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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Just Finished Reading: Secrets and Lies – Digital Security in a Networked World by Bruce Schneier

Although fairly old in IT terms (having been written 6 years ago) Secrets and Lies is still a useful introduction into the world of computer security. It certainly covers all of the bases including Cryptography, Authentication, Secure hardware and software together with my particular favourite – Attack Trees which do indeed sound like something from the movie Minority Report.

Anyway, [grin] this has been my bedtime reading for a while now – and not because it helped me sleep. Schneier actually has a very accomplished technique of getting complicated and, to be honest, sometimes tedious information across in a way that even I could understand. Certainly if you have any interest in computer security this is worth a read. It will definitely make you a little more paranoid about connecting your PC to the Internet, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing is it?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Nation of Suspects in Land of the Free

by Steve Chapman for the Baltimore Sun

May 17, 2006

The Bush administration has managed to cross George Orwell with Sting. Every step you take, every move you make, Big Brother will be watching you. No one is exempt from the National Security Agency's program to amass a record of every phone call, with the help of major telecommunications providers. As one insider told USA Today, "It's the largest database ever assembled in the world." And have no doubt: You're in it.

President Bush insisted, "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." In fact, that's exactly what his administration is doing - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is no longer possible (unless you're a customer of Qwest, which has refused to cooperate) to make a telephone call without the government knowing about it and keeping a record of it. We are all suspects now. Why should law-abiding citizens care about this surveillance? To begin with, even the best of us sometimes make calls we wouldn't want everyone to know about. Another reason is that we could be implicated in terrorism through no fault of our own. Suppose you call your friend Bob, who later calls his friend Rashid, who later calls his cousin in Kabul. The government may conclude you're consorting with associates of al-Qaida.

It's not just the NSA that will know whom you call. According to USA Today, the NSA told Qwest that "other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database." What's next? The IRS? The Office of Child Support Enforcement? Your local police? But privacy is valuable even if you have nothing to hide. Each of us benefits from having a zone in which we can do as we please without fear of exposure. Thanks to this program, there is no longer an impermeable barrier around your personal zone. It's more like a screen door on a submarine.

Investigative powers often have been used by unscrupulous people in government to intimidate, coerce or embarrass their enemies. Even if the administration has the noblest intentions, this database is vulnerable to abuse. Law enforcement officers have ample experience with gadgets that monitor who's calling whom. But those require police to convince a judge they will yield information relevant to an investigation. In this program, here's what the government has to show: nothing. His latest extralegal initiative furnishes more evidence that George W. Bush regards himself as an elected dictator, free to do anything he wants in the name of national security.

In December, it emerged that the NSA was eavesdropping on the contents of phone calls and e-mail messages between Americans on U.S. soil and people abroad. That program was of doubtful legality, and so is this one. As a rule, federal law forbids phone companies from turning over calling records to anyone, and it forbids the government from getting call records without a court order or a national security letter. So it's cold comfort to hear Mr. Bush say that "the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful." He said the same thing about the other NSA program. But when the Justice Department undertook an investigation, the White House refused to grant its attorneys the security clearances they needed to proceed. The Bush administration doesn't trust even Bush administration lawyers to agree the program is kosher.

Even if you don't care about the privacy of your phone records, you might care that we have a president who feels no obligation to obey the law. You might care that if the government was secretly doing this, it may be doing other things that are even more worrisome. And you might care that one day, we may find that the free society we claim to cherish has become a police state.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Girl banned from school bus because she is not baptised

From Ekklesia - 06/09/06

A girl has been barred from taking an official bus to her Church of England school because she has not been baptised. The move brings a new dimension to an ongoing controversial debate about transport to faith based schools, as well as access to them. Many church school already face the accusation that they discriminate unfairly in their admissions policies in favour of children of parents who attend the churches linked to them.

In the latest case Sydnie Jai from Hatfield, Hertfordshire, was hoping to attend Townsend School in St Albans, travelling by bus as her two brothers had done for some years. But Hertfordshire County Council said she must use public transport because she had not been baptised, reports the Evening Standard. A statement from the council said: "We provide free transport to all children attending their nearest maintained faith school if they have a place there in line with their parents' beliefs. This applies for children aged eight or over where the family lives more than three miles away. To qualify for free transport to a Church of England school the child must be baptised or have a parent on the parish electoral roll. We think it quite reasonable when offering transport to faith schools that parents show that the child is of that faith."

Sydnie's mother Frances Wood told London's Evening Standard newspaper she was furious at the council's inflexible attitude. "I can't believe they've stopped Sydnie going to school on the bus," she said. "It's totally outrageous." The council statement added: "If the family do not wish to travel on public transport, there would be the opportunity to attend a local school in Hatfield. Officers are in the process of contacting the family to discuss what support might be available to Sydnie."

In 2004 there was a similar case involving Laura Abbott, who was ineligible for free transport because she did not want to attend a faith-based school, opting instead for a secular school. The British Humanist Association considers that many current LEA school transport policies contravene the Human Rights Act.

In a 2003 survey of Local Education Authorities in England and Wales, they found that 33% of responding LEAs provided help for pupils going to a faith-based school chosen in preference to a nearer community school on grounds of religion – but not to pupils going to an equally distant community school in preference to a nearer faith-based one on grounds of belief. Another 1 in 3 LEAs acknowledged other forms of discrimination such as giving preferential treatment to religious believers or sometimes applying different rules to different belief groups. It has been their contention that school transport policies should treat religious and non-religious families even-handedly.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Papal summit to debate Darwinian evolution

Andy Coghlan for NewScientist

30 August 2006

Pope Benedict XVI will this week host a private seminar to firm-up the Catholic Church’s stance on Darwinian evolution. One of the key guests, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn from Vienna, Austria, is known to sympathise with Intelligent Design (ID), the idea that the development of life is masterminded by an unidentified designer, usually assumed to be God. In August, at a Catholic rally held in Rimini, Italy, Schönborn announced that the summit would take place from 1 September to 3 September at Castel Gandalfo, the Pope’s summer palace. It is rumoured that the seminar will be aimed at finding a way to stop the church giving out mixed messages, with some senior figures supporting Darwinism and others denouncing it.

Dominique Tassot, a Roman Catholic scientist and anti-evolutionist, told the US National Catholic Reporter that the aim of the meeting was to “give a broader extension to the debate”. Tassot said that “most catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so”. The previous pope, John Paul II, appeared to back Darwinian evolution when in 1996 he described evolution as “more than a hypothesis”. Likewise, Father George Coyne, until recently director of the Vatican Observatory, mocked the idea of Intelligent Design, accusing its backers of underestimating God’s willingness to give “freedom” to nature. Coyne is also on record as having described creationism as “a religious movement devoid of all scientific basis”. In the science monthly periodical Newton, Coyne said: “God isn’t a designer and life is the fruit of billions of attempts.”

This thinking puts Coyne at odds with other church academics such as Schönborn, who repeated in Rimini his belief that the universe cannot have formed in a random way, as proposed by Darwinian evolution. It is not known what stance the Pope himself will take, although in his inaugural sermon on becoming Pope, he said: “We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution”. On 19 August, 73-year-old Coyne was replaced as director of the Vatican Observatory. Rumours abound he was removed because of his vocal views on evolution. Coyne himself is reported as saying that he wished to be replaced because he is being treated for cancer.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wars of Great Miscalculation

by HDS Greenway for the Boston Globe

August 22, 2006

THE YEAR 2006 will long be remembered for its summer of great miscalculation. Hamas began by thinking that taking an Israeli soldier hostage could lead to the release of Palestinian prisoners. Instead, it brought an Israeli invasion of Gaza. Hezbollah followed suit by capturing two Israeli soldiers, which brought down the wrath of Israel's armed might on Lebanon in a manner that Hezbollah could not have expected. As for Israel, having suffered the pin pricks of rocket attacks from Gaza and from Lebanon, the kidnappings presented an opportunity to rid itself of the Islamist, albeit democratically elected, government in Gaza; and then destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Lebanon war enjoyed almost unprecedented popularity, but what might have been contained as border incidents were turned into major military campaigns.

Olmert, his military and his government, badly underestimated the strength of Hezbollah. Its rocket attacks on Israel became a meteor shower that reached farther south than ever. Israel also miscalculated the ability of airpower alone to defeat Hamas. By the time its ground war got underway, the destruction of civilian life and infrastructure from the air was so devastating that even the Bush administration had to blink. Another fateful Israeli decision was to take the war to Lebanon -- even attacking Lebanese military facilities - rather than restricting its efforts to degrading Hezbollah. Destroying the lighthouses of Beirut symbolized this campaign of counterproductive destruction to get the Lebanese to act against Hezbollah or suffer intolerable pain. Although there were many in Lebanon, and indeed the Arab world beyond, who blamed Hezbollah for all that it had unleashed, the inability of the Israelis to crush Hezbollah, plus the mounting death toll on hapless Lebanese civilians, drowned the anti-Hezbollah voices from Baghdad to Beirut, and created a legend of heroic Hezbollah resistance.

The Bush administration badly miscalculated by thinking that if it gave Israel a green light to continue the war, in the face of almost universal calls for an immediate cease-fire, Israel could get the job done and rid Lebanon of an armed state within a state. But Israel did not get the job done. President Bush tried to make it appear that Hezbollah ``suffered a defeat in this crisis," but Israelis and Lebanese know better. Now that the shooting has stopped, Olmert's government is having to answer for its miscalculations, and for now plans for future withdrawals from Palestinian lands are off.

The international force that will police southern Lebanon will not disarm Hezbollah, nor will Lebanese soldiers, whose enlisted ranks are mostly fellow Shiites. Hezbollah's claim to having won by not having been defeated is the more credible. And, given that Hezbollah has masses of Iranian money, Hezbollah will take the credit for Lebanon's reconstruction. The image of the United States using the full force of its diplomacy to prevent a cease-fire in the face of such destruction and loss of life, along with the supply of ever-more-powerful bombs to kill Arabs, has done incalculable damage. Former UN advisor Lakhdar Brahimi, who did so much to give Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, too, structures on which to build their shattered states, spoke for many when he wrote: ``It was argued that the war had to continue so that the root causes of the conflict could be addressed, but no one explained how destroying Lebanon could achieve that.

``Rather than helping the so-called global war on terror, recent events have benefited the enemies of peace, freedom, and democracy. The region is boiling with resentment, anger, and despair, feelings that are not leading young Arabs and Palestinians towards the so-called New Middle East," Brahimi wrote. After some initial trepidation about what their protégés had wrought, Iran has emerged more powerful than before. Syria's version of the New Middle East is now one of reduced American influence. Our friends in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan are in retreat.

In Iraq -- the mother of all American miscalculations -- Shiites took to the streets by the thousands to support their Shiite brothers in Lebanon, and President Bush expressed bewilderment and wondered aloud why Iraqis aren't more grateful. As Fawaziah al-Bakr, a Saudi promoter of educational change and women's rights, said, ``There is no question that the US has lost morally because of the war. Even if you like the people and the culture of the United States, you can't defend it." This summer's wars of miscalculation will cast a long shadow down the decades to come to the detriment of this county's national interests.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

My favourite places: Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey is a ruined Benedictine abbey sited on Whitby's East Cliff in North Yorkshire on the north-east coast of England.

It was founded in 657 AD by the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Oswy (Oswiu) as Streoneshalh (alternately known as Streoneschalh or Streanshalh or Streonæshalch and the historical name of the town Whitby where the abbey is located). He appointed Lady Hilda, niece of Edwin the first christian king of Northumbria, as Abbess. The name Streoneshalh is thought to signify Fort Bay or Tower Bay in reference to a supposed Roman settlement that previously existed on the site. This contention has never been proven though and alternate theories have been proposed, such as the name meaning Streona's settlement; a reference to Eadric Streona. This is highly unlikely though due to chronological considerations: Streona died in 1017 so the naming of Streoneshalh would have preceded his birth by several hundred years.

The double monastery of Benedictine monks and nuns was also home to the great Saxon poet Caedmon. In 664, the abbey was the site of the Synod of Whitby, at which the Northumbrian Celtic church was reconciled to Rome. In 867, the abbey fell to Viking attack, and was abandoned.

William de Percy ordered that the abbey be refounded (1078) by Regenfrith (Reinferd) a soldier monk, dedicating it to St. Peter and St. Hilda. Later it became Presteby (meaning the habitation of Priests in Old Norse) then Hwytby; next Whiteby, (meaning the "white settlement" in Old Norse, probably from the colour of the houses) and finally Whitby.

The second monastery lasted until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540. The abbey buildings fell into ruins, and were mined for stone, but remained a prominent landmark for sailors and helped inspire Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The above from Wikipedia.

[I always wondered why Bram Stoker chose Whitby Harbour for his dramatic entrance of Dracula. When you’re actually there it seems obvious. There’s something about the harbour with the ruined Abbey on the hill that screams out 'Gothic novel'. The Whitby Harbour area and the imposing Abbey are a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the area, whether you are a Dracula fan or not. I had a pleasant day there some years ago. It’s certainly haunting and I think would be amazing to see in the fog. You wont regret adding it to the list of places to visit.]
Poster Time.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

US public deplores too secular liberals and too dominant religious right

From Ekklesia - 26/08/06

An authoritative annual survey on attitudes to religion in the United States, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, has found that 69% of respondents believe that liberals are too secular, while 49% believe that religious conservatives are too assertive. A majority of those polled also expressed concern about religion's declining influence in the USA, and half of those identifying this trend are worried about the perceived decline. Other analysts argue that the religious right, in particular has far too great a shaping role on public policy.

The relationship between religion and politics remains a controversial one, says the Pew Forum. In the summary of its new report it declares: “While the public remains more supportive of religion's role in public life than in the 1960s, Americans are uneasy with the approaches offered by both liberals and conservatives.” The summary continues: “Fully 69% of Americans say that liberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government. But the proportion who express reservations about attempts by Christian conservatives to impose their religious values has edged up in the past year, with about half the public (49%) now expressing wariness about this.”

It goes on: “The Democratic Party continues to face a serious ‘God problem,’ with just 26% saying the party is friendly to religion. However, the proportion of Americans who say the Republican Party is friendly to religion, while much larger, has fallen from 55% to 47% in the past year, with a particularly sharp decline coming among white evangelical Protestants (14 percentage points).” Thinker and activist the Rev Jim Wallis, of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, has argued in his recent best-selling book God’s Politics that the right has “got it wrong” and the left “doesn’t get it” as far as religion is concerned. He has called for as less sectarian and more open approach by believers.

The national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted 6-19 July among 2,003 adults, finds that most Americans (59%) continue to say that religion's influence on the country is declining, and most of those who express this view believe that this is a bad thing. However, the public is more divided on the question of whether religion's influence on government is increasing (42%) or decreasing (45%). And in contrast to views of religion's influence on the country, most of those who think that religion is increasing its influence on government leaders and institutions view this as a bad thing.

The survey finds that religious conservatives, and white evangelical Christians specifically, have no equal and opposite group on the religious left. About 7% of the public say they identify with the ‘religious left’ political movement. That is not much smaller than the 11% who identify themselves as members of the ‘religious right,’ but the religious left is considerably less cohesive in its political views than the religious right. The survey traced the spiritual roots of the religious right and left to two broader faith communities. On the right, white evangelical Christians comprise 24% of the population and form a distinct group whose members share core religious beliefs as well as crystallized and consistently conservative political attitudes.

On the left, a larger share of the public (32%) identifies as ‘liberal or progressive Christians.’ But unlike conservative evangelicals, progressive Christians come from different religious traditions and disagree almost as often as they agree on a number of key political and social issues. These differences in the makeup of the religious left and right are an important reason why white evangelicals remain a more politically potent force. On issues ranging from the origins of life to the end of the world, evangelicals express distinctly different views from those held by the rest of the public and also other religious groups.

The religious left has been trying to galvanise and cohere its support base recently, through projects such as Faithful America. The aim is to build alliances with secular groups and to challenge the hegemony of the religious right and its claim to ‘biblical values’. Some radical Christians, including those influenced by the Anabaptist and peace church traditions, argue that the issue of how to engage in political issues is as important as the stances taken. They say that the ‘control’ model of Christendom needs to be challenged, with non-coercive witness, collaboration with non-faith groups on common causes, and the generation of attractive alternatives within the church community being core elements of a new strategy.

In the UK, the Christian think tank Ekklesia has recommended this kind of ‘new approach’ to the faith and politics standoff, suggesting in a recent discussion document and a book on post-Christendom that violent and coercive religion needs to be challenged and ‘redeemed’ from within as well as without, and that public policy towards religion needs to be in the style of ‘interested neutrality’.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The Island of Doctor Moreau by H G Wells

This is the classic SF horror tale from the author of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.

Shipwrecked on a remote island the narrator (Edward Prendick) tells of his time spent with the mysterious and obsessed Doctor Moreau – a scientist shunned by the civilised world for his bizarre ideas and experiments on animals. Initially horrified and repulsed by the results of Moreau’s experimentation Prendick slowly acclimatises to his situation until his mind and his views of humanity are changed forever. For Moreau has become a God-like creator of men from the apparently infinitely malleable flesh of wild beasts blurring the line between animal and human. But the unexpected arrival Prendick starts a chain of events that eventually lead to death and destruction. Can he save his sanity and his humanity when all about him is in flux?

I’ve read quite a lot of Well’s work and have enjoyed most of it. The War of the Worlds is amongst my favourite classic novels. Moreau, despite its classic position, didn’t grip me to that extent. Saying that however, this was a finely crafted and thought provoking book. I found the final chapter particularly haunting in a chilling way and the feelings it provoked will stay with me for quite some time. It is easy to imagine how this probably disturbed the calm of its Victorian readership a mere 40 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I’m guessing that the displacement of man from God’s creation to that of a ‘supreme ape’ was still very much at the forefront of many minds when Moreau was first published in 1896. Moreau certainly read like a reinterpretation of the Christian Creation myth where an almost careless God, in the shape of the Doctor, fashions men from the beasts of the field only to cast them out as failures into the jungle/wilderness without further thought. A heavy feeling of resentment pervades this book as if the author is blaming God (or Darwin) for the fashioning of such incomplete creatures as ourselves - creatures with great potential but with the ever present taint of the violent slavering beast inside us just waiting to get out.
TV presenter Raymond Baxter dies

From the BBC.

16 September 2006

Television presenter Raymond Baxter - best known for fronting the BBC's science programme Tomorrow's World - has died at the age of 84. He was with daughter Jenny Douglas and son Dr Graham Baxter when he died at Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading. He presented Tomorrow's World for its first 12 years, but also commentated on the Queen's coronation, Churchill's funeral and Concorde's first flight.

Former colleagues have been lining up to pay tribute. Tomorrow's World presenter Maggie Philbin said: "He was an absolute gentlemen, such a lovely, lovely man, immense charm and absolutely passionate about technology. I felt very envious of him because the era that he worked on Tomorrow's World was the time that technology was 'white hot'. Raymond showed us the very first hovercraft and he went on the very first flight of Concorde."

Another former Tomorrow's World colleague, Judith Hann, said: "He did not let anything fluster him at all, he would just talk his way through things going wrong. He taught me a great deal." Baxter's family said he was working until the day before he went into hospital. They said in a statement: "He had a love of innovation and challenge both professionally and personally, and he met that challenge right up to the end because he was commentating at Goodwood the day before he was taken into hospital.

"He was a professional through and through in everything he attempted from his days as a pilot, as a broadcaster, and through to his love of sailing." He was a Spitfire pilot during World War II, taking part in raids against V1 and V2 missile sites deep inside occupied Europe. Immediately after the war he joined the British Forces Network and reported on the Berlin airlift. A motorsport enthusiast, he not only covered but also took part in a number of Monte Carlo rallies. David Pickthall, executive producer of the BBC's events department, paid tribute to the veteran presenter. He said: "Raymond Baxter was without doubt a British television pioneer, whose groundbreaking outside broadcast work for the BBC, beginning in the 1950s, set standards for the industry. His distinctive voice provided the viewer with a trusted guide to many television firsts - the first live pictures from America and the first flight of Concorde amongst the best remembered. His iconic presentation of Tomorrow's World was for many their first entry into an understanding and interest in the world of science and technology."

One of the highlights of his time on Tomorrow's World was in 1967, when he interviewed Dr Christian Barnard live by telephone from South Africa, just one hour after he completed the world's first heart transplant. Baxter returned to Tomorrow's World for anniversary editions but was "sad" to see it dropped by the BBC in 2003. Former series deputy editor Phil Dolling said: "Raymond was fearless in front of a live camera - reporting around the world on important moments in history. He possessed authority, intelligence and charisma - and more than that, he was a true gentleman."

[Raymond Baxter and Tomorrows World were probably instrumental in the development of my strong interest in science. I loved his enthusiasm for new ideas, new technologies and new gadgets. He was an icon of my childhood and I’ll miss him. Raymond Baxter – RIP.]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Self-Defeating War

by George Soros for the Wall Street Journal

August 15, 2006

The war on terror is a false metaphor that has led to counterproductive and self-defeating policies. Five years after 9/11, a misleading figure of speech applied literally has unleashed a real war fought on several fronts -- Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia -- a war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and enraged millions around the world. Yet al Qaeda has not been subdued; a plot that could have claimed more victims than 9/11 has just been foiled by the vigilance of British intelligence.

Unfortunately, the "war on terror" metaphor was uncritically accepted by the American public as the obvious response to 9/11. It is now widely admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder. But the war on terror remains the frame into which American policy has to fit. Most Democratic politicians subscribe to it for fear of being tagged as weak on defense.

What makes the war on terror self-defeating?

First, war by its very nature creates innocent victims. A war waged against terrorists is even more likely to claim innocent victims because terrorists tend to keep their whereabouts hidden. The deaths, injuries and humiliation of civilians generate rage and resentment among their families and communities that in turn serves to build support for terrorists.

Second, terrorism is an abstraction. It lumps together all political movements that use terrorist tactics. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi army in Iraq are very different forces, but President Bush's global war on terror prevents us from differentiating between them and dealing with them accordingly. It inhibits much-needed negotiations with Iran and Syria because they are states that support terrorist groups.

Third, the war on terror emphasizes military action while most territorial conflicts require political solutions. And, as the British have shown, al Qaeda is best dealt with by good intelligence. The war on terror increases the terrorist threat and makes the task of the intelligence agencies more difficult. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large; we need to focus on finding them, and preventing attacks like the one foiled in England.

Fourth, the war on terror drives a wedge between "us" and "them." We are innocent victims. They are perpetrators. But we fail to notice that we also become perpetrators in the process; the rest of the world, however, does notice. That is how such a wide gap has arisen between America and much of the world.

Taken together, these four factors ensure that the war on terror cannot be won. An endless war waged against an unseen enemy is doing great damage to our power and prestige abroad and to our open society at home. It has led to a dangerous extension of executive powers; it has tarnished our adherence to universal human rights; it has inhibited the critical process that is at the heart of an open society; and it has cost a lot of money. Most importantly, it has diverted attention from other urgent tasks that require American leadership, such as finishing the job we so correctly began in Afghanistan, addressing the looming global energy crisis, and dealing with nuclear proliferation.

With American influence at low ebb, the world is in danger of sliding into a vicious circle of escalating violence. We can escape it only if we Americans repudiate the war on terror as a false metaphor. If we persevere on the wrong course, the situation will continue to deteriorate. It is not our will that is being tested, but our understanding of reality. It is painful to admit that our current predicaments are brought about by our own misconceptions. However, not admitting it is bound to prove even more painful in the long run. The strength of an open society lies in its ability to recognize and correct its mistakes. This is the test that confronts us.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Anglican schools 'will face resentment' whilst they select on the basis of faith

From Ekklesia -14/03/06

An associate of the religious thinktank Ekklesia has today said that whilst Anglican schools continue to use selection on the basis of religious faith or parental church attendance they will continue to be widely resented. The comments follow today's release by the Church of England of a poll conducted in early November, to gauge attitudes toward the church and specifically church schools.

The poll was conducted by researchers ORB and released today by the Church of England's Communication's Office to coincide with a major conference on Church schools at which the Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a keynote address. Ekklesia associate Theo Hobson said; "There is something desperate about the Church producing its own statistics to ‘prove’ the popularity of its schools”.

"Over the last five years there has been a rising tide of hostility to faith schools, partly due to their collusion in social selection, and partly due to fears of religious separatism. While Anglican schools continue to use selection on the basis of parental church attendance they will continue to be widely resented – by those who cannot attend a high-performing local school, by those who refuse to fake a church commitment, by those who fear religious separatism. The Church ought to be careful: an established Church cannot afford to seem a self-serving subculture that puts its own members before the common good”.

"The only solution is for the Church to decide to open its schools to all those who want to attend, irrespective of religious commitment. This would be a ‘kenotic’ action – a gift to the wider culture. It is an urgent issue for the Church, for in many places the education issue is changing the nature of churchgoing, associating it with educational ambition. Anglican leaders may defensively deny this, but a growing sector of society knows it to be true."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Mobile phone users warned of dangers in 'spy' software

David Smith for The Observer

Sunday September 3, 2006

Would you spy on your spouse? A company is urging consumers to buy 'secret' mobile phone software so they can read their partner's text messages. Yet it denies encouraging infringement of privacy laws. FlexiSpy is billed as the 'world's most powerful spy software for mobile phones', which enables a buyer to 'secretly record every SMS [text] message, view their call history, and more!' Its website even has a 'testimony' from a customer. 'Thanks to FlexiSpy, I finally figured out my wife was cheating on me with my brother,' he claims. 'My life is so much better.'

The potential for mobile phone monitoring was highlighted last week by Symantec, the information security company. It warned mobile phones are potentially vulnerable to spyware, software that covertly gathers a user's information without their knowledge. These could enable snoopers to remotely activate a mobile phone's microphone, take pictures with its camera or record conversations without the user's knowledge. Such technology might prove tempting to bosses who want to keep track of their employees or journalists hunting stories about celebrities, though the Data Protection Act states a person must not 'knowingly or recklessly' and without consent obtain or disclose personal data.

But Vervata, the company behind FlexiSpy, denied it was doing anything illegal. The software has to be installed manually on the 'spied upon' handset, making it difficult to do without the owner's knowledge. 'It's true you could wrap up something like this and transmit it virally, but that's not the business we're in,' admitted Atir Raihan, Vervata's managing director. 'There are other companies doing this, but we're not.' Asked why the company's website promotes spying on a spouse, which could be deemed unlawful, Raihan said: 'It's to make people smile. People have their own reasons for buying all sorts of things - they don't all buy cars to rob banks.'

Industry experts warned that the increasing complexity of phones has its downsides. Richard Starnes said: 'As mobile phones progress, they are becoming the de facto computers of 10 years ago. With these capabilities come vulnerabilities: security is inversely proportionate to functionality. It will definitely be an increasing threat in the coming years.'

[Yup. It’s just what we need - the ability and encouragement to spy on each other!]

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Poster Time.
Just Finished Reading: Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara

Originally published in 1961 this extended essay encapsulates Guevara’s experiences during the Cuban revolution. In it he gives advice on just about every aspect of fighting a guerrilla jungle war you could possibly imagine. The essay is, however, fairly short on detail and more interested in getting a prospective guerrilla force into the right frame of mind for an expected long and bloody conflict against a much better armed , though hopefully less motivated, force. In addition to the original essay the book contained a further shorter essay Guerrilla Warfare: A method (written in 1963) and Message to the Tricontinental (written in 1967) which outlined a Marxist interpretation of the world’s political and revolutionary status at that time.

All in all this was a fairly interesting historical text. Although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as the only book you worked from if you were setting up a revolutionary movement in the hills it does make an effort to explain the ‘why’ of revolution and not simply the ‘how’. It was actually quite weird reading Che’s words and then seeing them played out daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that the ‘insurgents’ might well have read this very book and adapted Guevara’s ideas from the jungle to the desert & the city street. Certainly if you want to start some kind of understanding of modern guerrilla warfare this is not a bad place to start. Whilst it’s not exactly a page turner, nor is it a ‘Revolutions for Dummies’, it is a moderately absorbing piece of history written by a cultural icon.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Trouble with Bush's 'Islamofascism'

By Katha Pollitt, for The Nation.

August 26, 2006.

If you control the language, you control the debate. As the Bush Administration's Middle Eastern policy sinks ever deeper into bloody incoherence, the "war on terror" has been getting a quiet linguistic makeover. It's becoming the "war on Islamic fascism." The term has been around for a while -- Nexis takes it back to 1990, when the writer and historian Malise Ruthven used "Islamo-fascism" in the London Independent to describe the authoritarian governments of the Muslim world; after 9/11 it was picked up by neocons and prowar pundits, including Stephen Schwartz in the Spectator and Christopher Hitchens in this magazine, to describe a broad swath of Muslim bad guys from Osama to the mullahs of Iran.

But the term moved into the mainstream this August when Bush referred to the recently thwarted Britain-based suicide attack plot on airplanes as "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." Joe Lieberman compares Iraq to "the Spanish Civil War, which was the harbinger of what was to come." The move away from "war on terrorism" arrives not a moment too soon for language fussbudgets who had problems with the idea of making war on a tactic. To say nothing of those who wondered why, if terrorism was the problem, invading Iraq was the solution. (From the President's August 21 press conference: Q: "But what did Iraq have to do with September 11?" A: "Nothing." Now he tells us!)What's wrong with "Islamo-fascism"? For starters, it's a terrible historical analogy. Italian Fascism, German Nazism and other European fascist movements of the 1920s and '30s were nationalist and secular, closely allied with international capital and aimed at creating powerful, up-to-date, all-encompassing states. Some of the trappings might have been anti-modernist -- Mussolini looked back to ancient Rome, the Nazis were fascinated by Nordic mythology and other Wagnerian folderol -- but the basic thrust was modern, bureaucratic and rational. You wouldn't find a fascist leader consulting the Bible to figure out how to organize the banking system or the penal code or the women's fashion industry. Even its anti-Semitism was "scientific": The problem was the Jews' genetic inferiority and otherness, which countless biologists, anthropologists and medical researchers were called upon to prove -- not that the Jews killed Christ and refused to accept the true faith.

Call me pedantic, but if only to remind us that the worst barbarities of the modern era were committed by the most modern people, I think it is worth preserving "fascism" as a term with specific historical content. Second, and more important, "Islamo-fascism" conflates a wide variety of disparate states, movements and organizations as if, like the fascists, they all want similar things and are working together to achieve them. Neocons have called Saddam Hussein and the Baathists of Syria Islamo-fascists, but these relatively secular nationalist tyrants have nothing in common with shadowy, stateless, fundamentalist Al Qaeda -- as even Bush now acknowledges -- or with the Taliban, who want to return Afghanistan to the seventh century; and the Taliban aren't much like Iran, which is different from (and somewhat less repressive than) Saudi Arabia -- whoops, our big ally in the Middle East! Who are the "Islamo-fascists" in Saudi Arabia -- the current regime or its religious-fanatical opponents? It was under the actually existing US-supported government that female students were forced back into their burning school rather than be allowed to escape unveiled. Under that government people are lashed and beheaded, women can't vote or drive, non-Muslim worship is forbidden, a religious dress code is enforced by the state through violence and Wahhabism -- the "Islamo-fascist" denomination--is exported around the globe.

"Islamo-fascism" looks like an analytic term, but really it's an emotional one, intended to get us to think less and fear more. It presents the bewildering politics of the Muslim world as a simple matter of Us versus Them, with war to the end the only answer, as with Hitler. If you doubt that every other British Muslim under the age of 30 is ready to blow himself up for Allah, or that shredding the Constitution is the way to protect ourselves from suicide bombers, if you think that Hamas might be less popular if Palestinians were less miserable, you get cast as Neville Chamberlain, while Bush plays FDR. "Islamo-fascism" rescues the neocons from harsh verdicts on the invasion of Iraq ("cakewalk... roses... sweetmeats... Chalabi") by reframing that ongoing debacle as a minor chapter in a much larger story of evil madmen who want to fly the green flag of Islam over the capitals of the West. Suddenly it's just a detail that Saddam wasn't connected with 9/11, had no WMDs, was not poised to attack the United States or Israel -- he hated freedom, and that was enough. It doesn't matter, either, that Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites seem less interested in uniting the umma than in murdering one another. With luck we'll be so scared we won't ask why anyone should listen to another word from people who were spectacularly wrong about the biggest politico-military initiative of the past thirty years, and their balding heads will continue to glow on our TV screens for many nights to come. On to Tehran!

It remains to be seen if "Islamo-fascism" will win back the socially liberal "security moms" who voted for Bush in 2004 but have recently been moving toward the Democrats. But the word is already getting a big reaction in the Muslim world. As I write the New York Times is carrying a full page "open letter" to Bush from the Al Kharafi Group, the mammoth Kuwaiti construction company, featuring photos of dead and wounded Lebanese civilians. "We think there is a misunderstanding in determining: "'Who deserves to be accused of being a fascist'!!!!"

"Islamo-fascism" enrages to no purpose the dwindling number of Muslims who don't already hate us. At the same time, it clouds with ideology a range of situations -- Lebanon, Palestine, airplane and subway bombings, Afghanistan, Iraq -- we need to see clearly and distinctly and deal with in a focused way. No wonder the people who brought us the disaster in Iraq are so fond of it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Bishop's waning over Christian Zionism

By Mark Porthouse for Ekklesia


Cardinal Michel Sabbah, Roman Catholic Archbishop in Jerusalem, Israel, has signed a joint inter-denominational statement criticising Christians that hold the belief that modern Israel should be defended in order to fulfil Biblical prophecies. Sabbah is known for his work towards reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. The declaration of August the 22nd is a call for a turn from militarism, this time directed at fellow Christians who they urge to “break their silence and speak for reconciliation with justice in the Holy Land”.

With Archbishop Swerious Malki Mourad (Syrian Orthodox), Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal (Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East) and Bishop Munib Younan (Evangelical Lurtheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land), Sabbah calls “upon all people to reject the narrow world view of Christian Zionism and other ideologies that privilege one people at the expense of others.” The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism rejects the justification of “colonization, apartheid and empire-building” that it states follows from “Christian Zionism and its alliances” with state and government. It urges peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians recognising that the latter are “one people, both Muslim and Christian.”

"Justice alone guarantees a peace that will lead to reconciliation with a life of security and prosperity for all the peoples of our land. By standing on the side of justice, we open ourselves to the work of peace - and working for peace makes us children of God," the statement concludes. The statement follows similar warnings two years ago from the then Archbishop of York David Hope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

They suggested that theological work needed to be done to counter biblical interpretation of from outside the mainstream of the tradition which had “become increasingly influential in fostering an uncritical and one-sided approach to the future of the Holy Land.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Just Finished Reading: Battle Born by Dale Brown.

In the early part of the 21st Century South Korea unveil their audacious plan for the reunification of the peninsula. During a regular military exercise they attack and defeat the North Koreans weakened by years of famine and southern infiltration. Thrown into this crisis are the technical magicians of Area 51/Dreamland/Groomlake and a tight knit group of Nevada Air National Guard units recently trained in new weapons and new techniques -their job, to save the world from nuclear annihilation.

This book was very disappointing. Barely readable it consisted of two dimensional characters, ridiculous situations and heavy handed jingoism. The first quarter of the book was the worst where the author displayed his detailed knowledge of various aircraft, acronyms and procedures ad nauseum. When he finally got around to the action things improved, but only just. The flight scenes, whilst fairly well done, where ‘telegraphed’ well in advance and thereby lost any of their intended excitement. The thinly drawn characters produced no empathy so I didn’t care overly when they succeeded in their missions or died trying. Overall the book seemed to be a propaganda piece for increased military spending and the philosophy that international problems can usually be resolved through the use of enough cruise missiles. Needless to say I cannot recommend this book to anyone!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Why They Hate Us

by Julia E. Sweig for the Los Angeles Times

August 15, 2006

No, it's not our freedoms. Anti-Americanism isn't going away until the U.S. puts some fairness in its foreign policy.

AMERICA'S MORAL standing in the world has precipitously declined since 2001. For starters, blame the Bush administration's go-it-alone tough talk after 9/11, contempt for the Kyoto accord, war and then chaos in Iraq, secret prisons in Europe and alleged use of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Democrats would have you believe that a new team, theirs — in Washington would change all this. Not so fast. Around the world, anti-Americanism is not simply the result of anger about President Bush's foreign policies. Rather, it is deeply entrenched antipathy accumulated over decades. It may take generations to undo. Consider the causes:

• Cold War legacy: U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and covert attempts to overthrow governments in Iran, Guatemala and Cuba, among others, created profound distrust of U.S. motives throughout the developing world. Europeans also disdain these policies and bemoan the cultural coarseness of Americanization sweeping their continent. Americans, by contrast, tend to dismiss this side of the Cold War. Gore Vidal famously referred to this country as the United States of Amnesia. We're all about moving forward, getting over it, a nation of immigrants for whom leaving the past behind was a geographic, psychological and often political act. As the last guy standing when the Cold War ended, in 1989, we expected the world to embrace free markets and liberal democracy.

• Power and powerlessness: Power generates resentment. But the United States has lost the ability to see its power from the perspective of those with less of it. In Latin America, for example, U.S. policies — whether on trade, aid, democracy, drugs or immigration — presumed that Latin Americans would automatically see U.S. interests as their own. And when denied deference, we sometimes lash out, as did Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when he lumped Germany, a close U.S. ally, with Cuba and Libya because Berlin opposed the Iraq war.

• Globalization: In the 1990s, our government, private sector and opinion makers sold globalization as virtually synonymous with Americanization. President Clinton promised that open markets, open societies and smaller government would be the bridge to the 21st century. So where globalization hasn't delivered, the U.S. is blamed.

• What we stand for: Bush is wrong to say that foreigners hate us because of our values and freedoms. Quite the contrary. U.S. credibility abroad used to be reinforced by the perception that our laws and government programs gave most Americans a fair chance to participate in a middle-class meritocracy. But the appeal of the U.S. model overseas is eroding as the gap between rich and poor widens, public education deteriorates, healthcare costs soar and pensions disappear. Most recently, the U.S. government's seeming indifference to its most vulnerable citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina further undercut belief in the American social contract. The immigration debates also have fostered the perception that the U.S. is vulnerable, hostile and fearful.

Nevertheless, the ideal of the United States as a beacon of justice, democracy, freedom and human rights still garners grudging respect abroad. Despite the perverse appeal of anti-Americanism, its proliferation hurts not only the U.S. but global security. For all the resentments that U.S. leadership generates, in the absence of an appealing alternative, it remains a much-desired resource. That's why the U.S. could still get its global groove back. But there is no quick fix. Liberals tempted to out-Bush Bush in the battle against terrorism risk sowing the seeds of a future backlash in the developing world. The U.S. will be no less powerful in the eyes of powerless nations if Democrats win control of Congress in November. Harsh global competition isn't going away either. As a result, the wellsprings of anti-Americanism will not dry up anytime soon.

But anti-Americanism will begin to ebb if the new watchwords of U.S. policy and conduct are pragmatism, generosity, modesty, discretion, cooperation, empathy, fairness, manners and lawfulness. This softer lexicon should not be construed as a refutation of the use of force against hostile states or terrorist groups. Rather, a foreign policy that deploys U.S. power with some consideration for how the U.S. is perceived will gradually make legitimate U.S. military action more acceptable abroad. Personalities do matter. And not just the president's. The global initiatives of private American citizens — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Gordon Moore, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg — carry the kind of message that government-sponsored public diplomacy can't match.

And symbols matter too. We should close Guantanamo. Recovering our global standing will come not only from how we fight or prevent the next war, or manage an increasingly chaotic world. Domestic policy must change as well. Steering the body politic out of its insular mood, reducing social and economic inequalities, and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels will help improve our moral standing and our security.

[So.. Why do I think ‘they’ hate ‘us’? It’s certainly not for our freedoms – being eroded by the day – or for our Liberal values. They hate us often with good reason. Reasons like economic deprivation going back decades, the aided overthrow of democratic governments and the bolstering of tyrants, the killing of innocent people in the name of freedom and democracy and the hypocrisy exhibited by our response to electoral victories by Hammas and Hezbollah. We are not totally innocent victims here. We are, at least in part, responsible for the anti-American and anti-Western feelings throughout the world and the denial of such responsibility is part of the problem. It will remain so until we change our attitude towards the non-Western world.]

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Absence of evidence and evidence of absence.

Uberchap recently said: Darwin was a Christian and as far as faith in God is concerned; absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. But since you mentioned it I am interested in the evidence for absence that you allude to.

That’s a difficult request to answer, as you might imagine. How do I present a box full of an absence of evidence? Maybe it needs to be looked at from another direction.

In conversations over the years theists have presented me with many ideas which they consider proof of the existence of God. Some of them are:

The Origin of the Universe.
The Origin of Life on Earth.
The Origin or Evolution of Humans.
The existence of a Moral Sense.

Do I consider the above to be evidence for the existence of God? No, I don’t. Let me take each idea in turn.

Science has determined that the Universe sprang into existence in what has become known as the Big Bang about 15 Billion Years ago. Some theists see this as their strongest piece of evidence for Biblical creation. What we actually have (as far as I know) is a mystery rather than a proof. We know when the Big Bang happened and we know a lot about how it happened. What we don’t know is why it happened. I’m not even sure if such a question can ever be answered or that science is equipped to attempt to answer it. Maybe the question itself is meaningless. I don’t know. But is the Big Bang any kind of proof for God? No, it isn’t. It’s a gap in our knowledge.

Life on Earth began about 4 Billion Years ago. Theists argue that something (life) cannot come from nothing. Therefore, God must have intervened to produce life from lifelessness. Does this need to be true? No, it doesn’t. Certainly we don’t know for certain how life emerged on Earth, although there are several good theories that I’m aware of. Each as far as I am aware relies on the growing complexity of various compounds and chemicals on the early Earth. Even at that stage evolutionary processes where at work eventually producing complex self-replicating molecules which became the building blocks of what we now call life. How exactly did this happen? No one is certain. Does this mean that God did it? No, it doesn’t. It just means we don’t know – yet. Will theists change their stance when we successfully produce life in a lab from lifeless chemicals? Somehow I doubt it.

Most theists (again as far as I know) regard Humanity as a special case. We are not merely animals they say. Unlike the beasts of the field we have souls and other attributes (such as Free Will) given to us by God. Even if Evolution is true then the whole point of 4 Billion Years of evolutionary struggle is to produce us so that we can give thanks to our Creator. But are we really that special? No, we’re not. It is unarguable that we are indeed animals, no different in great degree from the other apes. We share well over 95% of our DNA with chimpanzees and we even share DNA with fish, insects and trees because we evolved here, on Earth, and can trace our genetic ancestry back for billions of years to the origin of life itself. The only ‘special’ aspect of being human is that we are conscious self aware beings aware that we are alive, unlike the apparent majority of life on this planet. Isn’t our self-awareness then given to us by God? No, it isn’t. Our self-awareness, just like everything else about us, evolved over time and gives us a huge advantage over creatures that are not self aware.

But what about our innate moral sense? Surely that couldn’t have evolved along with everything else? That must have come from God, right? No, it didn’t. For starters it’s highly questionable that we have an innate moral sense – in the sense that we are all born with some kind of Universal Morality Code. Anyone who knows about other cultures or has any knowledge of history will be aware that morality changes from culture to culture and over time. The moral code of 17th Century Spain would not be acceptable in 21st Century China. So how can the moral sense be innate? Surely such things are cultural and temporal human constructs? But, theists have argued, there are underlying agreements between all moralities and that these must surely have come from God, right? No, they don’t. For each underlying moral ‘agreement’ it probably wouldn’t be that difficult to find counter examples. But, theists have argued, that doesn’t prove anything. The societies/groups or individuals in these examples know they are doing wrong by breaking the Universal Morality Code but refuse to acknowledge it. The fact that the behaviour is considered moral and normal in their society or at that time is irrelevant. The Universal Morality Code must be applied regardless of circumstances and those who fail to recognise it as such are merely being contrary. This is almost a definition of a circular argument and as such is no evidence of Gods influence on morality, innate or otherwise.

So, there you have it. No evidence for Gods involvement in the Origin of the Universe, the Origin of Life, the Origin of Man or the Origin of Morality. No evidence, therefore for the existence of God. None. Zero. In my mind at least there is enough lack of evidence to strongly indicate evidence of absence. Maybe definitive proof is beyond us but what we have, or don’t have, will suffice for now.
A few More Good Quotes:

I feel, like all modern Americans, no consciousness of sin and simply do not believe in it. All I know is that if God loves me only half as much as my mother does, he will not send me to Hell. That is a final fact of my inner consciousness, and for no religion could I deny its truth. ~ Lin Yutang

I've come to the conclusion that there can be little or no dialogue between 'proclaimers of truth' (religious and secular ideologues) and 'discoverers of truth' (empiricists). The former tend to debate, the latter tend to discuss. ~ Edward H. Ashment

I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged. ~ Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Mrs. H. Harrison Smith (1816)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Need to Know: No Questions, No Dissent in Our Endless War

by Paul Scott for the Minneapolis - St. Paul Star-Tribune (Minnesota)

July 10, 2006

When they write the history of how America became a nation permanently at war and permanently willing to invoke the cause of war in defense of a vast trove of state secrets -- when every last corner of your life becomes the business of this newly permanent climate of war -- I hope they remember how our Republican Congress voted on the Friday before Independence Day to intimidate the press for letting us know what was happening. For those who have not been paying attention, please put down your iPods and read the following: Reps. John Kline, Gil Gutknecht, Colin Peterson, Mark Kennedy and Jim Ramstad all voted to declare that Congress "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations. ... "

Chances are tomorrow's historians will remember House Resolution 895, but they will not be able to criticize it. Chances are that when the policies set in motion under the deplorable presidency of George W. Bush have reached their fruition, the state-approved history of our time will have omitted the steady erosion of dissent first initiated on Fox News and ultimately embraced by the U.S. House of Representatives. The scoundrels who make their living feeding the flames of right-wing outrage will tell you that a newspaper, the New York Times, committed the treasonous act of reporting the existence of a secret program to monitor banking transactions with terrorist ties. They will tell you that this reporting put American lives at risk and gave help to the enemy. They will tell you that it is time for the arrest and prosecution of journalists in America, and that no other action will help us win this "war."

They will not tell you that the president had repeatedly and publicly pledged to monitor banking transactions. They will not tell you that Congress publicly asked him to do so in the Patriot Act. They will not tell you, as recently reported in the Boston Globe, that the counterterrorism efforts of the consortium in question, SWIFT, was already a matter of public record in a U.N. document. They will not tell you, as recently reported in the Washington Post, that SWIFT makes clear on its very own website that it cooperates with state authorities tracking criminal activity.

Who are these people clamoring for the prosecution of the press? Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, yes, not to mention the dingbat talker out of California named Melanie Morgan who said that if Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, "were to be tried and convicted of treason, yes, I would have no problem with him being sent to the gas chamber." But even thoughtful commentators put the nation's free press in their kill zone. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, offered on Fox News Sunday that "I think the Justice Department has an obligation to consider prosecution." His reason: "This is a U.S. government secret program in a time of war." Kristol's "time of war" rationale was echoed by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which published a Times-bashing editorial subtitled "What are the obligations of the press during wartime?"

And maybe it is this wartime mentality that is the real enemy. "The war on terrorism" is no war; it is a policy objective, a publicity campaign for a state-sponsored police action. It happens to be a very necessary and worthwhile state-sponsored police action. But by definition, both terrorism and the hateful Islamists currently targeting Americans are not, and never will be, a threat that war can resolve. Terrorism will never be put to rest in a treaty signing at sea. There will be no D-Day in this war. As such, changes in law that take place during a war without end, as was the decision to monitor banking records, are not simply "war plans" whose disclosure makes one into a traitor. They are permanent changes in the laws of the land. We need to know about permanent changes in the laws of our land if we are to live in a free and open society.

The outrage currently directed at the Times should be directed at Bush and the congressional Republicans who are now preparing the American psyche for the raiding of newspaper offices by federal marshals. They used to intimidate the president's opponents with spin, but that stopped working, so now they need to raise the fear of jail and death. Just as they always do in failing governments intolerant of criticism and contemptuous of the press.

[So... Congress "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations"... Isn't that what normally happens in Totalitarian regimes? I thought that 'freedom of the Press' was a cornerstone of Democracy? Apparently not.]

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Rapture Index is:

156 – as of Sept 4, 2006. That’s down 2 on the previous Index reading.

[Phew!] It seems that our mad rush towards the End of Days is slowing down. I’m sure that some of my readers were starting to wonder if I ever posted good news on this Blog. Well, here it is!
Cartoon Time.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pascal's Wager: A Faith-Based Sucker's Bet

By David Gleeson for American Chronicle

August 23, 2006

If you are skeptical of the supernatural, as I am, you will sooner or later be confronted with an “argument” sometimes referred to as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician who formulated this rationale for taking belief in God seriously:

“If atheism is right, we [Biblical literalists] have nothing to lose by believing. But if we’re right, you [the atheist/agnostic/skeptic/heathen] have everything to lose.” (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

This rationale is a favorite among present-day Christian fundamentalists, although, as with most Christian apologetics, it is difficult to understand why. I’ll briefly document four reasons why I think this is such a poor argument.

Spiritual Laziness Pascal's Wager, taken literally, paints the religious in an extremely unflattering light. It reduces faith to nothing more than an insurance policy, a cosmic hedging of the bets. It is spiritual laziness taken to the nth degree. “I believe in [insert your god here] because I’m taking no chances.” If the religious community is populated mainly by believers of this caliber, then theism is definitely on the road to oblivion.

False Dichotomy This is a common logical fallacy. President Bush commits it twice weekly, at least. “Either it’s moral to take a human life or it isn’t.” Or, “You’re either with me or against me.” Such black-and-white arguments fail to take into account the middle ground, a middle ground that often dwarfs the extremes. Pascal’s Wager assumes either atheism is the truth or Fire-and-Brimstone-Christianity is the truth. But there are other possibilities. Consider this perfectly valid alternative: God exists, but it is a god that rewards persons of intellectual fortitude, people who desire knowledge over dogma and reason over blind faith. Those who spend their lives wrapped in a cocoon of fear, who never bother or are too stubborn to use their “God-given” intellect, are summarily punished. In this view of the world, certainly one that is as possible as the fundamentalist Christian view, Pascal’s Wager is flipped on its ear. The skeptic is suddenly the one with nothing to fear. As a matter of fact, skeptics have nothing to fear in any world view save one. Whereas Pascal’s Wager paints us as reckless gamblers counting on “heads” rather than “tails”, we are in reality assuming we haven’t picked the one tainted grain of sand in the Sahara or the one poisonous drop of water in the Pacific. Regardless, if it turns out that the universe is governed by a deity who would eternally torture someone for an honest intellectual error, then no one is safe from this psychopath. Which leads me to …

Malevolent Theology I have a hard time understanding why anyone would believe in, let alone worship, a god who would damn to Hell those who have the audacity to use their intellect to come to the conclusion that He doesn’t exist. Is this god so petty, so jealous, so desperately in need of exaltation that rejecting Him brings a sentence of eternal torture? I simply refuse to entertain the notion of such a malevolent theology, and I can't imagine why anyone else would, either. It is far more likely, of course, that this unjust god is a human invention, one that serves a dual purpose: reassuring true believers that they will spend eternity in Heaven (of course) while their enemies (conveniently) are sent off to Hell. While I find it difficult imagining a universe governed by this type of malicious deity, I have no trouble at all believing that flawed humans, driven by fear, intolerance and hate, are capable of inventing such rot.

Intellectual Bankruptcy Or, drawing the wrong conclusion. Or, counting the hits and forgetting the misses. The statement “If atheism is true, I have nothing to lose by believing” is all those things and more. Consider: If atheism is true, there is no God, no Heaven, no Hell, no life before birth or after death, no soul, no spirit – no human essence at all other than the living entity contained within body and brain. Life is now, this reality, and nothing more. You’ve got 70 years plus or minus a few to enjoy it, and then it’s over for good. Given this, what could possibly be worse than spending this precious little time wallowing in intellectual stagnation and succumbing to wishful thinking? Skeptics (and, incidentally, many mainstream theists) are freed of a ton of baggage. We enjoy life rather than obsess about death. We see the world as it truly is, not how we wish it to be. We accept rather than reject the evidence nature reveals to us, even if that evidence makes a mockery of our conceits. Our world, our universe, is boundless, alive, infinite in majesty and scope. It is a world far more spectacular and awe-inspiring than the one inhabited by the small and petty god of Pascal’s Wager.

“Faith,” says Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, is “intellectual bankruptcy.” I cannot imagine anything worse. Nothing to lose? When you’ve chosen the path of ignorance over knowledge, hatred over love, fear over tolerance, guilt and sin over joy, and blind-faith irrationality over reason, you’ve lost everything.

[Well, I think David Gleeson certainly nailed that ‘argument’ to the wall…]
I will quit within a year - Blair

Good riddance Tony. Don’t let the door to Number 10 hit you in the arse on the way out.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My Favourite Music: Songs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I can honestly say that I loved this show – OK, maybe not Series 6… but the rest of it. There are obvious reasons why I liked it so much and some less obvious ones too. I guess that one of those was the music. The incidental music was pretty good (as evidenced by several tracks on the Radio Sunnydale CD) but what I really liked was the songs introduced either as background music or by real bands playing at The Bronze. Loving the show as I do I bought the first CD (cunningly called: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Album) as soon as it came out and played it to death. I then waited far too long for the second CD (the aforementioned Radio Sunnydale) and was most certainly not disappointed. Finally I even bought the CD of the very strange musical episode Once more, with Feeling. Yup. I’ve got it bad I tell you! But if you love the series anything like I do then you just have to own at least a part of the music.

Monday, September 04, 2006

How Superpowers Become Impotent

by Richard K. Betts for the Los Angeles Times

August 14, 2006

BEING a superpower is handy. No government in the world dares stand up to the United States on a regular battlefield. Having more than a quarter of the world's GDP and a half-trillion-dollar defense budget gets us that much — and it's a lot. Israel is a superpower in its neighborhood too. And yet these two militarily muscular powers find themselves strategically impotent in the face of age-old guerrilla tactics married to high-tech capabilities. The U.S. and Israel are perfectly equipped to knock out Iraqis, the Taliban or Hezbollah — as long as they act like good enemies and come at us in tanks, planes and ships.

But as anyone watching the news knows, these enemies are not stupid, so they do not cooperate by fighting in the way we are suited to beat. Instead, in Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban pins down NATO forces in hit-and-run attacks. In Iraq, opponents stymie U.S. control with roadside bombs, sniping and raids. From Lebanon, Hezbollah fires missiles into Israel's heartland. And on the Internet, Al Qaeda boasts that it will use radiological weapons. Along with suicide terrorism and a willingness to incur massive civilian casualties on their own side, these guerrilla tactics threaten to transform nationalist insurgents and Islamist terrorists from manageable irritants, who cause suffering but never severely damage a great power, into formidable threats to the basic security of the U.S. and its allies.

These frightening developments are a wake-up call for U.S. policy. We need to focus not just on polishing our military strategy but on which fights are winnable at an acceptable cost. We need to choose our battles more carefully. The ones we choose should be fought with overwhelming force, as Colin Powell wisely counseled, but also with overwhelming help to conquered populations who must be won over if peace is to take hold. We have no reason to be surprised by our messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our military successes since the 1991 Persian Gulf War made many forget what previous generations learned painfully about unconventional warfare: Guerrillas and terrorists plot in secret, rarely wear uniforms and hide among the civilian population. Despite illusions about precision-guided bombs, regular military forces cannot rout them without killing lots of the civilians.

To win with our conventional military, we would have to fight like beasts, slaughtering noncombatants. Americans rightly shrink from this in Iraq, but we are stuck, with no victory in sight. Israelis, feeling their backs to the wall, used military power with less restraint in Lebanon, killing hundreds of civilians to maximize the odds of getting Hezbollah soldiers and supplies. But this approach is self-defeating, spreading bitterness among victims that mobilizes more support for Hezbollah. Short of barbarism, there are only two ways to reduce guerrilla ranks faster than new recruits refill them. One is to rely on special forces such as Green Berets, but the few we have are spread thin in hot spots around the world. The other is to saturate a country with regular troops standing on every street corner. But our Army is too small to do this in more than one country at a time.

Foreign occupiers face high hurdles in overcoming local nationalist opposition. The best chance is to try "shock and awe" in occupation as well as in war. First: a dense presence of occupation forces. This would have meant half a million U.S. soldiers in Iraq to show the locals from the start that we were really in charge. We tried to get by with 150,000, which only showed how little we could control. Second: a quick and massive infusion of economic aid, construction, medical services and training. If civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq had jobs, air conditioning, genuine police protection and medical care soon after the invasion, the insurgencies might not have gained traction. As it was, the U.S. did these things only in dribs and drabs. We had no serious plan to co-opt conquered populations. This may sound like bribery, but it is better than the daily application of firepower to tamp down chaos. Yes, lots of money was pumped into Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction, but it was a small proportion of the more than $200 billion spent on the wars so far. Bribery might not work, but without it, locals have fewer reasons to prefer foreign occupiers to homegrown resisters.

So both great powers are mired in inconclusive attempts to pacify an exploding Middle East. With the hopes of peace in tatters, Israelis face narrowing options. Americans, however, blessed by geography, have more choice. The Bush line that aggressive action in Iraq was the way to counter terrorism got it backward; it has embittered more Muslims and energized more terrorists than it has eliminated. We need to focus on combating Al Qaeda, not multiplying new enemies. Where we do have to invade — as in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 — we should do so with overwhelming force and overwhelming help, to tempt the locals to buy into our brand of peace so we can leave quickly.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Celebrate the Patriotism of Dissent

by Gregory D. Foster for the Baltimore Sun

July 4, 2006

Let's take note of what Independence Day has become and what it should mean. To the faux-patriotic pomp and bombast we have come to associate with this day of celebration-cum-commemoration have now been added the devil's ingredients of indefinite post-9/11 security paranoia and militaristic arrogance. We have taken too much to heart, too unthinkingly, John Adams' vision for the day, described in a July 3, 1776 letter to his wife Abigail: "I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. ... It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."

Sadly, we have ignored the vision expressed by Thomas Jefferson 50 years later. In his last letter before he and Adams died July 4, 1826, he declined an invitation to come to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, saying of the document and the day set aside to commemorate it: "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

With the measured reason often necessary to balance Adams' passion, Jefferson instructed us that Independence Day is a day for celebratory reflection. It is a day not for chest-thumping martial ardor and jingoism, but for honoring and giving renewed life to the ideas that made the Declaration of Independence what it is: an "expression of the American mind," the philosophical foundation for our idealized way of life and a beacon for those everywhere who aspire to govern themselves democratically. Four score and seven years after the declaration, Abraham Lincoln offered reverential tribute at Gettysburg to the 7,500 soldiers who gave the last full measure of their devotion in a single battle of a profoundly divisive war that threatened to destroy the nation that America's founders had created.

Magnificently wrong in his modest judgment that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, Lincoln reminded all posterity of the declaration's central importance and meaning: that all human beings (undifferentiated by trait, origin, status, capability, belief, preference or practice) equally deserve to enjoy the inestimable rights - specified and unspecified - that nature (not government) universally bestows; that government - of, by and for the people - is formed for the very purpose of securing and preserving these rights; that where government, through its abuses and usurpations of power, denies those rights, a state of despotism exists; and that, faced with such tyranny, it is the right, indeed the duty, of the people to dissent against - even to overthrow (for justifiable reasons neither light nor transient) - the government in power.

So let us look beyond the cannon fire and pealing bells of "The 1812 Overture," the rousing tempo and stirring piccolo obbligato of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the spectacle of exploding fireworks over the Washington Monument, the rhythmic cadences of ubiquitous marching bands, the visceral physiological stimulation of fighter-jet flyovers. Let us instead reflect on the fact that this country's founders were patriots in the purest but most contrarian sense: dissidents who acted treasonously to rid themselves of despotic, yet legally constituted, government that abused its authority at the expense of its "subjects." Let us reflect on the words of the American Revolution's spiritual voice, Thomas Paine, the same who spoke of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who shrink from the service of their country in time of crisis. "It is the duty of the patriot," he said, "to protect his country from its government."

And let us reflect on the statement, often (if erroneously) attributed to Jefferson, that captures the true essence of Independence Day: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." This is a powerful sentiment that commands our eternal assent - today even more than in less-ambiguous times.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Just Finished Reading: The Magic Goes Away collection Edited by Larry Niven

This was a new collection of short fantasy stories based around the original The Magic Goes Away novella first published in 1967. The collection is based on the question: What if magic was a finite resource and by practicing magic you eventually run out of whatever power is behind it?

It’s an intriguing question and gives rise to all sorts of scenarios played out between the pages of this book. Magicians fight over the dwindling resource, Civilisations fall into ruin as the magic that sustains them slowly (or sometimes dramatically) vanishes, Attempts are made to find new and exotic sources of power not matter what the cost and what if magic could come back? How could those who use it be ready for it?

I read the original book many, many years ago and enjoyed it as much the second time. I like the works of Larry Niven very much (though I prefer his ‘Known Space’ series) so this collection was a lot of fun. Recommended to all fantasy readers.