Wednesday, September 25, 2013

NSA's backdoor in all the worlds devices: Dual EC DRBG




Introduction

In the wonderful world of computers and technology, cryptography is necessary. Cryptography is the field of science that transforms clear messages into something incomprehensible which can only be decoded at the other end of the line. It then allows a "secure" communication and makes it impossible for someone in the middle to eavesdrop on your Skype conversations or to intercept your credit card's PIN number when you're buying groceries at your local supermarket.

Most people don't hear about cryptography or computer security on a daily basis but it is present everywhere and very much needed. Here are a few places where cryptography is used:

  • Credit-card paying devices
  • websites with an address starting with https (webmail, online stores, websites with registration)
  • smartphones, for updating apps
  • feature phones, keeping your conversations private
  • privates companies' intranets and servers (including data storage and email)
  • cars, using electronic keys
  • DVD and Bluray players, checking that you're not using a pirate copy of the movie
  • HDMI televisions and computer monitors
  • Microsoft Windows, for Microsoft updates and all of the networking functionalities
  • Online banking, if your bank provided you with a calculator-like device that provides an identification code valid for a few seconds only
  • Video-on-demand
  • "secure" ID documents and passports
  • "secure" communications as needed by military forces, diplomats, and other political personnel


In short, cryptography is everywhere and it's there to prevent chaos.


NSA's egotistic madness putting the world at risk

One of the things that NSA does is eavesdropping. When you simply listen to people talking in the open, it's fair game. But when you aggressively attempt to crack codes and spy on every person on the planet including the countries who are supposed to be your allies, this is illegal and it can even be considered an act of war. And if the USA didn't have the biggest guns in the world (which they won't keep forever), it would certainly have deservedly received a few missiles and all its political leaders of the past 70 years would be rotting in jail for crimes against humanity.

So, the NSA does some spying, which is a difficult job. NSA's leaders are bad guys whom I would gladly see locked up for life like James Clapper or Keith Alexander, but the small guys... the people doing the technical job deserve credit for doing hard work.

Aside from this hard job, NSA also decided to take it easy by corrupting the core algorithms used to make cryptography secure. If cryptography is made insecure for everybody, then it will be easier for the NSA to crack codes. And that's exactly what they did.

What makes cryptography secure is mathematics. To put it simply, cryptography is like opening a safe: either you know the combination or you have to try every possible combination until you find the one that works. And in order to create secure combinations, cryptography uses "random numbers generators" (RNG). If you can corrupt the RNG, then you can lower the difficulty of cracking encryption. In the case revealed by Edward Snowden, the algorithm thus corrupted is called Dual EC DRBG.

Even though the standard is published by NIST, the corrupted algorithm was pushed for standardization by the NSA in order to have a wide range of companies and products using weak cryptography. At first glance, one might think that it is a smart move because indeed it will make NSA's job easier. But there are big problems associated to this. Weaker cryptography for everyone means weaker security for everyone and easier cracking for all crackers.

Some countries like China are often seen as unfriendly by Americans. Well... their equivalent of the NSA will also have an easier job cracking codes. And if there's other countries you're concerned by... their job will also be easier for cracking everybody's codes.

Another side effect is that it puts private companies at risk. Their emails and private data, trade secrets, their research and development, their new products are more likely to be cracked and accessed by thieves and competitors. It is widely known that the USA have used the NSA's capability to steal secrets of foreign companies and give an unfair advantage through illegal spying to American companies. With weakened cryptography, such trade secrets will be more easily stolen by any country or criminal organization, let alone the occasional hackers who intercept confidential information and blackmail private companies for money.

Finally, cryptography is also used to offer protection to human rights activists and dissidents who oppose dictatorial regimes. This includes gay-rights activists in Russia, China, and some African countries. It also includes journalists who try and uncover the dirty secrets of politicians.


Conclusion

The USA and the NSA do their lot of spying like every other country does. It's not nice but everybody understands why it's done: to a small extent, it's intended to fight terrorism, and to a huge extent, it's intended to steal secrets and steal the money that these secrets will bring through industry or blackmail. But in this case, the NSA went too far by globally weakening the security of everybody and exposing everybody to a greater risk.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

French version of the blog



When I wrote my recent entry looking back at my first 100 articles and making a selection of the texts I value, I felt a regret about being unable to share these with some of my French friends. As far as I know, all my friends speak English and can read English. But they're not bilingual and it requires extra efforts from them to read English. And for many of them the extra effort is just not worth it.

That's why I've finally decided to propose a French blog. For now I will keep the English version as my main blog on which I create new articles and after a delay I will propose translated versions of my articles on the French blog. I will already have to deal with the backlog of 100 articles to translate so... wish me luck!

:-)

PS: as I mention in the 1st article of the French blog, I have chosen different colors in order to differentiate the 2 versions. Blue being the color of France (for football, rugby, the flag, etc.), I have logically chosen this color for the froggy version of the blog.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Busy



I'm a bit busy this week and next week so my output will go down a little.

In the meantime, if you're looking for TV series, I'll recommend House of Cards. It'll get its own review on the blog sooner or later but I'm still 2 episodes short of the finale.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pareidolia




The human brain does amazing things. One of these things is that the human brain looks for patterns and tries to match incomplete information to known patterns in order to make sense of its environment.

It is unsurprising that such a trait was naturally selected along the long road of evolution: if you imagine 2 of our prehistoric ancestors tens of thousands of years ago... one of them will fill in the blanks from very little information while the other won't. When a noise is heard, one of these men will get ready to fight or run away, even if it was nothing. That's a bit of extra stress, but no big deal. When it happens to be a real sabretooth tiger, this guy will have a chance to survive. The other person who did not react when hearing the noise will simply be eaten. So, only the prehistoric guy with pareidolia will survive and have children with pareidolia.

In your childhood, have you ever played the game with a friend or a sibling, to identify similarities between the shape of clouds and objects of everyday life? Have you ever seen clouds in the shape of a bird, a face, a dragon, a horse? That's pareidolia for you!

Image licence: CC BY-NC 3.0 Fir002

Pareidolia is useful, most of the time. But sometimes we see things that don't make sense, or of which sense we cannot grasp. And then our brain will fill in the blanks in a way that is not ideal. Many reports of UFO's are consistent with pareidolia. There are even cases of people filming a scene and noticing later that an object moves at incredible speed when replaying the tape... which ends up being a fly or a bird appearing to be very fast when in fact it was just really close to the camera.

Another recent example, was the following photo published on Reddit leading to people suspecting it might be a crime scene with a blood trail. I won't divulge yet the answer of what is exactly in the photo and I'll let you figure out what you see.



Conclusion

Sometimes our brain plays tricks on us. So next time you see something that should not exist or could not exist... it probably does not exist. If you're the 1st person who ever witnesses real extra-terrestrials, then good for you and it will be awesome that you can change the world thanks to your encounter! But you should be extra sure. If what you saw was blur, distant, or too quick for the eye to focus, then probability has it that it was just pareidolia.

Now you know the #1 source of UFO sightings and discovered an amazing thing about the brain.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Planet Terror (2007) ★★★★☆


Plot:

After quitting her job as a gogo dancer, Cherry stumbles upon Wray, the boyfriend she dumped 2 weeks prior. Down the road on a military base, an illegal deal turns sour between a group of soldiers and a chemist's henchmen. When the gun fight breaks a tank, a green gas is leaked into the air, turning most people into zombies. Cherry loses a leg to a zombie attack and is rushed to the hospital by Wray while the hospital is becoming overwhelmed by victims of the undead plague.


My verdict:

The cast is excellent and performs brilliantly: Rose McGowan, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Willis... The photography is voluntarily gritty, reproducing the feeling of old exploitation movies. Dialogues are witty and the scenes are flawless. And then, Rodriguez's special touch: a layer of WTF on top of a layer of WTF on top of a layer of WTF. Oh yeah!... and gore! If you're ok with B-movies, WTF and gore, then this is the movie for you! 4 stars!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Travel kit



Introduction

A lot of people travel for tourism, business, family matters... But a good preparation is useful. What should you bring along and what should you NOT bring along? that's the topic of this article.

Note, however, that this article is focused on people who travel by plane. If you travel by car, the weight and volume factors will not be as critical and therefore you'll have more freedom to bring extra stuff.


What you should bring

Some of the items listed here are absolutely necessary while others are only useful. For example, 2 pants are necessary while 3 are a luxury. I will cover only the necessary items.

Also, depending on the purpose of your trip, you will bring specific items. If you go skiing in the Alps, you might want to bring your own ski boots. If you go for business to Singapore, you'll bring a laptop. Such items will not be covered here.


Clothes:

2 pants, including at least 1 pair of jeans. Having 2 pants allows you to have something to wear when your first pair is at the laundry or drying after a heavy rain.

7 shirts + one you'll wear on travel day. This allows you a full week of clothing and you can organize the laundry 1 time per week. Depending on your destination, you should make a choice of long-sleeve, short-sleeve, or T-shirt. My personal recommendation: T-shirts should only be reserved for sports. If you're going to a warm country like Thailand, which has a rather conservative culture, wearing a short-sleeve shirt will be your best choice to accommodate the local population and getting more respect, which can be useful if you try to negotiate purchase prices.

socks and underwear: choose a quantity that will match the frequency of laundry of shirts (once a week)

Coat: unless you have a specific requirement about temperature (cold environments) or the need to look classy, what you really care about is only wind and rain. The best choice is therefore one of those nylon coats that can be easily folded into a small pack.

Shoes: you need 2 pairs. 1 pair for carrying out your main activity: classy shoes if you're on a business trip, hiking shoes if hiking, etc. The 2nd pair will serve mainly for relaxing and will generally be breathable and of light weight.

Hat or cap: bring one of these! Whether it's for protecting your eyes while driving or protecting your head from hyperthermia, a cap is useful. You should favor a light color so that your cap doesn't absorb heat from the sun.

That's it for clothes! But I only mentioned the bare necessary for the sake of preparing a minimalist luggage. Most people will want to bring extra stuff, but then it's just a matter of comfort vs. weight.


All the rest

Choice of luggage: if you can make everything fit in a single backpack, then go for it! For business-oriented people leaving on a project for several months, your total gear will weigh between 25 and 35 kg, forcing you to have a big luggage + a backpack. For the luggage, you should get a model with 4 wheels as on the picture below. It is easier to push and keeps cleaner since it doesn't touch the floor.


knife and tools: having a knife is very useful. If you can have a Swiss-army knife or a Leatherman (multi-tool), that's the best choice. From my years of travelling, the tools I've really found useful on my Leatherman were knife, scissors (for cutting my nails), nail file, screwdriver (both flat and cross-shaped), precision screwdriver (for that tiny screw on my glasses), can & bottle opener. Sometimes I missed the tweezers and toothpick which are absent from my Leatherman Surge. Sometimes I also missed the corkscrew for enjoying wine. So if you buy a Swiss knife or multi-tool, these are the functions you'll be looking for. I couldn't find a perfect model so you should check if you prefer a minimal or a heavier more complete model. Also remember: when you take the plane, you cannot have your knife with you. It must travel in your luggage.
From left to right: Juice Xe6, Juice S2, Micra


Medicine: there are 3 things you want to have: imodium will help you when you have diarrhea. The question is not "if" you will ever suffer from diarrhea but "when". So you need to have at least 3-4 of those pills. Paracetamol will help if you have headaches. The quantity is up to you. If you're only travelling to big cities, you don't need a lot, since you'll be able to find a pharmacy easily. And finally, of course: plasters for when you cut yourself.

This is your best friend


Waterproof pouch for your passport. You don't want your passport to be damaged and the solution is cheap and simple: a ziploc pouch, generally used for putting food in your freezer. Bring 3-4 of them! You may use them for other purposes like storing the coins of your country and avoiding to mix 2 currencies in your wallet. It can also prevent your shampoo and other liquid products from spilling inside your washing kit: soap doesn't taste good on a toothbrush.


Photocopy of your passport: when you're visiting a city, its shops, museums, etc. there's always a risk of losing your things or being robbed by a pickpocket. And losing your papers would be a big problem. For everyday use, you can simply carry around a photocopy of your passport while your passport remains safe in your luggage at your hotel.

Pen and paper: the best choice is a black ballpoint pen, with no cap because caps can be lost. This is useful for many purposes from filling administrative documents in the plane (requested by some countries) to asking directions. A small size notebook that fits in your purse will also have its uses from taking notes, phone numbers, etc.

Image licence: CC BY-SA 3.0 Paul Munhoven


phone: depending on your destination, you'll need to choose between a dumbphone that needs recharging only once a week but has limited functionality, or a smartphone which will have plenty of functionality but which needs recharging every day and makes you a target of choice for pickpockets.

Smartphone apps: if you opted for a smartphone, here's some valuable apps: Navit (GPS) or Google Maps (I recommend to save in advance the map of areas you're interested in, for offline use), flashlight (uses the camera's flashlight as a torch light), Bathroomfinder, Google Translate (you need to pre-load the languages you want), Skype, Gmail or equivalent email app, Line (immediate messenger).

Sewing kit: this is not a mandatory item. But you find affordable sewing kits which are very light like the one below. So I think it's a good item to bring, considering the small weight and volume.


Half-roll of toilet paper: you simply never know when it's gonna come in handy. It's light and cheap, and it fits in the side pocket of a backpack.

A card, within your wallet, mentioning several useful information for cases of emergency: name and contact number of your next of kin, contact details (of your hotel, maybe) if your wallet is lost and found so you can get it back, blood type, known allergies, health insurance details, etc.

A comfort item: when you're far away from home, especially on a business trip of several months, you'll miss home. If there's any item that can make you feel better, then take it! Especially during your first long trips abroad, you'll miss the specialty foods from your home country between the 4th and 8th week. Guaranteed! So prepare a pack in advance of the foods from your place that have the strongest distinctive flavors and have someone mailing this pack to you around the 6th week of your trip. It will bring tears of joy to your eyes.


What you should not bring

Umbrella: umbrellas break all the time and they're only useful for medium-sized rain with no wind. Your coat will protect you better, so there's no need to carry around the weight of an umbrella if you have your nylon coat.

Books: they're heavy and you would have to carry them back and forth. That's a waste! If you absolutely want to read, then get an electronic book! It's still a bit expensive but the technology is mature and it can contain many books within a limited volume and with limited weight.

keys that you don't need. After you travel back home, you'll be able to find all your keys within your house. So just take the main door's key and don't take the keys of your garage, letter box, etc. They're just dead weight.

soap and mouthwash: there will be soap in your hotel and mouthwash is just too heavy. Keep in mind that extra weight beyond your airline's allowance is charged from 10€ to 40€ per kg and constitutes extra efforts for you when pushing your luggage.


Conclusion

This has been a much bigger article than I envisioned, but I think it's a useful one. I have probably forgotten some important stuffs. If you see anything missing, tell me in the comments section and I'll update the article!

I didn't cover the washing kit because this is really up to you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Stretch marks

too bad: I didn't find a good female photo illustrating stretch marks


A few days ago, as I was lost in that weird part of YouTube I came across a topic about stretch marks. While I haven't noticed any men caring much about the subject, it seems that women freak out over it. From my perception, women's idea about stretch marks seems to be:
This is horrible. This looks ugly so it makes me ugly. Men will find me ugly if they see my stretch marks.

I cannot talk for all men, but I can talk about what I think of stretch marks, and what I believe other men think about stretch marks.

During my childhood and teenage years, I had heard the word "stretch marks" but didn't know what it was. When I was about 20 years old, I accompanied my girlfriend to a camping where some of her friends were enjoying the swimming pool and I noticed that one of the girls had white marks on her hips. I truly didn't know that these were stretch marks and I didn't even know that this sort of things existed, resulting from quick gains and losses of weight. I thought this was some kind of tatoo but I wasn't sure... and before you ask: yes! sometimes I am THAT stupid. So I did what everybody would have done (or not?): I asked what the marks were. My girlfriend got crazy at me, the girl whom I was meeting for the first time got frustrated, and I was equally frustrated because my girlfriend got angry over something meaningless.

So, to summarize my idea of stretch marks which is similar to what I think other men think about stretch marks: we just don't care! In reality, men's eyes simply slide on stretch marks. We hardly notice them because we don't pay attention to them. What men care about, regarding women, are the following (not necessarily in that order):

  • face
  • body size
  • breast
  • butt
  • personality


If you're a woman and you're reading this... or if you're a man and you can ask your girlfriend to confirm... there are things that you think are important and you're just wrong about that! Stretch marks are one of those things. Want another one? Shoulders! Women look at other women and see: "wow! this girl has nice shoulders!". You know what? Men don't even know that there is such a thing as "nice shoulders". It is not part of our perception of the world.


Conclusion

If you have stretch marks and if your shoulders are not perfect, don't worry! The only people who will notice are other women and gays. The majority of men will not notice. They're too busy looking at your other shapes... or paying attention to your personality, of course.

Stretch marks are a false problem invented by women for women.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tradecraft: Dead Letter Boxes



Foreword

Being an avid reader of Andy McNab's spy novels and having a long-time interest into security and cryptography, I decided to add a new category of articles to this blog: tradecraft. In other words, security-related or spy-related topics.


Dead Letter Boxes (DLBs)

DLBs are a means of transmitting items or messages from 1 person to another without being present in the same place at the same time. Typically during the Cold War, this was a favorite method of communication between spies and their handlers. The big benefit of avoiding to meet is obvious: it makes it more difficult for third-parties (counter-intelligence services) to intercept the communication and uncover spies.

The concept of DLB relies on 2 things, which will be agreed-upon in advance:

  • the box itself which will contain an item or message
  • an agreed-upon signal which means "I've put a message in the DLB. Go and check it!".



The box is the most complicated part of the system. It needs to be located in a place where both the spy and his handler may have a legitimate (ie: not spy-related)  reason to be. For instance: the roof of a building is NOT a good location for a DLB because no ordinary person has a legitimate reason to go there. Some better choices of DLB would be places where the public comes and goes all the time. Cafes, phone booths (though we find less of these nowadays), train stations on the other hand are good choices for setting up the box.

The box doesn't need to be a real box. It could simply be a place where you leave an envelope, a piece of paper, or a sticker with a message. It must be established so that nobody will disturb it. And it must also be set up so that both spy and handler can access it without raising the suspicion of the people around. For example, sticking your piece of paper under the table in a cafe is NOT a good idea because it has a high chance of being detected by the cafe's employees who do the cleaning or by customers. Leaving your piece of paper under the foot of the cafe's heavy sofa is also not a good idea since you'll make a lot of noise attracting the attention of everybody around. If the cafe has heavy sofas with little space between them and the ground, then it can be a good choice for sticking your piece of paper there while pretending to lace your shoes or adjust the hem of your pants.



The signal itself is much easier to set up. It only needs to be a visible sign that the other person will see easily while walking around. Several movies have used the classic chalk mark on a mailbox, or if you're a fan of X-Files, you might remember the time when Scully contacts Mulder's informant by putting tape in the shape of a cross on the window. Sadly, it is a VERY BAD way of doing it since it is directly related to Mulder's apartment. A better way to do it, would be a simple line drawn with a marker in a phone booth and visible by people walking by. It needs to be drawn while pretending to give a phone call (or better, actually making a phone call) when nobody's looking. The chalk mark on a mailbox was also an actual method used by Aldrich Ames using the following mailbox.

Photo license: CC-BY dbking


The disadvantage of DLBs is speed. This aspect is constrained by the ability of people to check frequently if the signal is present. If the signal can be set up on a person's route from home to work, then it can be checked twice per day. If it is set up on a person's route to their weekly sport activity, then it will be checked once per week.


Conclusion

I hope that was interesting though there is little reason for most of us to use it in our lives. But at least it can make things more understandable next time you watch a spy movie.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The dilemma of Protection vs. Freedom





This is a recurring topic of politics though we rarely take the time to scrutinize political subjects in these terms and we often fall into the trap of making decisions too fast. Often times a political or justice decision comes down to a choice between overreaching protection (nanny state) and dangerous freedom (deregulation).

The 2nd amendment to the USA's Constitution is a good illustration of this. On the one hand, letting everybody own and carry a gun leads to many more crimes and accidents than in other equally developed countries. On the other hand, it is essential to guarantee freedom. For people unfamiliar with USA's history, the founders of this country wanted to guarantee that people could enter rebellion and civil war at any time to overthrow the legal regime (like they did with UK 200 years ago) to defend their independence and freedoms. And the 2nd amendment is the constitutional embodiment of this idea.



Another example is the freedom of parents to do what they want with their children and the duty of government to protect children from the harm that their parents could cause. For instance some parents do not want their children to receive vaccines. In some cases, this is a matter of religion (Jehovah witnesses) and in other cases it is a matter of belief in conspiracy theories.



Here are a few highly polemic examples of Protection vs. Freedom. If you have a clear-cut opinion on any of these, you may want to take extra-time to consider honestly the arguments of people who disagree with you:

  • The right of parents to use physical violence (slap on the face, on the butt, on the hand) as a form of punishment of children
  • The right of parents to circumcise their son or excise their daughter
  • The right of parents to teach 1 single religion to their child (including a fundamentalist form of religion)
  • The right of parents to remove their child stricken by a severe disease (leukemia, cancer...) from the regular medical system in order to use exclusively some alternative medicine
  • The freedom of expression (on specific subjects) regarding claims for which the person has been proven wrong. In other words: the right for a person to repeat lies after being proven wrong
  • Freedom of expression to express racist ideas or other kinds of verbal discrimination
  • Freedom of expression in the publication of revenge porn
  • Extended rights of scientists to conduct experiments on fatally-ill voluntary human subjects
  • The right of doctors to use dead people's organs without prior consent for transplantation
  • The right of doctors to answer positively to patients' requests of euthanasia
  • The right of astrologers, palm readers, mediums, tarot readers, exorcists, and other practitioners of unproven supernatural "disciplines"
  • The right to reveal publicly Top Secret information pertaining to war crimes or crimes against humanity


Conclusion

This article was about a particular way of looking at politics. Based on this approach, the message is essentially that we should give a chance to both sides of an argument before we make a decision. Sometimes, there isn't 1 good choice. There's a dilemma in which we have to weigh the protection aspects against the freedom aspects.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mobile phones and health



TL;DR: phones are not harmful. anti-phone lobbies are!

This is a topic that gets me fired up: every so often, there's some news about telephony and that's the perfect time for people to cry wolf about mobile phones cooking our brains. I could just say that it's bunk but no. That's truly evil demagogue and irresponsible bunk. And I'll demonstrate how and why.


Once upon a time...

...1st generation mobile phones were invented. But we don't care about that because nobody was using them except Michael Douglas in Wall Street.



Then in 1980, the 2nd generation of mobile phones was invented. 2nd generation is abbreviated to "2G" and is divided into 2 main standards: GSM everywhere in the world and CDMA in the USA just because! 2G allowed for small size and affordable phones and that's when mobile telephony became popular worldwide. Depending on where you live, having a mobile phone became mainstream at a sooner or later date. In France, the turning point was 1996 or 1997.

In 1992, IRPA (International Radiation Protection Association) created ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). IRPA is an agency interested in protecting people from effects of radiation. When it was created back in 1965, it was concerned by nuclear stuffs because that was the hot topic then. Nuclear radiation is ionizing, which means that its effects are capable of kicking electrons away from the atoms they normally orbit around. Why is it important? because that's the mechanism by which some atoms of our cells' DNA can fly around and end up giving us cancer. But the brand new ICNIRP was focused on non-ionizing radiations like mobile phones' signal. These electromagnetic waves do not have the capability of kicking away our DNA's electrons but they might have been harmful through other mechanisms like heating our brains, so it was a good idea to be careful and check what science can say about such mechanisms.


So, ICNIRP looked into it, studied all the literature that existed on the subject and in 1998 came up with the following report: Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Time-Varying Electric, Magnetic, and Electromagnetic Fields (up to 300 GHz) available from this page. This report then made its way through many intergovernmental organizations like the European Union and the World Health Organization, leading to this international standard: 41V/m. That's the maximum limit of electric field that can be allowed in places where people are. The report acknowledged that its conclusions relied only on the effects that had been positively identified and that cancer was not one of the effects identified, but still ICNIRP said it would keep its eyes open as further studies would emerge. And those intergovernmental organizations said (I'm paraphrasing): let's roll with 41V/m and we'll regularly meet with ICNIRP so that we update the limits if these limits are not safe enough. Since no serious indication ever came of other problems, the standards were kept as such.

Then came the studies. Not 2 studies! Not 3 studies!... Over 3,500 studies! Summary? nothing meaningful up until the year 2007. Why nothing meaningful? Just because there could not be any conclusive evidence linking health problems to the usage of mobile phones or the presence of rooftops antennas. I might need to come back in another article on the disinformation about rooftops antennas but to cut the story short: scientists aren't even looking at them any more for health impacts because we know they create electromagnetic fields of too tiny amplitude that it's not even worth checking. It would be like checking if people can be run over by ants. So the only concern still surviving within scientific circles was the potential effects of the phones.

Good logo, bad study

 In 2007 a report was released: the report of a study named BioInitiative. The report can be downloaded and consulted from this page. For significant criticism of this report, you can read wikipedia's page about it. My own personal bad opinion about the report came from the fact that it simultaneously acknowledged that there wasn't any evidence for health effects of telephony waves and it advocated for new standards dramatically different from the current standards, namely 0.6 V/m instead of 41 V/m. Despite the flaws of this report, its lack of peer-review, etc. it was picked up by the media and got some attention which explains why I feel compelled to mention it in this article. Also, to be fair, the Bioinitiative report covered other subjects than telephony like the effects of electricity power lines, for which there is conclusive evidence of harm.

Bad logo, good study


In 2012, another study (this one, peer-reviewed) came out entitled "Interphone". Here's the official webpage on the website of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), from which the report is accessible. It has been conducted over more than 10 years on 420,000 people. The duration and sample size are huge and speak favorably as to the reliability of the findings, and the methodology was recognized as proper. The conclusion requires to make subtle distinctions and to look at the numbers. Among the heavy users of mobile phone who consumed an average of more than 30 minutes per day over more than 10 years, an increase was noted in some rare forms of tumors (glioma and meningioma). Since these tumors are rare, the increase noted also represented a small number. And because of biases and errors, it was impossible to conclude from this small number a causal relationship between mobile phone use and these tumors. The report therefore speaks of a "correlation" rather than "causation". The possibility of a causal effect is not to be totally discarded but it couldn't be established. It is possible that heavy phone usage is related to specific lifestyles or professional activities that exposed people to other risk factors responsible for the small increase in glioma and meningioma. In any case, we cannot rule out the possibility that using phones is responsible for the increase. And that's where the numbers are important.

Applying the increase factor to French statistics of glioma and meningioma, I have calculated the maximum theoretical odds of a person dying, in case that phones are the cause of tumors. I came to the figure of 1 person in a million. So, supposing that phones do cause tumors, and that's only a hypothesis, it would amount to 65 French people dying from it every year out of a population of 65 million people. It would be sad, but the number has to be compared with other causes of death. This Huffington Post's article lists only the 21 most common causes of death in the USA, which is already a rather safe place compared to the rest of the world, considering malaria, war, famine, infectious diseases, etc. The figure of 1 in a million that I reached previously for mobile phones (if proved causal) is a worst case scenario and is nowhere near dog attacks (1 in 120,000), lightning (1 in 80,000) or bees (1 in 60,000).

Because the probability of phones being the causal effect of glioma and meningioma hasn't been ruled out, the IARC decided to declare telephony radio waves in its "Group 2B" of possible carcinogens. The word "possible" meaning that we don't know enough to rule it out. But the numbers are reassuring. The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed IARC's assessment and declared that "to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use".



What do anti-phone lobbies (APL) say ? And my rebuttal to their claims

1a) The #1 claim is of course the claim that mobile phones are harmful. What is more, the emphasis given to the alleged problem suggests a "big" problem. As explained in the section above, there is currently no evidence of any cancer being caused by phones' radio waves. As for the correlated observation on glioma and meningioma, its amplitude is tiny which shows that, should causation be established, the danger will be of incredibly low proportion and definitely not worthy of the noise in the media.

1b) In addition to this, but I admit it's because I'm fed up with them, I will insist on claiming that the APL (anti-phone lobbies) DO represent a harm which, unlike radio waves, has been proven. Indeed, you often find people claiming to be electro-sensitive and who will complain about headaches, discomfort, bad quality of sleep... even when the antennas installed near their homes aren't switched on yet. This effect is known as "nocebo" and is the reverse of the placebo. It is a suggestion-induced degradation of health. It is not a matter of faking it. These people really suffer physically and psychologically as a result of the anxiety produced by APL campaigns. Also, we must consider that these campaigns induce stress. And stress is harmful. It decreases the body's immune response and makes people more prone to disease. An accumulation of stress can also lead to suicide. Unless studies can quantify the exact harm created by APL, I estimate that their action might be more deadly than the danger they are preaching about concerning phones.

2) We need to study the subject on a longer term before we can draw conclusions. It should be noted that the Interphone study was already carried out on a long term. The mechanism by which cancer occurs is not that it waits patiently for a pre-defined duration of 25 or 30 years and then suddenly pops into existence within the human body. It is when cells are exposed to a mutagen agent (ionizing radiation for nuclear exposure, or chemical reaction for lungs cancer) that our DNA plays cancer-lottery. Every exposure carries a small chance of "winning" the cancer-lottery. Smoke 1 cigarette, and you have little chance to win the cancer-lottery. But smoke 3 packs of 20 cigarettes per day and within 30 years it's like you'll have played the lottery 657,000 times and by then it's likely that you've "won" at least once. But if we test a lot of people smoking cigarettes, we'll see some of them developing cancer after 5 years, after 10 years, after 20 years... Following the same principle, if phones were as harmful as suggested by the APL, the heaviest consumers would already show some statistically significant occurrences of cancers which would leave no doubt. The results of Interphone, taking into consideration the duration of the study and the sample size, strongly suggest that there is no space for long-term studies to uncover significant danger from mobile phones.

3) Not all studies agree that phones are harmless. There are 2 rebuttals to this claim. First, the fact that no study has established danger. Otherwise, if it had been established... well it would be established! Secondly, studies are not all created equal. There are small studies. There are bad studies. There are even pamphlets. And there's Interphone. When you have a study with proper methodology, with a huge sample size and a long duration, you're expected to look at its results and take these results for what they are: the very best results available which supersede all the past nonsense! If the best scientific results do not convince you, your opinion is irrelevant. Science is established and the burden of proof shifts onto you to provide a better study, of which results must be independent from your ideology.

4) But there are people who claim they developed cancer. I saw it on TV.  You see a lot of things on TV. People make claims and its their right. But if you pay attention, you'll see that the causal relationship between their health problem and radio waves is never established scientifically.

5) Telecom operators influence the results of studies. Well... in the case of Interphone (since it's the hallmark study on the subject), the funding came primarily from operators but IARC served as a financial screen between the researchers and the financiers in order to guarantee the independence of the study. So telecom operators can't be suspected of influencing the outcome of the study... unless you're ready to also accuse IARC of complicity... and you would have also to demonstrate the bias in Interphone if you think it is biased.

6) The Interphone study proves a danger of phones. No. As explained, there is an important difference between correlation and causation.


Conclusion

This was a lengthy article, but it is a deep subject. Any attempt to debate it seriously or take information seriously will require a lot of reading and a few hours watching documentaries.

When I started taking an interest into this subject, I didn't have any opinion. I wanted to know and I was ready to be convinced by any side of the argument who would provide the best arguments. From my observation, the 2 sides were not the APL vs. Telecom Operators but APL vs. Science. It sounds radical to say that one side has no valid argument at all, but this is what appeared through the several years I've spent taking information and debating on the subject. On one side, there are studies with scientific demonstrations and quantified facts. On the other side, there's empty accusations and claims, unsupported by any kind of evidence. And if you look at the track record of cases prosecuted in court, you'll find an overwhelming majority of wins on the side of science and operators.

There is a legitimate concern by citizens and parents to know that the appropriate measures are taken to avoid exposing them to harm. The state of the art is that they're safe. Unfortunately, reading and interpreting scientific language is not easy for the layman, and they're easily influenced by roaring paranoid lobbies who exist thanks to their donations. And scientists are also quite famous for sucking at communication.

I hope that this article, despite its length, can be helpful to anyone to understand the current state of affairs. Also, I did not cover the subjects of how mobile phones relate to pregnant women and children. In the case of pregnant women, I simply haven't researched the subject. And in the case of children, it essentially comes down to smaller heads and thinner skulls. In the absence of specific studies focused on them, and due to my personal opinions on good behavior, I would simply estimate that children don't need to have a mobile phone but it's ok for them to use a mobile phone ever now and then.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Dogs don't exist (naturally)






This is one of those irrelevant and yet surprising facts that leave you wondering when you learn about them. Dogs do not exist naturally. Dogs are entirely a product of artificial selection (which in itself is arguably a form of natural selection).

When you look at Wikipedia's page about dogs, you can look at the species and read "canis lupus". That's right! Dogs are wolves. All dogs are wolves. If you want to make a distinction between dogs and wolves, you'll talk about "subspecies" or race. But these terms are not objective denominations. They are just arbitrary distinctions like saying "dark dogs" and "light dogs".

So, in nature, wolves appeared through natural selection and at some time of humanity's history we bred them and selected them for tameness. Strange fact: when we selected wolves for tameness, the body shape of the animals selected also evolved. Wolves have a pointy nose while dogs have a rather flat nose. Wolves have pointy ears while dogs have falling ears. Of course, since dogs' domestication happened thousands of years ago, nobody cared to make these scientific observations. But we've observed the similar phenomenon happening when foxes were selected for tameness by Dmitry Belyaev in USSR (now Russia). The selection was based on objective criteria of tameness, and not at all on physical characteristics... but still, a physical change was observed (ears, nose...) as well as behavioral changes like wagging the tail.

Reversely, it's been observed in Russia again that stray dogs living in Moscow's subway tunnels had started regaining feral behaviors and physical traits. These are called "metro dogs" and they have learned to use the subway system for transport.


Conclusion

While the word "nature" can have several distinct meanings, there is at least one meaning that excludes dogs. We have a habit of associating animals with nature but if we take the time to think about it, it's a bit more complicated.

And of course, it doesn't matter that dogs do not exist in nature. We love them (or not) regardless.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Political affiliation: a biological approach


Foreword

This article relies heavily on several studies I have heard of through media and through Robert Sapolsky's course of Human Behavioral Biology at Stanford University. Due to the amount of research required to source all material and the scope of this personal blog, it would be unreasonable to spend 10 hours on research alone. Therefore, when I mention studies, I'll only commit them from memory: sorry for the missing references! Only if I receive comments will it become reasonable to do my bit of searching.


Introduction

Assuming that our political opinions are only dependent on biological aspects of our bodies and brains would be unwise. Our political views depend a lot of our life experiences and the information we're exposed to. But to the extent that most people live the same kind of lives with a 9-5 job, a spouse, picking groceries at the supermarket and getting information through TV or internet, what makes us more receptive to the message and policies of either left wing or right wing politics?

We know that our bodies influence our thoughts. Take a pill of this or that medicine and it will make you joyful, optimistic and open to new ideas even crazy ones. Take another pill and it will make you anxious, resistant to change and aggressive. Psychologists have also shown that if you try to flush your violence by punching a pillow, it will in fact raise your aggressiveness and lower your forgiveness. So in contrast with the 1st sentence of this article, leaving aside the biological influences on our opinions would be unreasonable. That's why I will focus today on the relationship between biology and political opinions.


Current knowledge

For the sake of clarity of this article, I will consider politics as bipolar consisting only of left-wing liberal progressives and right-wing conservatives. I know that it is an inaccurate representation of politics for the many countries where parties are pushed to form alliances and where the public debate is open to more than 2 parties, but the bipolar representation is a rather accurate representation of the system in USA and I find it (maybe abusively) to reflect more or less accurately the thought process of people all over the world.

The left wing is often associated with the following ideas: progress, science, equality, environment, welfare, high tax, decadence.

The right wing is often associated with the following ideas: conservatism, traditional values, strong rule of law, big business, corruption.

Studies have shown that when we start making political decisions, we start with ideas of our own and no affiliation. For the purpose of casting our vote, we need to make a choice between voting for the left or for the right. We know that their programs, their policies, do not match 100% of our own ideas but we need to make a choice so we pick the one that most reflects our views. Then we tend to stick with whichever party we chose and rather than making up our opinions based on new information and re-evaluating how political parties fit our new opinions, we are influenced by our political affiliation to adapt our opinions to the party's official line. So much for free will!

From Sapolsky's course, we learn that political affiliation is partly inherited genetically as is confirmed by studies on identical twins separated at birth and raised separately. So, genes play a role on defining how our brains will evaluate information and reach conclusions.

It was also known that a good predictor of affiliation was the ability of a person to cope with paradoxes. People who self-identify as left-wing are more able to take into account the complexity that arises from paradoxical situations. On the other hand, people who self-identify as right-wing have a stronger sense of group unity.

Anterior cingulate is highlighted in yellow.


A 2011 study in England revealed that people who identify as left-wing have bigger brain structures known as "anterior cingulate cortex" associated with empathy and rationality. The same study found people who identified as right-wing to have bigger amygdalae, a brain structure associated with the processing of instinctive and emotional reactions like the "fight or flight" response. Even though I am torn by the apparent bias that will result from mentioning this, I think it is important to clarify that aspects of the amygdala's functionality include the sentiments of fear and anger. Because I feel these sentiments highly reflect in what politicians appeal to and the kind of messages often conveyed on subjects like racism, religious (in)tolerance, and acceptance of homosexuality.



Taking into account the scientific method, these neurological findings still need to be confirmed by a second study from an independent team of researchers. We cannot declare results as "established knowledge" after a single study. However, these results align with psychological research on empathy vs. political affiliation which also finds a higher degree of empathy (in average) among self-identified leftists.


Conclusion

It is not possible to emphasize enough the importance of taking these biological aspects for what they are: only one part of the equation, which does not contribute all of our political opinions but only makes it more likely for us to end up on this or that side of political affiliations. And these effects of influence can be observed on a large scale, statistically, but it is not possible to take a single individual and figure out how much his ideas were determined by biological factors.

But still, I find it interesting to see how policies and new laws are shaped by these biological factors. Yes, there is a party that is more inclined towards change and trying new things. And yes there is another party more inclined towards protecting the country from outsiders and from change itself. It is in this sense that I hope my article was insightful.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cultural differences




Introduction

When we grow up in a single place and build our personality in a single environment, there's a lot of ideas that we receive from this society and which we do not question. For the most part, it's reasonable. We get taught subjects at school and our parents teach us how to behave. That's kind of standard.


Cultural differences

But it's not universal. And some bits of our cultures are just crazy. There's a reason for things to be a certain way, most of the time like "it used to be like that 1,000 years ago and we kept doing it like that". A particular example of this is the French number system and the multiples of 10. Just like in English language, the words used for 20, 30, 40... express an idea like "two-tens", "three-tens", "four-tens"... Except for 70, 80 and 90. The words used for these numbers are "sixty-and-ten", "4-twenties", and "4-twenties-and-ten". The reason for this is historic. A long time ago (which I'm too lazy to identify properly), the French were using a numeral system based on 20 rather than 10. And within such a system, you would be expected to count like this: sixty-eight, sixty-nine, sixty-ten, etc. So, these weird things left in the French language today are artifacts from the past.

When you travel a bit, you might visit Switzerland or Belgium, where French language is also spoken. The Swiss are the best students and they corrected all of that. To a Swiss, the words for describing 70, 80, and 90 are like "seven-tens", "eight-tens", and "nine-tens". Perfect! Not only is it perfect, I have also observed that it makes it easier for the brain to remember numbers that way. I suppose it is due to shorter words, of which sounds will take less brain space and will therefore be easier to remember. Belgians are between the Swiss and the French; they corrected 70 and 90 but still use 4-twenties for the number 80.

Another cultural difference I have observed is again about numbers in Thailand. When one counts numbers on his fingers in France, we count "1" on our thumb, "2" on thumb+index, and we go on until we reach "6" for which we start using 2 hands up until 10. In Thailand, the method is different. "1" is counted on the index alone, with the back of your hand towards you (or the palm of your hand towards the person you're talking to). "2" is counted on index+middle finger, then 3 and 4 will add the ring finger, then the pinkie, and finally 5 will bring out your thumb. Then, for 6, you will have to turn your hand around into a fist and with the palm facing you, and you'll only pull out your thumb. If you've done itch-hiking, the gesture with your thumb is like the Thai version of counting 6 on your fingers. And then of course, you'll add the other fingers one by one as you're counting upwards. This is a subject of confusion between Thai tourists travelling to Europe and European tourists travelling to Thailand. For example, if you ask for 2 mangoes and show your thumb+index with the interior of your hand towards a Thai salesperson, they will only notice your index and the direction of your hand. So it's as if you asked for 1 mango. Now, if you gestured the "2" with the back of your hand towards the salesperson, it's like the Thai version of "7".

This is "1" in Thailand


This is "1" in Europe but "6" in Thailand

This is "2" in Europe but "7" in Thailand


Some other difference, probably more well-known, is the distance around us that we consider as private space. French people generally want at least 80 cm of free space between them and the person they're speaking to, in order to feel comfortable. Some Asian cultures (Thai, Japanese) might require more distance. With other cultures (Dutch, Arabic...) this distance is much less and people will consider OK to be just 30 cm away from your face. This will feel uncomfortable and even aggressive or intrusive by French people. So, whenever you travel, observe how people do and either adapt to their standard or let them know about the cultural difference!

This one is hearsay, which I got from family members living in Brunei. In some places in Asia, when you pay with bank notes, it is a mark of politeness towards the salesperson to hand over your money (and pick up your change) with your 2 hands joined together. I think Europeans don't have any equivalent for this.

There are also some well-known differences regarding all the decorum around eating. Burping will be viewed as a mark of appreciation for a delicious meal in Brunei but will be frowned upon in the West. Being quiet during the meal will be viewed as a mark of politeness in Western high society but it will be viewed as a refusal to participate to social interactions in China. Instead, the Chinese will appreciate a loud and talkative meal mate.

In Europe, removing your shoes when you enter a house is not the rule everywhere. If a host wants people to remove their shoes, you will generally find cues about it like the presence of other abandoned shoes in the entrance, a shelf for leaving your shoes, or even the presence of slippers which you're intended to wear inside the house. On the other hand, if the host doesn't care, then the host is probably also wearing his shoes when he welcomes you inside his home. In the Far East and South-East Asia, removing your shoes is the rule everywhere, and the Japanese are absolutists about it. The Japanese perception of someone forgetting to remove his shoes is that this person is no better than an animal. You don't mess with the shoes' culture in Japan! And if you accidentally forgot, you'd better go out of your way to be forgiven. Shoes are serious business!


Cultural Similarity

There's 1 cultural item, however, which I have found to be present in all the cultures I have encountered (though now that I think of it, maybe Arabic culture is different). When people meet each other for the 1st time of the day, they could be just saying "hello". However, in most places you'll see people asking how you're doing. They rarely want to know how you're actually doing. It's just something that passed on through generations. Here's a list of these things I've observed:

  • American: "how d'you do?"
  • Belgian-French: "Ca va?"
  • Belgian-Dutch: "Hoe is't?"
  • Chinese: "Ni hao ma?"

  • Dutch: "Hoe gaat het?"
  • English: "How are you?"
  • French: "Comment ├ža va?"
  • German: "Wie geht's?"
  • South African: "how's it?"
  • Spanish: "Ola! Que tal?"
  • Thai: "Sabaidee mai?"
The most visible case of this, I found, is in South Africa where people will automatically answer "good and you?" even if you just told them "hello!" and they might feel a bit disconcerted for a second.


Conclusion

There are things in our cultures that we learnt as children but which hardly make sense. I mentioned examples with numbers but if you think of exceptions to the rule of grammar (or pronunciation), I'm sure you'll find other examples which have historic causes and are just weird. If children find something weird, there's a chance that they are right. They will still have to learn the proper weird way to do it, but their intuition is probably correct.

Also, when you travel, take some information from a travel book like Lonely Planet or from websites like Wikitravel. They can warn you in advance of the errors you should avoid.

Monday, September 2, 2013

We eat propaganda every day



Before I left my country to work and therefore live in a far away land, I used to watch television. TV is where I took my first steps in learning about politics and being interested in it. So even though some stuff pleased me and some other stuff displeased me, I rather trusted what the journalists were saying and I would have considered crazy anybody who told me I was eating lies all day long without even realizing it.

So when I arrived in Thailand, I loved my country. I couldn't have explained exactly why, since I knew jack about it, having always sucked at history and geography. But France is the country of the human being rights and whatever, so it had to be pretty damn good, right? Actually no. France has some serious issues in its past and present, like colonization (we haven't totally come around that subject yet) and the infamous French prisons which have an occupation rate of around 120%, rats, insects... When my girlfriend at the time pointed me to these negative issues it was like a punch in my stomach and let's be clear: I couldn't face the truth. Being shown the ugly truth about your country by a stranger, what's more: a stranger you love... it takes a few days to sink in.

I later experienced the same sort of painful feelings through debates and learning to admit publicly "I was wrong" (when I was). But that's not the topic of the day. What matters is that this sort of truth never surfaced in the French media. So I was ignorant and that was in part because the media of my country keeps people in the dark. Hiding the truth is not really what we expect from our media. But what if I told you that our media, YOUR MEDIA, is even more wicked than this? That it's even evil to the point of fabricating lies and selling you heroes who are in fact villains? What if God was dead and the Devil had taken its place (I'm talking figuratively), would you want the media to tell you the truth, or would you want them to lie to you and pretend that the red guy with horns and a pointy tail is God?


Mother Teresa was evil! 

Before reading further how I desecrate that evil witch whom most people believe was good, take 30 seconds for trying to remember what good deeds earned her such a good reputation and a Nobel peace prize.

No, really! Take 30 seconds all by yourself to try and remember! This article can wait.

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Now that you're done, let me read your mind! Either you can't remember or you think she was taking care of some kind of hospital for the dying and helped the poor people.

Mother Teresa was part of an order of nuns who was welcoming poor and sick people into a home for the dying. These sick people were ordered to lay in bed or sit but it was forbidden to them to move around. Their friends and families were NOT allowed to visit. Ever! They were suffering but the nuns were not nurses so the nuns were not giving them any sort of treatment. Not even painkillers. The beds were not actually beds. Aroup Chatterjee, author of "Mother Teresa: the final verdict" describes them as some kind of hammocks.

Mother Teresa had a fascination for suffering. This fascination derived from a fundamentalist endeavor to proselytize and her perception was that suffering was bringing people closer to Jesus. We can at least agree on that: when people are desperate, they will often try to find refuge and solace in the belief in a religion... because the idea that their suffering is only a result of a harsh unforgiving and unfair world is not a pleasant idea. So, if Teresa had a kink for suffering, that was her thing and we must not judge other people's choices that they make for themselves. The only problem is: she made this choice for the dying as well. After she became famous in the media and her organization received a lot of money, she willingly decided that the people suffering should continue to suffer because it was bringing them closer to Jesus. Instead, she used the money to open more homes for the dying in many places in order to expand her proselytizing enterprise. The money was used just for expanding her religion and even though she had plenty of money she did not use it to alleviate the suffering of people. When someone advertises that they need money to take care of the poor and they don't use it to help the poor, it's called a scam! That's right! Teresa was a scam-artist.

Teresa liked the company of the rich and powerful. She told lies in their favor and she indulged in hypocrisy just to accommodate them. And she accepted their money, even when she knew perfectly that the money she was taking had in fact been stolen from the poor. Everybody knows about Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Well, Haiti has been dirt poor for a long time, and the Duvalier family (dictators from 1957 to 1986) certainly contributed to the poverty by stealing land from farmers and organizing the system on bribery and corruption. When Mother Teresa visited Duvalier, taking his money that had been stolen from the poor was not enough and she decided to add insult to injury by declaring that Duvalier loved the poor and that the poor loved Duvalier. That's ballsy! Another ballsy action was taking $1.25 million of donation money from Charles Keating who had created a fraudulent Ponzi scheme resulting in 23,000 people losing their life's savings (sorry, people! you just gonna have to keep working till you die!). Would you expect Mother Teresa to then return the money? Nope! She claimed the money was already spent (sorry, people! and I won't ask my friend the pope to reach in his deep pockets to reimburse you) and she sent a letter asking for clemency in defense of Charles Keating to the judge who was prosecuting him for fraud. It must be noted also that Teresa's order of nuns is the only association in India that doesn't publish publicly its treasury information and that amounts (considered "significant" by Aroup Chatterjee) of its treasury were kept in the banks of The Vatican.

In several countries, her fundamentalist religious views brought her to lobby politicians against the right to legal divorce and against the right to abortion. At the same time, she was hypocritically praising Lady Diana for moving on from her failed marriage with Prince Charles.

Mother Teresa was against the honest pursuit of truth because it was erosive to people's faith. The more people know about the world, the more they are able to argue with what they've been taught. And Teresa preferred ignorant Christians than knowledgeable people able to agree or disagree with her religion. The nuns belonging to her order were forbidden to read from any secular book or newspaper. The emphasis was on nuns becoming obedient rather than educated. She discouraged the nuns from seeking medical training to help the dying, and even from helping the sick when they requested help at the wrong moment of the day. She also organized the punishment of nuns by transferring them away from their friends.


If you've read everything so far, congratulations! I'll spare you some of the less relevant criticisms. You're free to have a look at Wikipedia to check if what I say is correct... but since it is one of my sources for writing this article, there shouldn't be too much difference between what I say and what you'll find there. Another excellent source is Christopher Hitchens' documentary Hell's Angel (duration: 24 minutes). My 3rd and last source for this article is Penn & Teller: Bullshit episode entitled "Holier than thou" (duration: 30 minutes).

So... Mother Teresa is not exactly the person you thought she was, huh?


Conclusion

While I dedicated the majority of this article to exposing the ugly reality of Mother Teresa's personality and actions, that was just an illustration and not the point I wanted to make.

The point I wanted to make is that obtaining accurate information is not easy and I hope I have demonstrated clearly how far from the truth we can be sometimes. As I discussed in the article The Bayart Scale, Internet made it easier though, to look for information, contradictory opinions, and assess the reality of the world by comparing several sources. The Internet is fantastic because it holds knowledge that can dispel widespread lies. Snopes and Wikipedia for instance should be your primary destinations to check if some outrageous ideas or stories might actually be true. You eat propaganda, and so do I. But if we're aware of it, we'll be more critical in assessing the information we receive.

When your country is involved in an International situation and disagrees with people or foreign governments, you might want to read foreign newspapers to obtain a less biased point of view. Because when a journalist from your country publishes an article that exposes the lies of your politicians, the newspaper's boss will receive phone calls from people in power and will be told that his newspaper won't be offered any more interviews and that his journalists won't be allowed in future press conferences, thus leading to sales decreases. Foreign journalists on the other hand, they just couldn't care less.

Also, with regards to our cultural heroes, the late Howard Zinn said we can and should say the truth, get rid of our former undeserving heroes, and promote other more deserving people as figures to look up to.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

It's taking longer than I thought



Some articles take a long time to write. I've spent hours yesterday and today on an article that I'll finish tomorrow or the day after. It's something I did not really expect when getting into blogging. The bloggers who inspired me to start writing publish several articles or links every day. I don't know how they find the time to read everything they prop, let alone everything they write.

I suppose it has to do with personal style, with the personal drive to either provide a lot of things or things more precise, or explanations. Unquestionably also, these people have families and a busy agenda so I'm sure they had to adapt their blogging and browsing style to the constraints of their lives.

So, this will be my short article of the day. Just this observation on blogging itself. If you don't blog, why not? Let me point you again to one of my favorite past articles: the Bayart scale which discusses the matter of people who only read or who go further and start writing.

See you soon.
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