Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Problem of Partisan Politics

October 23, 2012, The Watchdog

Most of the political candidates vying for your vote nowadays put a great deal of emphasis on their bipartisan methods for solving problems.  To me it comes across as mildly insulting, since many of these so-called champions of nonpartisan politics are or were active in blocking progressive policies advanced by the other side – often in extremely unscrupulous manners.  To my knowledge, the most vicious example involved Republicans adding a clause to a piece of liberal legislation that allowed government employees to watch porn on the job so that they could tear it down.  But I digress.
While the hypocrisy is sometimes painful to listen to, there are things we can learn from this.  It shows that politicians understand voter’s frustration with the lack of progress, but it also shows that voters understand that the two party’s views are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Ultimately, the commonly-espoused idea that one side or the other is completely wrong is itself completely wrong, but to understand why, we have to know a thing or two about the core beliefs and principles behind each ideology.
Thomas Sowell provides an excellent explanation of these differences in his book “A Conflict of Visions,” in which he argues that liberals generally see the world optimistically, while conservatives tend to see the world pessimistically.  Democrats tend to view human beings as essentially good and capable of anything they set their minds to, while Republicans generally view their fellow man more suspiciously and focus more on defending the good aspects of society than building and advancing towards what is lacking.
In terms of social commentary in literature, one could say that liberals focus on works like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” that show the necessity of government regulation and intervention in society to maintain order and to protect citizens from corporations.  The government is a trustworthy force for social progress.  Conservatives, conversely, tend to point toward the issues brought up by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom,” in which he echoes Thomas Jefferson in arguing that sacrificing freedom for security ultimately gives up both.  Government is untrustworthy, and its corruption scales with its size.
As it turns out, both sides are correct.  The food industry in Chicago during Sinclair’s time was awful, and the government regulation spurred by public awareness of those problems resulted in markedly better sanitary and economic conditions, and this action has been mimicked to a similar effect in various contexts around the globe.  On the other hand, we can look back in history and also see Hayek proved right again and again in Russia, Germany, Japan, China, the Middle East and even the United States.  In our country alone, reactionary federal policy has landed us with outrageous acts like the Espionage and Sedition Acts under Wilson, Executive Order 9066 under Franklin Roosevelt, and the recent Patriot Act created by Bush and continued by Obama – all of which have put American citizens in prison or prison camps for no actual crimes.
The difference goes deeper than perception however.  Social-psychology experts studying political tendencies say “…liberals and conservatives do not just see things differently. They are different” (Laber-Warren) .  Their brains are literally wired differently – conservatives focus on threats while liberals zero in on opportunities.  Not only that, but people’s ideological tendencies can be swayed right or left through the addition or subtraction of fear.  More fear leads to more conservative tendencies, while less fear leads to a more liberal outlook.
What this means is that people like Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck are giving a skewed perspective – the other side isn’t stupid or an enemy of freedom.  The behaviors of Obama and Romney in last week’s debates was dichotomizing.  The opinions of commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton are wrong, where Orson Scott Card was right – you can’t truly understand someone and not love them.  Well, maybe “love” is a bit of a strong word for politics, but honest and open-minded understanding is greatly underappreciated in the political arena, and that gap is holding us back from seeing reality without the tinted lens of political ideology and consequently, from getting anything done.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rockets to Rootkits: The Future of Warfare and the Internet

August 10, 2011, Bellevue College

Sometime in the near future, it’s another day at the office for Joseph Smith, an up and coming businessman at a technology firm based in downtown San Francisco.   After driving in to the office and after several cups of coffee, Joseph is ready to tackle his work.  What the coffee doesn’t prepare him for is the virus ticking down in the city’s power-grid controls like a time bomb.  At 6:23pm, the lights go out.  Before he can find a flashlight, Joseph hears the explosion of breaking glass and crunching metal below his window, and looks out to see a car wreck in the nearby intersection beneath now-dark traffic lights.  Toxic fumes from a nearby treatment plant waft towards the city center, only slightly faster than the nuclear fallout from the power plant 15 miles away.

What on earth has just happened?  This may sound like a fantasy only seen in movies like Die Hard, but it is exactly the implied picture of a cyber-attack by China as portrayed by former US counter-terrorism advisor and first Head of Cyber-Security Richard Clarke, who believes that despite our exceptional offensive capabilities, our country’s defenses against cyber espionage and sabotage are dangerously lacking.

Such attacks are capable of powerful blows to vital city infrastructure systems that are made vulnerable by direct or indirect connection to the internet.  When confronted with the figures of American military expenditures, which top the next six highest military spending nations combined (SIPRI), most Americans make the seemingly logical and mathematical assumption that no country on earth could challenge us in direct warfare.  While we do have more jets and tanks than any other country, we are falling far behind in a new form of warfare that is every bit as powerful as land or sea combat, but one in which we are much less prepared defensively.  We cannot fight with jets and tanks against malicious code attacks on infrastructure, cyber-espionage, and botnets .  Over the next few years, we can expect warfare to move from trenches and rockets to Trojans  and rootkits  for three different reasons: cyber-warfare is anonymous, it’s cheap, and it’s super effective.

The phenomenon of waging war online has already introduced new complications to the way that countries must approach national defense in several different ways.  Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The United States had the military might to defend itself purely by intimidation because back then, when one country attacked another, it was transparent; globally, everyone knew with relative certainty who was attacking which country and how.  Mutually-assured-destruction awaited anyone who dared to blatantly attack a super-power or their allies.  This is no longer the case however, because cyber-attacks are by nature nameless.  Many people in the United States still believe that because we have thousands of missiles that can strike any target on the planet, we can immediately retaliate to a cyber-attack with superior force, with the same sort of mutually-assured-destruction mindset for discouraging would-be hackers.  Mutually-assured-destruction is an excellent method of deterrence against conventional attacks coming from an identifiable source, but it is hard to strike back at an opponent you can’t see.  The internet can provide an intelligent terrorist organization, crime network, or hostile foreign country with the ability to fight in what is essentially a global house of mirrors—when a country gets hit, the blow can appear to have come from somewhere anywhere, or even multiple locations.  The victim cannot say who hit them and from where with absolute certainty like they once could, and unlike Enter the Dragon, we cannot simply take Bruce Lee’s approach and shatter all of the mirrors.  One recent example of this kind of attack-origin ambiguity was the discovery of the Stuxnet virus, a worm which specifically targeted Siemens computers that controlled a centrifuge in the Natanz fuel enrichment plant in Iran (Langner).  The virus was designed to slowly crack the centrifuge over several months, and eventually cause it to explode by overriding the electronic fail-safes with false data and preventing the system from noticing any problem.  Discovered in June of 2010, and later decoded in July by the German scientist Ralph Langner, the origin of the virus is still unknown.  Many believe that it is of Israeli or American origin, but an intelligently hidden cyber-warhead can prove extremely difficult if not impossible to track back to its maker, and neither country has taken responsibility for the virus.  This characteristic allows international organizations and governments to utilize the internet to spy on, steal from, and even overtly attack other nations like privateers on the high seas, armed with the shield of plausible deniability to protect themselves from a war with planes and missiles.

With the global economy in the state that it’s currently in, there’s second reason that we can expect countries and organizations to utilize their computers for warfare more often in the coming decade: it’s immensely cheaper to fire off a virus than a missile.  While the logistics of waging a conventional war today usually involve things like fuel for overseas flights and expensive protective equipment and weapons (not to mention the human body cost), the logistical concerns of waging a cyber-war would mainly be about having a solid network, maintaining good computers, and feeding your relatively small army of engineers and tech-support staff with enough sub sandwiches and milk-shakes to keep them happy.  Smaller, perhaps less developed nations that wouldn’t necessarily have the pre-existing resources to sustain this kind of operation would not even have to worry about those needs; they can simply rent out a few foreign hackers and engineers and a botnet to conduct their operation.  Botnets are usually only used by online criminal gangs, mainly for spam distribution, but could easily be used to attack another country with a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS)  attack, as used by the online group ‘Anonymous’ to attack Visa, Amazon, and Mastercard after the companies froze accounts associated with WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange. Alternately, they could be used to attempt to break into a secure system using ‘brute force’—trying hundreds of thousands of passwords (or more) a second in an organized fashion—which could result in access to national secrets or administrative privileges to infrastructural systems like power grids or banks.  Either method could easily, if done intelligently, result in as much damage as blowing up a building with a cruise missile.  To put the cost-ratio in perspective, a single cruise missile is generally estimated to cost between $750,000 and $900,000; the average price to rent a bot-net is a mere $9 an hour, or $67 a day (Danchev).

An important consequence of the low cost-base of digital warfare is the ease of access factor; because it’s so cheap, other countries are no longer the only real threat to the United States.  International organizations, including terrorist organizations, can easily utilize cyber-attack methods to carry out their own goals and missions. Some may even be ahead of what most think of as more powerful nations like the United States in technological proficiency and tip-toeing around the cyber-security systems in place. “We were laughing at Democratic activists” said Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist and founding director of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam. “We felt they were from the age of yesteryear. We felt that they were out of date. I learned how to use email from the extremist organization that I used. I learned how to effectively communicate across borders without being detected.”  Organizations like Nawaz’s could never hope to afford to buy their own cruise missile, singular, let alone plural. But if they are clever enough, they could inflict the same extent of havoc on a target nation at a minute fraction of the cost.  By economics alone, it is a safe assumption that most organized attacks against the United States in the coming decades won’t be with expensive bombs and guns, but with more cost-effective digital warheads.

Despite economic issues and worries over diplomatic privacy, the military’s first and foremost necessity is effectiveness; secrecy and cost-efficiency come secondarily.  Given a choice between a cruise missile and a virus, it seems obvious that the cruise missile would me a far more effective military tool, if perhaps not the cheapest.  There are a few things wrong with this line of thinking. First and foremost, while the United States has the money to buy expensive military toys, other countries may not, and would probably rely on digital methods of assault that no amount of anti-missile defense systems could ever really have a chance of defending against. There is more to it than that though: the problem with this perceived superiority of the cruise missile over a computer virus, even in an offensive scenario, is that it assumes that the best military target is something physical that you can locate and then proceed to blow up.  Professional militaries often target communication hubs in order to isolate the enemy.  While striking radar towers, radio centers, and phone companies has been extremely successful in the past, modern communication takes place online more often than not.  While it is possible to attack a server with a missile, it might be impossible to do so without civilian collateral damage, and the server will probably have a back-up regardless.  A cheaper, faster, more effective, and discretionary method of accomplishing the mission would be to use a virus that destroys the server, perhaps without even needing to geographically locate where the server is. A DDOS attack that overloads and slows down the server from electron-speed to molasses-speed would also be extremely effective at hampering communication.

Paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations usually have different aims: publicity and terror. While bombing a building or kidnapping and killing people does attract attention and inspire fear, it is often a third-person spotlight. People see and hear about it from the news, online, and from friends and neighbors, and it catches their attention for a while because it is interesting, but violent events don’t stay in your conscious mind as much because they hold little real-world relevance to an average individual.  A terrorist group that manages to electronically seek out and destroy bank records, or that shuts down or vandalizes a mega-website like Facebook or Google, would be generating exposure and sensation of the first-person variety, because what they have done has a real-world, everyday impact on everyone.  Thus, under the right circumstances, electronic attacks are not only as powerful as conventional attacks, but can sometimes actually be more effective than simply dropping a bomb on a building and calling it good.

Many skeptics object that although these are all legitimate claims, cyber warfare may never ‘catch on’.  James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International studies argues that “there have been no cyber-wars and perhaps two or three cyberattacks since the internet first appeared” (Jackson).  Along the same lines, Foreign Policy’s Zack Keck argues that the effectiveness of the Stuxnet worm is the result of the Iranian facility’s lack of common security precautions, and that we are unlikely to see any copycats in the future, as was predicted by other cyber-security experts and several companies.  Cyber-warfare simply seems to lack the dependability of traditional military operations.  Joseph Smith won’t really have to worry about his San Francisco home being attacked by hackers because those attacks don’t work when proper regulations are followed.  If so, then let us examine a slightly less extreme scenario.

It’s late April and Josephina Smetana is decides to go to the grocery store for some food.   She walks up to the checkout counter with some vegetables and some beef, but after she swipes her card, she is politely informed that her card was denied. Angered and confused, she quickly walks (empty-handed) to the local ATM.  It’s out of service, so she decides to check her account online.  She types in the URL address for her bank, and gets an error message: the bank’s website is experiencing heavy traffic and is inaccessible at this time.  There must be something wrong at the bank!  She types in the URL for several of the local news stations to try to find out why the bank sites are down, only to find the same error message on the news sites.  This is another cyber-attack, similar to the hypothetical one discussed previously in that it targets a nation—slightly different in its method of attack; it’s a DDOS attack instead of a Worm.  The important difference, however, is that this attack isn’t hypothetical.

On April 27th of 2007 the Estonian government removed a politically contentious Soviet memorial statue from WWII.  The following day, the entire nation fell under attack.  The Estonian Defense Minister, Jaak Aaviksoo, described the attack as targeting the online portion of Estonia’s digital infrastructure (Davis). “All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers — the phone books of the Internet — felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.”  Note that Estonia is a modern, developed country, and was not in any noticeable way more vulnerable to cyber-attack than other countries its size, as was implied of Iran by Zack Keck.  Estonia eventually broke the siege and got its systems running again only after temporarily severing all internet connections outside the country, effectively isolating them from the rest of the world. The bot-net attacks finally stopped several weeks after they started.  It is still debated who executed the attacks, most experts believe it was the result of either a ‘hactivist’ Russian gang or a Russian official’s aide acting of his own free will.  If such groups are capable of shutting down an entire country, if only briefly, what could a nation like China do with a coordinated effort?  The effectiveness, cost-ratio, and anonymity of cyber-attacks make them as powerful of tools in the international court as any aircraft carrier or tank, and we can count on seeing far more of them in the future.  The question we should be asking then isn’t: “is cyber-warfare a threat we need to take seriously?”, but rather: “Are we, as a nation, prepared to fight and win a full-out Cyber War?”

Works Cited
  1. Clarke, Richard. Interview. Cyber War. NPR. WNYC, New York. 21 Apr 2010. Web. 5 Aug. 2011.
  2. Danchev, Dancho. “Study Finds the Average Price for Renting a Botnet.” ZDNet. 26 May 2010. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  3. Davis, Joshua. “Hackers Take Down the most Wired Country in Europe.” Wired. 21 Aug 2007. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  4. Gross, Michael. “A Declaration of Cyber-War.” Vanity Fair. Apr 2011. Web.
  5. Hersh, Seymour. “The Online Threat: Should We Be Worried About a Cyber War?” The New Yorker Nov. 2010: 1-7. Web. 2 Aug. 2011.
  6. Hypponen, Mikko. “Fighting Viruses, Defending the Net.” TED. Mar 2011. Web. 2 Aug 2011.
  7. Jackson, William. “The False Cries and Fog of ‘Cyber War’.” Government Computer News. 15 July, 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  8. Keck, Zachary. “Libicki: Stuxnet Isn’t All it’s Cracked Up to Be—But Then Again, Neither is Cyberwar Really.” Foreign Policy. 3 Mar 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  9. Langner, Ralph. “Cracking Stuxnet, a 21st Century Cyber Weapon.” TED. Mar 2011. Web. 2 Aug 2011.
  10. Nawaz, Maajid. “A Global Culture to Fight Extremism.” TED. Mar 2011. Web. 3 Aug 2011.
  11. Neilson, Robert. Sun Tzu and Information Warfare. Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1997. Print.
  12. SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, The.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 2011. Web. 3 Aug. 2011.
  13. Thompson, Loren. “Cyberwarfare May Be a Bust for Many Defense Contractors.” Forbes. 9 May 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  14. Thornburgh, Nathan. “Inside the Chinese Hack Attack.” Time.  25 Aug 2005. Web. 9 Aug. 2011

John Frum: The Making of a God

April 20, 2012, Bellevue College

Anti-Prohibition Against I-502

October 15, 2012, The Watchdog

“Who will say, ‘I just want to smoke it?’”
Bruce Ramsey wrote a charming opinion piece in The Seattle Times last week about the real reason people should support the initiative in November to legalize marijuana, I-502 – not for the taxes, the prisons, or any of the other number of “remarkably impersonal” reasons, but simply because it’s enjoyable to smoke.  “It depends on what you want, revenue or prisoners,” he then added, referring to the bill’s plan to tax cannabis.
While I agree and applaud his beautiful frankness on the issue, it is sadly an overly simplistic view.  Like most pieces of complex and controversial legislature, there is a history that requires revisiting to understand the reasons behind I-502 and why its actual effects will be different from its proposed effects, and ultimately, why I-502 is not a good initiative.
When the United States was founded, hemp was known as an incredibly useful product.  George Washington grew hemp at his home in Mount Vernon and called on other Americans to do the same (there is also some speculation that he and Jefferson might have smoked cannabis).  Hemp can be used to make incredibly strong and biodegradable plastics, effective green fuels, is nearly unsurpassed in nutritional value, and has a well-earned reputation as a general tonic and home cure for a variety of illnesses and disorders.  It was the best source of fiber for textiles, rope and paper for a long time.
In the early 1900s, the chemical and explosive company DuPont discovered a chemical process that allowed them to make paper from wood pulp more cheaply than competitors, who were using hemp.  Not long afterwards however, the hemp industry made some similar breakthroughs that threatened to retake the market from the growing corporate giant.  DuPont had a friend named William Randolph Hearst, who owned the San Francisco Examiner, the New York Journal and New York World.  Through false but repetitive and sensational stories, they convinced a large part of America that “marihuana” caused black and Hispanic men to go crazy and rape white women.  This ultimately culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially made possession and transfer of cannabis illegal in the United States.  That Act has lasted 75 years.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could repeal this backward law?
That’s not what I-502 is going to do.  For starters, the I-502 campaign itself touts that the biggest benefit is the tax revenue.
With the proposed taxes, lawyer and legalization activist Jeffrey Steinborn predicts that prices of pot will jump by 150%, leaving the black market sources not only still a competitive source, but one with the ability to increase their own price for additional revenue.  DUI laws tacked on to the bill will simply take the war on drugs from the suburbs to the streets, where Washington State’s office of financial management predicts “increased costs from additional driving while under the influence administrative actions, arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations.”  In other words, I-502 will put more people in prison, not less, and gangs won’t be financially hurt by any of it.
The initiative gets everything wrong, down to the very spirit in which we should rescind the 1937 Act.  We should be doing it because the law is wrong, not because it’s a beneficial economic compromise.  As a pro-legalization advocate, it pains me to oppose the first serious initiative to rescind a backwards and corporately-biased law, but it seems clear that I-502 not only won’t solve the problem it’s supposed to – it would probably make things worse.

First Presidential Debate

If there is one prediction both parties can agree came true of the first presidential debate in Denver last Tuesday, it’s Senator John McCain’s prediction that both candidates would be too well-prepared to make a major slip-up.
Who won?  Were their facts accurate? Were they too aggressive or too passive? How will this debate influence voters?  A friend of mine joked that the moderator, Jim Leher, lost the debate.
Aesthetically, Mitt Romney came out stronger by far.  In contrast to Obama’s normally powerful and moving speeches like the one he gave at the annual United Nations meeting, the president stuttered, “um-ed” and “uh-ed” too much, and on numerous occasions took on a very defeated-looking body posture – head down, arms in, eyes seemingly closed, a somber expression on his face.  Romney, by comparison, spoke with clarity, precision and emanated energy.  His posture was open and powerful.  One Twitter account said “Romney looked like he got more sleep than Obama,” and it really came out not just in how spoke, but in what they said as well.  Jeff Zeleny wrote in The Seattle Times the day of the debate that the Massachusetts Governor had been practicing his “respectful aggression,” and all of his practice appears to have paid off.
As for the veracity of the two candidates’ claims, both managed to sneak in some half-truths, conjectures, and outright lies.  It might surprise viewers that the two most overly emphasized numbers in the debate – $5 trillion from Obama and $716 billion from Romney – are both misleading half-truths.  Obama’s claim that Romney is going to cut taxes by $5 trillion is an estimate from the Tax Policy Center of the aggregate loss from Romney’s tax plan by 2015 from the loss of estate taxes and a sharp drop in income tax rates. But it fails to take into account Romney’s plan for paying for the loss through the elimination of tax credits, deductions and exemptions.  The figure is adding up the net loss of the tax policy while ignoring the very aspects of the same policy that would (somewhat) counteract the loss.
Similarly, Romney’s obnoxious repetition of the $716 billion cut to Medicare (a number the “Debate Drinking Game” website told viewers to take a shot for every time it was mentioned) is merely a difference in anticipated costs over ten years.  The number is portrayed to be a direct loss for beneficiaries; an emotional appeal to the elderly, sick and family of those who are old or sick.  In reality, the money pulled from Medicare (which may or may not accumulate to $716 billion) not only benefits Medicare patients with better and cheaper health care, but also is offset by $318 billion in payroll taxes over the same ten-year time frame, lowering the effective cost to $398 billion.  That’s excluding its less direct positive economic impact of course, which is expected to exceed $200 billion in federal savings over about a decade.
Ultimately, the debate was Romney’s to win or lose.  Prior to last Tuesday, most polls put Obama in a solid lead – even in swing states – by anywhere from f5 to 15 percent.  The political consensus was that Romney needed a strong win to stand a chance in November.  Given his extremely powerful performance (did I say performance?) on Tuesday, it looks as though the general election will be much closer than most people anticipated.

Anti-Islam film sparks controversy

October 3, 2012, The Watchdog

The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” a concept and value that itself can be traced back to the Enlightenment, to the renaissance, and even to ancient Athens.  This value has become the subject of serious debates in the upcoming annual United Nations meeting in New York, where a coalition of 57 Islamic nations is proposing to pass an anti-blasphemy law in response to an offensive and by all accounts awful movie trailer called “Innocence of Muslims” that portrayed the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, criminal, and a buffoon.  The ordinance, if passed, would oblige all member nations to criminalize the defamation of religion.
The Muslim coalition cites the apparent double standard of free speech as justification for their cause.  For example, in Germany – a country that does not have the same guarantee for freedom of speech that the United States has – holocaust-denial is a criminal offense.  Many members of the group petitioning for the law feel that insults to religion “pose a threat to global peace and security.”  In his address to the United Nations on Wednesday, the president of Egypt and Member of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi said “Egypt respects freedom of expression – one that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”
Morsi’s statement, of course, is in response to Obama’s address given the day before in which he condemned the 14-minute trailer as “crude and disgusting” but defended the values of free expression under which the film and it’s director are protected.  The director of the film has received no less than two hits on him, coming from a Pakistani Cabinet Member and a wealthy Pakistani Businessman.
With the Civil War in Syria is getting worse every day and the tense relations between the World and Iran and Israel, it seems odd that a low-grade amateur hate-film is taking up so much time in the United Nations. However, a quick glance at the past decade reveals it’s merely the next turn of the screw in a pattern of censorship that has been emanating from the Middle East for quite a while.  Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the director and producer of the film under the pseudonym “Sam Bacile,” is following (less artistically) in the footsteps of Salmon Rushdie, Lars Vilks, Theo Van Gogh, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker – all people who have been threatened, attacked, or killed for insulting Islam.
Reactionary riots in dozens of city around the globe called for the eviction of ambassadors, official apologies from the American Government, and for the video to be removed.  Many even called for the beheading of Nakoula, as proclaimed in Australia as well as Pakistan.  These riots, though discouraged from using violence, were encouraged by several Middle Eastern governments, and ultimately resulted in the invasion and vandalism of American embassies in Egypt and Yemen.  The American Consulate in Benghazi was also attacked, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including the Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, though these attacks appear to have been in response to the killing of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command and not the film.
In a public debate over the decriminalization of hate-speech in Toronto in 2006, Vanity Fair editor Christopher Hitchens defended freedom of expression against religious censorship.  He argued that not only does censorship remove the freedom and responsibility of autonomy and choosing for oneself what is worth reading and hearing, but that often times “the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship,” and that silencing those whose views are viewed as abhorrent or appalling are the first steps towards oppression.  Parts of Northern Europe that are not protected by free speech clauses like our own are already feeling the effects of this: Dutch Parliament Member Geert Wilders was put on trial for hate speech and “incitement to hate and discriminate” because of his own film “Fitna” – a charge he was later acquitted of.
The whole issue is best described by the comedian Steve Hughes: “What happens if you say that and someone gets offended?  Well they can be offended!  When did ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ stop being relevant?  Isn’t that what you teach children for God’s sake? [...] How do you make a law without offending people? How do you make an offense to offend people? Being offended is subjective… what offends me may not offend you, and you want to make laws about this?”  The United Nations may be inclined to over the next week, and if passed, we may see more laws threatening or overriding freedom of expression, even here in Bellevue.

Renting Textbooks

Bellevue College students, having long suffered the high prices of new-edition textbooks, are increasingly choosing a new option that saves time, energy and space: renting. Both BC’s own bookstore and websites like Chegg.com are now offering a selection of textbooks to rent for a fraction of the price of purchase. It’s no wonder that book sales are dropping off as text-lending becomes more commonplace.  However, some people have their doubts about whether this is a change for the better or worse.
Some students feel that holding on to textbooks can be useful later on.  “I would not say that renting textbooks is good for classes in your major,” says Joey Chemis, a student of actuarial science.  “You don’t know—often in studying for my actuarial exams or just helping people with their homework […] I had to rely on old mathematics books.  I am glad I purchased and kept every one of my math books.”  College coursework is a valuable and an expensive investment, and the resources found in the textbooks may be the only ties back to the education purchased and toiled over in years down the road, especially in a field of study one plans on utilizing in their career.
There is the financial question too.  While renting course-material is cheaper than buying it outright, book-buybacks and reselling used texts on sites like Craigslist can compensate for the difference.   Sage Kelly, a student of Environmental Science, shared that buying textbooks was better than renting because she was able to purchase her books used and resell them at prices close to what she bought them for. “If you bought it used in the first place, you’re spending less money when you buy then when you rent.”  Not to mention the fact that there is no need to worry about due dates for rentals, which can often coincide with the busiest week of the quarter—finals.
Others say that renting actually saves money, which outweighs any benefits of keeping books.  For example, it’s nearly impossible to buy a new or recent edition textbook and expect to sell it back for a similar price.  Similarly, some textbooks go out of use by professors (often because a new edition came out), and the textbook becomes nearly worthless as a result.  In either case, renting saves substantial amounts of money.  Christopher Pascale, a contributing author for the consumer-education site Suite101, saved over $1,200 in a span of only ten textbooks by renting them instead of buying.  “Using these numbers alone, if a student was able to rent just half of the textbooks she needed over the course of 120 credit hours, she could save approximately $2,500!”  If students aren’t planning on returning to their books in the future, the savings of 50 to 80 percent on course material could easily outweigh the lost privileges of underlining and highlighting the pages.  Given that most classes use relatively new texts, students are more likely to save by renting than by purchasing.
Regardless of the pros and cons, one thing is certain—renting is on the rise.  According to the Book Industry Study Group, 11 percent of students nation-wide now rent their books.  “I’ve had nothing but good experiences renting textbooks,” says John Dazey, a Philosophy major at BC and aspiring lawyer.  The trend seems to indicate that his sentiment reflects most other BC student’s views on the question of whether to purchase or rent textbooks.