Oh no you didn’t

Oh no you didn'tMy morning coffee was interrupted by a gentle knocking on the front door.  On the other side was a delightful older woman and her apprentice proselytizer sporting bibles, Watchtower magazines, and other paraphernalia of the trade.

She opened by explaining they were there to make sure I understood what the bible had to say, because they’ve found many people don’t know.  I politely replied that I had a bible, had read it, and was pretty familiar with what was inside.  I finished by explaining that I really didn’t feel the need for any additional guidance today.

That should have been the end of it, save for a few pleasantries, and I could return to my cooling cup of Joe and my newspaper.  But no.

She reaches into her stack of pamphlets and pulls one out while saying that perhaps she might interest me in some information on God’s creation because science is constantly trying to disprove it, and I might need to know how to respond.

It was at that moment I wished I was a woman and could pull off that whole finger-wagging head-shaking “Oh no you did not” indignation move.  But alas, I’m just a gesture impaired male.  Either way, it was clear my coffee was going to get colder.

I responded, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand that science is not trying to disprove religious mythology.  That is neither its purpose nor its intent.  It exists to explain nature in a way that allows us to predict and manipulate it.  This is a role that religion does not fulfill, nor aspire to fill.  Science is dependent on a method of discovery and rigorous explanation that is completely indifferent to your beliefs.  Science is not a democracy, nor is it dependent on faith.  You don’t get to pick and choose where it leads.”

“You drove up here in a car whose existence is the product of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and a dozen other scientific disciplines.  You have a cell phone in your purse, you’re wearing synthetic blend clothes, and you’re schlepping out brochures drafted on computers and produced on high-speed printing presses.”

“The world you live in is the product of science.  It’s unfortunate that you feel threatened by aspects of science, but unless you’re willing to go back to your cave and huddle around the fire you need to find a way your theology can coexist with it.  Anything less is a major act of hypocrisy on your part.”

Science doesn’t want to play in your sandbox.  Stop dragging it in.

SOPA on a Rope

SOPA-on-a-ropeThe current bill in Congress known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) or as it’s known in the Senate, PROTECT IP (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property) is just beginning to get coverage in the non-technical press.  In draft, this was called the E-PARASITE Act (Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act). Seriously, who names these things?

From the names, it all sounds like goodness right? Theft, exploitation, piracy, who wants that?  If only it were that simple.

The intent of the bill is to crack down on illegal online file sharing.  There’s ample room for debate about how damaging online piracy truly is, and whether or not it makes business sense for content providers to aggressively attack their customers, but that’s a topic for another day.  Even if we accept that online piracy threatens to destroy the music and movie industry (just like VHS tapes and writable CDs did), the proposed bill is absolutely not the way to go about preventing it.

There are lots of articles out there on why this is so.  You can read the bill yourself, or read others’ analyses here, here, or here.  However, let me try and boil down the basics for you.

The Great Firewall of the USA: Enforcement of SOPA will require the creation of a Internet filters by all domestic ISPs to control what sites you are allowed to visit. This may be well intentioned censorship, but it’s still censorship, and it puts the mechanisms in place for less benign intentions. Do we really want to head down that slippery slope?

Online Security: Let’s face it, once the firewall goes up, many of us will find ways around it. This will involve a combination of foreign or rogue DNS servers, proxies, or VPN services. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to believe that once you start getting your Internet delivered through black market servers that your online security will be at greater risk.

No More Safe Harbors:  The current law allows web site owners some protection under the “safe harbor” clause.  That means that if you were to post a comment on this article containing some illegal content, the owner of the content could demand I take it down, and I would be obliged to do so. But if the owner wanted to sue for damages, he couldn’t sue me as the website owner.  Rather, he’d have to come after you as the one who posted it.  Under SOPA, that protection is gone.  If you upload a funny Big Bang Theory clip to Facebook, CBS can sue Mark Zuckerberg for damages. SOPA will undoubtedly result in far fewer sites taking on the risk of letting you post things on them. The web will become a lot less participatory.

Loss of Due Process:  This is perhaps the most egregious implication. Under SOPA, website owners are guilty until proven innocent.  Based only on an accusation of having illegal content on your site, anyone can demand that the ISPs block access to your site, and may further demand that all banks stop doing business with you.  Sure, you can appeal to the court, but that could take months or years to settle. In the meantime, you’re out of business.

As the major backer of SOPA, the entertainment industry is making lots of assurances that the provisions of SOPA would never be used for anything but the most noble of causes.  They are full of it.  These same people have already collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stretch the In Rem Forfeiture clause (allowing for the immediate seizure of property used in the commission of a crime) to include domain name seizures of websites with no warning or due process.  They are wielding this with a broad brush and have repeatedly seized domains eventually found legal by the courts, but by then put out of business.  Oops.

This whole SOPA mess has also created some strange bedfellows.  The tech community and most high tech companies have come out against it.  Along side them are Michele Bachmann and her Tea Party Coalition.  Ironically, the Tea Party and the Techies were on staunchly opposite sides of the Net Neutrality debate, so this is a somewhat uneasy alliance.

On the other side we find the Hollywood studios, music companies, and the organizations like RIAA and the MPAA that lobby for them.  We also find VP Joe Biden and several key Democratic legislators who have historically been supportive of anything Hollywood wants.  To her credit, Hillary Clinton has expressed some concerns about SOPA, and Obama claims to be on the fence.

To that end, Obama is currently taking input on the issue.  If you want to oppose the bill, go to the White House website and sign the online petition.  As of this writing, we are still a few thousand signatures short of the “pay attention to me” threshold.  Yes, you have to create a White House account to sign the thing, but it only takes a minute.

On the other hand, if you think SOPA sounds like a great idea and want to know how to support it, please write a long letter and mail it to your local animal shelter. They are always looking for material to line the bird cages with.


The Evolution of Christmas

Evil SantaHalloween was several days ago, which can only mean one thing.  Christmas is upon us.  Yes, yes, I know Thanksgiving is in there somewhere, but so far our WalMart overlords haven’t figured out how to commercialize that day beyond a good sale on canned cranberry jelly.  So it doesn’t count.  It’s Christmas dammit!  Why aren’t you out shopping?

Actually several members of my family (those with a preponderance of X-chromosomes), started the Christmas season months ago.  I know this because they started pestering me in July for what I wanted for Christmas, and for what they should buy my teenage sons.  Some consider themselves behind if Labor Day comes and goes and they aren’t wrapping presents yet.

I don’t believe for a minute they simply enjoy gift shopping so much they have to start 6 months early because they can’t wait.  Catch them overtired or with an extra glass of wine and they’ll even admit that while they love the idea of Christmas gifts, the reality is a pain in the tuckus, and they are just trying to get it out of the way.

In fairness, it’s not all downside. Pretty much everyone relishes seeing the unmitigated joy on a young child’s face as they open a Christmas gift.  And kids’ needs and desires change so frequently in those early years that shopping for them is often fun.  But shopping for anyone over 15 gets a little dicier. When shopping for older folks, gifts tend to fall into one of two categories.  Stuff they don’t want, and stuff you can’t afford.  Which explains why on Christmases-past you may have wanted an HDTV, but instead exclaimed, “Yay! Socks!” while quietly dying a little bit inside.

Retailers recognized this problem, and in recent years the advent of e-commerce and online wish lists have made things easier for shoppers to buy gifts people actually desire and value.  In theory, you just hit up your intended’s Amazon Wish List and select from the bounty of gifts he or she has expressed an interest in…  And a couple of clicks later, you’re done.  Which would be bloody brilliant except that most of us don’t bother adding things to our wish lists.  All of which earns us the ire of our loved ones who berate us for depriving them of the opportunity to conveniently show us how much they love us.

So now, instead of struggling to find the perfect gift for Mom, you struggle to find the perfect gift for Mom to give you.  It’s not clear this is better.  And whatever element of surprise there was in the giving of gifts has vanished.  “Oh look!  The new razor I picked out for me.  What a splendid wrapping job you did on it.  Is there any pie left?”

It’s tempting to argue that maybe us older folks should just mutually agree to wallow in each other’s company, embrace the warmth and the strength of our familial bonds, and forgo the whole gift exchange… but apparently that’s just crazy talk.  “These are traditions dammit, and it wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t get to open something.  So, just shut your heretical pie hole and tell me what to buy you!”

Looking at the evolution of gift giving on Christmas we see the following progression of things we give to others to celebrate the day:

  • Myrrh from afar or the occasional drum solo
  • Small handmade crafts, toys, or edible treats
  • Small elf-made crafts or toys
  • Thoughtfully or desperately chosen commercially produced stuff
  • Commercially produced stuff chosen by the giftee

Our entire economy is now dependent on Christmas shopping, so we can’t return to just offering each other a little pa-rum-pum-pum-pum without risking a collapse of the entire stock market, and I am not living through 2009 again.  Instead, let’s push this forward.  I think it’s time we move this along to its next evolutionary stage.

Why don’t we all just take responsibility for not only selecting, but for purchasing and wrapping gifts for ourselves from all our loved ones.  Just put their name on it and place it under the tree.  This is a sure way to restore the magic of the day, or at least the element of surprise.  Sure, you’ll still know everything you’re getting, but you’ll have no idea what you’ve given.  Maybe you’ll choose to have the whole family chip in on that TV.  Maybe they’ll each give you an individually wrapped Oreo.  Have you been naughty or nice this year? Who knows?  You do!  (Certainly they don’t.)  Oh, the fun of Christmas morning is back.

Who’s with me?