President Obama has signed the payroll tax cut extension into law, ending months of struggle over the issue. Here's a handy rundown on where it leaves the key players.[...]
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According to reports, Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA recently briefed the President on a possible attack on the US power grid by the hacker collective 'Anonymous'.
These reports have been taken as an excuse for ridicule of purported 'fear-mongering'. Apparently on the basis that those Anonymous types must be good guys, they tell us so.
I don't work for the NSA but I have worked in the civil field for twenty years and I know quite a bit about the way the NSA works. The idea that Alexander would give a warning limited to attacks by anonymous is nonsense. Hactivism has been a factor in information security for decades. The real development in recent years has been the emergence of attacks by state actors and their proxies.
Iran believes (and not without cause) that the US was behind the Stuxnet attack on their uranium enrichment plant. It does not take much imagination to think that they might attempt retaliation. Nor is Anonymous the only hacktivist group in existence. There are hundreds, thousands of similar groups around the world and
The underlying problem here that nobody disputes is that the US power system is vulnerable to cyber attack. The network protocols used in process control systems have not changed since they were developed in the late 1970s and none of them have security controls built in. This is worrying enough if you want to use a PID controller to cook your dinner sous-vide: an attacker can now reprogram your set point temperature and give you botulism. But the exact same systems are in use in power plants round the country, including nuclear plants.
The possibility of a successful attack against the power grid is not in serious dispute, what is open for debate is the extent of the likely consequences.
According to one school of thought, an attack on the power system would lead to the collapse of civilization within three months. I have been in meetings where the argument has been made that the response to an attack on the power grid should be to suspend the constitution and declare martial law. My view is that like J. Edgar Hoover, such people are a greater threat to the republic than the enemies they purport to protect us against.
A more realistic assessment of the likely consequences would be that they are serious but the risk of over-reaction is even more so. The actual consequences of 9/11 were bad but the consequences of the Bush administration response were far worse. A cascade outage in the power system could kill hundreds of people but using the event as a pretext to declare martial law would lead to civil war.
Another view, one that I think is under-considered in US policy circles is the possibility that the real threat to the US might come from an attack on the power system in another country.
Take China for example. The possibility of a war between the US and China is very remote because the two countries are far apart and there is really no incentive for either to get into a territorial dispute with the other. China understands the US position on Taiwan just as the US understands the Chinese position on North Korea. The chance of either leading to war is as remote as the possibility of the UK going to war with Spain over Gibraltar.
The possibility of war between China and Russia is much less remote and such a war would be a global catastrophe. Part of the legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union is the tangle of remnant states bordering the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are largely unfamiliar to us. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Carter, has called this region the Global Balkans. It is an apt name for an area that like the former Yugoslavia has yet to properly complete the transition from the Soviet system and where ethnic rivalries are stoked for political ends. Some of the ethnic groups are Russian, others are Han Chinese. There is a real risk that some crisis in the Global Balakans might lead to Russian or Chinese intervention and possibly war between Russia and China.
One possible scenario for such a conflict is that Russia (or China if you prefer) decides it must intervene and launches a 'digital Pearl Harbor' attack against China to ensure that it is otherwise occupied. Like the US power system, the Chinese power system uses 1970s control protocols such as MODBUS which lack security controls like authenticating the source of command signals. Unlike the US, China is in no position to fix this problem having relied on copied and stolen technology for decades.
Why is this a problem for the US? Well first a war between Russia and China would be a global catastrophe and could even lead to a world war. But also, if you are a Chinese strategist facing this particular problem your security options are rather limited. There is really no time to develop the necessary engineering design skills and then apply them to a new generation of control systems infrastructure which might be deployable in 2030 or so. If I was facing that particular problem I would take a completely different approach and seek to turn my problem into someone else's problem. For example, by hacking the US and Western countries power systems forcing them to come up with technology that I could then steal and apply to my own infrastructure.
In conclusion, this is precisely the type of security issue that I would want security advisors such as Alexander to be thinking about and discussing with the President because that reduces the risk of the type of panicked reaction that led to disaster under the Bush administration.
The Democrats are desperate to hold onto the Senate, something that looks next to impossible. Half a dozen Democrats (+ Lieberman) are retiring, 2 in solidly red states (Nebraska and North Dakota) and 3 in toss-up states (New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin). 16 Democrats are seeking reelection, two of whom-- Claire McCaskill (MO) and John Tester (MT) are in deep trouble. Only 2 Republicans are retiring, both in solidly red seats and without plausible Democratic opposition (Texas and Arizona). And only 8 Republicans are defending their seats, only one-- Scott Brown (MA)-- in a tough general election race. Everything has to break for the Democrats that conceivably could for them to hold onto the Senate. Does that ever happen?
The Democrats have decided to contest North Dakota's open seat and seem to be ignoring the possibility of denying Maine Senator Olympia Snowe reelection. How smart is that? In 2008, Obama lost North Dakota to John McCain 45-53%. He only took 13 of the state's 54 counties. And then, in 2010, the state's at-large incumbent congressman, conservative Democrat Earl Pomeroy, was trounced by the Majority Leader of the state House of Representatives, Rick Berg, 45-55%. Things don't appear all that blue in North Dakota. On the other hand, also in 2008, Obama beat McCain decisively in Maine, 58-40%, winning every county but one-- sparely populated Piscataquis (and even that was close). Both the state's congressmembers are Democrats, conservative Mike Michaud and liberal Chellie Pingree. Even in the midst of the Tea Party debacle that swept Maine in 2010, Pingree was reelected with 57% and Michaud won with 55%.
Democrats are counting on former North Dakota Attorney General (and failed gubernatorial candidate) Heidi Heitkamp to beat current Republican Congressman Rick Berg for that open Senate seat. It's almost as if their whole strategy for holding the Senate majority depends on it. They'll be appealing to the same voters who elected Berg last year. No one thinks they have a chance-- not even a small chance, even though Berg has turned out to be a dud.
And no one is paying much attention to Maine. Everyone's afraid of 3-term incumbent Olympia Snowe. Last time she ran, in 2006, she crushed the Democrat, Jean Hay Bright, 398,723 (74%) to 109,727 (21%). This time she has two inconsequential teabaggers running against her, Scott D'Amboise in the GOP primary and Andrew Ian Dodge, as an independent (an independent as of yesterday). Dodge says he unenrolled as a Republican because of the debacle of the botched-- possibly stolen-- caucuses.
On Wednesday, Dodge, 43, said he's been a registered Republican since he turned 18. He said he decided to leave the party after the Maine GOP's handling of the nonbinding caucuses, which was criticized for disenfranchising voters.
The party initially didn't count voting results from some towns and counties in the final tally, and declared Mitt Romney the winner. Critics claimed it was an effort by party leaders to bolster Romney, the so-called establishment presidential pick.
Last week, besieged GOP Chairman Charlie Webster responded to those complaints, saying some of the votes had been lost in his e-mail spam folder.
Dodge didn't buy that excuse, nor did he appreciate what he described as Webster's "patronizing attitude" toward those who were upset by how the caucuses were handled.
"Webster belittled members of his own party to save his own skin," Dodge said. "He said people who were complaining were wing nuts... I joined the tea party because we were bringing people into the Republican party. What the Maine GOP is doing is exactly the opposite."
Dodge added that Webster's excuse that caucus results went into a "spam folder" was "so bad it's beyond comment."
Webster and other GOP state party leaders did eventually agree to recount all caucus votes and to include late caucus votes in the final tally. Romney was still declared the winner.
Dodge also said he didn't believe he'd receive a fair shot in the GOP primary. "This whole thing is about Snowe getting re-elected now," he said.
Opposing the Bush tax cuts, he said, was a "no brainer" based on costs to the Federal Treasury and effects on the economy. Regarding the Medicare Part D benefit, "I'm not that keen on unpaid-for expensive things, I know that comes back to bite us later; and secondly it was a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies, part of my legal career has been doing legal battle with pharmaceutical companies over defective drugs and medical devices, and I'm not inclined to sweeten the deal with taxpayer money and pay them off."
Hinck's list of Snowe's wrong votes, he said, contributed to the current federal fiscal climate.
"If we did not do those three things, if the votes against them had prevailed, we would not be in the budget crisis that we are today," he said. "Our current senator was on the wrong side of those votes, and the consequences of us going the wrong way are stunning and enormous."
The Life Sciences Report: John, I’m looking at a basket of biotech stocks that I follow, and it is down about 60% since the beginning of August 2008, and this even includes the recent strong uptick. What is going on?
John McCamant: I would say I’m surprised that it’s only down 60%, given that this has been far and away the worst economic period of our lifetimes. The fundamental question is: did these companies wreck 60% of their value over the last three years? Is this industry in its totality worth 60% less? Was it extremely overvalued in 2008? We could debate that. But, I would certainly argue that over the last three years with so many advances in . . . → Read More: Biotech Stocks Start Strong in 2012: John McCamant
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By Tony Palumbi
On Valentine?s Day, in a bid to complicate human relationships everywhere, the eminent video game developer Bioware released the demo for Mass Effect 3. The game doesn?t drop until the first week of March, but the Texas-based company has gone against convention and released an all-out demo a full week in advance. It?s much appreciated?the developer-side and PR concerns with a demo are so huge that hardly anyone bothers?and entirely appropriate, given Bioware?s status as a throwback company. In an age when gaming seems to be roaring towards Angry Birds and other casual fare, they?ve kept their commitment to thoughtful, plot-intensive products.
Through all their success, the Mass Effect series has carried the banner. Released as an Xbox 360 exclusive with little fanfare, the original Mass Effect sold over two million copies on that console (http://www.examiner.com/video-game-in-national/mass-effect-series-sales-total-over-7-million) and benefitted from a great port to the PC. Fantasy settings are everywhere in gaming, but Mass Effect offered something rare: a serious sci-fi setting with the Hollywood-caliber visuals and voice acting to back it up. Commander Shepard, the brave hero, traveled around the galaxy setting wrongs right and learning about the coming existential threat: The Reapers, an unstoppable armada of life-hating robots.
So what about the demo? It?s evolution; the exact kind of evolution you want to see in a sequel. In the modern gaming industry, sequels are everything. A game like Mass Effect costs as much as a low-end Hollywood feature film?tens of millions. If you?re going to be hiring Seth Green and Martin Sheen for voice acting, you need to make it economically feasible. Why not hire Seth Green for three games, keep much of the same development team for three games, and plow your dollars into refining a single product your audience already believes in? Gamers lament the sequel-ization of the industry, but they buy sequels in far greater numbers than original products. To that end, the third Mass Effect game does what the second did: retain the amazing universe, expand upon it, develop characters, and make the action one HELL of a lot better.
In Mass Effect 3, combat is far less wooden and more kinetic than in the second?which improved on the now-tragic mechanics of the first game. The original Mass Effect planted an amazing seed, but it?s almost unplayable now. In the new game, Shepard?s movement is much faster and more fluid. He (or she!) can easily glide from cover to cover, sprinting and vaulting and rolling as needed to evade enemy fire. Melee attacks at close range are more important, and Shepard even has the amazing Omni-Blade for toe-curling close-range brutality. Weapons are more diverse and distinct; powers are more fun and more effective. You?ll get a chance to play through a section at the game?s start and another in its heart?in both cases, the skill trees for Shepard and his allies should get RPGers excited.
Mass Effect 2 allowed players to import their characters from the first title, which was an amazing feature that opened up a whole new level of immersion for series fans. Decisions you make in one game persist into the next; characters remember everything you?ve done. It continues into ME3, meaning that true fanatics will have to go back to the very first game for a truly ?fresh? playthrough. Well played, Bioware?though it remains to be seen just how much these things affect the actual game. If there?s an entire Rachni angle for the main story, I?ll raise my glass to the folks in Austin.
I don?t want to say a lot about the first demo section. It?s the Reaper invasion of Earth, and it?s very Hollywood. The great Keith David even features prominently, reprising his role as Admiral Anderson. It?s not until the second part of the demo that you get into the meat of the game, trying to spring a Krogan female from a Salarian prison. Lest you thought this was a Halo 2-style ?defense of Earth? game, be relieved: Shepard hooks up with the Normandy and gets back up to his galactic travels. Also, fans of the series will have noted something a couple sentences back: a Krogan female! I doubt she?ll be a party member, but this is the first time a Krogan female has ever enjoyed a speaking role. Krogan women are kept as chattel by the males of their species?a condition deeply rooted in their cultural history, which is described here (http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Krogan) and is fascinating. Suffice it to say, they are the ultimate victims of the law of unintended consequences. To have a Krogan female speaking and acting for herself is unthinkable, and I?m excited for what lies in store.
One last feature of the demo: it debuts the new ?game types? on offering from Bioware. Specifically, the user can pick between three playstyles: Action, Classic, and Story. Classic speaks for itself?it?s the way Mass Effect, Dragon Age, KOTOR, TOR, and every other Bioware game functions. Combat is adjustable, and you handle all the story and customization yourself. But not everyone?s into that?some folks just want to plow through a great action blockbuster after work. In Action mode, they can blast bad guys at any difficulty setting and view the dialogue as passive cinematics. Other folks (Alyssa?) get anxious or wound-up by intense combat. For them, Story mode allows the full breadth of character development with relatively trivial combat. It?s a great attempt to pull in new fans to the series, though I wonder how many people like my sister (solidly in the Story Mode camp) will dive into the third-and-final incarnation of an alien series.
Mass Effect is the most serious science fiction series in recent gaming history. It takes seriously the limitations of technology and interstellar travel. It builds a sense of scale and age in its own fantastic universe that few series would even attempt. Most of all, it takes alien races seriously. They have their own histories, often intertwined with one other, and the universe is so big that Shepard can credibly learn about these things along with the audience. The Mass Effect universe is filled with amazing and diverse races, who speak and think and act according to their own rules. This ain?t Star Trek, where every alien is a person in makeup. As someone pithily said in the great Gregory Benford novel, Great Sky River, ?The thing about aliens is, they?re alien.? Mass Effect gives the universe space (HAH! Space.) to be weird and cool and diverse and unique: everything we love about the best science fiction. Bioware, as an industry leader in sexual progressivity, gives Shepard license to romance and bang just about any character of any gender or species. You?re also given an amazing opportunity to shoot an awful lot of things in the face with some really sweet guns. Maybe you?re not into sci-fi, or into games. They aren?t for everyone. But Mass Effect 3 will be a phenomenon. Beneath all the familiar video game and Hollywood trappings is the most honest big-media successor Asimov, Niven, Benford and Bear you?re going to see in a long time. With the series ending, it might be even longer.
Tony Palumbi is an author based in San Mateo, California. He’s the author of the marine science book Shark and Awe to be released 2013 by Princeton University Press. His is also the person who introduced me to Starship Troopers.
The Virginia Senate sent a bill that would have a recognized life as beginning at conception back to committee this afternoon, effectively killing the “personhood” bill for the 2012 legislative session. The bill’s sponsor can bring it back for consideration next year. By granting fetuses the rights of American citizens, the measure would have outlawed abortion, banned contraception, and even prevented couples from using IVF for fertility treatment. This victory for women’s health in Virginia comes a day after Gov. Bob McDonnell backtracked from his support for a bill requiring women to undergo invasive ultrasounds before receiving an abortion and forced legislators to strip that portion of the measure. Activists are still pushing anti-abortion bills round the country, however, with state legislators in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Washington, and Wisconsin considering personhood legislation.
In an address on energy policy at the University of Miami, President Barack Obama mocked the GOP drumbeat for a drill-baby-drill response to rising gas prices. Noting that “it’s an election year,” Obama alluded to Newt Gingrich’s promise to deliver $2.50 gas with a return of drill-everywhere platform. Obama described the “three-point plans for $2 gas”: “Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling.”
“The American people aren’t stupid,” Obama said. Drill, baby, drill is “bumper sticker, not a strategy to solve our energy challenge”:
I mean, the American people aren?t stupid. They know that?s not a plan ? especially since we?re already drilling. That?s a bumper sticker. It?s not a strategy to solve our energy challenge. That?s a strategy to get politicians through an election. You know there are no quick fixes to this problem. You know we can?t just drill our way to lower gas prices. If we?re going to take control of our energy future, and can start avoiding these annual gas price spikes that happen every year when the economy starts getting better, world demand starts increasing, turmoil in the Middle East or some other parts of the world, if we’re going to stop being at the mercy of these world events, then we need a sustained, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy ? oil, gas, wind, solar, and nuclear, and biofuels, and more. We need to keep developing the technology that allows us to use less oil in our cars and trucks, less energy for our buildings and our plants and our factories. That?s the strategy we?re pursuing, and that?s the only real solution to this challenge.
In his speech, Obama also noted the role of Wall Street speculators who now dominate oil markets and called for an end to the “outrageous” billions in tax subsidies the massively profitable oil companies receive from the American people.
“Friends of Syria,” a coalition of Western and Arab nations, will demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad implement an immediate ceasefire and allow relief supplies to reach civilians. The coalition, which will meet in Tunis tomorrow, will “[recognize] the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” according to a draft declaration obtained by Reuters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a press conference in London today, warned that “There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures.”
When the Obama administration announced in August that it would be conducting a case-by case review of active deportations, this seemed to ensure same-sex binational couples would have the opportunity to stay together, especially given that the working group included an LGBT liaison. Though the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents the federal government from granting green cards to foreign-born same-sex spouses, advocates argued that those cases could be deemed low priority and at the very least delayed until the law is changed or found unconstitutional by the courts. Immigration and Customs Enforcement even agreed to defend same-sex couples from deportation.
But according to a report from The Advocate’s Andrew Harmon, the Obama administration seems to have dismissed this approach. At a January high-level meeting with LGBT groups, White House officials rejected a hold on green card petitions from the same-sex binational couples, arguing they had to enforce DOMA. Advocates have pointed out that the White House can avoid denying green card applications without granting permanent residency ? that extended limbo is still better for couples than the immediate threat of deportation. In fact, as Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, told Harmon, this decision is a complete reversal of the support the administration had been giving:
TIVEN: We wanted to make clear to the administration that this is a priority for us, that it?s a new big ask of the LGBT community. In many, many meetings over the past six months, with different players and different agencies, [the administration] has been quick to say, without hesitation, that our legal arguments are quite sound. So it?s frustrating to hear this idea from them that it?s basically no big deal for individuals to fall out of lawful status.
Congressional leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senators John Kerry (D-MA) Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have spoken out on behalf of couples who face the threat of deportation. Though some couples have been spared deportation in high-profile cases, Immigration Equality estimates there are some 36,000 couples at risk or already living in exile.