Sensitive (aka Thought Crime) Information in Academia

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 30th, 2008

Hicham Yezza, who was working as an administrator at the university [UCU], was arrested for printing out a copy of the widely available al-Qaida training manual for his friend, Rizwaan Sabir. He was re-arrested on immigration grounds after his release from custody and is due to be deported to Algeria on June 1. The Guardian

The Register reports his deportation has been “cancelled” but he remains in custody.

also in IT management and research:

New computer crime laws for the UK are currently being fine tuned before hopefully being passed in to law later this year. However, some of the measures intended to punish hackers harder than than they currently are could be used to criminalise people legally working in the IT industry.

There are software tools, such as nmap, that are useful for both securing a network and also for breaking into a network. Should be be made illegal? The current trend is to pass vague legislation with the verbal assurance that it will not be misused.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Even if we trust this government, who can say what the next government will do with laws that are so open to interpretation? And with ever lengthening power of arrest without charge? And total surveillance of phone and email messages? And (if the UK pilot is expanded) police wielding tasers?

“It makes people think, if I do this – which could be considered a perfectly legitimate act of research – will the same thing happen to me?” Martin Ralph, from Liverpool University

Anti Citizen One

UCLA Taser Incident

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 29th, 2008

Recounting events from Nov 2006,

Officer’s account: Officers where informed by staff that a UCLA library user would not show ID and refused to leave. A police officer approaches the library user and tell him he must leave the library. Two officers escort the library user towards the exit. The library user throws himself to the ground and shouts at the officers. Other students gather around and the officers feel threatened. The officers repeatedly tell the library user to stand up or get tased. He refuses and the officers taser him three times, handcuff him and drag him out of the library.

Student’s account: Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a student at UCLA, claims he was being asked for ID by staff due to racial profiling. He had his ID with him but refused to show it. Although he refused to leave when instructed by staff, he was leaving when the police officers arrived. While escorting him out of the library, Mostafa throws himself to the ground claiming he is passively resisting. The police use excessive force to remove him from the library. The third use of the taser was applied while he was handcuffed.

Note that my account does not capture the true complexity of many witness accounts and the camera phone video. The PARC report of their investigation is very interesting but reads like Rashomon – there are many contradictions between witnesses.

The issue to my mind: how readily should officers initiate physical contact? how readily should initiate taser use? what alternatives to force are there?

My current view is, although the student was rather paranoid, the police did nothing to defuse the situation. The first officer grabbed the library users arm after 4 seconds of making verbal contact with him. Secondly, another officer draws a taser and presses it against the library user’s back while escorting him out of the library. Thirdly, use of a taser on a passive resistor and use on a handcuffed person. All these actions are rash and unjustified by the situation. The officers should have first attempted a verbal method of achieving compliance. This would clearly take more than 4 seconds.

I am concerned with the potential for officers to resort to taser use first without attempting to verbally defuse the situation – especially if the suspect is not physically threatening before the police initiate force. There is also concern on the safety record of taser use on people who are often agitated. Safety testing has been done in controlled environments which do not reflect their practical use in law enforcement.


Review: The Castle

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 26th, 2008

The Castle, by Franz Kafka, is the novel describing K.’s arrival at a village and his struggle to contact the officials who reside in an inaccessible Castle. The Castle is held in awe by the villagers but The Castle’s motives are illusive, as are the official’s identities, physical appearance and their communication skills. This is a world away from todays world of political propaganda and suspicion of authority.

K.’s engagement as the Land Surveyor is thrown into doubt when it is revealed as a rare mistake of the system. There is apparently no need of a land surveyor. His is offered the role of school caretaker but there is also no need of a caretaker. Incidentally there is an interesting piece on the BBC about finding meaning (or lack of meaning) in the workplace.

One of the only elements that keeps the readers sanity is K’s epic efforts to make sense of his situation. He is apparently very observant but still prone to occasional mistakes without complete information. There are lengthy monologues of the villagers explaining the ways of the village but sometimes I wish K. would just ignore them, for the readers benefit, and for his; they usually do not help him gain access to The Castle. He also seems to swing between being physically tenacious and physically helpless due to the snow – even the weather is kafkaesque in The Castle!

If I may abuse Kafka, I will paraphrase the whole novel as:

Landlady: It transpires that we have no need of a land surveyor.
K.: I want to talk to someone in charge about this.
Landlady: Your childish misunderstanding of the workings of the Castle are almost beyond belief and can only be because you are an outsider. Having an interview with an official from the castle is quite impossible. You will never be admitted to the Castle.

People’s actions seem meaningless to K. and to other villagers but are later explained as completely necessary and unavoidable to the participant. This is perhaps the point of the novel – if it has any. Hasty assumptions and generalizations on incomplete information lead to misunderstandings and despising (or feeling gratitude) without any real justification. This is all very existential and postmodern. This is similar to the shifting realities of the movie Rashomon in which it is clearly impossible for everyone’s version of event to be correct, but it is left unstated as to which, if any, is true. It also strongly reminds me of the X-Files episode “Bad Blood” where the two FBI agents recount their recent adventure in turn but misunderstand and half mock the other agent due to their subjective viewpoint.

An even greater overlap is with Gilliam’s movie Brazil. The insane decision making process of The Castle’s anti chamber is similar to Mr Warren’s barking of seemingly arbitrary answers to questions. There is a certain anonymity of the authority figures in both. Sam only reaches the Deputy Minister – not the Minister him/herself. Confusion of names is also a common theme: buttle/tuttle, sortini/sordini are routinely confused; in fact it is a central plot point for Brazil.

SAM: Excuse me, Dawson, can you put me through to Mr Helpmann’s office?
DAWSON: I’m afraid I can’t, sir. You have to go through the proper channels.
SAM: And you can’t tell me what the proper channels are, because that’s classified information?
DAWSON: I’m glad to see the Ministry’s continuing its tradition of recruiting the brightest and best, sir.
SAM: Thank you, Dawson.

One difference is The Castle’s authority is only maintained by the villagers deference to it’s authority. There is no mention of guards or prisons. Brazil is quite the opposite and takes its methods indirectly from Orwell’s 1984. There is also a hint of Gormenghast but expressed in The Castle as from the lowest rank rather than the highest. Steerpike easily subverts the bureaucracy and I wonder what would result if K. seriously attempted to infiltrate the castle, possibly as a semi-official messenger (through the same channels as Barnabas). I wonder if the Count of The Castle is a victim of bureaucracy as K. and the Earl of Gormenghast.

The writing style of The Castle is frankly rather painful. Rather like a river, it starts swiftly, windingly and clear. The story ends slowly and murkily. The blame cannot be assigned to anyone in particular, least of all Kafka as the book was published from an incomplete text that probably had been abandoned by the author. But was the author trying to frustrate the reader as K. is frustrated?

The closest experience one can have to conveniently experience the alienation of The Castle is to telephone a large company using a call centre and being put on hold. When you eventually get to talk to someone, they are the lowest underling and misinterpret your meaning (sorry to readers who work in call centres!). To apply a concept from the novel, how do you know you are talking to the company and not an impostor? There are people who have no business answering the phones in the call centre but they pick them up on a whim and one should not believe a word of their pranks!

Anti Citizen One

Chimp Culture

Posted by on May 25th, 2008

I thought I would post on something slightly off the beaten track for a change and write about something I have read recently that intrigued me.

In the April 2008 edition of National Geographic magazine there was a remarkable and touching article on Anthropological studies on Chimp culture in their own environment. In particular it was focusing on how Chimps are using spears to hunt, but also how the environment in which certain colonies such as the Fongoli live in (non-rain forested) has forced them to adapt and adopt new behaviours. Naturally enough this research intrigues those who are studying the evolution of man, and the subtitle to the article “Almost Human” reflects this.

In the article there was a chart listing variations in Chimp culture across different regions of Africa, an observation that initially astounded scientists but which is now common currency, after all human culture has a great many variations (chopsticks or forks?). One practise intrigued me immensely, and this is that the Fongoli, Bossou, Gombe and Tai chimp communities have been observed performing both individual and social rain dances.

A storm can provoke chimps in most groups to show off with a frenetic or rhythmic display.

And the Tai community has been observed going one better, performing a rain dance prior to a downpour. And research suggests this is not mere coincidence, these communities seem to consistantly perform these dances before major storms.

I am intrigued, as are the anthropologists studying them, at the seemingly religious nature of the behaviour.

You’re in awe when you see this… The chimpanzees go into a quasi-trance, dancing even when they’re alone, with no spectators, as if they were ritually celebrating the rainstorm. Pascal Gagneux – University of California at San Diego

Other researchers have noted a sense of appreciation or even “reverence” for nature exhibited in Chimpanzee behaviour. And this is extraordinary (in my opinion) as any anthropologist or primatologist studying the behaviour and culture of our closest specieal relatives would be cautious in the extreme not to allow anthropomorphic intepretations to spoil their observations. And this is obvious by the measured use of simile in their descriptions – “as if they were” – rather than “they were”. But this cautious approach does not make the observations any less remarkable, and as Wittgenstein said a simile (to be meaningful) must be meaningful when the simile is dropped. Thus one may suggest that what has been witnessed is ritual behaviour very similar to that performed by human cultures, though one may not state that as a definitive claim just yet.

So what does all this mean, and why do I find it interesting? Well it seems to me to suggest (and this is my intepretation of the material) that there is reasonable grounds to propose that ritual and religious behaviours are natural cultural phenomenon. And if one accepts that proposition then we can start to entertain the challenging and in some quarters unfashionable perspective that religious behaviour (and religion) may be useful.

Let me add a philosophical/theological caveat to this. I am by no means proposing that the existence of a natural religion or natural religious urge is in any way indicative of a God, gods, spirits and the whole panoply of metaphysical beliefs that are advanced by one religion or another. Indeed I would argue (whilst not wearing my religious hat) that if one could demonstrate an innate religiousity as being a cultural phenomenon shared with (and possibly inherited from) our closest specieal relatives then we can begin to analyse metaphysics as the “fairy-tales” by which our ancestors sought to suppliment and explain these traits.

I am therefore content to settle with the theory that religious culture has natural origins, and that it serves (or served or may come to serve) some sort of important social function. And along with such Postmodernist theologions as Don Cupitt I could be motivated to suggest that religion has a healthy future if it were to detach itself from certain metaphysical doctrines.

Two final notes. The uncanny ability of these Chimps to perform the raindance prior to the actual rain (though we have no reason to believe they perform the dance with such intent) reminds me of various Shamanic cultures where raindances are performed. Most likely as with the Chimps an awareness of meteorology is at play, and the dance is performed at such a time as it is most likely to be successful. But is it not possible that like the Chimps this meteorological awareness is perhaps a subconscious reaction to the elements? It is said that prior to an electrical storm the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. If the raindance has deep unconscious roots, then even though we think we know better, should we not tolerate the claim that the raindance makes the rain come? It may be a false-causality from our perspective but it seems to work for those cultures who cherish it still. And lets be fair- if among our number somebody claimed to be able to do something marvellous and yet when pressed to perform the feat was consistently unable to do so surely eventually we would tire of his boasts, and yet medicine men and ritual specialists abound accross the worlds many cultures, indicative perhaps that they have a reasonably balanced expectation to performance ratio. In other words, they seem to be able to do what they claim to be able to do. And finally I wish to reiterate that the innate religiousity that it is claimed is being observed in nature is a very different kind of religion from institutions and heirarchies and metaphysics. I really think the operative word that connects the observations of Chimp behaviour with human religious urges is “reverence” and I would be content to leave it all at that. Richard Dawkins famed secularist and atheist by means of a reductio once pointed out how awesome the universe is – and how much he enjoys revelling in it – without inferring design, purpose, divinity etc. I don’t know whether he would appreciate the suggestion, but I can’t help but feel that he in his encounter with the natural world exhibits a certain deal of “reverence”. And that reverence above anything else is the definitive essence of what religion is (and perhaps should) be.

NGM article (again) here.

Short NYTimes article here.

Short interview with a Chimp Observer for the Jane Goodall Institute here.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 23rd, 2008

I have been trying to find an interesting angle on the recent law passed by the UK government. I am afraid I have not found anything particularly insightful! Both sides seem to be talking past each other. If I may paraphrase each side:

Religion: we respect human life and we should therefore not experiment on embryos.

Scientists: we should experiment on embryos to advance medicine because we respect human life.

This indicates a difference in their conceptions of “respect”. Without specifying this, saying we have respect from human life is ambiguous. It annoys me that most of the media coverage does not scratch the surface of this issue.

My own opinion has been expressed in my blog post – the Paragon of Animals. To base objects based on divisions between species is, almost by definition, arbitrary and transient (all life forms are our distant cousins and all species have a finite duration of existence).

Anti Citizen One

UK Government Plans Centralised Databased

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 21st, 2008

I feel like every time I turn by back, the UK government starts planning another disaster waiting to happen. The latest proposal is to create a centralized email and phone activity database. This is not a good idea.

The balance of power between the individual and the state has drifted in the past few years towards the state having unprecedented power. Couple this with a media controlled democracy, we are vulnerable to a charismatic leader being elected by popular support and then refusing to listen to their constituents and then refusing to relinquish power. It is already illegal to protest outside parliament without permission. Any dissenters can be isolated using the surveillance apparatus established by previous administrations for your “safety”.

“There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” (to borrow from Douglas Adams)

Be more concerned with the scenario of sliding into totalitarianism and less with the near negligibly small possibility of being injured or killed by terrorists. What we need is DEcentralization.


Teenager faces prosecution for calling Scientology ‘cult’

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 20th, 2008

A teenager is facing prosecution for using the word “cult” to describe the Church of Scientology.

The unnamed 15-year-old was served the summons by City of London police when he took part in a peaceful demonstration opposite the London headquarters of the controversial religion.

Writing on an anti-Scientology website, the teenager facing court said: “I brought a sign to the May 10th protest that said: ‘Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.’ The Guardian

The mind boggles. Under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1985, “a person is guilty of an offense if they […] display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”. The word cult, in this context, is a critical term but also it is the central point of the protest. Does that mean all criticism of “new religious movements” (the non-perjorative term) is illegal? Based on the police action, the answer seems to be YES.

The police clearly over stepped their bounds and authority – the teenager has something known in subversive circles as “legal rights” under the “European Convention on Human Rights” (section 10 if you are interested). Secondly, criticism as part of a peaceful protest is not “threatening, abusive or insulting”.

The police should ask for the prosecution to be dropped and issue guidance to all officers as to what is “threatening, abusive or insulting” to prevent this happening in future. Remember tolerance does not mean refraining from criticism.

Anti Citizen One


Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 19th, 2008

More people need to be aware of the dangers of fan death. I cite the cromulent Wikipedia as a reliable source of this phenomena….

Beware! Beware!


Public Debate: Surveillance vs Privacy

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 15th, 2008

I attended an interesting debate on surveillance and privacy. Interestingly they presented both sides of the argument: that surveillance can have positive, as well as negative, effects – easy access to medical records, shopping reward schemes, more efficient government services, etc. The fact is our current life style is dependent on the surveillance infrastructure that has been established by governments and companies.

On the other hand, are the risks of identity fraud, personal details appearing the public domain, espionage or state suppression of dissidents. The defenders of surveillance often mention is maxim: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” That may be true as far as it goes but who does not have something to hide?

One of the panellists mentioned a few items that some people have a need to hide: their contact details if they are escaping from an abusive relationship, their address if they work in animal testing or abortion clinic, if they have suffered from a health problem that carries a social stigma (for example mental health), if they have suffered from a crime that carries a social stigma (for example rape). Other ideas that were mentioned were: the food that your purchase (which might be interesting if you want private medical insurance or life insurance), your driving habits (car insurance), your friends and group associations (which can be profiled, with debatable accuracy, to show personality traits, sexual characteristics, political tendencies). Just look at the Jeremy Clarkson fraud incident.

If you don’t have anything to hide that is fine. But it is extremely arrogant to extend that principle to the whole of the population. There are currently at least two UK government committees looking at the impact of surveillance on society with their reports due this summer and autumn.

A recent government report cast doubt on the effectiveness of CCTV. One self admitted post-modern panellist said that he still supports CCTV as it comforts the public even if it does not reduce crime. I would agree that crime and the public perception of crime are distinct but interrelated issues, but I would prefer to use resources on measures that actually reduce crime rather than just make everyone else feel secure. (I don’t feel safer since I know its a placebo!)

Anti Citizen One

PS I am reading Kafka’s The Castle which shares some similar themes. And who could forget the movie Brazil?

New Scientist on Falsification

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 14th, 2008

There is an interesting piece in New Scientist on falsification in science. (Sorry, subscription only.)

Even when scientists accept that a theory has failed some test, they rarely junk it as being false. Popper recognised this too. Krauss points to the classic case of Newton versus Einstein. During the 20th century, Newton’s theory of gravity was repeatedly “falsified” by observations: for example, by predicting only half the observed bending of light by the sun’s gravitational field.

The point that some theories where previously considered unfalsifiable and therefore not scientific was discussed.

The false assumption is made that a so called “falsification” is always valid. If a mistake is found in the falsification, a “disproven” theory becomes an un-disproven theory. Also what is called pseudo scientific by scientists need not always remain so. If a theory is found to make testable predictions, it becomes scientific. The boundary of what is empirically testable and untestable is always changing.

But whatever one regards as the essence of science – black-and-white falsification or subtle shades of grey – in the end it is still empirical observations that decide if a theory gets taken seriously. “At some level, you cannot give up the idea of falsification,” says Krauss. “Rumours of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated.”


PS Feyerabend was not mentioned if you were wondering.