Dead Lines (2014)

Andersonville guards enforcing the dead line

Now that I’m not on deadline, this seems a good time to discuss dead lines. It’s also timely given the discussion of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American prisoner of war exchanged for five Taliban prisoners.

Like deadbeat, deadline is a term that originated during the American Civil War. It is often associated with the Andersonville Prison in Georgia, an abominably foul and horrific stockade where some 13,000 Union war prisoners died. Most prisoners there succumbed to disease, thirst and starvation, but many of them were shot for going past the so-called dead line.

The dead line was often a low fence, or a row of stakes, or a rope line, or maybe even a line in the sand; it was erected 15 to 20 feet inside the main stockade walls. The prison was grossly overcrowded, and the dead line was created to keep prisoners from getting too close to the walls. The instant a Union soldier crossed the dead line, he was shot dead.

The dead line at the Union's Rock Island Arsenal prison

Most stockade prisons, North and South, had dead lines. But Andersonville guards enforced theirs with the most enthusiasm.

After the war the term was embraced by newspaper editors as a threat to reporters to file their stories on time. Go past the deadline, the editors warned, and the story – perhaps along with the reporter – would be killed. In time the phrase spread beyond the newspaper business, and now deadlines are everywhere. Punishments for crossing the deadline are less severe these days.

Esoterica: The historian Kennedy Hickman wrote:

On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. In response, President Abraham Lincoln demanded that black prisoners of war be treated the same as their white comrades. This was refused by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As a result, Lincoln and Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant suspended all prisoner exchanges. With the halt of exchanges, POW populations on both sides began to grow rapidly. At Andersonville, the population reached 20,000 by early June, twice the camp’s intended capacity.

The Andersonville prison, built to hold 10,000, at one point held 35,000.

Gov’t Transparency (2014)

Dammit, my typewriter just went down.

Investigative journalism is crucial to a democracy. It uncovers lies, corruption, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance, and the breaking of rules of law and decency. It breaks news that would not be available to the public without the intervention of a journalist.

Public records are crucial to investigative journalism. They reveal trends that are not readily apparent, like delays at Veterans Administration hospitals, or systemic abuse at homes for the elderly.

So I was (unpleasantly) surprised, while investigating politics in my small town, to see the following message on my California county government web site:

California, home of Silicon Valley, says microfilm is okay, but the internet is not.

Notice the bold emphasis (theirs, not mine) on the phrase: “California law prohibits the display of recorded documents on the internet.

Really? No, not really. What California law really says is:

6254.21.  (a) No state or local agency shall post the home address or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the Internet without first obtaining the written permission of that individual.

Here’s the catch: County bureaucrats say that because almost anyone can be appointed or elected for some office or another, and because it’s too much work to go through millions of documents to identify current office holders and their home addresses, the only prudent response is to keep all recorded documents off the internet.

Stop whining and sniveling, I hear you say. Woodward and Bernstein cracked Watergate without the internet. Just get in your car and drive 45 miles to the county clerk’s office during government business hours to view documents that are probably already digitized and stored on a computer network. It’s okay to view public records containing the home addresses and phone numbers of elected or appointed officials as long as it’s inconvenient.

This must never be allowed on the interwebs.

Comcast (2014)

I'm here to install XFINITY WIFI

Comcast, a perennial champion in the “Most Hated Companies” surveys, has now figured out a way to have me pay to help construct a nationwide network of public WiFi hotspots, using equipment inside my house. Comcast plans to offer public access to the WiFi network inside my house for rates starting at $2.95 an hour.

Here’s how it works.

Like most Comcast customers, I rent my cable modem from Comcast for $7 a month. The cable modem has within it a wireless internet radio transmitter, which allows me to create my home WiFi network.

When a friend visited last week and wanted to connect his computer to my wireless network, he asked me which network to use: WeaselNet, my private network, which required a password, or XFINITY WIFI, a public network that did not require a password. Both showed four-bar signals, the strongest WiFi signals in the house.

A bit of poking around revealed that the mysterious new XFINITY WIFI public network signal was so strong inside my house because it was actually inside my house. In fact, it was in the same Comcast router that operates my private home network.

urlOkay, I’m a bit slow. Simple research reveals that Comcast started testing the XFINITY WIFI service in a handful of cities last year. Comcast is now expanding the scheme, equipping all of its new cable modems – they call them “wireless gateways” — with this dual-network WiFi capability. But it didn’t hit home until it hit my home.

The second, public network is created by default. The network’s SSID (Service Set Identifier, the code that allows computer, tablets, phones and other devices to connect to the wireless network) is broadcast to the world.

Comcast does not ask permission to set up a second, public network inside my house, using the bandwidth that I’m paying for. It does not ask permission to route the data traffic of strangers through the same router that handles my private network. No, Comcast is The Honey Badger.

Comcast calls this a “feature enhancement.” A Comcast spokesman said, “The wireless gateways rent for $7 a month and there’s no additional charge for enabling the public networks.”

It's a feature, not a bug

Me: Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

Comcast: Don’t worry sir. No extra charge.

Me: Waiter, there’s also a strange man sitting at my table.

Comcast: You have an extra chair at the table, and he’s paying to eat whatever soup you have left over. There’s no extra charge to you for the companionship.

Me: Whoa. Now there’s a big snake. He looks scary.

Comcast: He’s renting the other chair, waiting for the fly. No extra charge.

It’s a brilliant strategy: Comcast doesn’t have to spend a dime to build out a nationwide mesh of wireless hotspots. Instead, it has its customers pay for both the hardware and the bandwidth. Comcast then generates megabucks in new profits by re-selling access to the hardware and bandwidth. If people squawk, Comcast merely points out that it, not the customer, owns the box. If the customer doesn’t like it, they can switch to another broadband provider.


Oops. Silly me. There isn’t another broadband provider in most towns, if you use the same definition of broadband that the rest of the world uses. If the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is approved, there will be even less competition.

So let’s add up the pros and cons, starting with the pros.

  • As long as I remain a paying Comcast customer, I get free access to the public wireless network when I’m out of the house.
  • Instead of using up my data allowance on 4G wireless telephone carrier networks, I can freeload on some other Comcast sucker’s home WiFi network.
  • The next time I buy a tablet computer, I might decide not to pay extra for the 4G radio and monthly telephone company wireless service fees, because Comcast will soon be a nationwide monopoly and half the broadband households in America will be open hotspots.
  • I live in the last house on a dead-end street in a small town, so the chances of weirdoes parking in front of my house to use my broadband connection are minimal.

And now the cons.

  • Despite Comcast’s assurances to the contrary, I’m unconvinced that increased network traffic will not slow down my home broadband service. Comcast says there is more than enough capacity on the feed into my house to accommodate any extra traffic. If that’s the case, why do my network speeds so often fall woefully short of the speeds I’m paying for? Why does my system slow to a crawl on Friday nights when all the neighbor kids are streaming movies and playing online games? Comcast says:

“The broadband connection to your home will be unaffected by the XFINITY WIFI feature. Your in-home WiFi network, as well as XFINITY WIFI, use shared spectrum, and as with any shared medium there can be some impact as more devices share WiFi. We have provisioned the XFINITY WiFii feature to support robust usage, and therefore, we anticipate minimal impact to the in-home WiFi network.”

  • Comcast’s customer service reps were unable to answer my questions: Does XFINITY WIFI run on the same channel as my private home network, in which case my network performance will definitely suffer? Or does it run on a separate channel, in which case it will probably interfere with my private home network?
  • Wireless networks are notoriously hard to secure. I simply don’t believe Comcast when it says there is no risk in allowing a stranger to directly connect to the router that controls my private home network. Once on the public network, the proverbial 14-year-old hacker would have little problem hijacking the router and taking control of my private network, where he or she could intercept all my user names and passwords, etc. If I’ve allowed sharing on the network, the hacker would have access to the files on every shared device.

Let’s go to Comcast’s XFINITY WIFI FAQ:

A discount?

Q. Is Comcast going to give me a discount?

[Hysterical laughter]

Okay, I made that one up. But the next two are verbatim:

Q. How do I disable/enable the XFINITY WIFI Home Hotspot feature?

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WIFI around the neighborhood. You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WIFI feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI.”

Q. What happens if I choose to disable the Home Hotspot feature?

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WIFI around the neighborhood. You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WIFI feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI.”

I guess Comcast doesn’t want me to disable the XFINITY WIFI network. And if Comcast doesn’t want me to do something, it goes to the top of my To Do list.

I’m now shopping to buy my own cable box. Comcast can’t force me to create a public wireless network on a box that it doesn’t own.

And then maybe I’ll set up my own open public network – after hiding my private SSID and firewalling the hell out of it – under the Open Wireless Movement, because a free, open, nationwide, wireless broadband network is a good idea.