Brief Reflections on Surveillance and Power

What is gloriously lost in the NSA violating the privacy rights of individuals, and I’ve not seen this in one single story, is that it is absolutely not necessary for the specific contents of any email or phone call to be viewed or known for a violation of privacy to occur. President Obama’s mealy-mouthed excuse that no one is listening in is most likely factually correct, but for a man of his intelligence and awareness this amounts to intentional deception because it depends on a general ignorance on the part of the public that knowing the frequency, time, and ultimate senders and recipients of a message can give as much information as message content itself.

It’s called Traffic Analysis, and has always been as important as message content. It’s what lets Google be Google. It can do wonderful things like collate search term patterns to predict outbreaks of influenza. It also, when tied to emails or social networks gives information about who you talk to and when.

But what’s the problem here? It’s that when a government takes upon itself the power to know of all your activities and contacts, and when governments and nation-states are the social institution with a monopoly on violence, the only way for a state to act, whether by taxation, fines, imprisonment, or guns, is to act through violence or by threatening violence.

Given that any government’s only recourse in any situation is violence or it’s threat, granting, or allowing the government to grant itself,...

An Open Letter to Dan Knorr, Mayor, and Citizens of Bloomsburg

Dan Knorr, Mayor, and Citizens of Bloomsburg,

This afternoon I watched the videos of the tank deployment and tear gas use in Bloomsburg this past weekend. Like the police presence in Boston and Watertown just days before, I most firmly assert and believe this is a shameful, excessive, dangerous, and unecessary use of force. Rather than establishing good order, which some would call it, it shows a complete breakdown of community and a failure of government and its leadership.

Now there is no question that the parties are disruptive, annoying, aggravating, even dangerous. There is no question underage drinking occurs. This is nothing new. But the Mayor, the citizens, the police, Bloomsburg University, become so focused on imposing order and enforcing ordinances and legislation, year after year, decade after decade, with escalating demonstrations of force, that it came to this.

The citizens and the current government of Bloomsburg, like its predecessors, have not solved this problem. You have allowed it to get worse and helped to make it worse with increasing demonstrations of force and authority. That is not community, that is not governance. This is a Police State of anger and fear and resentment that the Mayor, Town Council, and every single person in Bloomsburg allows and encourages to happen once a year.

When you resort to force, you have not succeeded. You have failed miserably, you have failed utterly, you have failed completely.

To the Mayor, his...

Render Unto Man

On 24 January the Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously approved a “noncontroversial resolution” declaring 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. In its brief twenty-eight lines H.R. 535 manages to pass off vague statement as historical fact, use undefined fear as a rallying cry, tug at the heartstrings of a pathetic patriotism, and provide overly simplistic solutions to self-suggested and non-existent problems.  All in all, it is a masterpiece of modern government.

And it would be completely laughable if it were not also offensive to every Christian, every non-Christian, and every non-theist alike. In passing this resolution 193-0 nearly every member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has shown a complete lack of understanding of the absolute necessity for private matters of religion to be always and forever separate from any civil authority for religion’s and liberty’s sake.

This is not to say one’s religious sentiments may not inform a Representative’s character or influence their conscience. It most certainly will.  What they may not do is use the power of civil government to promote religion or a specific religion, and that is precisely what the House has done.

Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, that famous letter which introduced the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State” into our political discussion. But what of the Danbury Baptists? What of...

Who Watches Over You?

A Christmas present for my 1 1/2 year old niece.  I just couldn't resist taking it out of the box and plugging it in just once.
A Christmas present for my 1 1/2 year old niece. I just couldn't resist taking it out of the box and plugging it in just once.

The Community Pioneers

“But the pioneer newspaper of the upstart city, like the western railroad, had to call into being the very population it aimed to serve. This gave it certain distinctive features which would long shape American life. … Some American newspapermen have called this preoccupation with the local community the leading characteristic, the principle novelty, and the secret strength of American journalism.”

— Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience, 1965

The Advocate. The Dispatch. The Tribune. These are the newspapers of America. Their names are bold and active. The Bee. The Herald. The Call. Invoking sound, almost loud, these are names that announce and engage. But, it is fair to ask, just why are they so bold and active? What are they announcing, and who are they engaging?

Nearly two months ago, like many in Bloomsburg, I stood waist-deep in a flooded home amidst dirt and debris, helping friends begin their recovery. From time to time I would see the activity on the streets about me, noticing crowds of people at most every house. I thought I saw and felt, repeated in others, that same personal need to help, the need to look after their family and friends and neighbors. I wondered, “What next? What happens after a few weeks? Where does this suddenly visible community come from and where will it go?”

That question has stayed with me these past weeks on this journey that a few friends and I call The Bloomsburg Daily. Our effort...

For What It’s Worth

Occupy:Bloomsburg Demonstrators in Market Square, 5 November
Occupy:Bloomsburg Demonstrators in Market Square, 5 November

Mohamed Bouazizi.

If you ever heard the name, you’ve likely forgotten it. I forgot it, and I’m not even sure I once knew it. Mohamed Bouazizi is just a produce vendor on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, a town of 40,000 people in the middle of Tunisia. Think Wilkes-Barre.

Mohamed Bouazizi is no different than any other vendor in his hometown, probably no different from any shopkeeper anywhere. Think of a Joseph Lukowsky in Wilkes-Barre. He’s just someone who keeps working day after day to support his family.

The one difference, however, is that over the years of economic difficulties, police harassment, extortions and bribes, the indifference of his local government wore on Mohamed Bouazizi.

On December 17, 2010 police overturned Mohamed Bouazizi’s cart and confiscated his scales when he was unable to pay the demanded extortion. Less than an hour later, frustrated after the local government refused to hear his complaint, Mohamed Bouazizi stood in the middle of traffic shouting, “How do you expect me to make a living?”  Then, dousing himself with gasoline, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s death on January 4th, 2011 incited the pent up anger felt by his fellow citizens over their economic and political status. His death led to the Arab Spring, a continuing, widespread movement that toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. It has led to uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, Jordan,...

Building Permit Fees Cause Lively Town Council Debate

My recent article for the The Bloomsburg Daily. Reposted with Permission.


There was spirited discussion last night at the Bloomsburg Town Council meeting over the payment of Building Permit Fees, occupying nearly 20 minutes of the hour-long session. The issue centered around whether or not the Town should maintain, waive, or reduce the permit fees for the part of the population repairing their flood-damaged homes.
Ultimately no decision was reached on the fees, with the issue being postponed for further discussion until the Administrative and Budget Council meeting on Wednesday, November 9th.

Town residents are normally required to pay the Town a building permit fee of $10 per $1,000 spent on residential building improvements and repairs up to the first $20,000, and $4.00 per $1,000 thereafter.

Ed Fegley, Code Enforcement Officer for the Town, began his report to the Council by stating that residents still need to apply for permits for any repairs to their property, but asked the council for guidance regarding the fees for these permits.

Currently the Town is issuing permits pending fees to be paid later, but no fees are being collected at this time. Mr. Fegley cited issuing permits pending fees was done previously during the flooding in 2006.

Council Member Paul Kinney began the discussion by voicing his opinion that the Town not charge permit fees to flood-affected residents. “I think we ought to waive them,” stated Mr. Kinney. “It’s bad enough they...

Not By Memory Alone

It’s critical that we not rely on memory, on word of mouth for that type of an emergency. Because if it’s four decades from now, we’re going to need to have everything compiled, have this written, memorialized.

—Mayor Dan Knorr, October 18th, 2011

Records of the 1972 flood exist to be sure, but they don’t tell the entire story. There are pictures, maps, lists of names and statistics. But what these records lack is the immediate story, the conversation that takes place daily among friends and neighbors, the conversation that has taken and is still taking place in the streets of Bloomsburg.

Mayor Knorr, the Town Council, Emergency Services, and Public Works all received well-deserved praise at the Open Forum held at the Bloomsburg Firehall on the evening of October 18th. The Bloomsburg Daily, too, commends all of our local officials for their tireless and continuing efforts, helping Bloomsburg recover from this tragedy as well as looking for ways to plan for, or possibly prevent, the next.

But regardless of all these good works, there was another feeling in the room last night, one of anger, one of loss, and pain and desperation. Town residents came looking for practical answers, to be sure, but also to add their voices of frustration. They came to continue the private conversations they have daily in their living rooms, on their porches, and beside their homes which they can no longer enter.

They came wanting to know that their fellow citizens, those to whom...

Visiting Nurses Braved Flood Dangers

My recent article for the The Bloomsburg Daily. Reposted with Permission.

When disaster strikes, most people are healthy enough to escape the danger on their own or take care of themselves for a few days while roads clear and the crisis passes. There are those among us however, who are less fortunate: the sick, the elderly, and the terminally ill. These are people who require constant, daily care, regardless of regional emergencies or disasters.

Since 1967, the community health care workers of Columbia-Montour Home Health & Hospice, part of the Bloomsburg Health System, have provided in-home nursing and care-giving services for all of Columbia and Montour counties, as well as most of Northumberland, parts of lower Luzurne, and areas of Union, Lycoming, Sullivan, and Schuylkill counties. With ten home health and hospice nurses, three social workers, ten aides, occupational, physical, and speech therapists, as well as spiritual and bereavement councilors, the staff of Columbia Montour Home Health is well-accustomed to serving the needs of Bloomsburg, Berwick, Danville, and the surrounding communities.

But when disasters such as the recent flood occur, it is then that home care, so important in normal times, is needed the most.

Knowledge of the flood’s severity “started with just a flickering of the phone system,” said Cathy Reed, Director of Home Health. “The phones are our lifeline. There were physicians calling in, our own nurses calling...

Plagued by Doubts, Flood Victims Begin Again

My recent article for the The Bloomsburg Daily. Reposted with Permission.

Warm October days, cool crisp evenings, the noise of saws and hammers, slowly dwindling piles of debris. All of these sights and sounds makes one think that a month after the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee, life is starting to return to normal in Bloomsburg.

But for Tina Parks Erb, her husband Marlin, and their sons Kyle (17) and Walker (8), things are far from normal. For them, their neighbors in the west end of town, and all families affected by the flood, new worries and dangers abound.

On Wednesday, September 7th the sheriff’s office alerted Mrs. Erb and her family that Fishing Creek was rising and, with no time to put any of their belongings up out of the water’s way, the Erbs had no choice but to evacuate. When they returned to their rental on Sunday, September 11th to view the damage for the first time, the Erbs discovered 3-4 inches of water and mud had covered the entirety of their first floor apartment. The basement had flooded to a depth of 7 feet, and Mrs. Erb estimated that the water remained there for another 4 to 5 days.

Floor and Moulding Buckling
Floor and Moulding Buckling

The water is gone now, but the repairs are far from complete. Mrs. Erb stated that she was informed by her landlord on Thursday, September 29th that the apartment was cleaned, treated for mold, and that everything was acceptable for her and her family to move back in. She, however, doubts her landlord’s assessment.

A few repairs are...

Bloom Hospital Staff Saved ER from Flooding

My recent article for the The Bloomsburg Daily. Reposted with Permission.

As Tropical Storm Lee rained on Bloomsburg, people worried about water rising from Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna. What would happen to the low lying areas of the community? No one gave a thought to the higher ground. Four employees of The Bloomsburg Hospital: Chuck Andreas, Scott Tanner, Brad Lurowitz, and Rick Millheim discovered that water from above is just as threatening as water from below. Their efforts in the early hours of Tuesday morning prevented the water running off the the hills above The Bloomsburg Hospital and into the Emergency Room.

Andreas, Director of Security for the hospital, recalled, “I got a call from a guard at 2:30 in the morning saying excessive water was running off of the hills, over the helipad, and approaching the ER area. Water was probably within an hour of entering the ER if no action was taken.”When Andreas arrived at the hospital he saw the danger immediately. “There was 2 ½ – 3 feet of water running across the helipad. And it wasn’t just water. It was mud.”Andreas, along with maintenance crew Tanner, Lurowitz, and Millheim, worked through the next few hours using whatever was at hand to prevent water and debris from entering the hospital. “We didn’t have any sandbags,” Andreas explained, “so we used bags of road salt [used for winter de-icing] and made a dam out of those.”

Pieces of lumber, plywood, and whatever else...

This Changes Everything

The Occupy Wall Street anti-corporate protests came to a sudden end today as thousands of youths queued up early at the Manhattan Apple store to await the arrival of that corporation’s newly announced iPhone 4s.

Unchaining the Masses with Wireless Tethering
Unchaining the Masses with Wireless Tethering

Although the new phones are not arriving from Chinese factories until their 14 October release, the anti-globalization protesters expect the new phones to help carry their message to the people more easily, preferably to those with broadband.

When asked of the sudden change in the movement’s direction, a spokesman for the organization muttered something about “99% more bandwidth” and to “scan the QR code on my hand-knitted hemp scarf. All the information’s on my blog, man.”

“Hello, Colleen . . .”

My friend Colleen posted a Facebook status a few weeks ago asking people to write fictional stories about how each of us met her.  I saw her request just as the right amount of caffeine hit me . . .

Nighttime falls in the city by the bay.  I contemplate my next cigarette, watching the smoke of one yet unfinished curl away from my hand, mingling with the fog. Silent. Enveloping. Concealing. No one here notices the fog.

One gin joint’s like any other, the sweet smell of yesterday’s booze, the neon casting it’s color pretending to illumine dark corners. It’s my first night in this town, but it’s familiar like all the rest. Desperate people in desperate times just trying to make a living, hoping for a little something extra on the side. The bells sound from the ships in the nearby docks. But for these people? In this place? There’s no ship coming in, not today, not tomorrow. Drink’s the only comfort for their souls.

“Whiskey.”

The bartender slides me my glass. I’m just shadow to him. A paying customer.

“Another.”

The whiskey’s the only thing that cuts the chill of the air, the fire that keeps me warm. This is how it has to be. Who know’s how long I’ve been sitting here. I’m alone. That’s all that matters.

The scratch of the record in the jukebox cuts my thoughts. I know this song. Every beat. Every feeling. The last time I heard it was during the war, before the world fell apart, that time when she . . .

I know that...

Canucks Fans Riot, Canadian Economic Miracle Ensured

Late for the Keynesian Symposium
Late for the Keynesian Symposium

Inspired by recent events in Japan, Libya, and a few too many Paul Krugman articles, Canadian hockey fans took to the streets in Vancouver today, rampaging and destroying everything in their path in the hopes of spurring an economic miracle on the Pacific coast.

William Mackenzie, a local shop owner, could barely contain his joy when he arrived at his store this morning and saw through his now broken windows, a lone Molotov cocktail still aflame in the burned out husk of his family’s business, founded by his father in 1973.

“I’d been planning to open another shop in Victoria, maybe take the family on vacation, but thankfully that’s all been put on hold. What with all I have to spend now to fix the building and replace my inventory, think of all the business I’ll be generating by buying new windows and replacing things I already had!” Ethan Campbell, prospective manager for the new shop, now unemployed, could not be located by press time, while the local tourism board and hotel association for Calgary, AB, rumored vacation destination of the Mackenzies, declined comment.

The Pale Blue Dot & Me

Last Wednesday I went with some friends to see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the Eisenhower Auditorium at Penn State. During his speech, Dr. Tyson showed a slide of Saturn with the Earth as the smallest of dots in the distance, and I whispered to my friend that it was like Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.  She didn’t quite know what I was talking about, but that’s OK.  Sometimes my fellow Liberal Artsers and I miss the sciencey stuff.  I told her that I’d explain it to her later, but if you know The Pale Blue Dot, how can you describe it?  “Oh, it’s a photograph of the Earth from 3 billion miles away.”  That will never do.  It’s much more than that, so much more.

When I got home that night, excited from the lecture and the coffee-induced high, I started to write her an email about that famous picture.  I think it’s appropriate that today, 12 April 2011, 50 years to the day that Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, that I repost my letter here:

I said I would tell you about the Pale Blue Dot, but I can’t, not at least without telling its story, because that’s all it is, a dot.  Nothing more than the faintest spec in a photograph taken twenty years ago.

There were heroes once.  Not so long ago as to be forgotten, but it is rare that they are remembered.  They fought a war in the skies, for us I guess, a war that started twenty or so years before I was born, the same distance in time from my birth as we are now from that photograph. Shepard, Grissom, Cooper,...

The Story of the Beans

For Christmas last year my friend Brian bought me 5 pounds of some wonderful small batch roasted coffee beans.  About a month later, a friend at work bought me a cup of coffee when I had no coins for the vending machines.  In return for his kindness, and that brownish liquid, I gave him a half pound of my secret stash.  His wife, wondering where I got such coffee, wanted to know from where it came.  Hence I wrote and emailed to my friend and his wife, The Story of the Beans:

Dear John,

While driving through the wilds of Vermont (State Motto: Those Free-Staters in New Hampshire Scare Us) my best friend and his girlfriend came across a local roaster, Dean’s Beans.  Since Vermont (State Motto: The Manliness of Ethan Allen is a Thing of the Past) was rumored to be a friendly place, and being a bit parched, they stopped in for a cuppa.

One of the small batch roasts that roasting at the moment was a blend named by these hale and hardy Vermonters (State Motto: The Rest of you 49, Behave!  We have other Governors with nothing to do.) after a famous and friendly fellow New Englander, Captain Ahab.  Ahab’s Revenge was the name of the welcoming brew, and as black as its namesake’s soul it was.  It was accompanied by an equally welcoming sign: Caution: Contains The Highest Level of Caffeine; May Cause Slight Hallucinations.

“What Ho?” said my friends, for upon seeing the name ‘Ahab’ they were in a nautical mood.  “Let us have some of this wondrous blend and...

Strawberry and Red Wine Pie

I made up the recipe so experiment away and make changes where you like.

Filling:

  • 2 Quarts Strawberries, Freshly picked.  Maybe it was pints.  I don’t know.  When are we going to switch to metric?  The small boxes.  That’s what I’m counting here.  Two of those. (Tart are better than sweet I think and 3 quarts/pints/boxes probably would have been better.  Freshly picked are better than store bought because they don’t have that tasteless white gunk inside.)
  • Bottle of red wine.  I used Merlot because it was closest to me.  And it was getting old.
  • Grated orange zest
  • Black pepper.
  • Tapioca, I like the instant stuff
  • Sugar

Directions

Get a big bowl and pour in the wine.  How much?  I don’t know.  All of it?  Just enough to cover the berries? All less a glass for you.  Whatever.  It’s your pie.

Enough Booze to Kill a Horse.
Enough Booze to Kill a Horse.

Hull and slice strawberries.  Use an egg slicer for the strawberries.  It’s faster than a knife. This works well for mushrooms too, though mushrooms don’t work well in this pie.  Neither do eggs.  Just use the slicer.  Anyway, as you slice the strawberries put them in the wine.  This prevents browning and makes ‘em tasty.  Grate in, what, a tablespoon of orange zest?  Yeah.  A tablespoon.  Maybe two.  Add in about 3/4 cup sugar and a few grinds of black pepper.  Stir gently to combine and dissolve the sugar and let it sit in the fridge for 2 hours to become yummy. If in the final pie the berries are too mushy for your taste, eliminate the sugar from...

Vincent and Theo

Subject: Preparing the Canvas
Date: December 9, 1997, 3:29 PM

Theo,

If I take a bottle of White Out, pour its contents over a Post-It Note, and take the time to spread it evenly, neatly and smoothly, it makes a nice primer. My pens then can write smoothly over the surface. Any streaks, however, and the effect is ruined.

Contrasted with this, I shall now attempt to use those streaks to create a textured, layered effect to my art. I think the best approach will be to use a generous amount of White Out, leave it in a puddle until it is tacky, and then work within the natural resistance of my medium.

I believe this shall be better received by the art community than either “Sunflowers” or “Starry Night” was. Critics are so pedestrian.

Those Philistines in Paris refuse my work and I am having trouble making ends meet. Send money.

Your Brother,

Vincent

Subject: I’m only human
Date: December 9, 1997, 5:30 PM

Dearest Vincent,

This is the best that I could do on such short notice. If you need more, sell an unnecessary body part. Perhaps an ear?

In Loving Efforts,

Theo

[Attached .JPG of a $1,000 bill]

Subject: My Darkest Hour
Date: December 10, 1997, 8:40 AM

Theo,

I have run out of White Out.

The purity of color of the White Out reminded me of the plaster facades I saw that pleasant summer in Italy’s Tuscany region. Wishing to recapture the innocence of my youth, I attempted to congeal a whole case of White Out with a hair dryer, vainly trying...