I’m talking to you passerby..treat life as a mortal should.

greek inscription.jpg

This is a Greek inscription for a tomb in a mausoleum. It’s in an open-air museum overlooking the Sea of Galilee, you know, where they used to walk on water.

The inscription reads: “I’m talking to you, passerby. As you are now, so I used to be; as I am now, so you will be. Treat life as a mortal should.”

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Shhhhh in the library: Gag Order cuts Librarians out of Patriot Act Reauthorization Debate

I come from the generation where people were actually quiet in libraries. Not like today, when students in community colleges are encouraged to form study groups and meet in the library to discuss their subject. Or in graduate schools’ computer rooms, where innumerable groups murmur together working on group assignments, and if you stay too late, someone is bound to come in from the local watering hole and be really loud. Back in the good old days, if someone talked too loud, a librarian would actually come over and sush them.

So, given my years of conditioning that has resulted in an automatic reverent silence in the presence of books, I was shocked and dismayed to read a piece written by Michael over at Homeland Stupidity about librarians being under a gag order. Librarians and gags? It conjures up images of cliffhangers with sweet Penelope tied to the railroad tracks while Oilcan Harry tries to persuade her to marry him and give up the ‘deed to the ranch’.

According to the Washington Post, the FBI asked a Connecticut library service for information about one of its users–without a warrant. The librarians stalled, with some help from the ACLU. Then the FBI came back and said never mind, the threat wasn’t ‘viable’. In the meantime, the librarians were prevented from participating in the debate over renewing the Patriot Act.

The librarians had been under a gag order for months. Last year a federal judge said it unfairly prevented them from participating in a debate over how the Patriot Act should be rewritten, but by the time the FBI dropped its appeal in April, Congress had already voted to reauthorize the law.

This time, they have really gone too far. It’s time to fight back. Throughout history many books were banned that are now considered classics, including books by Thoreau, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. The American Library Association sponsors Banned Book Week in September, but you can read a banned book right now, while you are waiting for the November election. Here is the ALA’s list of the 100 most frequently banned books.

Gags and librarians, indeed.

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Hello, beast? Damn! Wrong number. Directory Assistance, can you get me the number of the Beast?

“The number 666 is no longer in service. Calls are being taken by… 616.”

A couple weeks ago everyone was eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Beast. You know, that legendary Satanic creature from the Bible that would signal the end of time as we know it. Something like that. And since the number of the Beast is supposed to be 666–it’s in the Bible, isn’t it?–everyone was halfway hoping the Beast would make an appearance June 6th.

Late in the day, without having seen hide nor hair of aforementioned Beast, I was talking to my father on the phone and he happened to mention the number of the Beast has actually been determined to be 616. Dad can outdo me in calculus and electronic tube theory, but not in Boolean algebra, and especially not in biblical scholarship, so yes, I had already heard of the Beast’s new number. I know it comes from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, which was believed to be written by John, disciple of Jesus, from an imperial Roman prison. No doubt John had to write cryptically if he wanted his letters to reach the outside, which this one obviously did. And we probably wouldn’t understand a lot of the current events that would be common knowlege to readers 2000 years ago. But I started getting more curious about the scholarship behind the number thing, and decided to track down the Beast in its lair.

First of all, yes, it is in the Bible, Revelation 13:18, which is rendered like this by Today’s New International Version (TNIV is the 2005 gender-accurate translation of the Biblical literalists’ NIV. This means when the original Greek says “human” it gets translated as “human” and not “man.” The word “man” in this translation will always refer to one male human individual) :

This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.

beast-616-number-72.jpgThe interpretation of the Beast’s number centers around the fragment of a papyrus first discovered in a 3rd century Egyptian garbage dump back in 1895. With new imaging techniques, Oxford scholars have been able to read the damaged fragment. A photo of this earliest known papyrus of this passage of Revelation is available on their website. The number itself consists of the Greek letters chi, iota, stigma which look something like “xic” and stand for the Greek numbers 600, 10, and 6.

Taken at face value, the Revelation account of the vision of the Beast centers around the antichrist and the apocalypse. But the ancient Greeks liked to play with numerology. They liked number puzzles centering on the names of political figures. Some say Caligula was the real identity of the Beast. A more common viewpoint is that the puzzle represents Nero, who, after all, wanted to destroy the temple in Jerusalem.

So maybe the Number of the Beast is nothing more than the first century equivalent of someone sneaking a “Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot” bumper sticker out of Guantánamo.

UPDATE: The Nero link is broken, the best beast explanation now–and the Beast is now thought to have been Domitian–is here:

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Knowing Algorithms: Repression in Cyberspace

The nose of the camel is in the tent. Earlier this week, New Scientist published a report about the National Security Agency’s program to track citizens posting on internet websites. Maybe it doesn’t look like a big deal right now. But what happens when a country does not protect privacy and freedom?

The human rights organization Amnesty International has been following a new threat to freedom, internet censorship, and tracks how internet users are spied on, controlled and locked up around the world for opposing repressive regimes.

In China, Shi Tao sent an Email to a US site telling them about the Chinese government’ s warnings against reporting on the Tiananmen Square anniversary demonstrations. But that didn’t sit well with the Chinese Government, and Shi Tao was arrested. How did they catch him? Yahoo turned him in, and even provided evidence against him at his trial.

One year later he was in court, where account-holder information provided by Yahoo’s Chinese partner company was used as evidence to convict him.

Like other firms keen for a slice of the lucrative Chinese market, Yahoo is widely reported to have signed the Chinese authorities’ Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Internet Industry, effectively agreeing to implement web censorship. While the company has been quick to condemn the punishment of people for free expression, it has supplied information to the Chinese government that has led to prosecution in such cases.

Now Shi Tao, an Amnesty prisoner of conscience, is doing forced labour under harsh conditions in Chishan prison, in the central province of Hunan. His wife has endured frequent harassment and interrogation by the authorities and her workplace has put pressure on her to divorce Shi. His mother, father and uncle have all been watched and harassed at work and at home.

If you live in China, you can’t access Amnesty International’s website. Likewise, if you do a search that includes the words ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’ or ‘Taiwan independence,’ filters will block any websites containing those phrases. Chinese websites must register and a quarter of them have been shut down by authorities.

And in a true echo of Orwell’s Big Brother, cameras are being installed in many internet cafes to monitor all those entering.

In the city of Shenzhen, two cartoon police characters are displayed on all computer screens as a reminder to users that they are being watched and should not search for banned sites or topics…

Yahoo is not the only company cooperating with abuses. In Israel, Microsoft cooperated with authorities to presecute nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu for communicating with foreign journalists. Vanunu was in prison for more than 18 years but has been released on the condition he does not leave Israel or talk to foreign reporters. Microsoft’s evidence may put him back in jail.

Bloggers have been imprisoned in Tunisia, Vietnam and Iran . Iranian blogger Sayed Ahmad Sayed Sigarchi is reported to have received 30 lashes in Tabriz prison last October while serving a four-month sentence. He was convicted of ‘insulting the leader and senior officials’ and making ‘propaganda against the system.’

The Open Net Initiative tracks cyberspace abuses of freedom on a country by country basis. One of the most flagrant uses of the internet to stifle the political process was in the Belarus election. In the pre-election report, the Open Net Initiative documented distributed denial of service (DDOS) against the challenging political party, and in the after election report also reported campaign disruption.

Some other interesting stuff out there about web censorship:

has started a campaign to put fragments of censored material on other websites

has found a way to circumvent China censorship.

Human Rights Watch cannot be accessed from some countries.

Right now the government is only reading your blogs, but what will happen next?  “You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé,” says the New Scientist article. “People don’t realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days.”

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Religions Agree: Torture is Godless

The National Religions Campaign Against Torture kicked off a national campaign today with a full-page ad in the op-ed section of the New York Times. The campaign is being promoted by, among others, Nobel laureates President Jimmy Carter and Elie Weisel.

The following is the full text of the “Statement of Conscience”

Torture Is A Moral Issue
A Statement of the National Religious Campaign against Torture

Please join the over 5000 people who have already endorsed this statement.

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear. It degrades everyone involved –policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.

Torture and inhumane treatment have long been banned by U.S. treaty obligations, and are punishable by criminal statute. Recent developments, however, have created new uncertainties. By reaffirming the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as torture, the McCain amendment, now signed into law, is a step in the right direction. Yet its implementation remains unclear.

The President’s signing statement, which he issued when he signed the McCain Amendment into law, implies that the President does not believe he is bound by the amendment in his role as commander in chief. The possibility remains open that inhumane methods of interrogation will continue.

Furthermore, in a troubling development, for the first time in our nation’s history, legislation has now been signed into law that effectively permits evidence obtained by torture to be used in a court of law. The military tribunals that are trying some terrorist suspects are now expressly permitted to consider information obtained under coercive interrogation techniques, including degrading and inhumane techniques and torture.

We urge Congress and the President to remove all ambiguities by prohibiting:

* Exemptions from the human rights standards of international law for any arm of our government.
* The practice of extraordinary rendition, whereby suspects are apprehended and flown to countries that use torture as a means of interrogation.
* Any disconnection of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” from the ban against “torture” so as to permit inhumane interrogation.
* The existence of secret U.S. prisons around the world.
* Any denial of Red Cross access to detainees held by our government overseas.

We also call for an independent investigation of the severe human rights abuses at U.S. installations like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now –without exceptions.

You can also sign the petition from the website, or download their education information or “It’s a sin to legalize torturCandlePosterTh1.jpge” poster.

The site also gives a list of sponsors and signers of the petition, as well as a prayer for “those who endure torture”, “those who inflict torture” and “those who authorize torture”.  Interesting differentiation.

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