We’re in this together (or: what is “your turn” really about?)

July 30th, 2009 by Julian Egelstaff 2 comments »

Update – January 9, 2012 — An excellent overview of the Kafkaesque case of Hassan Diab at Briarpatch Magazine.


Update – May 27, 2011

I sent the following letter to the Globe and Mail tonight:

In the case of extraditing Hassan Diab, a Canadian Citizen has been denied his freedom for literally *years* despite the fact that there is absolutely no evidence against him that would stand up in a Canadian court. This is the most shocking and terrifying thing I have seen in this country in my life.

Before a Canadian citizen can be arrested, deprived of their freedom, and shipped overseas, must we not have at least a modicum of evidence? Wouldn’t you assume that the government would only arrest you and send you to a foreign country, if there was some evidence that could prove you had done something very wrong?

It seems not. What the French government has provided as evidence against Hassan Diab is a fig leaf, barely able to conceal their complete lack of a case.

Besides handwriting evidence that the judge himself has called “very problematic, very confusing, and with conclusions that are suspect,” the balance of the so-called evidence is based on un-sourced, secret intelligence of East German origin, which may have been the result of torture. It’s like the Maher Arar case, but backwards. If we stand up for human rights in this country, then the case to extradite Diab must be dismissed immediately because of the link to torture alone.

But instead, for *years*, Hassan Diab has faced the loss of all of his freedoms. He lost his teaching job when Carleton University decided that innocent-until-proven guilty was simply a nice idea on paper. He has had to pay *tens of thousands of dollars* for a monitoring anklet as part of his bail conditions.

The rules of extraditions even deny him the right to introduce evidence that could prove his fingerprints don’t even match the suspect in the case!

The terrifying thing is that our laws have done nothing to protect a Canadian citizen in this case. It seems that if a foreign government simply asks nicely, then our government will do everything in its power to hand you over. Sure, you’re not Hassan Diab, lucky for you, but not even proof of your innocence can stop you from being next.


Update – October 20, 2010 — Nearly two years after being arrested, but not charged with anything, Hassan Diab’s case is still not closed. Using spotty evidence (and that’s a generous description), the French government is asking that he be sent to France to stand trial. In November 2010, some conclusions might be reached in this long tale, when an extradition hearing might actually get under way.

As the website www.justiceforhassandiab.org states:

Dr. Diab’s case will establish a dangerous legal precedent if a Canadian court allows unsourced intelligence of unknown, untestable reliability to be used to extradite a Canadian citizen.

We were all shocked and horrified by the Maher Arar case. A foreign government claimed he was a terrorist and he was summarily sent to another country without a chance to confront the evidence against him (assuming there even was any!). And, of course, he was tortured there!

Hassan Diab is another Canadian citizen facing a similar situation. A foreign government is claiming he’s a terrorist, and he faces the threat of being sent to another country. But this time, it’s not the US doing the dirty work. The Canadian government is acting on behalf of France, to try and extradite a Canadian citizen based on the flimsiest of evidence. At least he’s not likely to be tortured in France.

Good luck to us all.


Original Post, July 30, 2009:

Carleton University fired a professor Tuesday, because he is alleged to have committed a terrorist act. I wonder if there’s a list of possible alleged acts somewhere in Robertson Hall (that was the admin building when I was a student there, maybe it’s not anymore). Maybe this hypothetical list is written in some sort of hierarchy, and a line is drawn across it somewhere, separating the fire-able allegations from the ones that merely mean they read all your e-mail.

Maybe it’s because I am an alumni of Carleton University (BJ/96) that the article on the Toronto Star website made me pause for a long while. Or maybe it’s just because of my appreciation for the principles of a free society, which I partly acquired at Carleton University, and other places, including at the knee of my mother’s parents, who were both Royal Air Force veterans, and had an endless supply of stories about World War II and the Nazis. My grandfather in particular was a lifelong student of the history of his youth, and knew as much about the political run up to the war as he did about the war itself.

One thing he shared with me, which made among the strongest impressions, was the famous quotation of German Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Well, they came for Hassan Diab, at Carleton University this week. Thankfully, many people are saying something.

Now, in fairness, perhaps professor Diab really did kill four people in Paris in 1980. I don’t know for sure. But that’s the whole point; it hasn’t been proven, it’s an allegation.

And also to be fair, this isn’t exactly the same thing as a Nazi purge. Carleton is not politically cleansing its faculty. But there’s a thread of public mindedness and community involvement that runs through Niemöller’s quotation, and this event at my alma mater. That’s what “your turn” is all about.

I registered the domain name yourturn.ca on April 19, 2005. I wanted a personal domain that could be a vehicle for saying something, somehow, about many things that I care about and am involved with, most of which revolve around engaging other people and working together for a common goal: promoting a free and open internet, environmentalism, open source software development, not-for-profit business models…. I could go on, and hopefully I will with many more postings.

I also like games, computer games and board games mostly, but all games certainly. When you’re playing a game, “your turn” is what you say to pass things on to the next person, it’s how you acknowledge that you’ve done your part, and now they can do theirs. It’s a gesture of community and partnership, even if you’re competing to win the game, you’re playing it together. We’ve all said “your turn” countless times in our lives. I think it’s a gesture that we can all take to heart far away from a games table.

In the meantime, it seems to me that Carleton University has made a big mistake here. This is not a case of an alleged pedophile coaching a little league team, where, if the allegations are true, there would be irreparable harm done. The worst that could happen in this case is that his views would be debated, in public, at an institution of higher learning. What could be more appropriate?

If you want to make your opinion known, write to Carleton University president Roseann O’Reilly Runte. I’m sure your local paper’s editor would like to hear about it too.


P.S. I must apologize for miraculously demonstrating Godwin’s Law with only one post! ;-)

How to defeat the Toronto Star paywall

October 7th, 2013 by Julian Egelstaff No comments »

A paywall is like a firewall, except instead of stopping fires, it stops people who haven’t paid.

At least that’s what it’s supposed to do. So imagine my shock upon discovering — because I like to poke around in web technologies, it’s kind of my job — discovering that the Toronto Star’s newly enacted paywall is built around javascript technology.

Now, that might not mean much to most people, but when it comes to paywalls, this is the digital equivalent of leaving the key under the mat!

When you make a request for a webpage, by, say, typing a URL into your web browser, or clicking on any link in any page, that request gets sent to a web server somewhere. The server figures out what page to send you, and then the page appears in your web browser.

I think most people understand that, at some basic level. Few people believe the web pages are already all there inside their computer! (But some people do, oh yes.)

Javascript is not as well understood by most people. Javascript is a programming language that is used to make your web browser do stuff. So it’s not part of the web server, it’s part of your own computer, where the web browser resides.

And you can turn javascript off.

There-in lies the big snafu for the Toronto Star. I can’t be the first person to comment on this, but it’s so shocking, I had to write about it anyway. The Star has only made this move out of desperation due to falling revenues. This decision is a key part of their financial plan, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. That being the case, you’d think they would setup the security around it properly! You cannot use javascript as a reliable security mechanism, because it is essentially under the control of the users, not the web server. Security on the web must be enacted on the server. That’s the most fundamental principle of Internet security. The server should detect who you are, what you have rights for, and then only send you a page if you ought to have it. Instead, they’re sending everyone all the pages, and then asking javascript to disable the page after it’s landed in your web browser. Turn off javascript, and you’re left with the pages they send you, and no security mechanism concealing them!

Now, to be fair, trying to setup a paywall, without forcing all your users to login to your website, is basically impossible. That’s because there is no persistent, reliable way of identifying everyone visiting a website, unless you make them log in. (It’s a good thing too, because imagine if the Internet did provide a way of reliably identifying people visiting websites, without them logging in…the NSA and CSEC wouldn’t need to go to such lengths to spy on everyone.)

But even though it’s hard, if you’re going to bother to try and setup a paywall, and it’s a critical part of your financial plan, then wouldn’t you try harder?! At a technical level, what they’re doing is basically the equivalent of the honour system. What I really don’t understand is why the technical people involved didn’t explain the birds and the bees of Internet security to them. Or maybe the powers that be at The Star don’t care. But if this is their new way of saving their dying business model, how can they not care?

The politics of “conflict exploitation”

April 18th, 2011 by Julian Egelstaff No comments »

In 1995, I had the privilege of taking a fourth-year seminar in political reporting as part of my Journalism degree, at Carleton University in Ottawa. 1995 was a good time to be a journalist in Ottawa. The second Quebec referendum was less than two months in the future at the start of the school year.

The class was notable not only for being taught by the very experienced CBC journalist Elly Alboim (now a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a lobby group that was at one time closely associated with Paul Martin), but also for one of the other students attending: my good friend and future NDP MPP, Paul Ferreira.

In between trying to get a handle on as much political intrigue as we could, all the students had to pick a political book published that fall, and write a review. I chose All the Kings Horses by Ron Graham. It is an interesting book, trying to document, and throw up red flags about, the shift in Canadian politics from a “we’re all in this together” sentiment, which Graham argues was the foundation on which Canada was built, to a more “I’m in this for myself” sentiment.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the book at the time. I was certainly interested in political reporting, but I was more interested in what would happen to me after graduation. Since I had the good fortune to be born in the early ’70s, it meant I would graduate right at the beginning of the internet boom, so really I had nothing to worry about.

Recently I grabbed this book off my bookshelf, to see how it stood up after all these years. Imagine my amusement to discover this quote from “Reform MP Stephen Harper” (remember, this is from 1995):

There’s no longer the political climate or the economic resources for politicians to fulfill the expectations of a wide range of people. Now they have to make choices, which means saying no to ethnics or bankers or whomever. They can’t be all things to all people any more. And many of them are having trouble adjusting to that different role because it’s new and because consensus politicians aren’t well suited to conflict management or conflict exploitation.

Oh, where to begin!

I think the word “ethnics” is certainly an interesting choice.

It’s nice to see that he is up front about wanting to exploit conflicts. Though I haven’t heard much about that on the campaign trail this year. Maybe it doesn’t play well with focus groups. But Stephen, you can’t be all things to all people, remember? Maybe that’s why it will be a cold day in hell before this country reaches the kind of consensus that will let you have a majority government.

Thanks to the forces at work in the ’90s which Graham was trying to draw attention to, and thanks especially to conflict-politicians like Stephen Harper, we now have a political discourse in this country where coalitions, the very essence of political compromise and consensus, are said to be undemocratic. Call me old fashioned, but I thought democracy was about reflecting the will of the people…which is why my mind always boggles at the thought that a government can be formed by a party which less than 40% of the people actually voted for! (Join Fair Vote Canada if you want to help change that injustice.)

I think this is why I had a hard time getting excited about the exclusion of the Green party from the leaders’ debates this time (and that’s saying something, since you know that with a solar power array on the roof of our house, I have a big soft spot for the Green party). I found it hard to get worked up about the injustice done to the Greens, because I really didn’t know which is a bigger sign of failure in our democracy: that unaccountable media executives are excluding the voice of nearly 1 million Canadians from the debates, or that the ridiculous sideshow that we call a debate is so important to our political process that it’s a travesty when the Greens are excluded!

When the politicians are picking and choosing between pandering to “ethnics” or “bankers”, as our future prime minister so in-eloquently put it, when the magic of crafting political consensus has given way to the politics of conflict exploitation, how can a debate matter? Who cares whether the leaders can intelligently thrust and parry with their words and ideas?

Coincidentally, today I also read an article in the Toronto Star about Justin Trudeau. Channeling his father, who helped create the vision of Canada that Graham was pining for, Trudeau Jr. was quoted as saying:

“The Conservative party is saying: ‘Vote for me, we’ll make one of your guys a senator. Vote for me, we’ll put an extra visa office in your country (of origin). Vote for me, we’ll support your festival or your community centre.’ It’s a transactional relationship…and it is effective to get you elected. But you just cannot build a strong society and you cannot build a strong Canada that goes beyond its differences when you’ve played up these differences.”

No joke. I read that on the Star website, and then idly flipped through All the King’s Horses and chanced on Harper’s quote promising 16 years ago to do exactly what Trudeau was arguing against in this election today. So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or not. We’ll have a better idea after May 2.

[Update - Oct 7 2013 - Belatedly, I have to say I was dead wrong about the chances of a Harper majority government. Perhaps though, it was in part a side effect of the collapse of the Liberal party, something that wasn't fully understood back then...votes flocked left and right, away from the centre? Regardless, we're stuck with a government that lives on conflict exploitation now. Lucky us.]

How to end sex discrimination in one easy step

February 15th, 2011 by Julian Egelstaff No comments »

Make it a men’s issues instead of a women’s issue.

I read about yet another workplace sexual harassment lawsuit today. These stories are a regular occurrence in the news. You can change the names and workplaces, and get basically the same story every time.

Multiple choice “Make Your Own Sexual Harassment Story” generator:

Woman gets job, woman’s male colleagues make inappropriate comments a) [behind her back] b) [in front of her]. Woman is denied a) [raises] b) [perks] c) [promotions] d) [all of the above]. Colleagues make a) [explicit] b) [implied] comments about taking maternity and parental leave, and how it will negatively affect your career. Woman a) [gets fired] b) [leaves for another job] and sues the former employer.

The sad fact is, that men are just as victimized by this behaviour as women are. Grown up men who work in these offices are likely to be offended by the same juvenile antics, just as much as women. Maybe they don’t say anything because they’re afraid of not getting the raise or promotion. Nonetheless, they are entitled to a workplace that is free from this kind of office politics. How many of these men have kids? How many did not take a parental leave after their kids were born, because it would be bad for their careers, even if they wanted to?

These men are suffering too, probably without realizing it. They are putting up with a workplace that could be better for everyone, themselves included. Many must be too chicken to say anything, lest they suffer the same fate as their female counterparts. If you think taking leave is such a hardship on one’s career, why assume that the mother of your children should be stuck with that? Shouldn’t you share? Or better yet, shouldn’t you stand up in your own workplace for the rights you have under the law to share part of that magical first year with your kids?!

These “women’s issues” need to be seen as “family issues,” that affect men equally. Only then will we have achieved any kind of lasting solution. Until that day, women will continue to be victims and men will continue to be silent accomplices, and continue to miss out on the benefits and rights they are just as much entitled to.

We are all Egyptians now

February 2nd, 2011 by Julian Egelstaff 1 comment »

Last summer, police in Alexandria tortured and murdered a 28-year-old man named Khaled Said. Afterwards, supporters created a website called We are all Khaled Said. This horrific event was one of many catalysts leading up to the the current revolution to end the brutal dictatorship in Egypt.

Today, we are all Egyptians. The peaceful protesters who had gathered over the past week, have been attacked by armed men. Witnesses say they have seen government officials paying people to join the attackers, and found government IDs on some attackers. I don’t think you need witnesses to know the truth, you just need to put two and two together:

  • A week of peaceful protests telling the dictator to step down (peaceful except when they were attacked by police)
  • A dictator who said last night he’s not going anywhere any time soon, and there would be chaos if people didn’t go home
  • A day later, violent attackers descend on the protesters, complete with tear gas

I mean, come on. This is the same government that shut down the internet, confiscated journalists’ camera equipment, and arrested the journalists! The dictator has no clothes!

You can find out more on Al Jazeera’s English channel, as well as from many Egyptians on the internet, including my friend and colleague from the Drupal community, Khalid Baheyeldin — Khalid’s blogKhalid’s twitter feed.

I do not know what we outside Egypt can do, except exercise our own freedoms in support of theirs. That’s why I am writing this. We can all contact our elected leaders and urge them to articulate our outrage and to pressure the powers that be in Egypt to yield to the will of the people. If you are in Canada, go to the prime minister’s website and send him a message. And as long as you know your postal code, you can get contact info for your local member of parliament and tell them what you’re thinking.

Millions of Egyptians are trying to change their country for the better. What can it mean for our own freedoms, if we do not stand against the egregious oppression they are facing in this struggle? Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

What’s so special about WikiLeaks? Nothing!

December 3rd, 2010 by Julian Egelstaff 1 comment »

Why isn’t anyone in the media standing on the rooftops, defending WikiLeaks?

After the whistle-blowing website released thousands of documents recently, the spin in the news has been focused on the government outrage, and the outrageous calls to assassinate Julian Assange, the “editor-in-chief” of WikiLeaks.

OK, let’s imagine for a moment that the government called for the assassination of the editor of the Globe and Mail, because they disagreed with a story the Globe published. Can you imagine that?! What kind of banana republic would this country be if that happened? But when Stephen Harper’s former advisor, Tom Flanagan, says just that about WikiLeaks where is the outrage from sane individuals in this country?

In Canada, at least, journalists are no different from anyone else. They have no special rights and no special laws protecting them or their work. If they publish something you don’t like, you can sue them, just like you can sue anyone else when they say or write something you disagree with. If someone publishes information that undermines the state, there are laws against that too. But you have to prove that it undermines the state, you can’t just say it does, and suggest assassination as a remedy!

And it should be needless to say that there’s a fine line between information that undermines the state and information that’s in the public interest. The Pentagon Papers are one of the most famous examples of this fact. If you condemn WikiLeaks, then you either have to condemn the New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers, or you have to explain why WikiLeaks is somehow different from the New York Times.

Before you say, “of course it’s different,” remember that in this country at least, journalists have no special rights. There is no difference between this blog and the Toronto Star in a legal sense. In the United States, there are some states where journalists working for “recognized media outlets” have special rights and responsibilities. That creates the possibility of separating “real” journalists from plain old bloggers and WikiLeaks.

But who gets to make that distinction? The people who make the laws granting journalists special rights? The courts when ruling whether someone is protected by the law or not? I much prefer the Canadian model where we’re all equal under the law, and all equally able to take the government to task (more statutory protections for those that do would be welcome of course, whether journalists or not!).

Sweden, where WikiLeaks is based, has different rules about freedom of the press from Canada or the US. So once again, the online world is forcing people to confront distinctions in the laws of different countries, but that’s not new, right? It’s the same old thing as when debates have erupted about copyrights and patents and so-called digital rights management. We’re used to seeing the old media/new media story play out around relatively trivial subjects, like whether you can download movies from the internet. We’re not used to seeing it play out around freedom of the press.

Maybe this is why the media is not rallying to WikiLeaks defence. Old media hates new media. It’s the new kid on the block, and it’s going to eat old media’s lunch sooner or later. Maybe the editorial boards of major newspapers are happy to see this new media upstart under the gun. But they should think long and hard about the role of journalism in a democracy before they spend too much time on the side lines. When they look at the vitriol being cast at WikiLeaks, they should remember, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Solar Powered In Toronto

June 7th, 2010 by Julian Egelstaff 1 comment »

On March 24, 2010, at 10:38am, our solar power array turned on for the first time.

Yup, we have a solar power system on the roof of our house, and it’s been operating continuously ever since (well, not at night, but it could if we had batteries). See photos here.

I had long been planning a website to tell all about our system, and about the Ontario microFIT program that makes it possible, and about solar power in general. Well, after many nights and weekends of toil, the site finally came together, check it out!

I am proud to say that it’s currently the number one hit on Google when you search for “how much can you make microfit“. :-)

Solar electric power is truly amazing. No moving parts, no turbines or complicated equipment. Just silicon panels that instantly produce electricity when exposed to light. It’s like magic….the stuff of science fiction (see Clarke’s third law). It is the stuff that makes space flight possible…every satellite orbiting over head runs off solar panels.

And we’re on the cusp of a revolution here on earth too. The developing world is already leapfrogging us in the west, by installing an increasing number of solar power systems where there is no distribution grid. The sun delivers the energy everywhere for free. Just put up the panels to collect it.

Unfortunately, in the west we’ve got three problems:

  1. We use too much power
  2. We have built huge, centralized power stations, connected to a massive distribution system, to feed this huge demand
  3. We have subsidized the cost of these systems to the point where the renewable energy systems we need, which are quite feasible using today’s technology, supposedly can’t compete in the marketplace

In the middle of the 20th century, North American power companies basically saw a business opportunity, to build huge central power stations, burning coal, and later splitting the atom, at enormous cost. But they could make money at it, as long as they got enough people to buy enough electricity for long enough, that the costs could be amortized over a really huge span of time. In Ontario’s case, we taxpayers should be done paying off the debt of the old Ontario Hydro corporation by about 2018!

Of course, solar and other renewables weren’t available back then the way they are today. But now they are…so how are we going to get ourselves off a centralized, 20th century, unsustainable, energy system, and into a 21st century, decentralized, open and sustainable energy system? The Ontario microFIT program is part of the answer, along with other FIT programs all over the world.

Read more about it all on our solar power website.

Better yet, get a microFIT system yourself. This is something where you can actually get paid to be part of the solution and not the problem!