News
The Power Of Light Works
July 2019
LightSail 2 is changing its orbit using only the power of sunlight. The Planetary Society announced this week that their LightSail 2 solar sail is working well, and actually raising the orbit of the spacecraft as it travels around the Earth. According to mission managers, they've been able to raise the orbit of the spacecraft by about 2 kilometers at the high point of its orbit. Unfortunately, they'll only be able to go for about a month before the sail dips into the atmosphere at the low point of its orbit and it crashes.
Sci-Fi Writers Include Religion
October 2018
At his appearance at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, John Scalzi said that it is important that science fiction writers include religion in their universes, "When 5 billion people out of 7 billion very strongly have professed religious belief of some sort or another, to ignore it, minimize it or just say it doesn't matter is foolish," he said.
Freedom Of Speech
Ben S
OK, I know it's an emotive issue. May I suggest that we take a moment to consider the aspect of rights in general first. What are human rights? What grants us them? What must we do to preserve them?

In our more liberal countries, there is much comment on human rights. Which rights are, to coin a phrase, 'inalienable' and which are assigned by laws? Well I have news for you. There are no inalienable human rights. When Ug the caveman made his discovery that life was nasty, brutish and short he was under no illusions. Where he lived life was a daily struggle and nobody ever tried to tell him that he had any rights, nor did he expect any. He was, however, human. So, where do our human rights come from?

xxxxxxxxxxx It took civilisation to instil them into the fabric of society. When people began to live in cities, they found that they were suddenly surrounded by thousands, rather than dozens, of other people. Managing such an environment took a strict code of laws and those laws could, if so desired, contain definitions of basic principles, or rights. Maybe there was a principle that said you were to be considered innocent until your guilt was established or one that said you were an independent person and not property to be bought and sold. These, under that society, would be your rights. But if rights are dependent entirely upon the society in which a person lives, that means that there could be somewhere with no rights for its citizens at all and we would have to logically accept that state of affairs. After all such place is a different culture, with different standards and rules.

The answer, of course, is no. We do not have to accept this state of affairs, we do not have to smile and nod and accept that it is a different place, with different rules. The reason for this is simple. I belong to a society in which I have the freedom of speech, for example, others elsewhere do no have that luxury. Not only do I have that freedom, I also believe fervently that it is a freedom that should be accorded to every person, no matter where they live.

Now here's the important part. Because I hold that particular freedom, I can use it to turn my pitiless wit and bile against all regimes that withhold it from their citizens. I am also able to complain loudly about my treatment by others without fear of reprisal and I can shout till I'm hoarse explaining to all who will listen that I want and need the absolute right to, oh I don't know, request all my official correspondence be translated into Esperanto by a free government service. Clearly that particular right will be denied me because it's, er, insane. Nonetheless the essential point remains, if I have freedom of speech then I have the opportunity to tell people what else I want. I don't have to suffer in silence, I can suffer in public and make thousands of others just as miserable as I.

With every right, comes a responsibility. If I demand, and I do, the right to free speech, then I must also accept the responsibility for that which I say. The reason is fairly straightforward really, you see if I didn't have that right then the government would be taking that responsibility. They give me the right, in exchange for which I shoulder the burden for the responsibilities inherent in that right. It's like growing up. When you are a small child you are unable to take the responsibilities of adulthood, accordingly certain rights which involve responsibilities are denied you, such as voting in elections. Other rights are deemed to be yours from birth but the responsibilities are shouldered by your parents until you are old enough to bear them yourself.

In reality then a country giving rights to its citizens is neither more nor less than acknowledging that they are adults and should be treated with respect. Of course, we have the right to refer to the Taliban as barbaric, I have the right to refer to anyone and everyone as barbaric, that's freedom of speech. I choose not to refer to the Norwegian government as barbaric because I don't believe they are, therefore I act responsibly and don't claim that they are.

So, we're all grown up. We get freedom of speech and we are responsible enough not to use that speech to incite violence or spread slander. Well shake me by the hand, the job is done and all's right with the world.

Not so fast. Enter the FBI.

The FBI is the largest and most famous of the United States' twenty-five or so federal police forces. That means they have jurisdiction over federal land, where local police forces invite them in and in certain specialised areas of crime such as kidnapping and terrorism. There are other well-known federal police units including the Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and those friendly park-rangers who are completely unable to outwit a cartoon bear.

The FBI should be, and claims to be, the citizen's friend in a nation that undoubtedly remains one of the most liberal in the world. Corrupt local police, politicians on the take, all have reason to fear the mighty FBI. Its training facilities at Quantico, Virginia are among the finest in the world and they take their responsibilities to protect the American people very seriously indeed. So why would the FBI have suddenly decided that freedom of speech isn't important at all?

You see there's a snag with a freedom. That nasty little responsibility thing. What it means is that there's someone out there who will interpret what you say and decide whether it's responsible or not, and if it isn't, they may decide to pay you a night time visit with truncheons. But that's OK, most of the time. We all do it, we all check who's within earshot before telling a dirty joke, we all practice responsible self-censorship. But sometimes, with friends and family, we want to be able to say what we really feel, political correctness be damned. We know that such sentiments might offend but we simply don't care, these are people we know well, they'll forgive us if we express it poorly, they'll understand what we're trying to say.

Some of my relatives live in the USA. I'm rather fond of them actually, but when I e-mail them, I am constantly aware of a cunning little device called Carnivore. It is made by the FBI (probably by an IT company for the FBI actually) and it intercepts e-mails. It reads them and if it finds words it thinks are interesting such as 'President', 'Assassinate', 'Bomb' or whatever, it forwards a copy to the FBI. Of course, I don't know what words are considered interesting. I'm interested in dinosaurs and you might think that 'dinosaur' wouldn't fire up any alerts. It might be, however that there is a terrorist cell somewhere, which used 'Dinosaur' as a codeword. Probably discussing Carnivore is flagged automatically and some dinosaurs were carnivorous.

So why do I care? Does it really matter that the FBI are reading my mail? After all I'm not actually a terrorist.

Well yes, it does matter. It matters because every time I send a mail, I might be tempted to change my wording so that the FBI would be certain that I wasn't a terrorist, start using words like 'hypothetical' or 'theoretical'. If I am changing my words because of the FBI then they are infringing my right to free speech, and they aren't the only ones.

Echelon is one of the largest intelligence operations ever mounted. If you live in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand then your government is complicit in its actions, because those five nations run it. It is essentially the same as Carnivore except it doesn't track e-mail at your ISP, it tracks everything across satellite and land-line channels. It is run by the 'Signals Intelligence' services. In the USA that means the National Security Agency (NSA), based at Fort Meade in Maryland, in the UK it means the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham in England. They have listening stations all over the world and they intercept voice communications, internet traffic, mobile phones, television signals, faxes and anything else their hearts desire. But this isn't the end either.

For a US citizen it must be heartening to know that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is not permitted to spy on you while you are in your own country. As a British citizen I am delighted to report that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) won't spy on me at home either. Unfortunately, those two agencies cooperate substantially. This means that the CIA can spy on me, take a report to their offices at Langley, Virginia and then pass all the data to the SIS in London.

So why not attack those agencies? Why am I not worried about Echelon, why do the CIA not keep me awake at night?

Because those agencies are not my friends, and they have never claimed to be so. They have no mandate to prosecute me for a crime, they simply gather the information and try to stop me from committing one. Echelon does not impact my freedom of speech because I don't care, personally, that the US government knows what I'm up to. Tracking me is a complete waste of US taxpayer's money and I'm sure they know this. The FBI is a different matter, however. I am asked to trust them with my liberty, trust them to protect me, not my country or government. But the FBI doesn't trust me at all. It's really simple. I pay taxes that support the SIS, Americans pay taxes that support the CIA, we don't get any personal value from this transaction because those agencies are not tasked with protecting us at all. Their job is to protect the nations within which they reside. GCHQ and the NSA are similar, they offer me, personally, no practical function, but they do help to protect my country. The FBI is different.

I visit America periodically; I was there recently in fact. While there I saw some FBI staff, quite a few actually because of the recent terrorist attacks. Of course, they are there every time I visit, but usually I think of them as my friends. They are federal police, they are trustworthy because they protect the rights of their citizens, even at the expense of the powers-that-be. They are the body tasked, ultimately, with ensuring that people in any position of power whether physical, emotional, political or financial do not abuse that power. They are the good guys, so it worries me that they have taken to wearing black hats.

I therefore use encryption, more than ever before, to ensure my freedom of speech. Of course, the FBI wants to tell you that this is inherently suspicious and I will concede that they have a point. The FBI will say that encryption must be banned because terrorists will use it for their own ends. Well guess what Sherlock? The terrorists already have encryption and strangely enough they don't change their habits just to please the FBI, rather the opposite in fact.

How about licensing encryption products, so only those with a real need could use them? Good plan. I have a real need and so does every other human. Can I have a licence please? How about building an encryption system with a 'back door' so the governments can read it but nobody else. That's a bad idea, if it isn't then we can remove the words 'spy', 'traitor', 'corrupt', 'back-hander' and 'blackmail' from our dictionaries because we'll never need them again.

Encryption can be boring and technical and when people explain 'Feistel Networks' the audience have a tendency to want to hurt them. It is important though; it guarantees free speech and free speech guarantees every other right we hold so dear. So Mr. FBI, you may declare that you champion free speech, but you're doing it while standing on my tongue.

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Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the 'know-nothings', the 'know-alls', and the 'no-contests'.
Richard Dawkins