Friday, September 30, 2016

Off the Rails

Early Thursday morning, September 29, 2016, a commuter train crashed into a train station in Hoboken New Jersey, killing one woman and injuring 108 passengers and commuters waiting at the station. The train, packed with passengers and barreling at an excessive speed, struck a bumper block at 8:45 a.m. and flew off the rails, killing 34-year-old Fabiola Bittar de Kroon who had just dropped her 18-month-old daughter Julia off at daycare.

Julia will grow up never knowing her mother. It didn’t have to be this way.

If computer systems can autopilot airplanes and navigate driverless cars, why can’t a centralized computer system monitor train speeds and slow them down if they go too fast? Why isn’t there a system in place to do this? It turns out there is. It’s called Positive Train Control (PTC) and it’s been around for more than two decades.

PTC monitors trains in transit and hits the train brakes if the engineer misses a signal to stop. You would think this would be an excellent system to require on all U.S. trains. Congress thought so too; that’s why it mandated PTC in September 2008, exactly eight years ago. Congress created the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program, providing $35 billion in federal funds to lend money at low interest rates for railroads to improve their infrastructure. It enables the Federal Railroad Administration to offer direct loans or loan guarantees of up to $3.5 billion to state or local governments.

RIFF is not new. It was first authorized in 1976. Today, RIFF has $35 billion available to states and local governments to develop and improve railway infrastructure. So far, since 1998, only $1 billion of that amount has been claimed. This is not a case of not having enough money available for infrastructure improvement; it’s just sitting there waiting for takers.

So why isn’t it being used? Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority received nearly $1 billion in federal loans to implement PTC on its two commuter lines. But NJ Transit has not installed PTC in Hoboken or elsewhere on its train network – despite a previous crash at the Hoboken station in 2011 when another commuter train also hit the bumper block and injured 30 commuters. Despite the fact NJ Transit ranks second in the nation in train accident reports: 271 accidents, or 18% of the total train accidents in America.

NJ Sen. Cory Booker introduced a  bill to update and improve RIFF a year and a half ago – about the time baby Julia was born – and stated, “New Jerseyans deserve safe and reliable public transit options. I am encouraged that Amtrak and commuter rail ridership continues to grow in New Jersey, and I am committed to advocating for long-term investments in the economic strength, stability, and vitality of the Northeast Corridor rail system.” According to, which tracks the status of bills introduced in Congress, the bill was introduced on March 19, 2015 and referred to a congressional committee on the same day “which will consider it before possibly sending it on to the House or Senate.” It's still languishing there, a year and a half later, according to

“Until we know the cause of the accident we're not going to be able to know what steps we can take in the future to avoid an accident like this," NJ Gov. Chris Christie said.

I have a suggestion for you, Gov. Christie. You can begin by using the federal funds available to implement PTC on all New Jersey trains, as should every state in the country. Public transportation should be safe and it is your primary job as governor to ensure the safety of your citizens. That goes for every governor in every state, and every representative and senator in Congress. The safety of Americans is your number one priority.

America’s crumbling infrastructure – its roads, bridges, and transportation systems – are one of the most important public issues we face… But you wouldn’t know it to listen to any of the political debate going on in this country right now, 30 days before an election. Our entire political system has gone off the rails. It is time for the American people to focus on this important priority and to insist that our politicians, both elected and running for office, do the same. We need to create programs and authorize funding to develop and improve American infrastructure – and then we need to actually use those funds and programs. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to Fabiola Bittar de Kroon. Most importantly, we owe it to baby Julia and her generation that will inherit our crumbling infrastructure.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Imaginarium Convention - October 7-9

I'll be a guest at the Imaginarium Convention, a 3-day event in Louisville, KY centered around creative writing, from October 7-9. The convention will feature extensive programming with panels and workshops covering the craft of writing.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Voyage of Discovery

With a new school year approaching, this is an appropriate excerpt from my book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

When we gaze into a classroom, we see the faces of 30 young students endowed with differing innate abilities and skills. They were not all designed to work the same way. Our educational system teaches them as if they were monolithic, or at least fungible entities. But they are not. One might be good with his hands, capable of creating fine pottery or crafts; a second might be a thinker; a third, a strategic planner; yet another, an artist or poet. One might be good with numbers, while another able to conceptualize complex theories.

It is distressing to see our leaders place their entire educational emphasis on science and math, ignoring the importance of history, writing (communication and expression), philosophy, and the arts (art, music, and literature). A society needs citizens grounded in a sense of history, for those ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat its errors. Those citizens need the ability to communicate and express their thoughts and ideas in an articulate, cogent manner, free from emotional argument ad hominem. And as we have learned from the relics of all great civilizations -- from Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome forward -- societies need beauty. From the Great Pyramids, to Michelangelo’s “The David”, to William Shakespeare’s oeuvre, a civilization is inspired by, and defined by, its art.

Science and math have their place. Societies have always needed ship builders and navigators, be it the Greeks to design and pilot their penteconters; the Spanish, their galleons; or the Chinese, their junks. From galleys to spacecrafts, math and science have played an integral role in man’s ability to free himself from landlocked constraints and set forth on voyages of exploration. But while important, science and math are not the only disciplines our children must be taught.

Civilizations need thinkers. Philosophers. Individuals who contemplate, as well as those who plan. The de-emphasis of the disciplines of philosophy, history, and the arts, in both our schools and our culture, explains the sorry state of our society today and the Weltschmerz that permeates us. We live in a culture of corporate greed, where individualistic selfishness has replaced altruism, idealism, and principles. But now more than ever, we need thinkers and philosophers to express their thoughts and communicate their ideas, as much or more than we need a nation of scientists and mathematicians, because while it’s important to build the ships that will take us across vast oceans or galaxies, it's more important to know where we're going and why.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Issues in Internet Law - Download Now for School!

Now available as an electronic download to your computer, laptop, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Android devices, and more! Save up to $35 off the print edition price! Download the 10th edition of Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law from VitalSource !

The 10th edition of Issues In Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law has been updated for 2016 with the latest cases and trends in Internet Law. The new edition not only has an expanded glossary, and expanded statute and case indexes but a new chapter devoted to the NSA's spying on Internet users and a first look at the European Union's Right to be Forgotten court ruling and its aftermath.

Topics include:
Privacy: Invasion of Privacy, Public Records, Workplace Privacy, Employer & ISP Monitoring, Data Collection, Data Retention, Data Breaches, the Right to be Forgotten, E-Mail & Chat Room Privacy, Web Site Privacy Policies, Behavioral Marketing, Flash Cookies, Device Fingerprinting, Privacy & Children, Metadata, Border Searches, FISA & the USA PATRIOT Act, the NSA, FISA Court, PRISM, XKeyscore;

Free Speech: Defamation, SLAPPs, Gripe Sites, Revenge Porn Sites, Mugshot Sites, Blogs & Vlogs, Obscenity & Pornography, Harassment & Hate Speech, Prior Restraint, Repression, Student Speech, CDA, Anonymous Speech, Commercial Speech, Expressive Conduct;

Social Media: Misuse, Ownership, Coerced Access, the Courts;

Cybercrimes: Spam, Phishing, Identity Theft, Spyware & Malware, Cyberstalking, Cyberbullying, Computer Trespass, Wardriving, Virtual Crime;

Intellectual Property: Copyright, Trademark, Patent, Trade Secrets, Creative Commons, Linking, Framing, File-Sharing, Fair Use, Public Domain, Work-Made-For-Hire, DMCA, VARA, Domain Name Disputes, Keyword Advertising, America Invents Act;

Business & the Internet: Internet Taxation, Internet Interstate Commerce, Web Contracts, e-Discovery, Corporate Securities, Crowdfunding, Reg A, Reg D;

Also: Cloud Computing; Digital Currency; Right of Publicity; Web Accessibility; Net Neutrality; Online Reputation Management; Social Media Monitoring; Podcasts; Geofiltering; Digital Journalism; Hyper Local Web Sites, Digital Estate Planning; Sexting; E-Books and many more subjects.

Concisely written and covering a broad range of topics, this is the most current book of its kind!


“Concise overview of Internet-related legal issues.” (Law Library Journal)

“Although it deals with the complex legal issues surrounding the Internet, it is written in layman’s terms and illustrated with ‘ripped from the headlines’ court cases.” (Amazon)

“The concepts and issues are presented in a way that is sufficiently rigorous but very easy to read, making the book one I can recommend.” (Computing Reviews) * “A valuable resource, well-researched and well presented.”

“I want a copy on my bookshelf always within arm’s reach.”

“The anecdotal nature made it easy to understand the underlying legal concepts.”

“It is imperative that schools adopt this book in a way which would help young students gain knowledge about the various issues involving the Internet.” (Indian Journal of Intellectual Property Law)

“Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law will be a welcome addition in both academic and public law libraries… It should be acquired by libraries for its concise overview of Internet-related legal issues.” (Law Library Journal)

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Secret of Bullies

I talked about bullying in my previous blog post, but I didn’t really talk about bullies. Bullies are not big, tough, and powerful. Their strength comes from projecting an image that they are. And they do that by reaching out to those they perceive as weaker and defenseless. You never see a bully pick on the football quarterback, or the high school wrestler, or the toughest kid in the class. School really is a blackboard jungle and the rules of the jungle apply. When predators select their prey, they aren’t looking for a fight and they certainly aren’t looking for one they could lose. Coyotes don’t attack chickens because they want a fair fight; they select the prey that will offer the least resistance.

Those are the two things you need to know about bullies. Bullies are terrorists because their strength comes from instilling terror in their targeted victims. And bullies are cowards, because they only prey on those weaker than them. The way to beat a bully is to deprive him of his strength and actually turn it against him.

I was picked on all through grade school. In junior high, one bully went so far as to extort my lunch money from me for two weeks. Rather than get into a fight, I simply handed it over each day. But one day, in art class, he stabbed the papier-mâché elephant I had created multiple times with his pencil. This was different. He was attacking something I had created. Now that I’m a writer, creating with words instead of papier-mâché, I suppose it would have been equivalent to someone tossing my manuscript into the fireplace. I was livid and fought back. My mother got a phone call at 8 o’clock that morning to come pick me up from school because I’d been suspended for fighting. On the bright side, the bully never got another dime from me.

By the time I was in 10th grade, it was well known I was a pacifist. As a rule, I didn’t get into fights. I’d ignore the insults hurled at me; the shoving; the snide, hurtful remarks and nicknames, and the derisive laughter. In a few years, I’d be in college and maybe it would be different. Kids can be cruel but eventually we all have to grow up. All I had to do was wait it out. But, even at a new school I found a new bully who enjoyed taunting me, especially in PE. Each day, our  physical education class began with us running a lap around the school track. The last three kids to finally complete the lap were always the same: a fat kid named Mike, a foreign kid named Frank, and me. We became friends for that one hour each day simply because we belonged to a special coterie – the physically inept losers that no one wanted on their team.

We would all line up and the team captains would take turns selecting from the lineup. The final three choices would, of course, be Mike, Frank, and me. It would always be a toss-up between Frank and me as to whom would be chosen first; the other captain would choose the other one of us, and then there would be a mutual groan from the other team because they would be stuck with the fat kid, Mike. Had Frank and Mike not existed, I would have become the most unpopular kid by default. (Ironically, Frank and Mike were two of the nicest kids I knew in high school but that was unfortunately probably one of the best-kept secrets).

But one day in PE changed everything and taught me all I ever needed to know about bullies… And about my classmates. The bully began taunting me on the basketball court while we were waiting for the coach to come out from the locker room. I ignored his taunts and the shoving until he said one thing. I won’t tell you what he said; I doubt he  even realized its significance, but he was waving a red flag at a bull. There was probably nothing worse he could have said to me. In seconds, I was on top of him. He was on his back on the asphalt and my fists were flying. He didn’t even try to fight back; he was in too much shock. It had never occurred to him that the kid he had been picking on all year would ever fight back. Like I said, bullies are cowards; they don’t pick on people they think will fight back.

The other kids on the basketball court crowded around us in a circle. No one tried to break up the fight. They were probably just as astonished as the bully. They were stunned that the loser, the perennial victim, the wimp was fighting back. And they were absolutely gobsmacked that I was winning. I was whaling the tar out of the bully and he was just lying there taking it. The coach finally came out and pulled me off him. Then it was time to select teams. That’s when something truly amazing happened. The school’s top athlete picked me for his team… First. I still couldn’t run fast, catch a baseball, or make a basket… But he chose me for his team ahead of all the other kids. I guess I had earned his respect. Then all the other kids got chosen, and eventually Frank and Mike were selected. One boy remained standing on the basketball court. The very last boy to be chosen was the bully. By standing up to him, I had taken away his strength – he could no longer instill terror in me or anyone else ever again – and I had revealed him for what he was.

For the next couple of weeks, people in school treated me differently. I got nods in the hallway and hellos when they passed. It didn’t last, of course. I had mixed feelings. By fighting, I had betrayed my own pacifist beliefs. It took me years to reconcile that. I still believe reasonable men should solve their disagreements without resorting to violence; however, I now accept that bullies and terrorists are not reasonable men. I enjoyed, however briefly, having the respect of my classmates but that wasn’t how I wanted to earn it. And it made me question what their values were, that they could only respect me as an equal now and not for the kind of person that I, or Mike, or Frank had always been.

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