosting asylum seekers, which I have suspended as I consider moving (no more details right now).

And I’ve noted the somewhat informal private hosting website “Emergency BNB”. And the sharing economy, developed by companies like Airbnb, many people, especially younger adults, may be used to the idea of keeping their homes ready to be shared, which is not something that would have been very practical for me during most of my own adult life. Younger adults may be less interested in collecting possessions that could be put at risk from a security perspective. Music and film could be stored in the Cloud.

Younger adults living in “earthy” neighborhoods (like New York City’s East Village) or in certain rural areas, even in collectives or intentional communities, and used to social interdependence, may be more willing to share their spaces with less attention to personal, material or legal liability risks.  Many do not have an economically realistic choice, beyond building on common social capital, as Rick Santorum or Charles Murray would describe the idea.

Along these lines, then, I wonder again about emergency housing in the context of disaster or catastrophe preparedness.  I see I took this up Sept. 22, 2016 (before the Trump election) in conjunction with preparedness month.

A few of my friends on Facebook do indeed come from the doomsday prepper crowd, and it rather alarms me how much they are into it.  A sizable number of people do not believe you can count of civilization to last forever.  They see personal self-reliance in a rural home as a moral prerequisite to participating in a world that goes beyond the immediate surroundings. Indeed, ever since 9/11, we have been warned that at some point, whole generations of people may have to rebuild the world from scratch, as in NBC’s series “Revolution” which predicates a bizarre kind of EMP event.  I say I would have nothing to offer such a world at 74,

We could indeed face a grave threat to personal security in the homeland even in 2018.  War with North Korea might be impossible to avoid, and at least a couple small nuclear strikes on the US homeland might be impossible to prevent.  As a matter of policy, what happens to the people who survive but lose everything?  Insurance doesn’t cover war (whether it covers terrorism is controversial).  Will the government indemnify them?  (It more or less did a lot of this after 9/11.)  Or will we depend on the volunteerism of “GoFundMe”? which to me has sounded self-indulgent and tacky sometimes.

It does seem that we need some kind of “national discussion” or town-hall on this.  Would seniors aging alone in oversized homes be able to take people in?  Would we expect that?  Well, we really don’t do that now with our own homeless.

Any North Korean domestic nuclear strike would probably involve a small low-yield nuclear weapon. If you look at charts like this one, you see that the number of casualties and total property damage in a city might be less than one expects.  The radiation damage is another matter.  But one can imagine calls for people in distant states to house and take in the “victims” as they may never have an uncontaminated habitable home neighborhood to return to (even with Katrina that did not hold).  It is appropriate to consider how effective the manufactured housing industry can be (with Katrina the result was not that good).

Again, another issue is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse, which would damage all electronics in a very wide region.  Have Silicon Valley companies protected their infrastructure from this sort of thing?  One day we could find most of the Internet (and “GoFundMe”) gone forever if they haven’t.  There is very little written about this.

Nobody likes talk like this to be “thinkable”.  But the preppers have a moral point.  Resilient and prepared people are less inviting targets for an otherwise determined enemy.  Maybe that’s what “America first” means.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 3:15 PM EDT)

Duty, risk-taking, helping others, and self-promotion

It’s a vague and general principle in the insurance business that some activities are more readily underwritten when there is outside, third-party supervision of the endeavors.

That gets to be testy when the aim is to help others.

I wrote my three books and developed my websites and blogs without supervision. The lack of peer supervision was actually an issue back in the Summer of 2001 when I was turned down for a renewal of a “media perils” individual policy that National Writers Union was selling as an intermediary.

Yes, I took some risks, and I probably knew what I was doing better than a lot of amateur writers, with regard to areas like copyright and defamation. I did become infatuated with the implications of my own narrative, which are considerable.  I did look forward to the fame, or at least notoriety. But was I helping anyone?

Well, the central topic of the first book was “gays in the military,” and in fact I knew a number of the servicemembers fighting the ban (and the old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy) well, at least by correspondence.  I would not have desired a romantic relationship with any or many of them, but I did feel legitimately connected in some personal way. I think I helped, although indirectly.  My staying in the debate for so many years in the search engines did help make the final repeal in 2010-2011 more likely.

But I also had made some unusual arguments.  They were based in part on accepting the idea of duty, of the necessity for shared sacrifice and resilience.  Specifically, I talked about the Vietnam era military draft and my own experience with it, and about the idea that it was still possible to reinstate it.  I recalled all too well the controversy over student deferments, implied cowardice, and the connection between risk and vulnerability.

I’ve thought about the “duty” concept in connection to the need for refugees and asylum seekers for assistance, sometimes very personalized.  One idea that comes through in discussions, especially with lawyers, that anyone offering hosting or major support should have some third-party supervision.  That usually would come from a social services agency, or possibly a faith-based group, as well sometimes local or state agencies.  Of course, the capacity of individuals to offer this has become muddled by Donald Trump and all his flailing and failing travel bans.  The desirable supervision is much better established in Canada (and some European countries) where sponsorship comes with some legally-driven responsibilities comparable, say, to foster care.  In the United States, given the political climate, the volume of people assisted is lower, and the risk or cost, whatever that is, gets spread out among more people.  The situation is even murkier for asylum seekers than for refugees, since their access to benefits and work permission is less, as has been explained here before.

I don’t yet know how this will turn out for me, but I agree that any adherence to “duty” would require some supervision.  So, I am fussier with this than I was with the risk management for my own writing.  But what about the people?  True, I don’t feel personally as connected to the people in this situation as I was with the military issue.  I have to admit that I have led a somewhat sheltered life.  For most of my adult life, the “system” has actually worked for me, and I have been associated with others who more or less play by the rules and benefit from doing so.  Since retiring, I’ve seen that the interpersonal aspects of need do bring on a certain culture shock. The system simply does not work for a lot of poorer people, who sometimes find that they have no reason to play by the same rules, but who do tie into social capital.  The system also fails “different” people, some not as well off as “Smallville‘s” teen Clark Kent. I can understand duty (accompanying “privilege”), but the meaning expected to be attached to helping others in a much more personal way is rather alien to me.

The whole question of housing refugees and asylum seekers (and I’ll even limit the scope of this remark to assuming “legal” presence in the U.S.) fits into a bigger idea about social resilience and radical hospitality, most of all for those (like me) with “accidentally” inherited property.  I do recall that after Hurricane Katrina there was a call for helping to house people in other states (sometimes in homes, sometimes with relatives).  Even though most people want to be near their homes to rebuild after disaster, this sort of need (a kind of “emergency bnb” lower-case) could come back again after earthquakes or major terror strikes or even a hostile attack (North Korea is starting to look really dangerous).  In the worst cases, the nation’s survival could depend on it.

(Published: Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

People in “groups” need to pay heed to the outside world; we can lose it all

It’s important to keep up with the outside world.  Generally, throughout my adult life, I’ve often gotten feedback from some people who say they don’t need to get scary news from the political world from me (unless it’s about their own tiny bubble).

As I’ve noted here before, I don’t necessarily rush to elevate every victim in every marginalized group, including my own.   I have to agree with Peter Thiel, speaking at the DNC, that LGBTQ people have more pressing issues that bathroom bills – although I have to say that North Carolina’s recent HB2 “repeal”, under pressure from the NBA, is a bit of “bait and switch”, even in the language of Barbara Ehrenreich. In fact, major league sports have recently become the :GBTQ community’s ally out of self-interest.  Major League Baseball, for example, though it has very few if any openly gay players right now, knows it eventually will have them.  It is quite credible, for example, to imagine a transgender person as a relief pitcher or “closer” for a pennant winning team.  (And one wonders about big league sports and the rare cis females who happen to able to play.)

Over history, collective security for a country or a group is a big influence on respect for individual rights.  Whatever our internal squabble, a common enemy or peril can force us to come together.  We found that out suddenly after 9/11 (which I do think Al Gore would have prevented).

While Donald Trump has first stated that ISIS is our most dangerous enemy (because of its unusual asymmetry and targeting of civilians).  Trump has gotten a rude awakening (“foreign policy by ‘Whiplash’”, complete with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons) from Assad’s chemical attack on his own people this week, and may suddenly realize how dangerous it is to remain bedfellows with Vladimir Putin.

it’s quickly becoming apparent that our most existential threat may indeed come from North Korea (whom we got a rude shock from in cyberspace over the  Seth Rogen and James Franco movie “The Interview”).  This morning, on p. A14 of the Washington Post, Anna Fifled has a frightening and detailed article, “Does North Korea have a missile that can hit the U.S.?  If not, it will”. Online the title is more blunt. “Will North Korea fire a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland?  Probably.”

The article goes into the technical challenges of actually directing a nuclear warhead thousands of miles.  But North Korea is making progress faster than we had thought.

The article does play down the satellite EMP risk discussed here earlier (March 6).  There’s a valid question as to whether NORAD would find and intercept such a missile (My classified computer programming job in 1971-1972 in the Washington Navy Yard was about just such capability. ) Fifield notes that it may be harder for US spy satellites to spot the missiles as they become mobile on the ground.  And a pre-emptive first strike against North Korea would invoke the obvious problem of making South Korea an instant target (as well as Japan).  This is no time for the president of the United States to have an adversarial relationship with his own intelligence services.

It’s also a time to ponder national resilience again, at a personal level.  I am not a member of the doomsday prepper crowd, although I have several Facebook friends who are.  There is something reassuring about being able to take care of yourself (with guns, and your family (with firearms if necessary), and property, in a world suddenly radically changed by “Revolution”. I can see how some people (mostly on the far right, to be sure) see this as a component of personal morality.

There is some debate as to whether DPRK can threaten all of the US (by Great Circle routes) or “only” Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast.  But imagine life with Silicon Valley and Tinseltown gone. (I’m reminded of the second “Red Dawn” film particularly, as well as “Testament“).  After Hurricane Katrina (and just before Sandy) there was some discussion of “radical hospitality”, as to whether ordinary homeowners with some extra space should prepare themselves to house strangers after a catastrophe.  The idea has obviously come up in Europe with the migrant crisis, less so in the US (but somewhat in Canada).  As I’ve noted here before, the idea can be tested with asylum seekers (and it hasn’t gotten very far yet).

I’d mention here that a bill to require women to register for Selective Service has passed he Senate, quietly.  A prepper friend posted this on Facebook.

Update: Tuesday, April 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT

Consider this recent piece in the April 11, 2017 of Time Magazine about loose radiocactive waste in the former USSR and possible terrorist “dirty bombs”.  Victims in an incident could be too “hot” to treat, and then there is real estate whose value goes to zero, a definite attack on the rentier class.  Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (with some recent articles about North Korea including charts and timetables) warned about all this in the 45-minute 2005 film “The Last Best Chance“.

On “Solutions Sunday”: “Step outside of your own comfort zone”: Does that capacity really start with families?

This Sunday morning, CNN referred today as a “Solutions Sunday”, where people were encouraged to have Sunday dinner in a home with people of another race besides your own.  Republican Senator James Lankford on Oklahoma was one of the hosts.  Lankford said “Step outside your comfort zone and invite someone into your circle”.  Maybe your inner sanctum.

Despite living in an “inherited” trust house, I really haven’t been in the “business” of having guests at home, because I’m so busy with personal projects.  Events these days are nearly always in facilities.  So there’s nothing unusual about great diversity in public spaces, but I have to admit that at home it sounds a bit novel.

When I lived in New York City, and sometimes before in New Jersey, I did sometimes have house parties or events, and I have had a few house guests over the years, mostly related in the past to college, chess clubs, or people in the LGBT community (not just “tricks”, although that happened a little in the 1970s).  I’ve stayed with people , but very little since probably the 1970s. The largest event I ever held in my own space was an “Understanding” meeting (I think it was Wednesday, May 19) with about 25 people crowded into my own little studio apartment in the Cast Iron Building on E 11th St.

But it is very hard to help people without openness to letting it be personal if it need be (countering the “mind your own business” society), and for older adults, that’s often frankly easier when “you” have had and raised “your” own kids first.

I get a lot of pressure from others these days to become more open to “gratuitous” socializing and even dating, in my own home court, partly so that I don’t (at 73) remain “an accident waiting to happen” (to quote Jonathan Rauch in his mid 1990s book “Gay Marriage”).  Yes, I prefer to remain individually productive and get recognized for my content (but not just with hyperbolic phrases like “esteemed author”).  But it seems people see a continuum bridging fixing inequality in an economic or politic sense, and the way people actually make social and intimate “choices”.

Maybe nowhere is that idea so stark as in the issue of assisting refugees and asylum seekers, all over the world, but most of all in Europe, and then Canada, with the most comprehensive private sponsorship program in the world.

The New York Times has a booklet-length story today by Jodi Kantor and Katrin Eimhorn, “Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for a Year;  Then Came Month 13”.  Refugee families were supposed to be cut loose from dependence on the private groups (usually of 5 people or 5 families, associated with various faith-based and sometimes secular groups) for rent and many other expenses.  (In the US, where there is no private sponsorship as such, refugee families get some benefits, but generally depend on congregational offerings for some of the rent, almost always in commercially run apartments;  in the US you have about 20 families in a congregation assisting one refugee family instead of just five as in Canada).  What’s interesting about the story is that in Canada, many of the refugees did not speak English and had few job skills, and needed intensive personal attention from sponsors.  In the US, generally, most of the refugees allowed in have male providers with considerable job skills and can speak English.  “Blame Canada”, as in “Southpark“?  The country seems to produce outstanding citizens.  Look how well they do in Hollywood.

The New York Times missive bares some comparison to how the Mariel boatlift was handled in 1980, where churches asked people to put up refugees (often LGBT) in their own homes, very suddenly, mainly in southern cities.  But it turned out that many refugees would need constant attention as many did not speak English and had no skills.  Very few found “sponsors” on the spur of the moment.

Asylum seekers, as I have covered here, face a different situation, as they (usually) have already been in the country legally because of school or job skills.  (That doesn’t include those put in detention and the border, and are generally released only if there are relatives who know them.)  Canada’s reputation of relative generosity (especially relative to Trump) has led to some US asylum seekers crossing into Canada, especially Manitoba.

I’ve covered more details on my own situation on another blog, here.

(Posted: Monday, March 27, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

Downstream liability concerns for allowing others to use your business or home WiFi connection, and how to mitigate

A rather obscure problem of liability exposure, both civil and possibly criminal, can occur to landlords, businesses, hotels, or homeowners (especially shared economy users) who allow others to use their WiFi hubs “free” as a way to attract business.

Literature on the problem so far, even from very responsible sources, seems a bit contradictory.  The legal landscape is evolving, and it’s clear the legal system has not been prepared to deal with this kind of problem, just as is the case with many other Internet issues.

Most hotels and other venues offering free WiFi take the guest to a strike page when she enters a browser; the guest has to enter a user-id, password, and agree to terms and conditions to continue.  This interception can normally be provided with router programming, with routers properly equipped.  The terms and conditions typically say that the user will not engage in any illegal behavior (especially illegal downloads, or possibly downloading child pornography or planning terror attacks).  The terms may include a legal agreement to indemnify the landlord for any litigation, which in practice has been very uncommon so far in the hotel business.  The router may be programmed to disallow peer-to-peer.

There is some controversy in the literature as to whether Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act would hold hotels and businesses harmless.  But my understanding that Section 230 has more to do with a content service provider (like a discussion forum host or a blogging service provide) being held harmless for content posted by users, usually for claims of libel or privacy invasion.  A similarly spirited provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, called Safe Harbor, would protect service providers for copyright infringement by users.  Even so, some providers, like Google with its YouTube platform, have instituted some automated tools to flag some kinds of infringing content before posting, probably to protect their long-term business model viability. Whether Section 230 would protect a WiFi host sounds less certain, to me at least.  A similar question might be posed for web hosting companies, although it sounds as though generally they are protected.  Web hosting companies, however, all say that they are required to report child pornography should they happen to find it, in their AUP’s. You can make a case for saying that a telecommunications company is like a phone company, an utility, so a hotel or business is just extending a public utility. (That idea also mediates the network neutrality debate, which is likely to become more uncertain under a president Trump.)

Here’s a typical reference on this problem for hotels and businesses.

A more uncertain environment would exist for the sharing economy, especially home sharing services like Airbnb.  Most travelers probably carry their own laptops or tablets and hotspots (since most modern smart phones can work as hotspots) so they may not need to offer it, unless wireless reception is weak in their homes.  Nevertheless, some homeowners have asked about this.  These sorts of problems may even be more problematic for families, where parents are not savvy enough to understand the legal problems their teen kids can cause, or they could occur in private homes where roommates share telecommunications accounts, or where a landlord-homeowner takes in a boarder, or possibly even a live-in caregiver for an elderly relative.  The problem may also occur when hosting asylum seekers (which is likely to occur in private homes or apartments), and less often with refugees (who more often are housed in their own separate apartment units).

It’s also worth noting that even individual homeowners have had problems when their routers aren’t properly secured, and others are able to pick up the signal (which for some routers can carry a few hundred feet) and abuse it.  In a few cases (at least in Florida and New York State) homeowners were arrested for possession of child pornography and computers seized, and it took some time for homeowners to clear themselves by showing that an outside source had hijacked the connection.

Comcast, among other providers, is terminating some accounts with repeated complaints of illegal downloads through a home router.  In some countries, it is possible for a homeowner to lose the right to any Internet connection forever if this happens several times, even If others caused the problem.

Here are a couple of good articles on the problem at How-to-Geek and Huffington, talking about the Copyright Alerts System.  Some of this mechanism came out of the defeated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), whose well-deserved death was engineering in part by Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy”, who tragically committed suicide in early 2013 after enormous legal threats from the Obama DOJ himself.

Along these lines, it’s well to understand that automated law enforcement and litigation scanning tools to look for violations are becoming more common on the Internet.  It is now possible to scan cloud backups for digital watermarks of known child pornography images, and it may become more common in the future to look for some kinds of copyright infringement or legal downloads this way (although content owners are good enough detecting the downloading themselves when it is done through P2P).

Generally, the best advice seems to be to have a router with guest-router options, and to set up the guest account to block P2P and also to set up OpenDNS.  An Airbnb community forum has a useful entry here.  Curiously, Airbnb itself provides a much more cursory advisory here, including ideas like locking the router in a closet (pun).

I have a relatively new router and modem combo from Comcast myself.  I don’t see any directions as to how to do this in what came with it.  I will have to call them soon and check into this.  But here is a typical forum source on guest accounts on Xfinity routers.  One reverse concern, if hosting an asylum seeker, could be that the guest needs to use TOR to communicate secretly with others in his or her home country.

It’s important to note that this kind of problem has come some way in the past fifteen years or so.  It used to be that families often had only one “family computer” and the main concerns could be illegal content that could be found on a hard drive.  Now, the concern migrates to abuse of the WiFi itself, since guests are likely to have their own laptops or tablets and storage devices.  There has also been some evolution on the concept of the nature of liability.  Up until about 2007 or so, it was common to read that child pornography possession was a “strict liability offense”, which holds the computer owner responsible regardless of a hacker or other user put it there (or if malware did).  In more recent years, police and prosecutors have indeed sounded willing to look at the usual “mens rea” standard.  One of my legacy blogs has a trace of the history of this notion here; note the posts on Feb. 3 and Feb. 25 2007 about a particularly horrible case in Arizona.  Still, in the worst situations, an “innocent” landlord could find himself banned from Internet accounts himself.  The legal climate still has to parse this idea of downstream liability (which Section 230 and Safe Harbor accomplish to some extent, but evoking considerable public criticism about the common good), with a position on how much affirmative action it wants those who benefit from technology to remain proactive to protect those who do not.

(Posted: Monday, January 9, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST)

Update: Tuesday, Jan 24, 2017, about 5 PM EST

Check out this Computerworld article (Michael Horowitz, “Just say No” [like Nancy Reagan] June 27, 2015) on how your “private hotspot” Xfinitywifi works.  There’s more stuff below in the comments I posted .  To me, the legal situation looks ambiguous (I’ve sent a question about this to Electronic Frontier Foundation; see pdf link in comment Jan. 24).  If you leave your router enabled, someone could sign onto it (it looks if they have your Xfinity account password, or other password if you changed it).  Comcast seems to think this is “usually” OK because any abuse can be separated to the culprit.


Immigration is a very nuanced issue, but the US can learn from Canada’s example


Donald Trump may have accelerated the idea of immigration as a political flash point.  But any understanding of the area requires what systems analysts call “functional decomposition”.  The issue plays out differently with immigrants from various parts of the world, with varying needs and skills.

The world locations creating the biggest controversies are mainly Syria and Iraq, and Central America and Mexico.  Some immigrants have technical skills in short supply, causing tech companies like Facebook to argue for more liberal visa policies.  Others take jobs that Americans don’t want, like picking fruit, and are abused, much as an Bolshevik would say. Some have children in the US, who become US citizens as “anchor babies”, entitled to all normal services like public school education (requiring teachers with ESOL skills, in short supply). So many diverse and criss-crossing policy problems arise.


But there is also a question of moral responsibilities of more fortunate Americans.  And it’s well to work this question inside-out.

So let’s start with the Syrian refugee issue. Most are Caucasian, and most are Muslim, but a few are Christian or other faiths.   Yes, European countries took many times more than the US, and are now resisting it.  The biggest roadblock seems to be security, the fear that a “Trojan horse” terrorist could immigrate (this has happened in Europe, and the Tsarnaev brothers, from Russia   had immigrated legitimately.  Statistically, the risk is very low, but the potential consequences to those affected are very great.  The US says it cannot easily vet most refugees from the chaos of a civil war zone. There may be a better chance of clearing a family or person with refugees already in the US.

So, then, look at the Canadian program.  Robin Shulman has a big story in the Washington Post May 5, “While other countries are turning Syrian refugees away, Canadians are taking them home”.   Yes, individual Canadians are getting involved, very personally. Nonprofits and “faith-based” groups (a term that would please George W. Bush) are doing all the leg work of finding housing and jobs, and other services.  Sometimes individuals are families are indeed housed in “spare bedrooms” of those willing to extend such “radical hospitality”, but most often the groups find landlords or smaller apartment building owners willing to help (often church members). Newsy has a detailed story about how one specific Syrian family is being helped in Ontario.


The Post says that the United States “does not permit private sponsorship” the way Canada does.  It actually has in the past a few times, as with Soviet Jews and with the Mirabel Boat Lift from Cuba in 1980.  Usually when it does there is a political undertone  (anti-Communism, for example), and “Documented” (2014) by former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas.

The Niskanen Center in Washington DC recently published a white paper “Private Refugee Resettlement in the U.S., History”, link, by Dave Bier and Matthew La Corte.  (See endnote below.)

Yet, it’s fair to ask, how would this idea work with Central American refugees (mostly speaking Spanish or Mayan and often Roman Catholic). And if a private sponsorship model is to work, why not imagine a program for domestic homeless that is much more personally engaging than what we do now?  Thought experiments abound:  one could imagine nudging seniors living alone but with means (like me) to take them in.  Somewhat ironically, a GOP-controlled Congress is not likely to be interested in these ideas (let alone Donald Trump).

Another major group sometimes needing assistance would be gays and lesbians (and transgender sometimes) seeking political asylum, which is somewhat a different concept legally. The anti-gay laws in some countries (notably Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and some others, subsuming, of course, the Middle East and the Islamic world) has create a need for asylum.  Gay newspapers like the Washington Blade have reported on a few cases.  There has been some effort to organize more support from private people in a few cities, especially Chicago.  For the most part, gay asylum is a very difficult process.  There has not been a lot of public pressure to look for more sponsors so far in most of the country. Serious other problems in all of these countries (like Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Ukraine issue in Russia) have tended to divert mainstream, journalists from covering the gay issue in enough detail. Authoritarian leaders (like Vladimir Putin) have been all too willing to use the LGBT populations as convenient diversions or even scapegoats from their other economic, sectarian and security problems.

The situation was different in 1980, when the gay communities in southern states, beleaguered by social hostility, were often asked to help house Cuban refugees, many of whom were gay.  I give a lot of details about my personal connection to this here  as I was living in Dallas at the time.

It’s important to note that LGBT people experienced a long history of other discrimination, as I have already summarized here.

The Cato Institute held a forum on “The Economics of Immigration” on Jan. 6, 2016, with my writeup here  covering some of this same ground.  In that posting, there is an embed where Dave Bier discusses immigration and private sponsorship of refugees with libertarian journalist John Stossel.

An important recent book is “The Economics of Immigration” edited by Benjamin Powell, Oxford University Press.

Some relevant films include “The Good Lie” (2014, directed by Phillippe Falradeau, based on “The Lost Boys of Sudan”), “The Golden Dream” (2015, by Diego Qiuemada-Diez), about Central American escapees, and “Documented” (2014) by Jose Antonio Vargas.

I think that you also have to contemplate immigration in connection with other foreign and military policy issues.  For example, the U.S. and western powers could decide to help provide “safe zones” in the Middle East (as there are already a huge number of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and, of course, Turkey).  That would involve the sensitive issue of committing many more US troops again, but quantitatively, this could help many more refugees.  It’s fair to ask, why haven’t wealthy Muslim countries like UAE done more?  Similar issues could arise providing help to Mexico and Central American countries controlling drug cartels in some areas.

A retrograde issue concerns the inclination and ability of US non-profits and especially faith groups to send volunteers to unstable or challenged countries.  This comes to mind since churches with which I am familiar have sent young adult (college and older teen) groups, engineering graduates, and other assistance to countries like Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and even countries in Africa including Kenya and Sudan.  But it would be very difficult for some people (like LGBT people) to serve in many of these countries on humanitarian missions.

Another more distantly related issue is whether charities should encourage Americans or others in western countries to “sponsor” individual children in poor countries (especially in Africa). Save the Children did that in the 1970s, when I started contributing, and I agreed to that, getting a different “child” about once a year, and getting letters.  I had no idea how to respond to this personally, and I wonder if this is a good idea ethically and psychologically, unless the sponsor intends to visit the country and adopt the child. Some faith-based charities promote this concept aggressively today in social media, such as BaNgaAfayo.

Visitors will want to look at the history of the proposed (unpassed) Dream Act.  A recent discussion (by Robert Barnes) of President Obama’s plan to shield many undocumented workers from deportation in the Washington Post (the effect in Los Angeles) is here.

On Facebook, a friend has linked a disturbing and belligerent story from a French site, translating into something like, “Open your borders or die,” here. And the New York Times has a column May 17, p. A21, “Refugees aren’t bargaining chips” by Ben Rawlence (“Kenya is using 400,000 Somali refugees to blackmail Europe”).

(Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)


Update: End-notes:

On Thursday, May 19, the Niskanen Center published a letter it had sent to the US State Department encouraging making private foundation support for refugees legal and even aggressively pursuing philanthropy and the setting up of services somewhat following the Canadian system. Note the “four models”, including personal service, in Section VIII of the letter.

Update: Thursday, 23, 2016

The Supreme Court let stand in a 4-4 tie a lower-court ruling denying President Obama the ability to allow undocumented immigrants to apply to stay in the US legally;  CNN report by Ariane de Vogue and Takl Kolpan; Washington Post story by Robert Barnes and William Branigin. It’s important to note that undocumented spouses of legal residents might be subject to deportation without Obama’s action, although not natural born children; so the GOP is being depicted here as a “family buster” in opposing Obama in court on this matter.


Update: Thursday, June 30, 2016

Michael Weiss (CNN journalist) tweeted this PRI story about a Jewish family in Berlin, Germany housing a (Muslim) Syrian refugee in a “spare bedroom” in the family home, could not happen in the US now.

WJLA-7 in Washington has a disturbing story involving teen kids of gang members from Central America, which would seem to support some of Donald Trump’s “be tough” attitudes, here.