Archive for March, 2014

St. Patrick’s Shakedown update

After responding to Brian Murphy’s insane letter attempting to shake down local bars, I was curious about how many bars there are along the St. Patrick’s Day parade route. How many are there? Four! Yes, four. And one of those, Merlin’s, caters to a gay clientele. You may recall that companies like Sam Adams and Heineken are dropping their sponsorship of St. Patrick’s Day parades because they do not permit LBGT groups to participate. I wonder whether Mr. Murphy was referring to Merlin’s in his rant. If so, chutzpah does not even begin to cover it. Hypocritical in the extreme comes closer.

The St. Patrick’s Shakedown

There must be a Gaelic word for chutzpah because some Irish certainly have a lot of it. How else to explain this letter in today’s Press & Sun-Bulletin, which I quote in its entirely?

Hats off to the Ancient Order of Hibernians Parade Committee for conducting the 47th Annual St. Patrick’s Parade in Binghamton on March 1.

Most people who enjoy the parade are not aware that the costs of the parade are covered by the Parade Committee. This is accomplished by fundraisers, such as Boscov’s Irish Day, the party following at Seton Catholic Central High School and the revenue from our annual ad booklet. Local businesses, Catholic churches, organizations and the Irish community are asked to sponsor an ad for this booklet priced from $35 to $100. These books are then distributed throughout the community. To those who have supported us in the past, we thank you.

However, there are many bars in the area that do a tremendous business on Parade Day who do not support our ad booklet. To those businesses, I pose the following question: What would your business be like the first Saturday of March if there were no parade?

Brian Murphy

Vice President, Ancient Order of Hibernians Parade Committee

Mr. Murphy begins be patting himself on the back so we know right away that he has a rather exaggerated opinion of himself. Then he goes on to claim that the Ancient Order of Hibernians bears the entire cost of the annual debauchery in honor of a saint who probably never existed. That, of course, is a lie. Period. We taxpayers of Binghamton and Broome County pay thousands of dollars for police overtime and DWI checkpoints during the parade and its drunken aftermath. And we pay to clean up the mess left behind.

But then he tops even himself by essentially shaking down the bars along the parade route who he claims do a “tremendous business” on Parade Day. What about the stores that are completely blocked for hours? Do the Hibernians compensate them for lost business, not mention damages from the drunken louts crowding the street? I think not.

Now there is nothing wrong with a day of drunkenness after three months of grey skies and snow. If there were no St. Patrick’s Day someone would no doubt come up with another excuse for a late-winter party. But it is just wrong for a vocal minority group to demand funds from local businesses to support their self-congratulatory bacchanal (there must be a Gael word for that too). Mr. Murphy owes the community in general, and the bar owners along Court and Main Streets an apology for his tirade. And the Ancient Order of Hibernians needs to find a more fit spokesperson.  

MH370: NSA to the rescue?

There has been a great deal in the media over the last year about the National Security Agency and its seeming omnipresence. So is it reasonable to think that someone at Fort Meade might know where that lost Malaysian airliner is? Well, yes and no.

Basically, NSA’s job is to intercept electronic signals from which useful intelligence can be gleaned. So the first question is: what kind of signals could MH370 have been emitting? We know that its radar transponder was not operating but other communications systems might have continued to work. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Rolls Royce engines on the plane had a monitoring system that continued to transmit maintenance data to their manufacturer via satellite for several hours after the plane went missing. That report was later retracted but it is not clear whether or not that means that no such data received. A source of confidential information to the Journal might have demanded reconsidered leaking the story. According to the Malaysia Airlines website, their 777-200 aircraft are equipped with satellite phones so, were the plane in distress a passenger might have called someone to report it. And, of course, most of the passengers likely had personal cell phones. Although those phones are supposed to be in “airplane mode” with their radio function disabled it is very likely that at least some were turned on. If they were, they would be continually transmitting their electronic identification numbers or EINs. So, even with the primary communications systems disabled, the aircraft would most likely be transmitting a number of electronic signals.

Ok, but could NSA have collected any of those signals? Probably. The agency operates satellites in geostationary orbits 22,400 miles above the equator. From that vantage those satellites can collect electronic emissions from much of the Earth’s surface. So, in theory, NSA could have received any signals sent from the ill-fated aircraft. Certainly they would have intercepted any satellite telephone calls. My guess is that given the propensity of terrorists and drug traffickers to use cellular phones, NSA is particularly adept at intercepting their signals. Quite likely, NSA is able to detect the EIN of any cell phone within the satellites field of regard. And one would assume, they have the software necessary to extract specific EINs from the massive amount of data they collect.

The next problem would be to figure out what EINs to look for. That should be relatively straightforward. Given the aircraft manifest someone working at NSA or some other agency should be able to obtain the EINs of the cellphones owned by the people on board the aircraft. With those EINs in hand it would be relatively easy to determine when the plane crashed…if it did. But that would not pinpoint where it went down.

Still, it is entirely likely that NSA has or could develop information relevant to the search for the missing plane. That said, there are legitimate reasons for the agency to be cautious about revealing what they know for fear of compromising their capabilities and methods. I imagine that there are efforts on-going to find ways to launder NSA data about the flight. If so, NSA is missing a great opportunity. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the public believes that NSA is all-knowing. They are not, of course, they do know a lot. This could be a chance for the agency to burnish its reputation at little cost. NSA should reveal what they know about MH370.

Not ready for prime time

Local politics tend to attract a rather odd cast of characters and nowhere is this truer than in upstate New York. While most upstate counties are primarily rural, or in the cases of Erie, Monroe, and Onondaga dominated by a one large city, Broome County is more or less evenly divided between the urban “triple cites” surrounding Binghamton and the bucolic countryside of dairy farms and retired IBMers. In normal times, voter turnout in local elections is fairly equally distributed with only a slight biase toward the rural areas. But these are not normal times since the County sits atop a potentially rich deposit of natural gas-bearing Marcellus Shale. The prospect of a windfall from gas drilling has energized the countryside, and none there so much as those with no interest in actually farming the land. Having lived for years on the largess of Big Blue, these gentlemen farmers take this as nothing more than their due. And, being retired they have little else to do than to lobby for the state to permit fracking at whatever cost to the environment or local communities. What a perfect opportunity for a single-issue candidate!

Enter Debbie Preston, supervisor of the Town of Conklin, a sprawling hodgepodge of scrub farms and scruffy auto repair shops along the Susquehanna River upstream from Binghamton. Li’l Debbie is an ardent proponent of fracking, which in the minds of the local Republican Party trumps the fact that running a town whose 5441 residents constitute less than 3% of the population of the county might not qualify her to lead a county of 200,000 that includes a major state university. So after a campaign well lubricated by gas industry money she was elected County Executive by an overwhelming vote of the rural residents of the county and a decidedly lukewarm reception from the rest of us.

Now the sideshow begins. The term that best describes Ms. Preston is “bumpkin.” But beyond that is her apparent lack of understand of what is and is not appropriate for a County Executive to do. One thing that is not appropriate is to attempt to sneak through the county legislature a no-bid contract to a campaign contributor to do repairs on the county jail. In fairness, said contractor also contributed to the campaign of Sheriff-for-Life David Harder as well. Naturally, Preston and Harder are thick as thieves, prompting the Executive to dress up in a sheriff’s department uniform for an appearance at a fund raiser for the sheriff. Never mind that this constitutes impersonation of a law enforcement officer or misappropriation of county property depending on how tolerant one is of such nonsense.

But none of this tops the latest revelation suggesting—nay, shouting—that Ms. Preston is not ready for prime time. It turns out that Li’l Debbie has been supplementing her $92k salary by selling her homemade jewelry from her office. Apparently, there was even a nice display of her works in the County Office Building. “No problem,” says she, this is no different than her selling Avon from the Conklin Town Offices. But, it is a problem because it is in violation of County law. Well, maybe since the county personnel handbook makes an exception to the law banning outside activities being conducted from County offices for certain commercial ventures. It is pretty clear, however, that the exemption is intended to allow the sale of Girl Scout cookies and such, not a side business peddling baubles for profit. The fact that she has reportedly closed down her little side business does not, in my opinion, absolve her of responsibility for cheapening her office.

Much has been made around the environmental and social costs of oil and gas booms. Among those costs have been an increase in political corruption. Here in Broome County we have discovered a new one: the election of tinhorn politicians not ready for prime. Who knows, maybe she’ll go on to be nominated for vice president.

The great holocaust railroad shakedown

The Nazi genocide of Jews during World War II, which accounted for about half the toll taken by German death camps, is notorious not so much because of the number of people killed, which has been exceeded before and since in both absolute and relative numbers, but its ruthless, industrial efficiency. Key to delivering victims to the Auschwitz, Dachau, and the other camps was the European rail system consisting of a number of quasi-public railroad companies. In France, that company was—and is—the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, better known by the acronym SNCF. After the fall of France in 1940, the French railways operated under the command of the German occupation. And under that command, the company did transport prisoners, Jews among them, to Nazi concentration camps. Such is the reality of occupation during wartime.

Fast forward to 2014 Maryland. The Maryland Department of Transportation has proposed constructing a 16-mile long light rail line through the two counties bordering the District of Columbia. Roughly paralleling the Capital Beltway this Purple Line would link the inner suburbs to one another and to the Washington Metro subway system. Since there is little industrial base in the US for building mass transit systems, the Maryland Department of Transportation has been forced to look outside the country for qualified bidders for construction contracts. One potential bidder is the aforementioned SNCF which, it should be noted, operates the world’s most advanced rail system.

And here comes the shakedown. Descendants of holocaust victims living in Maryland are attempting to push through the Maryland legislature a bill requiring that any company involved in the transport of Jews to concentration camps pay reparations to them before being allowed to bid on state transportation projects. That law would, in fact, only apply to SNCF. Never mind that sixty-eight years have passed and that nearly all survivors of the holocaust are dead. Never mind that SNCF had no choice but to transport those people. Never mind that SNCF has apologized for their role during WW II and have already paid reparations of $6B to French survivors. Never mind that blocking SNCF from bidding  might quite possibly kill the project altogether. Leaving aside the very real possibility that killing the Purple Line is the real reason behind this—Montgomery County has a long legacy of NIMBY opposition to transportation projects—this shakedown is a vile attempt to profit on the suffering and deaths of millions. Sadly, there is precedent for such blackmail: the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC was the price the professional holocaust exploiters extracted from the Carter administration for the Camp David peace accords. Of course, anyone who calls these actions for what they are—shakedowns—will be dismissed as anti-Semitic. But the best way that the State of Maryland can honor the memory of victims of the Holocaust is to stand up to this blackmail. And it is time for American Jews to look for inspiration to Elie Weisel, not Meyer Lansky.

What are we, chopped liver?

For some reason, the online edition of the New York Times includes a rather lengthy section called the “Texas Tribune.” Now I, for one, really do not care what happens in the godforsaken wilds of the Lone Star State but I would very much like to stay on top of events in the part of the Empire State north of the Westchester County line. More than half of the population of New York State does NOT live in New York City or its suburbs. As our local newspapers wither away, we upstate New Yorkers could represent a significant market for the Times if anyone there could find their way here.

Whose side are we on?

The unavoidable truth is that the US has no legitimate reason to get involved in the situation in Ukraine. But it we are to involve ourselves we should at least be consistent. On the one hand, President Obama has said that the legally elected government of Ukraine should determine the status of Crimea; on the other, he has sent Secretary of State Kerry to meet with, and thus legitimize, the current government of Ukraine that took power by overthrowing the legally elected government of that country. Please forgive if I am a bit confused.

Terrorism in the skies, again?

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is beginning to look like act of terrorism. Granted, at this point, this is only speculation but consider this:

In the nearly 20 years that the Boeing 777 has been in commercial service only one has crashed—Asiana flight 214 on landing at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013. That accident was entirely due to pilot error, not to any mechanical or electronic malfunction on the plane. Of course this does not rule out a catastrophic failure in flight but it does make such an occurrence seem unlikely.

A Vietnamese Navy patrol plane has spotted a 20-kilometer (12-mile) long oil slick on the South China Sea along the projected path of flight 370. That strongly suggests that the plane broke up in flight. Had it ditched into the water, the oil slick would be much smaller; had the pilots deliberately dumped fuel it would have atomized and not caused a slick. Only a rapid rupture of the fuel tanks at altitude could have caused so much fuel to be dispersed over such a long path.

The strongest evidence of foul play is the fact that two of the names on the flight manifest are of persons—one Italian and one Austrian—who had reported their passports stolen within the past couple of years. Both persons have been accounted for and neither was on the plane.

Obviously it will take authorities some time to find the remains of the B777-200 and much more time to ascertain the cause of the crash. But indications are that this may well be yet another incident of international terrorism.

Will the Ukraine confrontation become the cyber “missile crisis?”

In 1962 the Soviet Union responded to US intervention in Cuba (cf. the Bay of Pigs) by installing nuclear missiles on that island capable of reaching Washington DC in a matter of minutes. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Unknown to the US at the time was that the Soviet missiles were operational and could have been launched with little or no warning. The main reason that did not happen is that the US had overwhelming superiority in intercontinental nuclear missiles as well as nuclear missiles on bases surrounding the USSR, specifically in Germany, Turkey, and probably Japan. Premier Khrushchev had no real option but to fold his hand and admit defeat.

Fast forward to 2014. A western-backed revolt has overthrown the elected government of Ukraine, threatening Russian access to naval bases in Crimea that Moscow sees as essential to defending their oil export routes. The response of the US has been to impose economic sanctions on Russia—basically economic warfare. So how might Russia react? A cyber-attack on the US economy is certainly a possibility. According to former Richard A. Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism, Russia probably has the means to shut down the US banking system and the US has no real defense against such an attack. Faced with even a limited cyber-attack President Obama would have basically three choices: retaliate in kind, launch a “kinetic,” i.e. non-cyber-attack on Russia, or back down. Given that the US is far more vulnerable to cyber-attack than is Russia while that country is at least as capable of offensive cyber warfare, the US would almost certainly lose if the President chose the first option. Any military intervention by the US in the region would be a disaster and could rapidly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. Only this time the US and Russia have parity in nuclear arms. So the most likely outcome, if the US overplays its hand in Ukraine is an embarrassing capitulation that would not only probably end the position of the US as the only super power but which could very well have serious political consequences in the US, conceivably spelling the end of our democracy. Mr. Obama would be prudent to let Russia deal with its restive neighbors on its own.

Too many small countries?

The collapses of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British Empire in 1947, and the USSR in 1991 all left in their wakes dozens of ethnic enclaves with desire for nationhood despite, in most cases, little or not history of such. The proliferation of fractious, barely viable countries is in no one’s best interest. The EU, with all its flaws, aims at a different model wherein ethnic identity is preserved within an economic and military structure of sustainable size. Russia attempted to emulate this with the CIS but handled it very badly. Perhaps it is time for Eastern Europe, including Russia, to try again to form a workable federation.