Archive for Politics

Occupy Albany: Trick Or Treat?

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Happy Halloween! Last weekend, New York Governor Andy Cuomo ordered his dog, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, to have state and city cops chase Occupy Albany campers out of a downtown park in the Capital City. But oops, both sets of cops (and Albany County District Attorney David Soares) balked. Lots of reasons. Some jake, some not. Among the latter, law enforcement concern (according to Soares) that a forcible removal would trigger a simpatico, bad publicity action by the riotous Kegs N’ Eggs SUNY kids up in Pine Hills, aka the Student Ghetto. As if! Beer isn’t being served by Occupy Albany. Question: is Governor Andy snarling about his lack of authority? Will he punish bad dog Jerry by withholding bacon bacon bacon? And finally– can Occupy Albany attract real folks not just the usual aged-in-wood suspects? Here’s hoping. Sincerely.

Andy's Trick or Treat

 

 

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Cambodia’s Curse, Mexico’s Manana, Reckless Endangerment Stateside

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

My summer reading this year kicked off with Cambodia’s Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley. Brinkley won a Pulitzer in 1980 for his coverage (at the Louisville Courier Journal) of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

The title Cambodia’s Curse bugs me. Though cultures resistant to change create illusions of inevitability, and a genocidal past casts long shadows, no nation or people are truly cursed. Nor do I buy Brinkley’s attempt to place partial blame for Cambodian acceptance of the Khmer Rouge on passivity engendered by the influence of Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism. First, it’s a simplistic take on the two religions, both of which are practiced in numerous countries that never exterminated a quarter of their own people in an effort to create a communist utopia. Second, countries with far different religious heritages have also had totalitarian holocausts. Germany and the Soviet Union most notably, respectively representing the right and the left.

As for Cambodian passivity, it must come and go– judging by the perpetual political turmoil of Cambodia in the 20th Century, and by the recent grass roots resistance to the land grabbing, population displacing, development policies of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Caveats aside, Curse author Joel Brinkley does a swell job nailing the crony-rich corruption of Cambodia’s current government as headed by Hun Sen. Whose honorary title of “Samdech” (akin to “your excellency”) was awarded him in 1993 by Cambodia’s amazingly tenacious King Norodom Sihanouk. Easy to imagine the retired (sort of) Sihanouk doing Karaoke of I Will Survive. Dubbed the world’s most versatile pol by the Guinness Book of Records, Sihanouk has surfed wave after wave of political change since 1941. Sometimes wearing his crown, sometimes not. Using his royal influence to legitimize the Khmer Rouge in one decade and deep-six them in another. Dancing with ideologies of all stripes, telling foreigners bearing aid and investment whatever they want to hear.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is also a marvel of tenacity. In 1975, as a Khmer Rouge battalion commander, Hun Sen took part in the campaign in the eastern zone of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia’s name under the Khmer Rouge) that included the invasion of the capital city of Phnom Penh and the forced evacuation— aka death march– of its entire population to a rural paradise of forced labor. By the late 70’s, Pol Pot and his pals in the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge were imploding with paranoia. Hun Sen sensed the reaper was turning his way. When Vietnam, after a series of border disputes, invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen rode in with them and was given a top spot in the government installed by the Vietnamese.

Years of civil war followed. The Cold War shaped the conflict. The Soviet Union backed the repressive Vietnamese government; the USA and China supported the rebel remains of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Arms flowed from all sides. In the early 1990’s, as the Soviet Union waned, the Vietnamese departed. The Khmer Rouge dwindled. Little dictator (compared to Pol Pot) Hun Sen remained in place as prime minister. To placate international good government types bearing financial aid, he was eventually forced to accept a toothless coalition government representing parties other than his own. Dissidents are still persecuted. An independent judiciary? Freedom of speech? Who needs the lies and distortions?

Meanwhile, the handful of elderly Khmer Rouge leaders charged with crimes against humanity will probably keel over before their trials are allowed to conclude and the bureaucrats, speculators, and family members favored by Hun Sen continue to help themselves to Cambodia.

As for Cambodia’s established reformers, the go-to guys when foreign policy players from other countries require an anti-Hun Sen, they seem almost as seasoned, agenda-wise, as Sihanouk and his Samdech.

An aside about my being a mental tourist in flailing states. Yeah, there’s the appeal of the morbidly exotic. But there’s also the illuminating shock of recognition. What past or present resident of a flailing post-industrial city in say, New Jersey or New York, hasn’t seen similar political stasis? With old boys and hoary reformers as the fixed poles of political expression? Old boys rule; reformers wax profitably pious. Both sides (if the two ends of a continuum can be called “sides”) claim revitalization is just around the next public-funded corner. They may squabble over who gets paid but always agree on the need for more more more.

OK. Hun Sen and his cronies in Cambodia make our crowd seem like pikers. But to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we’re just haggling over degree. For folks interested in U.S. urban policy (or in improving their looting skills) Cambodia’s Curse is an instructive read.

Now Reading: Mexico

I recently started reading Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans by Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister. Only a few chapters in, so I can’t say much about it. But I have been brushing up on Mexico via other sources. My hitherto casual interest was amped last year by the flap over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comparison of Mexico to Columbia during that country’s narco insurgency days. Hillary’s take was testily denounced by President Obama– and by the Mexican government. As an example of difference in the two situations, Mexico’s national security advisor pointed out that Mexico has never “elected a drug lord such as Pablo Escobar to congress”.

Wags might reply why buy the cow when milk is so cheap.

InSight, a think tank site focused on research, analysis and investigation of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, recently ran an article (Mayor Goes Free, Mexico Fails Again to Prosecute ‘Corrupt’ Politicians) about the growing number of Mexican pols whose arrests on cartel-related charges have dissolved into non-prosecution. Including Gregorio Sanchez, the former mayor of Cancun,  Jorge Hank Rhon, the former mayor of Tijuana, and dozens of state and local officials in the state of Michoacan.

Mexico has 31 states (14 of which are on the U.S. State Department’s travel warning list) and a federal district. In late July, roughly 21 state prosecutors (a job akin to being a United States Attorney) resigned. Leaving the states and Mexico’s federal district temporarily without top cops. No reason given.

Zones of Silence

In June, Mexican reporter Ricardo Chavez Aldana (a native of Ciudad Juarez) spoke at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ annual meeting in Florida. Chavez was among several reporters who told of being threatened and of having relatives and/or colleagues murdered by drug cartels. June was a “particularly grim month” for journalists all over Mexico. On June 20th well-known crime reporter Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his wife and son were murdered in Veracruz. Another Veracruz journalist had been found in a shallow grave three weeks earlier. On June 7th, armed men abducted an editor of an Acapulco newspaper from a bar and on June 13th, a reporter for two dailies in the state of Sonora (bordering Arizona) was shot to death in an abduction attempt.

Also in June: a report titled Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists, by PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto blasted “the Mexican government’s repeated failure to protect the human rights of journalists, its complicity in a number of rights violations against them, and the web of Mexican laws that limit freedom of expression and effectively gag journalists who seek to expose government corruption”.

During the same month the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) upped Mexico to #8 (among the top 10 countries) on its Impunity Index; the index calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population. According to CPI “deadly anti-press violence continued to climb in Mexico, where authorities appear powerless in bringing killers to justice.”

In 2010, Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission reported that at least 66 journalists had been killed since 2005 and 12 others had disappeared. Mexican officials claim not all murdered or kidnapped reporters are targeted because of journalism activities. Most recently in the case of police reporter Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz. On July 26th, her decapitated corpse was found on a street in Veracruz. Colleagues say she was investigating the murder of fellow reporter Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his family and had received anonymous death threats. The top prosecutor for the state of Veracruz denies her murder was linked to her work.

Boosters for tourism in Mexico often imply only people involved in drugs or those who don’t mind their own business are in danger. But in a country where drug cartel terrorism has created news blackouts in journalistic zones of silence, government corruption is supported by laws that limit speech, and where 70% of all federal arrests dissolve into dropped charges and the overall rate of impunity for criminal activity is eye popping, the true number and nature of victims, be they reporters, average citizens, or foreign tourists and workers, may be difficult to ascertain.

In the meantime, the Mexico Tourism Board, under the leadership of newly appointed Chief Marketing Officer Gerardo Llanes is seeking to tidy up Mexico’s image. Llanes, who in his prior position helped launch Diet Coke in Mexico, is reaching out to U.S. media outlets like Bloomberg, Newsweek, and CNN in order to help them “get the facts straight”. Llanes and the Tourism Board will cite “swimming with whale sharks and camping” as a few of Mexico’s attractions in an upbeat publicity campaign tagged “The Place You Thought You Knew”.

Twinge of recognition: in flailing post-industrial cities stateside, political boosters always claim that the crime afflicting their bailiwick is merely a matter of perception. They also revile and/or try to work the messengers who deliver the perception. And true crime stats are always elusive.

A word about Jorge Castaneda’s Manana Forever. In it Castaneda references (negatively) the Mexican proverb: “El que no transa no avanza”. Whoever doesn’t trick or cheat gets nowhere.

The Last Book of Summer

I’m on a waiting list at my local library (I don’t do tablets– too much like Etch A Sketch) for Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. A nice cozy read about all the folks in the Washington Wall Street nexus who pumped the real estate bubble that distorted our economy and then picked the public pocket when the Ponzi collapsed. I don’t expect Reckless to be a shocker, more like the kind of mystery where you know who-done-it right from the beginning but enjoy seeing how the perp is brought to justice. Oh. Wait. None of the major housing bubble perps were brought to justice. In fact, most are doing better than ever.

El que no transa no avanza!

 

 

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Internet Pioneers Berners-Lee, Cerf, Strickling ask: “What Kind of Net Do You Want?”

by David Solomonoff

When the first message on the ARPANET (the predecessor of today’s Internet) was sent by UCLA programmer Charley Kline, on October 29, 1969, the message text was the word “login”; the letters “l” and the “o” were transmitted, then the system crashed.

Forty two years later, the Internet is everywhere and rapidly becoming embedded in every device. Kevin Kelly sees the Net as evolving into a single “planetary computer” with “all the many gadgets we possess” as “windows into its core.” The Internet Society’s slogan is “The Internet is for everyone,” but Vint Cerf (who co-developed the TCP/IP network protocol that connects everything on the Net today) now prefers “The Internet is for everything”.

The world-wide adoption of a decentralized network that connects everything creates continuous technical, social and policy challenges that no one could have foreseen in 1969. Even as we take the Net for granted, the way we do the air that we breathe, decisions are being made by policy-makers, technologists and end-users that shape its future.

The success of the Internet has had a great deal to do with the development of open standards – often by volunteers – in groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Decisions in Working Groups (WG) of the IETF are reached by consensus on the group mailing list so that anyone active on that list can be part of the process.

The need to add capacity is a constant challenge. What balance of public and private funding, regulation or deregulation are appropriate, and which types of infrastructure (centralized vs. decentralized; fiber, cable, wireless) warrant investment are subject to ongoing debate.

The Net has provided a platform for incredible innovation and economic growth. How to reward innovation and creativity while encouraging the widest dissemination of new content and technologies? How to encourage disruptive technologies while mitigating their potentially negative impacts?

Does there have to be a conflict between freedom and privacy on one hand and security on the other? How can users safely share personal information using social media which rely on the sale of their personal data as a business model? What legal and technical protections are necessary for businesses to securely move into the cloud?

Internet users have continuously influenced key technology innovations and policy decisions. But keeping them in the decision-making loop as they increasingly take the Net for granted presents an ongoing challenge.

On June 14, Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will address these questions as keynote speakers for the INET Conference in New York City, sponsored by the Internet Society and the Internet Society of New York. [Disclaimer: As President of the Internet Society of New York I will deliver opening remarks.]

There will also be panels featuring industry leaders, members of civil society organizations, open source software advocates and government officials. The conference is open to the public although advance registration is required. It will also be streamed live.

Just as a democracy is never the rule of the people, but rather the people who participate in the process, the Internet has evolved through the efforts of technologists and activists – many who have volunteered their time to develop open standards, open source software and to advocate for an open Internet. It’s your call: What kind of Internet do you want?

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Left, Right, Third Party in Sight?

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Remember the late great Tea Party? The grass roots movement that made the political establishment quake? For one glorious moment it seemed as if a truly independent, average Joe/Joan movement might be gathering steam. A memory from that halcyon time: assorted TV pundits telling Republican leaders that Tea Party people “don’t like you guys either”. To which said leaders would put on a humble face and mumble something about how Republicans had lost their way and needed to get back on track. The big spending, corruption, and support for endless wars were missteps off the path of Republican core values.

In truth, no missteps were made. The Republican core was intact. Albeit shared with the Democrats. Big spending, corruption, and endless wars R both parties.

Though the following factoid has disappeared into the memory hole of ideological rewrites, a goodly number of those initially drawn to the Tea Party did not support endless wars. They supported the troops ’cause that’s a question of loyalty. But adventures-in-nation-building weren’t their thing. They were also concerned about losing civil liberties via Homeland Security overkill. And most Tea Party protesters blamed Wall Street, as much as government, for the financial meltdown of 2008. Lest we forget, the Tea Party really took off when the too-big-to-fail banks and other financial entities that partied with housing bubble paper were bailed out by taxpayers.

For a brief period the left was equally vociferous re the bailouts. But the moment of rapprochement between progressives and Tea Party types, along with the potential for game-changing coalitions, passed when it dawned on the left that coming down too hard on taxpayer infusions and massive government interventions might not set the right tone for passing health care reform. The Tea Party was way suspicious of government (almost as much as the 60’s counter-culture had been) and it was the wrong time to fan such suspicion. Instead ’twas time to ridicule and revile the masses of average Americans who feared that a government redo would make the failings of U.S. health care worse instead of better. That this fear might be based on, say, observation of the role federal policies played in inflating and eventually collapsing the housing market buttered no progressive parsnips. As for the fear that Obamacare would be Homeland Security in a nurse’s uniform, how paranoid was that?

While the left was in the basement mixing up the medicine and the Tea Party was on the pavement thinking about the government, the Republicans seized the time. Coming back strong as champions of the people and enemy of the political elite. (Insert row of laughing emoticons here.) Hoovering up the Tea Party and making it their own. The more the left trashed “tea baggers” the more the independent spark in the Tea Party dimmed. Tea talk started sounding more and more like the type of Republican conservatism dished by Limbaugh & company. Critiques of state capitalism, particularly as practiced during the Bush years, were out. So were thoughts of a third party. Union bashing was in. With public employee unions cast as evil incarnate.

After several years of government hearings and investigations into the 2008 financial meltdown, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach agreement on who-done-it. Republicans put the blame on the government sponsored mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Democrats pin it on an insufficiently regulated Wall Street. No prime movers of subprime sleaze (hello Angelo Mozilo), or political enablers (hello Friends of Angelo), or major Wall Street sludge jugglers (too many for a shout out) have been prosecuted. Nor have new lending regulations staunched the growth of mortgage fraud in taxpayer-backed housing programs. However, we will be able to hang some teachers out to dry.

The concordance of big government and big finance that pumped the housing bubble and hence inflated hauls of real estate derived taxes (including property taxes) was not why so many local governments overextended themselves during the boom years and now face disaster during the bust. The real villains were teachers, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, and secretaries in public agencies. Aka Joe and Joan Average with a government job. Who, according to the bashers, are not average at all ’cause they get better benefits and more job security than a private sector employee or a small business owner. That being a private sector employee or a small business owner has its own set of advantages butters no conservative parsnips. The right, which typically decries attempts to stir up class warfare, is passing out flaming torches and whipping up envy. Screaming for folks to be stripped (preferably in public?) of their collective bargaining rights. Working to turn the American middle-class against itself.

And I thought only lefties were into creating social chaos…

Incidentally (or not) while the billionaire Koch brothers donated $43,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, housing and Realtor groups kicked in $43,125. Not that Republicans in general are uniquely blessed by the real estate industries. In New York, another state with budget problems, the NYC real estate crowd has been particularly generous to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

As for Joe and Joan Average, who really represents them? The left or the right? Answer: neither. At least, not reliably. Under certain self-serving circumstances both do an occasional good deed. But when push comes to shove in our state capitalist times, Joe and Joan are on their own. Which is less discouraging than it sounds. Being independent means never having to say you’re sorry for noticing that your representatives, no matter how rhetorically righteous, primarily rep big money conjoined with government power.

Third party, anyone?

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Mortgage Fraud! Mollusks! Taxpayers Rush to Invest

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Ah, mortgage fraud. The unsung power tool of the housing bubble. Starting around 1999, the FBI issued repeated warnings that mortgage fraud was surging. Few in government listened. Fraudsters ranged from organized cross-country rings of real estate, banking, and investment professionals, to non-profit profiteers and Joe and Joan Doakes lying on mortgage aps ’cause they just had to have that house. Feeling nostalgic about the big grift that sent no major players to jail but left taxpayers holding the Hefty and the landscape blotted with foreclosures? No need. Boom or bust, the impetus for mortgage fraud is a constant. When housing is hot there’s pressure to keep the market booming, in bust mode there’s pressure to jack it back up.

According to Core Logic (a leading provider of business information), after taking a breather in 2009 mortgage fraud increased more than 20% in 2010. (The Mortgage Asset Research Institute reports that Florida and New York lead the nation at number one and two respectively.) With government now owning or insuring 97% of mortgage bonds via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), taxpayers are on the hook more than ever. And they’re paying for new twists. Quoting* mortgage fraud attorney L. T. Lafferty, a former federal prosecutor specializing in white collar crime, “fraud is… perpetrated differently when there are different opportunities”.

When one door closes, another opens…

Loan origination fraud, a mortgage fraud staple, is seeing new emphasis on hiding debt and liabilities. (Prior mortgage defaults? No problem.) Due to increased requirements for proof of income, credit, etc., mortgage fraud rings increasingly rely on identity theft rather than fake documents– thereby involving a wider circle of victims. Then there are the homebuilders with a glut of houses or condos who offer buyers financial incentives that aren’t disclosed to lenders. After buyers obtain loans, builders welch on the incentives. Oops, more underwater mortgages. Faked occupancy is on the rise. (Loans for second homes, and for rental properties without an owner in residence require larger down-payments and higher interest rates.) And hey– foreclosure rescue scams are on fire! Loan modification, refinancing, short sales, real estate owned (REO) sales, and government sponsored programs are being mined big time. Of course, almost the entire housing market might now be called a government sponsored program…

To date, taxpayers have kicked in $153 billion just to prop up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fan and Fred’s oversight agency (an organ of the FHA) estimates that the agencies’ losses through 2013 will require another infusion of between $68 billion to $210 billion. In government speak, a massive transfer of wealth from the general public (roughly one third of whom are renters) to cover a mountain of bad private assets is called an “investment”.

In Washington, the Obama administration and Congress are trying to hammer out a plan for “weaning the $11 trillion mortgage market from its dependence on government”**. The weaning, which will allegedly include the waning of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, must be done carefully and slowly so as not to damage the fragile housing market. (When the market was robust, reform was rejected ’cause it might damage the boom.) A time frame of five to sevens years has been mentioned. By then the full wean will be in the hands of the next administration. In the meantime, the real estate lobby is beating down doors in DC, to make sure that nothing (untoward) is accomplished. The National Association of Realtors, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Council of State Housing Agencies, and the National Fair Housing Alliance are united by their determination to protect folks from being cheated out of the American Dream of Home Ownership.

Do Mollusks Dream of Electric Drills?

Mortgage fraud isn’t the only real estate product backed by taxpayer investment. There’s always (forever and ever) urban revitalization. Point of info: investment in urban revitalization does not put the truly needy in safe, clean public housing and bring industry back to fading blue collar cities. Instead it pumps luxury condo enclaves, twee art and restaurant districts, and political corruption. Perhaps no place exemplifies this type of urban revitalization better than Hoboken, New Jersey. A small (one mile square) waterfront town across the Hudson River from Manhattan, which after biting post-industrial dust was reborn as the jewel of government-backed new urbanism. That almost all of Hoboken’s blue collar residents were pushed out of town in favor of wealthier professionals largely employed by Wall Street mattered not. Gazillion urban planners saw the future and it was Hoboken.

What they didn’t see were the mollusks. More about them in a minute. First, the corruption. Everyone saw the corruption. Over the roughly three decades in which Hoboken became the revitalized gem of Jersey’s “Gold Coast”, developers and public officials from Hoboken and its parent entity Hudson County, went down like nine pins; bowled over by federal and state investigations frequently targeting corruption related to government-backed development projects. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Department of Transportation were soaked again and again. As were assorted state agencies. Tax breaks were/are crony candy. Hudson County’s other cities revitalized their historic corruption with equal fervor, inspired by Hoboken’s new urban success.

Hoboken eventually became one of the most valuable chunks of real estate in the country. Yet taxpayers have never stopped investing in its revitalization. The promenade that stretches along the city’s condo-lined waterfront was a mega investment. The walkway and its park areas are open to the public. Hoboken’s master builders would have preferred waterfront access to be restricted to condo dwellers but local green space activists fought not only to keep it open, but to expand the walkway into an unbroken strip running along the entire Gold Coast. Since public largess was powering waterfront development, developers had to bend. Pols scrambled to speed their plow, cutting government red tape re construction. In Hoboken the promenade was largely in place by the 1990’s. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection signed off on it every step of the way.

Now we get to the mollusks.

The first cave-in on Hoboken’s promenade occurred in 2007, at Castle Point Park in mid Hoboken. Just a small collapse. No cause for alarm. But two years later, part of a sports field that had been built atop a pier slid into the Hudson. When the field was developed in the 90’s engineers warned that the pier’s pilings were infested with shipworms, a type of mollusk. Shipworms eat wood. Suggestions were made that the pilings be replaced with something less tasty. The suggestion went into the memory hole.

In early 2010, a section of the walkway in the north, near a cove between Hoboken and Weehawken collapsed. Last October, a fifty foot sinkhole opened on Frank Sinatra Drive. (Sinatra was a Hoboken boy.) The drive, which is 13 years old, runs along the river in front of a strip of luxury condo towers– including one which houses former NJ governor and ex Goldman Sachs boss Jon Corzine. The sinkhole, which was also allegedly caused by mollusks, followed two smaller collapses on Sinatra. Recently, engineers determined that the steel beams supporting Pier A, a popular park on the south end of the promenade near Hoboken’s train and ferry stations, need a makeover. Seems the concrete jackets on the beams aren’t covering all they should. No danger from salt water corrosion yet. Just being proactive. Pier A is like, totally safe.

Despite all the wealth that hangs in Hoboken, the city has severe financial problems. Hoboken isn’t the only entity responsible for repairing the collapsing waterfront (as example, Sinatra Drive was a county project) but the city will have to cover much of the rehab. The cost will be more than the entire city budget. Massive debt will be assumed via bonding. According to the New York Times***, Mayor Dawn Zimmer (elected in 2009) is holding out “hope for state and federal aid”. And Hudson County is hoping to obtain federal grants to repair the Sinatra sinkhole. As for the mollusks, they have high hopes for more wood.

*Mortgage Fraud: Worse Before Better, Expect More Schemes and More Regulatory Oversight in 2011, Tracy Kitten, Managing Editor, Bank Info Security, 02/04/11

**Obama Administration Calls for Winding Down Fannie, Freddie, Lorraine Woellert and Rebecca Christie, Bloomberg News, 02/11/11

***As Hoboken’s Riverfront Crumbles, the Cost for Repairs Soars, Richard Perez-Pena, New York Times, 02/08/11

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Mideast protesters reject repressive regimes; remain tethered to tech they can’t control

by David Solomonoff

Protesters fed up with political repression, corruption and poverty (particularly recent food price inflation)  toppled the government of Tunisia. They threaten to do the same in other countries throughout the Mideast as pundits hail the “Twitter and Facebook revolution”. But repressive governments have as much compunction about shutting down communication services as they do about torturing dissidents.

Egypt has cut all Internet access and most mobile phone service as huge protests threaten to topple that government. For a while the ISP Noor remained online – largely because it connects the country’s Stock Exchange and many offices of foreign companies to the outside world. Noor has now been cut off as well.

Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have some of the largest percentages of the population online in Africa. Egypt’s Communications Minister, Tarek Kamel, was secretary and co-founder of the global Internet Society’s Egyptian Chapter (which is no longer active). He is still listed as a member of the Board of Trustees on the Internet Society’s website. The Internet Society has strongly denounced the Internet shutdown.

Kamel is widely recognized as the person who brought the Internet to Egypt. He has publicly supported the open development of the Internet. His bio on the Internet Society’s website states that in the early years of the development of the Internet in Egypt, “Kamel’s work extended into liberalization issues such as a tax reduction for ISPs as well as a government/private sector partnership to serve the Egyptian Internet community. He has actively participated in the establishment of community centers in remote areas to bring the Internet to the have-nots.” His role in the shutdown is unknown, although he wasn’t among the cabinet members removed in the shakeup of the Egyptian government in the wake of the protests.

Cutting off most communication with the outside world for an extended period would be economic suicide for any modern, developed country, but temporary interruption – long enough to kill or imprison a large number of protesters without too much visibility for squeamish foreign allies – is viable for a poor country ruled by an elite supported by gifts of military technology from wealthier countries.

The protesters vulnerability is relying on highly centralized communication networks and services while fighting an overly centralized political system. The younger ones probably don’t have any memory of being without mobile phones and the Internet and may have taken them for granted.

To succeed in the face of violent repression and the shutdown of Internet and phone service, they must quickly develop low-tech strategies that are as fast and flexible as the ones that have been lost.

Another approach is to build communication services that cannot be intercepted or shut down. Human rights activists and hackers are already starting to do it with combination of low-cost commodity hardware and free open source software:

  • Landlines still work in Egypt and a French ISP FDN offers free dialup Internet to Egyptians. Instructions to connect to foreign ISP’s via dialup with a mobile phone are also being circulated for those who can use them.
  • For Egyptians who are still able to use their mobile phones, there is Sukey, “a security-conscious news, communications and logistics support service principally for use by demonstrators during demonstrations.”
  • Tech entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar put a call out on Twitter for volunteers to help construct self-configuring unblockable mobile ad hoc networks to prevent government caused blackouts during future protests worldwide
  • We Rebuild, a Europe-based group working for free speech and an open Internet is developing non-Internet modes of communication, including amateur, shortwave and pirate radio as well as a fax gateway, to assist protesters and humanitarian relief efforts. Information on these efforts can be found on their Telecomix news site.
  • Remaining Internet activity is certainly being monitored. The Tor network of anonymous, encrypted proxies has seen a huge increase in Egyptian traffic.

Efforts like these could be the tipping point for the uprisings. In 1989 Czech student protesters received a gift of then state of the art 2400 baud modems from a mysterious man who may have been from the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. Modems were illegal but most Czech police didn’t even know what they were. The students set up BBS systems to coordinate actions throughout the country and successfully overthrew the Soviet communist backed dictatorship.

If you think the problems people in Egypt have could never happen here, you might want to think again. In the U.S. the “Internet kill switch” bill in Congress would allow interruption of Internet services in a “national cyberemergency.” Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced the bill in the Senate, has described the Internet as a “dangerous place” and promised the bill would protect against  “cyber terrorists”.

Some of our current political leaders, hanging on every word of their consultants and pollsters, and terrified of harsh criticism, might consider hostile online commentary more of an “emergency” than something trivial like say, a collision with an asteroid.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Today that vigilance means learning to build and modify the technology that we use rather than being passive consumers of it.

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The New Civility: Another Day, Another Lip Lock

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Incredible that 9/11 is almost ten years ago. So much has changed. Including our attitude about free speech. After 9/11, it suddenly felt necessary to lower your voice in restaurants when criticizing the government. Who knows– waxing negative about U.S. policies in the Mideast might cause folks in the next booth to alert Homeland Security that a terror symp was downing a burger at Joe’s Grease N’ Go.

Speaking of grease and go, as the prep for invading Iraq ramped up so did attacks on speech. Pro-war pundits (aka the laptop bombardiers) suggested– or outright declared– that the various progressives, libertarians, and paleocons who expressed doubt about attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, were traitors. Numerous patriots called for the heads of antiwar celebs. Sure, some of the latter were knee jerk anti-American. But since when does getting your britches in a bunch over the opinions of singers and actors qualify as “standing tall”? Then there was our much vaunted free press…

Until polls showed public support was waning, most of the fourth estate banged the drum for the Iraq war and kissed the rump of the Bush administration. Those on the right like to say that the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal. Maybe so in sentimental moments. But ultimately they worship at the alter of triumphant big government.

As Iraq wore on, and over several election cycles, tolerance of free speech seemed to be reviving. But the revival never completely took hold. Speech was still more likely to be viewed as a weapon rather than protected expression. The tendency was encouraged– and simultaneously made manifest– by broad, imprecise, and propagandistic terms such as “War On Terror” and “Hate Speech”.

Terrorism and discrimination are specific actions that can be defined and addressed. Terror and hate haunt the human condition. Both also have a non-evil place. Is it wrong to hate cruelty to children? Some wars are just; should military forces on the side of the angels not strive to inspire terror in their enemies?

Note re just wars: the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II did not deem Iraq a just war. The Catholic theory of just wars doesn’t cover speculative ventures. Fighting Nazi invaders is one thing, attacking countries you perceive might pose a threat in the future is another. Self-serving motives are too likely to influence the perception of “threat”. (Catholicism can be so cynical about human nature.) Advocates of the war were annoyed that His Holiness didn’t get American exceptionalism. Neocon Catholic philosopher Michael Novak made like Henry VIII and tried to get the Pontiff to bend. Sorry, no divorce. Catherine is still your true wife.

Circa 1980’s, neocons had lauded John Paul II for his support of Solidarity, the non-governmental labor movement in Poland that triggered the fall of communism throughout the Eastern bloc. But the not-a-just-war decision blotted the Catholic copybook big time. (Besides, who wants to remember good things about unions?) Some on the right were so bugged by the Pope’s intransigence that they borrowed a meme from the left and snarked about pedophile priests. Bipartisanship is indeed possible!

Suppression of speech is another issue on which left and right can come together. Albeit with different apps. The left, which once championed free speech to the max, is traveling fast down the road of suppression. Covering over nasty words the way Victorian ladies allegedly covered furniture legs*. Baying for “civility”. Seeing hidden, murderous intent in political rhetoric and thought crime in dissent. Depicting non-compliant citizens as slaves to the right-wing rhythm. Meanwhile, those on the right who believed being against Bush and the Iraq war was treason, are outraged by those on the left who deem Tea Party talk inflammatory.

Though some may find it difficult to define inflammatory speech (in terms of directly connecting one person’s rhetoric to another person’s destructive action) both left and right have no problem recognizing it. Particularly when folks with whom they disagree are speaking it. As for all of us outside neat little ideological circles, it’s important to remember that suppression of speech, once started, tends to spread.

First they came for Sarah Palin and I snickered ’cause I’m not a right wing nut. Then they came for Keith Olbermann and I laughed ’cause I’m not a left wing loon. Then they– Oh. Wait. Who’s that knocking on my door?

*Victorian ladies are oft said to have covered furniture legs with shawls in order to prevent said legs from arousing impure thoughts in male guests. The story is most likely apocryphal. Myriad photos from the period show plenty of naked leg. On the furniture, not the ladies.

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Governor Andrew Cuomo: Day One, Everything Freezes

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

And so it begins. Not with a bang but a brrrrrr. On January 5th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo laid down his first State of the State address in a freezing cold auditorium at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany. The space wasn’t frigid by accident. Some like it hot, but Andy does not. According to a Cuomo minion quoted in the New York Times, walk-in refrigerators are his thing. The “meat locker”* temp at the Center drove some older legislators to wrap themselves in blankets. Which apparently are kept handily at hand in the Empire State Plaza linen closet.

Imagine the scene as seen from the podium by Andrew Cuomo! New York’s most venerable reps (some of whom have held office since the daze of Rip Van Winkle) huddled in blankets like refugees, their blue-lipped faces upturned in a mass mask of rapt attention.

None the less, the clapping for Cuomo was somewhat subdued– folks feared their fingers might shatter.

Another big chill: Cuomo’s inaugural address in the State Capital on New Year’s Day. The evening before, his office ordered that the windows of the room where Andy would speak be kept open all night. Whether or not the heat was turned off in that room, or the rest of the building, during those hours is unknown. It’s also not known if Cuomo counted how many blankets were returned by the venerable legislators after his frosty State of the State. My guess is yes– the heat was snuffed and the blankets counted. Andy has promised to cut waste and spending and protect New York taxpayers. He’s also promising to deliver “a new reality”**. Hopefully, the latter won’t include a New Ice Age.

Personally, I get nervous when pols use such godlike terms. X Governor Eliot Spitzer was big on holy pronouncements. Most famous: “Day one, everything changes.” On Spitzer’s inauguration day, New Yorkers got up bright and early. Couldn’t wait to see the sun rise in the west. Alas. No go. But not much more than a year later, everyone in the USA got to see Spitzer go down in the east.

While campaigning Andrew Cuomo took care to distance himself from Spitzer; keeping his control freak tamped down (most of the time) and vowing not to be planning any big changes for “day one”. His choice of residence as governor is in keeping with that vow. Like the last three governors before him (including Eliot Spitzer) Cuomo won’t be living full time in the Governor’s Mansion in Albany. His main digs will be downstate, where most of the state’s money lives.

Some Albanians were disappointed by Andy’s choice, seeing that he implied otherwise while campaigning. They should be heaving sighs of relief. The Mansion is an old historic building. Four years or more of open windows on winter nights would destroy it. Then there’s the havoc that the frozen water pipes and lines would wreak on the nearby sidewalk and street. Plus, if Andy were to hang in the mansion full time his significant other, Sandra Lee, might be tempted to go on a decorating binge. Anyone who’s seen her holiday “tablescapes” on the Food Channel knows what that would mean. Think pink pink pink and acres of frou-frou. The graceful old manse would wind up looking like a semi-homemade pop tart.

Back to Andy’s love of the freeze. Why is a mystery. Sure– some unkind people say his eyes have a shark-like quality. And that his political ambitions keep him circling endlessly, without sleeping. But I don’t believe for an instant that Andy is a secret Great White who needs the deep chill and wants to swallow smaller fish and rip the limbs off unlucky surfers. My guess is that the New York Times reporter had it right when she suggested Andy may like cold rooms ’cause they keep audiences alert. When I heard his State of the State on the radio my windows were shut and the heat was on. After about 10 minutes of Andy’s fifty minute speech, I was feeling sleepy very sleepy…

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

*Going to an Event Featuring Cuomo? Take a Coat, or Maybe a Blanket, Elizabeth A Harris, New York Times, 01/06/11

“Cuomo outlines new reality”, Jimmy Vielkind, Albany Times Union, 01/03/11

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Neutron bomb inventor dies after failing to convince world that killing people w/out damaging property was more “humane”

by David Solomonoff

Secrecy News has an interesting obit and review of his bizarre but illuminating self-published autobiography:

Nuclear Physicist Sam Cohen | Secrecy News.

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The wacky little Caesars of Upstate New York

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Ho humdrum. It’s back to political bidness in the Empire State. The gubernatorial race ended just as predicted. Andrew Cuomo finally got elected to something. (Becoming attorney general on Eliot Spitzer’s coat tails doesn’t count.) Not that beating Carl Paladino is proof of public appeal. A friend of mine in Hudson County, New Jersey suggested that Andy’s dad, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, hired Paladino. I gave this theory serious consideration. Hudson County knows good ringers. (Point of info for folks living in Eden: political ringers are fake reform candidates who divide or reduce opposition to the machine candidate.) But as the campaign devolved, I rejected the notion. Buffalo developer Carl Paladino is definitely his own man. Albeit of an easily recognizable type. In upstate political circles, wacky little Caesars are a dime a dozen. Some are truly extreme. Remember Congressman Eric Massa?

Until resigning in March 2010, Democrat Massa repped the gerrymandered 29th district. The 29th contains a hefty chunk of primarily Democratic suburban Rochester in western New York, plus a swath of the state’s more Republican Southern Tier. (The latter incidentally, has a particularly fine collection of Caesars.)

Massa resigned under a cloud of sex scandal that reeked of abuse of power; he allegedly had a habit of harassing young male staffers verbally and physically. Coming on crude and overbearing. (Similar stories surfaced about Massa as a Lt. Commander in the Navy in the early 90s. Officers of lesser rank who shared quarters with Massa recalled waking up at night with his hands all over them– or with his junk in their face.) The scandal was a big story because Congressman Massa claimed top Democrats had targeted him for extinction, smearing him with lies damn lies. Why? Because Massa wouldn’t sign on to ObamaCare; he wanted a single-payer system. Massa later back pedaled on the claim, most spectacularly on the Glenn Beck show.

Beck had Massa on as a guest for a full hour in early March, thinking he was going to tell ALL about corrupt, arm-twisting Dems. But Massa only talked vaguely of how big money (from unnamed sources to unnamed pols) was corrupting both parties. Massa did talk at length about his “tickle fights”. Which were being seen through a glass, lewdly. His pile-on gropings of staffers were merely the horseplay of a rough mannered ex-military guy.

Every time Glenn Beck tried to pry Democrat dirt out of Massa, he dodged with tickle fight talk. Personally, I believe Massa’s appearance on Beck was the point at which Beck went round the bend. Before Massa (BM) I sometimes agreed with Beck and often found him funny. Sure, his sharp bi-partisan satire was already segueing into lectures re a vast, astonishingly competent commie conspiracy. And the Holy Prophet thing was kicking in. But after Massa (AM) Beck’s head totally ballooned.

Mother of God– did Eric Massa pass along the imp of the wacky little Caesar? If so, Upstate New York owes Beck an exorcism.

As for X Congressman Massa, no need to fear for his future. Word is, he’s been snapped up by the TSA. (The TSA is a big contractor in the Southern Tier.) Look for him at your local airport.

Massa is an extreme example of a wacky little Caesar. (He may actually qualify as a wacky little Caligula.) But his assumption that bully fun is a perk of power, along with his tone-deaf narcissism, are typical of many players in politically airless upstate New York. Where decadence isn’t divine, just day to day mundane. It’s been bred into the region’s old boys (and girls) by hoary political  machines riding high in a post-industrial landscape of shrinking population. A sizable influx of civic minded residents might shake things up, but jobs that pay middle class wages are scarce. However, there is an influx of poor folks with substance abuse problems. They’re being shipped upstate to partake of one of the few growth industries. Halfway-Houses-R-Us! As an electorate, the poor and addicted are swell for political machines. What with their being so dependent on public money and all.

Speaking of being dependent on public money– and political machines– consider what passes for economic development in Upstate New York. Being Joe Doakes with a good idea for building widgets doesn’t cut it. Just try and build a few prototypes in your garage, Joe! Red tape and taxes will be on you like Eric Massa on a staffer. Meanwhile, when Widgetom Inc, a multi-national company supposedly headquartered somewhere in the USA, announces plans to build a facility upstate, they get the red carpet treatment from local pols, development officials, and New York’s quasi-public Empire State Development Corporation (ESD). In exchange for talking job creation and revitalization, and for stroking the egos and jazzing the war chests and vacation trips of assorted little Caesars, Widgetom receives tax breaks, public utility deals, EZ loans, and exemptions from environmental and land use regulations. Plus tons of taxpayer cash in combo platters of state and federal grants.

After several years of breathless local press coverage re Widgetom and the glorious revitalized future, Widgetom will announce that due to changing economic conditions and technological developments, the future will be smaller than initially projected. Maybe delayed indefinitely. However, a few more grants might just pull the rabbit out of the hat. Pols and development officials agree to stand and deliver. So much has already gone into the hat. The future of the region is at stake. Widgetom is too big to fail!

As for Joe Doakes, if he doesn’t flee the state, he may hew his way to a small business start-up. Heck, he might even get a few bucks from the local ESD funnel. (As long as his product doesn’t compete with Widgetom.) Tip 4 Joe: get cozy with your local little Caesars. Fealty can B fun.

Getting back to New York’s gubernatorial election, though numerous other states were able to field credible reform candidates of the Tea Party variety for major offices, the Empire State put forth Carl Paladino. An ultra wacky little Caesar whose real estate ponderosa in the Buffalo area is heavily dependent on state government contracts and ESD-based tax breaks. His bully in a china shop campaign style? I am what I am said Paladino. (Him and Popeye.) A rough mannered son-of-an-immigrant guy. At least Paladino wasn’t into tickle fights. He only emailed extreme pornography (woman w. horse) and puerile racist jokes to dozens of business associates, including ones with government addresses.

That Carl Paladino passed as a populist reformer in so much of upstate is a sign of that region’s decadent political condition. On the statewide front, the election of Andrew Cuomo, after no real race, is a like-minded sign. We New Yorkers love our Caesars. Be they little or big. As for the wacky, will Andy turn? Never say never. (See Eliot Spitzer.)

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