Wednesday 1 October 2014

The Children of the Syrian Civil War

Please watch this video of children reduced to collecting scraps of food from bombed out ruins in the streets of Hajr al Aswad in Syria. This is the real face of war. These are the effects of the calamitous civil war in Syria. I fear for these children today and the future that they has been robbed from them..

Sunday 7 September 2014

Why captured ISIS soldiers should be treated humanely

The video below purports to show captured ISIS extremists.  I was disturbed to see Iraqi soldiers kicking and hitting them.  I am an Iraqi Christian.  These extremists have committed horrible crimes against my people and against all Iraqis.  My hometown, a Christian town near Mosul, has been emptied as residents fled from the ISIS advance.  My grandfather was captured, robbed and forced to walk out of town to safety by these people.  I have no sympathy for them.

However, I strongly believe that we must maintain the moral high ground in this fight.  Once captured, these prisoners should be treated humanely and provided with due process and trials.  If they are found guilty (we must remember that innocent Sunnis have been killed and tortured by Iraqi forced in the past in anti-terrorism campaigns) they should be imprisoned or executed depending on the nature of their crimes.

I am sympathetic to the Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers.  They have watched their friends and comrades being slaughtered by the thousands by ISIS extremists.  I also know that there would not be any due process or humane treatment at the hands of ISIS.

But we cannot adopt the evil methods of our enemies lest we become them.  War ravages the soul and we must do all we can to protect ourselves and our sanity from the temptation to savagery.  I sincerely hope that the Iraqi and Kurdish governments provide clear guidelines on the treatment of prisoners.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Areas under ISIS control in Iraq

The Institute for the Study of War has a useful map showing the different factions in Iraq and the areas under their control:

A Poem for ISIS

Reddit user u/Poem_for_your_sprog posts an appropriate poem for ISIS:

You bloodthirsty savages;
Sickness of wars.
You think that you're fighting for you and for yours?
You 'speak' for your people
Then draw in a breath,
And sully their honour with violence and death.
You say that you're praying,
And making a plea –
But murder the innocent, guiltless, and free.
Your 'proofs' and your 'truths'
And your 'justice' are lies -
A court and a critic? A coward's disguise.
You think that you're pious
But live on your gall,
Subsisting on poison and hatred for all.
You're nothing but monsters.
I'll say it again -
You savages.
You bloodthirsty men.

Monday 24 March 2014

End of the NSA's bulk phone collection program?

Charlie Savage of the New York Times reports that the Obama administration will unveil a "far reaching overhaul" of the NSA's bulk phone records program, also known as the 215 program for the section of the Patriot Act ostensibly that authorizes it.  Instead of bulk collection by the agency, the records would remain with the phone companies.  The NSA would be required to obtain a court order to retrieve specific records.

Georgetown professor David Cole, writing at, is cautiously optimistic about the proposal. He point to the lessons we can draw from this development:
Two lessons seem critical to draw at this juncture. First, there is no substitute for transparency in a democracy. The much-lauded three branches of government did nothing to rein in this program as long as it remained a secret (and at least one member of the executive branch, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress about the program to keep it secret). And second, once surveillance is subject to public review and assessment, as it must be in any healthy democracy, dragnet surveillance is not likely to last long. By definition, such surveillance implicates us all. The only way to keep it in place is to keep it secret.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Should the government be able to deceive about activity that is legal?

Glenn Greenwald responds to critics who argue that NSA actions that are deemed legal should not be reported:
Mere legality is insufficient to shield a program from justifiable transparency; conversely, exposure of illegality is not the only form of valid reporting. Take the classic whistleblowing case of the Pentagon Papers: those documents really did not reveal illegality as much as they revealed government deceit, systematic lying to the American people about the Vietnam War. The fact that such official lying may have been legal hardly means that it should have remained concealed.

The fact is that American law imposes almost no restrictions on what the US Government is permitted to do to non-Americans, but that does not mean that all such conduct should be off-limits from media reporting just because it has been legalized. Drone strikes that kill innocent people are arguably legal because Congress has approved them, and are often concealed from the public through an abuse of secrecy rules: does that mean journalists should refrain from reporting them? After all, such reporting “exposes [arguably] lawful conduct deemed in the national interest by the democratically elected representatives of the people.”

Having the US government subject the entire world to a system of suspicionless collect-it-all surveillance goes far beyond what was known or expected or approved; it goes far beyond what is common. It has profound implications for all sorts of critical values. The fact that American law does not prohibit it does not remotely mean that citizens should be kept ignorant that it is happening. Independently, the notion that the US Government should be permitted by journalists to deceive its citizenry – by, for instance, pretending that it is China rather than itself engaging in this form of industrial espionage – simply because such deceit is “legal” is entirely noxious to the most basic tenets of what journalism should be.
 Via The Intercept

Saturday 22 March 2014

"Face Madness", Kim Byungkwan

"Everything there is out there in this world, more or less, provides familiar vision.

This familiar vision can be replaced as habit. This habitual vision which every object gives us and creates comfort. However it shuts down all the other possibilities.  The habitual vision or visual habit makes us go by the routine ways. It stops us from having adventure and checking out the wonders out there.

My work is trying to destroy, tear up, and reconstruct this habitual vision so that our vision can be expended to other images."

Kim Byungkwan is an artist based in Seoul, South Korea.  More of Byungkwan's work at the link, via PICDIT

Thursday 20 March 2014

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, stepping down

Yesterday, Ryerson University announced that Dr. Cavoukian would be stepping down as Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner and take the position of Executive Director of the Ryerson University Institute for Privacy and Big Data.

Over the last 15 years as commissioner, Dr. Cavoukian has been at the forefront of reconciling the right to privacy with and increasingly networked and digital world.  She has been the chief promoter of the concept of Privacy by Design, "an approach to protecting privacy by embedding it into the design specifications of technologies, business practices, and physical infrastructures."

I look forward to more great work form Dr. Cavoukian in the future.

Myths and Propaganda: The Martyrdom of Hypatia

In this well sourced and informative look at the murder of Hypatia, the fourth century Greek Alexandrine Neoplatonist philosopher, Youtuber CoryTheRaven deconstructs the modern myths surrounding her death. 

In her book, Hypatia of Alexandria, Maria Dzielska illustrates how Hypatia became a powerful symbol of the persecution of science by the religious:

Long before the first scholarly attempts to reconstruct an accurate image of Hypatia, her life—marked by the dramatic circumstances of her death—had been imbued with legend. Artistically embellished, distorted by emotions and ideological biases, the legend has enjoyed wide popularity for centuries, obstructing scholarly endeavors to present Hypatia’s life impartially, and it persists to this day. Ask who Hypatia was, and you will probably be told: ‘‘She was that beautiful young pagan philosopher who was torn to pieces by monks (or, more generally, by Christians) in Alexandria in 415.’’ This pat answer would be based not on ancient sources, but on a mass of belletristic and historical literature, a representative sample of which is surveyed in this chapter. Most of these works present Hypatia as an innocent victim of the fanaticism of nascent Christianity, and her murder as marking the banishment of freedom of inquiry along with the Greek gods.
For a comprehensive scholarly review of the limited sources available on Hypatia's life and death, and the complex Alexandrian politics that surrounded her, read Dzielska's accessible and short book.

"Our Lady of Grace", Montreal

h/t Proteon at imgur.  Click here for original link.

The power of metadata

One of the documents disclosed by Edward Snowden was a FISA court order, issued under section 215 of the Patriot Act, mandating that Verizon provide records for all “communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” This data included information on the identities of the sender and the receiver, the date, time, duration, location and other unique identifiers of the communications such as IMSI and IMEI numbers.

NSA and Obama administration officials have defended this collection as reasonable and limited because it does not include the content of the calls. A recent study on the "sensitivity" of telephone metadata, how easy it is to draw sensitive inferences from metadata, provides evidence that contradict the administration's claims:

We used crowd sourced data to arrive at empirical answers. Since November, we have been conducting a study of phone metadata privacy. Participants run the MetaPhone app on their Android smartphone; it submits device logs and social network information for analysis. In previous posts, we have used the MetaPhone dataset to spot relationships, understand call graph interconnectivity, and estimate the identifiability of phone numbers. 
At the outset of this study, we shared the same hypothesis as our computer science colleagues—we thought phone metadata could be very sensitive. We did not anticipate finding much evidence one way or the other, however, since the MetaPhone participant population is small and participants only provide a few months of phone activity on average. 
We were wrong. We found that phone metadata is unambiguously sensitive, even in a small population and over a short time window. We were able to infer medical conditions, firearm ownership, and more, using solely phone metadata.
It is also important to remember that the metadata collection program is only one of many different NSA programs that have been released.  When President Obama claims that there is no collection of content, he is saying that this particular program does not collect content.  The Wikipedia page on the global surveillance disclosures from 2013 to present is breathless in scope.  

On 18 March, for example, Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani of the Washington Post reported that the NSA "has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place"

Saturday 8 June 2013

David Foster Wallace on freedom and the security state

From the Atlantic, Nov 1 2007

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur? 
 hat tip The Dish

Wednesday 8 May 2013

A Final Embrace: The Most Haunting Photograph from Bangladesh

Source: Taslima Akhter

The police have recovered 803 bodies from the collapsed eight-story Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh as of May 8.  This is a tragedy that reminds me of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 in New York that killed 146 textile workers and helped spur legislation for safer working conditions.  I hope that the workers in Bangladesh are able to organize and win the labour rights and safer working conditions that all workers in the world deserve.

On 2 April 1911, Rose Schneiderman addressed the Women's Trade Union League in NY in a memorial meeting held to remember the Triangle fire.  A socialist and union activist, Rose used the fire as an argument for factory workers to organize:

"I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.

The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire....

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."


Sunday 5 May 2013

John Maynard Keynes on Economic Thinking

The General Theory, chapter 21:
The object of our analysis is, not to provide a machine, or method of blind manipulation, which will furnish an infallible answer, but to provide ourselves with an organised and orderly method of thinking out particular problems; and, after we have reached a provisional conclusion by isolating the complicating factors one by one, we then have to go back on ourselves and allow, as well as we can, for the probable interactions of the factors amongst themselves.
This is the nature of economic thinking. Any other way of applying our formal principles of thought (without which, however, we shall be lost in the wood) will lead us into error.
It is a great fault of symbolic pseudo-mathematical methods of formalising a system of economic analysis, such as we shall set down in section vi of this chapter, that they expressly assume strict independence between the factors involved and lose all their cogency and authority if this hypothesis is disallowed; whereas, in ordinary discourse, where we are not blindly manipulating but know all the time what we are doing and what the words mean, we can keep 'at the back of our heads' the necessary reserves and qualifications and the adjustments which we shall have to make later on, in a way in which we cannot keep complicated partial differentials 'at the back' of several pages of algebra which assume that they all vanish.
Too large a proportion of recent 'mathematical' economics are merely concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.