Hypocrisy and the AHCA

I just submitted a thinned-down version of the below as a letter to the editor of the Centre Daily Times. I leave it here as an open letter, and as possible inspiration for other PA-5 constituents who may wish to contact Mr. Thompson.

UPDATE (March 17, 2017): The letter was published as “Thompson rushing bill into law”.

Congressman Glenn Thompson doesn’t know how many of his constituents he is hurting in his support of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), and he doesn’t seem to want to find out. Wasting no time, Mr. Thompson tells us that the law, which was introduced on Monday and sped through the Ways and Means Committee by 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, should be sent to the Senate by March 23 and on the President’s desk by Easter. While his constituents are racing to understand the impacts the new law will have on their lives, Mr. Thompson can’t be bothered to wait for a score from the Congressional Budget Office, and seems to have no interest in independent analysis.

The Congressional Budget Office, which provides nonpartisan analysis for the U.S. Congress on budgetary and economic issues, has not yet provided a score for the AHCA, so neither Mr. Thompson nor anybody else truly knows what the plan will cost the American people or how many will lose their health insurance if it passes. Perhaps because he and the rest of the GOP know that the CBO score will be shocking to many voters, Mr. Thompson has moved to preemptively invalidate the work of the CBO, telling Talking Points Memo, “I don’t have a lot of confidence in the CBO process . . . Trust me, this bill will be subject to all kinds of alternative analysis.” Yet, as recently as 2012, Mr. Thompson held quite different views, as when he said on the House floor, “The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office served a devastating blow” to Obamacare. If the CBO was reliable then, why has it so suddenly lost credibility?

In the same March 2012 floor speech, Mr. Thompson, citing figures from the CBO, focused on access to healthcare as the metric by which to judge the Affordable Care Act, declaring it a failure based on the number of people projected to lose their employer-provided insurance coverage. Now, however, Mr. Thompson has changed his story, saying recently that, “A nation’s health policy should not be about access to health insurance.” If the number of insured was the critical measure of the Affordable Care Act, why is it no longer his concern in evaluating the GOP’s replacement?

It’s hard not to compare Mr. Thompson’s “alternative analysis” to the world of “alternative facts” which the Trump Administration is trying to create. In his rush to avoid a CBO score, and blindly further a GOP agenda, it’s estimated that 50,000 of Mr. Thompson’s constituents will lose their health insurance.

Missing Member Town Hall

Inspired by the Indivisible Guide and the work of many dedicated local constituents over a period of many months, I co-sponsored a “with or without him” public town hall event for Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District. I thought that it was important that the Congressman hold a town hall during the recess/district days, especially in light of the possible upcoming votes on Obamacare.

While the Congressman did not attend (instead, he falsely accused us of being “paid protesters” and the “political opposition” who were seeking to create a “spectacle”), the event was an unbelievable success. We had almost 400 people, of all ages (include my one year-old, Molly) come out to campus on a rainy Saturday afternoon to share their questions, stories, and concerns with each other, and since we recorded the town hall with Facebook Live, Congressman Thompson will have an opportunity to respond, should he wish to do so. Perhaps more importantly, I hope that this town hall demonstrated to Mr. Thompson the passion that many of his constituents have to be able to speak with him and to hear from him, in a public setting, on the record. We will be working in the coming months to continue to send this message to Mr. Thompson, if needed. I want to especially thank Valerie Burnett, Stephanie B, Jared DeLoof, Krista Holobar, Kelli Hoover, Neeraj Kumar, Nikita Page and the IST Student Government, Sean Penfield, and Zack Rider for all of their help before, during, and after the event. None of this would have been possible without them.

For those in attendance on Saturday, we collected contact information and information about which issues constituents were most interested in getting involved. If you were not able to attend but would still like to be involved, we’d love to work with you! Please complete this Google Form, and we’ll be in touch.

We also got great media attention for the town hall, which will hopefully help draw further attention to the issue. Here are the stories that I saw; if you have any to add, please let me know.

Event Coverage

Preview Coverage


Using Web Annotation as an Educational Tool in the Classroom

Over the past year or so, along with IST M.S. student Anthony Pinter, I’ve been exploring how Web annotation tools such as genius.com or Lacuna Stories can be used in the classroom. I’ve also been trying to create my own ideal format of a Web-based textbook for Internet Law, which would have excellent navigation, readability on any device (including when printed), footnotes, and integrated annotation. A very early version of our work is available at https://internetlaw.ist.psu.edu/.

I’m most interested in using the annotation tools to help students in creating case briefs, according to my guidelines for How to Brief a Case. Anthony and I conducted a small usability study on the Web page in spring 2016, with a group of almost 150 students in IST 432. Anthony was able to present this work at I Annotate 2016 in Berlin, in a presentation titled “Using Web Annotation as an Educational Tool in the Classroom” (PDF). I think Anthony did a great job with the presentation; you can watch the video of his talk here.

Unsolicited Advice

This academic year was the second one in which I had the pleasure of serving as an honors advisor for IST and SRA students in the Schreyer Honors College. Honors advisees are assigned to me in their junior year, and so right now those first students are submitting their honors theses getting ready for commencement. I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished—even though I, unlike their thesis supervisors, can take absolutely zero credit for their success—and so I just wanted to highlight their excellent work here:

Integration: Making Technology Work for You and Your Students

On Saturday, March 19, I’ll be speaking at the Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium. Along with Bart Pursel, I’ll be presenting in the Integration: Making Technology Work for You and Your Students session. This will be my first time presenting at the Symposium, and my fourth year as an attendee; it’s always a great time.

I believe that a video of the session will be posted eventually, but in the meantime, here are the slides.

Hail, Caesar!

This serves as a follow-up to my award-winning (untrue) blog post on How to Create Your Own Weather Forecast Program Using Python. This time around, we’re going to learn how to program own our Caesar cipher (encrypting and decrypting) using Python, as well as how to hack that same cipher. I suppose the ambitious student could combine these two tutorials in order to send encrypted weather forecasts to his friend. Here’s what you’ll be making:

Caesar cipher

To be very clear, most of the content in this tutorial is merely a modified version of Hacking Secret Ciphers with Python. In particular, I’ve tweaked and combined components of chapters 6, 7, and 12 in a way that I hope students will find interesting. If you find this material interesting, I encourage you to read the entire book, which is available in its entirety for free online.

Getting Started with Python

If you’re a Penn State IST student, you can use the classroom computers, which come pre-loaded with Python and IDLE. If you’re not on campus, you can access them through your browser (this is very cool).

If you’re not a Penn State IST student, or if you want to install Python on your own computer, I encourage you to read Chapter 2 (“Installing Python”) of Hacking Secret Ciphers with Python.

Preparing for Detecting English

I often have to evaluate written work created by college students, so I have signficant experience in detecting when something is written in English, and when it is not (ha!). Our Python script will face the same issue when we brute-force hack the encrypted string; it will use the Caesar deciphering code with every possible key, then evaluate the results against a dictionary of English words. As a heuristic, we’ll say that if 20% of the words in the deciphered message are found in the dictionary file, and 85% of the characters are letters or spaces, then we’ve possibly identified the correct key.

We could re-create this code ourselves, but once again Al Sweigart’s Hacking Secret Ciphers with Python has us covered; see Chapter 12 (“Detecting English Programmatically”). I encourage you to read the entire chapter, but in the interest of creating a tutorial that can hopefully be completed in about an hour, you should:

  • Download the dictionary file and save it to your computer’s desktop. This file contains a whole bunch of English words. You’re probably already familiar with many of them.
  • Download detectEnglish.py and save it to your computer’s desktop. This is a Python module that simply returns true or false, according to the heuristic described above, as to whether the message contains English.

Shifting Keys

In the spirit of putting the bottom line up front, here’s the completed script:

You can paste that into IDLE, save as caesarCipher.py, then hit F5 on your keyboard to run the program.

As I said, this is mostly a combination of chapters 6 (for encryption and decryption), 7 (for brute force hacking), and 12 (for detecting English) of the hacking Python book. For line-by-line commentary on how the code works, please see those chapters. My version of the script merely combines the several functions together, and adds some error-checking.

What’s Next?

I don’t know, Christmas I guess? But if you mean in terms of learning more Python and/or cryptography, I recommend:

Finding Myself

There are many wonderful things about the IST Building, but navigability isn’t one of them. Students understandably get lost trying to find my office. The College does publish floor plans, but they are, perplexingly, hidden in a faculty/staff-only intranet. With the start of the semester around the corner, I thought it would be helpful to publish these resources:

  1. IST Building first floor plan
  2. Second floor plan
  3. Third floor plan

Future Forum Tips

As part of the university’s Engaged Scholarship initiative, students in my SRA 111 sections recently participated in a career fair networking activity, designed to help them prepare for the IST Future Forum, which will be held on Thursday. Last night I emailed the students this list of tips, for whatever they’re worth. In the spirit of “eh, what the heck” that is at the heart of straymarcs.net, I share them with you, too:

Before the Future Forum

  • General information about the Future Forum is available here
  • The compilation of company profiles that Shannon (our guest who was part of the Engaged Scholarship initiative) provided is your friend. Look this over, with a focus on the companies you’ll want to talk to on Thursday.
  • Don’t have a resume yet? Follow this list of tips.
  • Would you like to have your resume reviewed in a low/no stakes environment? Ask your teachers or LAs, and they would be happy to help you.

During the Future Forum

  • The Future Forum is from 10a to 4p in the IST Building, on the first and second floors.
  • Dress professionally. It can get a little crowded, so try to avoid bringing a bulky bookbag. You might want to leave your bags and jacket in the lockers near the first-floor entrance of the IST Building.
  • I recommend bringing at least 20 copies of your resume (fancy paper is nice, but not necessary), and a notebook and pencil so that you can take notes while you’re talking to recruiters.
  • Immediately write down the name of the person you’re talking to. I’m not sure about you guys, but often when I’m introduced to somebody and they tell me their name, I’m often so focused on making a good impression that their name goes in one ear and out the other (which in turn makes a horrible impression). You’ve got a good excuse to take notes during the career fair, so you don’t have to fall victim to this, too.
  • Ask for business cards after talking to each recruiter. After you finish talking to them, write what you’ll say to them (including your “personal story” so that they can remember who you are) on the back. Send a thank-you email 24–48 hours later.

After the Future Forum

  • Penn State’s Spring career days at the BJC are February 9 and 10, but the Future Forum is much better if you’re interested in an IST- or SRA-related jobs. The recruiters on Thursday will know what IST and SRA are, and the setting is much more intimate.
  • If your resume is looking a little sparse and you’re interested in joining an SRA-related student organization or two, I recommend
  • On that same note, here’s the list of Resources for Finding Engaged Scholarship Experiences (which Shannon showed at the end of class).
  • After the Forum, jot down a few notes about things you could have done better for next time, and review these notes before the next career fair. You’ll have many chances to perfect this skill.

The Case Against 8

Last night I had an opportunity to watch an outstanding documentary, The Case Against 8, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the effort to overturn California’s gay marriage ban. There’s a lot that can be said for the emotional and sociological aspects of the film and its subject matter, but for me, one of the best parts was seeing the judicial processes that I talk about in classes such as B LAW 341 and IST 432 play out on screen. The movie follows the case as it bounces between state and federal court, and through the appeals process; you follow the lawyers as they prepare their arguments, and you see and hear actual trial and appeal proceedings. I was riveted throughout, as was my decidedly non-lawyer wife.

The movie is streaming on HBO Go, and is also available through iTunes and Amazon.


Many years ago, my father discovered the world’s most perfect timepiece, and he later passed that knowledge on to me, his firstborn (and arguably best) son. That watch is the Casio Men’s F105W-1A Sport Watch, and it is amazing. It boasts the following features:

  • is $11.49
  • per above, you can lose it or break it and you don’t have to care; just buy another one
  • the battery lasts for approximately 35 years
  • glows!
  • you don’t have to worry about people trying to steal it
  • does not send you notifications when you receive an email
  • is really basic and beautifully designed


casio watch

You should buy one.