Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Holiday Interests of a Different Kind

Holiday Interests of a Different Kind
Tony E. Hansen
15 Nov 2011

This time of year brings us indoors to many festivities.  We greet each other with familiar sayings and Yuletides. There is a measure of compassion and happiness that is found in this time of year that is absent from other times. At the same time, many different cultures are enjoying a holiday, but what happens when the holiday is done? Eastern religion and philosophies may offer an idea.
I grew up Catholic, but as I grew as an adult and with the influence of martial arts, I explored the realms of Eastern philosophies (specifically Buddhism and Taoism).  As I look towards another holiday season that is definitively rooted in Christian tradition, that of Christmas, I find myself thinking that is there should be more than just the holiday compassions.  As well, the holiday season (as well as life) has to be thought of much more than in terms of narcissistic or material gratification.

While I have not abandoned the Christian traditions, I found myself questioning the manner at which the doctrine was implemented. This is similar to how one learns about revolutionary theories and ideas, but the actual implementation is far from the idealistic projection (e.g. communism). The doctrine preached by Jesus Christ seemed far from the pulpits and rituals being offered at the various churches that I attended or from the voices of those proclaiming to be saved (especially from those of the Christian right). The doctrine would seem to dissolve at the church doors as those who would profess the awe of Christ and confess “sins” would ultimately disregard the teachings.

What I found in Buddhist and Taoist mediation and readings was a completely different understanding of the world than what the Western world proposes. I cannot say that these ideas are better than the Christian doctrines, but they present a different perspective of our environment. Without fully knowing rituals, hierarchies and the traditions of these religions, I began to find a refuge in their philosophies, a way to express my thoughts, and to learn about life’s little intricacies that I had never found in Christian teachings.

As I evolved over the years, I have found myself less inclined to the Church and more towards the pursuit of the four Noble Truths and the precepts of engaged Buddhism.  Yet, the discipline for this pursuit is much the same as for Christian doctrine as both need practice and patience. There is similarity between mediation and prayer, but Buddhists attempt to find spiritual growth through un-attaching and letting solutions reveal themselves where prayers tend to be more of asking for divine assistance and spiritual growth. Each of these is a different approach to solving issues, but both are looking for a spiritual state free from suffering.

Both traditions understand that problems, emotions, discipline, and solutions are rooted in thought.  In order for problems to resolve and for solutions to be found, we have to look within before we look for changes in others (having faith in oneself). Yet, faith to most Christians resembles a “fervent hope” that there is Jesus helping us along the way and that there is a path to gracious afterlife for good behavior today. This is kind of ironic because to truly express faith seems to be more about letting go and letting life just be. For example, the plant simply grows not because the gardener tells it to grow. Yet in order for the plant to grow, the gardener needs to provide proper nourishment and care. Likewise as individuals, we need to provide “proper nourishment and care” to our lives via kindness, compassion and loving towards ourselves and to people in order see the desired positive responses. Otherwise, we find hatred and anger can control our lives, and ultimately, that blind ourselves from what we can be. Otherwise, we are constantly looking for happiness in new material things or new relationships without realizing what we already have is what we need and is very precious.

Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, said that when you realize that life and every breath is precious, you can live every moment with joy on your lips, and thus, you will see the result in every deed. This is because you will take care of yourself, and your relationships will benefit in parallel because what is important will be revealed in them.

As we get ready for yet another annual run of festivities and holidays, we should pause for a moment and meditate on our lives. Remember in your holiday gift giving to consider how precious your relationship is with the other person and how joyous your life is because of that relationship. Remember that new material things might bring a moment of joy, but compassion, a good heart and a good smile are mutual gifts that can be cherished well beyond the holiday season.

Peace be with you this holiday season and always. Namaste.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Managing Your Identity and Cyber Security

As an IT professional, I have witnessed an explosion in Internet use since its inception. As people become more and more connected with computers and mobile devices, the responsibility of managing passwords and one’s identity becomes more complicated. Attacks on corporate systems have steadily increased over the years, and these help to realize the pitfalls of heavy reliance upon computer systems. The attacks are becoming less common from rogue hackers as much as they are coordinated state-sponsored or criminal efforts. The government can only do so much to encourage standards of cyber security because the ultimate responsibility lies with the companies, IT departments and people to implement proper strategies. Everyone has to realize what types of threats there are and how to manage systems in order to mitigate these threats. For cyber security strategy, there are three aspects that we must consider 1) password management and online presentations, 2) hardware and software infrastructure, and 3) secure application development. Of the first two, everyone can do a part while the third is primarily the responsibility of developers.

Let us review some threats to cyber systems and Internet communications. Viruses, worms and spyware have played important parts to disabling networks and doing mischievous activity with various computer systems. Phishing and spam emails have been used to decoy potential threats as legitimate requests. Today, threats are more than just the annoying viruses and spyware issues. Attackers simply “sniff’ unsecured communications, such as unencrypted or unsecured Wi-Fi networks, for information. Anyone using a mobile device (e.g. iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone) or laptop that connects to an unsecured Wi-Fi network risks having information stolen. Today, attacks are more coordinated efforts toward systems like utilities, banks, and government resources. IT departments are on the defensive to keep attacks from gaining access to critical information or from disabling systems. The recent issues with Sony PlayStation systems, as well as the infamous Stuxnet attacks on Iran, provide a glimpse of how well these attacks are evolving and how damaging the results can be. Most utilities and banks know that those probing for security holes and attacks are often rooted in foreign countries.

The first part of a good cyber security strategy is proper password management. The make-up of the password is important as well as how you manage passwords. Passwords should be strong (e.g. a mix of characters, numbers in different cases and symbols if allowed). A computer program can match a simple character-only password by brute force within minutes whereas a strong password can take much longer such that attackers may desire to look for easier victims. People should get in the habit of having different passwords (instead of using one over and over) as well as routinely changing those passwords. There is software that can help 1) generate strong passwords and 2) keep a record of those passwords so that you do not have to necessarily remember them.

Password management is important, but this is not the only part of cyber security to manage when protecting your identity. Criminals are interested in aspects of your identity so that they might attempt to open accounts, to access corporate networks, and to use victim’s finances without the person’s knowledge. Consider the information that people share on Facebook, Twitter, or other social systems, and consider that many firms now ask for personal data in the event someone forgets their password (e.g. “what was your first pet’s name”). Everything that one posts online, regardless of privacy settings, can be used to create accounts or to gain access to online accounts and financial records. Consider what happens if one loses a thumb drive with saved documents and records. Postal mail, if not disposed properly, can also be used to open new accounts (with or without your knowledge). Be mindfully wary of random requests for “friending” or for other information and avoid clicking on links included in emails.

Protect your communications through software and hardware. Many people can remember the “I Love you” virus that spread wild and caused people to get ridiculous and destructive email messages. Most of this can be mitigated by having updated anti-virus and pop-up blocker software today, but one should always be wary of messages with attachments or messages from unknown sources. Be careful of what websites you visit when using unsecured connections because plugins and tools are available for people to easily scan those communications. You might consider purchasing SSH or encryption services to protect Internet connections or using virtual private networks that limit ability to sniff communications. Computers should have an active and updated firewall installed running always, and any routers in your home should be password protected. Change default passwords for these devices.

Our computer systems have grown much simpler to use over the years, and we have been able to access information in increasingly different ways. This has also raised number of different ways that people can attack or steal information. Everyone must be diligent in following proper procedures to protect against attacks and to be disciplined with what and when information is shared. Even when a product is released with the latest protection, there is someone somewhere learning how to circumvent the security. Awareness by everyone will help make better decisions about sharing information online and will help to prevent people from needlessly taking advantage of you.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tax Reforms and Responsibility of Public Services

Taxes are not the fun part of our citizen duties to our country and state. The obligation to our communities, via taxes, enables the needed revenues through which we all enjoy mutual benefits. In the current state legislature and at the federal Congress, we are bombarded with a notion that taxes are too high. There is plenty of reason why people want to lower that duty. I have advocated that we should seriously reform the tax code. Considering our taxation history and the endeavors of several administrations (lowest tax rates in a century, 3 wars, unchecked tax subsidies, unchecked entitlement spending), there are mixed messages about responsibility and public welfare. In the state discussion, the focus is upon commercial property taxes in Iowa. The federal discussion is focusing upon the progressive tax system. The resolution to the issues will need to involve reforming the code without burdening larger swaths of people and to actually make some hard choices.

Let us analyze the proposed commercial property tax reduction of 40% over the next 4 years by Branstad. This essentially reduces the taxable property value and revenue for cities to draw needed funds in order to encourage commercial development (e.g. job creation). City managers all over Iowa argue this is misguided since the “expected” growth of commercial property to make up for the reduction in tax revenues is hardly possible. Given the trend of positive reports of Iowa as a business friendly environment (e.g. Forbes, Fortune and CNBC) and the relative lack of significant growth in response to those reports, can we seriously imagine a spike in growth based upon a sudden change in commercial tax rates? The replenishment of taxable property to make up for the shortfall created by the rate reduction will not be enough to cover that deficit. Therefore, someone else has to pay for the deficit or there is a reduction of services.

One proposed solution would be to merge administrative and services between communities in order to reduce redundancy or inefficiency. On its face, this proposal has some merit, but the pride of communities and the current redistricting provides us with the realities of making this happen. The county –wide vote to merge Des Moines with Polk County administration is evidence of people’s unwillingness to realize such solutions. As well, the smaller rural communities that have experienced school redistricting may resist ceding of local decision capabilities to some other community for fear of no services to the locality. Besides, who do the legislators and governor think is going to be willing to swallow pride pills? What is the priority for merging services? Does this ultimately mean reduction of services?

Remember, commercial property enjoys the same benefits of government service as residential areas. The reduction of those services may actually become a strike against moving new businesses to Iowa despite supposed favorable tax rates. The higher burden of taxes on residential areas may offset the relief of having lower commercial property taxes. Lower commercial costs may yield little benefit if no one can now afford to do commerce because of higher residential obligations. Reduction of commercial property tax rates at the levels proposed is essentially providing people with some means with public welfare that they, incidentally, will end up cutting services for middle-class and low-income families (e.g. schools, roads, mental health, police and fire protection). They are telling working people to shoulder the burdens for the wealthier parts of society.

Reform of taxes as less complicated and less burdensome to people is a great idea. Yet, if there is no problem with 85% of wealth hoarded in the top 5% of society, they surely have benefits associated with that much wealth and financial power that is unavailable to remaining 95% of society. They also get the benefits of having a robust middle-class that can afford and has access to buy services and products. Yet, why do they get to enjoy loopholes that in some cases reduce their tax obligation to rates to near zero? If everyone is paying a fair share, people would not mind being able to file a simple form without special software or tax accountants. In fact, some plans for simpler tax codes with less, or no, loopholes envision lower tax rates and provide the government with more revenue to provide those mutual services. (Consider that taxpayers pay for gas and oil before they even get to the pump.)

The proposals for tax reform are good starting points for the discussion about our state’s and country’s fiscal policies, but the policies enacted should be careful to ensure that the middle-class does not end up with more of the burden of the welfare state for business and the wealthy. As well, the middle class should be wary of rhetoric that scapegoats low-income families as non-working, lazy poor in order to maintain certain tax privileges for large firms and wealthier Americans. The cost to maintain the workers’ safety net is less than the cost to provide tax subsidies for oil and gas exploration (or to provide tax “relief” for wealthy Americans). There is no reason to continuously benefit one part of society at the expense of others because taxes are mutual duties that provide mutual benefits (not just for some).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Perceptions of Advanced Capitalism and Corporation Influence upon American Middle Class and Individual Political Efficacy in Post-Modern America

Whether you can participate or not, I would appreciate you sharing this with your colleagues, friends and lists to help gain participation!

To Whom It May Concern:

I humbly request your participation and invite you to be a respondent in my Dissertation research studying perceptions of corporate power and power elites influence upon public policy and upon personal capability to make social change. It is hoped that this research will contribute to the understanding of corporate power impact upon personal willingness to participate in politics (e.g. voting or activism).

With your permission, the survey will be conducted as an anonymous online survey. All information from the survey collection will be confidential, considered anonymous and your identity will be protected at all times. Participation is strictly on voluntary basis, and you may withdraw participation at any time.

For this study, I am seeking the following respondents who:
-A self-identifying middle class, English-speaking, white male from Generation X.
-Voted in 2008 Presidential election and identifies as independent.
-Has bachelors degree, non-union, employed by a for-profit corporation.
-Does not generally vote based upon a specific cause or issue.
-Has observed company culture where they are employed.

If you meet the above criteria and would like to participate in this study, simply go to the site listed and follow the link to begin the survey. If you need to contact me or have questions, please contact me by phone (319.621.6807), log on to the web page the http://www.iowapolicyresearch.org/dissertation/ or email (tony.hansen@waldenu.edu).

If you don’t wish to participate, no one will contact you, and your anonymity will remain protected.
Thank you for considering participation in this study.

Tony Hansen

Monday, January 31, 2011

Marriage Equality and the Freedom of Religion

Among the many different arguments for and against equality in marriage, there is subtle, if not blatantly, overlooked point about the freedom of religion (in addition to the unrelenting prejudices). If one really thinks about the marriage issue as that being presented by those supporting so-called “traditional marriages”, there is a direct correlation to the freedom of religion and how they believe religion should be taught or expressed in public law. These religious right advocates want to codify in Constitutional amendments specific religious doctrines and to whittle away at the freedom of religion for everyone else.

There is an understanding that the purpose of the Bill of Rights (both at the state-level and the federal level) is to protect the minority from the impeding or disabling whims and wishes of the majority. Further, religious right advocates often declare that the media and the left are persecuting religious freedom by silencing religious speech or religious expressions in public, not to mention allowing LGBT people to have a voice in the discussion (or any so-called “special” rights or marriage equality). The call for marriage to exclude same-gender couples is often, if not boisterously, based in a particular “mainline” Christian tradition of heterosexual marriage. Yet, there are plenty of so-called “mainline” Christian faiths (as well as other religious faiths) that accept same-gender couples into marriage.

These same religious-rights advocates have categorized those same equality-supporting Christian churches in line with un-believers or not true followers of the “word of God”. Sometimes those advocates argue that the churches that support equality in marriage are merely a disguise for some unholy ritualistic paganism (e.g. un-Christian). Incidentally, this is comparable to the Ayatollah of Iran or Osama bin Laden labeling groups as infidels because their brand of Islam or religious faith is not pure enough. This relegates all of the churches, synagogues, or mosques in terms of who has the correct belief system. By attempting to codify that belief system in law, they are subverting the reason and establishment of the bill of rights protections with respect to religion. It would be perfectly logical to follow that reasoning to suggest that one church should receive preferential treatment since the law recognizes their particular faith tenets over others’ tenets.

Thus, the state has to decide whether to be mixed up in the religious debate. The rights of people in this country are founded upon the consensus of reasonable discourse from all religions with respect to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness where people have the equal rights to protect themselves and their property from unwarranted harm. We see this in laws with regard to murder, property and harassment. People, before the law, are to be treated equally and fairly. If the state founds its civic marriage on the parallel religious marriages, then we can not exclude those religions that recognize same-gender couples marriages into that commitment. To do otherwise is to protect some religious faiths while denying the religious belief of others and to inject a particular religion into public law. This consequence appears to be congenial with Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley as long as it is their brand of religion in law.

The state could simply not recognize all civic marriages, but we know from all sorts of studies that promotion of marriages is a compelling interest of that state. Obviously, the religious right regards civic marriage to be a partial integration of civic and religious conduct (similar to how the Christmas holiday is recognized). Otherwise, the discussion over civic recognition of marriage for same-gender couples would not be an issue. We also know from the growing set of academic research that children growing up in households with couples (straight or gay) will do better in school and life. As well, there is no harm that is committed to others, or even other marriages, by allowing people to marry without the blessing of a church. Thus, civic marriage has a state purpose for fulfilling a civilized and productive society. Yet, the religious right only wants the state to recognize marriages as defined by their own faiths and therefore, in a way, they want to control the public law and protections to exclude those that do not follow those particular faiths. Ironically and essentially, they want to use public law to persecute and to ridicule people for not following their self-avowed “true” faith.

The erosion of rights, by defining who has them and who does not have the rights, beckons the parallel chronology asserted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm where established and codified rights were slowly and systematically taken away based upon false numbers and eventually upon the pretext that some “are more equal than others.”  Again, no person or group of people is more equal than others before the law, and likewise, no one religion is more equal than another before the law that protects the free expression of religion. No majority can simply redefine that protection in order to justify the persecution of minorities or to require those minorities to follow a particular religious doctrine.

If we limit marriage to that defined by only some mainline religions, the next logical part of this discussion is to question who gets to perform marriages, where are they performed and if those marriages can be nullified. Perhaps, we codify marriages  and annulments only recognized by the Vatican; only those marriages recognized by churches of over 1000 members; marriages that cannot birth their own offspring should be annulled; or marriages only recognized in exchange for an obligatory tithe to a specific church? The law should not be subject to religious edicts or Salem-witch-trial type board for approval unless we mean to reject the sanctity of civil rights protections. The arguments against marriage equality look more and more like thinly veiled disguises for claims that one religious faith is better (e.g. “more equal”) than the others. Essentially, the state should not be in the business of arguing religious doctrines with respect to marriage given the civic interest in perpetuating marriage outside of religion.

This is also posted online with other research and commentaries at http://www.iowapolicyresearch.org/