Archive | June 2015

For our own protection?

Admiral Michael Rogers. Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers.
Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers will do his utmost to protect Americans from terrorism. But he would never want the price of security to be the basic liberties that Americans hold dear.

“I don’t want to compromise who we are or what we are,” Rogers said. “As long as we can find something in the middle, I can live with that.”

Rogers is Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service. Yesterday he spoke in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Cleveland Clinic’s Ideas for Tomorrow Series. The Cleveland Council on World Affairs was a sponsoring partner for the event.

Rogers admitted that NSA has been involved in a great deal of controversy lately. But, he cautioned, people should not believe everything they hear or read in the press.

“We are a foreign intelligence surveillance organization,” Rogers said. “It is illegal” to collect data on domestic persons, he added.

But, he noted, there is an exception: The agency can go to a judge and seek access to data for a specific phone number if it can demonstrate a connection between someone with that phone number and a person believed to be involved in terrorism activities. And, Rogers added, recent executive directives and changes in the law require people outside the NSA to review and approve any such information requests before the NSA can get the data and then access it.

“I would vote for him,” one person said at a reception following the event.

“I don’t trust him,” someone else answered, noting that Rogers left a lot unsaid.

Ironically, the night before Rogers’ talk I’d just finished reading Rachel Bohlen’s debut novel, The Historian. No, this is not Elizabeth Kostova’s 600-plus page vampire book from 2005. Bohlen’s 2014 book bills itself as speculative fiction about time travel, but it’s more of a political thriller. Bohlen’s friendship with my daughter was a big factor motivating me to purchase the book, and I could see how it reflects Bohlen’s background as an attorney and as an alumna of Xavier University’s honors program.

In the book’s near-future setting of Washington, D.C., a Department of Time has the country’s only time machine and its security forces will stop at nothing to thwart anyone suspected of possible time travel terrorism. Those efforts include extensive searches and surveillance to thwart any possibility of time travel terrorism—defined to include even public criticism of the government. Life imprisonment or death is the punishment for a conviction.

Bohlen’s heroine, Emilia Falk, describes herself as a mere historian at the Department of Time, working away in her cubicle on classified and probably pointless research projects. Like most people, she pretty much accepts the secrecy and tight security measures for everything even remotely related to the Department of Time—until her own sister is accused of time terrorism.

Like Rogers, the character who heads the Department of Time is charming and reassures the public in all his statements that the government is only acting within the bounds of the law. Yet while media reports about nonclassified NSA activities are certainly not a crime in the real world, Rogers is clearly concerned about some of those reports.

“I have watched targets…change their behavior as a result of these revelations” about certain technology details and other things, Rogers said. “For those who would say this hasn’t had an impact, clearly you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

However, curtailing discussions about nonclassified technology could threaten freedom of speech and of the press. The practice of science, which relies on open discussion and peer review, could suffer as well.

“Personally, for me, I do not want another major terrorism event on my watch,” Rogers said. He stressed again that the NSA acts within the bounds of the law, subject to both congressional oversight and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of the public approves of the job Congress is doing, according to the Gallup Poll. And ex parte proceedings and a high government “win rate” have led some to question whether the FISA court is a “rubber stamp” for the government.

“The very mechanisms we put in place to engender trust in this world today don’t have that trust,” Rogers noted. Even if everyone in the NSA is in fact following the law, that’s a problem.




Choosing the lineup

Lake Erie Crushers' first baseman Joey Burney at bat against the Washington Wild Things. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Crushers’ Joey Burney at bat against the Wild Things.  Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Serious baseball fans don’t just watch the game. They learn background about players, teams and opponents. Many seem to second-guess coaches’ and managers’ decisions too. “Why is he playing this guy today?” a fan might ask when the clean-up guy in the lineup is someone who’s been in a slump. “Get someone warming up!” another fan shouts when the pitcher walks another batter.

Now a new business idea from America’s Ball Club and the Lake Erie Crushers of Avon, Ohio, gives fans the opportunity to vote as a group on one aspect of the game for an actual professional team—the starting lineup.

Fans who pay a membership fee would get to come up with three or four lineups for each game. The manager would then choose from among those for each remaining game in the season.

“He already makes out a few different lineups for the game and then makes the decision at the last minute” of which one to go with, explains Michael Waghalter of America’s Ball Club. Waghalter and colleague Kevin Barber were in town this month to promote the idea with a pre-game picnic and meet-and-greet with several players from the Crushers.

Unlike previous fan involvement promotions, America’s Ball Club is not currently looking to have fans vote on decisions during the game. Rather, the idea is to engage serious fans to boost their enjoyment of the game. The concept would also share some of that hive’s collective wisdom with team management. Unlike teams in Major League Baseball that have big budgets for statistical and other kinds of analyses, that’s not the case for clubs in independent leagues like the Crushers’ Frontier League.

“When you have baseball right here in your backyard, why not get involved and have a say in their success?” asks Barber. “I think it has a place in this league in this baseball world.”

“I like the idea because it gets people more involved. At this point, why not?” says Crushers player Joey Burney, who played first base at that night’s game against the Washington Wild Things. “I don’t think they would ever put a lineup out there that’s unheard of.”

The membership fee would help guard against that, Waghalter and Barber noted, while also covering expenses so the business could become profitable.

“The upside is it gets the fans more involved,” says Crushers pitcher Trevor Longfellow. “We’ve been struggling fanbase-wide, but I think that will help out with it.”

And the downside? “I don’t really know,” Longfellow says. “It’s more of a positive than a negative, that’s for sure.” He does note, though, that there’s a lot that goes into designing really good lineups.

“If you’re just looking at the statistics, you can’t really tell how a guy does against certain pitches,” Longfellow says. Slumps and streaks matter too. Even a really good pitcher can have bad statistics after one or two bad outings.

“There are diehard fans out there, and they put a lot of time and effort into the game,” notes relief pitcher Brad Duffy, who also likes the idea.

Interestingly, Duffy says he’s not someone who does extensive pre-game analysis and “likes to know everything about everyone” before taking the mound. As a reliever, his job is to go out and help his team in whatever situation the game presents at that moment. Thus, he says he takes each game play by play. “Here’s what I have to do one pitch at a time.”

America’s Ball Club hopes fans can start voting on lineups sometime in July, although whether that happens depends largely on whether the group meets its $75,000 Indiegogo goal. Watch for more in a future blog post here.

Meanwhile, both Crushers’ management and players hope the idea will attract fans to the games.

“I’ll do anything if it gets fans in the stands,” says Burney. “It’s hard to get all pumped up for something if you don’t have fans in the stands.”

And if the America’s Ball Club idea takes off, many of those fans won’t just be sitting in the stands.

“Now they’re looking at the statistics. They’re looking at the lineup,” says Burney. “It’s a baseball experience on steroids.”

What’s been going on?

While the posts here have been sparse, I’ve nonetheless been busy.

Our family has had a variety of big events and trips. In between, I’ve been tackling a variety of creative cooking adventures, home organizing projects, and sewing endeavors.

On the work front, I’ve had lots of interesting work projects, ranging from the intrigue of state politics and various economic issues to microbiology, neuroscience and environmental issues. I’ve also gotten to go on some extremely intriguing field trip experiences, including a tour of labs at the Cleveland Clinic, an old pig iron blast furnace plant, and a wonderful winter workshop that was put together by the great folks at the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Things should be getting back to normal now, though, so watch for some really fun columns coming up in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, if you want to catch up on a few of my other projects over the last few months, check out the following:

Ditching farm pollution—literally.” Science News for Students, April 17, 2015.

Silencing genes—to understand them.” Science News for Students, March 27, 2015.

3-D recycling: Grind, melt, print!Science News for Students, March 24, 2015.

Report finds fault with Ohio pipeline routes for fracked gas.” Midwest Energy News, June 2, 2015.

Net metering going under the microscope in Ohio.” Midwest Energy News, May 18, 2015.

Thanks for your patience! Watch for more original content coming here soon.