Dallas Sirens

Arooutdoorwarningsirenund 11:45 PM night of April 7, 2017, the outdoor weather warning sirens began sounding around Dallas. It was a clear night, with no severe weather for hundreds of miles. Confused citizens called 911 to report or ask about the sirens, clogging lines and leading to
wait times exceeding six minutes. Others (like myself) called police dispatch lines and were told that nobody knew what was happening. Local news and the city were silent on all media channels – TV, web, Twitter, email, the Amber Alert system. The only sound we heard were the sirens, off and on for over an hour.

By the morning, it was reported that persons unknown had hacked into the warning system and activated the sirens. They had to be disabled manually by fire crews and would be unavailable for a few days while they investigated, updated and re-enabled the system. Thankfully, there was no severe weather predicted for this time.

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A civics lesson

We the People

I would like to take a break from my usual technology focus to talk about civics.  With the United States presidential election in full swing, I think it is important to take a minute and remember what we are really voting for.  I strongly encourage all American voters to read and understand the Constitution.  That said, I would like to point out a few things that the media and candidates seem to want you to forget:

  • The President does not have the power to wage war; only Congress may declare war and must fund it.  The President is the Commander in Chief of all armed forces, so once Congress declares war the President is responsible for prosecuting that war.
  • Only a member of the House of Representatives may initiate a “Bill for raising Revenue”. In other words, neither Senators nor the President can raise or lower taxes on anybody without a member of the House starting the process.  The “President’s tax plan” is, at best, a request or recommendation to the House.
  • The President may not sign any treaty (including international trade treaties) without the consent of the Senate.  Only Congress has the power to regulate “Commerce with foreign Nations”
  • The President may appoint Supreme Court Justices, members of the Cabinet, and other Officers of the United States, but they require the consent of the Senate to take office.
  • Only Congress may use the money in the Treasury; the President can only spend that which Congress first authorized by law.

My point is that the President can not really do much without the consent of Congress.  Yet the media, the candidates, the parties all like to imply that after the election all of the new President’s wishes will come true.  They use that to bolster their own position or try to scare you away from the other candidate.

We focus so much attention and scrutiny on every word that the candidates say, every action they have ever taken, analyze every moment from the primaries to election day.  We carefully consider our choice for President, then go and vote “party lines” on every other election.

Did you know that you are represented by 2 Senators and 1 Representative?  Can you name them?  One of them?  Do you know what that person stands for?  If they have ever declared bankruptcy or been investigated by Congress?  (I’m not proud to admit that I can’t answer these questions either.)

Amendment X of the Constitution reads “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  This means that anything not explicitly listed as a Federal right in the Constitution is governed by the states.  Do you know how you are represented in your state?  Have you ever considered who you are voting for in statewide elections?  Can you name your Governor?

As voters we all have an awesome right and responsibility to choose who sets the rules that we live by.  We are not powerless, but we are often mindless.  The media and major parties do little to inform us because it is complicated, expensive and not flashy to talk about the 535 members of Congress or the thousands of statewide officials.  The Presidential election is flashy and entertaining.  Please go vote in November.  People have died to give you that right and people in other nations die every day trying to get it for themselves.  But before you do, educate yourself on who you are voting for and what they can do.  The President is important but only one part of a complex system that governs our land.

Vote411 is a nonpartisan voter information site run by the League of Women Voters.  There you can find details about registration, polling places, and early or mail-in voting.  Closer to the election they publish briefings on each candidate including biographical information and general positions, tailored for your particular ballot.  It is a great resource to study before going to the polls!


How I learned to start worrying and fear the Cloud

Years ago, a service called Dropbox launched, offering storage in a remote cloud for free. Dropbox also keeps files synchronized on every registered device. No longer would I have to wonder which computer had the latest version of a file; backups were a thing of the past. I jumped in with both feet and uploaded everything – photos, tax returns, resumes and old college homework assignments. Later, Apple joined in with services like iCloud and iTunes Match. Each promised access to all of my data from any device at any time. I started using them all!

In August, 2014, Apple’s iCloud service was compromised and hundreds of very private celebrity photos were leaked. While me and my photos are of little interest to the world, I decided to take a break from iCloud and pulled all of my photos to local storage and Dropbox. I still had faith in the Cloud at large because I knew where my data was and how to keep it safe.

About a month later, I received a very personal text message from a friend that was intended for someone else. Honorable guy that I am, I deleted it from my phone immediately. Later that evening, I opened my iPad only to find the same message there. When I got home a few days later, I booted my MacBook and another copy was delivered to iMessage there as well. I realized that those messages were out in the cloud too!

Since this realization, I have taken stock of what services I count on use the cloud. Some, like Dropbox, are easy to replace with a home NAS. Others, like iMessage are easy to turn off but so useful that it is hard to let them go. Another group, including services like Nest and ADT Pulse are much harder to move locally. These last two also present a threat to the physical world as well as the digital. A hacker that compromises them will know when I am and am not home and can use that information to do me harm.

At this point, I think a wholesale abandonment of the Cloud is premature and reactionary. That said, a healthy bit of fear and respect for the amount of information that we are releasing to the world is called for. Continued pressure on the keepers of that data to protect it with every means at their disposal is key to improvement. Hopefully, some future day will find us uploading our lives to a safe and secure Cloud; until then always think before you type and check your message destinations twice.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Tis the season for well wishes and controversy.  Will “Merry Christmas” offend?  Is “Happy Holidays” too generic?  Who can say “Happy Hanukkah” and to whom? What does “Season’s Greetings” even mean?  Not surprisingly, each and every holiday greeting can offend somebody.  Personally, I use both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” and I think everybody should relax, accept the well wishes, and bring some joy to the season.

From me, “Merry Christmas” is not an evangelization or suggestion that one should be or is Christian.  No one can deny that December 25 is labeled Christmas the world over.  In the West, most businesses are closed, giving people time to spend with family and friends.  “Merry Christmas” may as well be “Have fun on December 25”.

“Happy Holidays” is considered by some to be somehow ignoring or hiding Christmas.  I see it as shorthand.  This time of year encompasses Christmas, the New Year, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Festivus and the Winter Solstice.  Rather than enumerate them or try to determine which are appropriate, Happy Holidays can be a real time saver.

I am constantly bemused by mankind’s ability to vilify innocent gestures.  This time of year is hard enough with the stresses of travel and the end of the work year, with winter storms, short days and long nights.  When a friend or coworker or stranger wishes you well, please consider that they are just trying to bring a bit of light and warmth to a season of darkness and cold.  Unless you’re in the south of the equator where I can only wonder what they think of White Christmas.