Thursday, March 31, 2011

Our privacy - under attack by government and criminals ...and, is there a difference?

By Mike Ullery

Chief Photographer

Privacy. It is something that all of us cherish, not only for our own piece of mind but also because there are many aspects of our lives that are no one else's business.

We live in a world where personal privacy is becoming an endangered species. Not a week goes by that I don't read about another "ap" or law that further erodes what should be a right for all of us.

As our government takes increasing advantage of technology and fear of terrorism, they continue to pass laws that allow the themselves to delve ever-further into our personal lives. What is even more scary is that most of us suspect, with good reason, that our own government seems unafraid to go beyond the law to intrude on our private lives.

What is, perhaps, most sad about this is that, in many cases, we aide and abet the government in its effort to make our lives transparent.

Many of us participate in social networking websites, such as Facebook. In order to participate, one must make a certain amount of information public. Much of the information that can be included on your personal pages is voluntary. I am amazed at the amount of information that some people put "out there" for the world to see.

Don't get me wrong, sites such as Facebook, are fun and convenient ways to share information with family and friends, catch up with "lost" friends and classmates, and to cyber-socialize.

What one must keep in mind is that, in spite of safeguards and privacy blockers, one must assume that anyone, that's right, anyone, with enough skill and determination can read and view everything on your site.

How many retail stores have security cameras that can watch your every move? How many parking lots have security cameras keeping watch? These cameras serve a useful purpose in identifying criminals but it is one more example that you are being watched.

Traffic light cameras in cities, which in my opinion are one of the most illegal big-brother devices currently in use, are another way that our government can keep an eye on your every move.

What about our cell phones? Many have Global Positioning Satellite technology built in. Our phones are not only tools to communicate with those with whom we wish to talk, but also devices that could allow our government to follow our every move.

Our lives have become an open book that is available from free to anyone with a computer and Internet access.

Identity theft is on the rise as criminals prey on those vulnerable to cyber-attack. It was not that long ago that the big worry was shredding your bills and correspondence to deter criminals. Now, they don' t have to dirty their hands going through your trash, they can prey on their victims from the comfort of home or the local coffee shop.

An often-used phrase for many years was, "... the privacy of your own home." Today, we have little privacy, even at home. We must maintain a constant vigil to keep criminals away from our doorstep. That includes those who would "enter" your home through your computer.

Our government is far behind in keeping laws and penalties appropriate for the age of cyber-criminals. Part of the problem is that technology is moving so fast that it is impossible to keep up. Part of the problem could be that, as the ability to pry into our personal lives increases, our government is working to decide which parts of these new-found tools might work to their own benefit to intrude "legally" into our lives.

No matter what, we individual citizens are fighting a two-front war. On one hand we have our own government carrying an ever-increasing attitude that they should have our very lives at their beck and call, while on the other, we have criminals looking for the same information as they look to steal our lives for their own profit.

We all need to think twice before posting personal information on any website. If we do business online, we must be sure of the company with which we are exchanging information. If much of the above thoughts seem paranoid, so be it. A certain amout of paranoia is necessary in order to see that we, and our loved ones remain safe.

All the while, we need, and deserve, the ability to carry on with our everyday lives. I have found no easy answer. We must remain vigilant against both criminals and our own government. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the two.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Guard deployment different this time

As our local National Guard unit readies for another
deployment overseas as part of the global
war on terror, I find myself in a different position
than during previous deployments.
As I covered the coming and going of units during
previous deployments, I have always felt somewhat
of a personal connection as I have developed friendships
with members of the unit over time.
This time, I have a personal involvement. My son,
Ryan, is a member of Bravo Battery. I should probably
say, our son Ryan, as my wife Melinda, not to mention
other family members, are beginning our first
experience with sending a loved one off to war, literally.
None of us can claim surprise that Ryan is looking
at an overseas deployment. His National Guard recruiter
was very honest and upfront with the fact
that, along with the benefits of joining the Guard, the
time would come when he would have to deploy to a
far-away land, possibly into a war zone.
Things do look different when one is a couple of
years away from an event, even one that is inevitable.
Now, as the time grows closer, I see that I cannot look
at this from a purely journalistic point of view. The
next time that I am taking photos of this unit boarding
buses to head off to training, then ultimately, to
war, it will not be just
another group of soldiers,
this time, it will
include our son.
My wife and I are extremely
proud of Ryan
and his decision to join
the National Guard. He
has a 2-year-old son,
Hayden, and his decision
to join was based,
in part, on how his service
can benefit his son.
I know that my wife is becoming more apprehensive,
by the day, on Ryan’s pending departure. I am, as
well, but am tempering my thoughts with the idea
that, while I know there is danger involved, I am
hopeful that this will also be somewhat of an adventure
for him. We pray that he, and everyone else in
his unit, will come back safe, full of stories of adventures
that they will be able to share for the rest of
their lives.
As we participate in the many activities necessary
for our soldier to deploy, I begin to see a different perspective
on how family members of all service men
and women must deal with being separated from
those they love.
Patriotism is at a high level in post 9/11 America.
We wave flags, shake hands and congratulate our
service members, as well we should. I often think that
some of this is due to a national guilt felt by many
Americans for the deplorable way that many of our
Vietnam veterans were treated on their return home.
No matter the reason, we should never forget that
our men and women in uniform stand between us and
the evil empires that would destroy us.
As we continue to honor those who serve, we were
reminded last weekend during a family briefing, that
families of service members also sacrifice a great deal
in order that husbands, wives, and children may serve
our country.
I hope that all of us can remember this as summer
approaches. Somewhere around us, there are families
dealing with a member of that family being away
from home.
In addition to thinking about care packages to send
to service members, let’s keep an eye open for a service
family who may need an extra hand mowing the
lawn, or raking leaves.
You may even consider attending a local ball game,
school play or dance recital to help cheer and applaud
a son or daughter whose family cheer section is
down one because mom or dad is 5,000 miles from
If you know, or live close, to a service family who
has a member deployed,maybe you could give them a
call occasionally to see if they need something from
the grocery, or just to see how they are getting along.
Supporting our service members takes more than
being proud of them and waving flags as they come
and go. Supporting our service members takes all of
us watching out for the well-being of our service
member’s families while they are gone.
Our soldiers, sailors and Marines have enough to
worry about as they protect America. Let’s offer them
a little piece of mind in knowing that our family will
help watch out for their family.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Americans love disaster.

By Mike Ullery

Chief Photographer

Nothing gets American blood pumping more than a good disaster. Few will admit it, but American’s love disaster.

Maybe it is because, like a train wreck, one is appalled but unable to avert their gaze. Maybe it is a human tendency to feel compassion for those who are suffering.

Unfortunately, I believe that too many Americans love disaster for the wrong reasons. Much of the blame goes to national media who descend, like vultures, upon a region ravaged by nature, to report from the scene.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper relayed a story from Japan on Thursday that the Japanese people are losing faith in their government leaders. I will say that an American reporter would be a natural to make that determination since the American people lost faith in their government leaders some time ago. How is it Cooper’s place to make that determination and broadcast his assumption to in international audience? Is it based on his vast, what … three days experience in Japan, interviewing people who are still in a state of shock?

Cooper is just one journalist who is working from Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami. It is obvious that we need news from areas affected by natural disasters. What we do not need are rogue reporters from major media outlets looking to find whatever angle possible, not to give readers/viewers the most accurate picture of what is happening, but rather to get the most viewers, readers or website hits. Ratings, not responsible journalism, seems to be the major motivator today.

Far to the east, Americans are hanging on to every embellished news story, looking for a way to be somehow involved, to feel as if they are a part of the “action.”

What better way to feel like you are a part of the “action” than to convince yourself that possible radiation from a potential nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan is a threat right here, in the good old U.S. of A?

American drug companies report that they are running out of anti-radiation pills, a potassium iodine pill, that counter-acts the effects of some types of radiation. Never mind that Japan is more than 5000 miles away from the west coast of the United States. Many Americans, mostly in California, decided that the “cool” thing to do was to panic. What a great thing to talk about at cocktail parties later, “Yeah, I remember back in ‘11 when I nearly died from radiation sickness. If I hadn’t taken that pill…”

What happens, Heaven forbid, if an earthquake should strike in the U.S? If an American nuclear reactor should suffer a catastrophic failure, would we have enough anti-radiation pills, right now, to potentially save the lives of those who could really need the protection?

Another aspect of Americans and natural disasters is our belief that relief, in the form of food, fuel and medicine, not to mention manpower, should be available instantly.

In many ways we are victims of our own government when it comes to getting off the dime but it is unrealistic for anyone to believe that any individual, up to and including the President, can issue an order and reasonably expect troops and/or aide, of any kind, to be sitting on the affected area’s doorstep within hours.

People made a huge issue of President Bush not being like Jeanie, on I Dream of Jeanie, or Samantha, on Bewitched, and just “blinking” billions in humanitarian aide to the doorstep of New Orleans.

Within 48 hours of the earthquake in Japan, I heard reports of people asking, “Where is the aide?” Get a grip on reality folks.

Another factor at work in this case is that Japan is not Haiti. Granted, the Japanese people are in need of assistance. I do know, though, that the Japanese people, in addition to being prosperous and hard-working, are a very proud people. The Japanese people and their government will let us know what they need, and where and when. Contrary to popular belief by some members of our federal government, the U.S. does not have the right to make decisions for other countries.

I am very sure that we will respond with everything in our power, to assist … when they ask.

In the meantime, one thing that all of us can do, is continue to pray for the people in Japan. Their road to recovery will be a long one, but as they have proved in the past, they will overcome this, and a better, even more modern Japan will prevail.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Interstate driving, do it right...or don't do it.

By Mike Ullery

Chief Photographer

Spring is near. While the weather may not lend credence to that, the calendar says that spring is just around the corner.

As more and more people escape their winter hibernating spot, they will be begin to take to America’s highways to explore, vacation, or maybe, just to go to work every day.

I spend a fair amount of time on the Interstate highways. Not as much as some, but enough to know that our Interstate system has become one of the most dangerous places to be.

All of our highways are becoming more congested with each passing year, but it may be most evident on our controlled-access highways. If you also factor in that the Interstate Highway system, begun in the 1950s at the direction of President Dwight Eisenhower, is aging faster than highway crews can repair and upgrade, you can see that we have a recipe for disaster.

One would assume that a driver on the Interstate would have an increased level of awareness as they navigate among other vehicles at speeds that require greater concentration, but it is not hard to see that, in fact, the reverse seems to be the case.

After getting on the Interstate, many drivers, freed from the stop-and-start driving and traffic signals on other roadways, put their car, and their mind, on cruise control.

I can think of few things more dangerous than an inattentive driver, traveling at 70 miles per hour, less than 20 feet away from several other vehicles moving at the same speed.

Perhaps the most aggravating part is the arrogance and sheer stupidity of many drivers, especially on the Interstate.

For Interstate highway travel to go smoothly, a precision, almost choreographed, smoothness must be maintained. I am beginning to believe that a special endorsement on one’s license should be necessary before a driver can operate a vehicle on an Interstate highway.

The art of entering and exiting an Interstate highway is, in itself, a vital part of just living to drive another day. Not a day goes by that I don’t see, and usually end up following, someone who does not understand that the entrance ramp is designed to allow one to accelerate to highway speed and smoothly merge with traffic. Instead, this person will maintain a steady 35 - 40 miles per hour, then find that they cannot enter traffic flow without getting run down. They don’t know, or don’t care, that they are also endangering those traveling behind them, and those already on the highway.

Sharing equal guilt are those inconsiderate drivers who stay in the right-hand lane and refuse to move over to allow others to merge onto the highway. More often than not, when one of these drivers passes, I will see that they are chatting on their cell phone, oblivious to what is going on around them.

The ever-increasing number of semi-tractor trailer rigs on the highways is another danger. Truck drivers form “wolf packs” and create havoc as they travel two and three abreast, holding up traffic for miles behind them.

I am sure that truck drivers are equally frustrated with “four wheelers” who weave in and out of traffic as they catapult themselves down the highway at breakneck speed. Drivers of cars need to be aware that semi drivers are operating vehicles that don’t stop on a dime. They can also be very dangerous to attempt sudden lane changes as shifting cargo can spell disaster.

Much of this seems to be associated with a growing segment of our population who only worry about “me.” The prevailing attitude among too many Americans is that they are going to do what is good for them, with no concern about how their actions may affect others.

This attitude is not only sad, it is dangerous.

I love to drive. I used to love driving on the Interstate as it was a road to an adventure of some sort. It might be for a day, or a week, but the Interstate spelled adventure. Now, I still love driving, but being on crowded highways, not knowing if the next danger posed is a pot hole or a pot head, is far more stressful.

Driving on the Interstate is actually an art form. It is sad that the highway is only as safe as the least experienced, or perhaps the dumbest and most inconsiderate, driver out there at any given time. Think about it. Your life, and the life of your family, may lay in the hands of the worst driver on the road at a given moment and place. Do you still want to drive with your brain in cruise control or while talking on your cell phone?

My advice is to learn to drive properly on the Interstate, or stay off it.