- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:

(Meriden) Record-Journal (Conn.), Dec. 11, 2016

On Sunday, Dec. 4, an armed man burst into a popular Washington, D.C., pizza place with his sights set on breaking up a child sex trafficking ring being run out of the establishment.

The man’s actions would be seen as heroic by most if not for one small detail; child sex trafficking had not, and never had, taken place at the restaurant.

You see, Edgar Maddison Welch, the 28-year-old wannabe vigilante, was duped by a fake news story circulating online. The bizarre tale purports that the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant houses child sex slaves in underground tunnels, the poor souls kept there for the pleasure of prominent Washington Democrats.

Not crazy enough? Well, according to the story, Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff John Podesta are behind the diabolical operation.

With such nonsense swirling around his head, Welch, carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, arrived at Comet Ping Pong to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory, which has come to be known as “Pizzagate.”

Welch, who traveled to D.C. from his home in North Carolina, was arrested after firing the weapon several times inside the restaurant. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the incident should serve as a stark reminder that nutty fake news stories - many of which originate overseas - can lead to real tragedy.

Comet Ping Pong was dragged into this mess simply because Podesta mentioned the place in his emails released by WikiLeaks.

Asked about the pizzeria shooting incident, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said, “There’s no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate and that’s concerning in a political context. It’s deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence.”

During the latest presidential election, more fake politics-related stories were shared on Facebook than were real news stories. Overwhelmingly, the made-up reports painted Clinton - not Donald Trump - in a negative light.

Sadly, many people who should know better push these fake stories, giving them credence. One such person, Michael Flynn Jr., an adviser to his father, Michael Flynn, whom president-elect Trump selected to serve as national security adviser, has sent numerous posts on Twitter about Pizzagate.

Flynn Jr., who has accompanied his father to presidential transition meetings inside Trump Tower, tweeted Sunday night, after Welch was taken down at Comet Ping Pong: “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”

Flynn Sr. also has tweeted conspiracy theories, including one which alleges that President Barack Obama was a “jihadi” who “laundered” money for terrorists.

Clinton, at the capitol Thursday to honor retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, alluded to Pizzagate and spoke about the scourge of fake news.

“The epidemic of malicious fake news and fake propaganda that flooded social media over the past year, it’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” the former secretary of state said. “This isn’t about politics or partisanship - lives are at risk. Lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.”

“It’s a danger that must be addressed, and addressed quickly,” Clinton continued.

We agree.




The Portland Press Herald (Maine), Dec. 12, 2016

Life expectancy fell in 2015 for the first time in more than 20 years, by itself a shocking and sad statistic that separates the United States from all other high-income nations.

A look behind the numbers, however, suggests an even more grim situation. The lives of those at the lower end of the economic spectrum are getting decidedly worse, at a time when the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans is growing at a historic pace.

In short, in far too many ways, America is becoming less of a place of shared prosperity and opportunity - and it is literally killing Americans.

The decrease in life expectancy, reported by the National Center for Health Statistics, was the first since 1993, when the AIDS epidemic, a high homicide rate and a particularly bad flu combined to make that year an outlier.

More work is needed to clarify the results from last year, but all indications are that this is not a statistical blip. It follows five years in which improvements in death rates were among the smallest in the last 40 years, and it shines more light on a report from last year that showed a jump in the mortality rate of white middle-aged Americans, one blamed on increases in drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide, the so-called “diseases of despair.”

The latest report shows those increases also occurring across racial lines, and in heart disease, respiratory disease and strokes. In fact, rates rose for eight of the top 10 leading causes of death. What’s more, in perhaps the most striking aspect of the report, life expectancy at age 65 did not change. Instead, middle-aged Americans are getting diseases that used to be reserved for the elderly, and they’re not recovering from them.

It’s impossible to not see the connection between the rise in mortality among middle-aged Americans and the rise in inequality that has marked their generation.

In the last 40 years, the country’s economic pie has grown slowly, yet the piece going to the richest Americans continues to expand at a rate as fast as any in this country’s history.

As a result, the prospects for middle-aged Americans have shrunk. In 1970, 90 percent of 30-year-old Americans could expect to earn more than their parents; by 2014, only 50 percent could, the direct result of the ill distribution of the country’s economic gains.

Too many middle-aged Americans are working in jobs with low and stagnant incomes, with little chance of meaningful advancement and not enough in their savings to pay for retirement, or even an emergency. Increasingly, life in and around the middle class does not mean steady work with predictable hours, workplace protections and a paycheck that outpaces bills, but precarious employment with few benefits, and the chance that an illness, a broken-down car or a lost job will lead to bankruptcy, a lost home or addiction and other chronic health struggles.

We’ve known for years now that the U.S. economy has been hijacked by inequality. However, it’s not enough to think of it as just a problem of economics - it’s a public health issue, too, and one that needs attention before it grabs the next generation.




The Sun (Mass.), Dec. 14, 2016

Just as possession of marijuana for personal enjoyment becomes legal in this state, the U.S. surgeon general issued a warning to Americans about another supposedly benign habit with potentially harmful consequences.

In a report released last week, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called e-cigarettes an emerging public-health threat to the nation’s youth.

In acknowledging the need for more research into the health effects of “vaping,” Murthy said e-cigarettes aren’t without health risks, especially to the growing number of teens taking up the practice.

According to figures compiled by the federal government, 16 percent of high-school students reported using e-cigarettes last year. While not all contain nicotine, Murthy’s report says e-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco-related product among youth.

“My concern is e-cigarettes have the potential to create a whole new generation of kids who are addicted to nicotine,” Murthy told The Associated Press. “If that leads to the use of other tobacco-related products, then we are going to be moving backward instead of forward.”

Powered by a battery, e-cigarettes turn liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapor without the harmful tar generated by regular cigarettes. They were initially promoted as a safer alternative for traditional tobacco smokers trying to wean themselves off that habit.

However, there’s no scientific consensus on the risks or advantages of vaping - specifically, whether it actually helps someone stop smoking or acts as a gateway to tobacco use.

The surgeon general indicated that like marijuana, nicotine poses risks to the brains of teens and young adults, which are still developing. Even as the list of states legalizing recreational pot grows, concerns remain that developing brains may be particularly vulnerable to lasting damage from that drug’s active ingredient.

And that’s the why the rise in e-cigarette use by teens is of particular concern.

As with tobacco, it’s already illegal for minors to buy e-cigarettes, but like other unlawful substances, that won’t prevent them from trying them out anyway.

The surgeon general’s report urges parents and health workers to make concerns about e-cigarettes clear to young people. He said local officials also should take action, such as including e-cigarettes in indoor smoke-free policies.

Unfortunately, it will likely take years until the full effects of e-cigarette use become known - too late for countless teens looking for a new thrill.




The (Nashua) Telegraph (N.H.), Dec. 16, 2016

Donald Trump’s selection of Rick Perry to pilot the U.S. Department of Energy is a head-scratcher less because the former Texas governor once called the future president a “toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense,” but because of something he infamously forgot.

Perry will forever be linked to his 2011 gaffe in which he could not remember the name of the federal agency he now is likely to head.

“Oops,” he said, after failing to recall the Department of Energy, one of three federal agencies he would eliminate if in the White House, along with commerce and education.

Perry has strong ties to the oil industry, including corporate positions on two companies, and is familiar with the extraction of natural resources in a state experiencing a boom in petroleum and natural gas. The federal agency, however, is more than just fossil fuels, fracking and pipelines.

The department is about public service initiatives such as home weatherization and lowering power costs for small businesses; science and innovation in how it relates to climate change; and finding ways for Americans to conserve and reduce energy usage. It’s pretty safe to say these are outside Perry’s expertise - and his appointment will cause an abrupt redesign of the department.

The outgoing energy secretary, Dr. Ernest Moniz, was a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later served as the founding director of the university’s Energy Initiative and Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

He served as undersecretary of the Department of Energy from 1997-2001. He was responsible for overseeing its science and energy programs and led a review of nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship.

Perry, and many of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet-level positions, seem to have been chosen more because of their contempt for the federal government and less for their ability to effectively function in their appointed role.

Only one of Trump’s picks, Elaine Chao for transportation, has previously run a federal department. Too many of the rest are like The Donald - uber-wealthy businessmen without any background in government or policymaking.

Ben Carson, another castaway from the Republican primary and onetime Trump foe, was tapped as the secretary for Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Carson actively stated he has no experience, and his close friend and onetime spokesman, Armstrong Williams, said the “last thing (Carson) would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.” Trump picked him anyway, and Carson accepted the opportunity.

Trump’s administration is filled with those who have great disdain for the federal government and are taking the approach of Ron Swanson from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” to systematically sabotage it in order to create a more privatized, libertarian utopia.

This is not conservatism, this is amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Ironically, this continued ineptness of an amateur-run government will likely to lead to more incompetence and mistrust of Washington, D.C., by the same white working-class voters who supported Trump.




The Providence Journal (R.I.), Dec. 15, 2016

As a region, New England pays more for its electricity than any other part of the continental United States.

Homeowners and business owners who care to know why might want to look at what happens during the winter, when the cost of natural gas - used to produce about half the region’s electricity - spikes.

The price goes up because the demand for natural gas rises during the cold months, when it is needed not only to produce electricity but also to heat many homes and buildings. That creates a problem, because the pipelines that bring natural gas to the region sometimes can’t provide enough, and the utilities that produce electricity have to pay more.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Greater pipeline capacity would solve the winter supply problem, allowing the region to avoid these natural gas price spikes and reduce the cost of producing electricity.

We would all benefit from that, but the message has been twisted by those who insist, apparently without concern for people who struggle to pay their heating and electricity bills, that alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind should fill the gap.

The objective, it seems, is to curb demand for fracked natural gas that is available in states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and the activists seem to be succeeding. A plan to build a $3.3 billion, 188-mile natural gas pipeline from New York to Massachusetts has been shelved. And a plan to expand an existing line to provide more gas to the region’s power plants has hit legal roadblocks.

By curbing that demand, activists hope to shift the emphasis to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and encourage the New England region to turn to those in meeting its energy needs.

The problem is it’s not so simple.

The power plants in New England have the capacity to produce 31,000 megawatts of electricity. In the next three years, with several plants coming offline, the region will lose 4,200 megawatts, and it could lose up to 10,000 by 2020. To fill that gap with renewables, it would take hundreds of wind turbines like those off Block Island, or more than 30 square miles of solar panels.

The other unpleasant truth is that when the supply of natural gas fails to meet demand, some power plants shift over to oil and or coal, which are dirtier and produce more carbon than natural gas. In February 2015, the use of oil by the region’s power plants shot up, and the use of coal was up too.

Environmentalists are right in that long-term, we must shift away from fossil fuels. But trying to force that shift before the technology and means are available will only hurt consumers and the region’s economy. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the New England region needs a comprehensive energy plan - one that allows for the expansion of the natural gas pipelines to meet current needs as others work on the task of making renewable energy sources more capable of meeting the region’s energy needs.

It’s all well and good to say we want more renewable energy. But saying it and making it so are two different things.




Caledonian Record (Vt.), Dec. 13, 2016

On Dec. 1, a federal rule change went into effect that dramatically expands the power of the FBI to search a virtually unlimited number of computers with a single warrant.

“Rule 41” explicitly permits federal law enforcement agents to probe the content of any computers, connected to devices that are part of an official investigation, if they have a warrant for the first. Previously the feds (in keeping with the Fourth Amendment) needed a warrant for every computer they investigated. And they needed to secure the warrant in the same geographic jurisdiction in which the suspect computer was located.

The Center for Democracy & Technology explains why Rule 41 development is really bad news:

1) It violates the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment, which requires that the place to be searched be specifically described. Without the particularity requirement, multiple innocent parties could be affected by a remote search.

2) It authorizes extraterritorial searches that circumvent the MLAT process and may violate international law. If a computer’s location is unknown, it could be located anywhere in the world, which means that a remote search could violate well-established rules of sovereignty and comity with other nations.

3) It creates new risks of forum shopping. Allowing agents to obtain warrants from any district would incentivize them to seek out and re-use districts that are more inclined to approve warrant applications, districts that may authorize overly-invasive or unnecessary technical means, or districts that are prohibitively inconvenient for the individual whose items are searched or seized.

4) It contains very few restrictions. The new rule can reach practically any computing device in the world, and implicates many common (and lawful) methods of using the internet. “Concealed through technological means,” for example, may encompass any use of computers that may change the route their network traffic takes to reach a destination (such as the use of VPNs). “Damaged” computers may include all computers infected with any virus or other damaging code, a vast number of computers.

5) It endangers all devices, data, and dependent systems. Intrusion methods necessarily exploit weaknesses in the defenses of a device in order to gain access. Therefore, any remote searches and seizures could result in damage due to vulnerabilities introduced into the system or exacerbated by the technical act of gaining entry.

We think a rule with such far-reaching practical and Constitutional implications should get a full airing before the United States Congress. We call on our Vermont and New Hampshire delegations to lead the charge.




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