Thursday, December 30, 2010

End Times... Wanna Bet?

Forget about 2012 and the Mayan calendar.  The good folks at Family Radio Inc. have carefully studied the bible and announced that Jesus will return on May 21, 2011 heralding the end of the world on October 21st, 2011.

They aren't being shy about their prediction either.  They've begun putting up billboards announcing the good news and thoughtfully published a website that details the prediction.  It even has a handy count-down timer in the upper right corner.

This is just one of a nearly countless number of religious predictions about the end of the world that have been made over the years.  This one, like the rest of them, will turn out to be bunk.  But I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.  Are you?

If you really believe that Jesus is returning on May 21st of 2011 and that the end of the world will come on October 21st of 2011 as detailed by the Christians of the We Can Know group I will pay you $100 on April 1st of 2011 on the condition that on October 22nd of 2011 you have to pay me $2,000.

I am an atheist.  I reject the holy spirit, in that I don't believe in such a thing.  I cannot be saved or raptured.  Barring a perfectly natural accident of some kind between now and then, I will still be here on this Earth on October 22nd of 2011.  I also expect to have just as much use for money on that day as any other.  Since you think that you'll be taken to Heaven on May 21st and that the world we be destroyed on October 21st, you have nothing to lose by agreeing to pay me $2,000 the day after the world is supposed to be destroyed.

If any Christians are actually willing to take me up on this offer, we'll hammer out some legal details and draw up a binding contract.  Such a contract might include the use of an escrow account or have provisions to prevent you from liquidating your assets before the May 21st Rapture Day or the October 21st End of the World Day, so banish the idea of trying to cheat me.  I will pay you, but you must agree to pay me in the spirit of our agreement.  

I'm not made of money, so I'm only willing to make this deal with a total of five believers.  Why only five?  Because in my experience people who are religious enough to believe that their god is going to destroy the world soon are not trustworthy and I'm unwilling to risk more than $500.  Why only demand $2,000 from believers and not everything they own?  Because I expect they will have to live in this world on the 22nd just as I will and I'm not trying to ruin lives.


[Edit #1.  I've changed the dates to more accurately reflect the predictions made by the We Can Know people.  May 21st is the predicted Rapture Day, but the predicted end of the world isn't until October 21st.]


[Edit #2.  Well April 1st came and went. No one contacted me to accept my wager or even inquire about it. In a way I am relieved, because I actually would have felt badly to take the money of people so delusional.]

Monday, December 13, 2010

21st Century Sit-Ins

I guess there is no point in trying hard to avoid writing on the topic of WikiLeaks and its associated controversies.  I can't seem to stop myself from composing things on the subject, so I might as well publish my thoughts here.

WikiLeaks has not broken the law. Just as the New York Times did not break the law when it published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Journalists can publish secrets if they get them and that is protected under the Constitution.

MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal all stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks. Given that WikiLeaks had not been found guilty of breaking the law, there was no legal self-protection to cite as a reason for refusing to process donations to WikiLeaks.

So why discriminate against WikiLeaks or people who want to donate to WikiLeaks? Maybe those companies were motivated by moral or ethical reasons. Well if that's the case I can't help but wonder what the standards are since MasterCard and Visa process payments to all sorts of organizations that most people would find morally repugnant, like white supremacists.

So in what way can people make their anger at these companies known? Protest. Which is what happened, a massive and organized protest in the form of a 21st century sit-in. Not unlike the protests at Woolworth's during the civil rights battles of the 60s, the virtual counter space would be taken up, preventing regular business. 


Does that make Anonymous right? Does that mean that anytime a few people get upset with some company that they ought to DDoS attack that company's presence on the Internet?  No and no.  But it is worth noting that this sort of thing on this kind of scale doesn't happen very often and in this case it is all over.  The protesters made their point and faded away into the anonymity of the Internet.

Anonymous, Ion Cannons, and Hacktivism

This has been an interesting and enlightening week. With just vocabulary alone, I've learned a few things. Hacktivism? LOIC? DDoS? Personally I feel like I've been scrambling to get a handle on the background information so that I could make some sense of the news about Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and the internet protests of the past week. This post is about some of the things I've learned and some of the sources I've used to learn them.


Anonymous.

I've heard of them before and long had the impression that Anonymous was a merry mob of pranksters, largely motivated by their own amusement and not ethical concerns. Which is usually true, but the controversy around WikiLeaks stirred up that particular hornet's nest as few other things ever had. Why? It seems to me that Anonymous is a little bit like the Internet's anti-censorship immune system.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpwVfl3m32w&feature=player_embedded

http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/12/more_wikileaks

http://blogs.abs-cbnnews.com/mariaressa/inside-the-world-of-anonymous-attacks/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/dec/13/hacking-wikileaks

http://www.geekword.net/anonymous-pr/

http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20025288-17.html





Hacktivists.

We know what activism is. If we watch a news documentary about the 60s, we get to see the cliches of activism in countless news clips. Hacktivism is a later generation's version of activism, the 21st Century version, I suppose. Instead of staging a sit-in to effectively shut down a business that is doing something ethically wrong, hacktivists stage their protests on the Internet. Using tools like the LOIC, these modern protesters attempt to prevent any customers from getting through the virtual door into an Internet store. And that is what Anonymous did to MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal as a result of those companies preventing donations to WikiLeaks  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Payback

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-cyber-disobedience-20101211,0,6077681.story

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/12/08/in-pro-wikileaks-act.html

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/12/08/having-ddosed-master.html


Low Orbit Ion Cannon.

LOIC is the program used by hacktivists to work in concert to stage their sit-in like protest. What it does is flood a target computer with data and requests for data. If enough activists are involved this can effectively cut off a target computer from being able to communicate with anyone else. This is called a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS. But it soon became known that LOIC was leaking information about those who used it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LOIC

http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/12/web20-attack-anonymous/

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/12/11/anonymous-isnt-loic.html

http://news.cnet.com/8301-27080_3-20025373-245.html

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-20025419-71.html

http://boingboing.net/2010/12/09/anonymous-stops-drop.html

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Screw You, Amazon

I was ready to put the whole WikiLeaks controversy behind me on this blog.  Two back to back posts on essentially the same subject struck me as a bit excessive.  Even though other WikiLeaks news items cropped up, my responses were pretty well encapsulated in what I had already written here.  To keep at it would be to belabor my points, right?  Probably, but something has happened that I cannot let slide.

Not long after WikiLeaks and its affiliated newspapers began releasing the cable documents, it came under massive Internet attack and political pressure designed to shut down its website. In an effort to stay online and a step ahead of its enemies, WikiLeaks changed hosting services several times.  One of the hosting services that WikiLeaks moved to was Amazon.Com.  Almost a week ago, Amazon.Com dumped WikiLeaks off of it servers amid the rising storm of controversy and heavy handed government pressure being brought to bear on any companies associated with WikiLeaks.

Amazon claimed that WikiLeaks had violated the terms of service by publishing documents it did not author and did not own.  Amazon claimed this had nothing to do with pressure from the US State Department or Senator Joe Lieberman, both of which have been threatening anyone with ties to WikiLeaks to sever the relationship or else.  Senator Lieberman has been leading what can only be characterized as censorship campaign.

Into this whole mess has now come a piece of hypocrisy so ridiculous I would be laughing about it if I wasn't so incensed.  Amazon.UK is selling a Kindle version of some of the WikiLeaks cables that have been released.  That's right, the company that refused to host WikiLeaks on it servers is more than happy to make money off selling the materials they would have been hosting.  Behold a screen capture I took this morning:   [see edit below]



OK.  To be fair, it was Amazon.Com that dumped WikiLeaks off its servers and Amazon.UK that is selling the WikiLeaks cables.  They are technically different companies, but they are linked together with marching orders coming from California often enough to blur the lines between them except in the most pedantic of legal ways.  That little disclaimer out of the way...

Screw you, Amazon, you hypocritical bastards.

[edit -- Apparently either Amazon.UK or the merchant has altered the text for this product.  If you can get through the heavy Internet traffic to the product page, it now says that this book does not contain the actual cables, only commentary on them.  I figured this would get changed or disappear which is why I took a screen capture of it, in which we can clearly see it claimed that the cables are in this e-book.  It is hard to erase your mistakes from the Internet.]

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thank you, Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, a man I have enormous respect for, is battling cancer. Before I missed a chance to do so, I wanted to write a letter to him and express my thanks to him for his impressive career.



Mr. Hitchens

I wanted to take a few minutes to thank you for the intelligence and passion you have expressed in your career. Your seemingly easy, characteristic wit is enviable to say the least. Though I look down on the notion of hero worship, I cannot deny that you are an inspiration to many who value free and rational thought, myself included.

The world is a richer and more interesting place for your influence. At the risk of being overly dramatic, my own mind is a richer and more interesting place from your influence as well. A condition for which I have no words adequate to express my gratitude.

In leu of eloquence, please accept my genuine though simple thanks.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Cost of Being Kept in the Dark

WikiLeaks is revealing more than just bitchy diplomats and uncomfortable negotiations. There is also information about the how our government is treating innocent people who have been kidnapped and tortured in the war on terror. Egregious wrongs have been brought to light providing evidence supporting the claims of victims.

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/12/01/wikileaks-and-the-el.html

http://harpers.org/archive/2010/11/hbc-90007831

Making civilians disappear with dubious legal rationale is not the kind of behavior I expect out of my government, regardless of where in the world this is happening. You know what we call other groups who do that sort of thing to our private citizens? Terrorists. That kind of action is not morally defensible and if this must be the cost of doing business, then perhaps we ought to get into a different line of work.

Even if we still occupy a position on the moral scale somewhere north of Al-Qaeda, that is not good enough and sets the bar way too low. I don't expect perfection either, but when mistakes are made they must be admitted to and a heartfelt apology must be made. Then there must be accountability and investigations into the procedures and policies that got us into the mess. This is how we ought to preserve our high ideals and to do so it is essential that we citizens be informed, by the press if our government won't do it voluntarily.

Yet we have not been kept informed. The traditional press in America has been too obedient to the government, happily feeding on whatever Washington tells them so they can regurgitate it up for us. Reporters are supposed to investigate, stick their noses into what the government is up to, discover things, find whistle blowers, and then tell us so that we can make informed decisions hopefully producing an ethical government we can be proud to have represent us. The press is our advocate and the natural adversary of a government keeping secrets from its citizens or rather it ought to be.

Instead we have WikiLeaks and its editor, Julian Assange. A man who might very well be an asshole. I don't care about that beyond basic curiosity. The value of WikiLeaks is not in the character of its founder. It is in the information leaked. It is in the destruction of delusions upheld through secrets kept from us. It is in the uncomfortable truths revealed that should outrage us and foster change in how we want our government to conduct itself.

I am no friend of Islam, radical Islam, or Al-Qaeda. I do believe that Islamic terrorism should be opposed. I've no desire to help them in their war on Western civilization. But I care deeply about how we go about opposing the terrorists. The ends do not justify the means, especially if we trample our own freedoms and the freedoms of other innocents in our quest to protect our... freedoms.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WikiLeaks

It looks like those folks at WikiLeaks are at it again, uploading government files onto the internet for all to see. Once again there is a great uproar of heavy rhetoric from public figures and the public alike. What is different this time is that the documents are embarrassing to many nations, not just the US, and the outcry over their exposure has been even more bloodthirsty.

Pubic figures have been calling for the WikiLeaks editor, Julian Assange, to be brought up on treason charges, never mind that he isn't a US citizen. Others are advocating just killing Assange outright, notably Sarah Palin and some conservative writers like John Hawkins. Even the American press is making a bigger deal out of the fact that the leak happened than they are about what the leak contained.

I really think this outrage is misguided at best and more likely dangerous. America, you have your priorities screwed up. Whistle blowers whose consciences drive them to reveal secrets to us through the press can often be the only means we have find out what is going on in companies and our government. This has historically been seen as so valuable to the public interest that we have laws in place to protect sources and the press. WikiLeaks is undertaking the role of the press and being shamelessly lambasted by the traditional press for it.

Yes, a government has a need for secrets, but in order for a democracy to function properly its citizens need to know what their government is doing in their name. When a government employee is so bothered by what is going on that he/she feels compelled to leak the truth to the rest of us, thinking we'd be just as disturbed, then it is worth looking into the information leaked. There is a very real chance that the leak is the only way we'd ever find out about these things. If the information is as upsetting to us as it was to the whistle blower, then it is worth considering if our government is deserving of our trust.

No, I don't need to know everything that my government does. I don't even think I ought to know some things, because secrets can indeed save lives. But when leaks happen, we tend to find out that our government wasn't just keeping secrets from our enemies, but they were keeping secrets from us explicitly. Someone, most likely some group of people, in our government decided that if we knew the truth, we would be outraged and angry with their behavior, so they kept it a secret. It is in knowing those kinds of things that we have any hope at all of being able to have a ethical government by electing sound leadership to oversee what is done in our names.

When people call for the death of the WikiLeaks founder, what they are signaling is that they don't want to know what their government does. They don't want anyone else to know either. That we ought to be content in our ignorance and that the unquestioned authority of that government will be enforced with murder if necessary. To them I say, I am not a subject of my nation. I am a citizen and together with my fellow citizens we are the authority to be informed, obeyed, and respected.