CivLib Sorbet: Tim Minchin on the open mind.

I'm going to be doing another update on the terrible Communication Data Bill soon, so as a sorbet to freshen the palate here is Tim Minchin on the terrors or too open mind, featuring three of Skeptobots top peeves.

UK citizens spend 5 minutes to keep your freedoms - step 2 how to complain about the Communications Data Bill.

This is step 2 - If you don't know what has been announced today read step 1. If you realise the scale of the attack on your freedoms today read on - how to complain to your MP from within your browser, in less than 5 minutes.

This text is released to the public domain (obviously) you are actively encouraged to steal it, edit it, improve it, forward it, rehost it and share it. If you spot any mistakes or possible improvements please leave a comment.

How to complain:

  1. Read Step 1 if you are not convinced.
  2. Click this link to go to WriteToThem
  3. Enter your postcode. Don't worry who run the site are lovely, safe and non-evil.
  4. It will find your Councilors, MP, MEP and so on. Click on the name of your MP.
  5. Add your name and address (be truthful, fake addresses will get the email junked)
  6. Write your letter of complaint about today's announcement.
  7. Check the spelling and grammar, click preview and send.
  8. Confirm your address in your email account.
  9. Go and sign the petition in the same way (thanks Labrat)
And you are done!

Next Steps

Now spread the word to your friends get them to do the same. If you are too busy or lazy to make your own case forward a link to this page to your friends. Or just copy and paste it into an email. Or paste it into your own website and claim it as your own. Improve upon it. Edit it, cut out the important bits. There is no vanity and acclaim wanted here. Steal this content and spread it.

Advice on writing a good letter:
  • First and foremost writing anything is better than nothing. A single line saying you oppose the Communications Data bill, is infinitely better than not sending anything. The more people who email the stronger they will gauge public opinion to be against this. However if you have more time do the following...
  • Make it clear in no uncertain terms that they will lose your vote in the coming election if they support this bill in any shape and form. (Obviously don't mention that you didn't vote for them last time if that's the case). This normally rattles them and gets you a reply about how nice they are really.
  • Request a response. Add something like "please respond clarifying your position on this." Lots of them pretend that if they are not asked directly then no response is needed.
  • Don't insult them, sound like a die hard fan that is going to turn to the other side over this. They don't care if some hippy/yuppie still dislikes them, they only care about their voter base, so pretend to be a fawning fan.
  • State that you read about the plans for the Communications Data Bill and that you consider it an assault on your civil liberties and thus unacceptable. Then explain that as your representative you wish your MP to take every action available to prevent this plan coming to fruition. His job is to represent you after all.
  • Don't assume they are for the bill and attack them personally, focus purely on the bill, your MP might agree with you!
  • Look at the example letters below, but don't use them verbatim, as that will merely activate the mass mailing filters and get your email trashed.
  • MPs are often too old to really understand the internet. Don't use jargon, and if you are good enough, try to explain why the internet needs to stay as it is.
Example Short Letter


I've recently become aware of the Communications Data Bill announced on Thursday. A database recording enough of our actions to trace every member of our society to an extent unprecedented in any democratic country. This is outrageous enough to warrant what is typically the hyperbole term 'Orwellian.' I fear that as most MPs are too old to have grown up with the internet they do not fully grasp the nature of their actions.

As my representative in Parliament I wish for you to strongly oppose this plan in every way available to you.

Please respond stating what your views of this plan are, and what actions you will take to oppose (or support) them. As, despite being a fan of yours, this is the final straw. Labours continued assaults on my civil liberties is enough for them to lose my vote in the coming election. In fact it is seriously making me consider voting Tory in the next election, despite the widespread damage it would cause, just to ensure essential civil liberties are preserved. Voting Tory was idea unthinkable until recently, but I will no longer support you if you support this plan.

Yours sincerely,
See I've used voting Tory as a threat. Make it clear that you would go to any length to avoid this happening.

Example Long Letter

Dear Mr MP,

Yesterday the Home Secretary announced plans for a huge central database to retain details of who contacted whom online, where and when.

This will constitute a database recording enough of our actions to trace every member of our society. To know who our friends are, what we buy online, what we believe in politically or religiously, what our sexual preferences are. The level of insight into our private lives this will give to the users of the database will be frighteningly wide.

The prospect of such an Orwellian tool being provided to the government raises a number of specific and important questions:

(1) Lord Carlile, the government's own independent scrutineer of counter-terror legislation, has warned that "the raw idea [of a central database] is dreadful. The devil will be in the detail." He has warned against the misuse of this database for "fishing expeditions" whereby the users of the database will mine the data, for anything of interest, no matter how minor. If this database is created, how will access to this database be controlled, and such patent misuse of this panoply of information be prevented?

(2) Ms Smith has said that "nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation." However, a similar promise was made in relation to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - quote "...such legislation is required to combat terrorism and its use will be restricted to such terrorist related cases..." . As we all know, RIPA is now routinely used by local authorities in respect of such weighty matters as school catchment areas, dog fouling and use of dustbins. What assurances can we possibly have that the same will not happen with this new tool?

(3) How does the government intend to meaningfully mine the mind-bogglingly large amount of data that this scheme would amass every single day? It simply will not happen. This will create a very, very big haystack with a very small number of interesting activities and we don't even know if they are the needles the security services want. We will not therefore be able to identify new terrorist threats from this pile of data. What, then, is the point?

(4) Quite aside from the threat that this database poses to the innocent populace, I would also question its necessity. In her speech, Jacqui Smith noted that since 2004 communications data has been used "as important evidence in 95 per cent of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations". Such a statistic raises the question of why more powers are needed. With Ms Smith herself stating that the current measures are actually good enough to provide a good rate of conviction, why do we need another expensive set of potentially intrusive and probably functionally useless monitoring tools?

(5) Finally, what assurances can we have that this vast store of data will not be mislaid in the same manner as the now embarrassingly large catalogue of data handling failures that have occurred under this government? The government seems unable to cope with the databases it has now, so how can it possibly hope to ensure the security of the contents of a database containing the details of every single phone call, internet access and mobile text message sent by the 60 million citizens of this country?

As my representative in Parliament I therefore wish for you to strongly oppose this plan in every way available to you. As such I would request that you please respond stating what your views of this plan are, and what actions you will take to oppose them.

Despite being a Labour supporter and a fan of yours, this is the final straw. Labour's continued assaults on our civil liberties are enough to lose them my vote in the coming election. I am now seriously considering voting Conservative in the next election, despite the widespread damage a Tory government would otherwise cause, just to ensure essential civil liberties are preserved. Voting Tory was a repellent idea until recently, but I will no longer support you if you support this plan.

Yours sincerely,

The original version of this letter was written by 'Mr Chris' to his MP. As he is excellent. Be sure to edit any letter you base on it to ensure you do not set of duplication filters and stop all this mail being read.

UK citizens spend 5 minutes to keep your freedoms - step 1 making the case

This is step 1 - making the case. If you don't know what has been announced today read on. If you realise the scale of the attack on your freedoms today skip ahead to step 2 - how to complain to your MP from within your browser, in less than 5 minutes.

This text is released to the public domain (obviously) you are actively encouraged to steal it, edit it, improve it, forward it, rehost it and share it.

Today Home Secretary Jacqui Smith finally announced the Communications Data Bill in order to make the largest Orwellian communication database ever seen in a free country. Terrifyingly this isn't hyperbole. This new plan will do the following (commentary in italics, sources in square brackets):

  • The Government will record the times, dates, duration and locations of mobile phone calls, numbers called (previously they had to go get those details when required off the company concerned). [1] This means they will triangulate your location everytime you use your phone to contact a cell tower.
  • The Government will record every website you visit and every address you email. (Previously they had to go get those details when required off the company concerned). [1] The Gov having a record of every site you've ever visited is ridiculously open to abuse, exploitation and blackmail - if I need to explain to you why, then you've not used the internet for more than about an hour. Also considering the amount of dataleaks we've had imagine if your viewing habits were made public.
  • Will be kept for two years. [1] To begin with remember.
  • As currently planned it won't keep the content of your emails, texts or chats. [1] (Obviously, once the database exists that is mearly baby steps away, and if they know the html address of where you are visiting the content your upload is easily obtained.)
  • Security and intelligence agencies, and other public bodies, will be allowed access personal data using a wide range of internet sites, including social and gaming networks [2] (Basically they want access to your facebook, that way they can know all your friends - so much so that a Whitehall security official source said "People have many accounts and sign up as Mickey Mouse and no one knows who they are", a senior Whitehall security source said. He added: "We have to do something." Seems anonimity on the web shouldn't be allowed anymore.)
  • Remember there is also a seperate database (coming online this january) to record 50,000,000 car number plates a day. Cameras will pinpoint the precise time and location of all vehicles on the road. Initally senior officers promised the data would be kept for two years. But after a Freedom of Information Act request the Home Office has admitted the data is now being kept for five years. [3] This is not the actions of a free country.

Right, if this bothers you (and it should) go straight to step 2, and complain. It will take 5 mins of your time, and you don't have to leave your browser.

If it doesn't bother you and you think it's just some loons on the internet getting their knickers in a twist read some quotes from people who aren't loons on the internet:

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne [1] :
"The government's Orwellian plans for a vast database of our private communications are deeply worrying."

"Ministers claim the database will only be used in terrorist cases, but there is now a long list of cases, from the arrest of Walter Wolfgang for heckling at a Labour conference to the freezing of Icelandic assets, where anti-terrorism law has been used for purposes for which it was not intended."

"Our experience of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act suggests these powers will soon be used to spy on people's children, pets and bins.

"These proposals are incompatible with a free country and a free people."

Conservative Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve [1] :

"These proposals would mark a substantial shift in the powers of the state to obtain personal information on individuals," he said, adding: "The government must present convincing justification for such an exponential increase in the powers of the state."

The director of Privacy International, Simon Davies (on the car tracking database) [3] :
"extraordinary powers of surveillance"
"This would never be allowed in any other democratic country,"
"This is possibly one of the most valuable reserves of data imaginable."

[1] BBC News article -
[2] Guardian News article -
[3] Guardian News article -

Creative Commons License
UK citizens spend 5 minutes to keep your freedoms - step 1 making the case is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. As that appears to be the most lax license I can give this post. No Attribution needed. Remix, steal, just spread the word!

MyLifeMyID is going offline in a matter of hours - say goodbye.

I haven't got long but I've just found out that is going offline tomorrow after burning through the £76,000 it was given to ignore the opinion of the young. So this is your last chance to enjoy the almost consistant and universal derision the plan was given by web savvy 'youth of today.'

I'm in the process of trying to get a full backup of the site because I want to compare the official reports conclusions to the website. As unless they report massive universal dislike of the plan they'll be doing a lot of fudging.

If you can manage to rip a copy please let me know. Wget is letting me down at the minute thanks to their funny fancy web stuff.

Not a 'FIRST POST!!@1!!!' in sight

Skeptics in the Pub Review - Paul Taylor from Answers in Genesis

Last night I freed up enough time to go to the Skeptics in the pub meeting in that there London. It appears I managed to stay longer than one of the Skepchicks who had to walk out after the first few minutes. Giving the talk was Paul Taylor (thats him on the left) from the Answers in Genesis "peer reviewed" creationist journal (which I've talked about before). As such I thought I would try something a little different for Skeptobot and review it.

Firstly I have to admit I had a lot of respect for the guy in actually having the balls to turn up in front of so many skeptics and say the things he said. But man did he talk a lot of crap. Well spoken and with humour but still crap. The crap itself wasn't the problem, it was it's rate of change (dcrap/dt). I could go on for page after page breaking apart each and every slide (of which there was a lot), I could just focus on the areas I'm specialized in (his claim that the homogeneity of the Cosmic Microwave Background disproves the age of the universe, and Einsteins relativity allowing for 6000yrs to be long enough for the whole universe to reach what it looks like now). But that misses the bigger picture.

Indeed most people in the questions did pick their topic and try and hold him to account on it (I tried to talk about the CMB, stalker fans, but as the microphone went dead I panicked and rather than shout about relativity I ended up asking a rather awful question about which bible he believed in, and what set christian creation science ahead of other religions creation science). Most people did much better than me and hammered home individual points, but it still didn't matter.

Taylor had sprinted through Cosmology, Astrophysics, Timescales, Geology, The Fossil Record, Biology, Evolution, Education. For each one he explained how the evidence supported Creationism and moved on. Anyone trying to bring him to account on any of those topics was faced with 'I'm not an expert, and I don't pretend to be, I am a generalist, a populist' (paraphrased).

Now in this situation, that's fine. The audience is experienced with science enough to see the game he is playing. But what has scared me since is pondering on how that talk is normally used.

Taylor's main claim was that science is colored by the assumptions and beliefs you have going into it. And that the data supports an atheists view as equally as a creationists. Which is of course a ludicrous, but subtle perversion of what science is about. In reality he's just attempting to create the illusion of debate. That wonderful wedge strategy to get it taught in schools.

But what is worrying is that my take home message was how successful his shotgun approach to whole realm of science was. He typically gives church talks, presumably he races non-scientists through every sphere of science in 60mins and tries to plant a little seed of doubt in their mind about each area.

A skeptic can follow him up with weed killer and destroy each seed in turn with ease. But the effort it takes to plant a seed is so much less than the effort to remove it that you worry that enough will escape to leave that doubt in the publics mind.

And that, I suspect, is all he wants. It doesn't matter how many individual ideas come crashing down, as long as he can keep the pace up he can win.

Now how do we face that?

Skeptobot Video Rants #1 - Astrology

I wasn't going to put this on the site properly. It's a little too embarrassing and quite clearly a first attempt. But the absolute lack of content on the site for so long makes me feel like I deserve to be embarrassed.

Basically, the urge to play on the site whilst writing up the thesis meant that when someone asked me if I liked astrology I ranted a little about how it was terrible. Then in moment of procrastination I took that little bit of text and make a quick movie out of it. Mainly to learn how to use iMovie. This was the result:

What do you think? You can be harsh now. It's not a rant for a start...

Oh and anyone thinking I've put this here whilst the viewing figures for the site are at the lowest, allowing me to bury it before people return, is spot on.

Skeptobot is back, sorry about that.

And we are back. It's going to be relatively slow start up. Partly as I'm tying up the loose ends of my PhD but I'm also going to have to re-read the site to remember what it is exactly I do here. But yes, onwards and upwards. Expect updates at least weekly.

- I've just been working through the site's email address and I'm sure I've deleted at least 2 proper messages amongst the 100's of spam. So sorry if I don't get back to you.

Now to scroll down that old material a bit, here is an ad for something you most definitely should be going to.

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(The surprise guest is Rickie Gervais.)