Friday, January 31, 2014

My Log 404: Some thoughts stimulated by a movie on hackers, screened by Cinema Politica at McGill

Scientology: anti-psychiatry demonstration in ...
Scientology: anti-psychiatry demonstration in Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The logo for the Cinema Politica netw...
English: The logo for the Cinema Politica network. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I went last night to a screening of Cinema Politica at McGill, of a film about computer hackers called We Are Legion. When the film was over I asked if they had an English-language version of it, but the rather smallish audience didn’t get the joke. They were all about a fourth of my age so I guess that explains it. These kids seem to be accustomed to the appalling jargon these hackers use.
The film dealt with those serious hackers who have emerged on the public stage under the generic name of Anonymous. They explained that in this group were earlier well-known hackers, such as one that operated under the name 4Chan, which, as someone in the film explained, was established by a teen-age kid, the nicest, mildest, pleasantest person you could imagine, who presided over the most disgusting, reprehensible web site in existence.  I didn’t get a clear idea of what was so disgusting about it, but those who espouse this type of activity said it was a place where anyone could produce anything that might wander out of their imagination, however bizarre or appalling it might be, and thus represented a notable step forward in freedom of expression.
The first serious appearance of Anonymous came, if I got my facts right (I cannot really guarantee that, because these people talk in such strange, convoluted language that it was hard to pick up the essential facts from the film)   when they decided to make a global assault against the Church of Scientology, using such tricks as hacking into their web sites,  (again I apologize if my description of the actual event is slightly garbled but their description of it was slightly garbled, at least in my ears) and hitting a button which sent a single message 800,000 times to the Scientologists, thus disrupting their absurd machinations. The Scientologists, as everyone knows, is really a cult that has nothing to do with religion, and until confronted by these hackers, they routinely brought legal proceedings against anyone who murmured a whiff of opposition to their activities. The spokespeople for Anonymous said in the film that that was no longer so; the confrontation with the hackers had so disturbed the cultists’ customary behaviour as to free critical people from the fear of legal action, since the Scientologists no longer use this tactic to quiet opposition.
One up for the hackers, in my book.
I didn’t get any other major achievement of the hackers from the film, although they did fight back against the actions of Mastercard and Paypal in refusing to carry the financial affairs of Wikileaks in an effort to cut off at the knees that troublesome group --- which themselves are backed on the work of hackers, Julian Assange having started out as a hacker.  On another occasion they launched a day for street demonstrations, and one of the spokespersons said that by carefully collecting the numbers of people who had gathered in the streets of cities around the world, they came to the incredible figure of 10,000.  To me, that doesn’t sound much like an incredible figure, but, in comparison, for example, with the one million who gathered to protest  against the American war in Iraq, a rather pitifully small one.
Of course, if one considers that hackers are a select group, in advance of others in their knowledge of computers, and in their social obligation to correct the ills of he world, then these 10,000 could be thought of as a vanguard, in much the same way that the Communist party, though small in numbers, used to think of itself as the vanguard of the working class.
The trouble with that comparison is that we knew what Communists stood for, whereas it isn’t at all clear that these hackers stand for anything except to use their technical skills to create trouble. I didn’t get any clear description from the film of what these organized hackers stood for. In this sense, hacking would seem to hold out promise that they might stimulate social reforms, or, on the other hand, that they might just as easily destroy much that is good, depending on the will or social consciousness of the hacker.
One of the authorities called on in the film several times was a young anthropologist from McGill,  Prof. Gabriella Coleman, who, when the film finished appeared and took questions from the audience. She obviously knows a lot about the subject, but she had to admit that hackers had made many mistakes, had sometimes negatively affected innocent people, had paid insufficient attention to their personal security, making them easy for governments and others to pinpoint them, arrest them, and charge them.  One of my overwhelming impressions from the film was that at the end, many of the hackers seemed rather chastened as they tamely discussed what might lie in store for them as a result of having been caught in their activities. In general, I certainly didn’t get any impression that they are putative leaders of our coming revolution against the evils of capitalism.
One of the most interesting facts I picked up from the evening was when Professor Coleman said there are “millions of hackers” around the world. That is a sobering thought. One can hardly escape the fear that a good number of them might eventually be hired by, say, the Koch brothers, to aid them in their nefarious, right-wing, fascist-tending work.
A few words about the Cinema Politica as it is represented in McGill. In general it can be said that it is but a shadow of the more established variety in Concordia. There the man who founded Cinema Politica, Ezra Winton, seems still to be in charge, 10 years after they began, and it is he who seems to have presided over their expansion into many countries around the world, and dozens of universities.  Concordia appears capable of drawing an audience of around 500 people, and even more, week after week. They have a collection box at the door into which people are invited to place their donations as they walk in, whereas the four or five pleasant young women who are running the show in McGill have not so far --- at least not in my presence --- been able to do more than indicate to the audience a bottle that sits on a bench at the bottom of the room to which anyone who wants to contribute must climb down, resulting, I would think, in very few donations.
It is definitely amateur hour as the young women in McGill prepare the computer from which they are transferring the image to the screen in the steeply-banked lecture room. Their programme for the rest of the semester indicates only five more screenings, whereas Concordia has 10 further screenings scheduled. So far, to judge by the two shows I have attended at McGill, the audiences have been relatively sparse, which suggests that the young women have not really undertaken a vigorous effort to drum up interest within the University.

The first screening I attended at McGill concerned the firing of a celebrated McGill professor who, after a couple of decades of loyal service, was handed his papers without so much as an explanation. Unfortunately the movie explaining all this droned on for a good 80 minutes, 30 minutes of which could easily have been dispensed with by cutting irrelevant and repetitious material. Then, when the professor turned up to dazzle us with his celebrated teaching technique, he declared the movie was a work of remarkable genius, which any of us could plainly see was not the case. Putting his judgment somewhat into question.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Link of the Day (2): Excellent piece from AlJazeera about the political importance of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger concert photo b&w
Pete Seeger concert photo b&w (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer...
Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer 2005), a magazine he helped found in 1950 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(“It’s not that Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a Communist.
“This point is not to apologize for the moral and social catastrophe that was state socialism in the 20th century, but rather to draw a distinction between the role of Communists when in power and when in opposition. A young worker in the Bronx passing out copies of the Daily Worker in 1938 shouldn’t be conflated with the nomenklatura that oversaw labor camps an ocean away.

“As counterintuitive as it may sound, time after time American Communists such as Seeger were on the right side of history — and through their leadership, they encouraged others to join them there.”)
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Link of the day (1) Jan 29 2014: Transcript of the late, great Pete Seeger refusing to answer questions from the House Unamerican Activities Committee on August 18, 1955.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Link of the day Jan 26 2014: Defence lawyer explains why Edward Snowden could never have a fair trial in the United States

English: Thomas Drake, NSA Whistleblower
English: Thomas Drake, NSA Whistleblower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jesselyn Radack, Government Accountability Project
Jesselyn Radack, Government Accountability Project (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Image representing Edward Snowden as depicted ...
Image by None via CrunchBase
 A woman lawyer called Jesselyn Radack has developed a full answer, in a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal to that army of politicians, journalists and other commentators, who say that Edward Snowden should just return to the United States, where he will be given “a fair trial.” Ms Radack was legal adviser to former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake and former CIA officer John Kiriakou, two whistleblowers who were denied fair trials when accused under the 1917 Espionage Act, passed when the United States entered the First World War. She says that all other objections to the process aside --- and they are many ---  it will cost anything from one million to three million dollars to mount a defence, something that ruined Thomas Drake and reduced him to indigent status.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

My Log 403 Jan 24, 2014: Second episode of AlJazeera’s Orphans of the Sahara even more devastating than the first

Tuaregs at an Islamic baby baptism
Tuaregs at an Islamic baby baptism (Photo credit: 4Cheungs)
Tuareg Nomads
Tuareg Nomads (Photo credit: Brad Watson Media)
Tuareg area ru
Tuareg area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Tuareg from the Hoggar (Algeria) sitt...
 Tuareg from the Hoggar (Algeria) sitting in the sand  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Picture of tuareg nomads in the south...
English: Picture of tuareg nomads in the south of Algeria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The second episode of Al Jazeera’s series Orphans of the Sahara turns out to be even more devastating and revealing than was the first episode (see My Log 400).
This one outlines the history of Tuareg rebellions  which have seen them several times set up an independent country over part of their immense  traditional territory, the most recent being last year; which also emphasizes the appalling poverty and misery in which these people live; and which contrasts that with the fact that France is taking millions, indeed probably billions, of francs worth of wealth out, in the form of the uranium they are mining there, from under the feet of the very land these people have always lived on.
These Tuaregs, although, as one of their leaders says in the film, they are poor and illiterate, know perfectly well that they have been, and are being every day, robbed. A state-owned French company  called Areva, maintains a mine in Tuareg lands in neighbouring northern Niger where their people, once proud denizens of the tough life of the desert, now live in shacks made of scraps of old metal and rags from discarded clothing and such, and are so poor they cannot afford even the minimal health care that is available in the city hospital in the small mining town of Arlit.
Although the company hands out circulars claiming their operations are carefully monitored to ensure they have minimal impact on the local inhabitants, the film tells the story of one woman who gave birth to a child with something protruding from the back of its brain, which, when they took it to the hospital, a doctor told them “the radiation has come out through your child.”
The mother fell ill with something wrong with her stomach, but when her husband took her to the company hospital they were turned away, although the company boasts it maintains the hospital for its workers, their families and the local inhabitants. They were told to go to the city hospital, but, as the husband said, “they want money and we have no money.” The film shows people lying around in a large tent, and comments that these are all sick people who have been turned away from the Areva hospital.
The film claimed the husband phoned a nurse of his acquaintance at the Areva hospital and asked him why the document they gave the family referring to the death of their child did not mention the word “radiation.” The nurse told them that word could never be written down, it was impossible. And when the father asked for a death certificate he was told such a certificate could not be issued since he had spoken the word radiation, an impermissible word.
“Our homeland has been taken by them,” says a Tuareg in the film, claiming that hundreds of millions of tons of radio-active waste have been dumped all over their traditional grazing lands. It had so affected the animals --- even those who ate the nice-looking green grass that was being grown near to a well close to the mine --- that most of them had died, just as those of their children who had drunk water from the well had been sick. Even animals that had survived were ill; some camels could no longer stand up.
The filmmaker claims in a voiceover that the mine has required such huge quantities of water that it has worn out the acquifer lying under the desert, presumably diminishing it in size as well as polluting it with radio-active materials.
A former attempt to create an independent Azawad state, as the Tuaregs call their country, was put down when Gadhaffi, the Libyan leader, had used his influence to bring the rebellion to an end. So after two years, they had called it quits, and now 4,000 Azawadi former fighters  are sitting idle in Arlit, with nothing to show for all their efforts.
This is the background against which the filmmakers ask their audience to view the recent return of the French army, at a time when the MNLA (the Tuareg rebels) had succeeded in establishing again their own state, in spite of the unwelcome help given them by the gun-toting affiliate of AlQueda that had moved in from neighbouring countries. This had been dealt with in the previous episode, which showed how these violence-prone religious warriors had taken over Timbuctu, ancient capital of the Tuaregs, and established a strict and pitiless version of sharia law that the Tuaregs, although Muslim to the core,  had never experienced before, and did not like.
The French presence, the film left no doubt, has been not to re-establish democracy under the leadership of the southern Malian army (that the Tuaregs had driven out), but rather to safeguard France’s precious supply of uranium that they need so desperately to keep running the many power stations that provide France with 80 per cent of its electric power.
Areva, incidentally, has properties in Canada, with four mines, both active, and depleted and closed, in northern Saskatchewan, and numerous other nuclear facilities.
Canada, indeed, has a history of the health effects of uranium mining, and of  radio-active substances in mines. I came across these in the 1970s when I made a series of films for the National Film Board on the subject of occupational health. One of the first conclusions of my research was my discovery that companies had been poisoning or killing their workers since at least 1300, and had seldom done anything about it until forced to by the modern union movement. (I was reminded of the immortal words of Mr.Gradgrind, the factory owner in one of Dickens’s novels, Hard Times, I think I was. “You see that smoke, sir….That is meat and drink to us,” he declaimed.)
In one town, St Lawrence, Newfoundland, a mine operated by Alcan had so much naturally-occurring radon, as to have poisoned a whole generation of the town’s men, leaving a large number of widows to carry on their lives as best they could. I also visited Elliot Lake, where Denison mines operated Canada’s first uranium mine, and I saw the immense tailings ponds left behind from that experience, and was told by local mine leaders of the deleterious effects of the mining on the health of their members. The Elliot Lake mines have since been closed, and --- wonder of wonders --- Elliot Lake has been established as a sort of retirement village for seniors.
I discovered during that series that other Canadian companies had been negligent in the care of their workers --- for example I filmed with a widows’ committee of several hundred widows of Sudbury miners who had been poisoned in one Inco plant, since closed, their bitter survivors trying to find a way to cope with what had been left for them of a normal life. “I understand that when a man is murdered, someone is sentenced….But who will I sentence now?” asked one embittered German widow, whose husband had shrunk from a healthy young man to a bag of bones gasping his last…...
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