Landing at the museum

Visitors to Seward on the Fourth of July will have the opportunity to see something special. The Nebraska National Guard Museum now has a full replica of Nebraska’s first airplane suspended from its ceiling. It is one of the first features that visitors will see when entering the museum. The plane was installed June 24 in preparation for the museum’s dedication at 9 a.m. on July 4.

Daws Trucking transported the piece into Seward and when it got to the outskirts of Seward June 23, they were met by a police escort to bring in the centerpiece to the “Century of Nebraska National Guard Aviation (1915-2015)” – The Curtiss Pusher. The plane represents the birth of aviation in the Nebraska National Guard and will be unveiled to the public at the dedication.

Once the Daws truck pulled up to the museum, a crew of volunteers led by Ken Meyer and his nephew, Nathan, showed up to offload the cargo.

Wing struts and the main fuselage area were carefully hauled up the south loading door to the main floor for assembly. Dave Claussen of Durango, Colorado, was the lead designer for the replica plane, and his partner Mike started the eight-hour process of putting the plane back together.

This is the second Curtiss Pusher that Claussen has built, the first being a centerpiece exhibit at the narrow gauge railroad museum in Durango for the 100th Anniversary of the Flight of Captain Ralph McMillen (Nebraska National Guard aviator). Aviation experts claim that the Seward plane is the best replica of a Curtiss Model D “Headless” Pusher, outside the original one in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

“When Nebraska ordered up an airplane, it came from the Curtiss Airplane Factory in San Diego. It came through Durango in 1913 on its way to Nebraska, and they talked the pilot into taking it off the train and flying it,” Claussen said.

Claussen said the replica is a traditionally built airplanee with a wooden canvas.

“The engine is something that I built from scratch. It’s called an OX5,” he said.

Claussen said he wanted to make every piece of the plane realistic which included building molds for the engine parts based off of exact parts.

“This is an actual scale of the original airplane. It is 26 feet from nose to tail,” he said.

Claussen had about five part-time employees and four senior citizen volunteers help him with the piece. They began building it in March.

“So the youngest person on the build crew was 15 and the oldest person was 84,” he said.

He has been a sculptor for about 25 years and then moved into metal before he became interested in working on museum pieces and replicas.

“It’s nice to have a piece like this. It’s going to be here for a long time. It’s a part of me, it’s some way to give back a little bit. I’ve got a lot of history. My family came from Nebraska,” he said.

On June 24, from 8 to 10 a.m., donors and sponsors were treated to a sneak peek of the assembled plane on the main floor before it was lifted to its final resting place above the John W. Cattle, Sr. Exhibit Area in the front of the museum. Virginia Cattle, one of the first major sponsors of the plane, was given the christening honor of sitting in the cockpit and testing out the controls.

Dr. Brian Friedrich, president of Concordia University, and several staff members visiting the museum to observe the plane and check out the new improvements. The daughter of Captain Erle Smiley, Marilyn Schulz, and her family joined the celebration by posing with the World War I aviator and barn-stormers’ oil painting in front of the plane. Mayor Josh Eickmeier and his father, Jerry, stopped in for a visit as well. Clark Kolterman also brought in students and out-of-town visitors to see the plane.

After the visitors left, work began to raise the plane up and over the front wall and hang it from the ceiling. The work of attaching the plane was done by Mark Forster of the Nebraska Air National Guard, the project leader for the Curtiss Pusher. Dave Geis of Geis Steel Tech, brought his Scorpion Crane to do the honors of lifting and putting it up on the ceiling. The process of moving it from the main floor and placing and turning and tilting from the ceiling took about five hours. Volunteers like Dale Wallman and his wife JoAnn assisted with prepping the plane for hoisting, Forster and his son, Will, worked on the scaffolding to put the plane in the proper alignment, and Dave and Mike, the builders, kept the plane looking good before and after the lift.

The plane was placed exactly where the marks were staked out on the floor so the plane appears to be in a slight bank and dive towards the docent station.

With the plane in place, the museum will now move exhibits celebrating a century of Nebraska National Guard Aviation into the John W. Cattle, Sr. Exhibit Area. The shrouds of the exhibit area will get coverings featuring: “The World’s Greatest Aviator” poster of Captain Ralph McMillen, a tribute to Gen. Butler Miltonberger, a reflection on the origin of the “All Hell Can’t Stop Us” motto, and a façade of the old State Arsenal (former home of the Nebraska National Guard Museum located on the State Fair Grounds). This, along with donor signs and room descriptor plaques and a 75-inch Smart TV monitor, will complete the room and exhibits for the July 4 dedication.

“The addition of the Curtiss Pusher above our exhibit area is incredible and reflects the great relationship the museum has built with the people of Seward and Seward County and we are so thankful for the tremendous support that has been shown to us,” said Darin Krueger, president of the Nebraska National Guard Museum Historical Society.

The museum dedication is Monday, July 4, at 9 a.m. and is open to the public.

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Gretchen Menn Talks New Music, Gear, Zeppelin and More

Wildly talented on electric guitar, steel-string and classical, Gretchen Menn is a force to be reckoned with. While you might recognize her from her role as the lead guitarist for all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella, Menn also delivers some serious solo work and released Hale Souls—which she wrote, produced and recorded—in 2011.

Menn covers a wide spectrum of styles, including jazz, funk, rock, progressive and metal. Oh, and did we mention she’s a professional airplane pilot? She’s a true modern-day renaissance woman. 

We sat down with Menn to get her opinions on playing classical versus electric, what gear she keeps in her arsenal, what she thinks is the hardest Led Zeppelin song to play—and more.

Learn more about her in the interview below and at gretchenmenn.com

Tell us a little-known fact about yourself.

I have a rather sick and twisted sense of humor. Some people could easily accuse me of being childish about things I should have long since outgrown finding hilarious. My whole family is like that, though, and it’s a huge bond. I have had laugh attacks with my mom and my dad and my sister… on more than one occasion in highly inappropriate situations.

How has your father, Don Menn, influenced your career in music?

Many people assume my dad put a guitar in my hands, and it is a rather obvious assumption. But it didn’t happen at all that way.

From my earliest childhood, both of my parents encouraged me and my sister, Kirsten, to explore all forms of creativity. They never forced anything on us, but rather made it art available and took us to museums, ballets, operas, theatre, good films, exposed us to a wide variety of music. I didn’t really know the specifics of what my dad did, other than I had the vague notion that he was a writer of some sort and worked at a place called GPI. It wasn’t until after he had left Guitar Player magazine that I became passionate about guitar. But when I did start getting interested, it was great to be able to raid his record collection, pick his brain, and get his recommendations on guitarists I should check out.

In what ways has learning classical guitar helped you as a rock musician?

I feel fortunate that I had an amazing classical teacher, Philip de Fremery, and he was meticulous about technique from my first lesson. Though right hand technique in classical guitar doesn’t apply much to picking technique in rock, a lot can be applied in terms of the left hand. Classical guitarists are taught to have finger independence and equality, so it opens up a lot of different fingering options if you’re not subconsciously favoring or avoiding one of your fingers. I like that classical guitar gets you thinking about tone production, counterpoint, and general sensitivity to musical subtleties. Those all have applications in rock.

On a related topic, what do you think is harder… classical or electric guitar? We’ve heard mixed opinions.

Each has its own, unique set of challenges, so it makes sense that you’d get different answers from different people based on their natural proclivities. Classical guitarists are expected as a matter of course to have utterly fluent technique, and individually is conveyed through personal interpretations of (usually) pre-existing, composed music.

It means a serious, daily commitment to a carefully crafted practice regime. On the other hand, a person can be a great, and often very influential, electric guitarist and not be an amazing, or even a particularly good technician. Uniqueness of creative voice and radical musical or technical approaches are celebrated. Songwriting is expected, or at least inventiveness in solos or individual parts. Each world venerates different aspects of expression–there is no Kurt Cobain of classical guitar, and there is no Segovia of electric guitar–so it’s really a question of what is most challenging for an individual. I happen find endless challenges in both.

As an airline pilot and rock guitarist, you pursued two careers in which women are not usually prevalent. Tell us what type of mentality helped you succeed in both.

Ha! Honestly, I haven’t felt it to be that much of an issue. I don’t find men to be more difficult than women or women to be more difficult than men. For every bigoted man there is a catty woman. But most people aren’t jerks, and most respond well to people who are friendly, hardworking, interested in learning, and desirous of improving… even if a person doesn’t fit the typical profile of what they envisioned a pilot or guitarist would be.

Having said that, I imagine it would be easier to be a guy slacker in a male-dominated field than a female slacker. Maybe I am blessedly clueless as to obstacles I may have faced–the biggest ones I have felt have been my own frustrations with myself. Maybe I have been fortunate to be surrounded by awesome people. Maybe the fact that I have always had close male friends and a good relationship with my dad makes me feel comfortable being around guys.

You’re working on your second solo album of original music. Do you have a date set yet? What can listeners expect?

I am not setting a date, though I hope to finish efficiently. What to expect…? It is a concept album, much more orchestrated and compositionally involved than anything I’ve done to this point.

What’s the hardest Led Zeppelin song to cover on guitar?

Whatever is the one I am in the process of learning!

What are your gear choices?

My main guitar is my Music Man Silhouette Special with DiMarzio single coil pickups. I use Les Paul Standards and a Danelectro through a 50-watt 1976 Marshall JMP for Zepparella. I have a Kenny Hill Ruck model for classical guitar and a Sadowsky nylon string electric.

For steel string, I have a Santa Cruz Guitar Company OM model, and a new custom steel string by Stephen Strahm is going to be my next addition. I have a 1966 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp that I use for clean parts in recording, and an Engl SE 670 EL 34 that I use for overdriven parts in my original music. I have a number of Providence overdrive pedals, Phase Force, and Chrono Delay. I use a vintage Crybaby Wah pedal and an Xotic Effects AC Booster.

If you were to go on a G3 tour, who would you love to play with?

How could I ever pick? Since I won’t dodge the question by giving a list of my favorite guitarists and biggest heroes, though, I’ll say two of the most bad-ass guitarists who also happen to be two of my favorite humans, Daniele Gottardo and Nili Brosh.

This interview series featuring talented female guitarists is brought to you by the Women’s International Music Network (WiMN), an organization uniting women of all facets of the music and audio industries. To learn more, visit www.thewimn.com

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Plane makes emergency landing at Hooks Airport after bird crashes through windshield – KTRK

The pilot of a small Cessna aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in Tomball after a bird crashed through the windshield and hit him in the face.

The pilot landed safely Hooks Airport around noon. However, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Public Safety did not know whether either of the two people on board needed medical attention.

A student pilot and a flight instructor were flying the Cessna model 172 R plane to Hooks Airport from Lake Conroe, according to DPS. As the plane was about 13 miles north of its destination, a flock of birds appeared in their path. One of the birds broke from the flock and flew straight through the windshield, hit the pilot, exited through the right window and then struck the wing.

The Federal Aviation Administration says in the last 10 years, 15 animal strikes have been reported by planes landing or taking off from Hooks Airport. The last incident happened in October 2015 and caused about $2,600 in damage to the left wing of a twin turboprop aircraft. Most of the incidents have involved birds, but two planes have struck deer during landings.

State wide, 736 wildlife strikes on airplanes have been reported this past year.

We’ve got a crew headed to the scene so stay with abc13.com and Eyewitness News for the latest updates.

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How To Break Open The Web

One of us is writing this piece from an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean. The other is working from his home in California. Not long ago this would have sounded like science fiction. Today it’s becoming routine in a world where we do more and more with amazing digital tools on far-flung networks.

But there’s a catch. We’re doing this on an Internet that is breaking its original promise.

We rarely think about how it works, how our data moves around the Internet. We need to, because this government-created, radically decentralized network of networks, which has spawned so much innovation at the edges, is rapidly being re-centralized. Control is being captured by and corporations and taken away from—or being ceded by—the rest of us.

What’s at stake here? In a word, permission. People should not need permission to speak, to assemble, to innovate, to be private, and more. But when governments and corporations control choke points, they also control whether average people can participate fully in society, politics, commerce, and more.

That’s why we spent three days earlier this month in San Francisco with technologists and activists who are determined to re-decentralize or redistribute the web (and by extension, the broader Internet), by returning control and permission to the edges. Hosted by Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, who has called for a “moon shot” to “lock the web open,” the Decentralized Web Summit brought together some of the graybeards who invented it all with millennials who see beyond the boundaries of Facebook. (You can watch the talks and discussions on the Internet Archive’s video player.)

Kahle framed the gathering with three key questions: How can we build a reliable decentralized web? How can we make it more private? And how do we keep it fun and evolving?

No one was more keen to make this happen than Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and launched the first web page 25 years ago. He had both modest and galactic motives at the start, he recalled in San Francisco, to “make something that worked” and to create a system where “you can do anything you like.”

As Berners-Lee noted, he’d built atop things that already worked, such as the domain name system and TCP/IP. He took what we now call the “cloud” as a given and added, among other things, HTML for display and URLs (these are “names, not places,” he stressed). And then the rest of us built atop his and others’ work, connecting computers and devices that had little in common except their agreement to understand each others’ data. We didn’t have to worry about how data would get from one place to another. It just did.

Fast forward, through the emergence of giant web-centric companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Salesforce. We find ourselves in the silo era. Data and service silos hold what we do—our work, our play, our very thoughts— hostage, even as they provide genuine convenience and value in other ways. Mobile devices exacerbate the problem. Many mobile apps are essentially browsers that work on a single website. Add government and telecom control-freakery to the mix, and it’s all too easy to worry that we may already have lost.

Worry, But Resist

The San Francisco gathering launched with an invitation-only “Builders Day” followed by the official summit. We heard from people like Kahle; Berners-Lee; Vint Cerf, one of the acknowledged “fathers of the Internet,” now chief Internet evangelist at—irony alert?—Google; Van Jacobson, a central player in improving the TCP/IP protocol that is at the heart of the Internet (also now with Google); and Mitchell Baker, who chairs the Mozilla Foundation and corporation, among others. (Note: The authors of this post were not impartial here; we were among the invited participants.)

In her talk early that first morning, Baker offered a few basic design principles for a re-decentralized web:

  1. The web is immediate. This means safe instant access to content through a universal address without needing to install anything else in the browser.
  2. The web is open. Anyone can publish content without permission or barrier to its audience, and provide access as they see fit, without the interference of a third party.
  3. The web is universal. Content runs on any device or platform. We achieve this through standards.
  4. The web has agency. A “user agent,” in developer lingo, can choose how to interpret content provided by a service to you. In other words, you control your browser; for example, you can use ad-blockers.

On “Founders Day,” the participants split into groups to ponder some of these principles, and develop specific proposals for addressing them. Each group tackled a separate topic—online identity, security, governance, risks, standardization—and quickly encountered a set of daunting nuances and complexities.

Consider security, for instance. We’ve seen repeated examples of flawed code leading to horrendous data breaches. Decentralization can lead to more safety if it boosts overall resilience. But when we are running code from any number of services somewhere out there in the cloud, the points of failure expand, too.

Another complication is resistance from incumbent industries that fear disruption. Peer-to-peer computing is at the heart of decentralization, but Hollywood and its copyright-maximalist allies sued some of the most innovative startups in that field out of business in recent years.

How would today’s commercial Internet fare on a decentralized or distributed web? That’s impossible to say with any clarity. We can’t just turn on a newly decentralized Internet; it looks more and more like a collection of overlays that, over time, could replace some core technologies. Moreover, users seem to like using Facebook and Google and Twitter and the rest. As long as they derive what they consider value from the centralized players, it’ll be an uphill battle for decentralization. At the least, some hope, a corporate web will learn to co-exist with a web where people can find value in keeping control of their own data, where they don’t have to head toward the center in order to function at the edge.

Kahle spoke about one tantalizing possibility in the commercial realm. He envisioned an era when creators can use the emerging identity and payment systems to post and make money from what they’ve created—for example, a “WordPress, but decentralized” environment where payments, tips, and donations are part of the technology, where “the First Amendment is baked into the code itself.”

Threads For A New Web

Amid the talks and panels, the summit’s participants represented a wave of other ideas that are being tested by innovative startups and research in the decentralized Internet. Among the most intriguing:

  • The Indieweb movement encourages us to reclaim our data and how it’s replicated. What we post on our own sites is reflected into the silos (e.g. Facebook and Twitter); comments and “likes” there are reflected back into our own sites. IndieWeb people are also contributing to the W3C Social Web group. (This article’s co-author, Kevin Marks, is active in this project.)
  • The idea of content-addressability underlying many of these decentralized protocols enables you to retrieve a file based on a verifiable “fingerprint,” and means that you don’t need to go to a specific server or route to fetch it. This means your file can come from someone else’s computer nearby—more quickly, and without going through third parties—or from a flash drive, which makes a big difference in countries where the cost of connectivity is a huge fraction of the average wage. “Interplanetary File System” (IPFS)—a peer-to-peer protocol that enables applications and files to live everywhere, not just on specific services—is real and working, ZeroNet works on the same principle, and the Named Data Networking project, led by Van Jacobson, seeks to retire the TCP/IP protocols in favor of a similar model.
  • In the early web, it was easy to communicate from one personal computer to another on the Internet. That’s gotten a lot more complicated due to the massive growth of devices and limits in the addressing system. New browser standards such as WebRTC and Service Workers are restoring some of the early capabilities, and adding others, in today’s vastly more complex network of networks. Among other advantages, they help us connect to previously non-web systems like Bittorrent and IPFS. For example, by watching videos on webtorrent.io, visitors could simultaneously help distribute them to other people watching them, too.
  • Decentralized data hosting services are being built on cryptography in the browser, in projects like MaidSafe, Backfeed, and Dat. They’re creating specialized tools that could have wider uses.

Many of the technologies and projects are complementary, not necessarily competitive. They seem almost modular: a web-like set of technologies building a more dynamic and resilient Internet on top of the existing networks.

Several things will happen as a result of these newer technologies. First, the people creating things on and through the Internet—media, services, etc.—won’t have to store them in (or run them from) centralized servers to ensure that others can find and use them. The users, meanwhile, will still be able to find what they need, but won’t have to go through choke points along the way, or worry as much about content disappearing. New technologies will be able to be substituted in without breaking the larger systems.

Who—Or What—Governs?

In recent years, big investors have been looking hard, and launching cash, at decentralized systems, including public key encryption technology and peer-to-peer networks. None is more important, or at least fashionable, than “blockchain”—the technology underlying Bitcoin—which has the potential to create what some call a “web of trust” that spans a wide variety of industries beyond finance.

There’s been some hope in the “let’s decentralize” world that computer code could fix organizational problems and messy politics, ushering a new era of cooperation without the need for top-down, governance-style coordination. So far, the hope is a myth, and it’s been tested during crises. When a bug affected Bitcoin operations in 2013, only agreement among leaders in the Bitcoin community—not simply better code—solved the issue. (In describing the effort to fix the problem, the official report notes, with some relief, that “the right people were online and available in IRC or could be contacted directly.”) Likewise, when flaws have been found in key security protocols, it took leadership and human-to-human communications to protect the Internet more widely.

Meanwhile, in the days after the summit, a crisis enveloped one of the key participants, Ethereum, a platform for creating blockchain-based services including currency. The biggest “Decentralized Autonomous Organization” using the platform was found to have a bug that enabled a hacker to move a large amount of its value, some $50 million, into another entity under the hacker’s control. The incident has shown that, so far, anyway, decentralized code won’t fix itself—a sign of the persistent challenge of balancing governance with decentralization.

What’s Next?

To get to that future, we have to think and act with our children’s Internet in mind. In a rousing talk, Cory Doctorow, the writer and activist, pleaded with the technology people in the room to make decisions right now that will prevent them from doing damage later on—such as making end-to-end encryption a fundamental design principle, not an add-on. His single slide depicted Ulysses lashed to his ship’s mast, a choice he made so that he wouldn’t be seduced by the sirens’ calls.

“We are, all of us, a mix of short-sighted and long-term,” he said. “We must give each other moral support, literal support to uphold the morals of the decentralized web, by agreeing now on what an open decentralized web is.”

If the effort works, almost no one outside the tech community will notice—except to realize once in awhile, like Louis CK, that they’re sitting in a chair in the sky. Or, as Douglas Adams wrote in 1999:

Another problem with the net is that it’s still “technology,” and “technology,” as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is “stuff that doesn’t work yet.” We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often “crash” when we tried to use them.

When we get technology right, it’s a series of incremental advances that make us notice one day that something like a miracle has occurred. To get there now, we should be aware of how all the parts connect—that it’s not a miracle, but a collaborative if complex project—and make sure that we’re not being fenced in in the process. We’ve come to love the convenience of the centralized web, but we’ve failed to recognize how much we now have to ask permission.

All of us, technically minded or not, need to understand the tradeoffs we’ve been making. Then we need to make decisions. We can accept choke points and lock-in. Or we can look for ways to reclaim control—declining to rely so much on centralized services, and using encryption and the new decentralized tools, such as the already-working IndieWeb, as they become available.

The tradeoffs were part of writing this essay. No explicit permission was required to collaborate so conveniently in—irony alert no. 2—Google Docs. But we were relying on implicit and often obscure rules that can change at any time. Can we have convenience and independence? For everyone’s sake, we’d better.


Dan Gillmor is an author, teacher, and longtime observer of the technology world.
Kevin Marks is a software engineer who realized that human problems are the most interesting to solve.

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Edward Snowden’s Strangely Free Life – As a Robot


Edward Snowden lay on his back in the rear of a Ford Escape, hidden from view and momentarily unconscious, as I drove him to the Whitney museum one recent morning to meet some friends from the art world. Along West Street, clotted with traffic near the memorial pools of the World Trade Center, a computerized voice from my iPhone issued directions via the GPS satellites above. Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union, was sitting shotgun, chattily recapping his client’s recent activities. For a fugitive wanted by the FBI for revealing classified spying programs who lives in an undisclosed location in Russia, Snowden was managing to maintain a rather busy schedule around Manhattan.

A couple nights earlier, at the New York Times building, Wizner had watched Snowden trounce Fareed Zakaria in a public debate over computer encryption. “He did Tribeca,” the lawyer added, referring to a surprise appearance at the film festival, where Snowden had drawn gasps as he crossed the stage at an event called the Disruptive Innovation Awards. Wizner stopped himself mid-sentence, laughing at the absurdity of his pronoun choice: “He!” Behind us, Snowden stared blankly upward, his face bouncing beneath a sheet of Bubble Wrap as the car rattled over the cobblestones of the Meatpacking District.

Snowden’s body might be confined to Moscow, but the former NSA computer specialist has hacked a work-around: a robot. If he wants to make his physical presence felt in the United States, he can connect to a wheeled contraption called a BeamPro, a flat-screen monitor that stands atop a pair of legs, five-foot-two in all, with a camera that acts as a swiveling Cyclops eye. Inevitably, people call it the “Snowbot.” The avatar resides at the Manhattan offices of the ACLU, where it takes meetings and occasionally travels to speaking engagements. (You can Google pictures of the Snowbot posing with Sergey Brin at TED.) Undeniably, it’s a gimmick: a tool in the campaign to advance Snowden’s cause — and his case for clemency — by building his cultural and intellectual celebrity. But the technology is of real symbolic and practical use to Snowden, who hopes to prove that the internet can overcome the power of governments, the strictures of exile, and isolation. It all amounts to an unprecedented act of defiance, a genuine enemy of the state carousing in plain view.

We unloaded the Snowbot in front of the Whitney, where a small group had gathered to meet us for a private viewing of a multimedia exhibition by the filmmaker Laura Poitras. It was Poitras whom Snowden first contacted, anonymously, in 2013, referring to the existence of a surveillance system “whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.” Their relationship resulted in explosive news articles and a documentary, Citizenfour — work that won a Pulitzer and an Oscar and incited global outrage. But the disclosures came at a high price for their source. If Snowden couldn’t come home, Poitras at least wanted him to share vicariously in the experience of her Whitney show, “Astro Noise,” which took its name from an encrypted file of documents he had spirited out of the secret NSA site where he worked in Hawaii. So she had arranged a personal tour.

Attending “Astro Noise” at the Whitney.

Photo:

Henrik Moltke

Outside an eighth-floor gallery, a crowd of Poitras’s collaborators and Whitney curators clustered around the Snowbot as a white circle twirled on its monitor. Then, suddenly, the screen awoke and Snowden was there.

“Hey!” Wizner said, and the group erupted in awkward laughter. The famous fugitive was wearing a gray T-shirt, his face pallid and unshaven. (He calls himself “an indoor cat.”) His voice sounded choppy, but some fiddling resolved the problem, and Poitras, soft-spoken and clad in black, made introductions. Snowden’s preternaturally eloquent Hong Kong hotel-room encounter with Poitras and the Guardian journalists investigating his leaks formed the core of Citizenfour, but even some of those who worked on the documentary had never met its protagonist. One of the cinematographers came forward and wrapped him in a hug.

“I don’t have hands,” Snowden apologized. “The most I can do is maybe …”

He scooted forward.

Sitting in the same homemade studio he uses for his frequent speaking engagements, Snowden could control the robot’s movements with his computer, maneuvering with uncanny agility, swiveling to make eye contact with people as they spoke to him.

Poitras began with the show’s opening piece, a colorful array of prints that resembled modern abstracts but were actually found objects: visualizations of intercepted satellite signals that turned up in the vast trove of NSA documents. “The whole show, there’s a lot of deep research that’s going on behind it,” she said. She led Snowden into a darkened gallery, where a spooky ambient soundscape was playing over video footage of a U.S. military interrogation. Momentarily disoriented, he careened into a bench. But Snowden quickly figured out how to navigate in the dark. When he came to parts of the exhibit that required complicated movements — lying on a platform to take in the watchful night sky over Yemen, or craning to look at an NSA document through a slit in the wall — the humans hoisted him into position.

“Wow, okay, I see it,” Snowden said as one of Poitras’s researchers held him up to view footage of a drone strike’s aftermath. “This is a surreal experience for a number of reasons.”

When the tour was over, Snowden held an impromptu discussion, likening his decision to become a dissident to a risky artistic choice. “There’s always that moment where you step out and there’s nothing underneath you,” he said. “You hope that you can build that airplane on the way down, or if you don’t, that the world will catch you. In my case, I’ve been falling ever since.” Still, Snowden said he had no regrets. “I do have to say,” he told Poitras, “that I will be forever grateful that you took me seriously.”

As usual, though, when the questions turned to the details of his non-robotic existence, Snowden remained courteously evasive. “What’s a day in the life now?” asked Nicholas Holmes, the Whitney’s general counsel. “Do you go for walks in the park?”

“Well,” the Snowbot replied, “I go for walks in the Whitney, apparently.”


Watch the Snowbot’s visit to New York‘s office.


The idea that Snowden is still walking the American streets, virtually or otherwise, is infuriating to his former employers in the U.S.-intelligence community. Its leaders no longer make ominous jokes about wanting to put him on a drone kill list — as former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden did in 2013 — but they still vilify him and maintain that he did real harm to America’s safety and international standing. While Snowden’s leaks revealed the NSA’s controversial and possibly unconstitutional bulk collection of domestic internet traffic and telephone metadata, they also exposed technical details about many other classified activities, including overseas surveillance programs, secret diplomatic arrangements, and operations targeting legitimate adversaries. The spy agencies warn that the public doesn’t comprehend the degree of damage done to their protective capabilities, even as events like the Orlando nightclub massacre demonstrate the destructive reach of terrorist ideology. The fallout from Snowden’s actions may have prompted a debate about security and privacy that even President Obama acknowledges “will make us stronger,” but there has been no such reassessment, at least officially, of Snowden himself. He still faces charges of violating the federal Espionage Act, crimes that could carry a decades-long prison sentence.

When Snowden first revealed the NSA’s surveillance — and his own identity — to the world three years ago this month, there was little reason to believe that he would be in a position to communicate much of anything in the future. The last person to leak classified information of such magnitude, Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. (Manning, who was held in solitary confinement while awaiting trial, has largely communicated to the public through letters.) Yet so far, to his own surprise, Snowden has managed to avoid the long arm of U.S. law enforcement by finding asylum in Russia. Leaving aside, at least for the moment, the ethics of his actions (and the internal contradictions of his residence in an authoritarian state ruled by a former KGB operative), Snowden’s case is, in fact, a study in the boundless freedoms the internet enables. It has allowed him to become a champion of civil liberties and an adviser to the tech community — which has lately become radicalized against surveillance — and, in the process, the world’s most famous privacy advocate. After he appeared on Twitter last September — his first message was “Can you hear me now?” — he quickly amassed some two million followers.

One thing Snowden refuses to do is apologize.“They’re saying they still don’t like me — ‘tut-tut, very bad’ — but they recognize that it was the right decision.”

“I feel like we’re sort of dancing around the leadership conversation,” Snowden said to me recently as I sat with him at the ACLU offices. Over the past few months, we have encountered one another with some regularity, and while I can’t claim to know him as a flesh-and-blood person, I’ve seen his intellect in its native habitat. He is at once exhaustively loquacious and reflexively self-protective, prone to hide behind smooth oratory. But occasionally, he has let down his guard and talked like a human being. “I’m able to actually have influence on the issues that I care about, the same influence I didn’t have when I was sitting at the NSA,” Snowden told me. He claims that many of his former colleagues would agree that the programs he exposed were wrongfully intrusive. “But they have no voice, they have no clout,” he said. “One of the weirder things that’s come out of this is the fact that I can actually occupy that role.” Even as the White House and the intelligence chiefs brand him a criminal, he says, they are constantly forced to contend with his opinions. “They’re saying they still don’t like me — tut-tut, very bad — but they recognize that it was the right decision, that the public should have known about this.”

Needless to say, it is initially disorienting to hear messages of usurpation emitted, with a touch of Daft Punk–ish reverb, from a $14,000 piece of electronic equipment. Upon meeting the Snowbot, people tend to become flustered — there he is, that face you know, looking at you. That feeling, familiar to anyone who’s spotted a celebrity in a coffee shop, is all the more strange when the celebrity is supposed to be banished to the other end of the Earth. And yet he is here, occupying the same physical space. The technology of “telepresence” feels different from talking to a computer screen; somehow, the fact that Snowden is standing in front of you, looking straight into your eyes, renders the experience less like enhanced telephoning and more like primitive teleporting. Snowden sometimes tries to put people at ease by joking about his limitations, saying humans have nothing to fear from robots so long as we have stairs and Wi-Fi dead zones in elevators. Still, he is quite good at maneuvering on level ground, controlling the robot’s movements with his keyboard like a gamer playing Minecraft. The eye contact, however, is an illusion—Snowden has learned to look straight into his computer’s camera instead of focusing on the faces on his screen.

Here’s the really odd thing, though: After a while, you stop noticing that he is a robot, just as you have learned to forget that the disembodied voice at your ear is a phone. Snowden sees this all the time, whether he is talking to audiences in auditoriums or holding meetings via videoconference. “There’s always that initial friction, that moment where everybody’s like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ but then it melts away,” Snowden told me, and after that, “regardless of the fact that the FBI has a field office in New York, I can be hanging out in New York museums.” The technology feels irresistible, inevitable. He’s the first robot I ever met; I doubt he’ll be the last.

The Snowbot with technologist Peter Diamandis in Las Vegas.

Photo:

Done Clark for the Wall Street Journal

Wizner, the head of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, says that Snowden asked him to do some research on telepresence in their first conversation, back when he was still very much on the lam. Now that his situation has stabilized — at least for the time being — he and Snowden’s small coterie of advisers are discussing ways they might use it for a widening range of purposes. Glenn Greenwald, one of Snowden’s original journalistic collaborators, jokingly talks about taking the Snowbot on the road. “I would love to let it loose in the parking lot of Fort Meade,” where the NSA is headquartered, he said. “Or to randomly go into grocery stores.” More seriously, Snowden’s advisers are in discussions about a research fellowship at a major American university. Already, the Snowbot has twice taken road trips to Princeton University, where he has participated in wide-ranging discussions about the NSA’s capabilities with a group of renowned academic computer-security experts, rolling up to cryptographers during coffee breaks and dutifully posing for selfies.

For larger gatherings, Snowden usually dispenses with the robot, addressing audiences from giant screens. (He often opens with an ironic reference to Big Brother.) He is scheduled to make more than 50 such appearances around the world this year, earning speaking fees that can reach more than $25,000 per appearance, though many speeches are pro bono. Besides allowing Snowden to make a good living, his virtual travels on the public-lecture circuit are part of a concerted campaign to situate him within a widening zone of political acceptability. “One of the things we were trying to do is to normalize him,” says Greenwald. “Normalize his life, normalize his presence.” In 2014, Snowden joined Poitras and Greenwald on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit, and last year he was elected chairman. It serves as a base for his advocacy and gives him access to a staff of technologists with whom he has been working on encryption projects, tools intended to allow journalists to communicate with “people that live in situations of threat” — in other words, people like Snowden himself.

Through a network of intermediaries — chief among them Wizner, who acts as his advocate, gatekeeper, and talent agent in the United States — Snowden is able to establish contact with almost anyone he desires to meet. “Ed’s now getting a lot of people on the phone, and it’s broadening his horizons,” says the author Ron Suskind, who has spoken with him on several occasions and recently had him lecture to a class he and Lawrence Lessig were teaching at Harvard Law School. Snowden also recently spoke to Amal Clooney’s law class at Columbia, starred in an episode of the Vice show on HBO, and published a manifesto on whistle-blowing on the Intercept, the website Poitras and Greenwald started with the billionaire Pierre Omidyar. And he has been maintaining his presence on Twitter, where he has been playfully talking up Oliver Stone’s forthcoming film, Snowden, which will star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The biopic’s September release date matches up with Wizner’s timetable for mobilizing a clemency appeal to Obama. “We’re going to make a very strong case between now and the end of this administration that this is one of those rare cases for which the pardon power exists,” Wizner said. “It’s not for when somebody didn’t break the law. It’s for when they did and there are extraordinary reasons for not enforcing the law against the person.” He says that while no single event is likely to shift opinion in Washington, Snowden’s activities work “in the aggregate” to further his cause.

One thing Snowden refuses to do, however, is apologize. If anything, the last three years have turned him more strident. Whereas he once espoused a fuzzy dorm-room libertarianism — “some of it was kind of rudimentary,” Greenwald recalls — today he offers a more traditional leftist critique of the “deep state.” On Twitter, he has been admiring of Bernie Sanders, acerbic about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, and bitingly sarcastic about her handling of classified emails. In February, he tweeted: “2016: a choice between Donald Trump and Goldman Sachs.” He sees himself as part of a hacktivist movement, and he took pride when the anonymous source behind the massive cache of offshore banking data known as the Panama Papers cited Snowden’s example. In his Intercept essay, he called such leaking “an act of resistance.”

WNYC recently staged a sold-out Friday-night event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not far from Fort Greene Park, where some artists surreptitiously erected a Snowden bust last year. At the appointed time, the fugitive appeared on a screen at the front of an ornate opera hall. It was around 2:30 a.m. in Moscow, but Snowden looked wide-awake, wearing an open-collared shirt and blazer and his customary stubble. “In an extraordinary and unpredictable way,” he told the audience, “my own circumstances show there is a model that ensures that even if we’re left without a state, we aren’t left without a voice.”

With encryption experts at Princeton.

Photo:

Courtesy of Surveillance Workshop

When Snowden went public, one of the first people he sought out was a historical antecedent: Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. He, too, was briefly a fugitive and faced Espionage Act charges, until they were dropped because of the illegal retaliatory actions of President Nixon. Now 85, Ellsberg was eager to talk to Snowden and they connected over an encrypted chat program.

“I had the feeling that, as I suspected from the beginning, we really were kindred souls,” Ellsberg told me.

Ellsberg, mindful of Manning’s experience, advised Snowden to give up any thought of returning home. Snowden was inclined to agree. From the beginning, he had spoken fatalistically about the consequences of his actions. “All my options are bad,” Snowden acknowledged in his first interview in Hong Kong, which was published in the Guardian. If the American government didn’t grab him, the Chinese might, just to find out what he knew. He hinted that the CIA might even try to kill him, either directly or through an intermediary like a triad gang. “And that’s a fear I’ll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be,” Snowden said at the time.

“He didn’t have a plan,” says Wizner. Snowden assumed that he would probably be silenced in one way or another, so he worked with a sympathetic programmer in the United States to design a website, supportonlinerights.com, which was to contain a letter addressed to the public. But instead, he more or less got away with it. After a nervy flight and an agonizing five-week wait in limbo at the Moscow airport, he was granted temporary asylum in Russia by President Vladimir Putin. Photos soon appeared in the Russian media showing Snowden pushing a grocery cart and looking slyly over his shoulder on a riverboat ride. It was an uneasy deliverance, though, one seemingly subject to Putin’s unpredictable geopolitical power considerations.

Snowden argues that he was put in Russia by the U.S. government, which canceled his passport while he was en route to Ecuador, trapping him in Moscow during a layover. But to critics, his dependence on Putin is discrediting. “I am not saying that he is a Russian spy, but he is in a tough spot,” says journalist Fred Kaplan, author of the recent book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War. “He is in a position where, because of his captive status, he can’t really say anything that terribly critical about his hosts, who happen to be some of the most sophisticated and intrusive cyberespionage hackers in the world.” Many in the intelligence community darkly speculate about the nature of Snowden’s accommodation with the FSB, the Russian security service, which is not renowned for its hospitality or respect for civil liberties.

Glenn Greenwald jokes about taking the Snowbot on the road. “I would love to let it loose in the parking lot of Fort Meade,” where the NSA is headquartered.”

Although Snowden acknowledges that he was approached by the FSB, he claims he has given them no information or assistance, and he vehemently denies he is anyone’s puppet. He cheered the release of the Panama Papers, which contained voluminous evidence of corruption in Putin’s inner circle. “I have called the Russian president a liar based on his statements on surveillance, in print, in the Guardian,” he said with an uncharacteristic flash of annoyance, when I asked whether he felt any constraints in discussing Russia. “I have criticized Russia’s laws on this, that, and the other. It’s just frustrating to get the question because it’s like, look, what do I have to do?”

Snowden seems determined to refute predictions that he would end up broken, like so many whistle-blowers before him, or drunk and disillusioned, like a stereotypical Cold War defector. (He has claimed that he drinks nothing but water.) “People think of Moscow as being hell on earth,” he said during his Whitney visit. “But when you’re actually there, you realize it’s not that much different than other European cities. Their politics are wildly different, and of course really they’re problematic in so many ways, but the normal people, they want the same things.” He says he does his own shopping and takes the metro. Family members come to visit. His longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, reunited with him in Moscow and has posted Instagram snapshots of her life there.

Last year, before Halloween, Mills posted a Photoshopped picture that posed the couple in front of FBI headquarters, with Snowden costumed as the capped protagonist of Where’s Waldo? As improbable as it may sound, he has told confidants that he doesn’t think the U.S. government has managed to pin down his exact whereabouts. He says he has designed his new life around his unique “threat model,” minimizing his vulnerability to tracking by giving up modern conveniences like carrying a phone. “He does not believe that he’s shadowed all the time by the CIA,” says Ellsberg, who has been in regular contact. “But he does believe that he is in the sights of the FSB all the time, partly to keep him safe.” Snowden is most at ease when he’s on the internet, an environment he feels he can control. As a former systems engineer, he has been able to construct back-end protections that allow him to feel confident that he can evade locational detection, even when he is using the internet like a civilian. He has sometimes chatted via video on Google Hangouts.

Snowden is more wary about in-person meetings, typically conducting them in hotels like the Metropol near Red Square. More than a year after they began speaking, Ellsberg finally had the opportunity to meet Snowden in person, when he visited Moscow with an informal goodwill delegation that also included the actor John Cusack and the leftist Indian author Arundhati Roy. At the appointed time, Snowden called and said to meet him in the lobby of their hotel. Cusack took the elevator downstairs, and Snowden surprised him by getting on at the fourth floor. When they returned to the room, Ellsberg greeted Snowden by saying, “I’ve been waiting 40 years for someone like you.”

Two days of marathon bull sessions and room-service dining ensued. Ellsberg tried — unsuccessfully — to get confirmation of some long-held suspicions about the extent of the NSA’s spying on Americans. Periodically, Snowden would point to the ceiling, to remind the room that others were probably listening. Cusack and Roy later recounted the conversation in a 13,000-word essay, writing that when the meeting was over, Ellsberg lay down “on John’s bed, Christ-like, with his arms flung open, weeping for what the United States has turned into — a country whose ‘best people’ must either go to prison or into exile.”

The notion that Snowden has become, to some, a sort of mythic figure — the Oracle of the Metropol — is profoundly annoying to the people who actually hold the nation’s intelligence secrets. “I’d love to see him come back to the U.S. and take his medicine,” says Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who has been deeply involved in both the legislative fallout from the NSA revelations and internal government discussions over the potential prosecution of Snowden. Litt says he sees the consequences of Snowden’s actions on extremist message boards, which now exhort jihadis to use encryption. “It cannot be disputed,” he told me, “that this has had immeasurable impact.”

Snowden believes that officials like Litt are merely trying to scare the public into acquiescence. Last October, the two had a showdown of sorts when they spoke back-to-back at a conference at Bard College. “Each time we have an election, it’s like another round of a game,” Snowden told the students. Using a livecasting program designed for gamers that allows him to project illustrations, he filled the auditorium screen with an image of George W. Bush shaking hands with Obama. “The policies of one president become the policies of another.” Then he played a video clip of the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, a 16-year-old American citizen killed by a drone strike in Yemen. He cited a leaked 2015 email in which Litt addressed the hostile legislative climate, recommending “keeping our options open” for a change “in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

“Surveillance is ultimately not about safety,” Snowden said. “Surveillance is about power. Surveillance is about control.”

Litt opened his remarks by joking that he could sympathize with the act that went on Ed Sullivan after the Beatles. “I can hear the NSA’s opinion any day,” one student stage-whispered, as he and many others got up to head for the exits. Litt called after them, saying he was “disappointed” with the disdain “given that this is an academic environment.” He then elaborated on the ominous sentiment expressed in his email.

“Every time something bad happens, the finger gets pointed at the intelligence community,” Litt said. “There is a pendulum that swings back and forth, in terms of the public view of the intelligence community, between, ‘You mean you’re doing what?’ and ‘Why didn’t you protect us?’ And that’s a pendulum that’s going to swing again.”

With Neil deGrasse Tyson in New York.

Photo:

Carlos Valdes-Lora

While much of Washington remains hostile to him, Snowden is far more hopeful about Silicon Valley and is increasingly focusing his efforts on influencing technology and the people who make it. “Like me, they grew up with this stuff,” he told me. “They remember what the internet was like before everybody felt it was being watched.”

The Snowden leak “was like a gut punch for people across Silicon Valley,” says Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist who invested early in Twitter and Uber and who now appears on the television show Shark Tank. Sacca was personally friendly with Obama, raising large sums for his 2012 campaign, but was shocked when he discovered the extent of the NSA’s spying and has since become a vocal Snowden supporter. Last November, Sacca did an admiring interview with Snowden at the Summit at Sea, an invite-only weekend of seminar talks and techno dancing aboard a cruise ship, which was attended by the likes of Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet, and Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber. “After fielding over an hour of tough questions,” Sacca says, “he got a resounding standing ovation from the room.”

Even as Snowden captivated the audience on the boat, though, terrorists were mounting a bloody coordinated attack in Paris. The pendulum was swinging back. At first, Wizner says, Snowden was shaken — he worried that the attacks had wiped out all of his progress. Almost immediately, anonymous security sources blamed encryption for giving cover to the attackers. (Subsequent reports suggest they may have been more reliant on primitive tactics, like using burner phones.) “They dragged out all the old CIA directors, the line of disgrace, to suddenly try to reclaim a halo,” Snowden told me. “It did look really exploitative.” For three weeks, he went quiet, posting just once to Twitter, quoting Nelson Mandela about triumphing over fear. Meanwhile, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked in San Bernardino, and Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration.

Wizner advised his client to be patient. Snowden sometimes says he thinks of his existence like a video game: a series of challenges that culminate in a final screen, where you either win or it’s game over. But political outcomes are never so final — it’s an iterative process. In February, when Apple announced it was refusing to break into Farook’s iPhone for the FBI, Snowden was suddenly scoring points again. (“The @FBI is creating a world where citizens rely on #Apple to defend their rights,” he tweeted, “rather than the other way around.”) In an open letter, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, talked the way Snowden does about privacy, encryption, and government “overreach.” The next day, Snowden spoke at Johns Hopkins University, where hundreds of shivering students lined up to get into a packed auditorium. “This is a case that’s not about San Bernardino at all; it’s not a case that’s about terrorism at all,” Snowden warned. “It’s about the precedent.”

Litt believes that, besides giving information to enemies, Snowden’s disclosures have also had a radicalizing effect in the private sector. “The technology and communications community has moved from a position of willingness to cooperate,” he told me, “to an attitude that ranges from neutrality to outright hostility, which is an extremely bad thing.” Recently, Snowden has been working with technical experts who are mobilizing to fortify the internet’s weak spots, both through collaborations with academic researchers and back-channel conversations with employees at major tech companies.

In all of these conversations, Snowden is operating on the assumption that a truly private space on the internet could be easier to create than to legislate — that it may be more fruitful to coax programmers to invent something that is difficult to hack than it would be to try to reshape the entire national-security bureaucracy so it stops trying. “I’m regularly interacting with some of the most respected technologists and cryptographers in the world,” Snowden said. “I believe that there’s actually a lot more influence that results from those sorts of conversations, because so much of technology is an expert game.”

The aspect of the Snowden leaks that most outraged technology experts was not the NSA’s communications surveillance but its efforts to undermine encryption, which had broad impacts on computer security. That news has “created a period of innovation” in encryption, says Moxie Marlinspike, the San Francisco–based security specialist who developed Signal, the messaging program that Snowden likes to use to communicate. Marlinspike has become friendly with Snowden, whom he met in Moscow, where they had a lengthy discussion about the trade-offs between security and usability. (Snowden is always seeing holes hackers can poke through; Marlinspike wants to make encryption accessible to laypeople.) In April, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, announced that it had integrated the Signal protocol Marlinspike developed, allowing it to offer end-to-end encryption. Those sorts of technical decisions, like Apple’s strengthened encryption standards, affect the privacy of millions of customers.

But Snowden is skeptical of the motives of tech companies. “Corporations aren’t friends of the people, corporations are friends of money,” he said. He prefers to collaborate with academics and hacktivists, some of whom are helping him with projects he is developing for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. It already manages SecureDrop, a system for anonymously leaking documents, and the nonprofit’s technical staff is working with Snowden to develop other programs tailored to protect journalists and whistle-blowers. “His goal with us is to start designing and prototyping what the tools of the future will look like,” says Trevor Timm, the foundation’s executive director. One of Snowden’s priorities, unsurprisingly, is improving the security of videoconferencing.

About once a week, the team meets on a beta-stage video platform, where they discuss the painstaking work of testing their technology, a probing process called “dogfooding.” As a prime target for hacking attacks, Snowden is in a unique position to appreciate extreme-threat models. He often comes up with exotic problems to solve and is able to bring in outside minds for confidential consultations. “We’re building small projects,” Snowden says, but he can’t help but see larger applications. He talks enthusiastically about virtual reality, which could soon supplant videoconferencing. “In five years this shit’s going to blow your mind,” Snowden told me. But he also sees potential dangers. “Suddenly, you’ve got every government in the world sitting in every meeting with you.”

Snowden is especially concerned about the monitoring power of Facebook, which acquired Oculus VR, the virtual-reality headset maker, for $2 billion. “What if Facebook has a copy of every memory that you ever made with someone else in these closed spaces?” he asked rhetorically. “We need to have space to ourselves, where nobody’s watching, nobody’s recording what we’re doing, nobody’s analyzing, nobody’s selling our experiences.”

It is clear that in virtual reality, Snowden sees more than just a work tool. “Right now, the technology is not quite there, but this is the first step,” the Snowbot told Peter Diamandis, the space entrepreneur and Singularity University co-founder, in an interview at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. “I have someone who is very close to me,” Snowden explained, “who was the victim of a serious car accident, and because of that they can’t travel.” Virtual reality could bring them together. Or it could allow him to visit home for Thanksgiving, overcoming what he calls “the tyranny of distance.”

Visiting New York’s offices.

Photo:

Adam Banicki/New York Magazine

More than one person told me that, after talking to Snowden for hours on end, they got the sense that he is lonely. His conversation is preoccupied with the theme of escape. He recently collaborated on a track with a French musician, delivering a spoken-word monologue on surveillance over an electronic beat, and recommended the title: “Exit.”

Snowden sometimes says that although he lives in Russia, he does not expect to die there, and he told me he is optimistic that he will find a way out, somehow. Maybe some Scandinavian country will offer him asylum. Maybe he can work out some kind of deal — whether outright clemency or a plea bargain — with the Justice Department. Wizner has been working with Plato Cacheris, a well-connected Washington defense attorney, but so far, there have been no official signals that the Justice Department would be willing to offer the kind of lenient terms Snowden would accept. And a window may be closing. He is unlikely to receive a more receptive hearing from Hillary Clinton, who has said he shouldn’t be allowed to return without “facing the music.” As for Donald Trump: He has called Snowden a “total traitor” and suggested he should be executed. “If I’m president,” he predicted last year, “Putin says, ‘Hey, boom — you’re gone.’ ”

So the comparatively thoughtful Obama may be Snowden’s best hope, but even Snowden’s allies concede that they doubt the outgoing president has the inclination to offer a pardon. “There is an element of absurdity to it,” Snowden told me. “More and more, we see the criticisms leveled toward this effort are really more about indignation than they are about concern for real harm.” He says he would return and face the Espionage Act charges if he could argue to a jury that he acted in the public interest, but the law does not currently allow such a defense. “These people have been thinking about the law for so long that they have forgotten that the system is actually about justice,” Snowden said. “They want to throw somebody in prison for the rest of his life for what even people around the White House now are recognizing our country needed to talk about.”

Earlier this year, Snowden was buoyed by an invitation from an unexpected source. David Axelrod, the president’s former top political strategist, asked him to appear at the institute he now runs at the University of Chicago. Beforehand, they had a video chat. “The president of the United States’ closest advisers,” Snowden told me later, “are now introducing me and sharing the stage with me in ways that aren’t actually critical. I’m not saying this to build myself up. I’m talking about the recognition by even the people who have the largest incentives to delegitimize me as a person, that maybe we overreacted, maybe this is a legitimate conversation that we need to have.”

Axelrod asked Geoffrey Stone, a liberal law professor who is friendly with Obama, to moderate the public talk. Stone is a member of the ACLU’s National Advisory Council and the author of a book titled Top Secret: When Our Government Keeps Us in the Dark, but he also served on Obama’s commission to review the NSA’s surveillance programs, an experience that gave him access to classified information and a dim view of Snowden. “My view is that he cannot be granted clemency, because he did commit a criminal offense and it did considerable harm,” Stone told me. “The people who are celebrating Snowden have no understanding of the harm, for the reason that the people in the intelligence world can’t really explain the harm to them.” Snowden considered Stone’s position to be “an example of regulatory capture,” proof of the seductive power of security clearances. Secret knowledge, Snowden says, “is a very intoxicating thing.”

Still, Snowden was looking forward to the debate, if only because it illustrates his progress. Wizner, who considered the Axelrod relationship important to his future clemency push, attended the May event in person. “We’ve gone from the president saying ‘We’re not going to scramble jets for a 29-year-old hacker’ to talking with the president’s rabbi,’ ” Wizner said backstage as event staff set up computers and projection equipment. “That’s a good journey for us.”

Axelrod shambled in, looking sleepy-eyed as always, as students filled the auditorium and Wizner texted last-minute instructions to his client over Signal. “Whatever you think about Edward Snowden and his actions, and the adjectives range from traitor to hero,” Axelrod said by way of introduction, “he has indisputably triggered a really vital public debate about how we strike a balance between civil liberties and security.” He sat down in the front row as Snowden’s bashful grin filled a large screen.

Snowden had already done one event that day, a cybersecurity conference in Zurich, and he seemed weary as Stone probed for logical weaknesses. The law professor asked when it was appropriate for “a relatively low-level official in the national-security realm to take it upon himself to decide that it is in the national interest to disclose the existence of programs that have been approved … To decide for himself that ‘I think they’re wrong.’ ” Snowden gave his usual homilies about the Constitution, whistle-blowing, and civil disobedience. “Do we want to create a precedent that dissidents should be volunteering themselves not for the 11 days in jail of Martin Luther King or the single night of Thoreau,” he asked, “but 30 years or more in prison, for what is an act of public service?”

Stone pointed out that Congress could pass a law allowing defendants to make a whistle-blowing defense in Espionage Act cases but shows no signs of doing it. “You believe in democracy,” Stone said. “But democracy doesn’t agree with you.” The professor jabbed and Snowden weaved, setting his jaw and taking swigs from a big plastic water bottle. But when the floor opened for questions, it was clear who had won the audience. One student after another got up to offer Snowden praise.

“Did you expect to become a celebrity in this way?” one asked.

“If you go back to June 2013,” Snowden said, “I said, ‘Look, guys, stop talking about me, talk about the NSA.’ ” But he added, “Our biology, our brains, the way we relate to things, is about character stories. So they simply would not let me go.”

Axelrod watched impassively, his fingers tented under his nose. The full effect of Snowden’s performance did not become clear until a few weeks later, when Axelrod had Eric Holder — the former attorney general, once Snowden’s chief pursuer — on his podcast, The Axe Files. Holder allowed that Snowden “actually performed a public service,” while Axelrod calmly presented Snowden’s arguments.

“I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done,” Holder replied. “But I think, you know, in deciding what an appropriate sentence should be, I think a judge could take into account the usefulness of having had that national debate.”

Holder’s concession made international headlines. It didn’t mean anything legally, but symbolically it spoke volumes. Political realities were starting to come into alignment with Snowden’s virtual ones. From his computer in Moscow, Snowden tweeted:

2013: It’s treason!
2014: Maybe not, but it was reckless
2015: Still, technically it was unlawful
2016: It was a public service but
2017:

*This article appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

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Tractors: Reducing The Risk

They’re big, powerful and efficient. But operating today’s four-wheel drive tractors requires all the same attention to safety as tractor models of the past.

Tractor overturns continue to cause serious tractor accidents across the United States. However, as Theresa Zaluckyj and her family discovered, simple missteps on any tractor can result in serious injuries.

“We farm in southwest Michigan,” Zaluckyj says. “In 2014, just before we started planting, our son Jeremy was working on equipment, getting it ready. Our two tractors were parked next to each other and Jeremy was walking down the steps of one of them. He slipped on the step and as he started to fall he caught a finger in the tractor weight. As a result, he broke his finger.”

Theresa had no idea she would be the next family member to experience a serious incident involving a tractor.

“In the fall of that same year we were working to finish harvest before a rain,” she says. “We had worked one night until 4 a.m. and were headed back to the field at 8 a.m. the next morning.”

Theresa’s job at harvest time is driving the tractor that pulls the grain cart. After putting in another long day, working until about 9 p.m., she and her family finished combining corn just before the rain started. It was raining as she prepared to head to the pickup and go home.

“I had my purse with me along with some bags and water bottles I wanted to put in the trash,” she recalls. “With the purse in one hand and trash in the other, I started making my way down the tractor steps.”

Climbing out of the tractor, in the dark, Theresa missed the last two steps. She went tumbling to the ground, her head hitting the tractor wheel, the contents of her hands flying across the ground. Catching her breath, she attempted to get to her feet and found she couldn’t stand. She had torn her MCL (medial collateral ligament) on the inner part of her knee and was unable to get up.

“Jeremy quickly came to help me,” Theresa says. “Ironically, he threw the trash I’d been so intent on cleaning up back into the tractor cab. Wearing a knee brace, it took me 8 months to heal up. Jeremy’s advice was to throw any trash down to the ground and pick it up once I was safely down off the tractor. I know, too, that I was in too much of a hurry that night. We need to slow down and not rush when we work around tractors.”

Nationwide Insurance Professor of Agricultural Safety and Health and Extension Safety Specialist Dr. Dennis Murphy at Penn State Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering says most farmers become very accustomed to the tractors they’ve used for some time, purchasing a new tractor only every 10-15 years or so. It takes time to thoroughly understand how to operate a new rig. Practice can help.

“Make sure you know your tractor,” Murphy says. “Practice driving it and using its different features. Modern tractor cabs resemble the inside of an airplane cockpit with joy sticks and buttons where levers used to be. Many other design changes may give tractor operations a very different feel. Practice backing up, hitching equipment and thoroughly learning what every button and knob is for. If you’re using a feature you haven’t used in a while, refresh your memory about how it operates beforehand.”

Operator age is always important, and tractor operators who are either too young or well advanced in age may not possess the necessary physical stature or capabilities to safely operate any type of tractor.

“It’s key to ensure that anyone who’s going to drive the tractor can reach everything, can see and hear well and has the same understanding of operating it as you do,” Murphy says. “When tractor operators reach their 70s and 80s, slowed reaction times could result in hazardous situations. Set the tone for expecting that all operators are well trained and take time to teach everyone who operates the tractor how to do so safely.”

Modern tractors are safer than older models, due to additional weighting options and wheel settings or even dual wheel and track capability. However, tractor stability and potential instability remains very important.

The central concept in tractor stability/instability is Center of Gravity (CG). A tractor’s CG is the point where all parts balance one another. CG for a two-wheel drive tractor sitting with all wheels on level ground is typically about 10 inches above and two feet in front of the rear axle when looking from back to front, and in the center of the tractor body when looking left to right. In this setting approximately 30 percent of the tractor weight is on the front axle and 70 percent on the rear axle. For four-wheel drive and center-articulated tractors, the CG is located slightly more forward. Added weights to a tractor can affect the CG.

To stay upright, a tractor’s CG must stay within the tractor’s stability baselines, imaginary lines drawn between the points where the tractor tires contact the ground. Details about identifying a tractor’s CG and how to safely operate it to maintain stability can be found at www.extension.psu.edu.

Because the tractor is the leading cause of death on the farm, Rollover Protective Structures (ROPS) and seatbelts are a standard feature on late-model tractors. Use of ROPS is key to surviving a rollover accident. A ROPS with an enclosed cab gives tractor operators the most protection from common hazards of tractor operation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires an approved ROPS for all agricultural tractors over 20 horsepower that were manufactured after October 25, 1976, and which are operated by a hired employee. A ROPS normally limits the degree of rollover, thereby reducing damage to the tractor. When using a seatbelt, ROPS with enclosed cab also prevents tractor operators from being knocked out of their tractor seat from rough ground or low hanging tree limbs, provides protection from the sun and other weather hazards and reduces risk for the unsafe practice of extra riders on tractors. In 80 percent of all tractor rollovers, victims are experienced operators.

Thinking about the terrain where the tractor will be used before arriving at a site is an important safety practice. Even relatively flat farmland is likely to include areas of pasture and roadways with rolling hills or steep inclines. Soil erosion and animals can create unstable ground conditions in places that were safe in previous years.

“Does the person who will operate the tractor in that terrain understand the center of gravity and how it changes?” Murphy asks. “Do they realize how centrifugal force is affected with a sharp turn of the tractor? Are they able to make quick decisions if a crisis situation develops?”

Drawbar leverage is a critical concept to understand. Equipment hitched to a tractor may not always be on wheels or be an object that rolls easily.

“For safety purposes, all tractor operators should be trained in drawbar leverage,” Murphy says.

“High hitching” is an unsafe practice every operator should avoid. Any hitch point higher than the drawbar will tend to pull the front wheels up, potentially resulting in a back-flip and a crushed operator. The high hitch issue can occur in pulling vehicles stuck in the mud, dragging downed trees or removing shrubs for landscaping purposes.

Because the power-take-off can be the most dangerous tractor feature, it is fitted with a master shield. The master shield should always be in place and operate easily so it can be quickly flipped up and pushed back down. An unguarded PTO, running at 1,000 rpm, can wrap clothing around it at the rate of 8 feet per second. It can’t be shut down that quickly.

Maintaining every aspect of the tractor is a key safety practice. Newer model tractors typically feature lights with turning lamps and flashers. However, if the lights aren’t in working condition they’re of little use in terms of safety.

“Every time you get on the tractor, it’s a good practice to check all the lights and flashers to make sure they’re working,” Murphy says. “Maintaining the quality of a slow moving sign is also key. The sign should be washed frequently and evaluated to make sure it hasn’t faded, detracting from its visibility. For tractors capable of road speeds of more than 25 miles-per-hour, a speed indicator symbol (SIS) can be used.”

Tractor brakes should be carefully serviced and regularly tested to ensure proper operation. As much as possible, it’s recommended to avoid parking a tractor in areas where brakes are relied upon to keep the tractor from rolling. If brake instructions are not completely clear, consult the manufacturer or someone experienced in using them to thoroughly learn how your tractor brakes operate.

As an operator, if you’re off the tractor and it begins to roll, DO NOT try to get back on. Such action frequently results in death. Machines are replaceable, people aren’t.

Seat belts, also a standard feature on late-model tractors, are ineffective until they’re used. Youth shouldn’t be allowed to ride in or operate a tractor unless they are protected by a ROPS and seat belt.

“The worst thing that can happen to a tractor owner is that they take a risk and get by with it,” Murphy says. “The more times you take the risk, the more likely it is that you’ll end up the loser.”

Tractor safety training events are available through Extension offices across the nation. Numerous online resources are also available, including www.extension.psu.edu and the National Agricultural Tractor Safety Initiative at www.nasdonline.org.

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New rules are ‘common sense,’ say Naperville, Fox Valley drone and radio-controlled plane users

Whether photographing real estate with drones or flying remote-controlled planes for fun, local operators say they know the airspace is public and acknowledge the need for rules like those just released by the Federal Aviation Administration for smaller unmanned aerial systems.

“It’s pretty much common sense,” said Scott Gerami, a real-estate agent with Re/Max Professionals Select of Naperville, who uses a drone in his business. “You don’t fly over people, you keep it under 400 feet in the air and stay away from airports.”

As use of drones has increased for commercial purposes and by law enforcement, as well as for recreation, controversy erupted over near-misses with other aircraft, privacy and other issues. Stepping in to regulate their commercial operation promotes safety and could boost the nation’s economy and create new jobs, the FAA says.

Among other specifics, the rules, which take effect in August, mandate that an operator must be at least 16, have a remote pilot certificate, keep the drone within visual line of sight, only fly during daylight hours and not fly over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the drone’s operation.

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