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Census privacy woes

Updated 8-8-1026

Well. I have been swearing a lot in the last two days at my television. Mostly that’s because the ABS’s chief statistician David W. Kalisch seems to have no fucking clue when it comes to the privacy problems with the 2016 Census.

Now I want to say something very clearly. I fully support the census, I believe in it, it provides wonderful and valuable data, and I believe all Australians should fill out all census data honestly and fully. Census data is used to track trends that include the aging population and the distribution in non-communicable diseases, among other things.

By saying that I should also note that there are three things the ABS does not need to know for comprehensive census data: they don’t need to know your name, they don’t need your exact address (but they do need your location), and they don’t need your DOB (your age alone should suffice).

I will be filling out a paper census form which will include all the information the ABS needs, and none of the information they don’t need. That is: it won’t have my name address and DOB. I would fully encourage everyone else to do so, but please be aware that legally you may face a fine if you do not provide all information, or if you provide misleading information. I am willing to risk that, and I believe Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) protects me and other Canberrans from being forced to hand over personally identifiable information in the census.

Why is there a problem?

I have identified three very serious problems with the 2016 census. There could be more issues that privacy experts are aware of, but these are the issues that I have identified as a layperson who has a track record for strongly supporting privacy. The ABS says the name and address information is stored separately from the census forms, but there are two big problems with this. Number one: they are still connectible. To give an example, Lance Armstrong’s doping was revealed because the ‘anonymity process’ was not comprehensive, and the ‘de-identified’ samples were still connectible to their owners – thus they weren’t fully de-identified. Now in his case he deserved to get exposed, but we’re talking about 23 million Australians, most of which are innocent of any serious crimes.

So for security reasons alone, names and addresses should not be stored at all. They are a target for hackers, or unscrupulous ABS workers who want to steal the information and sell it – which is something that has already happened with two ABS workers persecuted for it just last year! Furthermore, we don’t have electronic voting in Australia because it was shown that doing so could compromise the integrity of the electoral system. And I would further note that with the Australian-invented “secret ballot”, ballot papers must not be in any way identifiable to their owners.

Second is that it’s not ethical. What I mean by this is that in research it is not ethical to ask questions to which you don’t need to know the answer to. A person’s name has no benefit whatsoever to the census data. Yes it can be used in a database of its own to find out how many people have what name and what the most common newborn names are, however it absolutely does not need to be identifiable with the census, and I am shocked to know that it doesn’t go straight into a completely separated database from the rest of the census data. It can of course also be checked against the electoral roll to check that everyone filled in a census, however, that should be a completely separate database just as it is in elections (there is no way for your ballot paper to be identified to you, unless you write your name on it in which case it’s an informal ballot and not counted).

Third of course is privacy. And for this I’ll just give an example. Let’s say you are a victim of domestic violence. When you enrol to vote you are allowed to enrol without an address so that your safety is upheld (no one in the AEC can leak your address to your violent ex-partner). Same principle with census – if the data is there it can conceivably be accessed from someone in the ABS who is a perpetrator of domestic violence, and by statistics alone (the stats that are published by the ABS themselves) you would in fact have to assume there are people in the ABS in high positions of power who are perpetrators of domestic violence. For this reason alone, names and addresses should not be even on the same form as the census, let alone be identifiable to the forms they belong to.

I am very dissatisfied with the process for obtaining my census form. As of today (8th of August) I still have not received my census form, despite ordering it at the earliest opportunity! What kind of monkeys are running a census that doesn’t even get the forms to people in time for the census itself? I have never in my life filled in the form early or late, and I don’t want to – I want to fill it in tomorrow on the 9th of August! And I would further note the ABS has completely stuffed this shit up, even if you call the number provided to order the paper form they never ask you how many forms you need, even though on their own website it says people can request additional forms for privacy, in case you don’t want your house-mates or family reading your answers. And that’s not trivial either, some people become an atheist, but are afraid to tell their spouse or parents; and others join religions they would feel stigmatised if their family or house mates knew about. So here’s a tip: if you want two forms say you have 8 people in the house when using the automated ordering process, and that will force them to send two without you needing to call again (and if it doesn’t have a privacy envelope then just use your own if necessary).

So in conclusion, I will be filling out the census completely, and I encourage everyone to do so. Please think carefully about your privacy, these issues are not trivial. Do not think that I’m advocating for civil disobedience, or that you should not fill in the census – the census data is very valuable, please please fill it in.  I would very strongly recommend leaving your name and full address off the census form. By “full address” I do mean you should include your State and Postcode on the census form, probably your suburb as well, but not your full street address. I do not recommend using the online form. I believe (but I’m not a lawyer) that if you are in the ACT or Victoria that the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) s12 or Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (Vic) 2006 s13 protects you from being forced to hand over your full name and full address on your census form. It would be a good idea to cite the relevant Act if applicable to you.

More changes are coming…

I want to let YOU know about upcoming changes here.

I’m developing my own ‘wordpress theme’, which in other word means my own code. It will look substantially similar to the current ‘wood is good’ theme, but will be pure XML (as opposed to pseud-SGML) and optimised for different resolutions (responsive). In addition I’ve been updating some of the graphics, such as the banner links I have in the footer. Those links are all based on this Maxthon graphic:

Maxthon

Well it’s actually two graphics that I found on maxthon.com and saved as a single graphic. Ah that takes me back. Good quality banner-link graphics are hard to come by these days, so I am hoping to bring everything to a consistent quality level. I have also been working on a brand new tiling brick background that looks like this:

Tiling Bricks Preview

It’s not a photo, but it is based on this photo I took:

Bricks Photo

I found it quite challenging to make the mortar look realistic, however I’m very pleased with the result. Here’s a full size comparison…

Photo:

Bricks Photo Full Size

Tiled image:

Tiled Image Full Size

You might wonder why I don’t just go grab a readily available free stock image off the internet.  I could do that, however this is my chance to make everything the way I want it, not just use things other people have created for other purposes. It also allows me to express my own creativity and personalise the website to be the way I want it to be.

My congratulations – Shawn Farquhar!

Shawn Farquhar has become the first magician on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us to win twice. Now I want to preface my praise for him by going over what I (and a lot of others) have seen throughout the second season of the show – and in fact in the other tricks in the first episode of the third season. And that is that magicians are designing “traps” for Penn and Teller into their tricks. And I don’t really like that aspect of the show, because it makes the tricks much less impressive when you can think of a whole handful of different ways it could be performed.

Now with that said I can’t offer greater praise than I will for Shawn, because not only did he not do this: he’s a true “fooler”! Before going further you may like to view his performance yourselves (video copyright 2016 CW):

Here is his previous performance on Penn and Teller:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes book
Shawn holds the book.

So first let’s break the trick down a bit. I was way ahead of Shawn, and as it appears Penn and Teller as well, and in fact I have a theory as to how the illusion could be performed (but I don’t know the method Shawn has used for sure). Now the first thing I noticed when he brought out the book is that it looks like a prop and not a book he’s plucked off his shelf at home.

There’s a couple reasons why, and they are subtle. Firstly this is an old out of copyright book, meaning anyone can download it from the internet and have it custom printed. Secondly, the cover is “cheap”: the words are not embossed, and the cover’s picture is not professional. For example, notice the magnifying glass magnifies the words of the book’s title, but not the pages of the book behind it, and there’s no “glass” depicted in it either. You can notice further on the book does not have a barcode on the back as well, but just from seeing the cover of the book it appeared to be a prop.

Once I had worked this out, from the moment he brought out the second book I expected it to be blank. I also expected, like Penn and Teller, that he was using just two books throughout (the one he gives to Alyson and the blank one he “reads” from). I also did not believe this was a memory trick (which Shawn confirms a bit later on). So it did surprise me a bit that Penn and Teller’s guess was that it was a simple memory trick. One must realise that magicians are master liars, and when they say “this is a memory trick” you can bet that it’s not, unless they’re doing a double-bluff!

His earlier trick from Season 1 (Signed & Sealed) could have been achieved in at least three different ways. I don’t want to spoil the method so I will be as tactful as possible: I originally thought that he used a duplicate signed card – and you could do the trick that way, at least in theory. There’s at least two more ways to do it, either with a “pre-sealed” pack, or perhaps without one as well. With all these three or maybe more different possible methods however, you are still using two different packs of cards – I think most people would know that. With all this said, the one thing that surprised me is we see Penn and Teller “examining” in the wrong place at one point not realising they’ve been duped by a complicated illusion.

Now what do I mean by a “complicated illusion”? Well I’m not a magician, so I don’t know if I’m using the term correctly, but in essence what I mean is that you build the illusion up. Here’s an illusion performed on Penn and Teller by Jay Sankey, and the instructional video he put on Youtube explaining how to perform it:

Now we can discuss the method for this trick in all the detail we wish because the trick’s author has made the “secret” public knowledge. I wasn’t fooled by his torn-and-restored card trick, for the record, I had assumed he had simply folded the cards and created the illusion they were torn. But I want you to notice this is a complicated illusion: it’s not enough to simply create the visual illusion of tearing the two cards in half; you must also create the sound of them tearing, and be able to show you have a number of individual “pieces”, before preceding to restore the cards. A bad magician, takes a complicated illusion like this one, and does not perform all the illusionary steps involved in progressing the illusion, and consequently it becomes less convincing.

So let’s get back to Shawn’s book illusion. I think if a magician is going to use a magic prop – no matter what the prop is – you need to make it look as convincing as possible. As I mentioned, the look of the book was “wrong” for me and I correctly guessed that it was a prop. Not all books have embossed wording, a glossy cover, a barcode, a less ‘amateur’ picture on the cover, a less ordinary typeface, and the title and author not in all-caps. But most of them do, or at least have a few or most of those features. I therefore think the illusion would have been more entertaining with a more authentic looking book. At the end we’re still going to know it was a specially printed prop because the duplicate book is blank, but if that was the case I would have been less likely to immediately suspect the book was a prop and not a real product sold in book-stores everywhere.

But, with that said, and here’s where the praise comes in, I think Shawn’s performance was wonderful – and much improved upon “Signed & Sealed” which is a good trick, but not my favourite performance of the series. And I must also say, while the books are props because he needs one to be blank, besides that they are what they appear to be – two identical books, one printed from start to finish as if it were a real book, and the other completely blank. I don’t think there’s any trickery involved in the book he gives Alyson, and she could take it home and read it and it would be a normal book.

And to give another direct comparison, here, the very next act after Shawn’s is Michael Kent presenting Multiplying Bottles. Now I don’t want to get into the mechanics of the trick, but I do want to show you this version performed by Matt Franco on America’s Got Talent:

Now the thing that I like about this presentation is that Matt has used ordinary packing tubes, and shows them empty throughout. I think that’s much more convincing to an audience than brightly-coloured magician’s props that are never shown empty! However that said, I do believe the Multiplying Bottles trick is fairly easy for an audience to work out, therefore the real value in it is not so much mystifying the audience as it is entertaining them. Look up the way that Tommy Cooper and Hugues Protat perform the trick – clearly interested squarely in entertaining the audience. So again, Michael Kent’s performance is – at least for me – underwhelming. He does a number of things I would consider “wrong” for a complicated illusion: he skips steps and presents things wrong (duplicating bottles in the wrong sequence, never showing the tubes empty, etc).

In conclusion, my warmest congratulations to Shawn! I am a stickler for fine detail, and I would assume that magicians want props to look like ordinary household items. I mean no offence by my comments, and I don’t think discussing it reveals the trick’s method in any way. The title of the show is “Fool Us” which invites us the lay-audience to view the acts critically. I do have a couple of theories as to how the trick could be done, so I don’t feel fooled – but what a great trick and performance!

Enjoy your all new secure experience!

Welcome to my blog. Let me make this clear from the outset: I don’t share visitor information (in fact I barely even look at it myself). My blog does not set any cookies unless you interact with it (i.e. submit a comment or attempt to log into the administration panel), and is used purely for WordPress functions. Even if you do this you are well within your rights to delete cookies or block them altogether, I don’t care.

If this is your first visit then please check out what I have had to say about internet privacy in the past. To sum it up, my stance is that advertisers and others that store unnecessary information is an invasion of your privacy, and I highly suggest taking measures to ensure you can browse the web privately, and securely.

From today on my website is now secure. For you, that means that no one else can see what you browse on the https://blog.aractus.com/ domain. For me, it means more secure access to the administration panel. You will notice a green coloured padlock to the left of the website address in your address bar, which will also display “https://” showing it is a secure SSL connection. You can also view the SSL report for my domain at any time on Qualys (now” A+”):

Qualys

Many thanks to Let’s Encrypt, SSL For Free, and hell IX too for allowing creation of the CSR in the control panel.

I have also tweaked the now well out of date theme from XHTML1.0 to HTML5. This means I can now host my own videos without needing to rely on external services such as Youtube. I have also converted the old flash video that links to Operation Clambake to .mp4 (yes it is 4x the file size, but, it’s still only 158kb!) Here is the new video:

If you didn’t know any better you’d think it is an animated GIF, and it’s about time we freed ourselves from these old outdated formats! The original flash video (41.0kb) is here, and a larger video render is here.

Please continue reading and enjoy your secure and private experience!

-Aractus

PS I have identified the first other website so far to use LE’s SSL: Thimbleweed Park! That’s quite appropriate considering the fact I need to redevelop and relaunch ScummGames!

PPS: I have now identified many more and it’s so great to see the web using such a great free resource!

Magician stabs TV presenter’s hand!

Marcin Poloniewicz
Marcin prepares to stab TV presenter with magic prop.

Well, there’s a wonderful video of this incident, as it happened live on Polish television. I have embedded the video at the end of the blog post if you wish to view it. The Magician is Marcin Poloniewicz, reportedly a semi-finalist of “Poland’s Got Talent”. Ironically this is exactly the same magic trick that was performed in 2014 on America’s Got Talent in the semi-finals by magician duo David & Leeman. The trick itself was created by magician Jon Allen, it is a commercial trick called “The Pain Game”, he himself performed the trick on the first season of Penn & Teller Fool Us, and to quote the description of his trick verbatim: “once set there is categorically no chance of you impaling your hand on the nail”.

I will give a basic description of this trick. It is a Russian-Roulette style trick where a dangerous six inch nail is placed through a piece of wood, and then put inside a paper bag. There are three other identical paper bags, each with their own palm-sized block of wood inside, and they get mixed up, and crushed one-by-one by the magician until there is only one left, which is revealed to contain the block of wood with the nail in it. It is a variation of an older trick involving paper cups and spikes (personally I think it’s a much better trick because the props are quite a bit larger).

This is how the trick is supposed to look, performed by Allen himself on Fool Us (I have edited the video to remove some of Penn’s comments at the end). If the video does not play smoothly for you in your browser then feel free to right-click and save the video and then play it in Media Player Classic or your player of choice. I have actually tweaked my blog theme and converted it from XHTML to HTML5 in order that I can embed this directly for you. Video copyright ITV (2011):

As you can see it’s a pretty good trick, and I think a very good performance. Notice he says this: “There are videos online of people doing this type of effect and getting it wrong and badly injuring themselves. And because of that I have to say a couple of things. First of all check out the videos because some of them are quite funny, but also please do not try this at home.” Well. Until now that was true. There are videos online of magicians doing a similar effect with paper or Styrofoam cups and injuring themselves, and injuring themselves, and they are indeed funny. But until now there was no one that had performed his trick that went wrong, and the video is not funny because the magician’s incompetence injures an innocent aide.

Here it is performed by David & Leeman on America’s Got Talent. You’ll notice they have presented it in their own way, and have used their own props (in particular they have used a fat stumpy spike instead of a six inch nail), but they are presenting Allen’s Pain Game. I think their presentation is very good, I think Jon Allen’s presentation above was also very good.

So what went wrong and how did it go wrong? Well here’s the video for those of you who wish to view it, but otherwise I’ll explain what happens in the video in a moment (video copyright Fairfax, 2016):

Firstly let me say that this is Allen’s trick (Pain Game), and you will notice the props are identical (in particular the blocks of wood and the nail, Połoniewicz might be using different bags). Now to describe what happens for those of you who are squeamish: Połoniewicz begins the trick as usual and places the block & nail in one bag, then mixes them up, then plunges his hand down on the first one. Then, and this is where it goes wrong, he takes the female presenter’s hand and plunges it down on a bag and straight onto the nail. She screams in pain (and shock), Połoniewicz realises the trick has gone wrong and he pulls the nail out of her hand. She was not seriously injured, and just required having her hand bandaged.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll note that Allen himself in the description of his trick guarantees the safety of his trick. So what’s going on? Well, Allen clearly designed the danger in the trick to be a cleverly crafted illusion. What Połoniewicz has done has taken Pain Game, and made an otherwise safe trick dangerous. Now I actually found a video of yet another magician (which I won’t name or share here) performing Pain Game in a dangerous way (but without it going wrong). So Połoniewicz is not the only moron to “tweak” the effect to make a safe trick dangerous.

Why would they do this you might wonder? Well in a nutshell it’s because Połoniewicz is an asshole, and a complete moron. Not only does he have no regard for the safety of others, but as if that wasn’t bad enough, he also disrespects the trick’s creator Jon by using his props and his trick in a way that is not intended! It would be life if I loaned a friend my car and he drove it drunk – that would be disrespectful, regardless of whether anything “went wrong”. Połoniewicz would rather face a real risk then perform a risk-free illusion. Now of course, when it comes down to it he has decided he didn’t want to be burdened by safety procedures that impact on the way they he wants to present the illusion. Other magicians are going to see this failure and may think that Jon’s safety guarantee is worthless, and that may give them doubts about the quality of his other illusions as well. At the very least it does make his illusion look less appealing to prospective buyers. The other video also does this – if I can spot an unnecessary risk introduced into the act, then I’m sure professional magicians would see a red flag for safety if they saw that particular performance, and they might then believe the illusion is “designed to be dangerous”. I guess I shouldn’t speak for Jon since I don’t know him, and I’m not a magician: but what I can say firmly is there are certainly other magicians that design illusions who would be outraged and furious if they saw their illusions being used improperly by others.

I just wanted to go a little bit beyond the “news story” here, and look at how and why this happened, and how people in the magic community might feel about this. And of course, I love calling out assholes, and I think Połoniewicz deserves every bit of ridicule I’ve thrown his way. The media thinks he “made a mistake”, I think what he did was far worse than that. A mistake is where a magician accidentally reveals an illusion or otherwise “stuffs up”. But this is much worse than that because he chose to perform Pain Game wrong: Jon guarantees the trick is safe to perform if you follow the instructions. So that can only mean that either he lied and has been selling a trick for many years that is dangerous, or that Połoniewicz intentionally made the trick dangerous because he didn’t want to perform it the way that the instructions tell him to. That’s not a “mistake”, that’s malevolence, that’s incompetence, that’s disrespectful, it’s negligent, it’s unnecessarily stupid, and it’s just plain wrong.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the videos.

My scathing review of Star Wars the Force Awakens

This post contains SPOILERS, however I keep specific plot details out of it until the “plot” section, so that’s the most spoiler-heavy part of the post. Proceed at your discretion…

Star Wars VII Crawl

Charm and Enthusiasm

None, whatsoever.

Atmosphere and Cinematography

Terrible. Hands down the worst cinematography in a Star Wars film, and there’s a complete lack of atmosphere throughout the movie (with little exception).

I’ll break down the problems. By far the biggest problem is the constant use of the moving camera, and close-ups/zoom-ins. It just doesn’t allow the audience to absorb the atmosphere of the galactic worlds. In fact the final scene in the film is just about the only time we actually get to see a reasonable depiction of an interesting looking planet before we meet its inhabitant, much like how we’re introduced to Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back, however none of the other planets got this treatment in this film.

The cinematography is like comparing “Man of Steel” to Donner & Lester’s Superman films. And that’s no exaggeration, it just doesn’t look at all like a Star Wars film. Say what you want about Lucas, but he knew how to balance different scenes and different filming and camera techniques: he simply has a better sense of cinematography. With JJ’s film there’s just no elegance or subtlety to the camera work, allowing the audience to absorb the atmosphere. To compare it directly to another SW film, consider the “speeder chase” sequence in Attack of the Clones, except now imagine that the camera hardly ever pulls back to show you what’s going on properly, and never sits still (which it does quite a few times in the speeder chase scene), and there’s constant zooming and close-ups throughout the scene, and that kind of cinematography lasts not just for that one sequence, but the entire film even when there isn’t an “action” scene.

The close-ups are the biggest sin in terms of the cinematography. This film is not in Academy ratio, it’s not even 1.85:1 which still allows for close-ups – it’s in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio like all other Star Wars films, and that widescreen format is not suited for close-ups. If you don’t believe me, watch any Disney animation older than Lady and the Tramp, like Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, or Alice in Wonderland. Then watch Lady and the Tramp. You will see two distinctly different styles, especially when it comes to the use of close-ups. Lady and the Tramp was exhibited in the 2.55:1 widescreen format, and so the animators didn’t make the same use of close-ups that they would have if it was to be exhibited in academy-ratio.

There is one part in the film where a General is making a speech to the troops of the First Order and the camera – starts close on his face, and then zooms right in (not even subtly or anything, just a fast extreme close-up zoom), it then cuts away to show the troops being addressed, then cuts back to the General and repeats the exact same zoom from the same starting position again. Utter shit, that’s no way to use the “zoom” function, and it’s completely overused throughout the entire film, and even if the film was in academy ratio it would still be oversaturated with close-ups and zoom-ins.

Sound & the Laws of Physics

By far the worst musical score in a Star Wars film. Hands down. There’s just no elegance or subtlety to the score at all.

Furthermore the sound effects are atrocious. Sound cannot travel through space, and yes in the other films they do sometimes break this basic law of physics (for example when Alderaan is destroyed). But JJ just makes it appear as if space is full of different sounds travelling together, despite the impossibility of this.

And by the way, that’s not all JJ does to defy physics – oh no – now whenever a character is hit by a blaster they get blown-away. Yes that’s right, they fly backwards 12 feet or so, again defying the laws of physics – and it just looks goddamned awful. We’ve already established that blasters don’t cause people to be thrown back 12 feet in the previous 6 films, so why start now?

In another part of the film, the characters who are travelling at light-speed decide the only way to penetrate the shield that the First Order has surrounding a planet is to penetrate the planet atmosphere at light-speed and then slow to a nice safe landing. Yes really. It breaks two different laws of physics really, the first is g-force that a human could survive when the breaks are applied , and the second is that objects can only travel at the full speed of light in a vacuum – not through air! Never in the original trilogy does anyone try to travel at light-speed through air!!

This is of course science fiction, so I’m not going to criticise the use of “lightsabres” etc, that’s part of what makes Star Wars special, but at least get some of the basic physics right – especially when previous films have either got them right or have done much better at not bending them as far. The simple fact is that this movie breaks the suspension of disbelief with such appalling use of physics-defying manoeuvres.

Special Effects

Really there is no regard at all for trying to marry practical effects with special effects in a seamless way, the special effects are obvious and overused just as Lucas himself would have done. And as if that’s not bad enough, Kylo Ren’s lightsabre has a new a unique look to it – instead of its edges being smooth and straight like every other lightsabre we’ve ever seen, it looks like it’s jetting out flames.

Characters

Bland and two-dimensional. There’s no real character development from the leads. Oh and Kylo Ren, who I guess is like the Darth Vader of this movie, communicates with his “overlord” similar to how Vader communicates to the Emperor (except of course that he doesn’t in the original SW, they save that for ESB just like they probably should have saved this one for later), and unlike the subtle depiction of the Emperor that we get in ESB, we instead get an extreme close-up of the commander that Kylo Ren serves. And probably one of the things I hated most was seeing Kylo Ren take off his mask, and he then looks like Anakin in Revenge of the Sith and reminded me of the relentless whining that Anakin does in Attack of the Clones: “Waa Waa, I couldn’t save my mamma, Waa, so I slaughtered all the Tuskans, Waa, they’re ANIMALS and it’s all Obi Wan’s fault, Waa, Waa, Waa”, you get the picture. Why oh why unmask him? Vader never got unmasked until he was 2-minutes from death, had killed the Emperor, had denounced the dark-side, and wanted to see his beloved long-lost son face-to-face. Not only that, but many of the greatest villains had their faces hidden throughout movies, like Michael Myers, or Leatherface, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The lead character is strong, and stronger than Luke in the original film, and certainly better than Hayden Christensen’s Anakin. So credit where credit’s due. But every single supporting character is inferior to a comparable supporting character from any of the other 6 films, without exception. The supporting characters in the original 1977 Star Wars film included Ben, Tarkin, Han, Leia, and of course Vader. All had great performances from their respective actors. If we think back to The Phantom Menace the supporting characters included Padme, Obi Wan, Qui Gon, Palpatine, and Darth Maul. And again all great performances from those characters. Even Daniels delivers a bland performance for 3PO in this film, it just felt off.

And, yes there was a blatant overuse of CGI characters as well in this movie. For comparison I think of the scene where Anakin and Obi Wan chase down the assassin working for Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones. From the moment she leaves her crashed speeder and enters the bar we don’t see any CGI characters all the way through Obi Wan and Anakin going into the bar, exploring, finding her, lobbing off her arm with a lightsabre, and then exiting the bar. Much like the cantina scene in the original film (well of course there wasn’t CGI in 1977, but you get the idea). In this film, however, there’s a scene where the characters enter a bar of some sorts and pretty much 1/3rd or even half the characters in it are CGI.

Traditions

Some SW traditions, for example only using Subtitles for dialogue and never for place names, were respected. Others were thrown out the window, for example the iconic SW depictions of holograms.

Humour

This is the one thing I have nothing but positive things to say about for this film. The film’s humour was pretty much spot-on.

The Plot

Warning this section contains explicit story-related spoilers, scroll down to continue.

Movie Ticket

What can I say? The most unoriginal Star Wars film sine Return of the Jedi. Strike that, it’s even more unoriginal than that. The plot is basically a complete remake of the original Star Wars. There’s a droid carrying information important to the Rebels/Resistance, that finds its way onto a desert-like planet, only to be unwittingly put into the hands of one of the planet’s inhabitants who just happens to be an excellent pilot, who then escapes from an attack by the Galactic Empire/First Order by fleeing from the planet in the Millennium Falcon, and then makes their way to the Rebel Base on the Millennium Falcon accompanied by Han Solo and Chewbacca, and meanwhile learns to use a lightsabre and the force. Also, Darth Vader/Kylo Ren kills a senile old man with his lightsabre.

Then there’s a Death Star for them to destroy, or in this case a Death Planet which is several times larger than a Death Star, but as it turns out just as easy to destroy with a few tie-fighters flying down a long straight trench to mount their attack – coordinated of course by Leia Organa. Again, of course, goodbye suspension of disbelief as a few tie-fighters destroy an entire planet (and I thought that only the Death Star/Death Planet had enough fire-power to achieve that!) In the original film the Death Star only destroys one planet, but in this film the Death Planet destroys a handful of planets all at once, from a far further distance away. Basically it’s the same, except that the Planet is “more powerful” and the corridors are painted a darker shade of battle-ship grey.

Conclusion

If you’re expecting a “better” movie than the prequels than don’t. I don’t think the prequels are awful movies, but I do think that the original trilogy are the better films. I like the diversity in the prequels: they do build great atmosphere and show us different places, and their stories go in quite different directions. On of the problems with the Original Trilogy is that Return of the Jedi duplicates much of the story from the original Star Wars. My favourites location introduced by the prequels has always been Naboo. It’s just such a beautifully designed planet, and it really draws you to it. Those iconic looking buildings, and the beauty of the landscape make it a beautiful addition to the Star Wars universe. In this film, the planets we see are pretty bland quite frankly. We don’t get to explore them in the way we do in other Star Wars movies, and consequently they don’t rally have any character or atmosphere to speak of.

The Force Awakens just does not feel like a Star Wars movie. The whole design of the movie just feels off, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. And the fact is that Force Awakens just blatantly duplicates the story of Star Wars instead of building its own plot line, and that’s just awful lazy writing. In my opinion the Force Awakens is by far the worst Start Wars movie yet.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 5

1.5 Stars

Is Mental Illness a Sham?

Well this post will cement my return to tackling the far more controversial and “difficult” topics on my blog. I want to acknowledge that this post does not provide all the answers you may be seeking, but after doing 2 low-level psychology units at university I feel it is imperative to share with you some of the contradictory information that set off alarm bells in my head, by highlighting some of the large unanswered questions the discipline leaves us. But firstly consider this: I’m asking the question “is mental illness a sham”. A sham does not mean that it doesn’t exist, what it does mean is that at some level there is a misalignment of priorities, a miscommunication of fact versus theory, and at least some level of deception.

I want you to consider a peer-reviewed journal article titled Spirituality, religion and health: Evidence and research directions, by Williams & Sternthal (2007), you can read the text online here. It talks about the evidence that exists for the connection between religion and health. Overall the effect is positive, but there are some negative effects also. This is not controversial, this is something very well known. For all the bashing I did to Christianity in recent posts, note that I’ve never denied the evidence that does show conclusively that religion generally brings participants better health. Doesn’t matter if it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

There are two main responses that critically thinking people have to the above. The first (the point of view I subscribe to) is that community involvement in solving health problems and promoting positive health should be valued and nurtured. The World Health Organisation also shares this view, as does the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. Some benefits include that it is cheap and can break through barriers that prevent people from accessing other health services. I would further argue that strictly from an evolutionary point of view as it applies to human culture (game theory etc.) it predicts that behaviours and structures that benefit the whole should ultimately rise and prevail above those that don’t. To put it in a nutshell, religion and culture exists because the people who practised them outperformed the people who didn’t. Religion does create barriers as well, and that’s one of the negatives.

The other main point of view is that although religious beliefs have a positive correlation with health they do not benefit society overall. This point of view could suggest that religion has been a powerful force for good in the past, but that now its benefits do not have the merit that they once had. And it’s certainly true that people slip through the cracks when religion gets involved. At one time Christians believed that all illnesses were caused by daemons as per Acts 5:15-16. Later this belief was changed to daemons causing some illnesses but miasmas causing others. In Romans 1:26-27 Paul writes pretty clearly that homosexual desires are caused when people turn away from God and his truth. This type of primitive mythology for explaining so-called ‘deviant’ human behaviour is the seed from which discrimination and oppression are grown and has caused a great deal of suffering for different people. It creates barriers between people. But I would argue that although that is true, in every society there are marginalised and disadvantaged people. You can’t judge a society just because it has disadvantaged people, but you can judge it on their attitudes and whether they minimised the number of people who would be disadvantaged.

So how do we apply this information to modern medical thinking then? Well an effective medical treatment will either alleviate symptoms or cure an ailment. It should improve the quality of life, and reduce the burden of disease. But it does come with a similar expense to that of religious participation – medical treatments also have negative health effects. And as you will see, Psychology cannot always offer any improvement to existing techniques for treating certain mental illnesses.

If a person has been diagnosed with a mental illness, there are an array of theories behind how or why that illness has developed. Behavioural, Cognitive, Biological, Evolutionary, Genetic, Physiological, Psychodynamic, Naturalist. The only two theories that have absolute conclusive proof for causing a mental illness is physiology and genetics. We know for instances that brain damage can cause an irreversible impaired mental state. We know that roundworms in the small intestine can cause clinically significant depression. Impaired foetal development can also cause lasting mental illness. Autism and Alzheimer’s have strong genetic predispositions, but both are thought to be due to an autoimmune disease (i.e. triggered by an environmental factor such as an infection).

Now that’s all fine and well, but we also know that life events can contribute to or cause mental illnesses. There’s really not a debate that this happens – even the social gradient effect on the cognitive ability of children has been established – the question however is why it happens. So let’s take something like Gambling Disorder. How should it be treated do we think? With medication perhaps. What about interventional therapy? Okay, well the most researched forms of therapy are cognitive therapy (CT) and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). But there’s also behavioural therapy (BT), motivational therapy (MT), and “minimal intervention” (MI), a striped down intervention that simply has a therapist deliver targeted advice to the patient just once for as little as 10-15 minutes or as long as an hour. There’s also the 12-step program that’s refused to change or update the 75 year-old method – Gambler’s Anonymous (GA). Surely CBT and CT based treatments did best, right? WRONG! CBT, CT, BT, MT and MI all performed essentially equally well according to Toneatto and Gunaratne (2009). Well there’d at least have to do much better than Gambler’s Anonymous anyway. WRONG AGAIN! Marceaux and Melville (2010) found that GA was just as effective as CBT after 6-months (their results are from a controlled study). Petry et al. (2009) conducted a study with one cohort receiving CBT in addition to MI, one receiving just the MI session, and a control group, and found that both of their groups that received the intervention showed improvement with no significant difference between the group that received the CBT and the one that didn’t!

How can this be? If you don’t know what a mental illness is to begin with, then how could you possibly know how to treat it? The disciple of Natural Psychology argues that mental illnesses are non-existent:

The question is not, “What is the best definition of a mental disorder?” The question is not, “Is the DSM-5 definition of a mental disorder better than the DSM-IV definition of a mental disorder?” Those are absolutely not the right questions! The first and only question is, “Do mental disorders exist?” The phenomena certainly exist. The birds and bees exist; pain and suffering exist. But birds do not prove the existence of gods and pain does not prove the existence of mental disorders. Let us not play the game of debating the definitions of non-existent things. Let us move right on. (Eric R. Maisel Ph.D. on Psychology Today).

So if we don’t understand how mental illnesses occur, and we can’t clearly define it, and all of our wildly different treatment options performed equally well as each other, wouldn’t that tell you that something is seriously amiss? Now I want to acknowledge that I’m not saying I know either – but I do know that the risk can be reduced environmentally. That is through policies that provide better safeguards for people who are at risk of developing an addition, and ensuring early proactive intervention rather than reactive intervention.

Pharmaceutical companies are some of the most immoral in the world.

Certainly more immoral than tobacco companies – at least tobacco companies can’t advertise their products on TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. And yes, the risks are stated on the label, supposedly, the label that you see AFTER you buy the medication. Many of the patients who are currently dependant on pharmaceuticals were never told that in the first place, because the development of dependency wasn’t known at the time. Over-medication, dependence, and people accessing the wrong medications for their health issues, as it is, creates a huge amount of pharma-waste. Pharmaceutical advertising encourages people to self-diagnose, and self-select the medications they think they need. This is a massive problem with non-mental medical disorders; so you can just imagine how big a problem it is with mental-health related diagnosed “disorders”.

If you see a psychiatrist here, in Australia, they will diagnose you according to the DSM-V. If you go to China, and see a psychologist they will diagnose you according to the CCMD-3. That’s right – there are two completely different diagnostic manuals, that define mental illness differently to each other, and designate a number of different illnesses. Each has illnesses that are unique to their manual as well – in other words there are illnesses that exist in CCMD and not in DSM (and vice versa)! Mental health illnesses are also defined in the ICD-10 (maintained by WHO) with some difference to DSM.

So then, is mental illness a sham?

Yes I believe so. Hypothesises are presented to clients as medical fact and that means it’s falsely presenting mental health issues as sure and certain factual illnesses. Now I just said before that there are some mental health issues that we know are illnesses like Autism and Dementia. But those are believed to be autoimmune diseases; they’re a physiological disorder that causes mental health problems. But the mental health problems that are purely mental health related with no known link to physiology or bacteria or viruses are not proven to be illnesses per se. They may masquerade themselves into a diagnosable condition; but that’s not an illness. Think about this: we still call gender dysphoria an illness because all conditions in the DSM are mental illnesses by definition (DSM-5 = Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5); yet this is offensive to many people who suffer from the condition, and the French government actually declared that it is not to be considered a mental health condition whilst guaranteeing that people who suffered from the condition would still be able to receive subsidised healthcare.

So I personally welcome a clear delineation between illnesses and other states of mental health, and I look forward to the day that we stop using the word “disorder” to refer to people’s health problems that we don’t understand.

References

Check back they will be edited in. :)

Dismantling the Pillars of Christian faith

This post follows on from “Why I’m not a Christian any more” which I wrote a year ago. I drew a picture to demonstrate what I’m talking about, I’m very sorry it’s not very nice, I’m not a good drawer, it was difficult for me. I’m sorry it was the best I could do. The pillars of Christianity that I imagine in my head are obviously much nicer than the picture I drew. Please don’t comment on how bad it is, I know it’s terrible, I didn’t have a chance to have someone more qualified (an inexperienced child for instance) draw it for me. It probably would have looked nicer in ASCII art. It would also have made more sense if the picture was three dimensional and circular because then it’s clearer that all the pillars have an equal structural support of Christianity, you’ll have to use your imaginations because I had enough trouble drawing a two-dimensional picture.

Pillars of Christianity

I wish to describe what to Christians is my “fall from grace”. This picture illustrates what I think of when I think about the pillars of Christian faith. Other people might have different pillars – they might have less or they might have more. Pillars that other people might have are “Tradition” and “Authority of the Church”, for example. You see I started out very strongly fundamentalist – not so strong of course that I would believe 6-day creationism, but certainly strong enough for me to deny the validity of things like the discipline of psychology – or to use it selectively which is really what all Christians still do today to some extent since doing otherwise is admitting that the God of the Bible doesn’t have infallible wisdom for mental health problems. That said, I still feel quite apathetic towards psychology, and I think that’s healthy given its recent past and the great harms it has done throughout the 20th century, however it is a science and it is improving. The alternatives – such as Scientology (or for that matter Christianity) – are far, far worse. Of course over the past 12 years or so I’ve learned a great deal from psychology – such as understanding the confirmation bias and overcoming it.

We all have our own confirmation biases. Once we have a belief in something it is very difficult to alter that belief – even when presented with hard facts and rationality. So although over time the pillars you see above would weaken, and some would even crumble under the overwhelming weight of evidence – the others were still strong, and when one would weaken another would strengthen – just like in Newtonian Mechanics. So the remaining pillars were always enough to support my Christian faith. The greatest problem with fundamentalism (and evangelicalism in general) is that it is unsustainable. It didn’t take long before I wanted nothing to do with being judgemental towards others. Not simply because I didn’t like it – but because it reinforced a part of my personality that I didn’t like, and endeavoured to change. The threat of becoming a sour, bitter, judgemental person was overwhelming.

Pillar #1 Biblical Infallibility

I really hate when atheists use bad arguments. Just as much as I hated when Christians would use bad arguments. As a Christian, every-time you hear an atheist say “the bible has been translated so many times you can’t possibly know what it originally said” or “somebody made it up” or “the text has been altered significantly” it would just reinforce the conviction in ‘infallibility’. The fact is the Bible hasn’t changed significantly, at least since 200 BC for the OT and 100-200 AD for the NT. But that doesn’t make it infallible. Without infallibility the Bible has no moral authority, and it has no wisdom or knowledge to share with believers. It is based on the belief that all authors of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writings. It is bound to the view of biblical-inerrancy, the belief that all teachings are without error.

Dispensational Theology and internal Biblical Contradictions disproved this pillar for me. Dispensationalism never sat well with me to be honest, and when I re-read the Pentateuch it was forever disproved. In Genesis 12 God promises Abram his descendants shall possess the land of Canaan forever, it’s an unconditional promise made by God that according to the Bible itself God breaks. In Mark Jesus casts out a Legion of daemons in the city of Gerasa. But in Matthew the city is Gadara. They are two completely different locations, so both cannot be true at the same time.

Map showing Gerasa and Gadara

This is an internal contradiction – not a contradiction with external evidence. Neither city is close enough to the Sea of Galilee for the story of the pigs drowning in the sea to make comprehensible sense. Hippus however is right on the sea, so it has been suggested that Matthew actually refers to Hippus rather than Gadara itself, primarily because the gospels specify the “region” instead of specifying in the city, and that Gadara may have had rule over Hippus. Although that solves Matthew’s problem, Mark clearly says in no uncertain terms that the location is Gerasa, and even raking into account the possible “region” it may hold sway over, it is nowhere near the Sea. Clear evidence that he was not led by the Holy Spirit his writing. To make matters even worse, Luke agrees with Mark’s version, not Matthew’s! So it can’t possibly be an early scribal error since Luke makes the same error.

Their geographical ignorance is consistent with non-Jew Christians writing the gospels of Mark and Luke outside of ancient Palestine with a lack of knowledge about the location of Israeli cities. Matthew is a more Jewish gospel, and his changing the location to make the miracle possible is consistent with a Jewish-Christian who has knowledge of the landscape of ancient Palestine. Gerasa is 50km away from the Sea – that’s longer than a marathon. To say it would have taken the pigs 3 hours to “stampede” their way into the sea is an understatement.

There are even more problems though for the doctrine of divine inspiration of the Bible. The doctrine states that the Holy Spirit, or perhaps Jehovah, guided the authors of the Bible’s 66 (or 73) various books. But this becomes impossible when we discover, for example, that the synoptic gospels are all copies of other texts – plagiarised wholesale; and that would mean the previous texts that were written and copied into Matthew/Luke and perhaps Mark were the truly inspired works. Moving our way though the Bible we discover several pseudonymous works: that is works where the author has lied about his identity. This includes a number of pseudo-Pauline epistles and 1 and 2 Peter. This is a huge problem for Christians because from the second century to the fourth, pseudonymous works were weeded out and discarded by early Christianity as being false teachings and fraudulent. Yet we now know they did not identify all the fraudulent works. In four out of the seven authentic epistles of Paul, he writes one part himself (and says so). Presumably so that the recipients of his epistles will recognise his hand writing. There’s not much other reason to disrupt the flow of the nicely written neat and tidy letter with “big” and uneven writing.

An infallible Bible does not contain these problems, thus infallibility is disproved conclusively.

Pillar #2 Moral Authority

Heathens without god are depicted as morally corrupt. Even today we associate the word “Sodomite” with “anal penetration” even though in Genesis there is no direction to the ancient Hebrews not to partake in whatever sexual pleasures they please. There’s no law against homosexuality, that doesn’t happen until Leviticus – many centuries later. God instructed the ancient Hebrews to enslave people. God treated women as inferior. God instructed his people to practise the death penalty. These are examples of things that most of us understand to be immoral – by that God has lost his moral authority.

As far as “sexual immorality” goes, I previously pointed out that God’s definition of “adultery” just means married women who sleep with people other than their husband, and that men were allowed to sleep with their wives, their sex slaves, prostitutes, and unmarried women without being guilty of adultery. I have never met a Christian that wants to accept the Old Testament definition of adultery. Christians claim that Jesus came to “fulfil” the OT and bring a New Testament, but he himself affirms the OT definition of adultery. Yahweh’s rampant misogyny shows that he is not a moral authority. Allowing the Hebrew people to own sex slaves is an example of this misogyny – but in this age sex slavery is considered one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

There is simply no moral teachings in the Old Testament that are not directly reflective of the primitive wisdom of the age. And even then there are examples of other nations such as Egypt with a more advanced sense of morality – including greater equality for women, greater rights for non-citizens, and treating all slaves equally.

Pillar #3 Historicity

Christians will often point out that the facts that Jesus was born, lived, got baptised, preached, and died are all sure and certain facts of history. And they are – but they would still all be true if all we knew was that Jesus got baptised and began preaching. You see the circumstances of his birth are certainly not certain – he had to have been born, otherwise he couldn’t have preached – but to suggest he was born of a “virgin” during a census that either didn’t exist or happened in 6AD is stretching belief to say the least. Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels, does not include the nativity. He also does not include the resurrection. James, Jude, and Paul also never talk about a physical resurrection. Paul does talk about visions of Jesus and that Jesus was ‘raised’, and Mark says that he was ‘raised’. But ‘raised’ does not mean ‘resurrected’. ‘Raised’ simply means taken up to the heavenly realm by Jehovah. There are eight people taken up by Jehovah in the Old Testament: Enoch, Eliezer, King Hiram, Ebed-Melech, Jaabez, Bithiah, Serach, and Elijah. They are all ‘raised’ without experiencing death. Jesus taught though that people get raised to heaven after death.

What Christians don’t tell you, and often are entirely ignorant on, is that the resurrection of Jesus is anything but historical-fact, and so are the Patriarchs, and the Conquest of Canaan. The death of Jesus by Roman Crucifixion and even the discovery of the empty tomb by the disciples are reasonably well attested to. However, there are plenty of explanations for the disciples discovering an empty tomb – perhaps they went to the wrong tomb? Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea had it moved for some reason that evening before the morning? Perhaps the family of Jesus moved it in the evening and didn’t want the disciples to know where it was.

As for the Patriarchs, the enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, the crossing of Sinai, and the great conquest of Canaan, sadly none of it is real. The Bible describes a kind of slavery in Egypt that Egypt simply didn’t practise. It describes it precisely how you might expect a rival nation to be describing it for the purpose of propaganda. You have to remember that these people were so primitive that they thought the city 15 kilometres away from them held people of a different “race” (and there are examples of this in the Bible). But even had they practised the kind of slavery suggested by the Pentateuch, there is simply no evidence outside of the Bible that there was ever an enslaved nation in Egypt, or for the rest of the Biblical tale. Furthermore, modern archaeology has disproved conclusively the conquest of Canaan, and shown that Israel as we knew it at the time of Jesus rose in a very different way.

Pillar #4 Just and Righteous God

Vengeful God

As discussed earlier, the lack of moral authority of the Hebrew scriptures teachings alone should be enough to demonstrate that the Hebrew god is neither just nor righteous. But there are even more problems with Jehovah’s righteousness.

Even by the Bible’s own account, Jehovah deceives and lies to his followers. For example he tells Abram he shall give to his descendants the whole of the Land of Canaan as an everlasting possession, only to later decide to let Rome occupy and control the territory anyway. It is made explicit in Jeremiah 34 that God hands his people into plague famine and invasion for not obeying the Mosaic Law – he does that despite the fact the covenant he originally made with Abram was unconditional and didn’t require obedience, and the Mosaic covenant had not yet been made. Read for yourself:

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, “Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you for six years, you must let them go free.” Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned round and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again.

‘Therefore this is what the Lord says: you have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim “freedom” for you, declares the Lord – “freedom” to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.

-Jeremiah 34:12-20

In fact God routinely lies to people, or has his prophets lie to people, all throughout the Old Testament. In fact he even lies to Adam about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and in fact the Serpent tells Adam the truth (that his eyes will be opened and he will know good and evil). He also manipulates people in order to control the outcome. When God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and ask him to set the Hebrews free, he hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to make him refuse. He does this ten times and each time he then sends a hideous plague upon Egypt as punishment for Pharaoh not recognising his authority. But this is a dictatorship – why is Jehovah punishing the ordinary citizens and residents of the land who have no authority to influence their government? How can a manipulative liar like Jehovah be “just and righteous”?

Pillar #5 Covenant with God

In its purest form this is just a ruse for convincing people to comply with the ruling religious authorities. The Pentateuch represents the earliest known text upon which a religion was based. There is no other ancient religion in the world that we know of prior to Judaism that was based on a written collection of texts. There are plenty of other religions, and many had writings about them, but they weren’t based on them. Now granted, most people will tend to say that the Tanakh (more commonly known as the Hebrew Bible) is in fact the oldest known authoritative religious text upon which a religion was based, however the Pentateuch represents the core of the religious teachings and the earliest of the Tanakh scrolls to have been penned. More books were added over a number of centuries until we have the complete Hebrew scriptures as they exist today.

The Covenant that Christians accept and believe in is that God sent Jesus to redeem them from their Flesh through either faith, and/or grace, and/or works. The New Testament uses the term ‘Flesh’ to mean ‘Sinful Nature’, it’s a theme that runs through all Paul’s epistles. Many Christians are in fact unaware of this and even deny it due to reading translations such as the NIV which have scrubbed the whole of the NT of that word and replaced all instances with either “sinful nature” or “worldly”. All Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of this covenant to redeem them from their Flesh. There is disagreement about exactly what it means whether it is by “faith alone” and whether Jesus is deity or a prophet. The majority of Christians today view Jesus as divine deity, part of the holy trinity, but this was not a first century belief shared by everyone in the early church, although some must have had the idea since it’s a concept that the writers of John and Revelation had. They didn’t really say it explicitly though, and that could indicate that the authors didn’t want their works to appear to be “Gnostic nonsense” – that is containing “false” Christian doctrine.

Dispensational theology, previously mentioned under Pillar #1, poses a significant problem for Christians. Essentially most Christians believe that Jehovah has a progressive revelation, displacing previous revelation and covenants. Even nondispensationalists believe in some sort of progressive revelation, although their explanation will be different. In any case, dispensational theology provides the justification for discontinuity of the Law of Moses and some older covenants such as the Abrahamic covenants. Now here’s where the complexity comes in. The reason why Christians need a way to discontinue the Law and covenants made with Abraham, Moses, and David. This is because in 50 AD the Church in Jerusalem held a council to address the fact that the old land promises made by Jehovah to Abraham, Moses, and David did not have any relevance to gentile Christians from Syria and other places outside of first century Palestine (/Canaan).

This theology poses irreconcilable problems though. The Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, it is where God promises to Abram that his descendants shall possess the land of Canaan forever, and yet even by the Biblical record it has never been fulfilled by God. Some people say “this is a covenant that will be fulfilled in the future”, but this was made to Abram as an Israelite – what relevance does it have to the modern world with a population of 7 billion, and hundreds if not thousands of distinct Ethnicities? 7 billion people cannot all live in the “promised” land of Canaan (the land previously belonging to Palestinians and currently illegally occupied by Israel).

So the simple fact is the Covenants God makes make no sense, they are not universally applicable (even the New Covenant isn’t which I’ll discuss in the next section), God hasn’t kept any of his Covenants other than the Adamic covenant in which he asserted his authority to be the judge of all mankind, and explaining away these problems requires convoluted reasoning and a very liberal interpretation of what the Tanakh teaches.

Pillar #6 Redemption in Jesus

Jesus welcoming you

The redemption in Jesus relies on the Christian interpretation of the New Covenant, so let’s discuss it. There are some things we can say about, but firstly let me tell you what it is not. It is not a covenant between God and the World, it doesn’t require repentance from sins, nor does it require people to choose to believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Moses, Abraham, or anyone else.

So what is it then, and how did Christians get it so wrong? It is a covenant made between God and Israel, pertaining to the restoration of Israel. And there’s actually a very strong biblical bases for discontinuing the Mosaic covenant, and for the provision of a New covenant:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.

-Jeremiah 31:31-32

But this is not where the passage ends. Read on and it explains in explicit detail what the New covenant will be:

‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,’ declares the LORD.
‘I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbour,
or say to one another, “Know the LORD,”
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,’
declares the LORD.
‘For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.’

-Jeremiah 31:33-34

The “New Covenant” has five properties. Firstly and, perhaps most importantly, it is an unconditional covenant – it does not require repentance from people or anything else. Secondly it is between God and the people of Israel and Judah – not between God and gentiles. Thirdly, God’s law will be placed directly into people’s heart so that they do not need to be taught them. Fourthly the knowledge of God will also be given directly from God so no one needs to teach about who God is. Fifthly, God will forgive all and forget about the sins of the people he will make the covenant with. This is confirmed further in Jer 32. It discusses the regeneration of Israel, not the generation of a new movement separate to Israel.

So the Christian covenant that they call the ‘New Covenant’ is in fact not at all what was promised the Jews. With the Christian New Covenant forgiveness has to be earned in some way – typically by accepting Jesus as your saviour and repenting of your “sins”. This is the core theological belief from which all other theology regarding Christianity is built on, so in a sense this one Pillar is absolutely fundamental to Christianity in any form, no matter the denomination, and without it the validity (however limited) of Christianity cannot stand.

That whole passage (Jeremiah 31:31-34) is quoted wholesale in Hebrews 8:8-12, so Christians can’t claim that it’s not relevant. Instead they make the claim that “it simply hasn’t been fulfilled yet”. But how can it ever be fulfilled? The ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel were completely destroyed – there’s no one for God to make the covenant with any more. Furthermore, the Old Testament gives guidance on how to spot false prophets in the book of Deuteronomy, and in Jeremiah itself as well:

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.

-Deuteronomy 18:22

But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognised as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.’

-Jeremiah 28:9

Right, well then prophet is false, but at the same time is ratified by the New Testament. Interesting. The punishment for false prophecy, as well as for sorcery, is death, given in many places including Deuteronomy 18:20 in exactly the same passage quoted above! So how exactly do we put false prophets to death if we’re willing to wait more than 2,000 years to see if the prophecy comes to pass? The “redemption in Jesus” is a different “New Covenant” to the one prophesied in Jeremiah 31. When Theologians and Priests discuss or preach about the justification for Christians to ignore the Law, they never look at Jeremiah 31/Hebrews 8, even though it specifically says it will displace the Mosaic covenant and gives justification to remove it.

Redemption in Jesus is simply another false promise. It doesn’t mean Jesus was a bad person, but like all prophets he was a false prophet.

Pillar #7 Power of Prayer

The Bible makes it explicit that Prayer has great power. Such as having authority over all disease and physical impairments such as blindness or paralysis, as well as being able to cast out wicked daemons that plague humanity and cause all kinds of unthinkable suffering. But it just doesn’t work. For one, no amputee has ever been healed by prayer. No paralytics have been healed by prayer in modern times either, nor have people who were born blind or deaf. So what’s going on here? Well there are three possibilities – 1. God exists, but like usual isn’t keeping his covenants or promises; 2. God exists, but displaced that healing covenant with some other covenant; 3. God does not exist. None of them show a just and righteous God who keeps to his word. Since this is a long entry I’ll leave it there for now on this pillar.

Pillar #8 Wisdom and Knowledge

The Bible, including the New Testament, doesn’t contain any knowledge or “wisdom” that is any greater than the conventional wisdom of the age. As per the moral authority, there’s nothing in the Bible that shows a grand morality not found elsewhere, nor is any specific knowledge ever revealed that the Israelites or first century Christians couldn’t have worked out for themselves. And what used to be taught as “knowledge” such as creation of the world, is now largely viewed as a “symbolic story” by the majority of Christians. Jesus has some wise teachings, such as recognising greed as a root of evil when he encounters the rich young ruler, the parable of the prodigal son, and the parable of the good Samaritan are all great teachings.

But look at where he fails: he discusses divorce legalistically. Yes he has a point that men shouldn’t divorce their wives just because they decide they want to get rid of them, and that’s valid, but he goes on to say the only justification for divorce is “sexual immorality” (without explaining what he means by that) and that any other reason isn’t valid. He never once challenges the status of women as property in the Tanakh, including being listed among a “man’s possessions” in the tenth commandment. Nor does he say why it is that Judaism forbids women from divorcing their husbands (something legal in Ancient Egypt and other places). He also has nothing to say about domestic violence/abuse; something he should have had insight about if he was truly wise. Why is it that according to Jesus domestic violence isn’t a valid reason for divorce?

Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan – one of his best. It talks about showing kindness to other people; well if he was really wise how come he didn’t have insight enough to say that “race” is a false-concept, and that the ancient Hebrew laws that specifically treat non-Hebrews differently were wrong? Why doesn’t he say something about why women weren’t allowed to inherit property under the Law?

See the points Jesus makes are generally good, but they’re all within the Law of Moses. What he does is he says “actually this is lawful, and the Pharisees, Scribes, and other religious leaders have twisted the meaning”. But he doesn’t say “women aren’t property” or that “all people belong to the same human race” or anything that show true wisdom beyond the conventional wisdom for first century Palestine.

How to claim your online privacy

This follows on from my last post. In my last post I provided some broad information on internet privacy, and why it is important. People need it for all kinds of legitimate reasons – whether you’re watching some kinky 80’s porn in privacy, or whether you’re seeking debt consultation, you have every right to privacy. The legislation in Australia does not require detailed activity statements about your internet connection; however it does require email providers store all metadata associated with individual emails. Essentially your email provider now has to treat your email account like a phone account where call records are kept (and are also now made mandatory under the legislation). When you sign up for debt consultation, they might send you an email or call you. The fact that you have received an email or phone call from them now has to be stored. If you phone 1800-333-000 (Crime Stoppers) which is an anonymous service, you phone provider now has to store the details of you call. The police now have a way to find out that you called them using their anonymous service. The information that is retained by your service provider is the phone number you dialled and the exact time and duration of your call – that’s enough to fingerprint your unique call and trace it back to you. This is the kind of information that should be immediately removed from your phone records, not stored for 12 months.

No self-respecting email provider has ever kept detailed logs of your email activity. Even privacy-invading GMail doesn’t keep that kind of information. It’s just as useful as keeping browsing history via DNS logs or similar. Why? Because when you sign up for that kinky 80’s porn you receive an email confirming your account. When you sign up for debt consultation, they send you an email or a phone call. When you access mental health services, or help for addictions, or food relief charities, or religious services, or specialised legal services, you will receive an email or a phone call. Is this an invasion of privacy? YES! Of course it is. It’s nobody’s business to know who contacts a legal firm, or who they speak to – and they may have a specific non-disclosure agreement with the service provider intended to protect the privacy of their clients … now these agreements are all invalid.

What the law enforcement agencies learned is that much less data is being kept and stored by service providers now compared with the past. And they didn’t like that. So without going over everything in the last post, I should remind you that your ISP is not required to log your DNS or browsing history – however that doesn’t mean they won’t or that they don’t. It is well known that OpenDNS logs all DNS activity forever. You need to use services that respect your privacy, not services that “might” invade it.

  1. Move off your ISP email address, and move off any email that is provided from Australian provider. I cannot understate the importance of this – your account activity will be logged and stored for 24 months by your service provider. This includes the details of all incoming and outgoing emails associated with your email account!
  2. If you have a website hosted in Australia, change your email settings so it is provided from a USA data-centre. Your registrar might provide you with a free service, there are plenty of cheap options out there, and there are many webhosts who would provide this for free to non-profit organisations. Hopefully Aussie webhosts step up and provide options or advice for their customers.
  3. Get the MVPS HOSTS file.
  4. Get a VPN. Websites I suggest visiting are Choice, TorrentFreak, Whirlpool, and Reddit/Vpncoupons.
  5. Change your router DNS servers to privacy-respecting alternatives. Do note that this can break free-bandwidth allowances on certain streaming services.
  6. Install DNSCrypt (and do not use an OpenDNS provider since they log usage). I recommend using the winclient to manage it (on Windows). Unfortunately installation is not completely straightforward. Be careful as you may not be able to access the internet if you install it wrong. DNSCrypt encrypts your DNS requests, preventing spying spoofing and man-in-the-middle attacks.
    • First download dnscrypt-proxy, then the winclient. Extract both to the same location (e.g. “C:\Program Files (x86)\dnscrypt-proxy-win32\bin”), and make a link to the winclient it in your start menu or on your desktop.
    • Open Network Connections (Start > Settings > Network Connections).
    • Right-click your network card and select Properties.
    • Select Internet Protocol Version 4 and click Properties.
    • Select “Use the following DNS server addresses:” and type 127.0.0.1 into the “Preferred DNS server” input box. Leave the second blank and click OK.
    • Open dnscrypt-winclient (you may need to run it with admin privileges).
    • There are two buttons at the bottom, if the first one says “Install” then click it.
    • If the second button says button at the bottom says “Start” button then click it and wait for the server to start.
    • Select the “Config” tab, and choose a provider (e.g. “CloudNS Canberra”).
    • Close the winclient. These settings are now saved and you do not have to open the winclient again, even after restarting Windows, unless you want to change something (e.g. if the DNS sever you selected goes down).
    • For good measure press Winkey-R and type “cmd/c ipconfig/flushdns” (without quotations) and hit OK.
    • Test the internet. If you can’t connect even after changing the provider in winclient then something with your settings is wrong. Open your network card and change the setting back to “Obtain DNS server address automatically”. Open the winclient and uninstall the service. Press winkey-r and run “cmd/c ipconfig/flushdns” again, and the internet should work as it did before.
  7. Use Firefox. Setting Firefox up for maximum privacy is fairly straightforward:
    • Click Options – Privacy. Under History select Firefox will: “Use custom settings for history”. Change the “Accept third-party cookies” option from “Always” to “From visited”.
    • Click Options – Search. Change default search engine to DuckDuckGo.
    • Install the Google double-click opt-out plugin.
    • Install the Google Redirects Fixer add-on. There are other add-ons that do the same job, what it does is prevent Google tracking which link you click by removing their redirection links.
    • Install uBlock Origin. Third-party ads and privacy do not mix, full stop. uBlock is far superior to AdblockPlus in every way, it is leaner and doesn’t come with “acceptable ads”. Open the uBlock settings (click the toolbar icon and then the version bar), select the 3rd-party filters tab, ensure all three options under Privacy are selected, then click “Apply Changes” and close the options.
    • Optionally install NoScript – it is aggressive and takes patience since you will regularly need to white-list new domains.

Of course you should also have Avast or another anti-virus program running. Security and privacy go hand-in-hand. Privacy cannot be understated – imagine if it was your credit card number that these companies were being directed to retain by the government! It would be a huge security risk to the customers, and not to mention go completely against best practise policies regarding the handling of such information.

Data retention: The invasion of privacy

Privacy is a basic human right, defined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see also Right to Privacy in the Digital Age). We should all be very concerned with invasions of our privacy, or where our privacy is not guaranteed. Or when our data is accessed illegally (as in PRISM) by foreign government agencies and then passed to our law enforcement agencies. Or when your data is invaded because somebody else uses your network and is under investigation. Or when your data simply falls into the wrongs hands because it’s been stored inadequately and has been accessed by a hacker (as happened to the Ashley Madison website). People don’t necessarily feel sorry for Ashley Madison – they quite rightly feel apathetic towards the company – but they certainly feel sympathetic to innocent users who had their accounts hacked (note it’s not our place to judge anyone’s guilt based on the services they use).

Now imagine instead that your ISP was hacked, and hackers revealed everyone who had accessed services such as Ashley Madison, or mental health services, or Lifeline/Beyondblue, or domestic violence help, or financial assistance, or family planning and abortion services, or drug rehabilitation services, alcoholics anonymous, gambling help online, or emergency food relief charities, or specialised legal services, or religious services, or other sensitive services a person might feel self-conscious about and rightly expect they have a right to privacy about. Virtually all of the services I just mentioned promise to provide either confidentiality or anonymity. If your data is stored by your ISP, by law, then it becomes a target for hackers. Once the data is obtained by a hacker (or a disgruntled employee) it can be mined and sold. Vulnerable people can be selectively targeted. For example, people suffering from gambling addition could have their details (their full name and email address) sent to advertisers who could then target everyone on the list with online gambling services. Identities can be stolen wholesale. This list of horrendous possibilities goes on. You might want privacy for all kinds of genuine reasons, but you need privacy in order to be able sure of your security as well as to access sensitive services that require anonymity or confidentiality. I highly suggest listening to the recent IQ2 debate Only The Wicked Need Fear Government Spying.

Government spying is not legal in Australia. The metadata honey-pot for the various law enforcement agencies to access cannot legally be stored by any government agency – yet the Federal Government and law enforcement agencies wants this information stored indiscriminately by service providers so they can access it whenever they need it. Many have argued, including Malcolm Turnbull, that this data is “already available”. Well that’s not entirely true. If it was already available there would be no cost associated with storing it. The reality is the law forces ISPs and Telcos to store more data and for longer. For example all email providers have to now store metadata relating to your emails! That’s a list of everyone who you contact, and when, and everyone who contacts you, and when. You have no control whatsoever over what comes in to your email address! In Europe, where similar data retention laws were passed in several countries, the duration for the storing of metadata was usually much less than 2 years – typically around 6-12 months.

Europe is an interesting case. The European Union came up with a directive instructing member states to enact mandatory data retention by Telecommunication companies, after 8 years the directive was struck down by an EU Court by a finding that found that the directive was illegal. Across Europe, in response to the EU Directive, similar laws were passed, and in a number of countries they have since been retracted – and in many countries on constitutional grounds. The list of European countries I know about that had data retention laws struck down by a constitutional court includes Austria, Germany, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, and Argentina. Note that in the Slovenia ruling the court ordered Telcos to destroy retained data immediately! And that’s just a list of EU countries where it was revoked on constitutional grounds alone. The Netherlands scrapped their law, Hungary’s law may be struck down constitutionally, and the UK’s has been suspended by court order with a suspension on the suspension order until 31 March 2016! In the majority of cases in Europe VPNs were included along with ISPs in being forced to log data.

The United States, of course, does not have any mandatory data retention laws. Canada does, and the law appears to apply to VPNs as well as ISPs (it has not yet been tested in court).

So where does that leave us – here in Australia? Well our legislation is set to come into effect on October 7. It’s now widely viewed all across Europe, and in the USA, as a clear breach of privacy. Most Australians don’t understand what data is to be stored (see iiNet and journalist Quentin Dempster‘s article). ISPs, Email providers, and Telcos all now have to store “Metadata” in Australia. That’s right – even your email provider – so you can get a foreign email and the data won’t be stored, but if you use an Australia email provider from October 7, the provider is required to log all activity on your account. Local providers cannot compete evenly with overseas providers, who are able to offer greater protection for privacy not just for your emails, but also for voice calls. This could also push companies who host their websites in Australia overseas so they can avoid having their company email “medata” logged and stored by providers. The retained data can be accessed without a warrant, and for the reason of suspicion of any crime. The government argued there isn’t a need for a warrant because that’s for the content proper – however, iiNet points out the so-called “metadata” provides as much information (or more) as the content itself does. And mentioned earlier – your data may be accessed along with every else who used a shared internet connection (such as a family or workplace internet connection). Imagine this, there could be 6 people in your household, and one person for some reason becomes under suspicion of a crime by law enforcement. When the ISP data is accessed, everyone’s data is accessed at once – the one person under suspicion, and the five who are not. If you use public WiFi – that data also has to be logged and your data will be accessed when anyone who used it is under suspicion!

How to go about securing your privacy online will be the topic of my next post.