Monthly Archives: July 2016

Who needs privacy anyway?

We have a new prime minister. The Right Honourable Theresa May MP took on the UK’s top job last week. Oh dear. It could have been worse, of course, her only serious challenger was Andrea Leadsom, a person who is on record as saying that marriage should only be for straight Christian couples. Delightful.

Leadsom dropped out, leaving May as the only contender, so the Conservative party didn’t bother to hold an election, and we now have our third unelected PM in my lifetime. Now, I don’t have a particular problem with this: we have a parliamentary system, not a presidential one, and the PM is the leader of the party that can “command the confidence of the House”. Theresa May is the legitimate PM and that is how the system works. The thing I do have a problem with, however, is policy.

In recent years, as Home Secretary, May has been pushing for mass surveillance of the entire internet-using population of the country. She has been guiding the Investigatory Powers bill through parliament which, amongst other things, imposes a duty on all internet service providers to log (using deep packet inspection) every single HTTP request (website visit) and the SMTP headers (every e-mail you send or receive) of every single user and retain the data for 12 months. Just in case.

Now, why does she want the UK to pursue surveillance powers only used by North Korea, China and Iran? Well, it seems that she doesn’t much like encryption. Modern cryptography is pretty good and it means that UK citizens can communicate with each other without the intelligence services being able to tap the line. She neglects to mention many problems with this, of course. Having the data is not the same as being able to find the data. The challenge faced by the security agencies is a considerable one. Going from not much data to having all the data turns it from trying to get hold of the relevant data to trying to find a needle in an entire nation of haystacks. Except that these haystacks are made of needles.

When the Paris attacks were analysed post-fact, it turned out that the people who arranged the atrocity weren’t actually using encryption at all, and that the security services probably had all the data they needed: they just didn’t know it until after the fact. Giving them terabytes of irrelevant data for every day of the previous year isn’t really going to help.

Then there is the problem of information security. The only way to properly secure a computer is to disconnect it from everything, encase it concrete and bury it in a very very deep hole. Then back-fill with more concrete. This has obvious disadvantages, of course. If the ISPs spy database is to be made available to police services, it is going to have to be accessible. This data is going to be the target of the large body of computer crackers who seem to relish the challenge of grabbing hold of data that others want to keep safe. At some point, at least one ISP’s database is going to be leaked. I wonder which ISP the PM uses at home. I’d put money on that ISP being the first to go.

But it’s OK. I have nothing to hide.

After all these years, it looks like time to turn on TLS on my mailserver. Sorry, Mrs May. Years of effort thwarted by a two-minute change of configuration. Now, if only there was a way to do that for outgoing web requests. Or a cheap and easy project that made the whole thing trivial.

Pointless and counterproductive laws anyone? It’s what we do best. Welcome to the United Kingdom.

Christianity, in a nutcase^H^H^H^Hshell

Douglas Adams pulled out a fundamental truth about Christianity right at the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…”

Ah, but it’s more complicated than that, I frequently hear people argue. Usually the people who keep a hammer and some nails about their person, (it pays to be prepared, after all).

Case in point: I recently commented on a Facebook posting about a fundamentalist “Christian” woman who was whingeing about those nasty gay people getting married and how, as a Christian, she felt obliged to condemn, loudly and publicly, people who fall in love in a manner she disapproves of. I’ve lost the FB thread now (in the seconds-long news cycle that is modern social media), but the gist of it was that I said that I get annoyed by people claiming the name “Christian” using it as fuel for hatred of others. As is pretty much standard, someone replied quoting Leviticus 18:22. As is also standard, I replied alluding to Leviticus 19:19, and also Leviticus 11:12 for good measure (tl;dr: polyester-cotton is an abomination unto God, as is prawn cocktail). I was feeling restrained, so I didn’t push forward into more uncomfortable territory with Deuteronomy 22:2829 (tl;dr: if a man rapes a virgin and they are discovered, they must marry, with no hope of divorce).

Christianity gets its name from Jesus Christ, who commanded his followers to emulate him, and to disregard Jewish practice that oppresses people. His teaching on the Sabbath was shocking to those who heard him. Jewish tradition, compliant with the written word of God, was that you should do no work on the Sabbath day (in modern terms, the Sabbath runs from sunset each Friday to sunset on Saturday). This included helping people who need helping, or rescuing your animals. Practice at the time, it seems, had got a bit rigid. Jesus argued that the Sabbath was created by God so that his people could get a bit of relaxation time in. He points out that it is not particularly relaxing to ignore the needs of others, or to watch your livestock die before your eyes when you could quite easily lend a helping hand.

The point to which I am sidling is that Christianity should model itself on the life and practice of Christ. Christians should not get too obsessed with picking out single verses from the Old Testament law and clinging on to them. Particularly verses that contradict utterly the way Christ modelled his life in God. (I am often called a “Cafeteria Catholic” because I pick and choose my practice as one picks and chooses choice morsels in a café. This accusation ignores the fact that all Christians pick and choose: I just admit that I do.)

When faced with some obnoxious ancient command from the Old Testament, my first port of call is always the life of Christ (I am a Christian, after all). The way Jesus treated those different from himself is telling.

  • When asked “whom can I exclude from my love”, Jesus turns it around and says that you are defined by those whom you include (Luke 10:25-37)
  • A non-believer asks Jesus for help and he helps, asking nothing in return, not even that said non-believer converts, nor even takes home a pamphlet explaining why the only way to salvation is through him. No, he holds up the non-believer’s faith as an example to all. (Luke 7:1-10)
  • When a righteous man invites him to dinner and the local woman-of-disrepute barges in and makes a spectacle of Jesus, Jesus points out the shortcomings of the righteous man and sends the woman on her way with his blessing (Luke 7:36-50)
  • He invites himself to dinner at the house of one regarded as a huge public sinner (Zacchaeus had enriched himself by being a corrupt tax collector). He does not condemn Zacchaeus’ life, nor does he highlight his sin. Jesus simply goes to dinner with him. Tellingly, Jesus loves the man and allows that love to do its own work in his life. The conversion of Zacchaeus comes from within Zacchaeus in response to Jesus’ acceptance of him (Luke 19:1-10)
  • He reserves his harshest words for those who turn others away from God (Matthew 18:6)

So very often, I observe people who call themselves Christians clinging on to that verse of Leviticus I began with, yet utterly disregarding the actions of Christ. When a man falls in love with a man and they devote their lives to each other in a love that lasts longer than many heterosexual marriages, and someone outside that relationship strolls along and condemns it because of Leviticus, that person is not imitating Christ and, in my book, cannot legitimately claim Christianity.

When someone stands in a pulpit and declares that those youngsters in the congregation who feel same-sex attraction are sinful (or objectively disordered), they drive those young people away from God.

When people demand that others change themselves before encountering Jesus, or demand that they change themselves in a particular way having encountered Jesus, they are simply disregarding Jesus’ example.

Jesus told us to love one another as he loved us. He told us that the defining characteristic of his followers would be love.

And that is why we nailed him to a tree.

This surreal fortnight in politics

The thing that makes me most upset about the events of the last two weeks is that none of this needed to have happened.

Here’s a quick summary.  It begins long ago, of course, but in a galaxy much closer to home.

In the 1980’s, Margaret Thatcher presided over a huge industrial decline in the North of England, in Wales and, basically, everywhere that isn’t London. The miners’ strike was the most visible manifestation of this, but the industrial backbone of the UK was broken in many places by the time the Tories, finally, got kicked out in 1997.

Fast forward a few years and we have a posh bloke, educated at Eton and Oxford (where he was a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club) facing a general election. He’s already been Prime Minister for five years and now he would like another five. The only thing in his way is the former city banker and all-round xenophobe, Nigel Farage, who has been stirring up racial hatred around the country and inciting people in the aforementioned post-industrial wastelands to blame “immigrants” and “the EU” for their plight. Farage has no real chance of making significant electoral gains this time around, but he looks a lot like he’s going to take a big bite out of the Prime Minister’s vote. A bite that is going to cost him enough seats that he’ll lost the top job.

Here’s a brilliant idea: let’s promise to hold a referendum to ask the people of the UK (and Gibraltar, it turns out), if they want to remain a member of the EU, or if we would rather go the way of the UK Independence Party (Farage’s UKIP) and leave the EU. It was all far-off in the future and very abstract, and all the opinion polls predicted a hung parliament anyway. In short, PM David Cameron never expected that this would be a promise he’d have to keep. He fully expected to be in coalition, or some form of minority government, which would give him just enough wiggle-room to announce that he was unable to keep that promise.

In a shock to everyone (especially Paddy Ashdown’s hat), the Conservatives came out of that election with a (wafer-thin) parliamentary majority. It was here that Cameron’s plan began to unravel, and it was here that a courageous and decent man would have stepped up and taken responsibility for making such a rash promise.

David Cameron is not a courageous and decent man.

He went on a tour of the EU, cosying up to all of the other leaders in the Union, and begging them for crumbs to take back to the UK in the hope that he could pat them together and say “look, this is cake: vote for cake.” He announced a date for the referendum: 23rd June 2016. A date that will live on in infamy.

The battle lines drawn, the campaigning begun, and descended almost immediately into a cesspool of lies, misdirection and xenophobia. Enter Boris Johnson, another bloke from Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club who, incidentally, thought that the EU is a pretty good thing, to lead the campaign for the UK to leave. Yes, that’s right. A guy who thought that the UK should remain in the EU decided to lead the campaign to leave the EU.

This was never about the EU.

Within the Conservative party, it was a bun-fight between two rich old-Etonians. Cameron had the top job; Johnson wanted more power than he had enjoyed as Mayor of London. Let’s have a big jolly on the telly and get all the poor people to line up in the rain to cast their ballots and we can get back to business as usual, thank you, only you give me a good job in the government. For his part, Cameron thought this would be a jolly jape too, and seemed to concede that he’d have to put up with Boris.

Neither of them, it seemed, were prepared for a third party to take their little game and use it for his own advantage. Nigel Farage, frustrated at getting 12% of the votes in the general election yet only scoring 0.15% of the seats in the Commons, came storming in with a campaign consisting mostly of blaming Brussels for everything and pointing the finger at “migrants” for the economic problems of that post-industrial wasteland. Neither the EU nor migrants were responsible for the mess, of course, that was all about UK government policy over forty years, but they made a photogenic scapegoat.

It truly didn’t matter that the people on that poster weren’t from the EU, and it also didn’t matter that the UK has obligations, under international law, to accept refugees (who just happen to be fleeing a brutal and deadly grinding civil war).

This was not about the EU.

It was about Cameron’s spinelessness and a big game between him and Boris Johnson that was being exploited by Nigel Farage (and newspaper giant Rupert Murdoch, but that’s another story) for political gain.

Anyway, neither side covered themselves in glory, and lies and fearmongering characterised both sides of the debate. Actually, there was no debate. There was a lot of shouting and a lot of restatement of lies, but no actual debate.

Then came 23rd June. And 24th June.

And the horror that Cameron and Johnson’s little tiff, their little game to sort out whose dick was more manly, their viewing the British population as nothing more than pawns for their amusement, had produced the result that neither could accept.

The UK voted to leave.

So, on the Friday morning, Cameron told us he was quitting as PM. In the fortnight since, thousands of people who voted leave have announced that they never actually wanted to leave they just wanted to give the “establishment” a bloody nose; every promise made by the Leave campaign has been exposed as a lie; a Tory leadership fight has erupted; Michael Gove (Johnson’s right-hand man) knifed him in the back; Johnson announced that he would not, after all, be running for the PM’s job; Nicola Sturgeon has announced that Scotland will be remaining in the EU, even if that means that Scotland leaves the UK; Michael Gove has all-but vanished from the running for that same job and Nigel Farage has also resigned as leader of UKIP.

In summary, David Cameron was scared of Nigel Farage, so he made a promise that he never thought he’d have to keep, in order to cling on to political power. His old mate, Boris Johnson, thought it would be a jolly jape to jump into the party and wave his dick around and see if he could have some fun, and maybe pick up a couple of free drinks. Nigel Farage saw an opportunity to pop in his crowbar and gain maximum leverage. Michael Gove slipped in behind Boris Johnson in the hope that he’d sail back into a powerful position (he did such a fine job in the Department for Education, you see) in his wake. And it all went horribly wrong.

To summarise the summary, a spineless Prime Minister created a clusterfuck, and now every single one of the people involved this disaster has decided to walk away and leave the sorry mess for someone, anyone, else to fix. Because they never wanted what they asked for and are too gutless to face the music.

Politics, anyone?