Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is someone listening? Paranoia strikes deep, deeper, deepest

In the middle of August we are in what is the silly season for news. Or it is what would traditionally be the silly season, but that was mainly in the days of more traditional news. With the Internet, with 24-hour news channels, every day of the year can be the silly season.

How else to explain the attention given to Donald Trump, in his bid for the GOP nomination for President? The only thing worse than hearing Trump talk is having pundits on the news stations talk about what he is talking about.

We Americans have short attention spans, and like children we get distracted easily when we see something bright and shiny, drawing us away from the more mundane. That is the way I see Trump. And because of Trump and his Trumpiness we stop paying attention to more important stories.

Which leads me to...

...just a couple of months ago there was a lot of talk about how Congress wanted to stop the NSA from collecting phone calls from Americans. They voted to do that. But where was the outrage over the idea that such unlimited power on the part of our government exists? I guess there are the paranoid people who worry about abuses by their government, and then there are the non-paranoid people who just ignore it. And they outnumber the paranoid. In the way of all things American, we quickly got away from the subject and went back to news stories about celebrities and athletes and bizarro politicians. The NSA story got filed away with those other stories that have no legs, and don’t involve us for more than a couple of days.

As I said, we Americans have short attention spans.

I keep going back to a book I read over a year ago that addresses the technology and power of the United States government and how helpless we citizens are against that power. The book is Black List by Brad Thor, and if you know his work you know he is a thriller writer, a conservative guy who might be just a few steps left of the crazies in Texas who were sure President Obama was going to invade them, and put them in concentration camps made from Walmart stores. At least Thor doesn’t just listen to crazy radio-generated rumors. He has done his research and has information in his books that might sound like science fiction, but as we all know, science fiction can turn into science just depends on how much the people controlling the federal purse strings are willing to pay to make it happen. When Osama Bin Laden launched his war on Americans the purse turned out to have no bottom as far as paying for what the Feds felt was needed, and as far as observing due process, the Constitution and any kind of privacy for citizens, pfah. We “re-prioritized,” and for several years it was to hell with due process, to hell with the Constitution.

From the book, quoting the author:
“Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the unparalleled listening ability of the National Security Agency — which had always been aimed outside the United States — was turned inward. No longer was the NSA restricted to tracking foreign spies and terrorists, whose surveillance had to be signed off on by a judge of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Now, in the name of national security, All American citizens were suspects, and due process had been completely abandoned.

“. . . every citizen's electronic traffic was sorted and sifted by NSA analysts, using . . . software and equipment to search for and flag particular words and phrases. Anyone and everyone could and was being targeted. Privacy had been obliterated.” — Page 135 (Page numbers given are from the Pocket Books paperback edition, published in 2012.)

“In the name of ‘security,’ the liberty of citizens was being eroded, not on a yearly basis, not even on a daily basis, but continuously, around the clock, 24/7.” — Page 136
Thor has more bad news about the abilities of our government, paid for with our tax dollars, to keep tabs on us through our GPS devices and cell phones. According to him, the DHS even has unmarked vans driving around with X-ray machines, “X-raying whatever and whomever they wanted.” — Page 137

And here all I used to worry about was exposing a hole in my sock when taking off my shoes at the airport.

Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

As I have mentioned before, there is a major NSA facility just down the freeway from me, at Camp Williams in Utah County.(1) For a very brief period there were some demonstrations at the gate by various citizens who were protesting the NSA’s policies, but that died down very quickly. Many people just ignored it. I have the feeling they thought that as long as they weren’t doing anything wrong, not plotting insurrection or terrorist activities, the NSA would not be interested in what they had to say, anyway.

So in that way, by ignorance or just not wanting to think about it, the bottom line is the privacy war is over, and we lost..

It has been coming for a long time. Think about it. Up until the last century people did not carry around identification. Before cars there were no driver’s licenses. There was a certain amount of privacy in anonymity. Once we started making it possible for strangers with badges to know our names, when we were born, what our address is, on demand, the right to privacy began its erosion.

Like 99.9% of the population I have gone along with that. It is a price we pay to live in civilization. I would be unable to go live on my own in the mountains and fend for myself without the conveniences of modern society. In the nineteen sixties there were people worried about the loss of privacy. This article in Life for May 20, 1966. shows the state of the art of surveillance 49 years ago, and there is no reason to doubt that as technology has improved so has the techniques of spying on citizens, whether for crimes, or terrorist leanings, or what the hell, maybe just for entertainment.(2)

If it can be collected it can be used, and it can also be misused.(3)

Copyright © 1966 Time, Inc.

(1)Utah is also home to Dugway Proving Grounds, where for decades chemical weapons have been studied and tested . It made the news this year when live anthrax was shipped from Dugway to labs around the country. It was yet another story that came and went quickly. Dugway is also known to conspiracy theorists as being “the new Area 51,” where captured UFOs are stored, alien technology is being back-engineered, etc., etc. There are a lot of fanciful stories about Dugway, including UFO sightings at night. I will keep my eyes open, and I promise if I see anything, you will be the first to know.

(2)Over 30 years ago I worked with a woman whose husband was in the billing department of a major credit card company. He and his pals would think of a celebrity and look up their accounts. She told me that the only two people whose accounts they could not access were President Reagan and the president of the credit card company. I also found out that a certain popular singer, whose name I will not repeat, spent $40,000 a month on her card. I said to the woman, "Your husband and his friends are violating people's privacy!"

“Nah,” she replied, "they're just having fun.”

Other people’s privileged information, none of our business, can also be considered entertainment to tabloid TV and nosey Parkers everywhere.

(3)Just yesterday, as I write this, a dating site for adulterers, called Ashley Madison, was hacked. Thousands of e-mail addresses were stolen. Since it was supposed to be a secure site, it sets up a lot of potential problems for the users.  Let the buyer beware when engaging in risky behavior over the Internet.

Friday, August 07, 2015

A child in handcuffs

For a couple of days this past week a video of a large cop and a 3 1/2-foot-tall elementary school boy handcuffed at his biceps made the news. It came out that the boy has ADHD. On seeing the video there was a general outcry. The images are shocking. As a public we often do not see what goes in as part of the day-to-day life of schools, and maybe if we did we would be more concerned.

A still from the video.

As I wrote in 2007, this is not an unusual thing to see when one goes from school to school during an average day, as I did from 1976-2009. I am re-presenting that post, unedited and unchanged, below.

What I did not consider in 2007 is how such images makes us look like a police state. When even a small, relatively harmless child can be cuffed, what does that say about giving the cops near limitless powers? As a society, in the age of surreptitious filming with cell phone cameras, we are seeing a side of police work we have not usually seen.

At some point in the history of our society we decided that bad behavior in schools would not get a child humiliated by being stuck in a corner wearing a dunce cap, or rapped on the knuckles with a ruler (like was done, several times, to my father in the 1920s). But nowadays the cuffing of a 52-pound boy for having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (a problem with the workings of the brain, uncontrollable by the boy) is somehow better. As long as it is out of he sight of the public, that is. This way the kid can grow up to hate and fear police and uniforms, but by golly, he won't have to be publicly embarrassed.

This is my original article on the subject, published December 7, 2007:

When the goin' gets tuff, the tuff get cuffed

A week or so ago on the national news there was a story of a 10-year-old girl being taken out of school in handcuffs. Her mother was outraged, the child was upset, and the school was keeping mum, probably out of privacy concerns. The mom will probably sue the school district and police, but this wasn't an isolated incident, and I wonder how it ended up on the national news. Must've been a slow news day.

I turned to my wife and said, “I see children in handcuffs occasionally.” Yesterday on my route, for instance. A small boy in cuffs was being led to a school district police car. The officer arresting him was at least 6’4’, and the child was an average third or fourth grade kid. I've seen this scenario repeated at times over the years. I admit the first time I saw an elementary school child in restraints I was startled; I’ve seen several kids of junior high and high school age in handcuffs. Not so unexpected, there.

I won’t find out why the child I saw yesterday was taken out in handcuffs, and I won’t ask. The officer smiled and waved as I pulled away from my parking spot, and I returned his friendly gesture. Just another day in the life of a school district cop.

Our police officers have been through the state police academy, and have full police powers. We are the only school district in the state with such a police force, and they are busy 24 hours a day, protecting our buildings and students. I’m pretty sure it’s policy to handcuff everyone being taken to a police car, even the elementary school kids.

Once I walked into a school and saw an officer holding a sixth grade boy from behind. The boy had a large kitchen knife in his hand. The officer had his arm around the boy's neck; he had the boy’s arm extended fully to keep the knife away from himself and the child. The officer was squeezing the boy’s wrist to make him relax his grip. The officer was twice the weight and height of the student and could have just thrown him to the floor and taken the knife away, but he was disarming the boy in a manner that would minimize the danger or damage to the child and himself. The boy dropped the knife and the officer got the boy’s arm behind his back where he cuffed his hands together, all in a smooth motion. Throughout the whole situation, which took seconds, no sound was made by either the boy or the cop. You walk in on a situation like that and you wonder if you’ve been dropped into a movie. Nope, it’s real. Life in a school district does have difficult moments like that, and you hope all of them turn out as well as the situation I saw. For the lady on the national news who was upset because her daughter was removed in handcuffs, it’s just the facts, ma’am...that's life in a school district.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Revenge of the plagiarist

Cover illustration by Derek Carlisle for Salt Lake City Weekly. Copyright © 2015 Salt Lake City Weekly

Rachel Nunes is a prolific and respected Latter-day Saints writer. She has published 48 novels, including Christian romance novels for LDS women. Her 1998 book, Love to the Highest Bidder, re-released as an e-book on re-titled A Bid for Love, was identified by a reviewer as being the basis for a plagiarized version called The Auction Deal by Sam Taylor Mullens. The Auction Deal was a review copy, still unpublished, when Nunes found out it ripped off her book. There are some slight differences: the plagiarized version is told in the first person, and there are a lot of hot sex scenes added. But basically what Mullens did was just retype Nunes' book. Nunes contacted Mullens, who promised not to publish the book.

But then Nunes became the target of a smear campaign, including bad reviews of her books under different names. and a furious program of disinformation and harassment aimed at her. According to Nunes and her lawyer, the attack was launched by the plagiarist. I don't have the room for all of the things that Nunes has claimed Mullens did to her using “sock puppets” (false identities), but you can read about them yourself in the original article from Salt Lake City Weekly, “Ripped and Ravaged” by Carolyn Campbell

After investigating, Nunes found out that “Sam Taylor Mullens” is really Tiffanie Rushton, who is — of all things — a third grade teacher. That immediately got my interest. I worked around teachers for over 30 years, and there are many for whom teaching moral and civic responsibility right along with the 3 R's is very important, but there are also teachers who can get in a whole lot of trouble for various reasons unrelated to the classroom. So while surprising, it is not the worst thing I have ever heard of a teacher doing.

But, why plagiarism? Why steal the words of someone else, unless you have absolutely no talent — or think you don’t — for slinging words together in some coherent and interesting way? And when caught, why would the accused cut loose with a dedicated program of revenge toward the victim, as if in some way the plagiarist had become the injured party? It defies logic, but then, I am not someone who would copy whole paragraphs, chapters or even whole books and claim them to be my own. I don't understand the mind that can.

I am careful to use attributions for quotations, but that is for my own legal protection. According to the article, plagiarism is not a crime. It is a civil offense. So, in order to punish a plagiarist, a lawsuit (costly) must be launched, and hopefully it will lead to a monetary settlement. That is why Nunes is suing Rushton for $130,000. According to Rushton's attorney, she offered an apology and to take the book off sale, but Nunes has proceeded with the suit. The revenge assault by the accused is just icing on the cake for Nunes’ lawyers. It shows malice, and also an ignorance of computers. Maybe Rushton did not know that any electronic communications sent from a computer can be tracked by its IP number. Those phony e-mails, Facebook postings and one-star reviews of Nunes’s other books were traced back to Rushton.

I have also been plagiarized. A couple of years ago another blogger warned me that some Chinese blog had stolen blog entries from both of us. Our names were taken off, but the rip-offs just copied and pasted our posts onto their blog. I was not as outraged as the person who contacted me, but I wasn't happy about it, either. But sue? How? My stuff is on the Internet, the greatest thieves’ market in the world. My blogs carry no copyright notices unless I am publishing fiction, which I have done a few times. Even then, who knows how much good that does?

Besides the plagiarisms in college theses, newspapers, and magazines, there have been some high profile cases of plagiarism that cost publishing companies both money and shame for being duped. There are ways of running passages through the Internet to check for plagiarism, and nowadays maybe that is what publishers are doing.

One plagiarism case involved a young woman, a Harvard sophomore whose debut novel was about to be published to much advance acclaim, when it was found out that she had taken chunks out of the works of other writers. Here is a quote from The College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, in an online article called “Famous Examples of Plagiarism and Cheating”:
. . . Sophomore Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan received much praise for her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. However, not long after the young author began to collect royalties for her work, it was revealed that she had plagiarized. More specifically, she cut-and-pasted whole sections of text from Megan F. McCafferty's novels Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003), as well as authors Sophie Kinsella, Salman Rushdie, and Meg Cabot. Viswanathan apologized for her “internalization” of other authors’ language and the “inadvertent” copying which had occurred. As a result of her plagiarism, publisher Little Brown recalled the book and nixed plans to publish a sequel. Additional fallout from the scandal brought criticism of the publishing company, which was accused of bolstering the bright student’s ambitions.
Or how about spy novelist Q. R. Markham, who constructed his own book, Assassin of Secrets, from the works of other writers. The New Yorker wrote of it: "Q.R. Markham's Plagiarism Puzzle" by Macy Marker (New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2011. If you don't have the time to read the article I have cut and pasted a relevant part:
In a his 1902 essay, ‘The Psychology of Plagiarism,’ William Dean Howells wrote of a journalist who had recently been pilloried for lifting another journalist’s work, but had moved on to bigger city and a job where he wielded more influence. Plagiarizing doesn’t injure the writer, Howells thinks, “a jot in the hearts or heads of his readers,” which is fine with Howells, because he does not consider plagiarism a sin: “It seems to deprave no more than it dishonors.” The only real qualm Howells has with plagiarizing is that so many plagiarists seem to think they will not get caught. This, he writes, is illogical:

“You cannot escape discovery. The world is full of idle people reading books, and they are only too glad to act as detectives; they please their miserable vanity by showing their alertness, and are proud to hear witness against you in the court of parallel columns. You have no safety in the obscurity of the author from whom you take your own; there is always that most terrible reader, the reader of one book, who knows that very author, and will the more indecently hasten to bring you to the bar because he knows no other, and wishes to display his erudition. [Emphasis mine.]
Therein lies my case for never committing plagiarism on the scale these writers are accused of. Someone, somewhere, will have read the plagiarized book. If I plagiarized a whole work and it was published, I would spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, wondering if at any minute I was going to be served a summons for a lawsuit.

There seems to be one whole step that is skipped by writers who succumb to the lure of plagiarizing the works of others. The fact that they could get caught. And if caught, then what? A lot of embarrassment, and potential financial misery, that’s what.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

1969: One week's dead in Vietnam

I was discharged from the U.S. Army in November, 1968, after spending two years as a draftee, serving in Germany. I did not have it so tough, not as tough as some of the men I later worked with, who had served in Vietnam. One of my supervisors had been an infantryman. He went on search and destroy missions, taking fire and firing back. In comparison, my time at a desk plunking a typewriter, seems very tame. In the end, as we were often reminded, every soldier is an infantryman, can be handed a rifle and be expected to use it. I was just lucky it didn’t happen to me.

But both the combat soldiers and officer personnel were parts of the overall organization. Had I been sent to Vietnam, who knows? I might have been killed, like thousands of other men. Draftees or career soldiers, rifleman or clerk, when a bullet or a bomb gets you, you are just as dead. When I got back from the Army I immediately went into civilian mode. I wanted to forget the whole experience, and I did not want to think about the thousands of men who were sent to fight “that crazy Asian war,” as the song put it. I did not want to think about my friends from high school, or those I served with before we got our overseas orders, who did not make it back from Vietnam.

In June 1969 Life published this article, “One Week’s Dead” — and I’m sure the people who saw it were as profoundly moved as I was. We can shrug off statistics, but to see faces reminds us that soldiers are humans who come in all sizes, shapes, colors. They could be someone we knew. The main things these dead had in common was dying in a war, and being young.

I didn’t think like that then, but I think about things like that now when I look at my visiting grandchildren, or at my son or his wife. Finding this article again after 46 years brought back a lot of feelings, but my feelings are heightened by the knowledge that these men, some of them just boys, never got a chance to grow old. Their government sent them into the middle of another country’s civil war, and now they are memories, not a grandparent like me. Had they lived these young men would have been in their sixties by now. The loss of potential is devastating. Who among those boys was the scientist who would discover a cure for cancer, or win a Nobel Peace Prize, or be a writer or artist, or a policeman, fireman, factory worker, going to work every day to support his family?

One week’s dead. Multiply that week by all the weeks we spent in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1969 Time Inc.