Category Archives: Politics

Slacktivism


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?

magneticribbon

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 http://www.copyrightinfringer.com, 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.

Pictures from Toronto


I don’t usually make a post that’s just a link to another article, but here is a collection of fantastic photographs taken in downtown Toronto yesterday during the protests. There are some pictures of the peaceful protestors, and then there are some of the idiots in black with masks from an “anarchist group” (a contradiction in terms) who were just there to smash and burn stuff. If you really believe in something so strongly that you think violence and vandalism (arguably terrorism) is the way to solve it, at least have the balls to show your face while you do it. Otherwise you’re just another coward.

As seen on twitter: “Nothing says “courage of your convictions” like wearing a mask and changing your clothes after committing acts of arson & vandalism.”

I especially like the one in front of Foot Locker, with the anarchist guy doing the Safety Dance.

Gie’s a minute for a wee blether


So there’s this kid in Alberta who’s graduating high school soon. His parents moved here in the 60’s from Scotland, as did mine, though he himself has never been there (don’t know what you’re missing, dude). He’s decided that he wants to wear a kilt to his graduation, to celebrate his Scottish heritage. Cool idea, right? I thought so, but his principal has told him that he is not allowed to wear the kilt to the graduation ceremony. Why? “It does not fit the dress code”.

Now there are thousands of people from around the world who have joined a facebook page that are going completely apeshit over this, telling Jacobs to go to court, that his basic human rights have been violated, that this is a hate crime… OK, take it easy people. This is not a huge conspiracy against the Gaelic people. More likely, it’s a principal who doesn’t want this kid flashing his junk at people while on stage, assuming he’s wearing the traditional undergarments. Don’t get me wrong – I fully support the kid. Not allowing him to wear a kilt is silly, but it’s not a human rights violation. “Scottishness” isn’t a religion that he practices (which is why all the comparisons to turbans and muslim headwear and such are faulty), so I don’t think he can play the human rights card. From the Globe article, it doesn’t look like he’s spent tons of time embracing his Scottish heritage – never been to Scotland and doesn’t plan to go, never worn a kilt, that kind of thing. Now I’ve never worn a kilt either, and there are lots of reasons why his never having been to Scotland doesn’t mean anything. But if he’s trying to claim that this is part of his own culture and upbringing, I’d have a hard time believing it. It’s not like he’s going to get to his graduation in a suit and tie and think to himself “This is just wrong. I should be in a kilt.” You want to take it to court, fine, but let’s not get all bent out of shape and start calling it a hate crime. That would be insulting to victims of actual hate crimes.

When I was in Scotland in 2000, my cousin Hazel got married, and we were there for the wedding. My aunt told me that I had to wear a kilt. I think she expected me to jump back and yell “What?! I’m not wearing one of those things!!”. Instead, I told her that it would be very cool and I was definitely up for it. When I was told she was joking and I didn’t have to, I was quite disappointed. Kilts are very expensive, so buying one was out of the question, but I should have looked into renting one. I may never have a chance again. Ach well.

Big British Brother


What is it about the British lawmakers that they are so stupid when it comes to security? They already have more CCTV cameras in public areas than anywhere else in the world, and in the last few weeks, I’ve read all kinds of stories about how London Police have put up posters asking people to report those who:

It’s now illegal to take photographs of British police officers. The London bobbies are probably the most photographed policemen in the world, and now taking pictures of them is a crime. (Note to self: tell Gail and the boys this before we go to London this summer.) I fail to see how photographs of police officers would be of any use to a terrorist. I don’t know if this includes the Queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace, but that might be a good thing to know.

Reporting people who take pictures of policemen or CCTV cameras is just silly, but asking people to report “suspicious people” is particularly disturbing. Like it or not, there are an awful lot of people who are particularly suspicious of Arabs or people who “look Muslim”. Say I put my suitcase under my chair in the waiting area of an airport and then walk to the bathroom, leaving the suitcase under the chair. This is a stupid thing to do, but it likely wouldn’t cause much concern. If an Arab man were to do it, there would be people screaming “bomb!” all over the place. Arabs (and other visible minorities) already have to deal with enough racism (blatant or otherwise) in their everyday lives, and these posters are just going to make things worse, while doing exactly nothing to prevent actual terrorist attacks. (Though the posters don’t specifically say “be suspicious of Arabs”, you know that many people will interpret them that way.) If I were of Arab or middle eastern descent and living in London, I’d be seriously considering moving somewhere more friendly to visible minorities. Like rural Texas.

And all the while, the UK government thinks they’re doing their citizens a favour. This is nuts.

Obama makes headlines


How is this for cool? This page has a whole ton of newspaper front pages from around the world the morning after Obama was elected. Most of the headlines are what you would expect — “Obama” (with and without exclamation point), lots about change, lots about making history, that sort of thing.

Gotta love this paper from Portugal, where a picture of a supermodel is bigger than the one of Obama and McCain. And this one, also from Portugal, or this one from Bulgaria, where there’s no mention of the election at all (as far as I can tell, I don’t speak Portuguese or Bulgarian). But this one combines the “best” of both worlds — a scantily-clad woman and no mention of Obama!

That last one isn’t from Portugal, it’s from Brazil — where they speak Portuguese. What does that tell you about Portuguese people? They like women in bathing suits and don’t care about American politics. Can’t fault them for that. Next vacation — Rio de Janeiro? Hmmmm….