Can social media recruiting by enemies cause it to be shut down in a Trump-like show of national “strength”?

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Has the growth of social media (preceded by older forms of user-generated content such as discussion forums, blogs, and even many flat sites) actually created a new threat for national security in the US?

The most obvious concern, much reported in the media for the past eighteen months or so, is the recruiting of vulnerable young men and women (often but not always in Muslim communities), most of all on Twitter, and then “going dark” as apparently recruiters groom “candidates” on encrypted channels.  Heritage has as good an explanation of the process as any (June 2015).

Social media, and its inherent asymmetry, allows a sociopathic person like the Orlando perpetrator to create excessive theater when creating an event.

The other alarming idea is the wide availability of information on the web of how to make and use all kinds of weapons, some of which could be exotic devices like local flux EMP’s (roughly, like in the movie “Oceans 11”).  It’s very easy to find this stuff, and I suspect that most of the directions you could find wouldn’t really work.  It’s alarming that media reports (now after the Turkey attack) that there are lots of instructions on how to make suicide vests that work automatically when a terrorist is shot by police.

More socially acceptable would be the wide variety of videos of how to defend your home, how to live without electricity (there are videos on starting your car after an EMP event, for example).  Knowing how to take care of yourself and your family in a “Revolution” world sounds like a good thing. You might not be able to log on after such an event, so print it all out now.

I think it’s pretty obvious that a demagogue like “The Real Donald Trump” can easily suggest we just “shut down those tubes” (that’s a Facebook friend’s paraphrase of a December speech he made) as a security measure, saying we’re effectively at war.  Trump especially could build on the point that a lot of user generated content (including mine) doesn’t pay its own way, in helping actually make a living or support families.  I’ll come back to that again soon in the whole topic of “selling books” and my being prodded to become more “commercial”.

To counter such an idea, I’d add that “revolutionaries” have always been dangerous, and most of them knew pretty well how to blow things up when I was coming of age, long before the Internet instantiated itself. Think about the history of radicalism and terrorism all the way back to the 70s (well documented in the CNN series).  In the past, censorship of print and downstream liability for print has been an issue.  Consider, for example, the case of Paladin Press and the book “Hit Man” (and the 2000 movie “Deliberate Intent”).  I remember a lot of incidental discussion of this book in Minnesota shortly after I had moved there after publishing my own “Do Ask Do Tell” book from another author quite interested in Second Amendment issue (in the Minnesota Libertarian Party).

In the gun control argument, we say people kill people, and that inanimate weapons don’t.  And we say the same with propaganda – words don’t kill, but unstable people inspired by words and graphic images (and group hate ideology, including homophobia) may do so.  There are ways where the gun control debate can influence the speech debate.

But we need to look at what really makes people who go on these rampages tick.  It looks less and less like religion alone all the time, when we see “radical Islamic terrorists” as lone wolves inspired online from overseas.  Often they have conflicting familial influences and many serious personality disorders (including narcissism) that drives them to want to stage theater that makes the whole world seem to be about them, using religion as a proxy (as David Brooks explains  as “Religion’s Wicked Neighbor”).  But there is something to the profile of young men (and many young women) drawn to extremist ideology, often overlaid with religion.  They see a world where privileged overlords above them don’t really have to earn what they have, and wonder if the rules of civilization really mean anything.  They start living on the edge, as develop nihilistic outlooks.  Young men may look for camaraderie and a place to a “belong” after not being able to succeed in an individualistic world that stresses abstraction (you know, why do I have to learn algebra?)  There was a recent episode on “Days of our Lives” with a female character who seduces a minor male character that illustrated that point chillingly.  A world where everyone has to “pay your dues” on a few levels might reduce the appeal of extremism to some young adults.

(Published: Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)

Thoughts about the afterlife, and why I don’t warm up to “selling” victimization

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Yes, I’m a little conscious of the idea of “The Bucket List” (a movie I haven’t bothered to see yet) as I approach age 73, as I know that any kind of incident could have irreversible outcomes.  I don’t mean to be negative or morbid, but I did want to explore “the afterlife” or “life after death” and why it matters to “policy” and “morality”.

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I think there are two aspects of physics and cosmology that argue for pre-existence of consciousness.  Call it God or Allah or Jehovah, or anything your faith wants. Yes, I think there is intelligent design of the constants of physics so everything works (although I understand there is an anthropic argument that we are just living in the right statistically occurring matrix or simulation). The two aspects of science are the apparent incompleteness of mathematics (Godel ) , and entropy in thermodynamics.  Systems or societies or cultures of conscious living things help reverse entropy and fill in the blanks for mathematics.  Gode’s work makes me think that it is impossible to prove that the initial position of a chess game is winnable by White or drawable by Black.

Hofstatler’s book “I Am a Strange Loop” may explain how “I-ness” maps to the developing child’s and teen’s brain, and then departs at end of life, as well as anything else.  My own sense of continuity of self goes back as far as age 3, when I opened a train set on a Christmas morning, and gradually increases in “density” through childhood, with a real pickup at about ninth grade.  High school is still pretty vivid, although, for example, I don’t quite recall the act of writing out my big D Minor sonata in ink, which I know I must have done on snow days in early 1960.

The human brain does map to self for most of one’ life, but there are signs that it doesn’t completely at the end of life, such as with accounts of lucidity in Alzheimer’s patients at the last hour or so of life.

With animals, it gets interesting.  Dogs and cats definitely show a sense of self, with dogs more integrated to the pack than humans are.  A cat an “adopt” a human, run free like a wild animal and hunt small game outdoors during the day, and remember where home is and return to a kind and welcoming “owner” at night. (This happened with me when I was living in Dallas in 1979, and a black tom named “Timmy”).   Some wild animals (like crows) will develop attachments to humans on their own volition. Most mammals smart enough to hunt for a living “know who they are”, and this seems true of others like elephants, and, of course, other primates.   Cetaceans (whales and dolphins, most of all the orca) display almost-human problem solving ability to the point of being called “non human persons”, but may share a more “distributed sense of consciousness” than humans.   Is this just a hyper kind of social and emotional empathy, or is this really a transfer of sense of identity, like in science fiction (even in my own novel manuscript, “Angel’s Brother”)?

Then, go down the phylums to consider social insects.  Does “self” in ants or bees rest with the entire hive?  You could ask the same thing about the aliens of “Independence Day”.

There are plenty of books and Christian films talking about proof of heaven, but the one I like the best is Eben Alexander’s, where the writer describes existing in a dark “Core” for some time before being brought into a community.  I talked about the literature on it in a legacy post in December 2015 here.

I’ve also covered the literature on the Afterlife from by the Monroe Institute in my blogs, link.

I do relate to these flexible views of the afterlife, even the idea of a family of souls.  I think there is more to it that the naïve idea of a hollow heaven.

Do I “think” a Savior exists? I could say that quantum theory could predict one “eventually”.  No one can be “right” all the time, because mathematics itself says this is impossible. Nature is amazingly impersonal in the way its “laws” work, and yet in rarest cases miracles seem to happen.  Imagine what it would have been like (for me at least), to live through the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension as someone close to the disciples, admiring a figure who has always been presented (ironically) as the “ideal man” in modern gay fantasy – the ultimate experience of upward affiliation.

One big question, regarding karma, would be, does having children (or not having them) affect the “experience” (for want of another word) of the afterlife?  Is there some connection that continues?  I have no clue.  I don’t buy the Mormon idea of eternal family as having any evidence to support it.  But the Monroe Institute talks of a larger “soul family”.  Does openness to transmitting life – the agent for more consciousness to expand – affect karma and the afterlife?

We can also pause to think about whether “karma” crosses civilizations on other worlds.  Advanced civilizations seem to be extremely scarce in the Galaxy, but it is conceivable that, in our distance from the center, there could be one every 2000 light years or so.  (Yes, that structure around Tabby’s Star really might be a Dyson Sphere, even with some hotel rooms.  Mark Zuckerberg must wonder how he will get around the speed of light barrier to implement Facebook in other civilizations.)  What’s more relevant is that the Universe is relatively “young” and that over billions or trillions of years other Earths will form and have civilizations where our future selves could emerge.

But I do think there is an aspect of death, or end-of-life, that must be irreversible. In fact, I’ll take it further.  If you are decapitated (like at the end of the movie “Wolfen”) and momentarily “know you’re dead”, you know you aren’t going back or “taking it with you” – not just money or possessions but even not any history of accomplishments or ego.  Yet, I think that in time, “you” may “know” what reputation or legacy you left Earth with – but not right away.

A particularly sensitive issue comes up if you die at the hands of someone else’s violence.  This could happen because of conventional crime (including events like drunk driving accidents), war, or terrorism.  But when I was coming of age it could also happen after being drafted into the military.  There was always the idea of “sacrifice” and a certain acceptance that, no matter what the personal circumstances, others have their own lives to lead and must move on without you.  (I’ll mention, I lucked out when an errant driver almost collided head-on with me on a curve on a 2-lane road in rural Virginia recently.  I was able to avoid him at the one spot that had a shoulder.)

I don’t see “victimization” as particularly honorable.  The fact of logic (not politics or religion) is that when you’re life is taken, you leave this world and deal with your own karma “as it is” at the moment.  The idea that your death is someone else’s fault is largely irrelevant.  This is not about “blaming the victim”;  it is just logic.  But part of your karma could include “ill gotten gains” based on the unseen sacrifices of others. In some parts of the world, enemies view individual people as on the hook for what their government’s did.  As a matter of simple logic, we all are.  How we deal with the idea of “enemies” is a big deal, and, yes, there is plenty about it in the Bible (the New Testament) and in the Torah and Koran, for that matter.

In these days of medically extended lives, death during old age from natural and inevitable aging can be ugly, too.  My father died rather suddenly just short of  age 83, and always did what he wanted right up to the end.  He never had to understand helplessness or disability, and was a bit insensitive about it (saying “I’ll never be a burden”).  But my mother, after getting about eight good years from coronary bypass surgery, slipped into helplessness during the last three years.  It was not pretty.

Do I believe in reincarnation or future lives?  It seems quite reasonable to me, maybe inevitable.  Occasionally, people are born so gifted that it seems that they must have access to prior lives’s knowledge.  This may be true of great composers in music, prodigies in tech.  How could a teenager understand nuclear physics and advanced math like fusion-entrepreneur Taylor Wilson (22 now)?  I could name a few others (start looking at Stanford or UCLA).  Boy, it sounds like getting to have a fit, slender 20-something body again to pick up where you left off is a pretty good deal from your karma.  I guess I wouldn’t mind having the inborn ability to hit home runs or pitch perfect games.  Was that earned in the past? Conservative columnist George Will once wrote bluntly, when talking about baseball in relation to his own family, that there are those who are gifted and those who are not.

How do I respond to loss of others?  Yes, I go to fundraisers.  I may add different organizations to charity lists.  I generally don’t get involved about a particular “victim” unless I already have some connection to the person for some other independent reason.  I don’t like to “sell” the idea of hardship or loss to others.  It rubs me the wrong way. I do realize that I perceive hardship of others through the veneer of my own somewhat aloof personality, as I mentioned in the previous post.

(Published: Monday, June 27, 2016 at 3:15 PM EDT)

Whoops, England? When you vote, you really count

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Friday night, I noticed a 2-word tweet from “@Blogtyrant”, that is, Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin  in my queue, reading “Whoops, England”.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Brexit all day, but I “Knew”, instantly.  In fact, his Twitter feed since then pretty much tells the story.  And, yes, my retirement portfolio lost a lot on Friday. But now, the hangover.

For example, “UK voters are Googling ‘What is the EU?” that hangover morning after voting to ‘Leave’”.  It’s funny, sometimes you should leave a bar and take a taxi home.  It looks like a lot of voters were drunk at the polls.  That’s an observation even George W. Bush would probably make.

Voters are saying, Oh, they just wanted to protest, you know, all the foreign control, the “rules”, the migrants (because EU countries do have to make certain welfare payments to migrants – although Britain’s was less).  Many said, “I didn’t think “Leave” could possibly win, so I voted “Leave”.

Civics lesson:  your vote matters, especially in a referendum, but  a little less directly in US presidential elections (with the Electoral College system).  In the US, it means think twice about making a protest vote because you don’t like the Republicans or Democrats (I voted for Perot in 1992).  OK ,  Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura won the governorship of Minnesota in 1998. I remember the election night party in St. Paul (I was living in Minneapolis at the time).

And, by the way, I think in Ramsay’s Australia, voting is mandatory.  He also writes, “It feel’s like there’s been a big lurch away from reason the past few years.”   True, Brexit is seen as a regression into anti-intellectualism, a sort of distrust of people who keep themselves away from “real” involvement with others, a fear of the “attack of the schizoids”.

Then, there is “Regrexit”, as NBC News explains   — young Brits say their elders sold their futures down the river for narrowminded family life.  There’s even a petition to hold another referendum.

Let me share also “The United States of Trump” from NBC News – one big point is that Trump voters want to keep lobbyists and fund-raising out of politics, something I actually respect.  It I didn’t have to raise money, maybe I could run for president.

(Published: June 25, 2016 at 11:15 PM EDT)

Prosecuting police for “profiling” misconduct will not be easy; look at Freddie Gray case

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The acquittal now of Caesar Goodson in the Freddie Gray case  (CNN story, NY Times story) suggests that criminal prosecutions of the six officers will not be successful, and that Maryln Mosby has grossly overcharged.

On CNN’s “Legal Guys” Saturday, defense attorney Richard Herman said bluntly that you cannot use prosecution just to prevent riots. Herman believes there should not be any more trials.  “Hot Air” offers a similar perspective.

The bench trial probably helped the defendants, as a judge is more likely to apply criminal law literally and not consider politics or victims’ emotions, as a jury might.

The Baltimore Sun had discussed a novel theory for prosecuting Nero, which the judge did not buy, based on the fact that Gray should not have been arrested in the first place.

I did film some of the protest marches in Washington DC in late 2014, and visited the site in Baltimore’s Sandtown the last week of April 2015.  But I suppose people will come on me, that I don’t “join in” with protests, as if that were beneath me.

It does seem that the officers in the Freddie Gray case and in most of the similar cases around the nation behaved improperly, used excessive force, used racial profiling, and particularly failed to provide medical assistance when needed.  (The Darien Hunt case in Utah is interesting.)  Non-violent protests are quite justified, as are civil lawsuits.  I don’t know where police actually have criminal liability in cases like this.  In Maryland, according to the judge, the bar set by state law for a criminal prosecution of police officers is quite high.  It may be lower in other states.  Legislatures could review the wording of statutes in these situations.  Such review seems needed in Maryland. The future use of body cameras as evidence certainly needs careful attention.

The one major case where I disagree with the protestors a lot is the original incident in Ferguson, Mo.   In this case, it appears that Michael Brown’s own behavior (starting with an apparent petty offense in the convenience store and then his actions when confronted by Darren Wilson) had a lot to do with the tragic outcome.  In fact, Michael Brown supposedly had a promising future with college, and his behavior seems inexplicable.  That Wilson would wind up practically living in hiding is totally unacceptable.  Wilson’s defense seems, objectively, credible.  But this is not the case with most of the other high profile cases involving police misconduct or profiling.

(Published: Saturday, June 25, 2016 at 2:15 PM EDT)

Supreme Court upholds very narrowly tailored race-conscious affirmative action at University of Texas, Austin

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The Supreme Court has upheld the University of Texas admissions program, that takes race into consideration in admissions decisions for students who don’t otherwise automatically get admitted by grades or finishing in the top 10% of  a class.  The vote was 4-3, with Justice Kennedy voting to accept the program. The opinion for Fisher v. University of Texas is here.

Ariane de Vogue has a typical story on CNN

Experts say that the ruling was narrow (staying barely within the Equal Protection Clause) but could provide a “roadmap” for other universities to follow.

The plaintiff had been Abigail Fisher, a white woman who had argued essentially reverse discrimination.

Lambda Legal, curiously, went out of the way to support the decision today in providing the Amicus brief from the National Women’s Law Center, embedded here.

I have never been a fan of affirmative action for its own sake, and I have never warmed up for “fighting for my rights” only as a member of a group and nothing more (therefore having to fit into the socialization within the group).  I guess that makes me a bit spoiled.

Back in 1997, when I was placing a copy of my new DADT book in a bookstore in Richmond, VA, I was surprised when the (white) owner spoke so firmly for affirmative action.

(Published: Thursday, June 23, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

Baseball, Bryce Harper, DC statehood, and maybe Virginia re-retrocession

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I grew up in Arlington VA and have returned (as of 2003), and that’s another narrative.  But one of the things I wondered as a boy is why Washington residents did not have the right to vote or to govern themselves.  Yes, I wondered why the Washington Senators had to be such a horrible baseball team (remember the 18-game losing streak in 1959?)

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The issue came up when popular Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper wore a “51st state” T-shirt (maybe at Ted’s Bulletin) and seemed to join the political battle, surprisingly on the “liberal” side, given his upbringing (Dan Steinberg’s Washington Post story).  Did Bryce buy a condo in the District and find out after the fact he had lost some voting rights?

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Wikipedia has a definitive article on “District of Columbia Voting Rights”  with all the details.  The residents can vote for their own council, but often finds Congress tends tries to intervene on local wishes (on issues ranging from guns, to same-sex marriage, to partial legalization of marijuana). The residents now can elect one representative in the House, who on most matters cannot vote, and have no representation in the Senate.  DC license plates read “Taxation Without Representation”.

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The most obvious objection to full statehood would be that the population does not justify two Senators (but ask Vermont and Wyoming).  More obvious is the idea that Senators and Representatives, and a governor,  would almost certainly be Democratic.  (Although Blue states, for example, have elected more moderate Republicans as governors:  Romney and Weld in Massachusetts, Pawlenty in Minnesota, and Hogan in Maryland, the latter of whom might have made an excellent GOP presidential candidate precisely because of his moderation and humility learned in his recent medical issues.)

The simplest solution to give residents voting rights would be re-retrocession of almost all the city to Maryland.  That would follow the example of Ottawa, which is actually in a province in Canada, Ontario.  (But many other large democracies carve out federal zones for their capital cities.)   That would result in Maryland nearly always voting Democratic on everything. Maryland is not eager to do this;  it has its hand full with Baltimore.

Another idea would be to make a City of Greater Washington, comprising the District, Arlington, and Alexandria (as “counties”), and giving it two senators (for slightly over 1 million residents).  The inclusion of Virginia counties or cities would add to population diversity and make the party balance  more competitive (for the GOP). But on local matters the original states would maintain jurisdiction (Maryland for DC, and Virginia for its portion).  New York City already comprises five counties (although all in one state). Many world capitals have a “Greater City” concept, with some autonomy for “boroughs” or “cities”, like London.  But no world capital is in two states, as far as I know.  The risk is making Washington into another “Belgium” as a political artifice.

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(Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2016, at 5 PM EDT)

Update: July 10

Aaron C. Davis has a story in the Washington Post about a bizarre statehood referendum, which would be binding and propose a “constitution” that doesn’t exist.

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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)

Zoning and licensing laws can shut down innocuous home businesses; could writers be in jeopardy?

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Regulation of home-based businesses by states or zoning rules, while perhaps well intended from a consumer protection viewpoint, can be damaging to entrepreneurs and potentially to speech.

Back in the 1990s, John Stossel had reported on the issue, citing a case where an African-American beautician in Kansas specializing in Afro hair styles was shut down because she didn’t have a cosmetology license.  In Charlotte NC, a woman selling cupcakes or cookies was shut down because she didn’t have a “commercial kitchen”.

In the Washington Times Wednesday, on p. B4, M.D. Little writes an opinion column “Unsung heroes: Meet the ‘cookie ladies’; Home-kitchen entrepreneurs fight for the right to bake”.   The op-ed gives a narrative of Kriss Marion, an organic farmer who has apparently run afoul of a Wisconsin law restricting the sale of homemade baked goods.

Unbelievably (or all too believably), more established bakeries have complained about having to compete with smaller, “unlicensed” home businesses that may not even need employees.

This issue did get some attention from the Libertarian Party in the 90s, as it has often advocated no zoning laws (the Houston TX model).

I have heard of this issue coming up for writers, at least back in the 1990s.  You heard right.  A township in New Jersey fined a rabbi for typing his sermons at home (in an era when personal computers were just becoming common).  A writer in Chicago was pursued for working at home, and there was one such case in Los Angeles.  Thankfully, I haven’t heard of any more such cases since about 1996.

I have, however, in both northern Virginia and Minneapolis (from 1997-2003) gotten home-based business licenses to sell copies of books legally.  I suppose, to the letter of the law, putting Adense on my Blogger entries qualifies as commercial activity.  I haven’t run into this, but the use of a residence for quasi-commercial activity could cause additional property tax assessments in some communities.  There could be a theory that the home operator is “competing” with commercial real estate by not renting overbuilt space.

Indeed, in the early days of the Web, some established news services were concerned about having to compete with amateur websites (like mine), very simple in structure (and easily indexed by search engines), with no overhead or employees.  That’s not so much the case anymore, as search engines are now much more partial to established news sites, and as people get a lot more news indirectly and participate much more on major social media platforms (like Facebook).  But in the ensuring scramble that could come up (partly in conjunction with national security), it’s all too easy to imagine a Donald Trump saying that content should not be free, but should pay its own freight.

(Published: Thursday, June 6, 2016 at 11:45 AM EDT)

Gun control: what happens when civilians are confronted with war at home?

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The attack on a gay club in Orlando, FL by Omar Mateen brings up emotional controversies connected to sexual identity, religion, and various fundamental rights, as well as this year’s elections.  Let us not forget there was a shooting in a straight club of a singer the night before in Orlando.  I think it is most helpful to lay aside the identity politics for a while and talk about fundamental issues, and the most obvious issue is gun control, perceived as adversarial to a Second Amendment right to bear arms.

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I can backtrack in my own mind to June 1995, to a convention of the Libertarian Party of Virginia in Richmond, where the biggest topic on the agenda that Saturday was “guns”.

One of the most shocking aspects of the Pulse attack was the apparent use of military grade automatic weapons, apparently in execution style.  But these weapons can also maim survivors much more than ordinary rounds, leaving them handicapped, disfigured and an emotional challenge for those in relationships with them.  Although the effect of the weapons was well-known during the Vietnam war, the use of them in attacks on civilians seems to a determination to make the attacks as personal as possible.  This bears on “resilience” (May 9).  This seems to have been a factor in the Boston Marathon pressure-cooker shrapnel bombings, with the amputations that resulted among those who survived.

One obvious question, then, is why not renew Bill Clinton’s assault weapon’s ban?  CNN legal consultant Mark O’Mara, as it happens, lives a few blocks from the Pulse in Orlando, and argues the case here.  Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine a legitimate lawful use of military style weapons by civilians.  However, as Brad Plummer of the Washington Post notes in the video below, the ban was limited (partly by a grandfathering clause) in real effectiveness.

Vox has a good discussion by Libby Nelson of the common assault weapons like the AR-15 or Sig Sauer MCX, and notes that, despite minor differences from the M16 (of the Vietnam era) which is much harder to get, they are both almost as deadly as standard Army infantry weapons familiar to some of us from 1968.

It is true that banning possession of anything can go down a legal slippery slope. Donald Trump, for example, has proposed sledge-hammer solutions to societal risks that could lead to banning most user-generated content on the Web as we know it today, because of the idea that it is gratuitous and not obviously economically “productive” in employing people.  So, you ban possession of “useless” drugs (the marijuana debate), or you ban possession of weapons that people really don’t need.  At the risk of sounding circular, one breakpoint would be whether the item or capability being banned has a legal use.  It’s hard to imagine a legal use for the weapons Mateen was carrying. You can reasonably say, we usually don’t allow civilians to possess most radioactive materials, so we can say they shouldn’t have military assault weapons that can function as WMD’s in closed spaces.

There is also the idea of strengthening the background checks, to exclude more people on watch lists (like the no-fly list) from buying weapons (as supported by Hillary Clinton).  The problem with all administrative (non-judicial or “Article 15”) exclusion lists is the likely abuse of due process. But a ban on one’s flying based on less “process” may be more constitutionally acceptable than a ban on one’s owning a firearm because the latter is (arguably) explicitly protected by the Second Amendment, whereas the right to move around (physical mobility) is not so well protected (unless one somehow brings in the Fourteenth Amendment, perhaps).  Congress could offer more administrative “due process” for both travel watch lists and gun purchases as a possibly acceptable compromise.

There are some stories on the Web that explain how difficult it would have been to stop Mateen with existing laws, including a piece by Russell Berman in the Atlantic, and Logan Churchwell’s piece on Breitbart calling Mateen the most “gun control compliant shooter in history”.

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I still see conservative to libertarian opinions claiming that if the customers at the bar had been armed they could have defended themselves, such as Mary Ruwart’s.  The Pulse is small and crowded (I was there in 2015).  Imagine everyone being armed during dirty dancing on a large disco.  (Maybe in a Hollywood comedy.)  Even the NRA admits that people probably should not have guns with them when drinking alcohol in an enclosed space.  Almost no owner of a sports stadium, shopping mall, theater chain, or disco wants to allow weapons on the premises.  In fact, some are at least starting bag checks (or banning backpacks and bags) and larger facilities will have to start installing magnetometers for access.  It is appropriate and necessary for businesses to have properly licensed armed guards on the premises during events.  It may be appropriate for public schools to do this, and to require that some teaching positions have firearms certification.

In fact, looking back to that LPVA meeting in Richmond, I remember some people saw capacity for self-defense as a moral duty. In a home, with a manual weapon, maybe yes.  But a smaller weapon might not be sufficient against very determined attackers or home invaders or targeting enemies, and so this takes us back into another area, why some “preppers” believe they need to be well-armed indeed. At some point, you need to have a discussion about how people share common perils in a community from outside forces.

That idea even takes me back to the subject of conscription (the recent debate over requiring women to register for Selective Service) and the solution that the Swiss have (where every male or family is armed sensibly and has a weapon at home).  It also leads me to the way Britain and Australia, and other western countries, have approached the problem by banning most civilian gun ownership outright, something Piers Morgan used to talk about.  That approach may reduce ordinary street and domestic crime and ordinary burglary, while increasing the vulnerability of a population to very determined enemy terrorists (and hence, the attacks in Paris and Brussels). With gun control, there is a “herd effect” where the safety of an individual person may be compromised or enhanced according to interactions of different circumstances.

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The ”conscription” idea reminds me of something else.  Depending on how you interpret some details of the Pulse attack (the contents of Mateen’s 911 call, for example), one could argue that the disco patrons had been made into combatants, against their will – in a sense, conscripted, because of US foreign policy.  They had been selected to make the personal sacrifices, just as drafted soldiers did in Vietnam.  Wikipedia would characterize this as “fourth generation warfare“. That is how I would process it.  In my mind, there is some validity to Donald Trump’s claim that we have an “enemy without a uniform” stalking and pouncing on us.  (I’m somewhere with both sides Cruz or Trump v. Obama, Clinton and Sanders — on using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” in public, but that’s a whole different debate; President Obama did make his points well today.)  I have advocated ending Selective Service as unnecessary, but at least having it reminds us all of the latent but always lingering possibility of having to step up personally to challenges imposed on us by unforeseeable natural disasters (and I’m also insisting that a lot of them we can prevent and prepare for), or enemies that we have made.  When civilians are attacked in a military style, then there is a good case for extending a 9/11-style compensation fund to re-insure or otherwise cover medical treatments and employment and property losses.  Congress would have to do this (and would include San Bernadino and maybe Boston).  It’s also obvious that the services of active duty military combat surgeons and rehab medicine from the Armed Forces need to be made available to the casualties.  I’m not one who likes to talk about victimhood as something special or honorable, but we need to treat conflict brought to American soil for what it is – warfare.  Sebasian Junger covered this in his recent book “Tribe”.

(Published on Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at 3 PM EDT)

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Update:

Muriel Bowser, at a service in Washington DC on June 15, 2016 at an Interfaith Prayer Service for the People of Orlando and for Peace, says “I hate guns” and makes her case against assault weapons simple:

She also talked about gangs, street crime, and domestic violence in conjunction with the easy availability of guns.

CNN’s Philppa Strum offers an interesting perspective on the Second Amendment, arguing that the founding fathers presumed a right to basic individual and familial self-defense, it not even needing to be enumerated, but saying the wording does apply to militia and implies that states and Congress can regulate weapons purchases reasonably. This may be in contrast to what Justice Scalia and others ruled.

Vox has an explainer by Alvin Chang showing that too much is made of the supposed lesser risk of handguns. And Jon Stokes, also for Vox, minimizes the distinction between military and civilian use of weapons in this piece on the AR-15, and idea motivates this entire posting.

Update: Thursday, June 23, 2016.

Here’s an account on CNN of the Democrats’s theatrical (but sometimes off camera) “sit-in” on gun control at the House of Representatives in Washington, just ended.

For climate change debate, the fact that rapid increase in CO-2 levels is man-made is settled science, and that really matters

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One of my own pet “peeves” is being expected to go along with others demanding my “loyalty”, against the evidence of science.  I remember how this sense played out during the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and I’ll come back to that later.  Right now, I’m most concerned about libertarianism and conservatism (which I normally advocate) and climate change.

It is practically undeniable that the Earth is slowly warming, but the central logical question seems to be, is the warming the result of man’s activity.  The notion that man has caused it is also viewed as settled science, in the sense that the structure of the solar system (with the Sun in the center) is settled science.

That is indeed how I see it.  As a matter of completeness, it’s important to admit that indeed the climate of the Earth has always changed through “natural” mechanisms, including a past history of “snowball Earth”, ice ages, and little ice ages.  There was a “year without a summer” in the early 19th century (with snow in August at mid-latitudes) probably caused by volcanic dust in the atmosphere.  Over a very long time – millions to billions of years – the Sun will eventually enlarge (to the red giant stage in about five billion years) and even scorch the Earth, so that mankind will have to move to another world to survive. Natural climate variability does happen and, as a matter of principle could overwhelm man’s effects.

But the real evidence, so well laid out in Al Gore’s famous film “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2005, points to the idea that, with respect to time frames (a few decades to two or three centuries) that matter in most human moral perspectives, human activity is causing a relatively rapid increase in carbon dioxide.  A secondary result, not necessarily proven yet, could be the release of large amounts of methane, from permafrost or the deep ocean.

Al Gore’s presentation is pretty much reinforced by charts on NASA’s evidence website.  What jumps out immediately is the derivative of carbon dioxide concentration (yup, the concept you learn in freshman calculus), the idea that the rate of increase is so large (in fact that rate may be accelerating itself),  A related concept in science is the acceleration of gravity:  an object’s velocity increases with time as it falls to any planet.

The Economist as a good article, with a breakdown as to which activities have helped release CO2 emissions.  One surprise is the benefit of China’s one child policy.

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CNN has a piece on the symptoms of climate change denial (which Donald Trump seems to join), and the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center in Washington also answers the climate change skeptics, as does Reason magazine. Note a twinge of doubt in CNN’s piece with the use of the adverb “almost” in the article banner.

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Although Reason, in particular, says that massive public policy changes are not necessarily justified by climate change, in general it does matter that it is man-made. Personal and corporate behavior with respect to the environment would not be so much an issue of natural climate cycles really could dwarf the effect of man-made emissions.

However, it is true, that, for one thing, climate change can exacerbate political tensions with the developing world, even the relatively near term of a decade or so.  The “West” developed first, and started the pollution. Now, developing countries (most of all China) can wonder why they must “sacrifice”.  And sea level rises may very well disproportionately affect poorer populations around the world, for example, Bangladesh.

If climate change is man-made, there are concerns for personal morality, too.  In general, people well socialized in large coherent families and communities use less energy per person, although that tendency may have been offset by larger families to move farther away from jobs to exurbs and to drive more, using larger vehicles.  Single people have different patterns of energy use and emissions.  Living in a large city without a car may help, but tends to be offset when people (like me) work and travel alone, often using resources by renting cars alone, for example.

In fact, personal mobility has always been important to me, for my entire adult life.  In the earlier periods (in the 1970s) it was more threatened by international oil dependence (as with the 1973 embargo).  Today, political instability (especially with the Islamic world) is exacerbated by past energy practices and their effect on western policies, even in a time when oil prices fall and the West becomes much more self-sufficient in energy.  Air pollution and climate change replace the prospect of energy shortages as political hot flashes.

The fact that life spans are finite, and, while getting longer, still usually less than the time it takes to see the real impact on near future generations of people, does tend to mitigate the sense of moral urgency on a personal level, both for personal lifestyle, and for the way some businesses (especially energy companies) have behaved (a lot of written about the Koch family, including documentary films).  That is one reason why many religious faiths (including Islam) make a lot of a responsibility to unborn, in fact un-conceived (not yet existing) generations. Do people who don’t yet exist have a moral claim on us?

In general, climate change seems most pronounced at polar latitudes and higher altitudes.  Glaciers are disappearing even at lower latitudes. Spring starts earlier and fall lasts longer in temperate areas.  Heat waves farther north (in northern Europe or Russia) have occurred.  When I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003, it seemed that winters were not as severe as I had expected.

It’s true that hotter, drier summers in the US became noticed first in the late 1980s, with increasing wildfire threats that have mounted ever since, along with drought in the West. On the other hand, it’s not clear that hurricanes in mid-latitudes are more destructive (whether “perfect storms” like Sandy will become more common), or whether large tornadoes will become more common, especially away from areas used to them (the US Great Plains and some of the Southeast).  Cold fronts from the north are not as strong sometimes, so that could argue against more tornadoes.

Even so, the amount of snow in a typical mid-Atlantic season has remained normal, but with more erratic weather and more snow bundled in fewer but larger storms (as with January 22, 2016).  Abnormally warm late fall months (like December 2015) are tempered by sudden late winter polar wind fronts (as in February and again in early April).

In December 2008, meteorologist of station WJLA gave a presentation at an Arlington VA high school, written up here .  Local meteorologist Doug Hill somewhat discounted the climate change claims, but I wonder what he would say now, seven years later.

I have to admit that my comfort level in retirement is partly predicated on my own previous oil company holdings, which worked out well for me (I sold before the dip in prices), and also the family’s.  On my mother’s side, there was a major gas well in Ohio for many years, and it provided more than enough money for eldercare.   I wouldn’t have the “freedom” I have today without my own “unclean hands” and rentier behavior in the past oil and gas business.  And, oh yes, I lived in Dallas from 1979-1988.  I have a little bit of the karma of both Donald Trump and J. R. Ewing. But for policy, we need to get to the truth.

Pictures:  Maybe more carbon in the atmosphere stimulates wild vegetation in yards.  Also, a storm out in the ocean off Reboboth Beach, DE.

(Published: Friday, June 10, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

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Update: Wednesday, June 29:  On p. A11 of the Wall Street Journal today, Holman W. Jenkins writes “Climate denial finally pays off“. Let’s play devil’s advocate.