Archive

October 8th, 2016

Hacking isn't the voting system's biggest problem

    Donald Trump keeps saying that the U.S. presidential election is rigged. Unlikely as this is, the perception of a hacked vote may be more dangerous than the reality.

    Last week, a Homeland Security Department official revealed that hackers had been poking around in the voter registration systems of more than 20 states. An earlier FBI memo disclosed ongoing investigations of breaches involving voter databases in Arizona and Illinois. All this suggests that hackers may be searching for a way to access election management systems -- computers that run the software to create ballots and tabulate votes.

    At the Intelligence and National Security Summit last month, FBI Director James Comey reassured the audience of the integrity of the country's electoral system: "The beauty of the American voting system is that it's diverse among the 50 states and it's clunky as heck." Clunky is rarely a confidence-inspiring term. A Ford Pinto is also clunky as heck. It's certainly insulated from internet hackers, but many other things can go wrong as a result of its clunkiness.

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The Blot on Obama’s Legacy

    Our excuse for failing to respond to mass atrocities used to be that we didn’t fully appreciate the horrors until it was too late. “If only we had known,” became one refrain, along with, “Never again!”

    In Syria, we are deprived of that excuse: We have a daily window into war crimes. If you’re on Twitter, follow a 7-year-old girl in Aleppo, Bana al-Abed, @alabedbana, who with her mom’s help is tweeting the carnage around her.

    One tweet shows a video clip of Bana looking out the window and plugging her ears as bombs drop. “I am very afraid I will die tonight,” she worried in imperfect English. “This bombs will kill me now.”

    “This is my friend house bombed,” Bana tweeted with a photo. “She’s killed. I miss her so much.”

    Her mother, Fatemah, an English teacher who has been teaching Bana English for several years, chimes in as well.

    “Sleeping as you can hear the bombs fall,” Fatemah tweeted. “I will tweet tomorrow if we are alive.”

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Team Trump rebukes Hillary Clinton, sounds like a defense

    I grabbed my ear lobe and jiggled it in disbelief of the words I was hearing from former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's mouth.

    Giuliani, a surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, was responding to a very good question from NBC's "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd on Sunday morning.

    Todd wanted to know whether Giuliani's own history of marital infidelity disqualified him to be "the right person" to lead the Trump campaign's latest tactic: criticizing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's response to her husband then-president Bill Clinton's sexual behavior with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.

    "You have your own infidelities, sir," Todd reminded the former mayor.

    "Everybody does," Giuliani casually responded. "You know, I'm a Roman Catholic, and I confess those things to my priest."

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Some Democrats stay quiet on voting reforms

    Remember how some Democrats were making a big deal about voting reforms earlier this year? They promised that if they won they would push for automatic voter registration, voting for ex-felons and better administration of elections.

    The good news for advocates of making voting easier is that the Democratic national platform wound up having a strong plank supporting reform. And Hillary Clinton has spoken out on the topic.

    But other Democratic candidates appear to be less enthusiastic.

    I've concluded this by looking at candidate websites to determine which topics they find important. Of the 13 candidates most likely to become new Democratic senators in 2017, only four mention voting topics at all in the issue sections of their sites. And only Patrick Murphy in Florida and Kamala Harris in California offer extensive lists of proposals, going beyond the usual opposition to voter ID requirements and support for giving former felons the right to cast ballots. The others? Nothing.

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Robots could eventually replace soldiers in warfare. Is that a good thing?

    The United States has on its Aegis-class cruisers a defense system that can track and destroy anti-ship missiles and aircraft. Israel has developed a drone, the Harpy, that can detect and automatically destroy radar emitters. South Korea has security-guard robots on its border with North Korea that can kill humans.

    All of these can function autonomously - without any human intention.

    Indeed, the early versions of the Terminator are already here. And there are no global conventions limiting their use. They deploy artificial intelligence to identify targets and make split-second decisions on whether to attack.

    The technology is still imperfect, but it is becoming increasingly accurate - and lethal. Deep learning has revolutionized image classification and recognition and will soon allow these systems to exceed the capabilities of an average human soldier.

    But are we ready for this? Do we want Robocops policing our cities? The consequences, after all, could be very much like we've seen in dystopian science fiction. The answer surely is no.

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Presidential Contest Is All Over But The Counting

   Two weeks ago, a woman from New Jersey approached me in The Spaniard, a pub and restaurant in Kinsale, Ireland.

    "You look Irish," she said, "but you sound American."

    "That's easily explained," I answered.

    All eight of my great-grandparents emigrated from Cork and Kerry to the United States during the late 19th century. Over there, I'm an ethnic stereotype: a burly fellow with thick white hair wearing a collarless blue shirt from a local shop. Everybody looks like my cousin.

    Frankly, we'd decided to spend time in Kinsale, a fishing port and resort town on Ireland's southern coast, to try it on for size. When we'd visited there 10 years ago, I'd felt very much at home. If push came to shove, how might it feel to live there?

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Pence’s Ugly Assignment

    Back when Mike Pence hosted a talk radio show in the 1990s, he described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”

    For much of Tuesday night, he was like Forrest Gump on chamomile, squarely and steadily plodding forward, seldom tugged from his talking points and never particularly rattled. His expression was a sort of upbeat blur. His voice was a lulling drone.

    It wasn’t exactly a vivid performance, but it was an eerily consistent one, and it answered the question of how a man who supposedly prides himself on his virtue defends a running mate who is often bereft of it. He sets his jaw. He slows his pulse. He practices a bemused chuckle, perfects deafness to anything he prefers not to hear and purges from his memory anything he doesn’t want to own.

    That included the whole grotesque cornucopia of Donald Trump’s slurs and bad behavior, which Tim Kaine had studied up on exhaustively, knew by heart and kept throwing at Pence, pressing for the barest glimmer of shame or the slightest hint of apology. It was pointless — a point that Kaine himself made about an hour into this exercise in futility.

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Mike Pence just revealed the core weakness of Trump's candidacy

    Mike Pence put on a reasonably strong debate performance this week -- stronger, in key ways, than that of Tim Kaine. But in so doing, Pence inadvertently revealed the fundamental weakness of his running mate's whole candidacy. This weakness is surmountable, and Donald Trump could still win. But right now, it looks more likely that Trump won't surmount it -- and once you get past the noise and spin enveloping Tuesday night's festivities, what you see is that fundamental weakness sitting right there in plain sight once again.

    During the debate, by my count, Tim Kaine reminded the national audience of Trump's attacks on Mexican immigrants no less than five times. He revived Trump's attacks on a Mexican-American judge twice. He criticized Trump's misogynistic quotes twice and quoted Trump's suggestion that women should be punished for abortions once. He blasted Trump's birtherism three times, in one case flatly describing it as bigoted. And he aired Trump's plans for mass deportations five times.

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How to upgrade America's 'Third World' airports

    It's the one opinion that Donald Trump and his opponents seem to share: America's airports are so bad, it's like "they're from a Third World country," as Trump said in the first debate. Vice President Joe Biden used the same phrase to describe New York's LaGuardia two years ago. Much of the flying public seems to roughly agree.

    The sentiment is understandable if you've recently transited through a gleaming airport in Singapore, Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. Where LaGuardia has low-end souvenir shops, grim food courts and cramped concourses, these airports have butterfly gardens, jungle trails and sound-proofed, WiFi-enabled snooze cubes. It's enough to drive a frequent flier to distraction. And it makes you wonder why the world's biggest economy can't keep pace.

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Don't worry, millennial underachievers: It's always been tough to figure out your life

    Stepping into my college library one autumn Sunday, I heard an officer's police radio crackle to life: "Girl missing, left Manhattan dorm to teach class in Brooklyn this morning, never arrived." It took only a few seconds to realize the girl was me.

    The year was 1980, and I was a freshman. I had awoken earlier that morning terrified at the thought of going to my part-time job teaching 12-year-olds about the Holocaust at a Hebrew school in Brooklyn, a position I'd talked myself into in August but was utterly unqualified for. So I decided to skip work.

    That morning, I'd pretended to head to the job, bidding my roommates farewell with a backpack slung over my shoulder. But instead of catching the subway to Brooklyn as I normally did, I walked to a diner and lingered for hours at a scratched Formica table, eating scrambled eggs, sipping free coffee refills from a chipped ceramic mug and completing the easy answers in the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, ones with clues like "________ the Hun."

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