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‘Serial’ Podcast Returns With Second Season

By Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Season up, servers down.

That appeared to be the case briefly Thursday morning when the first episode of the second season of the hit podcast Serial was posted without advance fanfare on the show’s website.

As has been widely speculated, the episode deals with the travails of former U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, charged with deserting the Army in Afghanistan in June 2009. For the first time in the media, Bergdahl tells his own story, a complicated tale that morphed from a missing persons case into a returning soldier story into a political lightning rod.

The episode, available at and through other channels, puts the Bergdahl story in context, including a quote from presidential candidate Donald Trump saying, “In the old days deserters were shot.”

Attempts to access the episode on the show’s website in its first hours, across several devices, were at first rebuffed, suggesting massive interest. But that situation didn’t last and the website soon delivered the episode smoothly.

The episode begins with excerpts from Bergdahl’s 25 taped hours of conversation with screenwriter Mark Boal, one of the filmmakers behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Their essence is that Bergdahl thinks of himself, first, as a whistleblower hoping to alert higher-ups to leadership he considered “dangerous.”

“I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing,” like a movie character, listeners hear Bergdahl telling Boal. “I saw things falling apart as far as my command goes.”

It has been reported that Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have been working on a movie about Bergdahl. Boal’s production company shared its tapes with Serial and is a partner in Season 2, host Sarah Koenig says.

Serial comes from This American Life and WBEZ-FM 91.5 in Chicago. The show’s premise is that it examines one story in detail, week by week, like an old-time radio serial. Season 1, which became the first podcast popular enough to merit parody on Saturday Night Live, reinvestigated a murder case involving high-school students in Baltimore.

Serial is also available on Pandora, iTunes and other podcasting outlets.

©2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: United States Army via Wikimedia Commons


Strong Looks Sharp At White House Correspondents’ Dinner

By Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Whatever Cecily Strong was going to say about President Barack Obama at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, there was no way it would sting as much as what he inadvertently said about her.

Trying to establish a bond, Obama hailed the Saturday Night Live cast member as a “Chicago girl,” but then he called her, repeatedly, “Cecily.”

So maybe Strong is not the most famous comic to ever stand at the podium during the annual commingling of reporters, their Washington sources and celebrities ranging from movie to reality-TV stardom.

But the 31-year-old Strong, raised in Oak Park, Ill., and trained at Second City and iO, did well enough Saturday night to earn herself much greater name recognition, perhaps even from the commander-in-chief.

It was hard to gauge Obama’s reactions, but cameras showed the president laughing very hard when Strong journeyed from a personal jab to a much bigger societal issue:

“After six years in office, your approval rating is at 48 percent,” she told Obama. “Not only that, your gray hair is at 85 percent. Your hair is so white now it can talk back to the police.”

One of Strong’s edgiest lines also broached the topic of institutional racism by police. After chiding the Secret Service for its troubles protecting the president, she then feigned sympathy, saying, “They’re the only law enforcement agency in the country that will get in trouble if a black man gets shot.”

That one made people sit up in their seats, and Strong came back quickly, and self-assuredly, with, “Are you saying ‘boo,’ or are you saying ‘true’?”

Her demeanor was friendly enough to be disarming, but Strong, the daughter of a former Associated Press bureau chief in the Illinois capitol of Springfield, was pointed in her politics. She said, for instance, that she’s a fan of the craft store Hobby Lobby, where “I just bought the cutest little wicker basket to hold all my morning after pills,” she said.

If comedians miss the mark at the dinner — in tone or in quality of material — it can hurt them. The national star of radio deejay Don Imus began sinking after he bombed while hosting a different Washington dinner in 1996.

But a risky set can pay big dividends. The 2006 hosting turn of Stephen Colbert was perceived in some quarters to be too barbed an attack on President George W. Bush and the press. But in other circles it is revered for its gutsiness and for going beyond joke-telling into the headier realm of satire.

Where Colbert was playing beyond the room, using it to announce himself as a voice to pay attention to, Strong’s ambitions were more modest. The room even supplied part of the material.

“It’s great to be here at the Washington Hilton,” she said with a dramatic pause, “is something a prostitute might say to a congressman.”

Strong has rallied nicely on SNL, doing lots of great sketch work this season after the perceived demotion of being taken off the show’s “Weekend Update” anchor desk. She never found the right tone for the mock news-reading gig (her successors Colin Jost and Michael Che still struggle with that).

But Saturday she showed she could deliver an extended comic monologue under bright spotlights. Like Seth Meyers, a fellow former SNL newsreader, four years before her, her monologue was a succession of mostly taut, well-crafted lines about social issues, media institutions and figures, and the upcoming presidential race.

Ted Cruz, she figured, was right wingers’ wanting the opposite of President Obama, “a Canadian Latino who’ll never be president.” Then there was Rand Paul, “as in, ‘he didn’t get elected, but at least he Rand.'”

Working, she said beforehand, with writers from SNL, Tonight, and Meyers’ Late Night, Strong wisely went to the video screen only once, for a so-so take on former Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock. Some of her best material related to her own status as only the fourth woman to be the entertainer at the correspondents dinner, sometimes referred to as “Nerd Prom.”

“Feels right to have a woman follow President Obama, doesn’t it?” Strong began, the first of many references to Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

But, she said: “Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m going to go easy on you people. I’m going to go easy on you people because my brain is smaller.”

The strongest positive reaction Strong got was when she called on the press to repeat a vow with her: “I solemnly swear / Not to talk about Hillary’s appearance / Because that is not journalism.”

Perhaps feeling the need to add an actual joke, she then undercut the forceful feminism with a dose of mock insecurity. “Also,” she immediately added, “Cecily Strong looks great tonight.”

That’s one possible review. The real point, though, is that she entertained on a high level. It’s “Cecily,” Mr. President.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot via YouTube/C-SPAN

The Vast Majority Of Californians Shun Quake Insurance

By Steve Johnson, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Despite California’s ever-present risk of major earthquakes, the number of homeowners in the state with insurance coverage for quake damage has dipped significantly over the last several decades, from 33 percent in 1996 to just 10 percent today.

The reason, say experts and some homeowners: the high cost of coverage, the quarter century lapse in a major quake until Sunday’s shaker in Napa County, and for some people the expectation that the state or federal government will step in to reimburse homeowners when the Big One hits.

“You think about it after the earthquakes,” said 44-year-old Robert Jordan of Napa, who has avoided getting quake insurance despite living through the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and another shaker near his home in 2000. “But it’s amazing how quickly we go back to our normal ways.”

Despite having major damage to glassware and other breakable items in his kitchen during Sunday’s quake, he added, he’s still probably not going to get a quake policy because “it’s expensive and major quakes happen so infrequently, it seems like a luxury more than a need.”

Many other people share that view, said Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, a public agency that provides about 70 percent of all of the residential quake policies in the state.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind.” Because it had been so long since a major temblor rocked California, he added, “A lot of people just fail to realize it could happen to them.”

Less than 6 percent of homeowners in Napa had the insurance, the authority said.

Aside from the length of time since the last major quake, the cost of coverage is another big reason many people shun insurance.

To be covered for earthquake damage other than fire, homeowners typically need an earthquake policy in addition to their homeowner’s insurance, and the average annual cost of earthquake premiums statewide is $798. The cost varies depending on whether the insurance comes with a standard 15 percent deductible or a 10 percent deductible. Either way, the deductible could leave homeowners with a sizable bill even if they are insured.

For example, if a person with a 10 percent deductible has insured their home for $400,000 — excluding the value of their land, which typically isn’t affected in a quake — and they suffer $100,000 worth of quake damage, they’d be responsible for $40,000, with their insurance covering the rest. Similarly, that same homeowner with a 15 percent deductible would be responsible for $60,000.

If a person assumes their house might never sustain more than $60,000 in damages, they might figure quake insurance isn’t worth the annual premium. But state officials say that could prove a risky gamble, since a home’s damage could total well above the deductible, depending on a variety of factors, including the temblor’s size, duration, and proximity, as well as the home’s age, type of construction, and number of stories.

“If they make a decision to not purchase earthquake insurance, they will be on the hook themselves for what may be their most valuable asset and will be responsible for 100 percent of the cost if a damaging earthquake struck,” said the Earthquake Authority’s Pomeroy.

Another common reason people avoid getting quake insurance is because they figure federal officials will come to the rescue with financial assistance after a major shaker. But even if the federal government offers help to those affected by the Napa quake, there is no guarantee it will cover everything.

“Federal and state funds alone are unlikely to be enough to get your life back to its pre-disaster condition,” warns an Earthquake Authority brochure.

One more factor in the relatively low rate of homeowners who buy earthquake insurance might be confusion, said San Francisco lawyer Robert Berg, who specializes in insurance issues.

“The earthquake policies are complicated,” he said. “So people will read them and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m getting out of this.'”

Even so, the Napa quake — where the damage has been estimated by some experts at $1 billion to $4 billion — could prompt more people to reconsider buying a quake policy.

“Most definitely,” said Michael Barry, a spokesman with the Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit industry group. “I’m sure insurance agents in Northern California will be getting a number of calls inquiring about how to go about buying earthquake insurance.”

AFP Photo/Josh Edelson

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Stopping Cyberattacks Likened To A War And Experts Say The Crooks Are Winning So Far

By Steve Johnson, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — After last week’s stunning revelation that Russian crooks had stolen 1.2 billion user names and passwords, the biggest breach on record, experts say making the Internet more secure will take a huge global effort — bolstering website security, a stronger push to prosecute the cybercriminals, and better vigilance by consumers.

How much all that might cost is unclear, with some experts estimating it could take billions of dollars, while others insist it’s more a matter of redirecting what already is being spent toward more fruitful areas. But even then, critical information on the Internet may never be entirely safe, given the growing sophistication and ability of hackers to find new ways to steal it.

The attack by a Russian gang, uncovered by a Milwaukee security firm, has inflamed concerns about data protection on the Internet and whether the security practices of thousands of companies around the world are sufficient to protect financial and personal information. Security experts say businesses need to take the lead in countering the threat, particularly since the software and gadgets they make to access the Internet are frequently riddled with weaknesses that hackers can exploit.

“There is zero or very little corporate responsibility being taken to insure products in the market are safe,” said Melissa Hathaway, a former top federal cybersecurity official with the National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who now has a consulting firm. “If we continue to see the market the way it is, we’ll see more victims.”

Critics have faulted many companies for being slow to address their vulnerabilities because of factors including ignorance about the extent of their flaws and the cost associated with fixing them.

Alan Paller, director of research at SANS Institute, an organization that trains computer-security experts, said that because software can be easily manipulated by crooks, it’s essential to either make programmers responsible for the financial damage that results when their code is hacked, or, at least, make them demonstrate they know how to write safe software through a skills test.

Paller said companies also need to improve the ability of their security staffs to deal with cybercriminals who sneak into the corporate networks. I don’t think they know how to do it in many cases,” he said.

Moreover, he said companies should stop wasting money writing security-related reports — some of which are required by the federal government — and focus more on actually battling hackers.

That’s why he believes tackling cyber crime wouldn’t require a huge additional expenditure, because “fundamentally, it’s a shift from talking about the problem to fixing the problem.”

But others argue that companies will need to spend substantially more, because many of them so far haven’t taken the threat seriously.

One key measure companies could take is to shift from having their websites accessed with user names and passwords to employing biometric identification systems, according to Larry Ponemon, whose Ponemon Institute studies data protection and privacy issues. He noted that some companies already offer voice identification technology for accessing computer gadgets, and he predicts that retinal and facial identification devices could become widely available within five years.

Others argue that the best way companies can avoid having their websites or other operations breached is to think more like the hackers, pointing to Tuesday’s disclosure about the 1.2 billion user names and passwords that were stolen from 420,000 websites.

“This breach illustrates how traditional security tools alone don’t do enough,” said Carl Wright of TrapX Security of San Mateo, adding that businesses “must be as nimble as the attackers themselves and be able to adapt in real-time to defend against evolving threats.”

Several experts also implored the government to work more with foreign nations to crack down on cybergangs, and increase penalties for U.S. companies that lose personal information due to security lapses. And until better methods are instituted, consumers are advised to stop using the same passwords or other personal identifiers to access different websites, because that practice greatly increases their chances of having their identities hijacked and their bank accounts, credit card numbers, or other data stolen.

Even with a concerted effort by everyone, experts say, it’s going to be tough to stem the growing tide of cyberattacks.

“It seems to be getting worse and if we look at this as warfare we are losing most of the battles,” said Ponemon, noting that “the cyberattackers are stealthy and smart and well funded.” But over the next decade, “we stand a good chance to win the war. I’m mildly optimistic.”

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

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