The Day We Fight Back: My Letter to Senator Blumenthal

Today, February 11, is The Day We Fight Back, a semi-organized attempt at letting Congress and the public know that we won’t stand for dragnet surveillance by the NSA. Here is the letter I sent to Senator Blumenthal, Senator from my state of Connecticut. I’ve sent similar letters to Senator Chris Murphy and Representative John Larson.

Senator Blumenthal,

As you know, there have been many revelations in the past several months regarding surveillance activity by the NSA. These revelations, though not entirely unsurprising in light of the ways we already knew the government interpreted the Patriot Act after it was passed in 2001, are nonetheless concerning to me.

While I understand the need to uncover plots by terrorist groups, I do not believe that these activities should be done at the expense of civil liberties. The NSA has routinely claimed to be sensitive to the privacy of Americans, only for a new revelation to expose many of those claims as, at best, partial truths. The revelations that the agency has gathered data from private data lines owned by Google and other companies, as well as its attempts to weaken encryption standards, are particularly concerning.

These actions and others give me the sense that the agency has an attitude that, if it isn’t already, is very susceptible to becoming ambivalent toward civil liberties.

As one of your constituents, I am very pleased to see that you are a co-sponsor for the USA Freedom Act. I am hoping that you will push for the passage of this bill in the Senate, and perhaps even strengthen it, to ensure that it protects civil liberties and does not become watered down in favor of the NSA and other surveillance agencies.

I am also hoping that you will oppose the passage of the FISA Improvements Act of 2013, at least as it currently stands. I do not wish to see the kind of secretive, dragnet surveillance that we’ve learned about in these past months be codified into law.

Finally, I hope you will be a strong advocate against civil liberties violations by not only the NSA, but any federal, state, or local agency that might follow the NSA’s lead in conducting widespread surveillance. Most of the nation’s attention on these matters is currently focused on that agency, but police departments across the nation are currently looking into the use of unmanned drones, and we must ensure that these devices are not used to conduct surveillance on citizens.

I hope that you will strongly advocate for the privacy and civil liberties of your constituents in the coming days and months. I believe the time to do so is now, while surveillance activities are still able to be regulated.

Thank you taking time to read my letter.

Sincerely,
Michael Merritt
Manchester Resident

 

A Revelation on Breaking Into a Conversation

Social CircleI’m sure this is nothing new for most people, but I had an experience the other day that was completely mind-blowing and gave me a bit of a social development lesson.

For a little background, anybody who knows me even a little bit knows I’m not one to talk much, and those who know me a little better know that I’m never exactly the life of the few parties I attend.  This is not uncommon for introverts like me, but I find it particularly hard to initiate conversations and usually only contribute to existing ones if I really have something to say.  Among other problems, this has led to some uncomfortable situations on my part when I’m with large groups of people, where I’m not entirely sure how to fit myself into a group’s conversation.

Friday afternoon was one of those times.  I was at a little going away party for a co-worker, who is leaving the company I work at for another job. Everything started out pretty well. Though I didn’t have much to contribute to any particular conversation, I was at least part of a group. By the time I finished my cake, everyone has gathered into the several little circles you often see at a party. I briefly left to throw away my plate, but when I came back there was no circle with a big enough gap to fit me.

I was a little worried, as this has happened to me many times before.  It’s something that usually leaves me sort of awkwardly standing there, alone, and I hate that.  Not sure what to do, I decided to stand a bit outside one group, in hopes of at least catching a glimpse of what they were discussing.  I forget exactly what it was that prompted me to speak, but I finally had something to say, so I did.  The co-worker came over to address me, and lo-and-behold, I was suddenly part of the circle.  I was kind of astonished at the turn of events.

So, to all introverts out there. You know how all the literature describes us as good listeners? Well, put that skill to good use and jump in at the first available opportunity. You’ll be rewarded for it.

 

Narrative

Barack Obama Playing BasketballIt never ceases to amaze me how a single event, action, or activity can be shaped to produce a narrative intended to spread a viewpoint or bias. Then again, we are humans, who have long had the capability to tap into anything and create a story. Tonight I’ve been thinking of sports. It’s fascinating how different athletic and sporting activities have been perceived and interpreted by a group of people, depending on their bias.

Take golf: When the subject of a game of golf is Barack Obama, the narrative is often of a weak, ineffectual, and distant man, seemingly unbothered by the current events, and perhaps demonstrating a dereliction of duty to his office. On the other hand, golf has long been the game of choice of the rich and powerful. We’ve seen it in a thousand movies: the golf course is where lucrative business deals are and tycoons show their power. I don’t doubt reality is much different. When you end up on a golf course a businessman, you have “made it.” But for politicians – at least in Obama’s case – the narrative is complete opposite. It’s not one that’s entirely undeserved, but it is interesting.

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Wedding-Vacation 2013: Colonial Williamsburg

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For the last full day of the trip, I visited Colonial Williamsburg. The historical city aspect of it certainly isn’t new, but CW certainly has their own spin on it. There were interpreters aplenty, active smithing shops, and reenactments of key events of the Revolutionary War-era city.

I took a tour of the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol, saw the gaol, the silver smith, and how the colonials made bricks for their buildings, sat down to hear some Q & A with Thomas Jefferson, and (partially) viewed a troop inspection and victory march. Perhaps most interestingly, I witnessed active archaeology at the hypothesized site of a market building.

I liked the site, but again expected all the interpreters/staff to be purely in-character. This wasn’t the case, though, as some people were, such as most tour guides, while others were not, and there seemed to be no particular rhyme or reason as to whom was or was not.

Still, it was very interesting to learn about the royal governor who was almost hanged after he removed the powder from the muskets, and that copper-based green over wallpaper was an ideal color for colonial-era dining rooms.

Well, everyone, this is the last post in this series, unless something of mention should happen on the train home tomorrow. It’s definitely been an interesting and challenging task to update this blog everyday on a vacation, but it was fun.

 

Wedding-Vacation 2013: Yorktown

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When the Siege at Yorktown concluded 232 years ago with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender, General Washington recognized the impact of the American success by commissioning a statue to commemorate the battle. But did anyone think that all those years later Americans would still be visiting the site?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But here we are in 2013, and we still go there, year after year, and for good reason. As I mentioned in the Jamestown update, it’s one thing to hear about the battle, and another to see where it happened.

Today, my cousin and I visited Yorktown, and it is still clear as day some of the conditions the American and French troops had to endure as they closed in on the British. Lots and lots of earthwork done to create a battlefield that perhaps neither truly knew would be the final one up until then last couple days.

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Wedding-Vacation 2013: Busch Gardens

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Today we all (two aunts, an uncle, three cousins, and me) went to Busch Gardens. The thing I found interesting is that is was reasonably not crowded, such that most of the rides did not have long lines, except the popular Verbolten.

Busch Gardens is a very roller coaster-heavy park, and I’m not much of a roller coaster person, but I did go on two of the water rides, the Pompeii and the Roman Rapids. Both were quite fun, though the Rapids ride gave quite a soaking. It was refreshing, though.

At first, anyway. Several hours later, when my socks were only a little less soaked than they were when we got off the ride, and my pants still felt like I peed myself, and it was less warm, then it wasn’t as fun. Lesson learned here: it probably would have been worth the five dollars to use the dryer afterward.

I also saw the predator show in the animal reserve area, but maybe it was because I was so soaked, but it just didn’t seem as appealing as such a show may once have been.

What I think this means, as I observe, is that Busch Gardens is a good park if you like coasters, are a kid, or are a parent of a younger kid, but does not have quite as much to do if you’re a young adult who doesn’t like coasters.

Even still, I did have fun on the water rides, even if by the end I was very much ready to get back to the resort and change into dry clothes.

 

Wedding-Vacation 2013: Jamestowne

Due to some weird WP app thing, this is being posted later on Wednesday instead of later Tuesday.

Today my cousin and I went to Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement. We first went to the archaeological site at Historic Jamestowne. I’ve always been a bit excited to see the ruins of a settlement and it was no different here, even if many of the earlier structures have disappeared. It’s one thing to hear about Jamestown, but another thing to see it in front of you. It just makes it seem more real.

The part of the site I found perhaps most interesting is that the settlers rebuilt their church not once, not twice, but four times on the same site, and oftentimes on top of the preexisting brick. It just goes to show that letting disaster not stop us from rebuilding is nothing new (two times were after fires).

At Jamestown Settlement, it was fun to see the full structures of the James Fort and nearby Powhatan village, but I was surprised to see that the staff wasn’t in-character. This was okay, though, as it allows one to relate the structures and ships to the 21st century. It was also smaller than I expected – it is suggested that everything takes between three and four hours to see, but we were to do it in two, including watching a presentation and demonstration of a 17th century piece of artillery.

All in all, we had a fun time and learned a lot about both the settlement and the people.

 

Wedding-Vacation 2013: Powhatan Resort

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Just a short one tonight, as there’s not much to say yet. The train to Williamsburg, though long, was relatively uneventful, though Amtrak could do with working on their communication skills when there are delays.

My aunt, my cousin (brother of the bride from the earlier wedding posts), and I left at noon and pulled into Williamsburg around 6:40, slightly earlier then my other aunt, uncle, and cousins, who left earlier and had a shorter travel time (gotta love I-95!). Once there, we headed to our lodging at the Powhatan Resort.

A former plantation, Powhatan now boasts timeshares, but sets some aside as super fancy hotel rooms, which are not that expensive for all they come with.

One thing that hit us all when we got here: the size. This place is very large, with plenty of activities, three pools, golf, and specially-planned activities each day. The rooms are big, too. Ours has two bedrooms and bathrooms, and some kitchen amenities, given its nature as a timeshare.

We’ve only really checked out the pool so far. At night they seem to have 18 and over restrictions on one pool, which is very nice indeed.

Only major thing of note is that my other aunt and husband and sons had a bit of a fight with a skunk, who tried to take some trash left outside their unit. Yep, someone just left their trash sitting on the ground. Who does that??

So, tomorrow marks the first of at least one day of the historical tour of Williamsburg and Jamestown/Yorktown. More on that in the next post.

 

Wedding-Vacation 2013: Addendum to Yesterday, History Tours, Tunnels, and Theater

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Before I start on today, I’d like to make an addition to yesterday’s post, because I feel like I made the wedding ceremony and the reception sound really routine, when they were anything but that. Both were fantastic anyway, but what made them reallly stand out was the wedding party’s ability to boogie, starting as soon as the ceremony ended and they left the chapel.

When we got back to the hotel for the reception, it got even better. After my cousin and her husband were introduced, the wedding party immediately went into a rendition of the dance from Psy’s “Gentlemen.” And that there helped set the mood and cement the night into my mind.

So that was the wedding part of this trip in a nutshell.

Today officially began the vacation part of this trip, and it was also the busiest so far. The first thing was breakfast for the wedding party and the guests. Originally set for a nearby IHOP, it ended being in the hotel buffet. It was pretty good, all said.

Afterward, I bid adieu to my parents and grandfather, who
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were heading back home, and went off to see the liberty bell and potentially Independence Hall. The first lesson of the day was that the SEPTA subway isn’t built to be obvious to visitors. It takes a minute to get used to. After finally figuring it out – not without some consternation – we made it to the Independence Hall mall, but did not make it to the Hall itself as tickets were sold out (I got a picture in, anyway). So we saw the liberty bell, which is much smaller than it seems and, though I get the symbolism of it, just isn’t as great as I thought it might be.

Next we decided to take a historical tour on a double-decker bus with an open top. We learned a lot about Philadelphia in 90 minutes than we ever could have by walking around ourselves. For example, did you know that Philadelphians have their own version of the “curse of the Bambino” supposedly brought on by building a structure taller than the height of William Penn’s statue? Or that the statue’s hair strands are four feet tall? Me either. The tour was highly informative and entertaining, but it did start to rain. We stuck it out up top until just before it started to pour.

After the tour we were hungry, so we subwayed it to the Terminal Station Market on Market St. It’s a packed collection of shops, vendors, and food-court style restaurants. I’ve seen one before in another city, but this one was cool nonetheless. I wanted pulled pork, but that food vendor was closed, so I got BBQ chicken instead. It was very good, and the homemade macaroni and cheese was excellent; a good meal for $10.

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After dinner, we had to get back to the hotel to go see Wicked at the Kimmel Center across from our hotel, and it was still pouring, so we considered our options. We weren’t going to hoof it in the deluge, would have to take two likely expensive cabs, and I don’t think anyway else but me was up for another subway ride. Luckily my uncle found out that a guy from the tour desk was heading home (the Market was closing soon) and so we ended up with a tour in central Philadelphia’s underground pedestrian concourse that’s adjacent and providing access to the Center City subway lines. Originally built in the ’60s, it was intended as a pedestrian alternative in inclement weather. It went through its rough patch, but is apparently mostly safe now, if a bit creepy and leak-ridden in areas (and stinky every now and then). However, it’s definitely not one of those places most tourists are going to go through during their time in the city, so I was happy to experience it, even once. I like some local flavor, even if it necessitates constant vigilance. We were in a big group, though, so there was plenty of that among us.

After a brief respite at the hotel, we headed across the street for then show. One word for it: WOW! It was excellent. I’d always wanted to seen it, but it never happened, despite being visiting NYC four years in a row. The actress who played Elphaba for tonight’s show was the understudy, but she could just as well be the main actress for then role. She was that good. I’ll have a larger review for the show on the TicketNetwork Blog once I return home.

Finally, my aunt, one of my cousins, and I went for ice cream at nearby place, and it was pretty good. A little overwhelming on the options, though.

Today’s continuation to Williamsburg, VA, will be a long train day, so my report will most likely involve something outstanding (anything), and/or some commentary on the place we’re staying at. The real meat will pick up back up on Tuesday.

I close by bidding farewell to Philadelphia. I will be back as there is so much more to see.

 

Wedding-Vacation 2013: The Big Event

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No, I didn’t make a mistake in choosing this photo – I just really like it.

I’ll keep this one short, because what is there to say? Other than a lot of traffic making the second shuttle late, the ceremony went off without a hitch, as did the reception (which was over too fast). Everything was really well done, and nobody stumbled over words. Afterwards, we hung out at the hotel bar.

That’s pretty much it. Tomorrow marks the end of official wedding festivities and the beginning of the vacation proper, with plenty of history.

 

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