Evidence of Russian hacking attempt reported at an electric power utility in Vermont, on the heels of election “hackergate” and Obama’s actions

The Washington Post, in a story by Julie Eilperin and Adam Entous, reports the discovery of codes associated with Russian hacking in the computer systems of one of the two major electric power utilities in Vermont.  The code is associated with malware known as “Grizzly Bear”.  Other Russian malware has colorful names, like “Pawn Storm”, a maneuver in chess with the opposing armies are castled on opposite sides of the board (like the Yugoslav Attack against the Dragon Sicilian).

The journalists confirmed the story with DHS, which would not say which company was involved.

Malware might cause a power station to overload a large transformer connecting it to other utilities, burning it up, creating a very difficult problem for replacement in reasonable time, as Ted Koppel had explained in his Nov. 2015 book “Lights Out”.

On Nov. 5, I reported a Sinclair Broadcasting story about “Black Energy” malware discovered at one or more unspecified utilities in 2012, and being impossible to remove.

There are no reports yet of any malware causing outages, as far as reported in the media.

The Vermont infection apparently occurred when an employee opened a link or attachment in a “phishing” email disguised to look like official company workplace business.  The email might have purported to come from a vendor or a customer. It is actually more difficult to defend against phishing attacks in the workplace than it is at home for savvy users, who know their own personal operations well enough to suspect phishing emails at sight.

Normally it is very difficult to get to the grid components directly, as they are not supposed to be connected topologically to the public Internet.  This sounds like a problem Donald Trump could talk about quickly.

National security experts have cautioned president Obama about his mode of retaliation against Russia for the supposed hack of both parties during the 2016 election, backed up by circumstantial evidence. Vox has good articles by Yochi Darezan  and Timothy B. Lee .   I personally don’t think Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote because of hacking.  Comey’s letter (on the emails), Obamacare price hikes, and poor campaigning before certain “resentful” parts of the electorate (the Rust Belt), and poor “getting out the vote” among minorities are better explanations for the loss.  Ironically, Putin played a “waiting move” with Obama today (by chess analogy) and took no action yet (NBC story). Trump, anyway, won’t be in zugzwang.

I personally visited a nuclear power plant in 1982, at Glen Rose, TX, on a weekend Sierra Club camping trip from Dallas, and have visited the grounds at North Anna, which has limited visitor displays.  Ironically, it is near Mineral, VA, where the 2011 earthquake occurred, and in an area with several “intentional” low-tech shared-income rural communities, one of which (Twin Oaks) I toured briefly in 2012.

As the video above claims, the US can also hack into the Russian power grid.

Wikipedia picture of Killington Ski Resort trail, which I visited in February 1973.

(Published: Friday, December 30, 2016 at 9 PM EST)

Update: Dec. 31 early

A newer version of the Washington Post story in print identifies the utility as Burlington Electric, and says that the malware, now called “Grizzly Steppe” was found on a laptop not connected to the grid.  No actual outages or hardware damage has occurred.   Homeland Security was notified immediately when the malware was discovered. The company has a statement about the incident on its home page now.

The Wall Street Journal weekend edition now has a story online by Jennifer Levitz here.  But Rebecca Smith has a story about a ransomware incident (resulting in bitcoin payment) at a Michigan utility (Lansing Board of Water and Light) in April 2016, here. That sounds coincidentally alarming given the problems with the Flint MI water supply (which disproportionately affect low income people and their kids) after gross mismanagement, as covered in the media  in 2016.  Smith also has a story “Fears over U.S. power grid” Dec. 30, p. B3 in print Saturday, explaining how multiple attacks in Ukraine have happened (one on Dec. 23, 2015), and the penetration of four more electric utilities (and thirteen other companies) in 2014, apparently with similar “Russian” malware.

Security companies are starting to discuss these incidents. FireEye offers more info in a downloadable subscription report, link; Root9B has resources indexed here.

Wikipedia picture of Burlington, from Lake Champlain wharves, link.  I have been there once, as a child.

My “cold soul” never learned to deal with “relationism”

I may sound like an old-year’s old-man curmudgeon (with an “old soul” or maybe a chick-pea-sized “cold soul”)I’ in listing some pet peeves, but I do want to react to a few things that people come knocking about.

One peeve is to see fanatical pop-up ads ad emails begging for donations, from organizations who pretend that only they can speak for me.  As I’ve over-proved for the past two decades, I’m quite capable of broadcasting myself. But of course, I ran a bit of a family gauntlet for a while, and my Internet outspokenness may have foreclosed many other “second careers” that many people would need starting in their seventh decades. (One of these careers might have been teaching math, link. )  It’s ironic, especially given news right now, that this is part of the whole “conflict-of-interest” panoply.  And, I realize, that it is possible, either through my own misfortune or accident, or through a new political climate less favorable to “free speech”, or even to deteriorating Internet business modes, that I could lose my soapbox.  (Just today, Donald Trump said we depend too much on computers, attacking a mechanism that set up my life’s whole second act.)

Another, then, is constant hucksterism.  Part of that complaint is the shallow idea of “high pressure sales” that I ran into in a few of my post-IT-career job interviews.  I run into that also with wild or scatterbrained proposals to promote my book and become “popular”; “Play ball with us!”, “they” demand; “we need our jobs”.  But part of that comes from well-intentioned charities.  It seems like some of them are promoting “suffering porn” in soliciting donations for animals and children.  There are so many of these that it is impossible to take the time to respond to all of them separately.  Instead, I have to decide on what charities I want so support, and get them on an account with a bank to make the donations automatically.  I do add or change these as circumstances warrant.  I am more interested in a “charity” where I have some particular connection, however indirect, to the concern at hand. That’s called karma.

There’s also prodding from some groups to “support your group” or “team” which I don’t think I joined.

There are gratuitous “gofundme’s” that sound self-serving. Although, it’s true, the culture I grew up in, during the 1950s and 1960s, was not as hospitable to “asking for help” even if you were at a major disadvantage in life.  Somehow you had to “overcome” thinks by yourself.  Solidarity would come later.

There is, in modern liberal politics, a tendency to believe that belonging to a “suspect group” entitles one to extra help or consideration.  There is a tendency to place a “moral burden” on others (the backside of “moral hazard”) to pitch in and meet people’s needs based on their memberships in these groups.

I can put all this together with Trump’s recent claim that most people really want to live “locally” (rather than just project themselves “globally” from a soapbox the way I do) with another “peeve”: Yes, (or “yeth”), I get upset at existential challenges to my own personal “business model” and why I made the fundamental decisions with the second half (the “Sister Act”)  of my adult life that I did and won’t do “something else” when prodded by “need”. I do realize there is a chronic problem with my low level of “giving back” or “karma service” through volunteerism, but I also find that some volunteer groups act as if they were the moral arbiters of some kind of conscription (like national service).

One does not choose to be brought into the world.  One does not choose one’s race, nationality. or religious affiliation.  In a practical sense, one has little choice about propensities that relate to gender and sexuality.  Yet, the baseline expectation, in earlier times, was usually that “you fit in”, and you can carry your weight with your family group and local community, and then move out into the larger world. There was no free karma.  If your group got into trouble, you took your share of the risk and consequences.  Imagine the moral quandary, then, of someone, for example, growing up in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank, and learning the libertarian ideas about property rights.  One moves out to other communities, perhaps, and then finds that new communities demand group loyalty, too.  If I had to deal with this, so must everyone else.  So the bias in my own thinking starts.

Times have indeed changed.  Narrow ideas of “personal responsibility”, often articulated by libertarians, get expanded to include participating the group (as Charles Murray wrote in “Coming Apart” in 2012), recognizing eusociality and personal relationism (as explained by Erica Stonestreet of the College of St. Benedict in a recent FEE essay ).  Here I find another imbalance that is troubling:  people (particularly online) demand personal attention from me that I don’t want to honor.  But I’ve been on the other side of that rank problem myself.

(Posted: Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 at 11:30 PM EST)

Can the English language coin a single word to mean “traditional marriage”? Maybe “complementation”?

A few years ago, before the Supreme Court rulings in Obergefell and earlier on DOMA,  the conservative newspaper “The Washington Times” habitually would use parentheses to express sarcasm, that is, gay “marriage”.

Indeed, the legal fight was sometimes more about absolute gender-neutral equality in state-supported benefits for adult couples (which really could have been done with “civil unions”). It was about allowing monopoly of the use of the word “marriage” to imply that traditional initiatory and procreation-friendly sexual intercourse was available to the relationship and normatively practiced.  This was a battle over the cultural significance of biological sexual intercourse itself. It was a battle over sexism, from the viewpoint of some areas of LGBT and feminist communities, and about allowing the continuation of the potential for male domain.

We should remember that the “civil union” idea didn’t play well with some forces on the right, as with the Marshall-Newman amendment to Virginia’s constitution, in 2006, short-lived, thankfully.

It’s useful, to me at least, to recall what “being married” meant for men back in “the good old days”, so to speak.  It “normatively” meant (beyond “one man and one woman”) that a man had courted a woman, perhaps with some degree of irrationality (even conservative writer George Gilder used to boast about this), had proven that he could “perform”, but also proven he could become a provider and protector of the potential wife and children.  Like corn snow in the early spring, that idea was stubborn to melt away, even was women made more advances in their careers and gradually approached men in earnings, and took pokes at the glass ceiling, which Hillary Clinton herself could not shatter completely. I recall, way back in 1957 when I was a teen, seeing a “Ladies Home Journal” (why did I look at that) article asking, who did you want to have a college degree, you, or your husband?  We have come a long way, baby.

But you simply can’t do away with the fact that sometimes gender matters.  (Milo, on Breitbart, says this all the time and is quick to say that, ironically, is why he is gay and the world’s most “dangerous faggot”.)  Most men are leaner, taller and stronger than most women, just not in every case.  Men don’t play professional baseball or football (although I think that transgender players in MLB are inevitable – particularly for pitchers, and we could see female and trans managers and coaches).  Men can’t give birth to children.  Women do need to take some time off for maternity (and occasionally maternity can require a lot of attention for an entire pregnancy)  In individual cases, women can serve in special forces in the military, but the overwhelming majority are men.  It’s important to note another biological paradox:  gay men usually have the same strength and physical ability as straight men (I’m the exception).  Sexual orientation is itself a “plug and play” trait or (in Microsoft-speak) “property” that is amazingly independent of everything else in terms of physical or athletic ability, and mental or psychological traits of cognition, character, mental stability and most other capabilities.  In fact, most gay men can produce children if they decide they want to. Gender identity, by comparison, gets complicated.

So, can we coin another word for the English language.  Remember that in French, the translation of “girl” is “la jeune fille” (two words).  But “traditional marriage” or “traditionally married” sounds too much like a mouthful of syllables and words.  The “property” that characterizes traditional marriage s a favorite Vatican term, “complementarity”.  (Note that the sixth letter is an “e”; this is not about “it’s free”).  You could say that complementarity can be a property that a marriage does or does not possess (rather like saying a particle has a charge or spin in physics).

In English, you can typically make a noun from an individual occurrence of an action expressed by a verb with the “ation” suffix.  That is, “to decline” becomes “declination” (as happened to me in 2001 with a particular insurance application).  I guess you could say that a property implies the likelihood that an object will execute a particular verb, that is, the partners in a traditional marriage with “complement” one another physically. So the grammatically derived word to coin is “complementation.”

So, let’s call a traditional marriage instance a “complementation” if we need a distinct word for our psychological vocabulary.

The social conservative (like Rick Santorum or Anthony Scalia) views “complementation” as an important step for most men to fit into a community, and be able to reach out to other people “as people”.  “Complementation” does provide the best environment for having and raising children – the next generation – without undue influence from the state.  But times have indeed changed.  One of the most important parts of a relationship is “psychological mating”, which Paul Rosenfels wrote about in the 1970s with his theory on polarity. When I was of college age, I did not have a legitimate opportunity to consider whether I could spend the rest of my life with another contemporary young man.  It may sound like a long shot, but it’s sort of an alternative universe question in my own narrative  But today, people with my disposition can consider this.  The relationship of Will and Sonny on “Days of our Lives” (until Will is murdered by a badass character) is instructive.  Will did produce a baby in a single encounter with Gabby, and in an emergency situation on the run from criminals, Sonny stepped up and delivered Gabby’s baby in the woods.  There seems no question that Will and Sonny would have been fit parents to raise the little girl. What seems much more of a challenge is for an older person to make such a bonding, based partly on another person’s need, and on living out some kind of personal fantastic vision.

(Posted: Wednesday, December 28, 2016 at 6:45 PM EST)

Could Trump’s apparent appeasement of science denial really be a “fake news” feint?

Could there by a subtle undertone to Donald Trump’s apparent playing down of “establishment” science in areas like climate change, clean energy, and maybe even vaccine denial?

On one level, he seems to be pandering to a voter base that is very “tribe” oriented and resents the elitism of “know-it-alls” (like me) who don’t share the real hardships of real people with hardscrabble family responsibility.  Indeed, he seems to have leveraged the “politics of resentment”, something that used to be more associated with the left (Marxism and Maoism) but that also inhabits some areas of the far right (the “doomsday prepper” crowd).  This is a social concept that has presented many problems for me in my own relations with others in some circumstances, especially when I had to break out of my own world and interact with people who may be needy in some particularly troubling ways.

Indeed, Trump’s behavior when running “The Apprentice” generally seemed “logical” and congruent with modern values, however strident he could sound when saying “You’re fired!” in “The Boardroom”.  He was appropriately critical of double standards among subordinates, and of pretenses of self-abnegation that he frankly and appropriately called “life-threatening” in one episode.  Were he to stick to the values he espoused in “The Apprentice”, and showed it with his appointments to office (“You’re hired”), a lot of people (myself included) might feel more comfortable. (We can even forgive the self-sacrifice of Troy McClain in Season 1.)

I’ve actually tweeted the “Real Donald Trump” about attending national security briefings (he says he is too “smart” to need to do this every day; leave it to Pence and later Mattis), and particularly about power grid and infrastructure security.

In fact, as I’ve outlined, any infrastructure program to buttress power grid and other infrastructure security will mean moving some manufacturing back home (good for jobs, but not for the same people as the voters who supported him), will mean a lot more tech jobs (especially a new level of cybersecurity in private industry) and will be good for climate change concerns, because it is easier (and much more cost effective for investors in energy and utilities, as I have personally been, as has been both sides of my family) to secure components of a renewable system than power generation and distribution systems based on older fossil fuel technologies.

I can’t believe Trump doesn’t know this.  (After all, I told him on Twitter!)  But he could have a good reason for not talking about it openly.  Not only to mollify his previous voter base.  But also to avoid drawing too much attention of our enemies to what we really are going to do.  (But, of course, one of our enemies could be the Sun, and it won’t care.)   As long as concerns about the power grid are perceived as the province of the extreme right and of doomsday preppers, enemies won’t realize we’re serious.  If credible sources (moderately conservative media resources like Sinclair Broadcasting or me, as well as Fox, Breitbart and “Milo”) talk about it more openly, we could draw unwanted attention to our own plans.

So, in the meantime, Trump could provide a diversion by acting like he really believes climate change is a hoax (even after hearing “An Inconvenient Truth” from Gore’s own mouth).  It’s a little more disturbing, though, that he acts like he needs to “run up the score” by a superfluous touchdown on his electoral college victory, and that he might indeed remain thin-skinned on personal affronts, even on his supposedly rightful power now to right-size citizens (“only I can do this”).

Indeed this kind of Hitchcock-like strategy seems improbable in the days of open Internet and media.  Maybe there is enough fake news to cover up what is really going to happen.

(Posted: Monday, December 26, 2016 at 10:45 PM EST)

Protectionism: why it’s hard to sustain job marketability for a lifetime, and maybe that’s too much to expect

I wanted to give a bit of personal history perspective to Donald Trump’s Christmas and pre-inauguration “deals” to goad some manufacturers (such as Carrier in Indiana) not to move some jobs to Mexico, as well as on the talk on tariffs and on how clean energy effects the job market – creating new technology jobs but not giving work to people whose old fashioned skills are outmoded.

My own career gives some perspective on this matter, in two different areas.

First, as I detailed in Chapter 4 of my third DADT book. I had to deal with outmoding of my own skills in information technology, which had been largely mainframe.

From the time I started “working”, after getting out of the Army in February 1970, until by career “cardiac arrest” at ING in Minneapolis in December 2001, I worked steadily in information technology (largely mainframe) for almost 32 years, with no periods of non-employment longer than one week at any time.  I had only one “layoff”, in February 1971 (from RCA in Princeton NJ) but was never off of a payroll as I started work as a civilian computer programmer for the Navy Department in Washington DC on a snowy March 1, 1971.

Over those three decades, there was a shift in the perception of the desired market skills, from academic preparation, to defense, to applications programming in procedural languages (most of all COBOL) for mainframe business (most often financial) applications, with a gradual shift from batch cycles to on-line. From the early 1970s until the Internet became significant in the job market (by the late 1990s) there was a market bias for IBM mainframe skills, as IBM crowded out several competitors (including Univac, for which I worked 1972-1974).  The Y2K exercise caused an uptick in mainframe demand toward the end of the 1990s, but otherwise in the late 90s the culture of computing changed rather abruptly, toward object-oriented languages, typically much less verbose than IBM’s mainframe languages), which young adults learned readily but which older professionals had trouble catching up with.

Learning these OOP and scripting skills was rather like learning to play musical instruments:  you had to practice to be good at it (like Mark Zuckerberg’s character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, coding his first cut at Facebook while drunk after a dorm party at Harvard, in an early scene from “The Social Network” (2010)). The development pace at new Internet companies was orders of magnitude faster than in traditional financial businesses (with mainframe), which in turn had been faster than the tortoise-like pace of defense project development.   The best way to learn a new language is to do a project in it and be responsible for it when it runs in production.  But generally it was harder for older professionals to get that opportunity with new stuff.  One reason was that the mature workers were needed to keep legacy systems running, until these systems were converted or assimilated.  Then fewer other companies needed these old skills.  If you knew how to run IMS databases, you might find a few companies that desperately needed your skills for short time contracting gigs.  But then the market died.  After 2001 (Y2K and the shock of 9/11 on markets) the “just mainframe” market dissolved into short term W-2 gigs arranged by staffing companies for clients (often for state governments, which remained mainframe shops for social programs).

This loss of traction for older professionals may help explain why the Obamacare implementation went so badly,  When finally there was a huge project needing old-fashioned skills, contracting companies could no longer find the mature talent necessary to “see around the corners” in putting a huge system like this together.

I don’t claim that outsourcing work overseas (like Y2K work to India) had any significant impact on my own job market.  What did affect it was rapid technology change, in an area that was unusually favorable for younger adults (often teenagers) with the opportunity to get good at these skills from scratch.  Indeed, in some areas (like around Research Triangle in North Carolina, around Austin, and in the Silicon Valley), college-age tech employment does help deal with the student loan and debt problem by giving talented young adults to opportunity to make real money quickly.

In the meantime, as I entered my “second career”, trying to mount my eventual assault as a writer (and I’ve covered that elsewhere and will come back to it – like “Selling Books” (July 8).  But I had to make a living with interim jobs in the meantime (as detailed in the same DADT Chapter).  I discovered a little bit of Maoist values – in facing a world of regimented workdays at low pay, like much of the world.  I tended to see this as “paying my dues” (indeed as I wrote here on a legacy site in 2004 “Pay your bills and pay your dues” )  Barbara Ehrenreich has written out this whole workplace issue with low-wages and regimentation in her book “Nickel and Dimed” (2001), where she found she struggled as she took low-pay retail jobs, say that working at Wa-Mart made her feel she had Alzheimer’s.

A few of the interviews for jobs I did not get (over qualification) would make me wonder how I would have fared on my feet all day, say running a cash register.  I almost got a job as a letter carrier for the Post Office (I was warned it would be “very physical” from the start of the day “casing the mail”) in November 2004; it fell through because we couldn’t get my old medical records (on the hip fracture) from Minnesota.  When I started substitute teaching, I found myself pushed toward out-of-profile assignments involving special education and very needy children.  Early in the experience, I backed out of an assignment involving helping dress kids in the locker room and manning the deep end of the swimming pool (details ).  Given my circumstances ar the time, having moved “back home” to look after an aging mother (who did have money), I can see how this would appear as “moocher” behavior.

Add to this mix the hucksterism of many jobs in the mid 2000s, where there was still a mentality that contacting people and manipulating them to buy things was virtuous – doing so was how you “play ball” with people.  I got calls for everything: becoming a financial planner, life insurance agent, tax preparer – these sound legitimate but are becoming more difficult than in the past – and things like subprime mortgages, and supervising sales people begging for charities in shopping malls.  It was all about other people’s worlds.

Given all of this, then, it seems particularly disturbing that a tech consumer like me would be OK with buying products from overseas which may be artificially cheap because of the near slave labor of people overseas, who work under conditions in which I wouldn’t survive.  That’s bad karma.  I had started this discussion earlier on a legacy blog posting here.

It is understandable that policy makers need to help people displaced by technology.  But over history, there has always been some attention to an underlying moral problem, that all people need deeper skills in meeting the real needs of others, and need to be able to change places more often.

(Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2016 at 4:15 PM EST)


Guest Post: “7 Travel Hacks You Need to Know Before You Go” (by “Personal Income”)

Guest Post: “7 Travel Hacks You Need to Know Before You Go” (by “Personalincome.org“.

Everyone loves to travel. It is one way to learn new things and have fun along the way. Travel allows you to see places you have not seen. You get to meet new people and make new friends. Learning about other people’s cultures is the best way to truly learn.

There is one thing about travelling that people don’t line though, and that is packing. This is one of the parts of travel that people worry about and travellers would be happy to avoid it if they could.

Going to an unknown part of the world brings excitement. Travel is also one of the best bonding activities for whole families. Parents would love to have vacation time with their children. Children light up at the thought of going to their favorite places like theme parks where they could meet their favorite characters.

However, travel always comes with stressors that cause a lot of people to worry. One of them is packing for the trip in an easy manner. This is one part of travel that seems so simple and yet it takes a lot of thinking and effort. Plus there is also the case of trying to bring only the things that you need. For this you will have to make a list. Then, you would have to know which items need to be packed in a special manner.

The infographic below is designed for travellers who hate packing. These travel hacks will reduce the problems people encounter while on a trip. Feel free to share this to your fellow travellers as well!

7 Travel Hacks You Need to Know Before You Go

My own reaction:  One of my own concerns is packing electronics so that they won’t have a problem with the TSA.  There is a lot of controversy over which laptops or tablets have to be pulled out of bags.  It’s important to be sure that devices (especially phones) are powered up and work, or a flight could be missed.  This subject is likely to change in the future.  I know musicians who travel with all kind of gear, and it has to work every single time when they arrive.  They have to pack consistently, the same way, every time.

The TSA’s link on checkpoint-friendly bags.

Picture: Mine, landing at Orlando airport, July 9, 2015.

Second picture: Atlanta airport, May 2014

(Posted: Friday, December 23, 12:30 AM EST)

Terror recruitment misuse might also lead to insurance issues for bloggers

First, it’s well to re-iterate an article a year ago by Geoffrey Stone, “ISIS, Fear, and the Freedom of Speech”, link here.  It seems relevant right now given the media attention what has just happened in Germany.  Remember, in December 2015, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had proposed closing some sections of the Internet to counter threats to civilians from terrorist recruiting. Did they mean user-generated content, or the Dark Web (which is largely offshore and pretty hard to touch anyway).

A “moral” question concerns the way we have to share responsibility for the destructive or retaliatory actions of others.  That contradicts the rather narrow libertarian construct for “personal responsibility” (even on “Southpark”).  Generally, the Constitution seems to protect speech (and presumably facilitation of speech by service providers) that (as long as not otherwise unlawful, like child pornography or treason) doesn’t create immediate incitement to lawless action.

Without reiterating the entire logical flow of the thinking behind this, I want to remind everyone I’ve been very concerned about the view that ungated Internet speech from those who want a “soapbox” but who haven’t taken on as much responsibility as others could sound like a gratuitous luxury in a world of inequality, resentment, the making of enemies who target civilians, and the loss of a sense of meaning to many people who grow up in a more “tribal” or collective (and often religious) culture.  Trump seems to appeal to some of that base.  So I’ve been concerned, as I noted on Nov. 7, with the idea that user speech should “carry it’s own freight”.  One way would be to require all people who self-publish, on the web or even with POD books, to carry full liability insurance on their own.

Back around 2008 there was more attention to the fact that some bloggers were getting sued, but this was more about copyright issues, especially with “Righthaven” and “copyright trolls” (stories ) .  In fact, back in 2000 and 2001, the National Writers Union had tried to get media perils liability insurance for amateur writers, an effort that fell apart with “controversial” content like LGBT issues (earlier account ).   In the fall of 2008, about the time of the financial crisis, there was a group called the Media Bloggers Association  (legacy post  which offered optional insurance through AXIS-Pro .  I did not follow up on this.  (I cannot get the Media Blogger’s site to deliver content this morning.)  I would think that media risks would be very difficult to underwrite predictably for self-publishers who do not have third-party gatekeepers or whose work does not pay its own way (again, a Trump-sounding idea, for someone whose heard enough Apprentice boardroom sessions).

Nevertheless, property companies have offered umbrella insurance including social media liability, as riders on auto, homeowner’s or renter’s.  In auto, for some strange reason, higher limits even for normal auto crash liability (for medical expenses for others) requires umbrella coverage in many companies (like Geico).  I don’t understand the sense of that.  Sometimes umbrella riders exclude liability for business activity (presumably a blog with ads that can pay revenue or a self-published POD book that can collect royalties is considered “business”, so it’s hard to sort out the coverage.  I’ve covered this in a couple of legacy postings in 2015, when Trump was just starting to make noise, here  and here.

(Posted: Thursday, December 22, 2016 at 12 noon EST)

Families of victims of Orlando Pulse attack sue Twitter, Google, and Facebook in federal court in Michigan, outflanking Section 230

Three families of victims in the June 12, 2016 attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL (about one mile south of downtown) have filed a federal lawsuit against three major tech companies (Twitter, Google, and Facebook) in the Eastern District of Michigan (apparently not in Florida). The complaint against Google seems to involve its wholly owned YouTube video posting service, and possibly Adsense or other similar ad network products, but probably not the search engine itself or the popular Blogger platform.

The PDF of the complaint is here.

The “Prayer for Relief” at the end of the document mentions civil liability under United States Code 2333(a), and 2339(a) and 2339(b).  The statutes are at 2333  Civil remedies  2339  “Harboring or concealing terrorists”   https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2339    I don’t see an amount specified, and I do see a trial by jury requested (apparently chosen in Michigan).

I have previously described the preliminary news about the litigation on one of my legacy blogs, here.

Points 148 and 149 in the Complaint try to establish that perpetrator Mateen was likely radicalized on these social media sites. But compared to other biographical information about Mateen now well known, it seems to many observers that social media influence on his intentions was probably small compared to many other factors in his life.

The most novel aspect of the argument seems to be the way the plaintiffs try to get around Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (also known as the “Communications Decency Act”), test  Section c-1 says that no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher…

The plaintiffs claim that the aggregation of user content (as written by a terrorist recruiter), including any text, still images, and video, is regarded in the context of the user himself or herself, and also in the context of an ads generated and shown on the web page, either a computer or mobile device.  This new context or “intersection data” (to borrow from IBM’s old database terminology from the 1980s) is regarded as new content created by the social media company.

It should be noted that all the companies do have algorithms to prevent advertiser’s content from being delivered to offensive content.  For example, Google adsense will not deliver ads on pages when Google automated bots detect offensive content according to certain criteria which Google necessarily maintains as a trade secret. This would sound like a preliminary defense to this notion.

Also, as a user, I don’t particularly view the delivery of an ad to a webpage as “content” related to the page.  Since I don’t turn on “do not track”, I often see ads based on my own searches on my own pages. I am generally not influenced by the appearance of ads on web pages.

The plaintiffs give many details as to how foreign enemies (particularly connected to ISIS (“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) used their accounts on these platforms, and how, supposedly, attempts by the three companies to close accounts when they were discovered were insufficient.  A quick reading of the complaint does not show convincingly how potential enemies could reliably be prevented from establishing new accounts, but some failures (like related user names) do seem detectable. It would sound possible (to me, at least, as colored by my own military service in the distant past) that the idea that specific foreign enemies treat US civilians at home as combatants could become legally relevant.

User generated content, as we know it today, would not be possible if every item had to be approved by a “gate keeper” which was generally the model in print publishing before the Internet (outside of self-published books).  Even in traditional publishing, authors usually have to indemnify publishers against unexpected liabilities.

Nevertheless, there are some functional differences between what telecommunications providers (like Comcast or Verizon), hosting companies (like Verio, Godaddy, or Bluehost), and self-publishing platforms (like Blogger and WordPress, the latter of which is usually provided by a hosting company but doesn’t have to be), self-publishing companies for print-on-demand books (and e-books), and social media companies (which were originally envisioned as meetup tools but have tended to become personal news aggregation platforms) – provide for end-users. Add to this mix entities like chat rooms and discussion forums (like Reddit).   A loss by the defendants in this case (at least after appeals) could affect other kinds of providers.

Companies do have a responsibility for removing and reporting patently illegal content when they find it or when users report it (like child pornography).  But they don’t have a responsibility to pre-screen.  Nevertheless, companies do have some prescreening tools to apply to images and videos using watermarks to compare to databases for possible copyright infringement, and for child pornography (as maintained by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children).  Google in particular has a lot of expertise in this area.  But it is hard to imagine if this technology could screen for terror-promoting content.

Downstream liability for publishers has been assessed or at least conceded in the past, after crimes have been committed based on published material.  For example, consider the history of Paladin Press with the book “Hit Man” (Wikipedia account )

This case sounds very uncertain at this time.  More details will be provided here (in comments or future postings) as they become known. .

There have been a few other downstream liability suits against social media companies in relation to the Paris attacks in 2015. Brian Fung has a story in the Washington Post, “Tech companies ‘profit from ISIS’ allege families of Orlando shooting victims in federal lawsuit“, and notes that under Trump a GOP Congress is likely to weaken Section 230 when foreign enemy manipulation is at issue.

The pictures are from my visit to Detroit (Aug. 2012), and downtown Orlando festival and then the Pulse (July 2015).

(Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016 at 11:45 PM EST)

Guest post: Christmas at a homeless camp in the woods (by Rich Garon)

There were about fifty people in the woods, behind a strip mall that sits right across from one of the largest outlet malls on the east coast. There were clusters of tents and a shack or two. Looking carefully, I could see the winding paths that led me to another way of life. My first visit was a novelty. My grandson and I had arranged with one of the homeless men at the camp in the woods to bring the group produce from a nearby food pantry. I’ll call him Sam. He was tall and led us to his site, which seemed to be very well organized. We didn’t speak long and he thanked us for the meals our church had brought earlier in the week. The air-conditioning in our car revived us from the stifling heat that hung in the woods that early July day.

A group of us continued bringing produce from the farmer’s market, chickens from Costco, and some gas for the one or two generators that powered some small fans fighting the oppressive heat. We continued this routine for a while and spent time getting to know the men and several women who called these woods home. “I’ll be glad when the fall comes,” a guy named Billy said.

We were all new to helping the homeless, but it soon dawned on us that produce, chickens and gas weren’t really the answer. As we became familiar with the people in the woods, we learned about them and realized their lives were complicated; that divorces, job losses, arrests, addictions, or chronic health issues had led them into the woods. In some cases, events unfolded abruptly. In others, it took a string of setbacks before they claimed the spot on which they set-up their tents. We gave them money at times. It seemed they always needed little things; that is, until we had to shell out $200 to get Randy’s car out of the impoundment lot so he could travel a considerable distance to his job.

As we tried to help, we realized we really didn’t have a plan, so we decided to give money to groups we were told were more expert in helping the homeless. We still visited the homeless; many who by now had become our friends. We took them out to dinner occasionally, tried to interpret undecipherable forms and letters they received from county and state aid agencies and recognized each individual required more help and guidance than we could provide.

Remember how Billy was looking forward to the fall? Well, fall was short-lived that year and winter rolled-in with chilling winds and heavy snows. We brought shoeboxes full of toiletries and other notions. Billy even erected a beat-up Christmas tree. He situated it near a memorial of Christmas decorations dedicated to his twenty-five-year-old friend, Mantu, who froze to death one night outside his tent. Our friend, Sam, who had become increasingly ill, almost died one sub-freezing night when someone stole his propane heater. Such was Christmas that year in the homeless camp.

We were able to get Sam into transitional housing, but his medical condition was beyond what the home could accommodate. He was asked to leave. The snow had been replaced by the brutal heat of July, and his overall health declined rapidly. We tried to get him into a facility, but were told there was a two-year waiting list at most places. We spoke to another agency and they said they’d be pleased to help, but he’d need a fixed address. There was also little help available from non-profits.

We did eventually find a small studio apartment for Sam, and then one for Billy. We schooled ourselves in learning to navigate the bureaucratic tangle of regulations that tried to discourage us from finding out the types of assistance to which they were entitled.

You see, most homeless people don’t have cars to get to assistance offices, and they don’t have computers to complete forms online. They don’t understand the importance of seeking medical help for a problem before it worsens. Many individuals, church groups, and non-profits—while well-meaning—often support competing programs, and local governments provide inadequate funds to address the problem.

Sam and Billy have become family to us, and we’re going to continue taking care of them as family. Who would have thought that could have developed from our initial trip into the woods? There are plenty of other Sam’s and Billy’s who desperately need help, especially this winter. If you would like to help, check out non-profits and houses of worship in your area who work with the homeless. Any amount of time you have, can help those so in need.

Rich Garon is the author of Felling Big Trees (BookBaby, December 2016), a novel about a congressman turning from politics to make a positive change on a disillusioned society. All proceeds from the book will go toward WhyHunger, a non-profit that works tirelessly to end the scourge of hunger. He currently works with the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge, VA, where he coordinates the homeless ministry and particularly dedicates his focus to helping individuals who live in the woods. Learn more atwww.richgaron.com and www.whyhunger.org.

For more information, please visit www.richgaron.com, and connect with Garon through Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Felling Big Trees is available for pre-order on Amazon and for immediate purchase on BookBaby.

“WhyHunger is proud of our life-long friend Rich Garon on his newest endeavor as an author. Rich’s passion for fight”

Elizabeth Martins | Book Publicist


Since 1997, promoting thousands of experts, authors & books

elizabeth.martins@smithpublicity.com • 215-352-5735 x315 @elimartinsbooks

(Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016 at 5:45 PM EST)

Guest post, “Four Simple Tips to Turn Men into Better Husbands in 2017”, by Drexel Gilbert

Guest post by Drexel Gilbert, “Four Simple Tips to Turn Men into Better Husbands in 2017

The romance doesn’t drain out of a relationship overnight.

It’s a slow trickle over time.

“Counselors will tell you that the leaks in a marriage or love relationship are a hazard of daily life,” says Drexel Gilbert, author of 30 Days to Better Love: A Guide for Men (www.drexelgilbert.com).

“Careers, children, bills and a variety of daily responsibilities add to the problem, one drip at a time.”

But, she says, men who haven’t given as much attention to the relationship as they should can reignite the romance through simple and inexpensive actions.

“You don’t have to plan a European getaway to let your wife know how special she is to you,” Gilbert says.

Instead, she suggests:

• Give her flowers every day for a month. Women love to receive flowers even if some of them insist they don’t, Gilbert says. It needn’t always be a bouquet. It can be a single flower. It can be a flower picked from your own garden. “In a pinch, it can even be a daisy you draw on a piece of paper and leave with a sweet note on the kitchen counter,” Gilbert says.
• Sit beside her. If you’re sitting in an easy chair while your wife is on the sofa it’s time to make a move, Gilbert says. Sit beside her as you watch television, entertain guests, read, talk or listen to music. “A psychologist once told me that a couple’s physical distance implies the level of their emotional distance,” she says. “He also said that couples who routinely sit beside each other are likely to be more affectionate in their relationship.”
• Talk to her. This one is exceptionally easy – or at least should be in theory. In reality, while a lot of talking goes on in relationships, it’s often about the kids, bills, chores, careers or car repairs. Gilbert suggests making a conscious effort to have more meaningful conversations. Watch a movie together and talk about why you did or didn’t like it. After church, talk about the sermon and how it might apply to your lives. As you drive down the road, turn off the radio and ask her opinion about something that’s important to you. “And the second part of that is really listen to what she has to say,” Gilbert says.
• Be a gentleman. “Somewhere along the way in the struggle for equality and the battle for respect in the workplace, we forgot that it’s still all right for men to be courteous to women,” Gilbert says. Open the car door for her. Hold her chair at the restaurant. Stand up when she goes to the ladies’ room and stand up again when she comes back. Hold the umbrella over her head even if it means you get wet.

“Putting the romance back into a relationship is not rocket science, but it does take effort,” Gilbert says. “You’ve got to try. If you’re planning any New Year’s resolutions, this would be the perfect one.”

About Drexel Gilbert

Drexel Gilbert, author of “30 Days to Better Love: A Guide for Men” , has more than 30 years of experience working as a journalist, TV news anchor, newsroom manager and public speaker. She also is author of five children’s books. She and her husband, Wesley, live in Pensacola, Fla.

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My own reaction:

This would be more ambiguous with same-sex couples, especially male couples with younger men.  I’m thinking of an intimate scene in the middle of the film “The Dark Place” (distantly related to a Henry James story and Benjamin Britten opera), a mystery film with rather charismatic young adult male gay characters (although the story could work with a straight couple, too).  The more assertive character actually starts the scene by asking, “Do you love me?” and the other guy says, “Why would you wonder if I do?”

(Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2016 at 11:45 PM EST)