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RFT Rant – Ep 239 – Book Burning and Harper’s war on science

Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 20, 2014

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This week my rant is about yet another front on Harper’s war on science. 7 of 9 of our world-famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO] libraries were closed in the autumn of 2013. This was ostensibly to reduce cost. The government pledged to digitize the contents of these libraries to ensure no intellectual property was lost.

In the modern information age, buildings holding books with information does seem a tad out dated. Digitalizing information not only makes it easier to store, allows more to be stored but also makes it more accessible. In theory.

If this were where the story ended, you my loyal readers may ask what’s the rant?

Well, it is coming to light that only a fraction of the contents of these libraries have been electronically copied. It seems that only 1 in 20 books were converted. Some have been transferred to other libraries, most were given away for free to anyone who walked in and took them from the shelves and a large number are or were burnt or sent to landfills. I have yet to confirm the book burning but it does add a touch of historical resonance.

The government claimed the libraries were not used but based this conclusion on the number of people who asked for help. Let us remember these are largely academic resources used by people who know their way around a library…not likely to need much help. I suspect is was the only measure they could find that seemed low enough to support their political agenda.

Okay…that was a little partisan and I want to make a clarification. Much of this rant is centered on a report from the Tyee…a center-left publication and based on interviews with scientist working for or with the DFO. I have collaborated the central themes, closure and dispersal of books, but I have yet to be able to confirm it in its entirety. That said, Harper’s government has a history of this kind of stuff, so I am willing to give the report the benefit of the doubt.

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The report stated that a number of the scientist interviewed could not understand why the libraries were being closed at all. The cost savings would only be in the order of $400,000 a year in a budget of almost $2 billion. And that, to quote “Most saw in the actions a political agenda by the Harper government to reduce the role of government in Canadian society, as well as the use of scientific evidence in making policy.”

One interviewee explained how the system works. The library itself is not actually run by DFO but by Information Management and Technology Services (IMTS). This takeover occurred in 2009.

IMTS operates under a corporate business model. Under this model, one sector of government sells its services to another sector of government with the objective of providing the least amount of service for the largest possible service fee. This would seem to be a very bad business model for running a government department that has the prime objective of long-term public good — giving the public the best return possible on their tax dollar across all sectors of government through working co-operatively.

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Getting back to the Harper agenda, in isolation this would be conjecture and perhaps conspiracy thinking, but couple that with the fact that the government has shut down a number of research groups related to this content, most infamously the Experimental Lakes Area, the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission and the DFO’s entire contaminates research program. There has also be much reduced funding for the Freshwater Institute and the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research.

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To bring it home, the last one, also known as COOGER, is the group that would do research into things like offshore oil spills and environmental impact of oil shipping…you know, that thing that they are planning to do in Northern BC to ship Alberta oil to the Asia…Northern Gateway…the one where they promise a ‘quote’ world class response to any oil spill. Hard to have any kind of response when you cut the funding to one of the main research entities focused on that oil-spill issue.

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And those works that are transferred to other libraries, access becomes much more difficult. Scientist or the public will no longer be able to walk into a local DFO library, scan the shelves for a pertinent book and grab it. No, now they will have to know what they want ahead of time, make an inter-library loan…time and effort many will not likely go to thus making scientific research that much more difficult.

To quote acclaimed Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings…”It is always unnerving from a research and scientist perspective to watch a government undermine basic research. There are many materials online but just as many books and materials that are not. The idea that you can send an email to Ottawa and get a book somewhere down the road is a myth. The idea that all requests will be honored also won’t happen.”

He goes on to say “From a science and research perspective these closures will have no positive impact on the quality of research but they will have a negative impact. Losing libraries is not a neutral act.”

Hutchings saw the library closures fitting a larger pattern of “fear and insecurity” within the Harper government, “about how to deal with science and knowledge.”

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He sees a pattern, the closing of research groups, cutting of funding for environmental research, the muzzling of scientists which we have talked about many times before here on Radio Free Thinker. The near abandonment of climate change research and although Harper is not as bad as Australia’s new Prime Minister who in a 2010 rally stated “The climate change argument is absolute crap, however the politics are tough for us because 80 per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger”.

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Harper said last year that “Canada applauds the decision by Prime Minister Abbott to introduce legislation to repeal Australia’s carbon tax,”

Australian business are also lobbying the government to loosen or at least not tighten greenhouse gas regulations to ensure maximum fossil fuel extraction…they have dirty coal, we have tar sands. In this they both state that nothing major needs to be done. Harper is just ensuring there is NOT the science to contradict his policies.

Infamously Harper abandoned the Kyoto Protocols which called for a 6% reduction of CO2 based on 1990 numbers and pulled out of his arse a 17% reduction based on 2005. That translates into a level over 20% higher…assuming my math is correct…higher than 1990 levels.

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All these things indicate that the Harper government strongly regards environmental science as a threat to unfettered resource exploitation.

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A recent Sunday editorial in the New York Times said “This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance,”

“It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush — the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences.”

One last note, a number of interviewed scientists spoke anonymously because they feared that their funding or other government support could be hurt if their names were connected with the concerns they were eager to share.

Remember our reporting on loyalty oaths to the government and not to the nation? Here you see it come home to roost.

Thanks to our electoral system we cannot stop Harper’s dismantling of the government…of sciences, but we sure as hell can raise a stink about it…make sure everyone knows what he is doing.

The sadist part of my research into this is the absence of coverage by the mainstream media. Even the CBC barely covered the story of the closures let alone the impacts and follow up on trashing government funded research.

As Harper’s arrogance grows, his disrespect for Canada and Canadians…beyond the business class and moneyed elites… has become blatant and stark. But cracks are showing and if and when criminal charges are laid regarding the Duffy Scandal, mayhaps the mighty Harper maybe kicked out by his own party.

Regardless, never forget…2015!

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RFT Rant – Ep 240 – Why did it so cold?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 17, 2014

COLD 0

Now as many of our readers have noticed, climate change is a hoax…if you stepped outside at all last week you experienced temperatures that rival those found on frozen Mars.

No…but wait you say, it was not bad here in Vancouver…what are you talking about?

Well, that’s true, HERE it was okay but if you lived anywhere east of Alberta you experienced the same temperatures found on Mars…what..

<Again, wait you may ask, am I saying that Mars in winter is only -40?

No, no. But it’s cool if you think about it, that Mars during its summers are roughly the same temperature as our winters. In fact it can get up to 70 degree Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius, not bad for a summer day in Vancouver really. Actually, the average temperature on Mars is -50 Celsius…which is very cold for my birth city Brandon, but factoring wind-chill, not unheard of…that although it is millions of miles farther from the sun and a completely different planet, there is still overlap.

So, getting back on track, this cold weather must prove climate change is wrong.

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Yet again, you might interrupt and say something like “but climate is…well, climate and is described in long term trends. This cold snap was just that a snap…it’s what the technically minded call weather.”

So it seems that events such as these may actually support climate change…but not a single event. Weather is random but the frequency and average severity of climate events are predicted to increase as more energy is pumped into the atmosphere…i.e. global warming.

So, what caused this cold snap?

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Well, to understand that we must first understand the jet stream…well, the polar jet stream. This is a band of fast moving air…or maybe river of air is a better analogy, which races around the planet between the northern temperate zone and the polar zone.

The zones are relatively stable air masses compared to the stream. As fall becomes winter and winter get cold, the air at in the polar zones get colder and colder…nothing new there.

However, the polar jet stream, like a river, will meander up and down. Think of a winding river viewed from a plane…now with a river the windiness is determined by the power of the river, this does have an analogy in the jet stream but a greater influence in what climatologist call the temperature gradient.

Cold polar air is denser and heavier that warmer air. This means that the amount of waviness of the jet stream is limited to the resistance it experiences to this difference in temperature between the zones.

However, as global warming raises relative temperatures in the artic and increased energy into the stream itself, the loops formed become more pronounced. That is the cold loops would, usually, only sweep south a little and warm loops north a little. As climate change becomes more pronounced, the loops exaggerate to the point where a loop will cut itself off in the Deep South.

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By cut itself off, think of an eddy in a river. It’s now a circular rotating ball of super cold. Because, as earlier mentioned, cold air is heavier than warm, it smashes its way deeper and deeper south into the northern zone.

Thus you get New Orleans issuing wind-chill warnings, people in Atlanta freezing to death and well, fecking cold weather. It should be noted that although the east coast was blasted with cold, Alaska experienced a heat wave…well, for the middle of winter.

Some of the more interesting things that has rode the internet…there have been a lot of people who have been admitted to emergency departments because they saw a YouTube type video about boiling water turning into snow at these temperatures …it seems temperature is not the only factor in making snow… unfortunately when some of the viewers decided to test the theory they ended up with scalding burns to their skin, I can only imagine how they managed to boil their skin and not make snow.

Adding hype to the temperature claims, much ado has been made by the fact that the Chicago Zoo has kept its Polar Bear indoors…because its sooo cold, even polar creatures would freeze. Well, not really. It seems that as a polar bear living quote WAY south, well that this polar bear…seems there is only one, has very little insulative fat. Something not needed for a southern polar bear but something a polar bear in the wild would have…so it’s not that it is too cold even for polar bears…wild polar bears are fat and warm.

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That said, I am not being a hypocrite. This was a weather event…they happen randomly. So, this no more proves climate change than the denialist say it disproves it. That said, after the fourth one this year…then I may get on my high horse.

Find out more:

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Race to the bottom – Ethical Spying

Posted by Don McLenaghen on October 30, 2013

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With yet more revelations from Snowden on the spying activity of agencies such as the NSA and Canada’s own CSEC that’s stands for Communication Security Establishment Canada…well, what has made these releases different from before is the amount of spying that is perpetrated on allies. The US has been tapping the phone of, among others the German Chancellor Merkel and Mexican President Caldaron. And that this spying occurred prior to their becoming state leaders. Merkel was put on the spy list apparently because of the German refusal to join in on the Iraq War.

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It has come to light that Canada was spying on the President of Brazil and the Minister of Mining and Energy. What has set this report apart is that intended purpose.

It has become common refrain that this level of spying is necessary to stop terrorist attacks. But what the evidence has been increasingly pointing to is that much of this spying is not for the state but national corporations.

The spying on Brazil’s Minster of Mining and Energy is now thought to have been done to give a leg up to Canadian based mining and petroleum corporations.

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Now, you might…and I must stress MIGHT be able to get me to go along with the spy in every laptop if the purpose was to stop crime and terrorism…whatever that may currently mean. But when the security apparatus of the state is given to private for profit corporations who have little to no interest in the reputation of the nation…well, that just leaves me dumb struck.

I wonder if we charge them for this information. If they are spying for corporate interests, doesn’t that take them away from the job of keeping the nations safe?

So, in the first place it just strikes me as wrong that we are expending not only valuable public resource to enable private corporations to make better deals because they know what the other side is talking about but it also sullies the reputation of the nation.

Canada is known as a nice guy…or well it was. The concerted efforts of the current regime under Harper has so tarnished our name that Canadian travelers are not sewing New Zealand flags on their backpacks for fear of being discovered as being Canuck.

Now I was talking to a loyal listener of Radio Free Thinker and they mentioned that we should be appalled that we spy at all on our allies…that there should be some kind of Marquis de Queensberry rules for spying…we all agree on some basic ground rules, such as don’t spy on your friends or they may soon choose not to be your friends.

Now in principle I agree with this sentiment and since the whistle-blower Snowden’s revelations, many nations are now talking about an international treaty regulating spying.

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However, into this mix I was listening to one of the many podcast I hear each week. On it I heard a very Machiavellian and cold response to this idea of playing nice. He said, dead pan and matter of fact…well, if one nations is spying for economic advantage and your nation is not…well that puts you at a strategic disadvantage…you lose.

In isolation, we could say…well, no…decent nations do not give up integrity for monetary gain, at least in the short term.

Now, the depth of the spying the Snowden has revealed has relevance in an unexpected way. He has shown that the NSA, among others…are not spying to protect the nation or weed out crime. They motivation seems to be to just get it all. If there is a system…place…person…that seems beyond their spy network, they make every effort to crack it.

Merkel is famous for her use of her phone to conduct political business. This fact alone seems to have made her a target of the NSA…it’s not do I need to spy on her, but CAN I spy on her.

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Once this threshold has been reached…once nations know that the US is willing to stoop lower than anyone else. The argument made about “do you want to handicap your side by not spying” makes it a race the bottom of ethical spying.

I want Canada to take the highroad…I think in the long run that way prosperity lies…but I understand too well the pull of the dark-side. With our current leadership, I have no doubts that we are not taking the high road.

corrigan october 19 2013

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The Mega Myth of Mega Vitamins

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 23, 2013

Too much of a good thing can kill ya!

Okay, I am going to write about how we overmedicate ourselves with regards to vitamins. That said, I am NOT saying that vitamin supplements are always bad. In parts of the world where a balanced diet is unavailable, supplements make sense. There are people, myself included, who have specific medical conditions that prevent proper absorption of vitamins…again supplements make sense. So, please no straw men.

In an article published in THE ATLANTIC, Dr. Paul Offit makes the case that we consume way more vitamins than we need. Beyond that, this overdosing of vitamins is dangerous.

Now the name Paul Offit may sound familiar to our skeptic readers, he has been a front man in the war against the Anti-Vax movement.

A vast majority of the article focuses on the origin of what we now call ‘mega-dosing’ vitamins. Which he lays at the feet of one person Linus Carl Pauling.

I should stop and point out that Pauling was in his lifetime a great man, humanitarian and scientist. He won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering an entirely NEW chemical bond, from work he published in the 1920s. Having revolutionized physical chemistry, he then was part of a team that discovered the structure of proteins in the 1930s. In the 40s, he helped prove that ‘abnormally’ folded proteins caused Sickle Cell Anemia. He won the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his work “against nuclear weapons testing”.

Pauling is the only person to win two solo Nobel Prizes…one in Chemistry and one in Peace.

All these earlier discoveries were accompanied by proper scientific investigation. For some unknown reason, at the age of 65, that changed. Now, armchair psychologists (such as me) feel that Pauling may have a…well, developed an inflated ego, that he could do no wrong. That, in almost every endeavour, he used “unconventional” or radical thinking to find new discoveries missed by others. One might excuse what I am about to say, that he had personal precedent on his mind when promoting ideas that were not supported by the ‘establishment’

Pauling got some anecdotal evidence that large doses of Vitamin C could increase his life expectancy by 25 plus years. Pauling tried it and felt better…again anecdotal.

It also ran contrary to studies done in the 40s that showed no benefit. It is unclear why Pauling seemed to, in his waning years; abandon the scientific method…the very thing that created his career. When people said his ideas were nuts, the method proved them wrong. But by the late 60s till his death, it was not the method but his own personal belief that made things true.

Of course when Pauling started praising Vitamin C, more people did research…proper controlled studies…and again, no effect was found. We should remember, Pauling was worshiped as a genius, if he said something was good, people…scientists WANTED to believe. However, the scientific method has no room for the cult of personality.

That have been over a dozen large scale controlled experiments showing no link.

Pauling then doubled down…He claimed it also cured cancer.

This was based on a small study in Scotland, but when unbiased scientists looked at the study, they noted that the people given Vitamin C were in better health to begin with…oops. One of the foundations of a valid double blind scientific study…that can PROVE things…is that the ‘subject groups’ are equal. One could say that smart phones promote good health because people who use one have less medical issues…this of course ignores the fact that the majority of young HEALTHY people have smart phones while the ill and infirm elderly are not ‘early adopters’ of new tech.

Again, based on the ‘now’ reputation of Pauling (which is rapidly declining thanks to these quack med claims), scientists tested the effectiveness of Vitamin C on cancer and again, no connection was found.

Pauling in classic quack science mode, when he could not get peer reviewed science journals to talk about this miracle cure, wrote a book titled ‘Vitamin C and the Common Cold’ and went on the talking circuit directing people to take 3000 mg of the vitamin…50 times the recommended dose. I say TALKING circuit because the ‘lecture’ circuit already knew his ideas were bunk, however the popular press is always open to a charismatic talking head.

Again in classic Woo medicine mode, he could not accept that the science contradicted his beliefs and lashed out calling the studies against were shots at him personally…that they were cases of “fraud and deliberate misrepresentation.” He even tried to sue the scientists.

And the descent continued. Pauling started to claim that Vitamin C plus Vitamin A, E and Beta Carotene, selenium…that this cocktail, or what we now call a multivitamin….could cure almost everything[1].

By the time of Pauling’s death in the mid-1990s, vitamin supplements were a big business. One plant alone in Texas was churning out 350 tonnes a year of Beta Carotene alone.

In 1992, Time published as its cover story “The Real Power of Vitamins: New research shows they may help fight cancer, heart disease, and the ravages of aging” which parroted Pauling’s unfounded and disproven claims.

Big Supplement though loved it, National Nutritional Foods Association or NNFA, distributed a copy to every member of Congress. They described it as “a watershed event for the industry.” They had a major publication uncritically stating that MEGA doses of vitamins will, again, cure anything without any valid (i.e. scientifically verified) evidence…anecdotal from top to bottom.

It is ironic, that in 1994 a law was passed that loosened regulation of vitamins because they were not, according to law, seen as a medicine. Deregulation, of course, was great for Big Supplement and the industry skyrocketed. If the medial value of vitamins were…well, valid, then the industry should be pushing for medical validation. By having them ‘deregulated’ and putting them in the same class as pork…well, the flim-flam of the industry, its claims and its proponent seems obvious.

IF it’s medically good for you, you WANT it to be classified as a MEDICINE, if it is quackery, then you would like it classified as a ‘spice’.

Of course, one might say, what’s the harm…

  • Well, high doses of Beta Carotene and Vitamin E, causes cancer…it will increase the numbers of cancer cases in smokers.
  • Similarly, Vitamin A is linked to some forms of lung cancer.
  • A study of the Pauling cocktail in 2004 showed that in gastrointestinal cancers, mortality was UP if you took Pauling’s advice.
  • 2005, Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out that patients taking mega-doses of Vitamin E were at higher risk of Heart Failure.
  • 2007, men who took multivitamins were twice as likely to develop prostate cancer.
  • 2008, a study involving over 200,000 people found vitamin supplements increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.
  • 2011 saw two studies published. One showed that in older women, multivitamin (these included mineral supplements as well) died at rates higher than those who didn’t.
  • The second study, showed a 17% increase in the chance of prostate cancer IF you took vitamin E.
  • In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion.

From “Dummies” website:

Vitamin

Overdose and Possible Effect

Vitamin A 15,000 to 25,000 IU retinol a day for adults (2,000 IU or more for children) may lead to liver damage, headache, vomiting, abnormal vision, constipation, hair loss, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, bone pain, sleep disorders, and dry skin and mucousmembranes. A pregnant woman who takes more than 10,000 IU a day doubles her risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects.
Vitamin D 2,000 IU a day can cause irreversible damage to kidneys and heart. Smaller doses may cause muscle weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, retarded physical growth, and mental retardation in children, and fetal abnormalities.
Vitamin E Large amounts (more than 400 to 800 IU a day) may cause upset stomach or dizziness.
Vitamin C 1,000 mg or higher may cause upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation.
Niacin Doses higher than the RDA raise the production of liver enzymes and blood levels of sugar and uric acid, leading to liver damage and an increased risk of diabetes and gout.
Vitamin B6 Continued use of 50 mg or more a day may damage nerves in arms, legs, hands, and feet. Some experts say the damage is likely to be temporary; others say that it may be permanent.
Choline Very high doses (14 to 37 times the adequate amount) have been linked to vomiting, salivation, sweating, low blood pressure, and — ugh! — fishy body odor.

So, in conclusion…to paraphrase Mackenzie-King, “Vitamins if necessary but not necessarily vitamins”…translation, eat a well-balanced, shyte, in Canada, even half-assed balanced meals and leave the supplements to those FEW who truly need them.


[1] heart disease, mental illness, AIDS, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, aging, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies, and snakebites

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Atheist identity…?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 12, 2013

portion of our show with Randolph. Not all of it got on the show, but worth reading. >

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<Don>

1) Is there an atheist identity?  The idea of not believing something should not, in itself and in isolation, constitute and identity.

<Randolph>

I regard atheism as merely the classification of the “absence of theism,” which implies “absence of belief in deities and supernatural agents.” Nothing more. Nothing less. Exempt from carrying any burden of proof, because it makes no claims about anything, it is entirely unimposing and non-oppressive.

Although I am an atheist, I can’t agree with there being any such thing as an “atheist identity” due to the lack of any doctrine and because there are so many different factors that could be used to identify people. The problem I see with assuming that there is an “atheist identity” is that it implies conformity, which requires extending the meaning of “atheism” beyond the mere classification that it is.

Freethinking and open-minded are two personality traits among many atheists who I know that I think also make it very difficult to create any sense of “atheist identity.” Add skepticism to this list of traits and you’ve now introduced a potential divide between “skeptical” and “non-skeptical” atheists. Although skepticism certainly does play an important role for many who prefer that their choice to be an atheist be rationally justified, it’s not actually required since people can also freely choose to be atheists for non-skeptical reasons as well as for no reason at all.

<Don>

Let me ask you then, isn’t, from what i read as your perspective, the concept of atheist meaningless…it holds no more meaning than saying i am a a-football-enthusiast or a-capitalist?

<Randolph>

That’s right.  It is our conversations about atheism, and sports, and political systems that give them meaning.  It is the power granted by people to sports heroes and politicians that make them influential and effective in a way that makes their meaningfulness real.

<Don>

I think i would counter by focusing on the very thing you seem to trivialize or see as secondary to atheism and that is Skepticism.

From my perspective, an atheist who does not believe ‘just because’ is making no more a statement than “i don’t like broccoli”.

That the rejection of a belief system, which is imposed upon us…more on that later…without cause, is no more intellectually honest than saying “the market will solve all our problems because it’s good” full stop!

<Randolph>

When people say that they are atheists, the statement they’re making is that they aren’t theists, so there definitely is a statement being made.

Atheism should be trivial, but it isn’t because there are strong market forces that have designs to eliminate it.  Just as some religions try very hard to rule the world, commercial market forces seem to create more problems than they solve, and that’s probably why we have so many regulations.

However, I do think that atheism is a very large demographic, and it’s a demographic that’s growing rapidly now, and I think more access to education and information is part of the reason for this.

<Don>

2) Does a religious culture force an identity on us?  For example, are there parallels between being an atheist in a “Christian” nation, or being gay is a straight nation … identity is thrust upon us because we are different.

<Randolph>

Indeed some people do try impose identities on atheists, perhaps to vilify or isolate, just as some try to isolate people for other reasons such as the ones you mentioned, and I think it’s a shame that such intolerance is commonly permitted.

<Don>

I am not sure i agree so much with the idea of “isolate” as opposed to ignore. I think one of the reasons for the ‘atheist backlash’ is not religion so much wanting to suppress atheist but atheist demanding equality.

In that context…by forcing us to demand our right. Again in parallel to queer rights or even racial equality. It is an odd conjunction of both being ‘different’ from the norm as well as demanding not only recognition but equality. Your Thoughts?

<Randolph>

            I think people are demanding freedom, and religion often becomes an adversary to this because it espouses values and virtues that require imposing restrictions and limitations.

            I don’t think equality is a realistic possibility, but I think striving for the fair and equal treatment of people is.  I think that’s the real goal that equality advocates are fighting for.

<Don>

I find it interesting…that in their attempt to both ‘pigeon-hole’ or ghetto-ize athiests, they have often attempted to use the ad hominem attacks…labeling us as a Religion or just as dogmatic as…i don’t know…the Pope.

<Randolph>

Occasionally I also encounter the assumption that atheism is dogmatic or is a belief system that actively opposes belief in deities, and I don’t agree with this application of the “guilt by association” logical fallacy on atheists as if we’re all anti-theists, especially since there are many atheists who aren’t opposed to theism.  In case that seems a bit confusing, because certain terms suffer from varying definitions, consider that the word “theism,” which, when combined with the prefix “anti” to make the word “antitheism,” gains an emphatically “oppositional” property. On the other hand, the “a” prefix, when combined with “theism” to make the word “atheism,” merely indicates the impartial “absence” of theism.

After dividing people into different groups or fitting them into various “identities,” I find it interesting that other efforts to find similarities eventually begin to materialize. It’s as if there’s a “make work” project at play somehow, although I suspect it’s more likely a desire for human kinship and the prevention of loneliness. Although labels and identities are helpful as they are an important part of language and the free exchange of information, the use of labels for nefarious purposes can also have an equally unhelpful effect.

Instead of fostering division, I prefer to embrace diversity as an important strength that depends on personal differences, particularly on a rather large scale, which conformity tends to limit or prevent. Conformity, when escalated to reject diversity, can foster social problems by ostracizing and dividing people. If more efforts were focused on inclusion rather than exclusion, then I think society could be much healthier as a whole.

And that’s one of the beauties of atheism it doesn’t impose expectations. There are no minimum or maximum requirements in any category, aside from “not being a theist,” and since being a theist is also optional, at least in countries like Canada and the USA that value freedom constitutionally, people can choose to be atheists, theists, or anti-theists

as often as they like, and for as long as they like. The most important point is that people don’t necessarily have to accept an identity that’s been thrust upon them, and I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to try to live up to someone else’s arbitrary expectations, no matter how strongly it’s imposed.

<Don>

Again, i will make the charge…yes, i am an evangelical fundamentalist atheist…the charge that if you have not become an atheist for the ‘right reasons’ you are…well a weak atheist, that if your disbelief has no foundation, then you belief may equally be found?
That without that intellectual honesty, non-skeptical atheist is just…well, a fashion choice.

<Randolph>

            I’m not convinced that atheism needs a foundation, or any justification at all.  The expectation of “being an atheist for the right reasons” is, to me, entirely optional.  Although I have great respect for people like you for having strong, solid, rational reasons to be atheists, I don’t favour making it a requirement because, fundamentally, I don’t consider atheism to be a position that needs defending since it can stand on its own merits — of which the only one I’m aware of is the “absence of theism.”

            To say that it is “without intellectual honesty” is okay with me too because I assume that “dishonesty” is not intended since you very cleverly didn’t call it “intellectual dishonesty.”  As far as non-skeptical atheists are concerned, although I feel that skepticism is a valuable skill that all people should learn because it is so valuable, I see no reason to bar people from using something akin to a mere “fashion choice” to justify atheism.  I think people should have the freedom to make this choice.

<Don>

But what about being “lumpted in”. Some skeptics and free thinkers do not like that term not because they do not believe in these concepts but because some people also call them selves skeptics, for example, but express that term to support that 9/11 was an inside job. Valid guilt or tarnishment by association. If you use that label, is it not in your own best interest that the word maintain its true meaning?

<Don>

3) Do atheists practice the Golden Rule?

<Randolph>

Many try to, but I think the Golden Rule is flawed. The rule that I live by is to “intend to treat others as they prefer to be treated.” This is very different from The Golden Rule, which emphasizes YOU treating others as YOU wish to be treated, which I regard it as flawed because people have different preferences which are sometimes so varied that treating others based on our own standards is actually problematic. For example, consider sexual preferences: The range of interests is so vast from one person to the next that even sexual orientation can seem like a minor point, and this is where The Golden Rule doesn’t work very well, particularly between a straight couple since each partner is attracted and satisfied in different ways.

<Don>

I would add to that affirmative action and race equality…or economic inequality.

<Randolph>

To me, “human solidarity” is most important, but unfortunately division, discrimination, and intolerance work against it. To be human typically includes the ability to question, to think, and to judge, all of which flies in the face of conformity, and this solidarity also notably includes options to celebrate and otherwise enjoy the benefits of being oneself in any manner as one sees fit. As long as that doesn’t include oppressing or harming others against their will, it could be a utopia. I believe that this is where empathy and compassion become major factors, and are also what I’d regard as common traits in human identity which atheism clearly doesn’t try to limit or control.

The values that I hold dear include not oppressing or exploiting others, but trying to be helpful when they need help, offering friendship when they’re alone, and protecting them when they’re in need of nurture. These are all traits that I suspect come naturally to many people, which I regard as some of the finest hallmarks of humanity, and which my alternative to The Golden Rule wholeheartedly embraces the “intent to treat others as they prefer to be treated.”

<Don>

4) Hypothetically, could atheism ever be eradicated?  Why or why not?

<Randolph>

No, not without ending all life. The reason for this is that the alternatives to atheism, theism and antitheism, requires effort by their followers, preachers, and other advocates to practice, protect, and promote it. Atheism is a natural characteristic of life and consciousness, and since consciousness begins without knowledge so it is that atheism persists naturally, at least initially, and as a matter of course regardless of whether it’s labeled. One can deviate from it by becoming a theist, but it will always be an option that is easy to fall back on at any time. On the other hand, every theism is always at risk of being eradicated, even if only by attrition.

Martin Luther once said that “all belief systems ossify over time.” This has happened throughout history which shows examples of religions that have disappeared, for various reasons, including being replaced by other religions. Although I’ve heard that some are making a comeback recently, such as Hellenic Polytheism which worships Zeus and Apollo, and the other Olympian deities, and Asatru which worships Thor and Odin, and so on, it doesn’t appear that these are major trends.

The reason that theism is at risk of being eradicated and atheism isn’t is that any belief in deities requires having knowledge of deities, which must first be learned or invented. It’s required by theism and, to a degree, antitheism, yet atheism is free of these requirements each person starts their life as an atheist without even realizing it, and only truly becomes aware of what it means to not be a theist after learning about theism.

So … the “atheism” label is mostly only necessary when identifying those who aren’t theists, and most likely wouldn’t even recognize it if there weren’t any theisms in the first place. Would that change the fact that every person starts out as an atheist? Obviously not, but this fact also wouldn’t be important, relevant, or significant in the absence of a suitable concept like theism to compare it with, and so atheism will always be immune to eradication.

<Don>

So how do you explain “natural” religion?  As much as it is a pebble in the shoe of atheism, it is undeniable that some form of ‘supernaturalism’ seem to be, forgive the irony, natural. I think we agree that children are born atheist, but it is also true…based on the history of humanity, that we have a predilection to beliefs in supernatural forces…be it Jesus or simply the thunder god of lightning or the rain..

<Randolph>

            I recall a debate wherein Christopher Hitchens pointed out that humans are pattern-seeking mammals.  I think he’s right, and that there’s a tendency for people to seek explanations and default to assumptions instead of leaving questions unresolved.

            Religion is an example of one such assumption, and I regard it as man-made.  The various stories about Jesus Christ, or Thor and his glorious hammer, are two examples of stories that gained a lot of popularity.  The desire for a “higher power” probably helps many people feel less alone in the universe, but it’s not one that I find necessary in my life.

<Don>

5) Do you think that atheism is good for children?  If so, why?  How does it factor into parenting?

<Randolph>

Yes, atheism is definitely good for children. This is because it leaves children free to question everything without intellectual limits, to learn about the world without inhibitions, to be creative without arbitrary boundaries, to enjoy life without irrational fears, and to make friends without irrelevant expectations that are handed down by some ancient tradition based on superstition or a phobia of the unknown.

As a parent, I am convinced that it is my duty to ensure that both of my daughters are really good at learning and problem solving, to inspire them to explore and discover the world around them, and most importantly to also understand themselves although only they can do that honestly, as a parent I am in the ideal position to encourage them and try to guide them in this direction while also nurturing critical and independent thinking skills.

Teaching children to respect themselves and develop their own set of expectations, instead of living up to a set of values and virtues espoused by an imagined authority that relies on guilt trips and scare tactics to force its will upon others, is how atheism factors into parenting. If my children become theists later in life, it won’t change the fact that I still love them as my children, and they know this; our older daughter even asked us about this during dinner one night, and that was our answer. To me, this is also how atheism factors in to parenting, not as tolerance, but as care and acceptance, and respect for children to think freely for themselves.

<Don>

Some would argue…okay, i would argue, that its not ATHEISM that one should teach children but SKEPTICISM…that is they have their rational tool kit…the baloney detector…that a) atheist will be evaluate but also they will be better educated to deal with a world of dubious claims and charlatans?

<Randolph>

            Yes, you’re right, and I agree that skepticism should be the focus because atheism alone doesn’t inspire skepticism.  I regard atheism as “incidental” to skepticism, although, as Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience once observed, “skepticism ultimately leads to atheism.”

Being armed with critical thinking skills is, in my strong opinion, one of the best defenses against the charlatans and quack medical practitioners, and so on, but as it is with most things, skepticism is a skill that requires practice, and it’s one of the reasons Radio Free Thinker is so important – because it provides real-world examples of how to be skeptical, or at least that’s the main reason I’ve become a fan of the show.

<Don>

6) Can you expand on how you teach your own children about ethics and morals, etc., without religious guidance?

<Randolph>

I think it’s wrong. Creationism isn’t science, it’s mythology, so teaching it as if it were science is inappropriate, especially considering the mountains of evidence and logical explanations available that have been gained from its science-based adversary, the Theory of Evolution.

What has been discovered by studying and further developing Charles Darwin’s contributions has helped humankind tremendously. It has even lead to medical scientific advancements like evolutionary medicine that help develop better medicinal remedies in a more adaptive, and possibly predictive, manner. Although I have to admit that this isn’t one of my areas of specialization, it strikes me as wonderful that our species has come this far, and also that we’re still making new discoveries. It’s one of many truly exciting frontiers, and I fear that this constant demand to invade childhood education with religious proselytizing will seriously jeopardize the future, especially if it results in the complete removal of skepticism from the curriculum.

<Don>

7) Some people credit their deities as the source of morality, and claim that without religion people can’t know what is moral. Can you expand on how you teach your own children about ethics and morals, etc., without religious guidance?

<Randolph>

Children, particularly the younger ones, tend to want to please the adults in their lives, and so I feel that it’s very important to teach them “how to think for themselves” rather than “what to think” as dictated by others. Although my wife and I teach them values such as honesty and skepticism, which are complimentary, along with many other virtues that we think will be helpful to them in the future, we also teach them the importance of trying to understand what the possible future consequences of their choices may be, and to also try to consider other options even when the immediate choices facing them seem correct or reasonable.

You see, there are often “grey areas” that are left out when one is presented with a limited set of options, and we believe that making sure children are aware of this fact before they reach their teens ultimately helps them to make better and more intelligent decisions when they’re older.

By thinking about the consequences of one’s choices, and being aware of what’s commonly expected in society, morality comes naturally as a self-determined exercise in free will influenced by empathy and the desire to get along well with others. Religions, on the other hand, provide rigid predetermined sets of values and virtues, but I don’t think that makes them universally moral, contrary to the same common claims that morality is a universal teaching that requires religious guidance. Morality varies depending on a number of factors, including most notably the expectations of society, and I find that religion is inflexibly out of step with this primarily because it seems to be based on teachings from a time that posed very different challenges compared to what people face today.

A few years ago our older daughter’s schoolmates talked about their religious beliefs at school, sometimes as part of their school assignments that are presented to the class. Since they didn’t try to convert anyone, I suspect they probably just talk about their beliefs because religion is emphasized at home.

So, we Googled the internet for information about the different religions her schoolmates talked about. After learning some of the more general points of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and a few others, and how they differ, she wondered how many religions there are and so we found a few web sites that listed a lot of them. I also introduced her to Pastafarianism, heheh, and that Flying Spaghetti Monster with the Invisible Pink Unicorn were instant hits not only with both our daughters but also with their friends that they both mentioned them to. There’s something about a spaghetti and meatballs deity flying around, and also invisible pink unicorns, that appeals to children, probably because in addition to seeing it as “ridiculous” they also see it as something fun, like a playground made of giant spaghetti built for climbing and carnival rides that have a few unicorns.

For children to gain a basic understanding of the various religions, especially when introduced while questions are being asked about it, makes it more meaningful as a way to develop a better understanding of how others view the world. Turning this into a lesson about why people have different moral standards also helps children to realize one of many reasons why people can’t always find agreement on certain matters, and why some probably never will.

In the end, the most important value we taught was the distinction where we respect everyone’s right to hold any opinion, no matter how awful or wonderful that opinion might be. We also teach our children that opinions themselves don’t necessarily deserve respect and should be open to any form of interrogation, scrutiny, and even ridicule. Separating the opinions from the people who hold them is essential to clear discernment and the nurturing of critical thinking. With this kind of clarity in a child’s intellectual toolset, I firmly believe that self-determined morality has a greater potential to foster an attitude of finding value in others in a way that can make life more meaningful and satisfying for everyone.

The following is point I made in a similar discussion last year, and I think it’s appropriate here:  “The greatest gift that we can give to future generations is progress.”

With the passage of time, society changes, and morality that adapts with change is more useful and helpful to a given populace. This is one significant reason why an “objective morality that comes from some inflexible deity” is a fallacy, and preparing the younger generations to think more intensely about decisions and consequences is, I believe, essential for progress to flourish and for survival to become a minor issue in our ever-changing world in the long run.

<Don>

Thank you dropping by. You can check out Randolph’s thoughts, resources and links at: www.atheistfrontier.com
The End!

<Randolph would like it to be know that he scripted his answers not because he is a conscientious guest, which he is; nor because he wished his answers were thoughtful and well presented, again a true characterization. No, he worried that the weight of our listeners ears may have clouded his mind and tied his tongue. As our listeners already know, that was not the case. Thanks again Randolph for a wonderful interview>

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True North Surveilled and Free?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 17, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 6: CSEC – don’t know them? They know you…

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Now, some people may say, “well, I have nothing to hide”…and that may be true.

But much can happen when the government is storing your data for years…decades?

What if your name is similar to an actual suspect…or there is a typo…or someone just guesses wrong?

They then can get the warrants needed to go back through this data and then you have what we skeptics call anomaly hunting.

For example;

Did you know when you bought that latte at Starbucks, the head of the Gambino Family was also enjoying a coffee there?

And how can you explain that you bought a propane tank just 2 days before one was used to kill a Gambino rival?

On November 3rd you said you received a call from a wrong phone number? Or was that a kill signal from a burner phone…and so it goes.

1144ckCOMIC-chagrin-falls---open-bookAll of this available because of meta-data gathering and co-mingling of information corrupted thru government/private contracting practices as mentioned in Parts 3 &4.

In the world of “Boundless Informant” and “Total Information Awareness”…innocence and ‘nothing to hide’ may only be seen as the lame excuses of someone committing pre-crime.

Now, we have focused on the US because…well it’s out there everywhere. Snowden, Manning and many others have exposed what is going on there. I would like to believe that such things do not happen here in Canada…but I think that would label me naive. Regardless, as I have said before, what happens in the US will happen here within a decade or so…the robocalls are such a vindication of that thesis.

Well according to the Globe and Mail, we are not immune. They reported on our version of the NSA, the Communications Security Establishment Canada that there is:

“An ultrasecretive electronic-eavesdropping agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada, has been authorized to collect data trails – phone logs, Internet Protocol addresses, and other ‘metadata’ – associated with Canadian telecommunications. This is being done as part of a continuing effort to pinpoint Canada’s adversaries in the wider world”.

What qualifies as a Canadian adversary? Just last year, the Harper government labelled environmentalists…like the World Wildlife Federation…as terrorist groups.

The program was started in 2005 and reauthorized in a “top secret” directive by Peter MacKay in 2011.

Unlike in the US where they still technically have to approach the court to get a warrant, however vague and broad…to get their data, not so here in Canada where a liberal interpretation of law makes warrants unnecessary.

Here in Canada, the CSEC’s metadata collecting rests on a foundational legal assumption by the Minister and CSEC. They believe that metadata telecommunications are legally different from private communications, such as the content of e-mails and phone calls, which can’t be intercepted without a warrant. So, it’s all fair game.

Frustratingly, the issue of oversight is well …twisted. Most parliamentarians cannot review the operations of CSEC because they lack the top secret clearance. However our Privacy Commissioner does have that clearance.

So, where our elected representatives are left it the dark, at least our civil servants are on the job.

The privacy commissioner stated…privately of course because the program was top secret…that because metadata can reveal important things about people, it should be classified as personal information. A recommendation the government has chosen to ignore…wonder why?

Perhaps we can take a  lesson from history ; during the the Weimar Republic the German equivalent to Prime Minister, for very good reasons, ruled by President’s emergency decrees because they saw the nation in a state of crisis (economic) and no other way to defend the German economy. What they did not know was that they provided the legal precedent for Hitler to seize power a few years later.

So, even if you trust Obama, or Sagan forbid Harper…that they will not abuse these powers…well history has shown once power is available it is only a matter of time before someone of unscrupulous intent has the opportunity to abuse them.

For many American readers…I hope you remember the whole reason the FISA courts were created was because of the rampant abuse of surveillance under Nixon (and his predecessor).  Check out the Church Committee report.

It is also ironic, to my Canadian ears; that Americans will fight tooth and nail to prevent the government’s keeping track of missing guns from guns shops because they believe the government will track them down and create a police state…

Yet, these very same people will roll over and give up all their 4th Amendment rights and allow the government to know and track EVERYTHING else but their guns. Don’t they know that your gun app marks you as a gun owner? When the jack boot state comes down on America, only then will they realize that it’s not guns that will keep you free, but information…which ironically will also enslave you.

References:

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The blurring of the Big Data lines

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 15, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 5: Whose data is whose?

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Of course another thing that has blurred the lines between Government Big Data and Corporate Big Data…the Bad Big Data is the interconnectedness of these two groups.

As should already be obvious, even if we assume corporations are collecting our data for the relatively harmless intent of selling us more products…that data can and has been laid at the feet of the state.

Google, and a few others, have attempted to at least let people know when the government has requested data, but under secret warrants, who knows how many times they have LAWFULLY BUT SECRETIVELY forked over mountains of our information?

There is another ominous link; it is that a large amount of surveillance is not actually done by the government but by corporate contractors.

As I mentioned earlier an agent with authority could ‘check out a book’…well, what Snowden actually said was a privately employed agent…such as himself…could undertake any form of surveillance (he used wire taping as an example) that he had access to on their own authority…perhaps based on nothing more than a hunch.

This brings up three big threats from Big Data…first, in order to have Big Data you must first collect that data. In this regard, the recent revelations have shown how privacy and civil liberties were swept aside in the pursuit of attaining big data.

In most ‘civilized’ countries, a warrant must be issued by a member of the judiciary before an individuals privacy can be violated.

Typically a warrant is FOR something…I want a warrant to search Tony Soprano’s house because he is suspect in the murder of Matthew Bevilaqua. This is done because it is generally considered that privacy is a right. The US 4th amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The warrant (reviled by Snowden that allows the ‘collecting’ of everyone’s phone data) simply says collect (almost) everything from everyone just-in-case…it is not even for a specific case. The probable cause? Because of 9/11 terrorism, we need a warrant on anyone and everyone who might do terrorism…as to what qualifies a terrorism can be almost anything (including thought crime)…does that not make warrant meaningless?

When a court authorizes a warrant, how broad is that warrant? This is where judicial oversight is supposed to ensure there is no abuse of individual privacy by the state. The warrant, that allowed for the collection of all phone meta-data, authorized the collection of any “tangible thing…all telephony metadata…between the US and abroad or wholly within the US”.

surveil-cartoon-and0228color-600x446The judicial oversight comes from something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Courts. They issue these warrants in secret. However, reports and leaks have shown that there is no effective oversight.

The judges are not federal judges (which a normal warrant would require) but a separate secret court system. These judges are appointed by the Chief Justice but must be vetted by the very security agencies they are supposed to monitor thus these judges tend to be very conservative (in the bad sense of the term) and friendly to the security agencies.

In the courts 38 year old history, of 33,949 requests only 11 were refused…that’s a rejection rate of 0.03% and none have been rejected under Obama’s watch. To put that into context, that’s 5 warrants a day or one every 4 hours in 2012 with a rejection happening every once 3 1/2 years.

The next threat is what if an agent holds a personal grudge…they have at their fingertips the power to make someone’s life hell…an ex-lover, a high school bully, the guy who cut him off on the freeway…whatever.

Lastly, there is the cross talk. That is, the companies that have been contracted out to do surveillance for the government also have contracts with other corporations. Remember this kind of work is really just the collection of lots of data and analysing it…be that data your phone calls or stock trading. This has resulted in a twofold blurring of lines.

You have the line blurring between government and contractor security activities…private corporations that are given unprecedented authority to perform surveillance while given access to the deepest secrets of the state.

unfreepressThese private corporations must lobby the government for contracts…the same government whose secrets they know. The conflict of interests are obvious, scary and seen in the behavior of politicians.

Another blurring occurs when the very same surveillance contractors are also contracting out to other private corporations. Thus creating a conduit for a…let say Citi Bank to have access (indirectly) via the contractor to the ‘deepest state secrets’…like investigation into Citi Bank wrong doing?

I remember this one ‘conspiracy theory’…that does not sound so crazy now.  Apparently there was a New York Attorney General who was pushing for significant criminal charges against major corporate and financial institutions.

This particular AG, Elliot Spitzer, used an almost forgotten law from the 1920’s that allowed him to subpoena witnesses and company documents pertaining to investigations of fraud or illegal activity by a corporation. He famously used this power to help expose the Enron scandal and threaten civil actions against financial institutions that were Enron’s co-conspirators.

When Spitzer ran for Governor of New York…as a reformer…he was elected in 2007…less than 13 months later, revelations came out that he frequented prostitutes. He resigned days later.

The conspiracy arises out of the fact that Home Land Security (HLS) shared offices in Wall Street with major trading and financial institutions.  And by HLS offices what I mean is private corporate contractors doing surveillance for HLS.

mst0051lThese very same contractors also had work with Wall Street firms, to save overhead they used the same office space for both parties. So, the private surveillance contractors had employees working both for the government…seeing all the data that operation provided…and for the corporations…where they were supposed to forget what they saw on the other side.

Remember what the contractor can surveil for HLS is far more reaching than what they are allowed to do for ‘private’ customers.

Well, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks noted that the revelations about Spitzer’s connection to prostitution arose from Spitzer spending habits…that by the tracing of where Spitzer was spending his money led to the discovery that some of that money was going to hookers…But how did this information get out?

It’s almost as if someone had inside information on the financial transactions of Spitzer…let’s say by HLS’s monitoring of all financial transaction to trace ‘terrorist’ money laundering/transfers. That maybe someone in the Wall Street side of the office overheard some gossip from the HLS’s side…gossip which mysteriously found its way to the press.

Or more nefariously, a ‘private’ client asked their surveillance contractor if they could ‘dig up a little dirt’…and when this contractor ALSO has access to HLS data…well, conspiracies write themselves.

Whether this is a real conspiracy or not, it illustrates the real and present danger Big Data poses to our democracy.

Whenever someone has access to Big Data, everyone…Prime Minister all the way down to yours truly, there is something to be found that could be used to manipulate or ruin that person.

ron-cob-1968-anarchycartoonI was watching a docu about this issue and they contrasted it with East Germany and the Stasi (the state secret police)…how most people in that society accepted the surveillance.

Regular people had learned to deal with it. If you had something private to say, you would go out to the park to talk. You would use the public telephones to make calls so they could not be traced to you.

Oddly enough…they were more ‘free’ than we are now.

Because technology has become such an embedded part of our very being…think of how often the under 20 something’s are without their cellphones…how long any of us can go before ‘checking in online’…and that is only voluntary surveillance.

As a number of readers may recall many months ago there was a great scandal at a school in the US because a Tech for the school figured out how to remotely turn on students’ webcams and monitor without them knowing.  The tech makes it possible…practically anyone could do it…the only thing holding them back are laws (weak), oversight (weak) and whistleblowers (vilified).

In the last part of this series we bring it all home to Canada…True North Surveilled and Free?

References:

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Data mining democracy

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 14, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 4: How big data has created a surveillance state…

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I would like to say that the latest revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden were new, but he is only the latest in a long list of people who have attempted to show what a surveillance state the ‘free world’ has become.

Snowden has exposed to the public several US programs where they, among other things, are storing every phone call made in the USA…or routed through the USA…well not every conversation but what is called meta data (the importance of which we discussed in Part 3).

kipLyallCartoon_NSA_72dpiDemocratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi let slip that this bulk vacuuming up of data has been going on since 2006.

News reports also confirm that the Postal Service is recording the ‘meta-data’ of snail-mail including taking photos of the letters/packages. (At least in the USA, but I don’t think it would be different here…)

It has also come to light that a ‘drop box’ of some sort is being used by the NSA (National Security Agency) to duplicate and transfer internet traffic from all the major internet companies…Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.

The corporations are quick to point out they have not broken any law…and they seem to have not. That said, what makes this very Kafkaesque is the fact the legal justification for this Big Brother surveillance is itself secret.

Is the government saying that what they are doing is legal but they can’t show you why it’s legal because if they did, well that would be illegal?

In an exchange where General Keith Alexander, the NSA chief, told a Senate panel the surveillance program had stopped “dozens” of terrorist events. How many, exactly? The number was classified, he said.

When Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley held up his cellphone and asked, “What authorized investigation gave you the grounds for my cellphone data?” Gen. Alexander said the matter was classified.

cbe0607cd-verizon-and-the-nsa-500So, just to parse that, a Senator…responcible for the public and legal oversight of the NSA’s activities…he asked why they were collecting HIS phone data (implicitly confirming that EVERYONE’S data is being collected), the General, refused to answer. How can there be proper democratic oversight when even the people responsible for said oversight are kept in the dark?

A few weeks ago when the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing…and I quote “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

He answered and again I quote “No, sir,” and added “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

With the revelations of Snowden, we now know that was a lie…when confronted about this lie he responded “in what I thought was the least untruthful manner”.

WOW!

As Republican Justin Amash put it “Congress can’t make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements,”

Now I looked up the meaning of wittingly…and it has two meanings…one definitely a false hood…that meaning is defined as “Aware or conscious of something” which it was painfully obvious at the time he knew that not to be true.

The other meaning “Done intentionally or with premeditation”…which could fit here, if we accept that I put a bunch of rocks into the river to make a bridge (this is the “we are collecting phone call data to catch terrorists”) and had no intention of causing a flood by the now blocked river (this is the vacuuming up of ALL phone data to go back and find the terrorist calls).

NSA-Like-MeAnother point of semantics is the word “collected”…to explain the meaning of this term, the USA security forces use a library metaphor. Let’s assume the phone data is like a book, the caller/called are the authors and the data warehouse is a library…note that Clapper is admitting they have been storing it all (and presumably still are).

An Agent…and who qualifies as an agent is something to be brought up later…an Agent has a library card that allows him to take out only select books. If he picks up a book and its cover says one of its ‘authors’ are foreign, he can ‘read’ or surveil the book/data. If the authors are American citizen then he must put it back and get a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court order to look at it.

Now it’s important to note, another thing we have learnt from the Snowden whistle-blowing, is the threshold for ‘foreign’ is a 51% confidence…that is there is a check list (let’s say a 100 points) that determines if the ‘author’ is foreign. If you check 51 points…then according to the NSA you are not an American citizen and they can ignore your privacy.

So to the US government’s “collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it”…and that they claim not to have done en mass.

nsa-spy-cartoon-3The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out ‘data acquired by electronic means is ‘collected’ only when it has been processed into intelligible form.’…so processed now means collected and collected means what again?

They go on to say that “In other words, the NSA can intercept and store communications in its database, then have an algorithm search them for key words and analyze the metadata without ever considering the communications ‘collected’. Only when an actual person looks at the data is it considered ‘collected’.

What an excellent example of ‘double speak’.

Let’s have one last word here to point out that the initial investigation is not done by a person…it is automated data mining of vast quantities of data…the epitome of Big Data.

pol_boozchart25_950I have not mentioned it previously, but it’s important to point out that the apparent vast majority of the government data collection is not the government. That is, this task has largely been outsourced to private corporations. That is how Snowden was able to get the depth and breadth of information he could without being a member of the government. It is this privatization of government surveillance and data collection that makes our next segment possible.

In Part 5 we will take a look at what would have been ‘crazy conspiracy theories’ but suddenly seem to have (at least the whiff of ) plausibility as the lines between corporate and goverment big data blur.

References:

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Meta-data shelta-data, who cares?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 13, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 3: Meta-data never lies…

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Now some people will say that they have nothing to hide…and besides its only meta-data…that’s not even real data, what could they learn from that?

Let’s explore a hypothetical to make a point…

Imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning and saw someone going through your garbage…what if they did that every day…what if they didn’t actually take anything but made notes about what you threw out, where you shopped, who sent you mail…

How would you feel if every time you looked around there was someone making a note of where you were…who you talked to…what you bought…what time you arrived at work, when you left…

Likely you would be outraged and call the cops…your lawyer! Well that is what we are talking about with meta-data.

Untitled-4It is the fact that meta-data is virtual…we can’t see, touch or smell it…this virtual-ness allows us to overlook the fact that it’s real and can affect our lives.

There has been much comment made that the government is not, in general, listening in on our phone conversations. Well, there are two points to ponder on this.

First, it is not clear if VOIP…voice over IP, Skype for example…is considered a “PHONE CALL” or just internet data. The major protections of privacy were enacted several technological generations ago, then the only meta-data you could get from a land line was where it was and who lived in the house.

Because cell phones provide so much more meta-data…remember we are great generators of metadata already mentioned…the conversation itself becomes only a minor part of the data that can be mined.

TrackingMetadataThis brings me to the second point about why listening in on a conversation…the data…may not be as fruitful as you might think compared to meta-data.

I mentioned in the previous segment praising Big Data, how we have become fountains of data. Well, that data can be used to serve us or abuse us.

You might ask, how is the non-verbal part of my call more revealing that the talking part?

Let’s envision a classic call – “Hello honey. Sorry I am going to be a little late. Eat supper; I should be home by 10”.

That’s the call…from that you would guess they were staying late at the office working hard.

However if we look at the meta-data, we find the call was made while they were driving to the tourist district.

That after the call to their “Honey”, they made another call…you cross reference the number to a directory database and find the number is for “Jimmy’s Last Resort Loans”…they used their phone to pay for parking at a particular address.

From his bank card you see he made a large transfer from the company account for cash.

You can see by their built-in GPS that the phone stopped at the address of Lucky Louie’s Casino.

It also shows you that the person stayed there for several hours and that their phone directed to send all calls to voice mail…

Well I could go on, but you get the message; we don’t have a hard worker but a gambling addict. The voice part we are aware of and can easily disguise or ‘encode’ our conversations. We can’t do that to your digital shadow.

You can find out a lot from the metadata…perhaps much more than just listening in. In this thought experiment, the conversation taken alone painted a very different and inaccurate picture of scene than the meta-data…meta-data never lies.

So, far from being harmless and unimportant. In the information age, we must learn that our meta-data is as personal as our DNA and much easier for others to collect…analyse…and abuse!

In Part 4, we will discuss how Big Data erodes democracy…

References:

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