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Is Democracy Dying?

Sometimes when glancing at the news, seeing that some country has fallen into civil war or how the élite in another country are increasingly oppressing those less well off, you could easily start to wonder pessimistically – is democracy dead? But perhaps the better question is – was it ever truly ‘alive’? Like everything man creates, it is flawed, but for the most part works. The best (system) of a bad lot you might even say.

Being a westerner, my opinions and convictions will inevitably be in a western, Anglo-Irish context, but ask any educated person anywhere and they will almost always define democracy as: “a political system in which all the members of the society have an equal share of centralized political power”. This concise definition belies its excruciatingly slow evolution from the original Greek concept devised by the Athenians thousands of years ago.

In this article, I hope to show that a system is only as good as those that practice it and therein lies the paradox of everything mankind puts its hands to – all it takes is one bad apple and everything is diluted and rendered less than what it should be.
In the earliest days of western democracy (I speak mainly in the Greek and Roman contexts) it was a matter of significant pride for a citizen to become a politician – literally a ‘servant of the state’. Many politicians of those times believed it to be the highest calling in life for them, often shirking payment and celebrity, merely hoping to serve their country and people with pride and hard work. Illustrious men like Solon, Pericles, Coriolanus and Cincinnatus are seen as the paragons of political virtue but are now all but forgotten, but were shining examples of proud politicians who really made a difference.

Sadly these true patriots are much lesser known than those that were out for their own self-interest. In this day and age, it really does seem that power really does attract those least worthy of holding it. A bold generalization perhaps, but not terribly far off the mark I warrant.

At this point, to understand the core concepts of democracy, it’s worth giving a little background about the early origins of this political model in the eastern Mediterranean basin, namely Greece.

Before its forced unification by King Phillip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) in 338 BC, Greece was a loose conglomeration of city states with essentially the same culture and language but each politically separate from each other and fiercely proud of their dissimilarities. Of the two or three pre-eminent states, posterity has awarded the birthplace of democracy to Athens.

Athens and its hinterland was divided up into districts called demes, for the purposes of voting and general administration. The system called δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) came into existence and flourished for some centuries before Phillip’s famous son, Alexander forced Athens into his short-lived (and mostly unplanned) empire. The people of Athens eligible to vote in each deme could vote on what the government did in its name. Of course by modern standards it was not at all representative of the population, as slaves, foreigners and women (no matter how high-born) were all exempt from voting – equality of the human genders was to come many centuries later.

Think of this early Greek democracy as version 1.0 – lots of work to do, but for now it works.

Well it worked for quite a while until the Romans put a firm end to Greek autonomy in 146 BC when they annexed almost all of peninsular Greece as a bulwark against the burgeoning powers of Asia Minor. Later still of course, the Roman Empire itself eventually fell apart and Europe descended into the aptly named Dark Ages for more than half a millennium.

After the lights of civilisation went out in Europe, organised government did start to claw its way back out of the quagmire, initially in Iceland of all places. The Althing was founded in 930 AD and remains the oldest functioning parliament in the world.
Skipping ahead almost another thousand years, democracy finally came into its mature version 2.0 phase with the enfranchisement era in Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, whereby women and practically all of a country’s populace were entitled to vote – as long as they were citizens and over 18 years of age (sometimes 21).

As of 2014, practically all western countries have some version of bicameral democracy whereby the people vote every 4-5 years and elect representatives to a ‘lower house’ where most decisions are made before moving to the ‘upper house’. This works well usually, but to me at least democracy appears to be weakening. Influences from outside the political arena are siphoning power away from the ordered, centralized systems of society.

Now anyone who has any experience of life will know instinctively that nothing lasts forever. Literally nothing – mountains wear down to hills and stars expand and die – entropy always sets in. Similarly, vicious dictatorships always fall eventually and balance is restored, either by armed insurrection against the tyrant and his clan or the natural death of the despot and no one wants to fight, just to forget and move forward.

So it is with democracy. The signs of it are everywhere in the modern world – in both developed and developing countries. In my home country of Ireland, there have been repeated attempts to abolish the upper house (Seanad), when a true functioning democracy would see that it exists not to impede progress, but to balance the decisions of the lower house (the Dàil). While indeed it appears to have become functionally obsolete, I firmly believe it still has an important part to play in Irish democracy. Detractors say that it is a waste of taxpayers money and that the election of senators is not remotely democratic. Other complaints are that senators rack up large expense bills on top of their already significant salaries, stipends and pensions and remain almost entirely invisible to the public – again quite true. The Seanad I believe needs to remain in place with its power of veto over bills passed to it from the Dàil, but it does without doubt require a massive overhaul. To do this would mean modifying the constitution, which last saw a proper overhaul in 1937. It needs to be done, but no one seems to have the political will to initiate it.

Everyone knows that the last century and a half has seen unparalleled change in the world, but if nothing else, the passing of over 75 years is a good enough reason to turn a very critical eye at political institutions the world over, to see them as encrusted and encumbered with the weight of time and obsolete meanderings and update them with an eye as much to the future as the present. Perhaps they need to be subjected to an organic, rolling evolution to mirror the changes occurring in parallel in human society?

I could be flippant and say that the type of selfless politician is no more to be found, but people the world over still go into politics believing they can make a difference, and often do, but sadly they are few and far between and rarely make the difference that practically every nation urgently needs. Many go in and get straight back out after a few years, seeing the cesspool of intrigue and hubris on display behind the closed doors of power.

Turning the focus on the US, we increasingly see the downstream effects of 9/11 on democracy here. Within weeks of the atrocity in lower Manhattan, the Bush administration had tabled the so-called ‘Patriot Act’ which diluted the rights of the individual American citizen under the mantra of greater US security. This was a slippery slope that the wise were right to shout out against, but at the time, the vast majority of Americans were fully behind it. Regardless of who you think was behind the despicable events of September 11th 2001, the democratically elected government at the time took measures which have since proven to be detrimental to civil liberties.

George Bush was a Republican president, yet his successor Barack Obama (a Democrat) has not only upheld all of his predecessors edicts, but in fact extended them to the nth degree. Weren’t the Republicans and Democrats meant to be on opposing sides of the political spectrum? That’s cute. Keep in mind that in 2013, President Obama in effect ‘reminded’ the Senate that he in fact has the power to override their decisions in relation to the Syrian crisis.

Now, would anyone mind telling me how this man is now a higher power than the United States Senate? Does that not in fact make him (and his predecessor) an imperator in the Roman sense – someone who (in times of crisis) was granted complete (yet explicitly temporary) power over the armed forces and governing bodies, on the proviso that that power be handed back to the government institutions after danger has passed? So when will the Patriot Act (and all its updates) be repealed. You guessed it – most likely never.

Orwell’s ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’ seems to have arrived, at least in the United States at any rate.

According to online independent newspaper The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/177964/americas-secret-war-134-countries), the United States was militarily present in some shape or form in 134 countries around the world in 2013. But the United States is a country that always talks about the grand ideal of democracy, but appears that all the dictionaries have been thrown out on Capitol Hill, as they behave internationally (and increasingly internally) in ways that are entirely thug-like and much more akin to the behaviour of an oligarchic dictatorship intent on controlling everything everywhere. Everyone in the world today seems to know this except the average American himself due to the media being tightly controlled – one of the hallmarks of tyrannical states since time immemorial.

Another way in which democracy is being eroded is by its ties to big business. You only have to read a few lines about politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra and Silvio Berlusconi to see see examples of wealthy and influential men who went into politics for almost no other tangible reason but to mould a country and its laws into being favourable to their private interests. Glaring examples are Berlusconi’s Italy and Shinawatra’s Thailand – both are democratic states, though strictly Thailand is a constitutional monarchy (similar to the UK) and has a nasty habit of indulging in the national pastime – overthrowing its governments. Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to be all about Soviet-style control while his business friends reap the rewards and he rigs the elections every 4-5 years to remain in power. Of course I would need a whole other article (many volumes long) to describe the business connections of the Bush family, so won’t bother here – it’s already well documented.

So we see that governments the world over are being suborned by big business and infiltrated by ‘private interest groups’ – see how American construction giants Halliburton and Bechtel flock to war-torn countries in the wake of the American military juggernaut to make untold billions in construction contracts. See how the FDA in the US has become a laughable waste of taxpayers money and essentially the legislative arm of private companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, Dow and other major food companies. See how almost the world over, education funding gets cut almost every year while military spending just keeps increasing. The people themselves are being left behind in the dust. Literacy and education, healthcare, job security, insurance, pensions are all suffering and the masses are starting to see their leaders for whom they are.

So it appears that the era of democracy appears to be passing and we are now slowly entering a new phase – that of the ‘Corporate Government’ (‘corporatocracy’? Or perhaps ‘kleptocracy’?), when in effect the large multi-nationals dictate how the masses go about their lives – consuming, buying, throwing out, buying a new one and never recycling, fixing or re-purposing what you already have.

So where you might ask do we go from this point onwards? Is armed insurrection the only way? Are we doomed to consistently repeat the same mistakes of our predecessors ad nauseam? What of open and frank discourse either through debate (assuming that’s still allowed) or through writing articles such as this one? The pen is mightier than the sword they say, so that would be my preferred route. I am a devout pacifist, but if there was literally no other way, I would never shy away from the insurrection route.

We may be lucky and things in all our respective countries will re-balance themselves without recourse to open conflict, or we could gently steer our governments back on track to the point of accountability and equality for all citizens. Let’s make our votes mean something again.

And remember, if you are entitled to vote then by god you should use it even if it is the simple tokenism of a corrupt state – there are millions of people across this small planet of ours that would give an arm for the right to have their vote mean something. So don’t be an idiot – if you don’t vote (or spoil your vote in a childish outpouring of misguided apathy), you have no right to complain about the outcome.

One thing is for sure – wanting politicians to stay clean and do what they should means sticking our heads above the rest and getting involved.

 

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The Present

[I found this on the internet today and felt challenged by the first line (that it would only take 37 seconds to read) – I felt I would give up before 20 seconds. I am glad I persevered and read it to the end. Nearly choked me up! I also lay no claim whatsoever to the words – not one of them are mine. Any typos are also not mine as I merely copy/pasted. /Disclaimer]

It will take just 37 seconds to read this and change your thinking..

Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same
hospital room.

One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an
hour each afternoon to help drain the fluid from
his lungs.

His bed was next to the room’s only window.

The other man had to spend all his time flat on
his back.

The men talked for hours on end.

They spoke of their wives and families, their
homes, their jobs, their involvement in the
military service, where they had been on
vacation.

Every afternoon, when the man in the bed by the
window could sit up, he would pass the time by
describing to his roommate all the things he could
see outside the window.

The man in the other bed began to live for those
one hour periods where his world would be
broadened and enlivened by all the activity and
colour of the world outside.

The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while
children sailed their model boats. Young lovers
walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every colour
and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen
in the distance.

As the man by the window described all this in
exquisite details, the man on the other side of
the room would close his eyes and imagine this
picturesque scene.

One warm afternoon, the man by the window
described a parade passing by.

Although the other man could not hear the band –
he could see it in his mind’s eye as the
gentleman by the window portrayed it with
descriptive words.

Days, weeks and months passed.
One morning, the day nurse arrived to bring
water for their baths only to find the lifeless body
of the man by the window, who had died
peacefully in his sleep.

She was saddened and called the hospital
attendants to take the body away.

As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man
asked if he could be moved next to the window.
The nurse was happy to make the switch, and
after making sure he was comfortable, she left
him alone.

Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one
elbow to take his first look at the real world
outside.
He strained to slowly turn to look out the window
besides the bed.

It faced a blank wall.

The man asked the nurse what could have
compelled his deceased roommate who had
described such wonderful things outside this
window.

The nurse responded that the man was blind and
could not even see the wall.

She said, ‘Perhaps he just wanted to encourage
you.’

Epilogue:
There is tremendous happiness in making others
happy, despite our own situations.
Shared grief is half the sorrow, but happiness
when shared, is doubled.
If you want to feel rich, just count all the things
you have that money can’t buy.
‘Today is a gift, that is why it is called The Present .’

The Syrian Crisis

So it looks like the US is about to ”bring democracy” to another (Muslim) country all in the name of altruism and good ol’ American-style democracy. On the grounds that government forces used banned chemical weapons on its own people.

But what CNN, Fox News and others are not saying is that reports are seeping out that in fact it was the rebels, loosely known as the FSA (Free Syrian Army) that are responsible and that the victims were mainly non-combatants (aka the usual – women, children and the elderly – basically anyone but the enemy). Why they would want to target the innocent and not Bashar Al-Assad’s powerful government forces is unclear, but the latest news suggests it may have been an accident. So the basis for bombing Assad is…what…at this point in time?

With Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had many reasons to invade, but none of them had anything to do with freeing the oppressed – or installing democratic governments. If freeing the oppressed from a brutal regime was even on the list it was at or near the bottom. You could narrow down the reasons for invading them as simply to control them. Control the local governments and you control its people and resources. Those two countries were indeed under the rule of ugly, oppressive regimes (and no one misses them), but it all boils down to the fact that both countries had resources the US wanted to prop up their ongoing plan for world domination and were willing to publicly topple their governments for them – namely oil (Iraq) and opium (Afghanistan). Keep in mind that it is widely believed (if not already proven) that both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were CIA operatives.

With Syria, it seems like the type of intervention will be similar to their intervention in Libya – almost certainly no troops on the ground, but they will attack Assad’s forces using drones, fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles from the comfort of their offshore destroyers and their bases in Turkey and the UK’s base in Cyprus. The US government is increasingly aware that Americans are getting more and more weary of non-stop war and they desperately need the voters’ backing to further their goals. Hence they sent in Monsanto’s mercenary wing Xe (formerly Blackwater) months ago to whip the FSA into a solid fighting force.

Syria has historically been much more in the Russian sphere of influence, than the European/American one, which doesn’t sit very well with Turkey to the north or Israel to the south and both Russia and China will be very unhappy if they attempt to topple Assad who happens to be a very good ‘friend’ of theirs (i.e. he buys shed-loads of military equipment from them both).

Another aspect to this crisis is that Syria has another staunch ally in Iran. Iran being another country on America’s (s)hit-list for some years now means that there are two ‘unfriendly’ states crouched around America’s oil, ahh, THE oil, and they want a nice tame client regime installed there giving them a nice friendly corridor to the Mediterranean from to the Gulf as Iraq now merely a ‘client state’ (a phrase the Romans used for a government they ‘bought’ to ensure compliance). Jordan is another docile client state and Lebanon is relatively calm and friendly. Removing Assad also removes Syria from Iran’s short list of allies, further isolating them in the region and leaving them last on the list of states to pacify.

Growing up I always used to joke about America and the UK needing to start a war every few years as their munitions were nearing their best before date, but as an adult I can see much better between the lines and realize that the other major powers – and I mean the really militarily powerful ones like Russia and China (France and Britain being very much second tier world powers militarily whether they like to accept it or not) have not been involved in significant wars in decades, while the US is without a doubt on a quest to subdue the entire world, either through direct military intervention, coup d’états or clandestine desolation of smaller local economies followed by the installation of governments sympathetic to the IMF and World Trade Bank etc. (their financial blitzkrieg-meisters).

American voters and tax-payers would also do well to ask why their government is backing a rebellion that is mostly made up of Islamic fundamentalists that once in power would install sharia law as the basis of their state. US citizens are sadly ill-informed about what their government is doing around the world, but they still very much feel the IRS’ groping hand grubbing around in their pockets, looking for more money to fund black ops, dirty and outright wars, not to mention lining the pockets of the super-rich, the so-called 1%.

So Obama (like the Bush oligarchy before him) and all the greedy, money-loving plutocrats behind him are banging the war drums again as it’s good for business – more tanks will be made and bought, more bullets, shells, missiles, grenades, jets to keep the United State’s always hungry military-industrial complex ticking over until the next target presents itself i.e. dares to take a stand against American business ‘interests’. Once Assad is toppled, Halliburton and Bechtel will descend on poor Syria and rebuild it while serving the bill up to the Syrian people for decades to come.

And so it goes. Over and over again.

So hopefully, Congress will ‘call bullshit’ and Obama will have to reign in the dogs of war just as the House of Commons in the UK did to their lap-dog David Cameron.

Sense has to prevail sometime doesn’t it? Yeah right.

‘Elysium’ Reviewed

Having seen the excellent District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up movie Elysium was always going to be a must-see. They used to talk about that ‘difficult second album’, but the same goes for a director’s second movie. My anticipation was mounting ever since hearing about it, but walking out of the cinema having seen it, I was quite disappointed, but couldn’t immediately say why.

So I had to write about it to get it all straight in my head. Be warned – here be spoilers…

In summary, it is 2154 and Elysium is a huge habitat orbiting the Earth to which the mega-rich of the planet have moved, to escape from the overcrowded and hopelessly grim Earth, which has essentially become a massive ghetto, while the rich have plenty of room, food, citizenship and crucially – universal health-care. Damon’s character Max accidentally is exposed to a huge dose of radiation at work and his employer refuses to help him, so having little chance of getting any help on Earth, he decides he needs to get to Elysium to be healed. To do this he needs to get there via illegal means, as Elysium lets no one in but the super-rich and they quite violently guard their ‘airspace’ from those who are not ‘citizens’. He eventually gets there, but not after bloodshed and a lot of general mayhem, which results in everyone on Earth being granted citizenship of Elysium and therefore eligible for the same level of affordable health-care as those on the habitat. Here’s the trailer so those of you who haven’t seen it can get a feel for it:

Before getting to the negative aspects, let’s step back and go through what did work well for the movie:

1. As with District 9, the computer visuals were done by Peter Jackson’s company Weta Digital. They created truly breath-taking visuals of the orbiting habitat (both through the atmosphere and in outer space as well). The robotic police officers, the flying vehicles and the technology were also flawlessly animated. The legendary Syd Mead was contracted to help with many of the designs in Elysium and it paid off as everything looks functional yet used if that makes sense.

2. Of all the performances in Elysium, it is Sharlto Copley’s Kruger that steals the show in every scene. Kruger is a covert mercenary who does Delacourt’s (Jodie Foster) dirty work on Earth. He seems to revel in absolute chaos and doesn’t give a damn about anything – making him the most dangerous type of mercenary.

3. While District 9 dealt with racism, Elysium deals allegorically with the haves and have-nots. Though having spent his earlier years in South Africa, director Neil Blomkamp has spent much of his life in Canada which has a radically different approach to healthcare compared to it’s big neighbour the United States (i.e. Health-care is universal in Canada but exorbitantly expensive in the US). Clearly Blomkamp is a liberal humanist (not that that’s a bad thing).

Now for the negative aspects (mainly the character arcs) which made this particular viewer scratch his head:

  • Damon’s character Max is a mild-mannered former criminal who is always being harrassed (for that reason) by the police and his parole officer (another automaton – think Johnny-Cab robot from Total Recall) . After being irradiated in a workplace accident, he needs to get to Elysium to be cured. However, by the end of the movie he has transformed into a freedom fighter, fighting for free medical care for all humans on Earth by uploading the source code for Elysium, overwriting the existing code and making all humans on Earth citizens of Elysium, so the robot doctors will cure everyone. Damon is a reliable actor, but I’m not convinced he was the ideal choice here. Max’s character really needed to be darker. More suitable options might have been Christian Bale or perhaps Timothy Olyphant, to give Max more gravitas and a sense of struggle. I tried and failed during the movie NOT to say he words ‘Matt Damon’ (á la ‘Team America’) in my head.
  • Foster’s Delacourt (Elysium’s head of security) is clearly looking for any reason to overthrown the Elysium government for her own reasons (which are never clarified properly) before Kruger abruptly kills her. It’s like Blomkamp got bored with her character and devised a quick way to remove her from the script.
  • Kruger is clearly insane and doesn’t take it well when he is released from service (by the President) only to be quietly re-instated by Delacourt. He kills her after she berates him out for damaging Elysium property (um, a garden and a few potted plants) and he quite non-chalantly opens her carotid artery. Then he decides that with her gone and the President in lock-down (at Delacourt’s order after Kruger’s ship crash lands) that Elysium needs a good, strong ruler, namely himself. It feels odd to me that he goes from a hired thug to staging a coup d’état mere minutes after Delacourt’s previous coup d’état. It just seems an odd character transformation to me but I suppose he’s just an opportunist at the end of the day.
  • Spider – Max’s former crime boss goes from being a violent, heartless black marketeer to a freedom fighter (like Max), opening all the doors on the habitat so Max can upload the new code and give everyone citizenship. He is downgraded during the course of his screen time from a dangerous and violent crime lord and almost becomes likeable by the end. FAIL.
  • Flashbacks can be effective but should be used sparingly. There were too many of them here, showing Max and Frey growing up together rather than making them the core of the story from the outset. Frey and her sick daughter were a sideline which just muddied the main thrust of the movie and could have been dropped or further minimized.
  • My biggest personal pet peeve – far too little time inside Elysium – over 80% of the movie was set on Earth. I wanted to see the glory of what humanity can achieve in space but only got to see a few exterior shots of the habitat and a lot of pretty dull corridors and rooms inside it. Even the security control room seemed boring and reminded me of the bride of the Liberator in Blake’s 7. Kubrick would have done it better justice. Oh wait, he already did…
  • Considering that in the last century or so mankind has learned how to fly, landed on the moon and many other wonders, the technology of Elysium didn’t seem particularly advanced. Sure, cancer can be cured in a few moments using non-invasive and non-chemical means, but nothing else stood out as credible for a future 140 years from now. Only Kruger’s hand-held shield seemed to be sufficiently in advance of modern technology, though it looked like something nicked from the Gungans on Naboo (geddit?).
  • Max gets outfitted with a wetware exoskeleton whose aim is aim is twofold – as he is seriously weak from his lethal dose of radiation it will allow him to stay up and walking but it also is meant to help him fight. He does indeed fight Kruger and a host of other baddies, but the exoskeleton never seems to provide him with any major advantage, other than acting as a shield against Kruger’s sword. It seems somehow wasted.
  • Delacourt’s bizarre English accent. Jodie Foster is one of my favourite actresses and speaks great French (see her French-speaking turn in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement”), so why even when her name sounds French was she doing a sadly mediocre English accent? Copley’s Kruger got to keep his South African accent, so why didn’t she just stick with her American accent? Weirdness.
  • While I really like Blomkamp’s gritty futures and feel a certain cold violence towards Michael Bay’s formulaic “let’s put a joke…THERE” approach, they could have put in a few laughs here and there. Even District 9 made us smile a bit, usually when a human or alien spontaneously disintegrated in a hilariously grisly way (seriously).
  • After Clinton Shorter’s wonderfully evocative African music for District 9, the music for Elysium was disappointing. I cannot recall any memorable theme or motif used by composer Ryan Amon which is a shame because every movie should have you humming its main theme as you leave the cinema. Movie music should soar and “be a cast member” as John William’s once said of his earlier Star Wars soundtracks. It took me weeks to get the main theme of Could Atlas out of my head after leaving the cinema!

So after all that, it might sound odd for me to say that I still quite enjoyed Elysium for it’s pros, but too many cons meant that it was a little disappointing. As he is still a rookie director, I can only hope that the inconsistencies are down to studio interference or money issues, and that a director’s cut version will come out down the road, cleaning up many of the odd character progressions and the early culling of a character here and there.

Again for me Elysium still works overall. Let’s hope Blomkamp hasn’t ‘Shyamalanned’ already and that his best work is yet to come.

The Facebook Stockholm Syndrome

I used to love Facebook. Then over time I started to find it irritating. Now I simply hate it. There, I said it. Once having probably been one of Facebook’s biggest unofficial brand ambassadors, checking it with ludicrous frequency, I now really want it out of my life. The reasons are few but varied, but mainly because it is a thief. Hours spent in there pass but they seem like minutes – minutes that I’ll never get back. It steals my time – time I need to devote to my son, my wife, myself and our collective future.

It’s also a thief in another way, but more on that later.

In concept, I still love that Facebook is a painless way to keep in touch with friends and family and you can see how their lives are going. It is in essence a 21st century way to ‘socialize’ albeit without ever having to leave your couch. If you allow it to, it simplifies communication with the people in your life. You can use its instant messaging feature, you can hold Skype calls and of course email each other using a Facebook-based email account. It has it all. It is its own internet-within-an-internet, which people don’t (want to?) leave as it is comfortable and safe.

Safe? Think again.

That it is an almost complete sub-internet ecosystem, is what I am increasingly concerned about. Until recently it was a privately-owned company with a meagre bottom line (from advertising – more on that shortly), but on May 18th 2012 it went public and suddenly it was owned by shareholders – no longer run by its founders. This simply means they have to make a profit. Moreover, floating on Wall St. means they have to make more money year over year – that’s how it works and if it doesn’t, heads will roll. It’s inevitable really when they see their user count plateau and inevitably diminish as people drift away to other social networking sites or simply log off all of them, Facebook included. I almost can’t wait for them to “myspace”.

Facebook has big plans – they actively wants to become the next evolutionary step of the internet. They are trying to hijack our mobile phones with Facebook Home and Facebook Chat Heads to hijack the way you use your phones and to draw you ever back into their lair. They are even rumoured to be launching a Facebook phone with the help of Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC. Imagine that – it logs all your calls and records them too. It’s the wettest of wet dreams for the secret services of the world. Not looking at you at all NSA/CIA…

Anyway, back to their money-making. Their trade is information and they were doing it before they hit the NASDAQ, but have to do it now more than ever. Well, the fact is they learn about you in so many ways because you let them. Because without thinking, you want to. I remember my rush to get photos of our holidays up on the web within hours of returning from the trip then checking hourly to see how many likes they got and what people said about them. But every time you do so, you are surrendering your precious information and making someone money somewhere.

Every time you click the Like button on a third party website, a counter rolls over somewhere in the accounting department at Facebook. Hands up how many of you know that if you have Facebook open in one browser tab and you are browsing elsewhere in other tabs (within the same browser that is), that Facebook knows what you are browsing for, what sites you are visiting? You don’t in fact even need to click Like anywhere – the very fact that it is there on any given page means that it is following you around, logging all the websites you visit and storing it for “statistical use” even though you might in fact be logged out of Facebook!

The simple fact is that when you signed up for Facebook, you did NOT read the terms and conditions. I didn’t and I’d say less than 1% of all people did (those masochists that did were probably legal experts and/or privacy shills). The simple abbreviated summary of those T&C’s is this – “you do not own your data on Facebook. Facebook owns it utterly. You have no legal rights to it at all.” Yes you took the photos or are in them, but they belong completely to Facebook merely by being on their site. How awful is that? They knew you wouldn’t read the T&Cs. Now IT/Tech Support people always rail against users who never bother to “RTFM” (Read The *ucking Manual), but I suspect legal experts equally rage against people who never take the time to “RTFT&Cs’.

So Facebook is “data-mining” your life like you wouldn’t believe. You wouldn’t put up with it from a stalker, so why put up with it from a company that uses you merely as a cash cow. They brought in a whopping 5 billion dollars in revenue last year, by selling your information – and you never see a cent of it. You might think that is alright, but I no longer do. Having worked almost two decades in the computer industry, I have always been more security conscious than most, ritually installing multiple security programs, but if you buy into Facebook, you are willingly surrendering your data to them. Ah – the gift that keeps on giving…to Facebook that is.

Call it a digital-age Stockholm Syndrome if you will.

If any of you feel somewhat like me and want to continue using it, but vastly reducing their parasitism on you, there are ways to continue using it but limiting their ability to monitor and track you. The assumptions here are that your computer uses some version of Windows and your phone is either an iPhone or an Android device.

1. Let’s face it, chances you are using a pathetic password on Facebook. Basic rule – if your password is easy to remember it will be (hilariously) easy to crack. Generate a tough password using http://www.deadboltpasswordgenerator.com/ or some similar service. Force yourself to memorize your new password. Or use my favourite password program Lastpass (http://www.lastpass.com/) which remembers your password for you. With Lastpass, you remember one single master password and it remembers all your myriad passwords for you. Genius!

2. Lock down the security and privacy settings within Facebook itself on your computer – as many crucial settings are (deliberately?) missing from the smartphone versions of Facebook. Follow all the recommendations listed in this PDF (page 3 onwards) from the Center for Internet Security: http://msisac.cisecurity.org/resources/reports/documents/FacebookPaperSM_May2013.pdf. In short – always choose the most restrictive settings you can tolerate.

3. If you only use Facebook from a laptop or desktop computer, then try to only access Facebook in one particular browser and don’t open other tabs in that browser. Also make sure you NEVER access Facebook using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (it has the poorest security of any of the main four browsers). I’d recommend Google’s Chrome browser as their extensions and plugins are the most developed. FireFox is a very close second and most of the extensions below exist for both browsers. So assuming you are using Chrome, I’d recommend installing the following extensions from the Google extensions catalog at https://chrome.google.com/webstore/category/extensions?hl=en-US:
A. WOT Safe Search – the World Of Trust extension warns you when a link you follow is on their black list for containing malicious or counterfeit software, or is known as a phishing site. Lots of links published by people or groups in Facebook are to dodgy sites. This helps you avoid them.
B. DoNotTrackMe – It blocks web pages (including Facebook) from tracking your every move around the internet and can provide statistics on how many attempts it blocked.
C. Privacyfix – As the name suggests, it puts you in charge of what you are sharing while browsing the web – even when you are logged out of Facebook and other social networking sites.
D. Ghostery – Overlaps with what the others above all do, but is worth having.

4. Always have anti-virus and anti-malware software installed on your computer. Tablets and smartphones are less likely to get hit by these problems, but it’s on the rise on them also sadly. Linux and Mac users can find AV programs but generally speaking they are safe enough…for now. You can get basic free AV software for Windows from lots of companies now – Avast, AVG, AntiVir and even Microsoft’s own Security Essentials. All can be obtained from Filehippo – my favourite software repository site here – http://filehippo.com/software/antimalware/

5. Install a software firewall which by default limits and tracks all incoming and outgoing internet traffic and ‘sniffs’ it for dodgy communications that computer operating systems don’t routinely inform you about. The leading options here are ZoneAlarm, Comodo Firewall and Outpost among many others. Again, get ’em here – http://filehippo.com/software/security/. Now if your name is Bradley Manning, Julian Assange or Eric Snowden, you might want to invest in a hardware firewall, which is a powerful computer system that does nothing but check every bit of data that enters and leaves your network, but they cost silly money for you and me and are usually pretty difficult to configure.

6. Regularly remove cookies from your computer using tools like CCleaner, ATF-Clean or Glary Utilities as the cookies leave behind details of your browsing sessions and can be accessed by unscrupulous people roaming around your computer (since you don’t have a firewall installed) or dodgy sleeper programs that you installed.

7. You should also install an anti-keylogging program like KeyScrambler. It is software that encrypts anything you type into a browser window, stopping memory-resident malware from quietly copying your sensitive details and sending them off-system to a remote computer. KeyScrambler is available here – http://www.qfxsoftware.com/

Now for some non software/hardware-related tips:

8. NEVER log into a new site with Facebook Connect – EVER. Signing up for a shiny new website you’d like to investigate, you may be greeted with the ‘Sign in with Facebook’ (or Google/Twitter etc.) Simply put – don’t. Almost always you have the choice to create an account the old/hard way – supplying your email address and choosing a password. Yes using Facebook’s “one-click” authentication service makes it easier and much faster to log in, but it just lets them track you even more. If you cannot manually create an account then you should consider walking away from it.

9. NEVER click the ‘Like’ button you see on external websites as they link back to Facebook in the background without your consent, giving them more information on you and your preferences and browsing history.

10. NEVER ‘check in’ anywhere on your phone. And not just on Facebook by the way – if an app asks you you should think seriously about saying no. Even if you disable this, your phone is probably giving up that date anyway so disable GPS location services from your phone’s settings. If you never rely on it – just disable it as you don’t need it and it helps keep your battery going longer.

So now after learning how much Mr. Zuckerberg and his bunch of data pirates are literally looting you of your ‘youness’, do you still want to use Facebook? It’s ok, I understand if you don’t. At least you can severely hinder his attempts to line his and his shareholder’s pockets and starve the beast.

One question you may be thinking is whether there are there any alternatives to Facebook that are secure and bullet-proof? The answer is no – simply no. There are a great many other social networking sites (see here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites), but none are secure, because by definition they want you to give up your information. It’s called networking for a reason! It’s always best to assume that everything you give to the internet is wide open for all to see. So act accordingly. The safest social network is still with your best friends down the pub – simple as.

So you have to find the middle ground you are willing to accept – let them track you and continue to enjoy the stultifying, fake world of Facebook or delete everything everywhere and get back to your life. As a character in The Matrix put it – “You take the blue pill: the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” In essence, you need to decide your level of involvement, but if you give it all up to the Zuck, at least know that you are giving it up to begin with and that someone is making money off your back. Forewarned is forearmed as they say.

I recommend you to chose the red pill. Perhaps adulterated with a little blue to keep some pep in your step.

Nota Bene – the gargantuan irony of me posting this to Facebook is not at all lost on me. I plan to starve the aforementioned beast, but I will post my blog links from time to time. I might even squeeze out the odd Like (always within Facebook of course) or comment. Better out than in as they say…

Those To Whom We Owe Everything

In the modern age (or perhaps just in the West), we rarely look backwards to the people and events that made us who we are. To what formed us in the present, giving us the quantum time-stamp of “us-ness”. There are so many variables in being the person you are at any given time that it is hilariously futile to try to quantify them. We can really only list the people and events that shaped us during our formative years – parents, siblings, friends, spouses and offspring.

Which reminds me that someone very clever once said (in a discussion about the feasibility of time travel) that to a large degree, human beings ARE time travellers. Not meaning that we all have our own personal Tardis in the back garden, but that the person we are in 2013, is simply not the same person you were in 1998 or even just a year ago. Scientists purport that in any 12-month period, approximately 98% of our atomic structure has changed, essentially making us a different person than who we were a year before. Debate is still out on whether every single cell in the body changes e.g. some say the enamel in our teeth or neuron cells do not change their atomic structure, but who is going to quibble over a few percent?

The point I am struggling to make is that whether we accept it or not, humans (and of course all life forms) are in a constant state of change and not wanting to wander into the realm of religion and the concepts of reincarnation and the afterlife, we are moving through time-space and in this process getting further away from what and whom we were in the past.

So with this in mind, during one of my frequent moments of introspection, I found myself peering back through the fog of decades for those people and events that made me who I am in July 2013. Obviously, family and friends feature predominantly, but there are countless other individuals and events who had a profound impact on my life.

I felt that it was time to give proper due to them. So here goes.

My parents Michael and Anne conjured me into this world in the same year as the Munich blasts, Watergate and the awful events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Northern Ireland. [1972 for those of you reaching for your mouse to Google it.] Patently, said events had no direct effect on me as I was a newborn but their after-effects have rumbled on around me ever since, particularly the aforementioned Bloody Sunday event, which had enormous and negative effects on life – particularly in Nothern Ireland, but also on the Republic, Scotland and England.

I was the youngest of three children and my brother (the eldest) John and sister Niamh were wonderful siblings, though I think they thought I was a spoilt twerp for my formative years. I occasionally gave them a hard time (mostly my sister – sorry sis), but they certainly looked out for me, particularly when I was a young teenager and later on, became donors of the odd tenner here and there and the occasional spare bed in France and Italy.

Another group of people that are critical – indeed at all times of your life – are friends. Friends are essential for becoming a normally functioning human being as their guidance and opinions are free of the familial bias and the symbiotic pride-loyalty associated with your family. Most humans typically spend up to the first twenty years of their lives trying to be the same, then realizing that society expects their childhood to end and for that person to climb into a suit or continue to learn, we somehow and usually quite quickly emerge from the chrysalis of our adolescence and suddenly realize we need to be unique. That’s where friends are most valuable as they are going through the exact same process, struggling through the same fears and setbacks.

On to the penultimate set of people who matter most to you – your significant other.

I met Deepika on a movie set in October 2004 in Bray (about 20 km south of Dublin). The scenes filmed that fateful day were for Neil Jordan’s peculiar little movie Breakfast On Pluto. Despite me being made up to look like a fat and ginger-wigged 1970s-era manual labourer in a London pub (for that particular movie scene you understand), I rallied a little dutch courage and hassled her into meeting with me a few times and the rest is history. We married in 2007 in New Delhi. She is a true force of nature – strikingly beautiful and astonishingly efficient, fun-loving and fascinated by life like I am. She also is highly skilled at dragging me out of my worst introspections and doing practically all the brain work when it comes to numbers, administrivia and our finances. She is a great listener and gives wonderful advice when I ask for it. And frequently when I don’t -but usually only because I need to hear it. Did I mention she was strikingly beautiful?

Finally I arrive at the last group we owe our “us-ness” too – our children. Our son Ishaan was born on June 2nd, 2011, five weeks early. He was healthy despite this and instantly we got a hint that he would be a very observant person – within a few minutes he was opening his eyes to peer about, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. He is two years old now and still stops to look up at a plane or helicopter (like his paternal grandfather!) and for those few moments, nothing else exists around him. His sense of wonder is infectious. Watching him learn by touch, smell, sound or sight is one hell of a beautiful thing. Every parent sees this at some stage – they see themselves briefly as children, trying to sort things out in their heads and learning exponentially. Ishaan has taught me something I had seem to have forgotten – to simply slow down and look at small, seemingly insignificant things with wonder. Wondering why a butterfly at rest on a leaf will flex its wings or why a dog barks or why water spreads out when spilled on the table. He teaches me to keep learning, keep questioning and never be satisfied that you know enough about life and the universe.

Now, in darker moments I sometimes feel that I have not really achieved a great deal in my life, then I realize that while some might even agree with me, others will say that I have a college education, a beautiful wife and a golden two-year old son – by many people’s standards those very things ARE the definition of success. When put in that perspective, I realise that indeed I am successful (with a very substantial dose of luck – if I really believed in such a concept).

The point of this post is that each and every single one of us alive occasionally should take a moment and be thankful for what you have – and who you are. Bertrand Chartres once said (his quote coming to my ears via an old Bulmer’s advert on TV – yes really) that we are “like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants”. If so then, we all need to be thankful for the giants in our lives – our parents, siblings and our own wives/husbands and children, for they are the ones we owe our success and good character to.

Of course you could thank God, Bertie Ahern, the stars or the Flying Spaghetti Monster for all I care, but just reflect on whom if it in your life has made yours all the better for their existence in your life:

  • Parents – for giving you life, teaching the crucial basics of decency and generally rearing you
  • Siblings – for being role models and for looking out for you when your parents couldn’t
  • Friends for being there when no one else was or when no one else could/would understand
  • Your husband or wife for accepting your – let’s call them…vicissitudes and being supportive in all ways
  • Your offspring, for inspiring you to be the best person and parent you can be

I suppose I must be getting sentimental in my old age, but in fact I think it really is hearty soul food to dwell occasionally on who matters most to you in your life. Really think hard on what they have done for you, though they may never once have mentioned it, or grumbled when it was beyond their purview.

It might just bring a tear to your eye.

Sermon over.