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On Friday, March 11th, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan with the epicenter near the island of Honshu. This was the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and one of the top 5 largest in the world. This was soon followed by a tsunami that reached as high as 40.5 meters (133 ft) in some areas.

There are several nuclear plants along Japans coast, some of which, because of their design, were more resistant to flooding, but the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was not prepared for the 13–15 m (43–49 ft) waves that came crashing into it. This flooded the basement and disabled the emergency generators, meaning there was no power for the pumps that normally circulate coolant water, preventing a meltdown. The rest, as we know, is history. Fukushima Daiichi is now known as the second largest nuclear disaster of all time, next to Chernobyl in 1986.

Much blame and criticism has been tossed around in the two years since the disaster. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), established on 8 December 2011, called the disaster “man-made”, blaming the government, regulators, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for their unpreparedness, delayed response, and lack of communication among themselves and with the public. The report even went as far as blaming Japanese culture for “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity”. Many people in Japan were not to happy about this ridiculous criticism. One only has to recall the response to the BP oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, to realize major disasters, that no one is prepared for, can happen in any industrialized society.

Assessments of the amount of radiation released, and of how it will affect the surrounding population, show a minimal health risk, but there are so much uncertainty involved, as the estimates are based on models, with many unknowns, that it is difficult to say what health impacts could be seen. Estimates of how many people could develop cancer as a result of radiation exposure range from dozens to thousands. Even well into the future it will still be difficult to say what impact it had, as it is impossible to say what caused any one persons cancer, and even if the rates rise, it would be impossible to rule out other contributing factors.

It’s possible that some negative health effects are already being seen. A health management survey, last year, found that 36% of children in the area have experienced abnormal thyroid growth, although doctors insist that it is not related to radiation from the disaster. Other studies have found an increase in butterfly mutations, but it is hard to say what this could mean for humans, as we are obviously much bigger.

The way of life for many people in northern Japan has been utterly devastated. Not only have around 140,000 people been evacuated from their homes, with some saying that millions should have been evacuated, but it also had a huge affect on food production. Vegetables, beef, milk, and mushrooms from the area have been banned from sale, domestically and abroad. Just recently, fish have been found in the contaminated areas to have over 2,500 times the safe level of radiation. This has clearly been crippling for the farming and fisheries industries in the area.

Northern Japan is not the only area affected by this crisis. Contaminated tuna has also been found as far away as California, and there are worries that things could get worse for the west coast of North America as the radiation continues to spread through the Pacific.

Some nuclear experts have also warned about the potential threat of a much larger disaster if another big earthquake were to strike again, calling the situation a ticking time-bomb. Robert Alvarez, senior scholar of the Institute for Policy Research, and former senior adviser to the Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton, has warned about spent reactor fuel, which contains 85 times more radiation than was released at Chernobyl, and is still vulnerable to future earthquakes. 

Several non-profit nuclear watchdog groups, such as Fairewinds Energy Education and Beyond Nuclear, have also raised alarm about the risks, not only at Fukushima, but with nuclear power in general.

Kevin Camps (Beyond Nuclear) on RT:

Arnie Gundersen (Fairewinds Energy Education) on WDEV:

There are also, of course, pro-nuclear groups, like Atomic Insights, who are attempting to debunk the claims of those mentioned above. Atomic Insights is founded by Rod Adams, who also founded Adams Atomic Engines, which designed and ultimately planned to build atomic engines, until they went out of business in 2010.

Rod Adams (Atomic Insights):

For me, any time two groups are telling opposing sides of a story, I tend to be more likely to agree with the one who has the least to gain from their advocacy. It’s easy to see why someone like Rod Adams, with ties to the nuclear industry, would want the industry to grow. It’s possible that he might even want to get back into the industry in the future. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to say that anti-nuclear groups could exaggerate the threat in order to justify their existence.

Presently, at Fukushima, cleanup has only just begun. After the meltdown, radiation levels were way too high for workers, and even robots could not function in those conditions. The levels have dropped 40% in the last year, but it is still a very hazardous environment for workers. The cleanup must be done very carefully and is expected to take up to 40 years.

None of this seems to be having any impact on the future of nuclear energy. Japan has decided to drop their earlier plans of phasing out their reliance on nuclear power by 2040, mainly due to lobbying pressure from the industry that provides 30% of Japans energy before the crisis.

Thousands of people in Japan attended an anti-nuclear protest the day before the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake that triggered it all, and surveys show that 70% of Japan want to see nuclear power phased out. As we all know, however, powerful interest groups, with the help of governments, tend to find a way do what they want, no matter how unpopular it is.

Last year, around 16,000 of those evacuated were allowed to return to their homes, many of which decided to stay away. This still leaves over 100,000 not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return home. It’s been two years now since the disaster, but it’s clear that the story will not be over for decades and generations to come.

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40. Big Wreck – Albatross

39. Die Antwoord – Ten$ion

38. Neil Young with Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

37. Propagandhi – Failed States

36. Our Lady Peace – Curve

35. Periphery – II (This Time It’s Personal)

34. Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth

33. Oberhofer – Time Capsules II

32. Metz – (self titled)

31. The Sword – Apocryphon

30. Metric – Synthetica

29. Rival Sons – Head Down

28. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

27. Slash – Apocalyptic Love

26. Titus Andronicus – Local Business

25. Marilyn Manson – Born Villain

24. Husky – Forever So

23. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Here

22. Gallows – (self titled)

21. Crystal Castles – III

20. The Hives – Lex Hives

19. Billy Talent – Dead Silence

18. The Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

17. Grimes – Visions

16. Aerosmith – Music from Another Dimension

15. Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks

14. Bloc Party – Four

13. The Cribs – In the Belly of the Brazen Bull

12. Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

11. Pulled Apart by Horses – Tough Love

10. Muse – The 2nd Law

9. Rush – Clockwork Angels

8. Jack White – Blunderbuss

7. Dave Matthews Band – Away From The World

6. Grizzly Bear – Shields

5. The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

4. Serj Tankian – Harakiri

3. Soundgarden – King Animal

2. Tame Impala – Lonerism

1. Deftones – Koi No Yokan

10.  Nirvana (Drums: Dave Grohl, Bass: Krist Novoselic)

09. Green Day (Drums/Percussion: Tre Cool, Bass: Mike Dirnt)

08. Red Hot Chili Peppers (Drums: Chad Smith, Bass: Flea)

07. Black Sabbath (Drums: Bill Ward, Bass: Geezer Butler, Keys: Tony Iommi)

06. Primus (Drums: Tim Alexander, Bass: Les Claypool)

05. The Who (Drums/Percussion: Keith Moon, Bass: John Entwistle, Keys: Pete

Townshend/John Entwistle)

04. The Mars Volta (Drums: Jon Theodore, Bass: Flea, Keys: Isaiah Ikey Owens)

03. Tool (Drums: Danny Carey, Bass: Justin Chancellor)

02. Led Zeppelin (Drums: John Bonham, Bass/Keys: John Paul Jones)

01. Rush (Drums/Percussion: Neil Peart,  Bass/Keys: Geddy Lee)

Honorable Mentions: Fugazi (Drums: Brendan Canty, Bass: Joe Lally), Them Crooked Vultures (Drums: Dave Grohl, Bass: John Paul Jones), Dream Theater (Drums/Percussion: Mike Portnoy, Bass: John Myung, Keys: Jordan Rudess), Yes (Drums: Bill Bruford, Bass: Chris Squire, Keys: Rick Wakeman), Megadeth (Drums: Nick Menza, Bass: Dave Ellefson), Rage Against the Machine (Drums: Brad Wilk, Bass: Tim Commerford), The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Drums: Mitch Mitchell, Bass: Noel Redding), The Roots (Drums: Questlove, Bass: Leonard Hubbard, Keys: Kamal Gray), Incubus (Drums: Jose Pasillas II, Bass: Alex Katunich, Keys: Gavin Koppell), Death (Drums: Gene Hoglan, Bass: Steve DiGiorgio).

When someone asks me if I believe in God, they are usually expecting a one word, yes or no, answer, but I find this type of answer difficult to provide. If I answered “yes”, I would want to follow it up with “but”, and if I answered “no”, I would want to add a “if”. The question is not really that simple and often depends on how you define “God”. In fact there are several different possible views on this subject:

Theism is the belief in at least one deity, which is present and active in the governance and organization of the universe.

Deism is the belief that the universe was created by a God who does not intervene in it. They say this can be determined by reason and observation alone, without the need for organized religion.

Monotheism is the belief in one God or in the oneness of God, such as in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Deism is a form of monotheism).

Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities, such as in ancient Greek and Roman traditions.

Monolatrism is the worship of one God while recognizing the existence of others.

Henotheism, similar to monolatrism, is the worship on one God while accepting the the possible existence of others.

Pantheism, rather than having a personal, anthropomorphic creator, sees the nature of the universe and the divinity of God as one and the same.

Panentheism, while similar to pantheism, is the belief that God not only penetrates the entire universe, but extends beyond it through time and space.

Transtheism is another system of thought which is neither theistic, nor atheistic, and is too complicated to explain in a line or two so I’m not even going to try.

Atheism, a rejection of theism, is the absence of belief in any deity.

Agnosticism is the belief that the existence of a deity, as with any metaphysical claim, is unknown or even unknowable.

Apatheism considers the question of the existence of a deity to be irrelevant and meaningless. Apatheists are apathetic towards belief in general and are likely not reading this blog.

I was raised Roman Catholic but began to question many of the church’s teachings around age 12. My growing knowledge and understanding of science eventually led me to a complete rejection of all things religious later in my teens.

Later on, as I was exposed to more spiritual ideas, I began to take on a more open-minded approach to the whole question. I started taking many of the teachings from scripture, which I saw as no more than mythology, as metaphor and analogy rather than a literal depiction of history.

On top of this, my continued studies in science, especially psychology, made me realize that much is still unknown and can’t be fully explained by science alone. Some unanswered questions involve the origins of the universe and what, if anything, existed before the big bang. Also, the nature of consciousness and time itself are far from being understood.

Medical doctor and best-selling author, Deepak Chopra, thinks that science and spirituality need to be blended in order to have a full understanding of reality. While not claiming to have all the answers himself, he seems to believe in a sort of transcendent, conscious reality that exists beyond the physical world. This could be considered a panentheistic view.

Personally, while being open to ideas such as those of Chopra, I am not willing to adhere to any particular religious doctrine or way of thinking. Since I don’t actually believe in a deity, one could label me as an atheist. However, since I am willing to admit that there could be more to life than what science can explain, perhaps agnostic would be a better fit.

Actually, these categories aren’t as easily divisible as one might think. Within agnosticism, some people consider themselves agnostic atheists, who don’t believe in a deity, nor do they deny it as a possibility. Others would call themselves an agnostic theist, who believe in a deity, but don’t claim to know it as an absolute truth.

So, if I were to label myself, with the terms used above, I would have to consider myself an agnostic theist, who is open to pantheistic or panentheistic ideas. I worship nature and believe in the possibility of something that transcends our physical reality, that is, perhaps conscious, or even consciousness itself.

Just because someone identifies as an atheist, does not necessarily mean they have to remove themselves from all religious or spiritual ideas. In a recent TED talk, Alain de Botton describes a new approach to atheism that he calls atheism 2.0. He talks about incorporating parts of religious traditions into your life without having to accept the full doctrine.

While de Botton focuses on forms, traditions, and rituals that help satisfy the human need for connection, I believe it is also acceptable for atheists to study different religious or spiritual ideas, like you would study any kind of philosophical tradition.

I, for one, am fascinated by many different religious ideas from all over the world. There’s the nature worshiping of Paganism, the simple beauty of Taoism, and practices of Yoga and Zen meditation from eastern traditions, which have been shown to have many health benefits. Even the more dogmatic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have ideas that are worth studying, if not only for their cultural significance, then for their morals.

When it comes down to it, religion should be a personal thing. Everyone should have the freedom to believe what ever they feel works best with them. It’s not so much what you believe that matters, but that you are accepting of other people’s beliefs. It helps to be able to have an open discussion about these issues, so that don’t serve to divide us, but instead, bring us together.

I first heard of Nathan Cullen when I read his blog, which was featured on rabble.ca on December 1st, 2011. This blog briefly outlined his plan to cooperate with Liberal and Green Party members and hold joint nomination meetings in Conservative held ridings. This would leave only one candidate to face-off against the Conservative incumbents for certain seats, making it, at least, less likely that they could get a majority government with only 39% of the vote, as in the last federal election.

A few days later, the first leadership debate was held in Ottawa. 8 other candidates joined Cullen, including Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Brian Topp, Paul Dewar, Niki Ashton, Martin Singh, Romeo Saganash, and Robert Chisholm. Saganash and Chisholm have since dropped out of the race.

In this debate, Cullen clearly stood out as one of my top choices. It was his charisma and passion for the environment that caught my attention the most, plus, he made me laugh a couple of time, which is always good.

As former NDP environment and natural resources critic, and with his strong opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline – which would pass through his Skeena-Bulkley riding in BC – it is clear that environmental issues are one of Nathans top priorities. With the current Conservative governments total neglect of the environment, this is exactly the kind of leader we need to get our country back on the right track. Also, being a 4th term MP, he has more parliamentary experience than any other candidate in the race, and he is the only one to ever defeat a Conservative incumbent.

On top of his experience in parliament, Nathan Cullen has also operated a successful small business, spent time as a community organizer, and has done development work in Africa and South America. He has worked with diverse groups, from business executives to indigenous elders, and speaks 3 languages (English, French, and Spanish).

With his small business background, Cullen is also less likely to be feared by more moderate Liberals who might otherwise vote Conservative if they were cooperating with the NDP. In an interview with the Star, he calls himself “a pro-business New Democrat” who believes “in the private sector’s capacity to innovate and create the kind of wealth we need to pay for the social programs we deserve”. He also believes in protecting small and medium sized businesses from unfair interest rates imposed on them by large banks an credit card companies, as he explains in the clip from a debate below.

Nathan has come under attack for his joint nomination plan, mainly from his opponents and other die-hard NDP supporters. He addresses many of these criticisms in an interview with MacLeans magazine.

The main criticism is that his plan is undemocratic. Opponent say that it would prevent them from getting the unexpected victories that led to their success in Quebec on May 2nd. Cullen points out that he was not proposing this in the last election. Also, it’s difficult to say what would have happened in May if the parties had held joint nomination meetings. Perhaps the NDP would have given up some of their victories to the Liberals, but at the same time, both the NDP and the Liberals would most likely have taken some victories from the Conservatives. And maybe the Green party could have even won a seat or two.

This is nothing like a coalition government, like the the Canadian (Reform/Conservative) Alliance that existed from 2000 to 2003. It is also nothing like the imaginary Liberal/NDP coalition that Harper used to scare people into voting for him in the last election.

Furthermore, it’s not as if candidates would be forced to drop out of the race. Every candidate would have the choice, and if their polling numbers are low, they would be encouraged to get behind another progressive candidate, so that Conservatives don’t benefit from the splitting of the progressive vote.

Some NDP and GPC supporters would argue that Liberals are not progressive. This is a misunderstanding of the diversity of the Liberal base. I, like many progressives, have voted Liberal in the past because in my riding they were the only ones able to beat the Conservatives. Strategic voting, or voting for the lesser of two evils, although you don’t necessarily get to vote for the party that best represents your views, is smart. A vote for a party that has no chance of winning the seat, while it does give a dollar or two to the party of your choice, has no effect on the outcome of the election, and is essentially wasted. The Cullen plan is not strategic voting, but strategic nomination.

As Prime Minister of Canada, Nathan Cullen would also introduce proportional representation, where the number of seats won are proportional to the number of votes received. This would erase the need for joint nominations and strategic voting.

The bottom line is, progressives are starting to realize, after less than a year of a Harper majority, that we can’t keep going in this direction for much longer. Harper once said “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m done with it”, and people are starting to see what he meant.

With a new and expensive crime bill (C-10) at a time when crime is at it’s lowest point in decades, attempting to pass an internet spy bill (C-30) that would allow the government to monitor peoples online activity without a warrant, abandoning the Kyoto protocol, and advocating tar-sand pipelines that put communities in danger of a spill, it’s becoming clear what kind of vision he has for the country. If we don’t want a police state, controlled by oil companies, we need to do whatever we can to stop Harper before our country becomes completely unrecognizable.

Nathan Cullen started his campaign for NDP leader as a virtual unknown, but has now gained a considerable amount of momentum, mainly because of his joint nomination plan, and also his charismatic performance in the debates. Unlike many of the other front-runners, he is not backed by large labor unions. His support comes from people coming together to support progressive values over partisan politics.

The NDP leadership election is March 24th, but in order to vote, you must become a registered member of the NDP before February 18th.

Many reports of strange sounds have been coming from all over the world in recent months, to the puzzlement of much of the online community. You can watch a YouTube playlist of 50 videos, the earliest being from March, 2011.

Explanations given for this phenomenon include: UFOs, military experiments, HAARP (High frequency Active Auroral Research Program), atmospheric phenomena involving thunder, the hum of power lines, and nearby trains. Of course, many people say it’s all just a hoax.

After watching many videos, some of which are clearly a hoax, I have broken the sounds down into 3 categories.

Some, like in Kiev, Ukraine (also heard in the video above), are a loud, pulsating sound that has been compared to a horn (trumpet, tuba, trombone). Many have suggested that they are the trumpets of the apocalypse from the book of Revelations. Others have said it has a metallic quality, like two heavy pieces of metal scraping against each other, echoing through the air.

Some have cited nearby trains to explain the sounds, but this can’t explain why, all of a sudden, trains around the world have been making this sound. Also, in this video from Denmark, you can see and hear a train pass at the beginning, and then a completely separate sound is heard after the train passes.

This is suspiciously similar to the tripod sound from the War of the Worlds movie, which could explain why some have assumed that UFO’s are the source. It could also provide an easy sample for hoaxers to edit into their videos (possibly with some manipulations).

Two separate videos (here & here) from Oshawa, Ontario, shot on the same night, at around the same time, have similar pulsating sounds. The sound seems more distant in these videos than others, possibly because of low quality recording. Two videos doesn’t rule out the possibility of a hoax, however,  as they could have been shot by two people working together, or even by the same person at different locations.

In other cases, there’s more of a constant rumbling noise like wind, thunder, or a jet plane flying overhead. In a video from Colorado, you can hear the rumbling as distinctly separate from the wind, and also, there are no clouds in the sky, which seems to rule out thunder as a source.

Another video, from Tallahassee, Florida back in March 2011, has a rumbling noise that lasted about 20 minutes. The people who shot the video thought it was a tornado. They called 911, and were not given an explanation, but were told that many people have reported the sound. At one point a flash of light appeared in the sky, and the sound faded away immediately afterwards. This is similar to what happened in Minnesota later on, in September.

News reports have released a statement from the National Weather Service blaming the Tallahassee noise on a phenomenon called ducting. A duct is a low density layer of the atmosphere with a reduced refractive index allowing waves (usually radio, but also sound) to travel further than they normally would. This could potentially carry the sound of distant electrical storms to somewhere not experiencing the disturbance, which could explain the clear sky rumbling in Colorado, mentioned above.

A third type of sound, like in this video, also from Colorado, has a loud bang, every few seconds. This is much different from the other noises, which leads me to believe it is unrelated. The up-loader tries to link this to the Virginia earthquake the following day. This might make sense if it were the same day, or if Virginia were anywhere near Colorado. Also, comments on the video are disabled, which always makes me suspicious.

An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that observers often seem to have trouble telling where the sound is coming from. Some say it seems to come from the ground, others say from the sky, and some say it comes from all around them. It has also been known to rattle the foundations of buildings and furniture.

Of the 3 types of sounds mentioned, the first one is the most interesting to me. It is the least natural sounding of the 3, and also the one with the least logical explanations, other than a possible hoax.

I’m inclined to believe that at least some of these reports are genuine. In the CTV Saskatoon report below, the mayor of North Battleford claims to have heard the sound, which he describes as a “scraping”, as well as over 40 people who have called in, or sent Facebook messages, to a local radio station. It’s hard to believe that so many people would be involved in a hoax.

In this video, a physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan says that “somehow they are picking up noise from an environmental antenna… that is electromagnetic noise, nice natural noise”. He also says it is normal, and there is nothing to worry about. I’m not sure in what universe electromagnetic waves from an antenna are considered natural, but this is certainly not normal (at least in this universe). What’s not explained is why similar reports haven’t been made prior to last summer.

This is a fairly recent phenomena, and it seems to be increasingly more common in recent months, most likely because of hoaxers trying to take advantage of the hype to get more views on YouTube and elsewhere.

Many people looking for answers point to HAARP, an ionosheric research program funded by the US Air Force, the Navy, and the University of Alaska. The facility is located near Gakona, Alaska. HAARP has been the target of many conspiracy theorists who say it has the potential to disrupt weather patterns. It has been blamed for catastrophes such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and earthquakes, as well as other events such as major power outages. They have even been accused of using mind-controlling radio waves.

Some concerns about the activity of HAARP are likely legitimate, although, many of the conspiracy theories seem to be rooted in nothing more than paranoia. The seemingly increasing number of natural disasters of late can make people wonder and try to find a reason for it and also, look for someone to blame. Some people who are unwilling to accept the science behind climate change might be more likely to blame it on the government.

This mysterious phenomenon raises a lot of questions. For some of the reports, there seems to be a logical explanation. Others are clearly a hoax. It seems to me that something strange is definitely going on here. Whether it’s a natural phenomenon, or a man made result of secret government activity, it seems that this is something worth following and looking into further. Who knows? Maybe this is the trumpets of the apocalypse.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill being considered by the US House or Representatives that was introduced on October 26, 2011 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The Senate has their own version of the bill, called the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act”, aka the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), introduced on May 12, 2011 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

The goal of these bills is to protect intellectual property markets and the jobs and revenues in these industries.  Proponents of the bills say they are necessary to enforce copyright laws in the digital age, especially when it comes to foreign websites. Although very similar, there are slight differences between the two bills, mainly just in the specific wording.

One provision that SOPA has that PIPA doesn’t is the requirement of search engines to remove “foreign infringing sites” from their indexes. PIPA, on the other hand, requires greater court intervention against accused websites. This makes SOPA slightly more controversial, as it is seen by some as outright censorship, but critics have other problems with both bills.

Both proposed bills would force US based payment services, such as PayPal, to refrain from doing business with foreign sites that are thought to be “dedicated to infringing activities.” This is similar to what happened with the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks, when PayPal cut their access for donations.

Both bills also include what is called anti-circumvention provisions, which would make it illegal to inform people on how to access blocked sites. This can be interpreted to require websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit , whose content comes from the users, to make sure that such information is not posted on their sites, or they could face legal action. This would be nearly impossible for such websites to enforce.

Another provision turns internet service providers into vigilantes, allowing them to block access to websites if the have “credible evidence” that they are distributing copyrighted material. They also give immunity to these providers if they are found to have wrongfully taken action against a website. The potential for abuse and censorship here is overwhelming.

A provision that sponsors of both bills have agreed to drop, due to outcry from many technical experts, allows for service providers to use a technique known as DNS (domain name system) blocking. DNS is, basically, the phone book that attaches a domain name with it’s IP address. Critics say DNS blocking would undermine the infrastructure of the internet.

Because it deals with the world wide web, and it extends the powers of enforcement to go after foreign websites, this issue is not only relevant to the US, but to people all over the world.

An alternative to these bill has been offered that still addresses the issue of intellectual property rights without a lot of the provisions that critics find offensive. The “Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade” or OPEN Act, has been introduced to both the House, and the Senate. This would expand on a the Tariff Act of 1930, which allows the International Trade Commission (ITC) to take action against the distribution of physical good violating intellectual property laws, to include “unfair digital imports or unfair imports that are digitally-facilitated by foreign rogue websites”. Supporters of SOPA and PIPA say this legislation would be ineffective, and so far, it hasn’t gained much support in either the house or the Senate.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem that enough consensus will be reached in the House to pass SOPA any time soon. PIPA, however,  seems much more likely to go forward, and is expected to go to a vote in the Senate on January 24.

The White House has issued at statement on this matter saying that it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” suggesting that Obama would veto any such bill if it were to pass. However, Obama has also threatened that he would veto the “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA) that he signed on New Year’s Eve. Clearly, any statement from the White House cannot be taken seriously.

An online blackout is planned for Wednesday, January 18 in protest against these bills. Sites taking part in the blackout – including Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, Destructoid, I Heart Chaos, all sites under the Cheezburger Network and others – will display a page warning people of the potential consequences of these bills passing. Also, avaaz.org has a petition, with over 1.5 million signatures (and counting), that you can sign to let members of Congress know about your concerns over SOPA.

SOPA and PIPA have the potential to change the internet as we know it. The unclear wording allows for abuse which could censorship of any website that is seen as a threat. This is not to mention the enormous cost and effort it would require to enforce such legislation. If you value a free and open internet, then please take action against these misguided bills.

UPDATE: Barack Obama refuses to support SOPA, although, Congress will revisit the bill next month. PIPA is still expected to go to a vote on January 24.

Also, there is evidence that the main supporters of the bill, are some of the same people who created, distributed and promoted much of the pirating technology in the first place. They owned the copyrights, made it easy for people to share files, and now support legislation which would allow them to make millions off copyright infringement lawsuits. This video by Micheal Mozart explains:

Free will, the idea that people are free to make decisions that are not simply the result of their physical reality has been debated among philosophers for centuries. The opposing view, determinism (specifically, causal determinism), holds that if, hypothetically,  it were possible to know every detail about the condition of the universe in the present, and all the laws of nature that govern it, then one could predict the future conditions down to the last detail.

The debate reminds me of a scene from the Matt Groening cartoon, Futurama, where Bender is sent flying through space and runs into God, which is apparently just a cluster of stars that can talk. Even though he is a robot, Bender has questions about the nature of free will.

Bender: So, you know what I’m going to do before I do it?

God: Yes

Bender: What if I do something else?

God: Then I don’t know that.

The existence, definitions, and compatibility of these ideas have been debated for thousands of years. In modern times, people have used science – including genetics, neuroscience, and quantum physics – to try to shed light on the debate. This issue has far reaching implications on science, religion, and also justice, as it raises concerns over moral responsibility for a persons actions.

It was believed by some geneticists that mapping the human genome would show that all behavior, beliefs, and desires could be traced directly to our DNA. It seems, however, that the Human Genome Project, now almost complete, has not shown enough genes to allow all of the psychological diversity of our species.

Some of the most notable challenges to free will have come from the field of neuroscience. In 2007, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, conducted an experiment that raised a lot of interesting questions. He showed volunteers a screen flashing a succession of random letters and asked them to press a button, whenever they felt the urge, with either their right or left hand, and to remember what letter was being displayed at the time that they made the decision. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of volunteers as the decisions were made.

While the decision was typically made about a second before the button was actually pressed, a pattern of brain activity was found to predict the decision up to seven seconds before hand. It seems that our brain can make a decision before we are even aware of it. This led researchers to question whether our decisions are under our conscious control, or if they are the direct result of our brain activity.

Critics of the research point out that the brain activity only accurately predicted which hand was used 60% of the time. Although this is significantly more than chance would predict, it is certainly not enough to prove that the brain is making a decision before conscious awareness. Others question to what extent this type of simple decision can be generalized to real world decision making.

My beef with the research is that it doesn’t take into account the idea of the sub-conscious mind. Is it not possible that some of us make certain decisions sub-consciously before we are aware of it, and that this could account for the brain activity that seems to predict the decision?

Michael S. Gazzaniga is an acclaimed neuroscientist,  director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” In an interview with with Scientific American, he discussed many of the issues involved with studying free will from a neuroscience perspective.

One of these issues is that of an emergent mind. Emergence is the idea that complex systems can arise out of several smaller, more simple interactions. He argues that you can’t understand the overall function of the brain by simply looking at the neurons and their interactions. One must consider the big picture, including the effect society has on a persons thoughts.

Gazzaniga also makes a distinction between mind and brain. He makes a good point that while brain activity can affect a persons thoughts and actions, in a bottom-up way, it can also work the other way around. An example he gives is of patients suffering from depression getting help through talk therapy (top-down) and with medication (bottom-up).

Another branch of science relevant to free will and determinism is quantum mechanics. At the level of particles, events can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. This uncertainty undermines the idea of determinism, however, it does not necessarily allow for free will. If our decisions are simply a result of quantum randomness (as ridiculous as it may seem), then they are not exactly free.

An interesting thing about this debate is that the extreme views, on both ends, lend themselves to religious ideas. At one end, free will, according to some, requires an immaterial soul. At the other end, theological determinism implies that all events are pre-ordained by some kind of deity.

A Muslim Matters article, that explores many of these issues from a scientific and religious perspective, argues that these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They say that not enough is known about the nature of consciousness to rule out the existence of a soul, and that free will doesn’t rule out the possibility that God has knowledge of events before they occur.

One problem with this whole discussion is that it usually boils down to people simply arguing over semantics. It seems to me that if we could all come up with agreed upon definitions of free will and determinism, then we wouldn’t have as much to debate, or at least we could understand the arguments of others much more clearly.

An opinion piece in the New York Times goes into the semantics behind the debate, asking what it means for a decision to be free. Does this mean that a choice can’t be predicted, or that it isn’t caused by anything physical? Also, if it isn’t caused, wouldn’t that make it random and, therefore, not free? A big question is: what is free will free from? Is it simply freedom from outside constraints, or from the laws of nature? There are also several types of determinism, including causal, theological, logical, biological and cultural/psychological.

What’s really important about this discussion are the implications it has about moral responsibility. If people have no control over their own decisions, and they are instead simply the result of our neurons firing, then how can we be held accountable for our actions. According to some research, what really matters is that we believe that we have free will. A Reason Magazine article goes into this idea further.

The research shows that if we induce people to believe that they have no free will, by having them read passages that encourage a belief in determinism, they are then more likely to cheat in experiments and act aggressively rather than in a helpful way. These results are interesting because they suggest that our will can be changed by exposure to certain information. If changing the way we think about something can affect our actions, does that not suggest that our will is free?

Free will is something that most of us take for granted. The fact that science can show that, under certain circumstances, the activity in our brains can affect our decisions before we are even aware of having made one, does not prove that these decisions are not our own. In fact, there is also evidence that our thoughts can affect our biology as well, such as the placebo effect and the success of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The reality is that our decisions are a result of a wide range of influences, including quantum randomness at the particle level, neuronal firing in the brain, our genetic predispositions, and all environmental influences on our lives from conception to the moment a decision is made. The sum of all these is what makes us unique human beings, and whether you simply call it the self, or a soul, it is undeniably us. In all practicality, our decisions must be our own. Determinism might certainly set limits on what decisions are possible, but in the end, any decision we make is ultimately our own.

30. Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure  29. The Horrors – Skying

28. Megadeth – TH1RT3EN  27. Primus – Green Naugahyde  26. Grouplove – Never Trust a Happy Song  25. White Lies – Ritual  24. The Roots – Undun  23. Justice – Audio, Video, Disco 22. Metronomy – The English Riviera 21. Miles Kane – Colour of the Trap 20. R. E. M. – Collapse Into Now 19. Yuck – Yuck 18. Arctic Monkeys – Suck it and See 17. Man Man – Life Fantastic 16. Tom Waits – Bad as Me   15. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost   14. Opeth – Heritage 13. Radiohead – The King of Limbs   12. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar 11. Battles – Gloss Drop 10. tUnE-yArDs – whokill 09. Foster the People – Torches 08. Puscifer – Conditions of my Parole 07. Sleeper Agent – Celebrasion 06. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light 05. The Strokes – Angles 04. Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You 03. The Black Keys – El Camino 02. Mastodon – The Hunter 01. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain

(All images and videos are used without permission. Please, don’t sue me)

Why All the Rage?

Civil disobedience seem to be increasingly more common in the world today, from anti-austerity protests sweeping across Europe, to the so called Arab Spring, to public union battles in several American states, to riots in the UK, and finally to Occupy Wall Street, which has since escalated into a global solidarity movement involving 951 cities in 82 countries. This blog is an attempt to understand where all of this discontent came from, and why it is being seen on such a level, on a global scale.

The global recession has prompted many world leaders to put austerity measures in place in order to afford stimulus packages and bailouts to try and fix their financial problems. This has lead many to argue that the governments are forcing the working class to pay for problems mainly caused by speculation in the financial markets. Protests sprang up all across Europe, starting in September 2010, with people saying that investments needed to be made to promote job growth rather than cutting services to those who need it most.

The revolutionary wave referred to as the Arab Spring started in the small, North-African country of Tunisia, when a street vendor lit himself on fire, grabbing the world’s attention and sparking protests in his hometown, which spread to the capital Tunis. This action by 26 year old  Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 17th, 2010, took his life, but lead to a revolution that ended the 23 year-old regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired people across the Arab world that this kind of change could be possible in their countries.

Protests have since spread to Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Mauritania, Sudan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, and Syria. Some changes have been made to government in a number of these countries including a complete overthrow in Egypt and Libya.

In Libya, the overthrow was accomplished only with an intervention, by a NATO led coalition, in an all-out civil war that lead to the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, ending his 42 year rule,  giving control to the National Transitional Council. Before the fighting was even over, many of these western nations who rushed in with their “humanitarian aid” were already trying to secure control over Libya’ oil.

In Egypt, despite attempts by president Hosni Mubarak to suppress journalists and shut down the internet, protesters managed to force his resignation, bringing his 30 year presidency to an end. Power was transferred to the military who subsequently dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, and promised to hold elections before the end of the year. In the meantime, a civilian Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf was put in charge of a  Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Protests continued, however, due to perceived slowness in bringing about reforms, and worries that the council was planning to hold on to power. The first round of elections was finally held in the country last week with preliminary results showing the Islamist party to be dominating.

Civil unrest has been subdued in many other Arab nations, but continues to this day in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.

The motivations for these uprisings are as diverse as the countries involved and a thorough examination cannot be done without going into detail about each one. However, there are some overlying themes, such as poverty, government corruption, a lack of trust in a dictatorship, and a lack of freedom and democracy causing people to feel they have no control of their own destiny. The wealth in most of these countries is hoarded by a handful of elites like in Egypt, where the Mubarak family fortune was estimated at over $30 billion, with some estimates as high as $70 billion. Mubarak had a system in place where outsiders wanting to do business in the country had to give a share of the profits to prominent Egyptians.

Things were a little slower getting started in North America largely because of steps taken over the last 40 years or so to subdue resistance using surveillance, the media and the education system to promote conformity to a consumerist society. Noncompliance with this society is seen as pathological and anyone educated enough to resist is so hampered down by student loans that they are afraid they might lose their jobs if they speak out.

In the US particularly, there are many reasons to be angry with the direction society is heading. The Citizens United Supreme court ruling, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money funding political ad campaigns and basically declaring that corporations are people, is expected to bring corporate campaign spending to astronomical levels in the 2012 election cycle, further eroding democracy.

When people did finally start to rise up in the US it was the result of attacks against public unions in several states, in an attempt to limit their collective bargaining rights. Many of the protesters have said that they were inspired by the uprising in Egypt, which was all over the media at that time. It seemed the era of subdued compliance and conformity may have been coming to pass.

One event that I believe really set things off on a national level in the US was the debt ceiling deal, in which the US debt was reaching it’s limit, throwing politicians and the media into crisis mode even though the debt ceiling has been raised over 100 times in the past. Although president Barack Obama went into negotiations claiming to want to raise taxes on the rich, a deal was struck cutting services like social security and medicare, while raising taxes on lower and middle class families and actually cutting taxes for the rich. Keith Olbermann had a great rant on Current TV about the hypocrisies of the deal.

The lack of compromise has usually been blamed on Republican unwillingness to budge or on Obama’s weakness in negotiations, although some have argued that this is what Obama wanted all along. Some go further to say that the whole political system is only a puppet show to give a false sense of democracy and to serve only the interests of the oligarchs who actually control the country. All evidence, from what I have seen, seems to support this last view.

The fact that the American political establishment is so set on protecting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans seems especially absurd when billionaires like Warren Buffett come out in favor of higher taxes for the rich. A poll also suggest that an overwhelming majority of American citizens in all demographics support a “Buffett Rule”, proposed by Obama, that would raise taxes on the people who can most easily afford it. A paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives analyzing the optimal tax rates for top earners has suggested that it should be about 70%, several times higher than it is at present.

The time was right for a mass movement in America and that is what #OccupyWallStreet provided. Months before protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on September 17th , a small group of activists, some of whom were involved in the Arab Spring and European austerity protests, gathered to form a general assembly to discuss some of the problems facing the world. In July a call was put out by Canadian anti-corporate magazine, Adbusters, to fill Manhattan with protesters. Adbusters is most often credited with sparking the movement and they, no doubt, added a lot of support for the goals of the general assembly, which has become the core of the movements decision making. Thousands of people came out to show support, with hundreds of them setting up camp for the night. These people were determined. They weren’t going anywhere.

Wall Street is a reasonable target because it exemplifies the greed and corruption at the heart of free market capitalism. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Wall Street watch-dog, has been shown to be covering up crimes being committed on Wall Street. Salon.com journalist Glenn Greenwald illustrates what he calls a “two-tiered justice system” in his recent book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, giving countless examples of the upper-class and political leaders getting away with unforgivable crimes while the poor often receive the full wrath of the justice system.

Much of the dialogue from the Occupy movement focuses on the growing disparities between the richest 1% of the population and everyone else, with the most common heard slogan being “we are the 99%”. The numbers are arbitrary, they could easily have been 0.1% vs. 99.9%, 2% vs. 98%, or even 20% vs. 80%. The point is that the gap between the richest and the poorest is enormous and growing. Taxation is a large part of the reason. In 2011, the Bush tax cuts alone, which were continued by Obama, will save the average 1%er more than the average 99%er makes in total income.

Plenty of evidence supports the idea that greater equality leads to a better society for everyone. This graph compares equality in prosperous times (1947-77) and in times of regression (1981-present). An eye opening TED talk by Richard Wilkinson compares more equal and unequal societies on a wide range of issues including health, life expectancy, addiction, education, violence and even trust among the societies members. Despite all of this, world leaders continue to put policies in place that lead to further inequality. Luckily the Occupy movement has come to stand up against this abuse.

Four weeks after protesters took to the streets in New York, on October 15th, a call was put out for a “Global Occupy Day”, which spawned new Occupy camps in 951 cities in 82 countries protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.

In Canada, the country I call home, camps were set up in every major city and some not so major. I’ve heard a lot of people ask why I would protest in Canada, saying that we are in much better shape than the US. The thing is, with our low corporate taxes, business is thriving but it’s all at the cost of the lower and middle class. Like other more equal countries, such as Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, Canada is seeing income inequality rise faster than much of the world, including the US. Canada is also seeing an unprecedented attack on unions, and environmental policies that make us the worst polluters in the world, not to mention several other ways that we are going in the wrong direction. In other words, we Occupy because we don’t want to end up in the same situation as the US.

The argument that we are doing pretty good compared to the rest of the world, so we really have nothing to protest, doesn’t hold any water to begin with. Human empathy allows us to put ourselves in other peoples position and to feel compassion for them. A common misconception of the movement is that we are all unemployed or even homeless. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many in the movement are either students, or working full time, and although they might be just barely scraping by, joined the movement to stand up for the rights of those less fortunate, in their own communities, countries, or in less developed parts of the world. Psychological research has shown that upper class citizens are less likely to to experience empathy, although they can be induced to feel compassion if they are exposed to the suffering of others.

Support for the Occupy movement does not come exclusively from the lower class. Many prominent individuals from all sectors of society have come out in support. In the business world, the Board of Directors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream have given a statement of admiration and solidarity. Many well known celebrities have also gotten behind the movement, most visibly Micheal Moore, who has attended several rallies. Well respected progressive thinkers, such as Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek, and Cornel West have also had positive things to say about the movement. Many scientists are getting behind the movement as well, including Canadian award-winning environmentalist and broadcaster, David Suzuki. Naturally, unions have been supportive as well, and the support goes both ways.

By far the most common criticism of the Occupy movement is that there is a lack of focus and no demands being made. This is simply an attempt by the media to force the movement into the conventional political framework. Occupy is about reframing the debate beyond the limited views accepted in the mainstream media. The reason for the lack of focus is that, like with any group of free thinking individuals, opinions are diverse, with a lot of disagreement on a number of things, including the need for demands. Everyone is involved for their own personal reasons, whether it’s for the environment, social justice, a more democratic society, or a combination of different reasons, but the one thing that seems to be agreed upon is that there are fundamental problems facing our society that need to be addressed.

The general assembly setup is slowly coming to consensus’ on a number of things. This process takes time because it is truly democratic with no centralized decision making, which I believe is the real beauty of the movement.

One idea endorsed by much of the movement was for people to transfer their funds from big banks, which were deemed “too big to fail” and bailed out by the governments, into credit unions. A “Bank Transfer Day” was decided on for this purpose. This action was largely a success, with 650,000 Americans switching to credit unions in October alone, which is estimated to cost the 10 largest banks $185 Billion next year.

Another idea that the Occupy movement got behind is that of a “Robin Hood Tax“. This idea, that has been floating around for a while, is to implement a small (0.5%-1%) tax on financial sector transactions, and have the revenue raised be used for social services and environmental causes around the world. Some conspiracy theorists have taken this as evidence that Occupy is a part of a globalist agenda. This appears to be based on nothing more than paranoia over who would be responsible for ensuring that the funds actually go where they are supposed to. This is, of course, a genuine concern. With the amount of corruption in the world, how can we be sure that the money would go towards the intended purpose. The bottom line is this would never be able correct all of the ills of society, but I do believe that it would be a huge step in the right direction.

The Occupy movement is largely seen as a left wing movement. While mostly true, this assessment misses the point. Politicians who call themselves liberals or Democrats are every bit as responsible for maintaining the established status quo. For instance, the Obama administration is mostly made up of former Wall Street bankers, and Wall Street firms were among the top donors for his 2008 campaign. While there are some socialist elements in the movement, there are libertarian elements as well. Some views are more aligned with right wing politics, such as the opposition to bank bailouts, so it is really unfair to call it a left wing movement. Occupy is beyond left and right and politics in general, for that matter.

The main reason the mainstream media dismisses the Occupy protests is that at at it’s core, the movement is against the whole establishment that they are a part of. Many journalists would simply lose their jobs for speaking favorably about Occupy. Very few well known, established people in the media have actually come out in support of the movement. It seems to me like, to have that kind of freedom, you need to be an op-ed writer or a free-lancer. Economist and NY Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman has criticized the establishment’s response to the protests, saying that the oligarchs are really the un-American ones. Canadian author and free-lance journalist, Naomi Klein, called the Occupy movement “the most important thing in the world” in her address to protesters at Zuccotti Park.

Even journalists, in some cases, who simply want to report on what is happening at the protests are having their freedoms attacked. During a police raid on Zuccotti Park, journalists were forced away from the scene, some having their credentials confiscated. This was reminiscent of actions taken in Egypt, which were heavily condemned by US politicians.

Of course the police and the leaders who give them their orders don’t want the public to know what happens during a raid. Every time footage is released of police using excessive force, it gains more public sympathy for the protesters. In Oakland, police threw flash grenades and fired tear gas canisters into crowds in efforts to disperse them. One tear gas canister struck a Marine Corps veteran, Scott Olsen, in the head fracturing his skull. So much support was gained by the movement as a result of this that a general strike was planned which saw thousand of people in the streets and caused the city’s port to temporarily halt it’s operations. There were also several reports of pepper spray use, like in Seattle, where victims included the elderly, a priest, and a pregnant woman who later miscarried.

Evictions of camp sites have been coordinated by mayors of different cities. Reasons given for eviction include everything from violence and drug use, which are common in any city, to concerns for the safety of protesters. Some have raised legal complaints about evictions, citing freedom of assembly or association rights, which overrule bylaws or park rules.

Other than a few odd occurrences, any violence in all of the protests mentioned above has been from the authorities. In instances where protesters do get violent, like on the first day of Occupy protests in Rome, it’s usually a small minority of people looting or vandalizing property. When protests escalate into a full scale riot, as it did in in the London area, it’s often sparked by police violence. The fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan is considered to have instigated riots in London that lasted several days.

Research into the motives and evolution of collective violence often show a correlation with high food prices. This was certainly the case with the current wave of protests, as global food prices have hit a record high this year. Add this to higher energy prices and austerity measures and you have a lot of hungry, poor and angry people. In primate studies, it has been shown that impoverished environments lead to higher levels of aggression and antisocial behavior. It seem that increasing the amount of food decreases aggression, while restricting food to the more dominant among them, triples the amount of aggression.

In humans, a triggering event is often required to push people over the tipping point, sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was the case with the police shooting in England. At this point a mob mentality kicks in, where people behave in ways that they normally would not. It’s not that they lose themselves or their own identity, but they gain a group identity on top of their own.

Occupy is essentially a complete rejection of a whole social structure. Basically, humans have set up a game hundreds of years ago and this game has since become more important than life itself. For those who say “that’s just life, deal with it”, I would like to remind them that that’s not the way it’s always been. Humans used to live off the land, working with it to ensure it’s and our own sustainability. Now, the free-market system being violently forced on people and countries around the world, is raping and destroying the very land we require for our own survival, while allowing multinational corporations to exploit workers for cheap labor. We are in dire need of a mass, global environmental movement, and Occupy realizes this. We also realize that our political leaders are unwilling to do anything about it since they are controlled by the same market forces that are destroying the earth. People are fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore!