New York’s subway and train travel infrastructure was more compromised by Sandy than we had thought

Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Kirsten Gillebrand, Robert Menendez, and Cory A. Booker write a dire warning in an op-ed on p. A29 of the New York Times on p. A29, Tuesday, April 11, 2017, “New York’s Transit Apocalypse”, titled more glaringly online. “Think New York Transit is bad? Just wait”.

We’ve been through that in the Washington DC area with numerous Safe Track (indeed a registered trademark) periods for various segments of the Metro syste,, and many breakdowns and delays.  Late night service after midnight on weekends has stopped as of June 2016 (it may revert back to 1 AM), although so far Uber and Taxi’s seem to be getting people home (although not tipped and low-wage restaurant and bar employees).  I for one wonder why Metro didn’t run “bus trains” along the same routes during the no-train periods to guarantee people some service.

New York faces a major repair on the Canarsie subway line starting in 2019, to Brooklyn, to repair damage from Sandy.  But the article this morning notes that the Hudson river tunnels, for Amtrak and probably the Path, are deteriorating from Sandy-imposed damage and could fail within ten years.

So they call upon Donald Trump to honor his own self-interest (and that applies to Kushner too), to support the construction of new tunnels to make access to the City easier.

Some years ago, I never gave reliability of Amtrak a second thought.  Now, I have to wonder, if I go up in the morning, will I get to a concert on time, or even use the hotel reservation.  I’m on the hook for it myself, even though it’s someone else’s “fault”.  (The May 2015 wreck in Philadelphia was a turning point.)  And I’m the one with the lost opportunity to sell my own music or writing   My own success depends on infrastructure, which depends on other people doing their jobs, and which also depends on national security (and preventing terror attacks).  It’s personal.

I do fly much less often than I used to, even though I personally have very few canceled flghts in my history.  It is simply becoming challenging to get there on time (with a guaranteed reservation) and not have electronics, needed on the road, damaged. If 9/11 had been prevented, it would be easier.  But that sounds like part of the point;  a lot of disenchanted men don’t want the rest of the world carry on a life of secular abstraction that humiliates them.

Indeed, do a lot of people I encounter who make a less commanding impression on me, achieve less in life because not only the social climate but bigger infrastructure failed them?

No one succeeds publicly at anything without a system in place that works, and without depending on others to deliver customer service. Of course, I became aware of this during my own coming of age, with the Arab oil embargo gas lines of the 1970s and the possible threat of total breakdown after “Ford to City: drop dead” in 1975.

(Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT)

To “make America great again” we may have to learn to respect salesmanship (again)

Have we forgotten how to sell to each other?

I sometimes wonder that as I refuse to answer robocalls, mark email as spam, and post no solicitations on the front door.  I don’t like to be interrupted when “working”.

I don’t need more auto warranties (they’re more dependable from your dealer), and I don’t need sudden travel deals (although I could imagine that some week I might).  I don’t need SEO services, and I don’t need Windows drivers from third parties advertising on YouTube.  I don’t need to replace my Medicare (and AARP supplemental) with Medicare Advantage, although I do wonder if TrumpCare or RyanCare could change that.

Yet, for 14 months while living in Minneapolis, after my career had its cardiac arrest at the end o 2001, I worked for the Minnesota Orchestra, calling for contributions to the Young People’s Concerts.  This was slightly post 9/11, but people would answer the phone then, do pledges, and even “blue money on credit”.  The non-profit word for this activity was “development”.

After coming back to DC, I worked for a company selling National Symphony subscriptions, but suddenly quit when a call recipient threatened me with arrest for calling after the 9:00 PM statutory curfew.  I will not tolerate employers’ expecting me to break the law. I could afford to enforce that then and now.

It was eye-opening to me, that someone could major in music, and then come down from Toronto to teach us how to sell music subscriptions to the masses.  I feel it’s a great honor to be recognized as a content creator.  I feel “peddling” is second-class citizenship.

From 1972-1973, living in northern New Jersey, I worked for Sperry Univac, when it was trying to compete with IBM.  My job was “site support”, providing technical interface for processors (FORTRAN, COBOL, etc) and I made beaucoup trips to St. Paul MN for benchmarks.  The whole idea was to sell more computers.  I did get the feedback that I “didn’t have a marketing profile” and would be better off in “real” development.

Indeed I spent probably twenty-six years or so largely as an individual contributor in developing, implementing, and supporting business applications, batch and online, mostly mainframe.  I was not a life that encouraged a lot of socialization for its own sake, or being part of other people’s social capital.  After I “retired”, I found out how the real world of “Lotsa Helping Hands” can work.

My father was a salesman, of sorts – actually, a “manufacturer’s agent”, for Imperial Glass, until 1971.  I remember his travel to glass shows all over the East Coast, his filling orders manually and doing the accounting with adding machines.  Mother helped him.  But he worked wholesale.  Selling for him was mostly about customer service.  It was never about cold calling or pimping.

But when I “retired” (I was well provided for by ING with the final layoff and forced retirement), I was rather shocked at the corporate culture I found with some interviews.  One of the sessions occurred in 2002 and would have involved contacting people to get them to convert whole life policies to term.  Later, I would be approached by two companies (unsolicited) to become a life insurance agent or financial planner.  Getting “leads” in that business means trolling people on the Internet to find out who to make cold calls to.  I would also be approached to become a tax preparer (unsolicited), and a non-profit mall canvasser.

One of the more provocative screening questions (in 2005 at New York Life) was, “do you every buy anything from a salesman?”  I answered yes, because I wanted to continue the interview.  But I flashed a mental image of encyclopedia salesmen (we had bought a World Book set with its great state relief maps in 1950), and even music course salesmen (Sherwood Music courses for piano, from Chicago) – again, musicians need real incomes from selling.

The term life interviewer even said “We give you the words”, and yet became defensive in front of me as a I probed whether this idea really works or is best for consumers.  (Whole life conversion will be a good idea for many people, probably.)  He (who seemed to run a franchise office with his wife) exerted the authoritarian attitude that we now recognize with Donald Trump – that you can “create facts” (or use “alternative facts”) and convince people of your vision mainly by believing it and getting others to believe it –which makes it come true (whether that’s getting a casino to make money or living forever in a hallow heaven).  That sounds like ministry, proselytizing.   Some of the tall tales about Trump University (getting people to max out heir credit cards against future real estate income) remind me of the 2008 crisis (which drove Stephen Bannon’s ideology).  I did get a couple calls about jobs selling subprime mortgages when I already realized they would crash together when then introductory (ARM)  rates went up.

I’m reminded of how LDS missions work – young adults (as in the movie “God’s Army” and then “Latter Days”) are supposed to recruit others to their faith (Mitt Romney even did this) and they even pay for the opportunity.

I’m also recalling the comedy movie “100 Mile Rule” (let alone Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross”), where the salesman mantra was “Always Be Closing.”  I see those YouTube ads, “Become a marketer” and just laugh.

When I was working, “coders” thought of management as not smart enough to deal with the nitty-gritty of tracing registers in assembler language.  But we really thought of salesmen as not smart enough to code.  It was an attitude that we could hardly afford.

And now days, I get hounded as to why I don’t sell more hardcopies of my own books, and do more to support bookstores, or kids’ reading programs.  I get it.  Salesmanship (sometimes even hucksterism) is important to other people’s jobs.  But now we have an “It’s free” culture, and a “do it yourself” world of taking care of yourself online.  Donald Trump himself said he doesn’t like computers much, because the online world (including his favorite Twitter) dilutes the importance of social capital that does help people sell.  Oh, yes, remember the good old days of being invited to Amway presentations.

People (like me) have good reasons not to want to be bothered by hucksters.  But we’ve also created a world where it’s very hard for many people to make a living doing anything else.  Donald Trump is right in saying we have to do a lot more of our manufacturing at home again (“Make America Great Again”, or “MAGA”) but not just for the parochial needs of his specialized voting base.  National security would say we ought to make more of our own transformers, batteries, communications hardware components. We need to have a reasonable percentage of working-age adults actually making goods to remain economically and socially healthy — and safe.

(Posted: March 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

 

Obama’s pre-election use of “red phone” to Moscow actually underscores eventual power grid vulnerability to cyberwar

NBC News reported tonight that on Halloween morning, October 31, 2016, a Monday and eight days before the election, President Obama used the “red phone” line with Moscow for the first time during his presidency.  He reiterated a warning to the Kremlin not to interfere with the election, following up on a session in later September when Obama reportedly told Putin to “stop it”.

On Nov. 4, news media began to report concerns over possible attacks or infrastructure (Internet and power grid) disruptions on Election Day and perhaps the day before.  The threats were supposed to be credible.  On Nov. 5, I reported here a story that some American utilities had been infected with malware as early as 2012 and that the malware could not be easily removed.

The Obama administration, on Oct. 31, was still concerned that an Oct. 21 “denial of service” attack on some companies providing URL domain name resolution has been perpetrated by Russia as a “dry run”.  There are some accounts of how the attack happened, as here on “WeLiveSecurity”    and this statement by DYN. It’s well to remember that back in 2008, researchers in Finland had found a hole in the domain name resolution system that necessitated an emergency meeting with Microsoft in Seattle (story)  And historically it’s a little ironic that this summit happened just a little before the financial crash in September 2008.

More recent investigations seem to have discounted the idea that the Oct. 21 DDOS came from the Russian government.

But the media has also been concerned with various reports from the FBI, CIA and other agencies that the Russians hacked servers of both the Republicans and Democrats, posted embarrassing information about Democrats on Wikileakds, and helped alt-right sources spread “fake news” that influenced the election, especially in swing and “blue wall” states.  It’s hard for me to believe that the claim that this changed the election is really credible, but Matthew Yglesias has a very detailed explanation on Vox here. This is the activity that led Obama to tell Putin to “stop it” the first time.

All of this I write today while listening on CNN to reports of an apparent crude but vicious terror attack in Berlin, Germany by a carjacked truck in a crowd, leading to deaths and horrific injuries, and to a “Word War I”-like assassination of a Russian ambassador to Turkey today at an art gallery.

So for any president to talk “tough” to Russia can run the risk of a backlash, where an attack on the US power grid may be possible because of the reports of the 2012 malware planting.  This sort of problem was covered by Ted Koppel in his 2015 book “Lights Out” and is related to the over-dependence of major utilities on huge transformers to adjust loads, and to the inability of the US to manufacture replacement transformers.

This may be a good place to say that Donald Trump’s “make America great again” phrase when used in conjunction with doing more manufacturing at home is certainly appropriate when it comes to major hardware items at the heart of our infrastructure.  Bringing some of that manufacturing back would provide more domestic engineering and manufacturing jobs, and seems essential to prevent possibly catastrophic breakdowns in the power grid infrastructure, either from Carrington-like solar storms or terror attacks or Hitchcock-style sabotage.  Bur it’s also important for utilities to provide more of their own local generation, and this may be much more economical now with renewable technologies (including Taylor Wilson’s small fission reactors) than fossil fuels, although many such small generating stations could probably use natural gas (the “Pickens Plan”).  This one particular matter needs Donald Trump’s focused attention on Day 1 (now that his Electoral College victory is assured today), and it is totally a-political and not particularly concerned with any one voting constituency.

(Posted: Monday, December 19, 2016 at 11:30 PM EST)

 

 

 

 

 

“Identity politics” is not for me, and it doesn’t solve problems

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I’m not particularly a fan of identity politics – or of abstract equality, or liberation politics either (they are all different things).

At its worst, “identity politics” leads to group combativeness, joining mass movements, and a belief that violent confrontation with the establishment and overthrow is necessary.  That’s happened a lot in history.

But more often, the process means disciplining the members of the group to become loyal to its own internal leadership and social structure, and not to distract it by allowing concerns from the outside world to seem “legitimate”.

The most obvious example right now would invoke race – the Black Lives Matter movement, which demands recognition for specific redress for past grievances, which are quite real.  It feels the counter statement “all lives matter” to be an insult (although the latter statement would invoke concerns like right to life, service, willingness to bond with others in challenging circumstances – resilience).  Identity politics would justify unrest, as in Milwaukee (maybe in Ferguson) even when the facts suggest (although maybe don’t conclusively prove) that officers had some justification for the action they took against a specific suspect.

In another worst case implementation, if you flip identity politics – you get an “Us v. them” mentality that Donald Trump seems to be exploiting.

Most often, identity politics involves a trait (like race) or behavior pattern (like religious practice) that you were born into (as part of a “natural family”), and did not choose.  Sometimes it is a kind of ethnic identity (like the Basque people in Spain). Yes, such characteristics do tend to become the targets for bigotry for its own sake.  But the underlying motive for such bigotry is usually preservation of an unearned economic or political advantage.  That’s the “Gone with the Wind” narrative of the Old South *and of Margaret Mitchell’s literary masterpiece, as well as 1939 epic film).  Nationality functions somewhat this way, as we see with the immigration debate, where race and religion obviously play in (particularly in the mind of Donald Trump).

You could consider the “worker class” (and labor union members) as a subject of identity politics.  “Workers” are indeed arguably “exploited” by capitalism – that is, people who did not do the labor with their own hands benefit from it with some degree of unseen sacrifice by workers (sometimes substandard wages overseas, even living in dormitories like pseudo-slaves).  They generally aren’t the targets of emotion-laden bigotry, but they are the subjects of political and economic manipulation by the already wealthy and powerful.  And labor leadership tends to be heavily politicized internally, demanding local loyalty of its members, sometimes with strong-arm tactics.  The Left can the as oppressive as the Right.

That brings us to “LBGTQ” (Donald Trump stumbles over remembering to say “Q” while pointing or raising his pinkie finger, as if Stephen King could serve up a nurse to amputate it (“Misery”, 1990).  Historically (much less so in more recent decades in western countries including the U.S. but still so in many Muslim and sub-Saharan “Christian” countries) there has been a lot of plain hatred and bigotry that defies rationality.  One prosecutor in (Pence’s)  Indiana tells me that he sees it just as another way for some people to feel more powerful in the pecking order (to have people “to feel superior to”).  It seems like common sense that a lot of it has to do with procreation.  “Conservative” parents may believe they are being denied a lineage (especially relevant in my case because I am an only child), or people in communal settings or less mature economies (like Russia) could believe that gay men will make other men feel less secure about having their own kids and families (which is all some people have “to look forward to” and is maybe a religious connection to vicarious immortality).  Then, in the 1980s, there was the way the right wing construed the public health “amplification” argument.

“LGBTQ” is really several communities (rather like saying Spain comprises several autonomous countries)  The cultural and personal values in the Trans community, or in black communities, can be quite different from “conventional” white gay males.   It is also usually a community someone was not born into, but “chose” (so to speak) to join, at least implicitly.  People often do not have the freedom even to make these choices, especially overseas.

But within the more challenged sub-communities, internal discipline is often strong, just as in other movements (like labor).  Leadership likes loyalty of its members.  It welcomes conventional talk of the outside world in terms of that world’s oppression of “us” as a disliked, marginalized or beleaguered group, but resists discussion of issues that would affect the prosperity or sustainability of the larger “democratic” outside world as a whole, as something that it cannot do anything about anyway.

That has sometimes been the attitude against me in the past when I have brought up the way external threats (like energy security) could compromise my life and probably “ours” (or “theirs”).  Sometimes people react as if I were playing “I told you so”, in that I could have a pretext for feeling superior to “them” if anything really happens, and have an excuse for having to share my spare or life with “them” with more  intimacy or emotional connection than I usually have shown “outside my box” in the past.

I also get the impression that I am expected to support people “where they are” when members of a disadvantaged group.  I’m supposed to support the idea that anyone who feels dispossessed by gender circumstances can automatically use any bathroom she chooses without question, as if this were the highest political priority.  I am definitely “different” myself, and grew up with the idea that it was my responsibility to learn to carry my own weight when it comes to participating in common needs (the military draft and deferment issue of my coming age helps form that narrative, but many younger people are largely unaware of it today – which is one reason why feeding historical narrative as I do is important).  But personal responsibility, and karma, would also require giving back if one has been lucky with unearned economic advantages.

If I, as someone who is “different”, am still going to take “penultimate” responsibility for what I make of myself in life, then the “global” outside world matters.  Infrastructure matters, and may have a lot more bearing on how well I turn out that particularized discrimination.  Indeed, one observation is that poor people typically live in less reliable infrastructures, and are more vulnerable to natural disasters and to negligent landlords (which may well turn out to be the case with the recent major apartment explosion in Silver Spring, MD).

Indeed, many of the “threats” that LGBTQ people face as individuals or that African Americans face, can come from the “outside world”.  If we “work smart”, we can reduce these threats.   I realize that I can drive on a city street with less chance of being pulled over by a cop.  Maybe that’s privilege now.  But how many other people understand what it was like to live in a dorm in 1961 when other men feared merely being around me could make them fail with women.  They honestly thought that.

It does seem that there are some external issues that transcend conventional identity politics and tend to draw people together to deal with complexity and moral ambiguity.  Immigration, with all the nuances of refugee and asylee assistance, is one such issue today.

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Update: Oct. 19, 2016

Here’s an essay by Shawn Schossow, motivated by the debate over voting for third party candidates (Jill Stein), which defends the idea of “intersectionality“.

(Published: Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, at 12 Noon EDT)

Underground operation (a sting?) in Dallas obtained enough material for a dirty bomb

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The Washington Post is reporting that a secret group out-skirted the rules of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and accumulated enough material for a dirty bomb, in this alarming piece from the Center for Public Integrity by Patrick Malone   The CPR has its own link for the story here.  I did not see the story this morning on the print version of the Post that gets delivered. I don’t see the story yet (as of time of publication) in the online Dallas Morning News, which surprises me. (I lived there 1979-1988.)

The group operated in Texas (Dallas), Michigan and North Dakota.  It was not immediately clear if this was a (legitimate) undercover group simply trying to probe a weakness in the NRC’s security procedures (maybe to expose the Obama administration) or whether it had intended to use the materials.

There are procedures to keep track of what materials a given entity has purchased. Apparently these are easily circumvented by certain shell company operations.

Legitimate companies (even small operations owned by individual entrerpeneurs), such as utilities, hospitals and companies inventing new kinds of technology for medicine, power generation, transportation, research or various other purposes, do acquire radioactive materials all the time.  Sometimes small amounts of radioactive materials are found in nature by individual explorers, especially in western state deserts or even caves.   Normally these materials are secured in university or corporate labs in a way that can be regulated. But most of this is low-level, not easily processed into HEU, which would worry DHS. There is even some uranium in southern Virginia, near Danville.

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A dirty bomb or radiation dispersion device would probably not cause many deaths or immediate serious injuries.  But it could destroy real estate values in an area (especially an urban area) for centuries and make a lot of “rich” people (like guess who) immediately homeless.  It isn’t hard to imagine the ideological appeal of using such a device for some radical groups –  long before radical Islam was in the news, the radical Left could be quite menacing, as I recall from my own underground spying in the early 1970s (as when I went to a meeting of the “People’s Party of New Jersey” in December 1972 in a slum in Newark, NJ, before my own “second coming”.  The radical (or pro “Communist”) Left was capable of threatening angry expropriation.

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(Published: Thursday, August 4, 2016 at 10:30 PM)

“Donald Trump”: How many times can I say his name?; Hillary Clinton needs Bryce Harper in her bottom-of-the-ninth lineup

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I could put a funny spin on Donald Trump’s “Be Very Afraid” speech last night in Cleveland at the RNC. In fact, the first subsection of Chapter 6 of my first 1997 “Do Ask, Do Tell” book was “Be Very Afraid”.  Let me dismiss some of the non-homosexual comedy, like the stuff about plagiarism, and Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement.

The “real” comedy is to say, well, Hillary Clinton gets to bat last and pull off a home team walk-off.  And maybe she could use Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in her lineup in the “bottom of the ninth”, suddenly one run down.  I remember a baseball game back in 1978 when the Yankees led the White Sox 11-9 going into the ninth at home, when the White Sox got a three run homer and went ahead 12-11.  Then Chris Chambliss hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth in the short porch to win 13-12.  But remember, the Yankees won that famous Bucky Dent game in Boston on the road.

The Washington Post greeted its readers Friday morning with the headline, “Donald Trump portrays a nation in peril.”  The lead-off editorial reads “Mr. Trump’s apocalypse now.” Comparisons to Nixon in 1968 may be apt.  A recent CNN series (“The Seventies” and “The Sixties”) documented the radical left wing (as well as Palestinian) terrorism of the day (I remember the threats made by the People’s Party of New Jersey back in 1972).  Cities, including part of Washington along 14th St, were devastated by riots (while I was in the Army).  We had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy assassination, and still bought the domino theory that led us into Vietnam, supported by male-only conscription and a divisive student deferment policy.

It may be true that absolute crime numbers are lower today.  But “average citizens”, middle class and up, may be in more peril today because of the “asymmetry” of the various threats, which might include WMD’s and cyberwar.    And I may closer to the “marginal” or even “slight” risk area because I’m somewhat dependent on “inherited wealth”, although not quite as much as some people think. Trump (and even Peter Thiel, below) neglected to mention specifically the strongest possible anchor for the “nation in peril” (or “western civilization in peril”) argument: the idea that our people have, for the most part (excluding the preppers, below) become so dependent on communications and physical technology. But a Trump with a pointing finger touching a red button could be another existential threat.

I don’t have the personal survival skills of a doomsday prepper, and I need civilization – and expressive, emancipating personal freedom to lead a meaningful life.   I wouldn’t be of any use in the world of NBC’s “Revolution“.  So I personally take sustainability and stability of out way of life — and threats to it from enemies, especially foreign — very seriously.  Processing some of the “threats” is problematic for me.  I experience locally weak social capital.  I don’t have anyone to watch my back, and I really don’t watch anyone else’s.  Yes, I call 911 if I see something.   But I can’t answer Remo Zero’s “Save Me”. I can’t make someone else “all right” when he or she isn’t.

In fact, a lot of people are irritated at me because I am always the one bringing up the peril posed by external events, and refuse to remain focused on the narrower needs of “my group” (and there is more than one group).   A lot of people just aren’t interested., in what happens “on the outside”.   They somehow believe their interpersonal ties (or religious faith, sometimes) will see them through if the external world around them is destroyed.   They would rather be “alive” than be proven “right” (a great line about this from the piano prodigy character Ephram appears in the TV series “Everwood”).  My concern about personal logistics and how external threats could derail it (and issue when I was coming out in 1973 and still in the suburbs) and need for personal mobility betrayed an unwillingness to form emotional attachments to people “where they were.”  Today, my concern about keeping my broadcast voice available (which Mr. Trump could conceivably turn off, claiming national security concerns over misuse of UGC platforms for terror recruiting) betrays a similar aloofness to “real people.”  When I am gone, people will go on without me,

Social capital gets talked about from two directions.  One is top-down, as with a recent sermon that I heard on “scruffy hospitality” to accompany “radical hospitality” as a foundation for a community’s resilience (from natural events or enemies).  Part of making everyone matter is allowing relationships with people with less obvious “ambition” really matter.  But the more troubling direction is “bottom-up”, which starts are a reaction to my own operations.  People wonder why I don’t like to “sell” other people’s messages, as if that were beneath me.  I’ll come back to this later.

I have to mention Peter Thiel’s peculiar speech last night.  He was dismissive of the attention given to the bathroom bills (“Who cares?”)  Trump sounded clumsy in saying “L G B T Q”.  The HRC blasted Trump as a “huge bigot” early this morning, somewhat perplexing supporters (story).  Maybe HRC regards Trump now as “Enemy Mine” (as in the 1985 sci-fi film).

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Still, I go on.  I think we can solve our problems.  I keep after the press to cover the most serious ones.  So far, only Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich have discussed the threats to electrical infrastructure specifically.  Why doesn’t Donald Trump talk about this, instead of bashing Hillary?  (The value of his own real estate holdings certainly can be undone by WMD’s).  Thiel, whatever criticism he earns for Gawker and other attitudes, is paying a lot attention to infrastructure and security as an investor – as all tech investors realize they must.  If we work smart, personal sacrifice and unwanted intimacy become less demanded.

One other thing:  no one person can “fix” the asymmetric peril for the country or for western civilization.  “No one knows the system better than me.  Which is why, I alone can fix it” is an absurd promise.  And a president Donald Trump can’t make you safe on day one of an administration without doing things we would all regret.

(Posted: Friday, July 22, 2016 at 11:30 AM)

Note: The iPhone baseball picture above, rotates in Google Chrome, but displays properly on IE, Edge, Mozilla, and Safari on any computer;  on any iPohone it rotates.  I had to rotate it in WordPress first.  This seems to be a small settings or software bug;  will report when i can find out.  Try this in Mozilla and Edge if you want to see the baseball picture display right.

Donald Trump (and Newt Gingrich) should talk about power grid security; we need to get and work smart about this, folks

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The right wing, particularly the doomsday prepper crowd, puts out a lot of hype about the moral virtue of proving you can live off the grid and defend yourself in a more primitive society.  That certainly fits in to “their” idea about guns.  I do get “their” point and feel with “them” on this a bit.  But are we really prepared to say that we all need to be prepared to live like Neanderthal again, without the benefits of civilization?  No, I don’t think I have anything to offer in a world like that portrayed in NBC’s recent series “Revolution”.

Although the cause of the “blackout” in that miniseries is obscure and preposterous (and predicated on a lot of government conspiracy theory), there are indeed some serious threats to our way of life, based on our “no-return” dependence on technology. But I want to put out the idea we can “work smart” and put these threats behind us if we have the will, so that we don’t need the moral debates about doomday values.

Think about it.  Human beings would have the ability to deflect an asteroid.  Neanderthals, who sustained themselves low-tech for 100000 years, would not.  Orcas or dolphins, “non-human persons” who may be almost as smart as us (and who share among themselves with unconditional love more willingly than we do), still cannot.  We could, in theory, move to other planets (after a lot of social debate on who gets to go onto the “ark” and how to live on it) or solar systems before the Sun someday becomes a red giant.  There is virtue in developing technology.

Apart from direct use of nuclear weapons, the largest threat to our civilization “as we know it” is the loss of the power grids (there are three of them in the US – the Lone Star State has its own, thank you, Ted Cruz).  And there are three major threats:  rare but massive space storms, direct terror attack with electromagnetic pulse weapons, and, very likely, cyberwar.  I had summarized some of this May 6 as part of a general posting on infrastructure, but now let’s go through some of this in more detail.

All the threats have different sequences in which various destructive processes happen.  My own belief is that the most probable threat could come from nature in the way of a solar storm, rather than man in the way of pseudo-nuclear terrorism.

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Solar storms release particles that challenge the Earth’s magnetic field.  The largest events have several steps, the last of which is a coronal mass ejection  which can reach the Earth in about three days.  Only the very largest events can actually threaten the grids, whereas smaller blasts can compromise various satellites. The most recent major event caused a major outage in Quebec in 1989.  But the largest event in history would appear to have been the Carrington Event in 1859.  To have an incident like this, the Earth has to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” in its journey around the sun, which itself rotates about every 25 days (source ).  Most solar CME’s actually miss the Earth.  Here is NASA’s site on solar storms.  There are many credible reports that the Earth missed a huge solar storm by about a week in July 2012 at about the time I, ironically,  was making a trip to look at mouintaintop removal in West Virginia, shortly after getting power and cable back from the East Coast derecho.  On my Book Review blog, I have discussions of several position papers on the threat of solar storms, here.

The biggest harm from solar storms seems to be the potential to overload major transformers.  In fact, this is the common denominator of much of the damage possible from any attack on the grids, whether natural or manmade.  I’ll come back to that.

The second major threat comes from electromagnetic pulse.  The most obvious way this could happen is a high-altitude nuclear blast , whether from a sovereign state (like North Korea on the US West Coast some day), or a terrorist group, possessing a scud-like missile with a warhead and hijacking a ship beyond the patrol of the Coast Guard or Navy. A good question is whether NORAD would stop most such attacks.

However, smaller non-nuclear flux weapons exist, and are used by the Army in deployment (like in clearing mine fields) and can even be viewed at the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen MD (my 2010 visit).   YouTube has videos of how to make them, which I will not link to.  I presume that most of these would not work.  The Washington Times mentioned this topic once, at least, in 2009.  There was a controversial story about this possibility in Popular Mechanics shortly before 9/11.  I cover a lot this on a Blogger post in January 2016 here.

EMP involves a sequence of pulses different from solar storms but with similar, perhaps even  more destructive, end results.  An EMP attack could destroy personal electronics was well as disable power.  That adds to the case that perhaps people should make backups on optical media.  It would also prevent most newer cars from starting or operating. In fact, a rule of thumb after an unexpected power outage in fair weather is to make sure your car starts.  If it does not, it could mean and EMP event has occurred (fictitious setting). The first “Oceans Eleven” film (2001) presents an whimsical incident with a local flux device to knock out power during the “smash and grab” job, but the film incorrectly allows the Las Vegas lights to come back on in a few seconds.  They would not (and the outage would occur only in a small area with what is shown).

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Several books (and academic papers) have dealt with the EMP threat.  The most notorious is the 2009 novel “One Second After” by William Forstchen, with a foreword by Newt Gingrich and Bill Sanders), where a community near Linville N.C. (not far from the Brown Mountain area) experiences the blackout literally while a father is on the phone with the Pentagon. Over time, the community learns of the entire horror, which becomes ugly beyond belief (most of all for big city dwellers).  The novel has a sequel, and a possible film by Warner Brothers has been discussed. Another major (non-fiction) book dealing with all the threats is “A Nation Forsaken” by Michael Maloof.  It’s well to mention here that Gingrich (who may wind up supporting Donald Trump and could conceivably be his running mate) wrote about the EMP threat after 2012 derecho  There are numerous articles about his writings on this to come back to.  Trump has not mentioned his issue in the campaign ( I really think he could make waves by doing so now), but ironically Ted Cruz mentioned it to Wolf Blitzer the night before the Brussels attack.  My book review link for EMP is here.

The cyberwar threat has gotten a lot of attention recently, especially after the publication of Ted Koppel’s “Lights Out” in late 2015.  Ironically, Koppel talks about a lot of the other threats, too, quoting Janet Nepolitano as suggesting a major incident is almost certain to happen, and noting preparations at Cheyenne Mountain with Raytheon specifically (a company which was advertising heavily in the DC Metro at the time Koppel’s book was published).  I still wonder why there should be any way at all that a hacker (be he radical-Islamist, Russian, Chinese, North Korean) should be able to reach the grids through any topological connectedness at all.  They can’t reach the Pentagon.  The grids should have the same security.

The 2013 novel “Gridlock” by Byron L. Dorgan and David Hagberg.  There is a particular kind of malware introduced into the grid, which I don’t think could happen, but there are also physical attacks by firearms shooters on line repairmen, which I would imagine could happen and would be catastrophic in indirect consequences if it did.   Dorgan’s book brings up another kind of attack which has happened sporadically: sniper rifle attacks on power station infrastructure themselves (most of them rural), the largest of which was the Metcalf Sniper Attack near San Jose, CA in April 2013.

My own book review link for cyberthreats is here.

There is still another kind of possible threat associated specifically with nuclear power:  diversion of materials for possible manufacture of a dirty bomb.  This possibility was reported in Belgium after the Brussels attack.  The details are murky and will be left for a future column.

The biggest problems with our three US grids seem to fall into two areas.  One is that the economics of the utility industry (with which I am familiar from owning a lot of utility and energy stocks, which my father had invested in and which have been stable) depends on selling and buying power from remote locations, making the use of huge transformers important.  The other big problem, which Koppel does explain well in his book, is that most large transformers are manufactured overseas and transporting them over the continent is a huge problem.

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That’s where the idea locally generated energy comes up, which we already have seen with the development of solar and wind energy.  Solar energy can be generated on a personal rooftop and sold back to others locally.  But there is another idea which young scientist Taylor Wilson has suggested:  Power companies should have local backup underground fission generators with new underground and “liquid-based” designs, that he seems to imply would be almost terror-proof.  I mentioned his Ted Talk on this possibility in reviewing the movie “Catching the Sun” on May 24 here.  Wilson seems to have the backing of controversial technology investor Peter Thiel.  It makes since that Silicon Valley companies and investors (including Mark Zuckerberg) would have a direct interest in technologies to make the grid more resilient.

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At this point, I have to note what my own role could be relative to this problem.  I note that the major media has covered it very little (outside of Newt Gingrich in 2012).  I could help a Vox or a CNN cover it properly.  The American people (H. Ross Perot’s favorite buzzword) need to understand what is happening with this.

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In July, 2013 I did visit the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and took the summer-only afternoon tour (so a two-night stay was necessary).  I walked about this issue with some people on the tour there.  ORNL has published a lot of papers on these problems, but they still get little public attention.  This needs to change. (For what it’s worth, one of my best high school friends co-op-ed there while going to Virginia Tech in the 1960s.)

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I certainly recall the opposition to nuclear power over the years.  Taylor Wilson has his own introduction to a discussion (still in progress) of the long term effects of Fukushima here.  I do recall the sensational newspaper headlines about meltdown fears from Three Mile Island  (Pennsylvania), one weekend in 1979, shortly after I had moved to Texas, right off of convenience store rags while I was on a little weekend trip in the Hill Country.  Earlier, in the mid 1970s, when I was living in NYC but active in an Arizona-based group called Understanding, I recall a woman who wanted to drive a “Van-credible” caravan all over the country to spread opposition to nuclear power, and I remember questioning her about being a one-issue person, and taking only one side.  But some point people need focus and specific commitment to get anything done, even if it’s the wrong thing.

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I’ve briefly visited the grounds of two transformer companies, in Roanoke VA and Lynchburg VA, in 2013 and 2014.  The details are in this thread on Blogger.   I think we would be much better off if we did more of our grid hardware manufacturing on the Piedmont or in the Shenandoah Valley than in India or China.

Regarding the numerous US shooter or homemade device attacks, at least three of which are at least partially inspired by “radical Islamic terrorism” (I’m not afraid to use the phrase), yes, they are horrific, particularly in the way they personalize hate and political, social or even religious conflict on civilians “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.  But the use of small to larger unconventional WMD’s by enemies  is indeed possible (as in Maloof’s book), and if it ever happens even once, it changes the game forever.

Still, there is a lot we can start doing to protect our way of life that we haven’t talked about much yet.  Trump could talk about this.

(Published: Friday, June 17, 2016 at 2:45 PM EDT)

Infrastructure matters, and political candidates rarely talk about it

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Donald Trump has often bragged about how his money enables him to live well, like artificial royalty.  Never mind he is about one-tenth as “rich” as Mark Zuckerberg, who has contributed a lot more.

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But a ledger account balance for your name only goes so far unless there is a public infrastructure that is dependable enough that you can “enjoy” your paper wealth.  In fact, your use of public infrastructure is part of “your” wealth.

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So, Elon Musk and maybe Ashton Kutcher notwithstanding, you can’t vacation on Mars (or Titan, one of my favorite places) and stay at a 5-star hotel with free Internet with Facebook, because the infrastructure to get you there doesn’t exist yet.  It may in a couple more generations. You can’t vacation on a Dyson’s Sphere around Tabby’s Star because we have no way to deal with the physics of the speed of light.  I’ll add, that as far as Mars as concerned, you can take a simulated trip to Mars (takes about an hour) at Epcot in Orlando, and I have done that.  Disney has provided all the infrastructure there is right now to personally experience another planet (and I look forward to the Star Wars exhibit soon).

Today, operations manager Paul J. Wiedefeld of the Washington DC area Metro announced the Safe Track Plan, which could present severe challenges to people getting around in the DC area, especially during off-hours, in the next twelve months, link here. While the disruptions to normal-work-hour commuters may be minimized by the plan as announced, the ability of many small businesses to survive in the City, dependent on Metro-access especially off hour, could be jeopardized. There are other measures, such as replacement bus service and improvement in the availability of 24-hour parking, as well as the effectiveness of private taxi, Uber and Lyft services, that could mitigate the effects.  But, again, this is part of my point.  Businesses, Metro and citizens, through local governments, must work together to reduce the possible economic harm.  The lack of full home rule for Washington DC and its vulnerability to the unsympathetic attitudes of a conservative, partisan Congress can complicate matters.

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I’ve experienced infrastructure issues earlier in my life.  When I was “coming out” in the 1970s, I was working in the New Jersey suburbs, and my ability to get into the City (New York) to experience my “new life” in view of energy crisis (the Arab oil embargo), and possibility the function of the city during its fiscal crisis at the time (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) was a potential issue for me, even though I was making enough money to pay for things reasonably if they were available.

There is a much darker side to the infrastructure debate, which is the security of the power grids (three of them in the US).  The biggest threat could come from the lack of technical preparation by utilities that can come from once-per-century (or so) solar super storms (like the “Carrington Event” of 1859).  The biggest danger comes not just from the “solar flare” itself (a subject of a “Smallville” episode in October 2003 on the same day of an actual flare) but the arrival of the associated “coronal mass ejection”. We may have escaped a major catastrophe by about a week in the summer of 2012 regarding the position of the Earth.  Other dangers to the grid can come from cyberterrorism, as explained by Ted Koppel in his book “Lights Out”, although one wonders why the control systems for the power grids can be reached even from the public Internet.  There is also the idea of a high altitude EMP blast from a nuclear weapon, which is even more destructive to a civilization grown dependent on technology than a solar storm.  An EMP blast would fry personal electronics as well as knock out the grid.  Whatever threat there is for this is more likely to come from rogue states (like North Korea or Iran) than terror groups, and would not necessarily be associated just with “radical Islamic terrorism”, to quote Ted Cruz. Smaller non-nuclear devices with local effects have been speculatively described but never used.  Surprisingly, the presidential candidates have mentioned this very little, although Ted Cruz mentioned it the night before the Brussels attacks, and Rick Santorum had mentioned it in January. Nevertheless, the NBC series “Revolution” describes what happens to people in a technological society if they suddenly lose access to electricity permanently (although the circumstances in that miniseries are even more obscure and improbable).  All of our planning of apps for everything (from nano-medicine to robotics) goes down the drain like Alice the Toothpick.

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Remember, a conventional grand (or spinet or upright) piano doesn’t require electricity.

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(Published: Friday, May 6, 2016 at 5 PM EDT)

Update: May 18

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Note this “About New York” column by Jim Dwyer, “Less talk, more action on Hudson rail tunnels before it’s too late” in the New York Times.