William Morgan: Touring the treasures of a cold campus

Spring in northern New England is a sometime thing. It does not usually come until May, if at all, and it doesn’t stay very long. (There's a bit of Yankee humor: "Spring around here is short. Last year, we played baseball that afternoon''.) A recent visit to Maine reminded me that we were still very much in what  the late Noel Perrin, my favorite Dartmouth professor, called one of New England's six seasons: "Unlocking''. Except for a few brave daffodils, there were no flowers to be seen and few leaves on the trees.



Waiting for spring: House neat Wiscasset, Maine.

My wife and I walked around Bowdoin College during this period of grayness. Where, we wondered, were the crowds of prospective Polar Bears touring the campus on their spring break? Our own son had seen the Brunswick school in the flush of summer. Would an introduction in November or March have chilled his ardor for Bowdoin? What about students from Virginia or California showing up expecting Maine to look as it appears in online college promotional material?



Main Green at Bowdoin College, looking north.

Yet, we found something strangely appealing about Bowdoin at this time of year–a kind of astringency, a stark honesty defined by barebones trees. There was a sense of what it means to live in Maine year round, or to have attended Bowdoin, say, back in the 1820s, along with Longfellow and Hawthorne, when Brunswick was far away and pretty isolated from the world.



View of the green from Massachusetts Hall (1802),Bowdoin's oldest building.

Minus the leafed-out of shrubbery and flowering trees, it is a lot easier to appreciate the astounding collection of notable 19th Century and early 20th Century architecture that forms the center of the Bowdoin campus.


Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead & White, was the most famous American architect to build at Bowdoin. The Walker Art Museum (1894) is a perfect Renaissance revival jewel. The Western canon of painters, sculptors  and architects whose names are carved on the façade might now be seen as a group of dead white men, but it was a typical homage found on Beaux-Arts civic buildings



Richard Upjohn was another giant of American architecture, best known for his Gothic revival churches, such as Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York. Upjohn, however, employed his beloved English Gothic only for Episcopalians. So the Bowdoin Chapel, 1844-55, was built in a severe German Romanesque for the Maine Congregationalists–a commanding if stern house of worship.



The tall and narrow chapel, with its large murals and painted ceiling, is an unexpected change from the starkness of unadorned white interiors of the typical New England meetinghouse.



Although not as famous as either Upjohn or McKim, Boston architect Henry Vaughan was a major designer of churches and colleges. Like Upjohn, he championed English Gothic. Here, Searles Science Hall of 1894 is an early example of a Jacobean-inspired collegiate building in America.



Echoes of Oxford and Cambridge, where Vaughan worked before emigrating to America, inform his Hubbard Library (1903). Soon, the lawn would be home to Frisbee games.


Above the entrance to Hubbard Library is this flowing banner carved with the admonition: Here Seek Converse With The Wise Of All Ages. Would such a motto be welcome in today's politically correct academy?


William Morgan is a longtime architectural historian and essayist. His books include Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire and A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England















Jill Richardson: Blaming the poor for being poor

Via OtherWords.org

If you’re poor, many Americans think, it’s your own fault. It’s a sign of your own moral failing.

I don’t personally believe that, but the idea has roots in our culture going back centuries.

In The Wealth of Nations, the foundational work of modern capitalism, Adam Smith extolled the virtues of working hard and being thrifty with money. That wasn’t just the way to get rich, he reasoned — it was morally righteous.

Sociologist Max Weber took the idea further in describing what he called the Protestant work ethic.

To Puritans who believed that one was either predestined for heaven or for hell, Weber wrote, working hard and accumulating wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Those who got rich, the Puritans thought, must have been chosen by God for heaven; those who were poor were damned.

Even major American philanthropists have subscribed to this idea.

John D. Rockefeller, a religious Baptist, thought that his vast wealth was evidence from God of his righteousness. Fortunately, he took this as a sign that he should use his money for good. He gave it to universities and medical research centers, and his descendants used it for great art museums, national parks, and more.

But Rockefeller also believed that the poor were often deserving of their fate. If they’d just worked harder, or budgeted their money wisely, then they wouldn’t be poor.

Plenty of Americans agree. Sadly, that’s often not the case.

The first factor determining one’s wealth as an adult is an accident of birth. If you’re born to wealthy parents, you’ll go to better schools and get better health care. Your odds of success as an adult are higher.

If, on other hand, you’re born to poor parents who must work multiple jobs instead of staying home to care for you — or who can’t afford healthy food, medical care, or a house in a good school district — your chances of earning your way into the middle class as an adult plummet.

In fact, if your parents’ income is in the bottom 20 percent, there’s  you’ll be stuck in that low-income bracket for your entire life. Thanks to racism, that figure rises to 50 percent for black people born into poverty.

Indeed, racial disparities crop up even at the bottom of the ladder.

Due to historic racism and discrimination, data from the Economic Policy Institute shows, low-income white families tend to be wealthier than black families making the same income. Furthermore, whites are more likely to have friends and family who can help them out of a financial bind.

Finally, thanks to decades of discriminatory housing and lending practices, black families are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods. That impacts the quality of the schools they attend, among many other things.

So why can’t a hardworking family get ahead? For one thing, it’s expensive to be poor.

Try finding an affordable place to live. You need to have enough cash on hand to pay a deposit. Many apartments require you to prove your income is 2.5 times the cost of the rent.

Public-assistance programs only help the most destitute, and often don’t provide enough even then.

For the disabled, the situation is worse. In theory, Social Security provides for those with disabilities. In reality, getting approved for disability payments is costly (in both medical and legal fees) and difficult. Once you get approved, disability payments are low, condemning you to poverty for life.

In short, there are many reasons why poor Americans are poor. It doesn’t help that our society thinks it’s their own fault.

Jill Richardson, an OtherWords.org columnist, is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. 

'For what they are'

By June our brook's run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow) --
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed, 
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat --
A brook to no one but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Robert Frost, ''Hyla Brook''

Inscrutable sculpture


Pique with Citrine’’ (stone, shell, ceramic, metal, glass, plastic, paper clay), by Leslie Linda Brown, in her show "More Holes,'' at Kingston Gallery, Boston through May 29. 

The gallery says that the title of exhibition refers to" the porous, eroded forms of the art; as the artist says, 'These works are half created and half destroyed.'  Like unearthed, archaeological treasures, a key part of each sculpture's strength lies in its inscrutability. Ms. Brown's art possesses a wild elegance, where symmetry angles towards complexity at every turn, so that it is impossible to summarize the sculptures from a single point of view. The works comment on the current state of our environment, on the vital force of human connection, and on the potency of materiality in advancing emotional expression.''


Lan Anh: Building a foundation for close U.S.-Vietnamese relations


By Lan Anh

On the night of May 22, President Obama landed at Noi Bai International Airport to start his official visit to Vietnam. U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had also visited Vietnam while in office.

The American War in Vietnam was a long and sad chapter but that conflict ended 41 years ago.

President Obama’s visit to Vietnam  was a dramatic turning point as the two countries establish stronger ties  to promote the development, peace and security of the both countries, the Asia/Pacific region and the wider world.

Vietnam has spent  much blood,  wealth and time defending itself from invadersto regain and preserve its independence.  The country  has constantly faced threats to its freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But, overcoming the sorrow of historical events, and some missteps in its economic-development strategy, Vietnam has  today achieved remarkable improvements in the economic and other aspects of its development. It has great potential strengths from its location and its population of 100 million, (making Vietnam the 13th most populous nation) including its large number of young people who are very receptive to new technology. It is also playing an increasingly important role in global economic development.

Meanwhile, Vietnam preserves many of its ancient traditions while it stays open to learning and accepting the best aspects of cultures and values all over the world.  

Vietnam has become an inspiring story of a country in transition.  A nation that suffered the sorrow of  a long war with the U.S., Vietnam has since normalized the relationship with America and is taking steps to improve it further.  Vietnamese-U.S. relations are now a world-recognized symbol of reconciliation and of progress toward a peaceful, more secure and developed world.

America has the  world’s largest economy and is the global military superpower.  Thus,  the U.S. plays a crucial role in preserving stability around the Earth. American military power can be deployed quickly to any place in the world.  Further, America is the innovation hub of the planet. It’s where leading technologies are constantly being invented and refined with great international impact.

Since World War II, the U.S.  has led the establishment of a network of multilateral organizations  -- most notably the World Bank, the  International Monetary Fund (IMF) and such regional  security organizations as NATO. In part becase of these organizations, the U.S. has strong allies around the world.

These factors are crucial parts of the foundation for stronger Vietnamese-U.S. relations.

Prof. Thomas Patterson, a leading Harvard scholar on politics, press and public policy,  and a co-founder and director of The Boston Global Forum (BostonGlobalForum.org), said that the bases for a strong and sustainable relationship between  the U.S. and Vietnam are trust and respect for each other and mutual understanding of each other’s needs and values. Despite some inevitable differences, the two countries have many shared goals, which include building their own and each other’s prosperity, friendly cultural exchanges and peace and security in the South China Sea (called in Vietnam the East Sea). Strong andfriendly U.S.-Vietnamese relations will foster the strong growth of the two countries in the Pacific Era.

The U.S. can help Vietnam with capital and advanced technology so that Vietnam can continue growing its knowledge and innovation economy via such technology solutions as  artificial intelligence (AI) and network security.

After the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TTP) comes into effect, Vietnam’s GDP is projected to increase to $23.5 billion in 2020 and $33.5 billion in 2025. Its exports are projected to rise by  $68 billion by 2026.  Under the TPP, big markets,  such as the U.S., Japan and Canada, willeliminate tariffs for goods imported from Vietnam, which will obviously give its exporting activity a big boost..

Meanwhile Fulbright University Vietnam has officially been granted approval to open. This  is a milestone  in the journey of  cooperation between U.S. and Vietnam in education. Further, the University of California at Los Angeles ( UCLA ) will soon work with Vietnam to carry out new initiatives in global citizenship education.

To establish itself as a major global player, Vietnam needs to be independent  of bigger countries so that it can strategize its  path ahead while following universal standards and values. Vietnam will raise its visibility in  the world with a loving,  tolerant and generous attitude.

Vietnam has overcome sorrow and loss to make peace with other countries that caused it pain. Hence, Vietnam has become a symbol of reconciliation and can play an important role in preserving  international peace and security in the Asia/Pacific region and around the world.  

For example, Vietnam can contribute to the effort to resolve conflicts between the U.S.  and Russia,  between Europe and Russia,  between China and Russia,  between the U.S.,  Japan and North Korea,  and between the U.S. and China. Vietnam could also become a centerfor finding solutions to conflicts in the Middle East and forhelping North Korea integrate with the rest of the world (as when Vietnam helped Myanmar reintegrate). And it can be a pioneer in building harmony and security in online space in South East Asia and around the world. This can include educating people  to be responsible online citizens in Internet era; teaching them to respect each other’s culture, knowledge and morality, and  promoting initiatives for global citizenship education.

Building strong Vietnamese-U.S. relations, as well as the other initiatives cited above, can’t be completed overnight but the path to a brighter future is opened. Tomorrow has started today.

Lan Anh is a journalist for VietNamNet.

Dark thoughts in a black tie

We went to a black-tie  fund-raising dinner  for a nonprofit (Trinity Rep) last night in Newport. It may be my last after having attended dozens of these events over the years.

Yet again, I ask myself: Why not ditch these interminable, loud and often pompous affairs and just send money to these fine  and always needy  nonprofit outfits? (And I'm more conscious of the  cost of going to these things these days because I no longer have a regular salaried job and because for 30 years I'd be, in effect, ordered to go to them by companies that employed me that would usually pay my tab.  Corporate PR.)

Last night was the usual claustrophobic march from cocktails to the much too long general remarks and then the introductions of the prize winners of the night, in this case  of some Pell Awards for the Arts. The introducers, as  typical at these things, talked too much about themselves as we sat in folding chairs in a wind-battered tent. But a couple of the prize winners (whom I think might consider us semi-personal friends -- why we attended) were admirably concise in their acceptance remarks.

I was again surprised by the four-letter words and other reflections of the growing crudeness of our society in the remarks of some of the speakers. Depressing. But seeing how much some people had aged since I last saw them elicited my zoological interest. It recalled Proust's description of the old men and women in the last part of In Search of Lost Time whom he had known when they were young and fresh.

Then  we went to the  usual skimpy catered meal, in which the  (very cheery) waiters seem to have been rigorously instructed to give diners the very minimum amount of wine. And then we were one night older....

-- Robert Whitcomb


Flash of beauty before the decline

Photo by Thomas Hook, who writes that this is  "our first Swallowtail of the season, wings intact and not yet marred and chewed up by aging  in this perilous world.'' 

Mr. Hook, a superb wildlife photographer based in Southbury, Conn., is an old friend and classmate. At our school reunion the other day we heard and saw many things to remind us of the ravages of time, amidst the lushness of May in Connecticut.

-- Robert Whitcomb



Young to old without transition

 I went to a 50th boarding school reunion this past week in Connecticut and had several Proustian experiences. One of them was  seeing the face of an old lady whom I well remembered as the lovely young wife of a faculty member.  She is now a lovely old woman.  Seeing her gave me a start, adding to the eerie quality of the reunion.

I hadn't see her for 50 years and so of course my brain had not had the opportunity to very slowly view  -- and thus mostly ignore --  her aging

--- Robert Whitcomb

Frank Carini: Answers to global-warming deniers and minimizers

Well-documented facts, and common sense, tell us how humans are affecting the world, often with negative consequences. For example, greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which we generate in abundance, are altering the climate, changing ocean chemistry and helping the seas rise.

Since ecoRI News first went online, in September 2009, people skeptical of manmade global warming — also referred to as climate change — have asked and e-mailed us, in most cases politely, to prove what most climate scientists already have. The following are the three most popular questions, presented in various forms, we have been asked in the past six-plus years:

Melting glaciers are often cited as proof of climate change. Given that they have been retreating for thousands years, why is their continued withdrawal, or even disappearance, of concern?

The obvious answer, at least to us, is that humans have built a lot of stuff, much of it highly valued, along the shore. In Newport, R.I., for instance, 968 historic structures are threatened by rising seas.

Whether you want to believe that belching smokestacks and tailpipes, deforestation and industrial agriculture, among many other human practices, have played a role in altering the planet’s climate, the fact is the world’s oceans have risen by an average of nearly 8 inches since the beginning of the 20th Century. They are projected to rise another 3-7 feet by 2100.

Even if you believe  that Earth’s rising waters are part of a natural cycle, or your god’s will, the fact we have replaced natural coastal buffers, such as salt marshes and wetlands, with homes, roads, restaurants and tourist attractions has made our developed shorelines vulnerable to storm surge, flooding and erosion.

Now, southern New England’s coast is rebuilding itself, and humans weren’t invited to submit plans.

Besides contributing to global sea-level rise, fresh water from melting glaciers alters the sea, pushing down heavier salt water and changing ocean currents. The impacts ripple far and wide. Weather patterns change. Fish migrations change. Species go extinct. Temperatures rise, because the white surfaces of glaciers — they cover 10 percent of the Earth’s land — reflect the sun’s rays, helping to maintain the climate humans have become so accustomed to.

If even climate scientists are wrong — although my money’s on the science — lessening our dependence on the burning of fossil fuels would still improve public health and the environment’s well-being. No one would get hurt or suffer. A reconfigured energy industry would still provide plenty of employment opportunities. Plus, I’m sure the new-look industry could also be rigged to benefit the few over the many.

Of course, if the deniers are wrong, and we do nothing or not enough, it will prove costly on so many levels.

Environmentalists treat ecosystems as if they never change, attempting to preserve the same environment with which they grew up or trying to restore their vision of what the environment may have been like prior to industrialization and large-scale agriculture. But don’t ecosystems change all the time?

The often-used argument that the environment-was-going-to-change-naturally-and-species-were-going-to-go-extinct-regardless rings oh so hollow — kind of like a murderer defending himself by saying his victim was going to die eventually anyway.

Just because ecosystems change and species disappear without the help of human hands, doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to ruin environments for profit and sport. We share this sphere with many living things, and we have an obligation to future generations.

I, for one, would have enjoyed seeing a flight of passenger pigeons darken an afternoon sky. Sadly, the last one of its kind died in a zoo in 1914. We hunted them to extinction. Let’s hope we don’t make the same mistake with grizzly bears, wolves and African elephants.

The climate has changed many times in the past, so why is it a problem now?

The climate reacts to whatever forces it to change, and 7-plus billion humans — a population that is growing rapidly — are now the dominant force. It’s really no different than how an overpopulation of deer would stress a forest ecosystem. Neither species seems to be able to confront this reality.

Humans are stressing the plant’s resources through a combination of manmade pollution and ceaseless development. The negative impacts of our growth far outweigh the positives. Mother Nature will respond in kind. Why do you think we're looking to colonize Mars?

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.

Naked in nature

From "What Grows Without,'' a show of photos by Chris Maliga, at Piano Craft Gallery, Boston, through May 29.

The show features black and white photos that deal with "the concept of oneself within nature as well as one's own identity,'' says the gallery. The photos show Mr. Maliga "alone and naked within different natural landscapes, speaking to his own personal struggle and experience.''

Llewellyn Smith: Hedrick Smith a torchbearer for beaten-down middle class


The middle class has been taking a shellacking for years. It began in the 1970s, when the business and political elites separated from the people and it has been accelerating ever since, according to Hedrick Smith, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and editor, an Emmy award-winning PBS producer and correspondent, and a bestselling author. In short, an establishment figure.

Add to Smith’s establishment credentials schooling at Choate, the private boarding school, a stint at Oxford, and you have the picture of someone with the credentials to join the elite of his choosing. Instead Smith is a one-man think tank, a persuasive voice against the manipulation of the public institutions, such as Congress, for money and power.

But Smith is not a polemicist. He uses the reporter's tools, honed over decades in Moscow and Washington and on big stories,  such as the civil-rights movement and the fall of the Soviet Union, to make his points against the assault on the middle class.

It all began with Smith's looking into what was happening to American manufacturing, which led to his explosive 2012 book, Who Stole the American Dream? Encouraged by the book's success, he created a Web site,reclaimtheamericandream.org, which now has a substantial following. In the past three years, he has lectured at over 50 universities and other platforms on his big issue: the abandonment of the middle class by corporate America and its corrupted political allies.

Smith documents the end of the implicit contract with workers, where they shared in corporate growth and stability. He outlines how money has vanquished the political voice of the middle class.

Instead, according to Smith, corporations have knelt before the false god of “shareholder value.” This has resulted in the flight of corporate headquarters to tax-friendlier climes, jobs to cheap labor, and a managerial elite indifferent to those who built the companies they manage.

In Smith’s well-researched world it is not only the corporations that have abandoned the workers, but the political establishment is also guilty, bowing to lobbyists and fixing elections through redistricting. Two big villains here: money in politics and gerrymandering electoral districts.

The result is a democracy in name only that serves the powerful and perpetuates the power of those who have stolen the system from the voters.

Smith cites the dismal situation in North Carolina, where districts have been drawn ostensibly to ensure black representation in Congress, but also to ensure Republican domination of all the surrounding districts. The two districts that illustrate the mischief are called “the Octopus” and “the Serpent” because of the way they are drawn to identify the voter preference of the inhabitants.

The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are testament to the broken system, says Smith. They are symbolic of the rising up of the middle class against the predations of the elites.

But Smith is hopeful because, he says, the states have taken up arms against the Washington and Wall Street elites. People should “look at the maps,” he says, “They will be surprised to find out that 25 states are engaged in a battle against partisan gerrymandering, or that 700 cities and communities plus 16 states are on record in favor of rolling back ‘Citizens United’ and restoring the power of Congress to regulate campaign funding.”

Smith sees the middle class reclaiming America: a great social revolution that again unites the government with governed, the creators of wealth with the managers of the wealth. Smith is no Man of La Mancha, tilting at windmills, but a torchbearer for a revolution that is underway and overdue.

“My thought is that more people would be emboldened to engage in grassroots civic action if they could just see what other people have already achieved,” he told me.

Smith’s Web site has drawn 82,000 visitors in the past year, and Facebook posts have reached 2.45 million, he says.

Smith cautioned me to write about the Web site and cause and not the man. But the man is unavoidable, and unique. He has as much energy as he had when I first met him in passing in a corridor at the National Press Club in Washington decades ago. At 82, Smith still plays tennis, skis, hikes, swims and dances with his wife, Susan, whom he describes as a “gorgeous dancer.”

At 6 feet 2 1/2 inches, Smith is an imposing figure at the lectern, but his delivery is gentle and collegiate: a reporter astounded and pleased with what he has found in the course of his investigation of the American body politic.

Llewellyn King is host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. He is a long-time publisher, columnist and internationalist business consultant. This piece first ran on Inside Sources.

Chuck Collins: A commencement address for the most indebted graduates ever


Congratulations, college graduates! As you enter the next phase of life, you and your parents should be proud of your achievements.

But, I’m sorry to say, they’ve come at a price: The system is trying to squeeze you harder than any previous generation.

Many Baby Boomers, perhaps including your parents, benefited from a time when higher education was seen as a shared social responsibility. Between 1945 and 1975, tens of millions of them graduated from college with little or no debt.

But now, tens of millions of you are graduating with astounding levels of debt.

This year, seven in 10 graduating seniors borrowed for their educations. Their average debt is now over $37,000 — the highest figure for any class ever.

Already, some 43 percent of borrowers — together owing $200 billion — have either stopped making payments or are behind on their student loans. Millions are in default.

This debt casts a long shadow on the finances of graduates. During the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Education Department moved to garnish $176 million in wages.

There’s no economic benefit to this system whatsoever. Indebted students delay starting families and buying houses, experience compounding economic distress, and are less inclined to take entrepreneurial risks.

One driver of the change from your parents’ generation has been tax cuts for the wealthy, which have led to cuts in higher-education budgets. Forty-seven states now spend less per student on higher education than they did before the 2008-2009 recession.

In effect, we’re shifting tax obligations away from multi-millionaires and onto states and middle-income taxpayers. And that’s led colleges to rely on higher tuition costs and fees.

In 2005, for instance, Congress stopped sharing revenue from the estate tax — a levy on inherited wealth exclusively paid by multi-million dollar estates — with the states. Most state legislatures failed to replace it at the state level, costing them billions in revenue over the last decade.

In fact, the 32 states that let their estate taxes expire are foregoing between $3 to $6 billion a year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates. The resulting tax benefits have gone entirely to multi-millionaires and billionaires — and contributed to tuition increases.

For example, California used to raise almost $1 billion a year in revenue from its state-level estate tax. Now that figure is down to zero. And since 2008, average tuition has increased over $3,500 at four-year public colleges and universities in the state.

Florida, meanwhile, lost $700 million a year — and raised tuition nearly $2,500. Michigan lost $155 million a year and hiked average tuition $2,200.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Washington State went the opposite route.

Washington taxes wealthy estates and dedicates the $150 million it raises each year to an education legacy trust account, which supports K-12 education and the state’s community college system. Other states should follow this model, and students and parents should take the lead in demanding it.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said at a Philadelphia town hall that there’s one thing that he’s 100 percent certain about:

If millions of young people stood up and said they’re “sick and tired of leaving college $30,000, $50,000, $70,000 in debt, that they want public colleges and universities tuition-free,” he predicted, “that is exactly what would happen.”

Sanders is right: Imagine a political movement made up of the 40 million householdsthat currently hold $1.2 trillion in debt.

If we stood up and pressed for policies to eliminate  tax breaks for millionaires and dedicate the revenue to debt-free education, it would change the face of America.

Graduates, let’s get to work.

Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. 

Llewellyn King: Internet is a cesspool of crime, war and mischief

Via Inside Sources

The big news coming out of the G7 meeting in Japan will not be about establishing international norms for cybersecurity. That will only get an honorable mention at best. But maybe it should get greater attention: The threat is real and growing.

Consider just these four events of the recent past:

The electric grid in Ukraine was brought down last Dec. 23 by, it is believed, the Russians. Because of its older design, operators were able to restore power with manual overrides of the computer-controlled system.

The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was ransomed. This crime takes place when a hacker encrypts your data and demands a ransom, often in untraceable bitcoin, to unlock it. The hospital paid $17,000 rather than risk patients and its ability to operate.

While these ransom attacks are fairly common, this is the first one believed to have been launched against a hospital. Previously, hospitals had thought patient records and payment details were what hackers would want, not control of the operating systems. Some of the ransoms are as low as $3,000, with the criminals clearly betting that the victims would lose much more by not settling immediately, as did the medical center. The extortionists first asked for $3.6 million.

In a blockbuster heist on the Internet, the Bangladesh central bank was robbed of $81 million. The crooks were able to authorize the Federal Reserve of New York to release the money held in an account there. They would have got away with another $860 million, if it were not for a typing mistake. In this case, the money was wired to fraudulent accounts in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Target, the giant retailer, lost millions of customer records, including credit-card details, to an attack in February 2014. Since then, these attacks on retailers to get data have become common. Hackers sell credit card details on what is known as the “black web” to other criminals for big money.Often the finger is pointed at China, which will not be at the G7. While it may be a perpetrator, it also has victim concerns. There is no reason to think that Chinese commerce is not as vulnerable as that in the West.

China, with the help of the Red Army, is blamed in many attacks, particularly on U.S. government departments. But little is known of attacks Chinese institutions sustain.

Governments want to police the Internet and protect their commerce and citizens, but they are also interested in using it in cyberwar. Additionally, they freely use it in the collection of intelligence and as a tool of war or persuasion. Witness U.S. attempts to impede the operation of the centrifuges in Iran and its acknowledged attacks on the computers of ISIS.

As the Net’s guerilla war intensifies, the U.S. electric utility industry, and those of other countries, is a major source of concern, especially since the Ukraine attack. Scott Aaronson, who heads up the cybersecurity efforts of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for private utilities, says the government’s role is essential and the electric companies work closely with the government in bracing their own cyber defenses.

Still, opinions differ dramatically about the vulnerability of the electric grid.

These contrasting opinions were on view at a meeting in Boston last month, when two of the top experts on cybersecurity took opposing views of utility vulnerability. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security who now teaches emergency management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said she believed the threat to the electric grid was not severe. But Mourad Debbabi, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who also has had a career in private industry, thinks the grid is vulnerable -- and that vulnerability goes all the way down to new "smart meters."

The fact is that the grid is the battleground for what Aaronson calls “asymmetrical war” where the enemy is varied in skill, purpose and location, while the victims are the equivalent of a standing army, vigilant and vulnerable. No amount of government collaboration will stop criminals and rogue non-state players from hacking out of greed, or malice, or just plain hacker adventurism.

Governments have double standards, exempting themselves when it suits from the norms they are trying to institutionalize. Cyber mischief and defending against it are both big businesses, and the existential threat is always there. 

Llewellyn King is a longtime publisher, columnist and international business consultant. He is host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS.

Editor's note: See bostonglobalforum.org for coverage of  international cybersecurity issues.