Category Archives: Politics

Mike Pence, Matt Walsh, respect, and trust

A Christian conservative blogger named Matt Walsh posted an article to Facebook (and something to his blog as well) the other day in support of VP Mike Pence. I’ll let Mr. Walsh describe it himself:

I decided to check the headlines tonight and this is the “news story” I saw being reported by dozens of outlets. You see, Vice President Pence will not eat a meal alone with a woman other than his wife, and the media wants us to realize that this is a humongous scandal. Many of the mindless hyenas on Twitter have been cackling about it, because apparently it’s hilarious and bizarre for a married man to forgo dinner dates with other women.

Well, I confess that my wife and I must join the puritan club with Mr. and Mrs. Pence, because neither of us would go out for a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex, either (other than family, of course). In fact, I would go so far as to say that a married man shouldn’t be hanging out with another woman one-on-one in almost any situation, whether there’s a meal involved or not. I’m radical like that, I guess.

Mr. Pence and his wife (as well as Mr. Walsh and his wife) have agreed that neither will eat with someone of the opposite sex without the other one there. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s their marriage and far be it from me to tell someone else how they should conduct their marriage (though Mr. Pence has no trouble doing that). But the implication that the Pences and Walshes are invariably right and anyone who disagrees is wrong is so condescending and holier-than-thou it’s scary.

From his blog article on the same subject:

Listen to the vets who’ve been in it for 20 or 30 years or longer. You’ll find that the vast majority of them would agree with Pence, or, at the very least, understand his approach and respect it.

How does he know the “vast majority” of long-married couples would agree? Sounds to me like the old echo chamber is rearing its ugly head again – he writes a conservative Christian blog, and the majority of his readers are probably conservative Christians too and thus agree with him. But he seems to think that their views match those of the general public. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but unless you’ve got some actual evidence, you can’t just go asserting things like that.

…if you have no boundaries other than “don’t cheat,” you’ve set yourself up for failure. Inevitably, if cheating is your only boundary, even it will eventually be crossed. …We must take active and purposeful steps to protect ourselves from stumbling into sin and betrayal. If we take no such steps, we are much closer to doing the thing “we would never do” than we’d care to admit or imagine.

Speak for yourself, pal.

Frankly, when I have some time to myself, I much prefer to either spend it alone, reading or fishing or something, or with male friends who I share a fraternal bond with. A man can’t have that kind of bond with a woman. It’s an absurd proposition.

Why the hell not?

Gail and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary last October, so that makes me a vet in Walsh’s view.  By “understand his approach and respect it”, I suppose that’s arguably correct in that I don’t think Pence is an idiot for having this pact with his wife. What I really disagree with is the implication that because he (Walsh) thinks this way, that’s the correct way of thinking. On his blog Walsh has the various taglines “Absolute truths”, “Christian columnist and political incendiary Matt Walsh is an extremist — if truth is extreme”, and “Matt Walsh is a blogger, writer, and professional sayer of truths.” How cocky do you have to be to post your opinions and call them objective truth? If that statement was there once, then OK, I might believe he meant it jokingly. But three times?

We’ve reached full Idiocracy, folks. Prudence and wisdom are openly mocked. And mocked, I should mention, mostly by people who’ve never been married or never managed to stay married. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in a successful and stable marriage who thinks it’s silly for spouses to have policies like this.

<Raises hand> Again, if we’re splitting hairs, I suppose he’s technically correct. Do I think it’s silly to have such a policy in your marriage? No, but is it necessary? Also no. At least not for everyone.

I’ve been married to my wonderful wife for over twenty years and we are very happy, thank you very much. I have many female friends and I have had one-on-one meals with a few of them. Gail’s known about such meals when they’ve happened and never batted an eye because she trusts me. Similarly she’s done the same with male friends, and it never bothered me either because I trust her.

In fact, the policy is so obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be stated out loud. Only ridiculous and immature people who have no concept of how husbands and wives should operate could possibly laugh at a married couple for actually respecting each other, as the Pences clearly do.

I don’t see how “you can’t go for dinner alone with Bob because you might end up sleeping with him” is showing her respect. Similarly, “I promise not to go out for dinner alone with any woman because I might end up sleeping with her” isn’t showing respect. How about “I promise not to sleep with anyone else”? You said that as part of your marriage vows – isn’t that enough? If you have to make other rules to make sure you don’t break that one, what’s stopping you from breaking the “I won’t eat lunch with another woman” rule?

Personally, I have no desire to go out with women other than my wife. I have no desire to maintain friendships with women.

Good for you. But don’t presume to speak for all men, and don’t pretend that your opinion is somehow more valuable than anyone else’s. I do have friendships with women that I want to maintain. These friendships are threats to neither my marriage nor theirs.

Have there been people who did stray from their marriage vows in such a situation? I’m sure there have been many. Maybe for those people, avoiding such a situation would have been a good idea. But don’t assume that everyone is at similar risk. Does Mr. Walsh prevent Mrs. Walsh from going to Wal-Mart by herself just in case the feeling of shoplifting comes over her, even if she’s never stolen anything in her life? To paraphrase Mr. Walsh’s own blog, “Do you believe your spouse is literally impervious to the sin of theft? If you do, please tell us how you managed to climb to Heaven and marry an archangel.”

Matt Walsh whines about his values being openly mocked while openly mocking the values of those who disagree with him. I’m not mocking anyone except Walsh. If you want to make that agreement with your spouse and you both honour it, good for you. But don’t imply that those of us who have not made that agreement must (a) be philanderers, (b) have unhappy marriages, or worse (c) not know as much about marriage as Matt Walsh, the Speaker of Truth™.

This whole article doesn’t even touch the other big issue here. It’s fine for Walsh and his wife to make this kind of pact, but Mike Pence is the Vice President of one of the most powerful countries in the world. If he refuses to be alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, what are the odds he’s going to hire women for important roles in his administration? We already know that both Pence and Trump think of women as second-class citizens, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they won’t be hiring many. But isn’t it possible that the Chancellor of Germany needs to have a private meeting with Pence at some point? Is he really going to cancel the meeting if his wife can’t be there? Does the Vice President of the Unites States really need a fucking chaperone?


The echo chamber

When I first joined Facebook over ten years ago, I though it would be a fun little diversion. Over time, it turned into a invaluable communications tool, particularly with friends and family far away. I have a number of friends who have moved to Alberta, BC, and the US and I’m sure that without Facebook, I would have lost touch with many of them. I also grew up thousands of miles away from my cousins in Scotland and England (and later, Australia) and so I don’t know them very well, but I’m able to touch base with them and get to know them, to some extent, thanks to Facebook. I’m sure this is the case for hundreds of millions of other people worldwide.

One great thing about Facebook is that it allows you have direct conversations with your friends and also see what they’re talking about with other people. But that’s also a bad thing about Facebook. You see what your friends are saying and what their friends are saying, but nobody else. This sounds like what you would want. I want to hear and discuss my friends’ opinions on things. And why would I want to hear some random guy’s opinions on things if I don’t know him?

EchoChamberBut by definition, your friends’ world views are generally similar to yours (or they wouldn’t be your friends), and their friends’ views are generally similar to theirs. Of course everyone’s different and friends can have different views on things but more often than not, you find yourself agreeing with your friends on many issues. This is not limited to Facebook – it also applies to Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks. Oh, and real life too.

The problem here is that social networks in general become what’s known as an echo chamber. When you post an opinion and see nothing but agreement, you start to think that this is a popular opinion, or even a consensus. But you’re only seeing your friends’ opinions and since most of your friends think the way you do, you are getting a skewed view of the population.

Take the most recent US election as an example. For months before the election, I saw many postings from friends talking about what a terrible choice Donald Trump would be for President, and I posted many such opinions myself. I saw some postings arguing the other way, but those were mostly reposts from my friends, along with a comment on how misguided the original posters were. I saw almost no pro-Trump postings directly from anyone I knew. In fact, I can only think of one person on my Facebook friends list who posted anything positive about Donald Trump. As a result, I started to believe that the vast majority of people were against Trump, and thus Hillary Clinton would win the election in a landslide.

Imagine my surprise.

Well, you probably don’t have to imagine, since the election results seemed to take everyone by surprise, whether they supported Clinton, Trump, or neither one. Since then, it’s been one surprise after another, though it really shouldn’t be since Trump is doing exactly what he told everyone he would do if elected. Many people, myself include, just couldn’t believe he’d actually get the chance, thanks to the echo chamber.

Did this actually affect the election’s outcome? Perhaps the Trump supporters were so determined to have a non-politician in the White House that they turned out in droves to vote. Meanwhile the Hillary supporters were so deeply embedded in their echo chambers that they didn’t think they had to. It sounds plausible but I’m not sure about it – after all, Trump supporters would have been living in an echo chamber of their own.

I don’t pretend to have a good solution for this problem. On Twitter, I do follow Donald Trump himself (both his personal account and @POTUS) just to see what he’s talking about. Before the election it was a source of humour because he couldn’t possibly win. Since the election, his tweets have been more of a source of anger and fear and usually make me shake my head, but I haven’t unfollowed. I did recently notice that a fairly prominent lacrosse coach was a Trump supporter, and I unfollowed him. He didn’t tweet much anyway so it wasn’t a huge deal. But by doing this I was simply strengthening my echo chamber, something I didn’t think of at the time. Maybe I need to revisit that strategy.

The greatest President since Obama

President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that he’d immediately repeal “Obamacare” if elected. After the election, Trump met with President Obama and subsequently backed down on this, saying that there are parts of it that he likes. Maybe President Obama explained some of the finer details of Obamacare to Mr. Trump, who had never really understood them before, and having more information changed his mind. It’s good to know Mr. Trump has an open mind, and is willing to change it given evidence. I wonder what else might he change his mind on, given a conversation with the right people?

Secretary: Mr. President, the President of Mexico is here and would like to speak with you.
Trump: OK, show him in.

(two hours later)

Trump: My fellow Americans, I have decided to cancel the Mexican Wall project.

Secretary: Mr. President, there are forty-seven climate scientists here to meet with you. They have letters from hundreds of others.
Trump: Sure, I have a few minutes before my tee time.

(two hours later)

Trump: Hey Mike, find that EPA guy I hired and fire him. No wait, firing people is my specialty. Get him in here.

Secretary: Mr. President, the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr. is here and wants a word.
Trump: What the heck does he want? OK.

(two hours later)

Trump: Hey Mike, we need to cancel that whole “Camp Islam” thing we talked about.

Secretary: Mr. President, Dr. King is back again, he forgot to tell you something.
Trump: Wow, busy day. Sure, send him in.

(ten minutes later)

Trump: Mike, you’re fired.

A week later, Trump invites Hillary Clinton to replace Mike Pence as his vice-president and hires Neil deGrasse Tyson as his chief science advisor. Four years later, the US is a beacon of prosperity, multiculturalism, peace, and harmony. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in fifty years. The third season of Cosmos made the NFL move Sunday night football because their ratings just couldn’t compete. America is leading the way with renewable energy solutions and the climate isn’t warming quite as fast as before. NASA’s budget has been doubled and there are projects underway to send Americans back to the Moon and to Mars. President Trump is re-elected in one of the biggest landslides in history.

Four years after that, he leaves office with a 96% approval rating. Trump closes his hotel in New York City and turns it into the biggest Presidential Library in the country.


And then I woke up.

Fix our own problems first

When other countries have financial hardships, governments of the richer countries frequently offer to send money or other aid to help them out. Some countries spend billions of dollars in foreign aid every year. Currently, there are thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and looking for shelter in the US, Canada, and many other places, and providing shelter for all of these people will cost millions of dollars as well. But there are thousands of people here in Canada who are living in poverty. There are people struggling to make ends meet because they can’t find a job. I saw a posting recently about homeless veterans. Does it make sense to send this much taxpayer money overseas or spend it on non-Canadians when there are people here in Canada that are in trouble?

(Note that I’m specifically talking about Canada here, but it applies to the US and probably many other countries as well.)

I say no. We should cancel all foreign aid and fix our own problems before helping the rest of the world with theirs. I generally agree that if you have the chance to help someone who needs help, you help them, end of story. Of course, it’s rarely that simple, and when you’re talking about sending hundreds of millions (or more) of taxpayer dollars overseas, that’s just far too simplistic. As long as there are Canadians with problems that can be solved using taxpayer money, it is our responsibility to help them rather than sending that money out of the country. Fix our own problems first.

First we need to define what “problems” we’re talking about. The ones that come up most often are poverty and unemployment, but we can also talk about everything from healthcare to crime to drugs and many others. How many of these problems need to be solved before we will help other countries? Maybe we could just pick the most important two or three. But if we did that, there would still be Canadians who need help with the ones we decide not to solve. Are those people less worthy of help than those who we’ve already helped? Of course not, so we can’t stop with some of these problems, we must tackle them all.

Another question is how completely the problems need to be solved before we’re willing to re-establish foreign aid. Say we have 5% unemployment and inner city poverty is a real problem. After implementing some of the plans we will have come up with for eliminating problems like poverty and unemployment, we have 1% unemployment and have cut the number of people living in poverty by 75%. That’s pretty good, huh? Things are definitely better than they were but even with that improvement, there still are Canadians in poverty and Canadians looking for jobs. The problems aren’t solved. There are still Canadians who need help – again, what makes these people less important than the ones we did help? We can’t stop yet, not until all the problems have been solved. We can’t be satisfied with just improving the situation or reducing these problems, we have to eliminate them. Fix our own problems first.

All we have to do is completely eliminate all problems in Canada, including poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, and crime. We have to do this quickly and without raising taxes. Once that’s done, we’ll have lots of taxpayer money that we will happily use to help others around the world who are in need of it.

So I’m sorry, people living in squalor and dying of dysentery or starvation, and people hoping not to get murdered by rampant terrorists or your own corrupt government. We have people in Canada selling expensive drugs to rich teenagers, and we need to put a stop to that. Also, some people with medical issues have to wait months for an MRI, and we need to cut that way down.

Once we solve all of our own problems completely, we’ll have the perfect society and then we’ll be happy to help you out financially, though you and your children will probably be dead by then. That’s unfortunate, but we have to fix our own problems first.

Security theater

We all know that the world changed on September 11, 2001. Obviously the events of that day were tragic, and it seemed that America (and to a great extent, Canada too) completely shut down for a week just to recover. Gradually things got restarted and back approaching normal, but in the months and years following, a lot of things never returned to what was “normal” before, and in certain cases the new normal is a lot different from what was normal before.

The thing that everyone can point to as being very different is security, particularly for air travel. Before 9/11, everyone had to go through security before flying, which included being interviewed at customs as well as going through a metal detector, but that was about it. Now, we all have to take our shoes and belts off, throw away bottles of water and contact lens solution, and either consent to being groped by a TSA agent or go through a scanner that can take naked pictures of us. To quote Timon from The Lion King: “… and everyone’s okay with this?”

The site of the World Trade Center is now a memorial, but the amount of security required to get into it is unreal. It’s not just a public park that anyone can walk around. To get tickets, you need to provide your name, address, and phone number, and everyone over 13 needs picture ID that can be asked for at any time. During the cold war we used to laugh at Soviet society, where anyone could be asked for their papers at any time, and thrown into jail if they didn’t have them. Aren’t we lucky not to live in a place like that? Well, now we do.

This has bothered me for years, but why aren’t more people all up in arms about all of this? The belief seems to be that the additional security measures are inconvenient, but they keep us safe so we should just put up with them. But are we really safer now than before? The TSA themselves listed their Top 10 good catches of 2011, which mostly consisted of people trying to get weird things through security or things that would have been found by a metal detector anyway. No terrorists made the list. Early this year there was the cupcake incident, where a passenger had a cupcake confiscated because it could have been made of some kind of explosive gel.

The whole point of the TSA seems to be to protect the American public from possible-but-extremely-unlikely scenarios. Security expert Bruce Schneier calls it “security theater” – it gives all the appearance of providing security, but actually does nothing. You can’t bring more than 100 mL of liquids onto the plane in case they’re liquid explosives. So 100 mL of liquid explosive is not dangerous? And two separate 100 mL bottles (which are allowed) are not dangerous but one 200 mL bottle is? You can’t bring a two-inch-long nail file (security officers snapped one off of our nail clippers) because it could be a weapon, but you’re allowed a six-inch sharpened pencil. Then once you’re in the air, they bring you your dinner and give everyone a metal knife and fork.

The TSA is supposed to be protecting American citizens from terrorists. But how many terrorist plots have they actually foiled? The total number of people killed in the USA in terrorist attacks since 9/11 is 16. Sixteen people in eleven years. This means that either all of the law enforcement agencies all over the US have been extremely effective in preventing terrorist attacks, or there just aren’t that many. Certainly not enough to warrant the $8 billion per year that the US government spends on the TSA. While I acknowledge that it’s possible that a number of terrorist attacks have been foiled and they just haven’t made that information public, I suspect the actual number of terrorists stopped from blowing up / hijacking a plane is zero.

Back to the World Trade Center memorial, how likely is it that terrorists would target it for an attack? Obviously it’s a very meaningful place for Americans so there’s that factor, but a smart terrorist would bypass that entirely and just attack a subway station (zero security on subways, not even metal detectors) or a mall or, like in Tom Clancy’s book The Sum of All Fears, a jam-packed football stadium.

If terrorists want to attack the US again, they wouldn’t be able to do the exact same thing as they’ve done in the past, since we’ve got those bases covered. But if they were not idiots and really determined to find a way, the security procedures put in place by the TSA are unlikely to be able to stop them. But it’s possible that not a single member of Al-Qaeda has set foot in the US in eleven years. In reality, what they’re likely doing is laughing at all the silly hoops that they’ve caused Americans to have to jump through.

9/11 was an outside job

I watched a YouTube video recently called Loose Change. This is one of the most popular 9/11 conspiracy videos out there. The description of the video on the YouTube page is as follows:

For anyone who still has doubts about 911, weigh out the facts and the overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the reality that the events of 911 were one big set-up.

This exposes the lies, disproving every aspect of the bogus 911 commission report put forth by the corrupt government.

Judge for yourselves, but investigate the facts and evidence before jumping to a conclsuion [sic].

The video is about an hour and twenty minutes long. The film is professionally shot and edited, and there are a number of computer animations which are also professionally done – what I mean by that is that it looks good. This is not something done in the basement with a hand-held video camera by some conspiracy theory nut. The film states and attempts to prove that all of the terrible events of September 11, 2001 – the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the airliner crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania – were designed, orchestrated, and then covered up by the American government. It contains descriptions of physical evidence, scientific discussions, and interviews with witnesses, firefighters, airline industry spokespeople, and scientists.

It is also complete and utter horseshit.

There are numerous web sites out there (here, here, here, here, here) that address the claims made in the film in great detail, some of them point-by-point, so I’m not going to do it here. Suffice it to say that the makers of this film get many facts wrong, misinterpret facts and evidence (whether accidentally or intentionally), and use many of the standard logical fallacies including straw men, observational selection, appeals to ignorance, and red herrings.

For me, the most damning evidence that this whole conspiracy theory is wrong is the lack of whistleblowers.  If this were a government plot, the number of people that would have to have been complicit is immense. The people that flew the airliners (who must have been OK with a suicide mission). Pilots that fired the missiles at the Pentagon. Demolitions experts that planned and planted the explosives. Air traffic controllers and other staff at the airport in Cleveland (where United flight 93 landed in this scenario). Communications experts who faked all of the cell phone calls from flight 93. There must have been some firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders that were in on it, so they could hide or destroy evidence of the explosives if any was found in the rubble. Many experts in many different fields to come up with ways that this could all happen but still look like a terrorist plot. The President of the country. Numerous senior members of the armed forces, CIA, and FBI. Who knows how many other members of the Executive Branch as well as advisors and assistants. There would have to be people whose job it is forever to ensure that any evidence found in the future is covered up, and witnesses and others involved in the conspiracy paid off or killed. We’re talking about hundreds of people here.

If this was a government plot, the majority of the people I listed above must have known about the plan, or at least part of it, beforehand and agreed with it. None of them had any trouble planting bombs in the iconic twin towers in downtown Manhattan that have hundreds of thousands of people going through them every day. None of them had a problem with firing a missile into the Pentagon. Even if they didn’t know about the attacks or agree with them beforehand, they’ve had plenty of time since then to realize what they were a part of and reflect on their role in this event. But in the ten years since the attacks, not one person has had a change of heart and come forward. Perhaps the American government has had each and every one of them murdered in such a way that their friends and families didn’t suspect murder. If that’s the case, why hasn’t the government just killed the makers of this film for revealing the truth?

The funny part is that the conspiracy theorists describe the most complicated conspiracy ever conceived, which was apparently pulled off to perfection, and at the same time point to many mistakes that the conspirators made and clues that they left behind. So they’re saying that the most evil government conspiracy ever was pulled off by a bunch of incompetent boobs.

There was no government conspiracy to kill American citizens on September 11. The attacks were pulled off by a bunch of Islamic extremists who hijacked four airliners. That, my friends, is the 9/11 truth.

In which Graeme gets seriously pissed off

Warning: there are some expletives in this posting. Once you read it, I hope you will understand why.

On March 14, Wil Wheaton posted the following on Twitter:

To the “Japan had it coming because OMG Pearl Harbor” crowd that’s crawled out of the sewer: Go fuck yourselves, you ignorant pieces of shit

There are a bunch of people on Facebook and Twitter posting the kind of crap that Wil is referring to: that the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan was somehow payback for the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941. People are even saying things like If you wanna feel better about the earthquake in Japan, google “Pearl Harbor death toll”. When I first read this I was utterly speechless. Once I was able to comprehend that this wasn’t someone’s idea of a sick joke, I basically thought what Wil said above.

It saddens me to no end that there are this many people that think this way. The odd nutjob here and there I could see, but it turns out that there are lots of these scumbags – just click the “Facebook” link above to see a bunch of them. Luckily, since those all came from facebook, there are names associated with them. No more hiding behind the anonymity of the internet – now everyone knows who you assholes are.

First off, what happened at Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a terrible thing, no question. But that was seventy years ago, and Japan is now an ally of both Canada and the US. I did google “Pearl Harbor death toll”, and found that 2,402 people were killed during that attack. Thus far, there are 1,886 confirmed dead due to the earthquake, and thousands more are missing. But if you’re still looking for payback, perhaps you have forgotten that you already did get payback: you fucking nuked them – twice. The atomic bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 killed between 90,000 and 140,000 people and destroyed over half the city. Then three days later, 73,000 were killed when the US dropped another one on Nagasaki. That’s between 160,000 and 210,000 people dead. For each American killed at Pearl Harbor, most of whom were military, Americans killed between sixty-six and eighty-seven Japanese people, most of whom were civilians. That’s not including the hundreds of thousands of people injured or homeless, or the people that suffered for years or even decades with radiation sickness, or the children of the radiation victims, many of whom themselves suffered and died. The only nuclear weapons ever used during actual conflict were used by the USA on the people of Japan. And that’s not “payback” enough?

I wonder if there were people in Japan (or anywhere else in the world) who saw Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 and thought about payback for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those people, or anyone else who thinks that innocent people who suffer and die deserved it because of the actions of a different generation, would be scumbags as well, but quite honestly, in terms of raw numbers, the Japanese have a lot more to complain about than the Americans.

I also wonder if the people posting this anti-Japanese vitriol realize the irony of doing it using computers and phones that are chock-full of Japanese-designed electronics.

If you disagree with this and do think that the earthquake was somehow caused by karma or that Japan deserved it, you are entitled to that opinion. But please remove yourself from my friends list on Facebook. You are no friend of mine. But even so, I’m going to make a donation to the Japanese Red Cross Society right now, in your honour.


A week or two ago, a meme went around facebook where people would change their picture to that of a cartoon character and set their status to something urging others to do the same. This was supposed to be some sort of campaign against child abuse. But not once in any of the statuses that I saw was there any explanation of exactly how changing your facebook picture would have the slightest impact on this problem. Is some scumbag out there going to see all these pictures of cartoon characters on facebook and decide not to beat their child that evening because of it? Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think so. Some may say that it was to “raise awareness”. Who doesn’t already know about child abuse? Other than the abusers themselves, who doesn’t already think it’s a terrible thing? Whose awareness are you trying to raise?

I’m not trying to be negative here and say that this is a problem that we can’t solve so let’s just do nothing. I’m not saying that people who do this are idiots. And there’s certainly no harm in changing your facebook picture. But anyone who believes that this type of “campaign” will have any effect on anything is delusional. This is just another form of slacktivism, where people think they can cause real change in the world without actually doing any work.

This has come up on both facebook and twitter many times over the last few years: Copy this line to your facebook status if you know anyone who’s died from cancer. Black out your twitter picture to protest a proposed copyright law in New Zealand. Join this group to protest . Sign this internet petition to protest high taxes. Could the government look at an internet petition with several thousand “signatures” on it and rethink their budget because of it? Not bloody likely, but I guess it’s theoretically possible. But how is changing your facebook status to “I know someone who died of cancer” going to change anything? And quite frankly, who doesn’t know someone who’s died of cancer?


Every couple of years there’s the “gas-out” where everyone is supposed to not buy gas on a particular day (sometimes from a particular gas company) to protest high gas prices. This is not quite the same thing, in that people are doing something real, but nobody considers the fact that if Wednesday is the gas-out day and you were going to buy gas that day, then you’d have to buy it on Tuesday or Thursday instead. Even if they sold no gas on the gas-out day, the total demand over the course of the week would be the same as usual, and so there might be some momentary blip in gas prices but nothing long-term. This is proven by the past few gas-outs, where gas prices drop by a few cents on the day of, only to rise back to normal a day or two later.

Another form of slacktivism is the “ribbon” magnets people put on their cars. Many of them are for some medical condition or another (again, “let’s raise awareness for cancer” – who doesn’t know about cancer?), but some simply say “support the troops”. These ones confuse me too. Originally I assumed they meant that the person was in favour of the fighting in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc., i.e. they support the war and agree with those who decided to send the soldiers overseas. But later I heard that even if you don’t support the reason the American and Canadian troops are fighting, you should display these magnets to say you support the soldiers themselves. This makes no sense. Saying that you support the war is a political statement that many agree with and many do not, and some may feel strongly enough about their position that they want to broadcast it to the world. But agree or disagree with the war itself, who doesn’t support the soldiers? What’s the alternative – hope they die? Why do you need to put something on your car that says “I hope the soldiers overseas are not killed!”

Now as I talk about ribbon magnets, I should say for the record that I do have a magnet on my car. It’s shaped like a banner and it says “Transplants save lives”. I’ve written before about a little girl we know who had four organs transplanted in 1997 at the age of six months. This surgery saved her life, and she will be 14 years old in a couple of months. This magnet could be considered slacktivism as well, but I argue that it’s not. In order to do something real to help cure cancer, you’d have to be a doctor or scientist or both. You can certainly give money to the Cancer Society (or the CNIB or the Diabetes Association or whatever); I do it myself and I will never argue that it’s a bad thing. But all you need to do to support organ donation is sign your organ donor card, which takes almost no effort and costs nothing. I’ve done it, my wife has done it, many of my friends have done it, and if something terrible should happen to one of us and the organs are needed, just signing the card has saved someone’s life. Not to take anything away from donating money, but donating organs can have a much more direct impact. If the magnet on my car reminds someone to sign their organ donor card, it will have served its purpose.

If you want to effect real change, get off your ass and get out there and do something real, or at least donate money to someone else who’s doing something real. There are lots of charity walks, runs, and bike races, not to mention car washes, barbecues, and even 50-50 draws and raffles. Hell, I grew a moustache in Movember, which took almost no effort on my part, but it raised a coupla hundred bucks for prostate cancer research. That’s about as close as you can get to doing something good with no work and no cost. Though come to think of it, I did change my facebook picture as part of it.

Smokers’ so-called rights

There was a letter to the editor in the Hamilton Spectator today, in response to another letter from yesterday regarding the “rights” of smokers vs. non-smokers. Today’s letter read:

We can debate this issue until the cows come home.

What I find intriguing is that non-smokers scream about their rights and their liberties, and how I as a smoker infringe upon them.

I say “ditto.” I, too, have a right to eat, shop and walk in an environment that is comfortable to me and not feel segregated or put down or looked down upon.

If I, as the letter writer says, wish to put as much nicotine and tar into my body as I like, let me do it when and where I wish.

Terri Hamm, Hamilton

I immediately wrote a reply and sent it in to the Spec:

You are obviously informed about the dangers of smoking and yet have chosen to smoke anyway. That’s your right and I will not argue it with you. If you want to put that crap into your body, go ahead. You’ve made that decision. But while you are putting that crap into your body, you’re putting that crap into the body of everyone around you as well, without their consent. Many others have made the decision NOT to put that crap into their bodies, and yet they’re subjected to it anyway. This will happen if I simply stand near you – I don’t need to interact with you or even know who you are. And you’re arguing that you should have the RIGHT to subject others to your smoke?

If I want to drink myself into oblivion, that’s my decision. But it’s ludicrous for me to argue that I have the right to pour alcohol down the throats of everyone around me just so that I don’t feel “looked down upon”.

It is absolutely stunning to me that we actually have to have this argument. If you want to foul up your body with cigarettes, that’s your decision and your right. But when your habit negatively affects my health, that’s where your rights end. If I get drunk and harass people at the door of the local grocery store, I will be asked to leave and arrested if I don’t. Nobody’s health is in jeopardy here, customers are just being annoyed. But if I smoke near the door and compromise everyone’s health, nobody cares and if they do, the smoker argues about “smokers’ rights”. I don’t get it.

America is the new China

If you are an American citizen, you should be very frightened at the direction your government is heading. Last week’s Security Now podcast talked about two different but related issues regarding privacy and censorship of the internet. Both issues involved the US government attempting to legislate away some problem that they don’t know how else to solve, and in both cases the legislation will accomplish precisely nothing.

The first is COICA, the “Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act”. The idea of this bill is to allow the government to force the delisting of particular web address from DNS servers around the country, so if you tried to go to, the browser would fail to look up the IP address for that name, so you wouldn’t be able to get there. There is no due process here – the US Attorney General could order a web address added to the blacklist (which all ISPs would be required by law to respect) even without any kind of trial. This is obviously at the request demand of the RIAA and MPAA to catch people pirating music and movies, but the bill is worded vaguely enough that the AG can take down any site he wants. As the EFF puts it, “had this law been passed five or ten years ago, YouTube may not exist today”. The idea that the US government is considering censoring which web sites its citizens can visit is more than a little scary. There are millions of Americans who are thankful that they don’t live in China because the internet is so heavily censored there, and now their own government is considering the same thing. The really dumb thing about this legislation is that it’s going to make it slightly more difficult to get to web sites on the blacklist, but not impossible. You can still use the IP address directly to get there, and all the legislation does is make the translation from name to IP address unavailable from US ISPs. I guarantee you that within hours of this bill being passed, there will be people outside the US creating open DNS servers and web sites listing the IP addresses of blacklisted web sites. There will be Firefox plugins that automatically check one of these other servers and retrieve the IP addresses that way. There already exist legal means to take down web sites that contain illegally copyrighted data. So what will this law accomplish?

The second one is even more frightening. The FBI wants the government to legislate that all cryptographic systems have back doors that the FBI can use to decrypt anything. Law enforcement agencies have been complaining for years that they can’t do the internet equivalent of wiretapping because the encryption that is used is unbreakable. And they’re right: the encryption in use nowadays is unbreakable, despite what you might see on TV. If something is properly encrypted using a modern encryption algorithm, the only way to decrypt it is to correctly guess the key that was used to encrypt it. This is called the “brute force” method, but because keys can be any characters and any length, the number of possible keys they have to check is essentially infinite. And the only way to know if your decryption attempt has worked is to look at the resulting data and see if you recognize it as something useful. Encrypted data just looks like random noise, and it’s not even possible to detect that it’s encrypted. If you were to encrypt a file twice, even brute force becomes impossible. Even if the bad guys guess the correct key the first time, they wouldn’t know that they got it right because the decrypted result looks like more noise. So when they say “unbreakable”, they mean it – without the key, the data is simply inaccessible. By anyone. Ever.

I understand that this ties their hands, but I’m afraid it’s too late to complain about that. This legislation is doomed to failure because strong encryption routines are already out there. Does the FBI honestly think that terrorists will continue to use Skype if they know the US government can listen in on any conversation (which they currently cannot do)? No, they’ll just write their own version of Skype using the existing unbreakable algorithms. Or they’ll send email and attach encrypted files. The terrorists are not going to stop using unbreakable encryption just because the government tells them to stop.

Not to mention the obvious – if all encryption has a back door that the FBI can use to break it, how long until the bad guys figure out how?

In my job at Sybase, I am responsible for the encryption aspects of the SQL Anywhere client and server. If this legislation goes through, we will have to:

  • immediately stop sales of our existing products in the US
  • remove the existing encryption algorithms from our products for sale in the US (we’d likely keep the existing stuff for sales outside the US)
  • obtain a specification of the new encryption algorithms that the US government will allow us to use
  • implement them, test our product with them
  • implement some kind of tool that will allow our customers to decrypt data that was encrypted with the old algorithm and re-encrypt it with the new one
  • ship the new software and politely ask our customers to stop using the software they already have and install the new stuff

This is a significant amount of work that we’ll have to do in order to comply with this law, and thousands of other software and hardware companies will be similarly affected. Some, like Skype, will likely need to redesign their entire product. The only impact will be that people that were already law-abiding will know that the FBI can get into their data if they want to. If there are any terrorists or criminals using encryption software, they just won’t bother upgrading so they’ll know that the FBI cannot see their data. And none of the above even addresses the civil liberties issues with the government being able to spy on its any of its citizens’ private data.

Not a single terrorist or criminal is worried about these bills being passed. But American citizens should be.