Jun 24, 2008

Martin Amis, Ian McEwan et al: Blitcons and Islamism

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Martin Amis had some harsh words for Muslims in his essay, The Age of Horrorism. Amis has his supporters - notably novelist Ian McEwan and author Christopher Hitchens. Both have defended him against charges of racism.

There's nothing terribly surprising about what Amis had to say. He was simply stating what a lot of his fellow countrymen think. What is surprising is that those who share Amis' bigoted views have managed to keep the zipper on it for so long.

England is and always has been infected with deep seated class-based prejudices and ingrained racism. Muslims are just the latest addition to the list of bogeymen.

The Irish have long been the recipients of practiced condescension. When the IRA was perceived as the number one threat, the Irish-in-England were the targets of the type of suspicion and hostility now reserved for Muslims. None of that was particularly new incidentally, the Irish have been the favorite whipping boys of the English for ages. Less than a century ago you could come across cartoons in Punch magazine that depicted the Irish as ape-like hoodlums, wielding obligatory shillelaghs.

So when Martin Amis took the lid off a very old can, there wasn't a lot that was surprising - we're just dealing with a new scapegoat. His disparaging views of Muslims, Islamists in particular, prompted an old friend Eric Alterman to pose the question: "When did Martin Amis – whose early journalism is among the best I've ever read – become such a jerk?" It looks as though Amis may be infected with the Mark Steyn virus. Its highly contagious these days.

This is a sampling of Amis' complaints and nostrums for misbehaving Muslims:


The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children...


It would help if the author's understanding of Islam inspired confidence. Even his mate Hitchens has commented that Amis incorrectly conflates Islamism with Islam. He also appears to have a rather vague understanding of the distinctions within Islam. He describes Sunnis as 'legalistic' and refers to the Shia as 'dreamers, more poetic and emotional' - a description more suited to Sufis.

The English, or at least a significant number of them, simply don't get it. Despite hurtling downhill from their perch at the head of an Empire, they continue to incubate a type of conditioning that doesn't wear off easily after centuries of viewing the non-English part of the human family as various species of underling.

Unlike English Christians, those Muslims who have come to be known in recent times as Islamists, didn't lord it over two fifths of the globe for the better part of two centuries. They didn't engage in the imperial exploitation of native peoples on the major continents, nor did they create a mercantile system geared to exploiting and ripping-off overseas resources in order to enrich the merchant classes back home. That honor goes to the Christian English.

A new book by Amitav Ghosh titled Sea of Poppies, explores the role of the British in the Indian opium trade. Ghosh brings to light much new information that had been whitewashed, including the truth that the Raj in India was essentially financed by the opium trade.

Novelist, Ian McEwan, recently chimed in claiming in an interview with the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, that he 'despises Islamism'.

Of course Islamism does have totalitarian inclinations. It is a male-dominated culture. It is doctrinaire and legalistic. But McEwan fails to mention that a great many European Muslims don't necessarily share those values.

Making Muslims the target of scorn and suspicion is somewhat ironic when you look at the social mayhem in communities in the UK that are mostly white and Christian. Take Corby in Northants as an example. The ethnic breakdown in Corby is 98.4% white. Asian or Asian British 0.6%. On the religious front 69.4% Christian and 0.2% Muslim.

Residents of Corby have complained for years about delinquent behavior that includes arson attacks, car theft, fire bombings, street fights and drunken youths yelling at all hours of the day and night. A resident of Corby named Jane Colman who was interviewed by the London Telegraph secures her front door with two bolts, a chain and a Yale lock. There is much about English society that could be tagged 'uncivilized' and not a lot of it has to do with Muslims.

Amis overstates the case and undermines his credibility by focusing on the Muslim community in such a prejudicial fashion. He has been overly influenced by those who have made it their business to hype the threat posed by Islam to European civilization.

Theories about a global Islamist network have been wildly exaggerated. Hitchens' talk of "Islamofascism" feeds into the type of paranoid mindset that promotes views of the war-on-terror that are really little more than the stuff of fantasy. One of the best books of recent years that takes aim at the poppycock and nonsense churned out by the Bush administration is R.T. Naylor's "Satanic Purses: Money, Myth and Misinformation in the War on Terror."

Jun 23, 2008

Child labour in India: Primark under fire

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Last year the Gap came under fire for the use of child labour in the supply end of its Indian operation. This year Primark stands accused of using Indian child labour. In the UK attention was drawn to Primark's underage workers by the BBC program Panorama and by protests organized by War On Want.

Primark suppliers in the Tirapur region of Nadu province were sub-contracting embroidery work to child workers. Primark claims it wasn't aware this was going on and fired three suppliers for "failing to meet its strict ethical standards."

As is usually the case, these companies are quick to step up to the plate when the light of public scrutiny is directed at their supplier and sub-contracting practices.

Investigations have revealed an underworld of sweatshops in India where young children are forced to toil in Dickensian-like conditions. There are estimated to be 15,000 garment factories in New Delhi. The back alleys of Delhi, for example in the Shahpur Jat neighborhood, are host to sweatshops where children toil in appalling conditions, often working 15 hour days in cramped filthy rooms. These kids are frequently obliged to sleep on the same floor where they work. Some are as young as 10. Many come from poor rural families. In some cases the parents are tricked by agents who offer false promises that aren't fulfilled.

The phenomenon of "bonded child labour" also comes into play. Loans are offered to the parents in order to secure the labour of the child. The children are then used to pay off the debts.These loans are usually quite small relatively speaking - in the 500 to 7,000 rupee range - but nonetheless difficult to pay back, especially given the high interests rates involved. The debt becomes an invisible lock and key, turning the child into a virtual slave.

Bonded labour was outlawed by the 1956 U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

Child labour isn't a minor deviation from garment industry standards in India. It's a systemic problem that is so embedded in the sweatshop circuit, most companies are kidding themselves if they think their sub-contractors are immune to the temptations. Sub-contractors want to maximize their profits and are prepared to cut corners, including turning a blind eye.

The repeated exposure of child labour situations in India, raises serious questions about whether or not companies can be trusted to police themselves. Many activists familiar with the situation believe governments need to take a more active role by introducing legislation along with penalties as a deterrent against child exploitation in the supply end of the garment industry.

The Indian government has been dragging its feet on the child labour problem for years - a problem that isn't just a sweatshop concern. Throughout India children are used in many different sectors of the economy. Government figures suggest that up to 13 million children are in forced labour situations, although this is regarded as a gross under-estimate by activists. Some NGO's have put the number of Indian working children as high as 60 million. In 2006, the Indian government took limited steps to expand laws against child labour. Much more needs to be done.

There have been some positive responses by the garment industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) is an alliance of labour unions and non-governmental organizations. It was formed in the Netherlands in 1990 and operates in 11 European countries.The organization lobbies for stronger worker protection legislation.

There are some who argue that in a developing economy child labour is unavoidable. This argument places the imperatives of supply and demand economics above the welfare of the child. What possible way is there it justify a ten year old forced to work 15 hour days in a crowded workshop, cut off from family and the normal activities associated with childhood, often under the burden of a debt?

You can sign a petition here to at least add your voice to the outcry against child labour practices.

Wow you look like a real winner in those

Child labor in India - fashion industry

Jun 22, 2008

John Freshwater: teacher fired for branding students

John Freshwater

Before 8th grade science teacher John Freshwater was accused of using a high frequency generator to burn crosses on his students' arms, there were warning signs that indicated he had his own classroom agenda.

Freshwater's school is located in central Ohio and falls under the jurisdiction of the Mount Vernon school board. The district's director of teaching and learning, Lynda Weston, told investigators that she had received complaints about Freshwater for much of the 11 years she has been with the district.

Freshwater kept a Bible on his desk and is alleged to have taught students the ten commandments. When he was ordered to remove the Bible, he argued that the order violated his first amendment rights. In addition to preaching in his science class, there are claims that Freshwater instructed his students that homosexuality is sinful and cast doubts on the theory of evolution - calling into question the accuracy of carbon dating.

An article in the Newark Advocate describes the device Freshwater used to burn the crosses on the arms of his students:

According to a parent complaint, John Freshwater used an electrostatic device to burn crosses onto students' arms. One of the students said the pain was so severe it prevented him from sleeping at night.

The cross-burning happened during an eighth-grade science class," Attorney Jessica Philemon told 10TV. "It happened with a science machine that uses an electric shock to cause a burn, and the teacher chose to burn a cross onto John Doe's forearm.


The school board decided this week in a 5-0 vote to go ahead with Freshwater's firing. Given the teacher's history, it's surprising the board took so much time and deliberation in order to arrive at this decision. What is there to discuss? Judging from testimony and photo evidence, the teacher branded kids with a religious symbol and had long been using his classroom as a pulpit. Under the circumstances, the surprising part is that he has been free to teach for as long as he has.

In conservative Ohio, Freshwater has Christian backers. On occasion they have rallied in support of him. The public input seems to be one of the reasons the board has been slow to show Freshwater the door

Jun 15, 2008

Hicham Yezza: war-on-terrorism overkill

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Hicham Yezza is a 30 year old Algerian academic employed at Nottingham University's School of Modern Languages in the UK. On May 14, Yezza and a postgrad student at the University named Rizwaan Sabir, were arrested by the West Midlands Counter Terrorist Unit and Nottinghamshire police following a tip from a member of staff. The pair were accused of downloading and printing a 1,500 page 'Al Qaeda training manual' from a US government website.

The downloaded material was freely available. Sabir was conducting legitimate research into radical Islamist movements and was receiving help in his research from Hicham Yezza. Sabir's tutors confirm that it was aboveboard academic research.

The men were held for six days and released without charge on May 20. Yezza was then re-arrested because of alleged 'irregularities' in his visa status. Subsequently he was taken to the Coinbrook Immigration Removal Center. The case has been shrouded in silence, with the Home Office and police declining comment.

The First Post describes Hicham Yezza as a well liked active member of the University community:

Yezza has lived in Nottingham for 13 years and is a popular figure on the university campus, where he earned his degree and a PhD in mechanical engineering. He is also a member of a popular theatrical dance troupe and a regular visitor to the Hay-On-Wye literary festival, where he would have gone this week had it not been for his arrest.

None of this is obvious al-Qaeda material. But Yezza is also a longtime peace activist and the editor of a student magazine Ceasefire. Did this political activity qualify him for deportation in the eyes of the authorities? Or has Yezza become a suitably suspicious foreigner, whose removal is intended to deflect attention from a botched investigation?


Students and staff members have rallied in support of Yezza. They staged a protest at his deportation hearing and expressed concern about the threat to academic freedom when arrests can be made on such flimsy evidence. Some at the protest read out excerpts from the training manual to underscore their point.

'Hich,' as he is known to his friends spoke to the BBC by mobile phone from the Colnbrook immigration detention center. He said he was disappointed with his arrest under the Terrorism Act:

Anyone who knows me, knows what I've done for Nottingham, for the university and the community would have taken less than six minutes to tell that I have nothing to do with terrorism. (I) have never had anything to do with terrorism and more than that I've been a big, big campaigner against terrorism and against extremists during my time at university. It's extremely upsetting. A country as great and fantastic as Britain cannot afford to have this kind of climate and threat loom over its academic institutions.


Yezza's deportation has been canceled and his immigration case is under review. A bail hearing is scheduled for Monday, June 16.

On the face of it this looks like a major faux pas on the part of the authorities. When they realized they had nothing much to go on, it appears they looked for a way out by engineering 'a result.' War-on-terror paranoia and overreaction risks becoming a greater threat to free societies than terrorism itself. The last thing we need is a big brother mentality on University campuses and the fear of falling under suspicion for merely exercising academic freedom.

Notorious Al Qaeda assassin


Jun 14, 2008

Gore Vidal in fighting form

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal hasn't mellowed with advancing years. Far from it, if anything he is more combative and irascible than ever.

He was interviewed recently by Stephen Sackur on the BBC program Hardtalk. Vidal came close to pulling the rug out from under Sackur, who at times appeared to be at a loss for words in the face of his guest's wonderfully cutting responses. Gore Vidal has lost none of his chops.

During the interview he said that "the sun is setting on imperial America" and was scathing in his condemnation of Bush.

In an earlier interview with Amy Goodman he was equally pointed when it came to his views of the Bush years. Ms Goodman started out by asking Vidal for his thoughts on this election year and on the last eight years of George W. Bush in the White House.

GORE VIDAL: Well, it isn’t over yet. You know, he could still blow up the world. There’s every indication that he’s still thinking about attacking Iran: ‘And the generals are now reporting that the Iranians are a great danger and their weapons are being used to kill Americans.’

I mean, you know, I think, quite rightly, the Bushites think that the American people are idiots. They don’t get the point to anything. There are two good reasons for this, the public educational system for people, kids without money, let’s say, to put it tactfully, is one of the worst in the first world. It’s just terrible. And they end by knowing no history, certainly no American history.

AMY GOODMAN: ... here we are, moved into the sixth year of the war with Iraq, longer than the US was involved in World War II.

GORE VIDAL: Yes, incredible. That was such a huge operation on two great continents against two modern enemies. And we’re fighting little jungle wars for no reason, because we have a president who knows nothing about anything. He’s just blank. But he wants to show off: ‘I’m a wartime president! I’m a wartime president!’ He goes yap, yap, yap. He’s like a crazed terrier. And look where he got us ...

They—Cheney, Bush—they wanted the war. They’re oilmen. They want a war to get more oil. They’re also extraordinarily stupid. These people don’t know anything about anything. But they have this—there’s a thick piece of—sheet of—a thick series of actions to be taken, among others—I think one of them was to lock up every person of color in the United States in order to protect us from the enemy within. It was evil stuff. So they latched onto that. I guess Mr. Gonzales was already in place by then. And that was the coup d’etat. They seized the state. And from that moment on, they were appointing all the judges, they were doing this, they were doing that, they got rid of Magna Carta—I will not explain what that is a second time—and they broke the republic.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of torture?

GORE VIDAL: Oh, everything was in there, yes. The USA PATRIOT Act is just the unnatural child of the Clinton ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something about these wild men in Montana.’

(break)

AMY GOODMAN: How did we get to be so hated, Gore Vidal?

GORE VIDAL: Well, there are many odious traits that Americans have that the rest of the world doesn’t like. Constant boasting with not much to boast about, that gets on other people’s nerves. The idea that, somehow or other, the whole world belongs to us and everybody should do what we tell them to do, they don’t really like that. Weird, but they don’t. There has never been a people less suited for world dominion than the Americans of the twentieth century and twenty-first century.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you write more about Bush?

GORE VIDAL: Of course not. I’ve written too much already. I mean, it’s a non-subject.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you want to be remembered?

GORE VIDAL: I don’t give a goddamn.


The above are key excerpts - for the full interview click here.

Jun 12, 2008

Islam and virginity: hymen repair controversy

hymen repair

The decision of a French court in Lille to annul a Muslim marriage because the wife was not a virgin has sparked anger in France. It has ignited a reaction from secularists who view the ruling as a threat to "French values." French Urban Affairs Minister, Fadela Amara, went so far as to say that the the ruling constitutes "a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women."

The ruling also highlights the challenges faced by many Muslim women in France who have become more western in lifestyle while still retaining close connections with the traditional Islamic values upheld by their families. The tension arising from this, is never so intense than when it comes to matters of family honor, particularly as it relates to the importance of a daughter's virginity when entering into matrimony.

It isn't unusual for prospective brides to be required to provide evidence of virginity. In some cases women have been required to go for gynecological exams in order to determine virginity status.

Some women are so concerned about the prospect of bringing dishonor to the family and becoming objects of scorn, that they undergo an operation called a "hymenoplasty." This is a procedure that reconstructs the hymen, the thin membrane usually broken during intercourse. The cost of becoming a faux virgin varies, but in a private clinic in Paris it can cost around $3,000. It should be pointed out that the procedure in France is still relatively rare, as compared to the Middle East and Latin America for example.

The Lille annulment created an uproar because critics view it as a threat to the rights of women. They see it as equating marriage with a commercial transaction that makes the woman appear more like goods that come with a contract, rather than a human being with dignity and value that goes beyond the mere fact of her virgin status. Justice Minister, Racheda Dati, has announced that the government will be appealing the ruling.

Some of the reaction to the Lille decision has been over-the-top. Some of it has also been fomented by those who seek any excuse to cast Islam in a negative light. To call it a move toward sharia law as some have done, is ridiculous. In fact seen from the woman's perspective the court did her a favor by annulling her marriage to a much older man who lacked the class to keep matters of the marriage bed private.

Article 180 of the French Civil Code allows for such annulments to take place if a partner fails to fulfill an "essential" part of the pre-marriage arrangement. In the Lille case it was the honesty of the bride that was in question. The ruling wasn't addressing virginity as an "essential quality" of marriage. Couples of other religions have used Article 180 to obtain annulments in the past.

A number of French Muslims have expressed sympathy for the woman in this case. Abdelkibir Errami, vice president of the Islamic Center of Roubaix, close to Lille where the marriage took place, had this to say:

The man is the biggest of all the donkeys. Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.

Jun 10, 2008

McCain campaign: snubbed by musicians

McCain and Chuck Berry

The power-of-rock helps to propel presidential candidates toward the big house. What is more energizing than taking the stage at a town hall or arena to the sounds of a rock anthem with inspirational lyrics. A power anthem pumps up the adrenalin and gets supporters hopping. It also becomes a musical talisman of sorts, helping to boost the fortunes of the campaign.

Barack Obama appears on-stage to the big sound of U2's "Beautiful Day." An apt choice for the candidate of change.

For some odd reason the McCain campaign selected John Cougar Mellencamp's Pink Houses as a possible anthem. Apparently some on the campaign thought the lyrics fitted with McCain's reputation as a maverick with conservative convictions. In fact the song is about wasted potential. The term "pink" might also have risky connotations, given the Senator's rep.

Mellencamp backed John Edwards for president. When the rocker discovered that Pink Houses was slated to go stumping for the GOP, he refused permission for its use.

In what seemed like a sure bet, the McCain people lighted on the theme tune from Rocky. This seemed like a go because the use of the tune was sanctioned by the head of MGM, a McCain backer. It turned out though that MGM doesn't own the rights to the track.

The McCain team also used Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll classic, Go, Johnny, Go. A snag arose when it became known that Chuck Berry, now 81, would much prefer to see Barack Obama in the White House.

They didn't fare any better with Abba. The campaign used the hit song Take a Chance On Me, but when the band found out about it they were none too thrilled. As McCain himself put it: "... it's my understanding (Abba) went beserk."

Perhaps a more apt choice would have been Waterloo.

Jun 8, 2008

Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete: literary porn with a difference

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Charlotte Roche's first book, Feuchtgebiete (which roughly translates as "wetlands"), has sold half a million copies in Germany and is an Amazon worldwide bestseller.

Granta recently posted an interview with Ms Roche that provides some background on the writer who although well known in Germany, is a relative newcomer to British and American readers:

Thirty-year-old Charlotte Roche, born in High Wycombe (UK) but raised in Germany, has been a recognizable face in her adopted home country since she started working as a presenter on Viva, the German equivalent of MTV, in the mid-1990s. She went on to write and present programmes and late-night talk shows for Arte and ZDF, and won the highly respected Grimme Prize for television in 2004.


Feuchtgebiete has been described by some reviewers as "literary porn." Roche is okay with this description, although she points out that it is "more than just porn."

Feuchtgebiete is clever and subversive in the unspoken questions it poses. It presents a view of the female body that is the antithesis of the hygiene and image obsessed "ideal" of popular culture. Roche associates this phony image with 'the Americanization of the female' body. She has described her book as 'a cri de coeur against the oppression of a waxed, shaved, douched and otherwise sanitized women’s world.'

The narrator in Feuchtgebiete is an 18 year old named Helen Memel. She ends up in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Maria Hilf Hospital after an unsuccessful attempt to shave her intimate parts.

Readers are taken on a candid exploration of the female body in all its raw reality with no effort to spare the sensibilities of the easily shocked. There are descriptions of hemorrhoids, anal intercourse, masturbation and the use of avocado pits as sexual aids. There are scatological and genital descriptions that can get pretty graphic.

Repulsion acts as a sort of antidote to the porno reflex - or as Roche puts it:

For a start, it’s not really sexy, it’s also quite disgusting. There are the haemorrhoids, Helen’s injury to her sphincter, and so on. So when you read the book and you get a bit too excited, you’ll immediately get turned off again. I wanted to present the whole package: women aren’t just a sexy presentation space, they also get ill, they have to go to the toilet, they bleed. If you love someone and sleep with them, you’ll have to face those dirty bits – otherwise you might as well not get started with the business of sex in the first place.


Memel's unsanitized reality speaks to a truth that gets buried in the rush to become ever more unnatural, ever more "perfect" in an effort to live up to the unreal standards of the image mafia.

Feuchtgebiete is an important book. It is by turns entertaining and amusing, but also repellent because some of the detail is so raw. On a subversive level it targets the cosmetic image that has become a trap for many young women. It is a brave book.

British publishers have been falling over themselves to get a piece of the action in what amounts to a bidding war. Word is a major UK deal is in the works along with a publicity campaign.

Jun 7, 2008

Ireland seems set to reject EU Lisbon treaty

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A few months ago in a post titled "Why Ireland should say no to Lisbon," I argued the con position on the EU treaty now before the Irish people. At the time it seemed that the Yes forces were destined to carry the day. However the tide has dramatically shifted, and it now appears that Ireland is likely to give the thumbs down to the treaty.

The Lisbon treaty is an amended version of the constitution for Europe that was rejected by the French and the Dutch in 2005. The new treaty retains many of the earlier institutional innovations, but critics have complained it is too complex, contains many loopholes and can't be easily understood by those unfamiliar with the sometimes obscure protocols and legalisms.

An Irish Times poll has shown a major shift in public opinion over recent weeks. Treaty opponents have doubled their support, going from 17 to 35%, while supporters of the treaty have slipped from 35 to 30%.

Ireland's governing and main opposition parties all support the treaty. They have been in panic mode at the prospect of a rejection.

A no vote on the Lisbon treaty shouldn't be read as a rejection of Europe - so much as a rejection of a bloated and out-of-touch Brussels bureaucracy and the very real threat the treaty poses to Irish control in areas such as tax and trade.

The Irish debate the EU Lisbon Treaty

The Irish debate the Lisbon Treaty

Jun 6, 2008

Air India flight attendants: a heavy judgment


An Indian court has ruled that Air India has the right to ground its flight attendants for being overweight. The court was responding to a case brought by five air hostesses who had been grounded for being a few pounds over Air India's scale limit.

A previous court edict urged female flight attendants to "battle their bulge" and "control their girth." A judge also offered the controversial opinion in one case that "It is universally accepted that overweight people have a tendency to suffer from diseases."

Air India has been known to be picky when it comes to cosmetic requirements. Not so long ago the airline said it wouldn't consider applicants with acne and bad teeth.

Air India spokesperson, Jitender Bhargava, claims that a "scientific" system is used to determine weight standards for flight attendants. The airline calculates weight according to an employee's height and age. For example an 18 year old hostess with a height of 152 cm is allowed to be 50kg. For hostesses in the 26 to 30 age group who stand 152 cm, the limit would be 56 kg.

In past cases air hostesses and their lawyers have argued that these rulings by Air India are a breach of the right to livelihood, amounting to "arbitrary discrimination." Hostesses have complained that the airline is abandoning its vision of the 'Indian female ideal' in favor of the westernized skinny look - which is seen by many female staff as 'unattainable.'

The competition for air travelers in India is fierce. Some airlines use their hostesses as bait to lure customers. Kingfisher Airlines features model-like hostesses in short red skirts with matching heels as part of its promotion. Spicejet is known for its 'Spice Girls' in hip hugging skirts and heels.

It's hard to avoid the perception that there is a pronounced element of sexism in the way some Indian employers deal with female staff, and not just in the airline sector. Not long ago I posted about female civil servants in India who were required to provide information about their periods.

There may be a legitimate argument that overweight flight attendants could pose health and safety concerns, however Air India's high handed approach to its hostesses also suggests that there is an attitude toward women that badly needs an adjustment.

Jun 3, 2008

The Clintons:Todd Purdum and a nasty campaign

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Todd Purdum, has been widely criticized for his article The Comeback Id that paints an unflattering portrait of Bill Clinton. Chief among the outraged is Bill Clinton himself who recently described Purdum as "sleazy," "dishonest," "slimy," and "a scumbag."

Cinton complained that the article includes "lies" (which Clinton doesn't identify), that the article fails to cite sources and includes anonymous quotes.

Clinton insinuated in an interchange with Mayhill Fowler of the Huffington Post that there is a conspiracy at work:

It's part of the national media's attempt to nail Hillary for Obama. It's just the most biased press coverage in history. It's another way of helping Obama. They had all these people standing up in this church cheering, calling Hillary a white racist, and he didn't do anything about it. The first day he said 'Ah, ah, ah well.' Because that's what they do-- he gets other people to slime her.

Obama has been generous in his praise of Hillary in the final stages of the primary campaign and as things stand she may figure prominently in future appointments. But that's the nature of politics. That said, there are many American Democrats who will not easily forget the tactics the Clintons employed in the course of the campaign.

Jun 2, 2008

Facebook: "a minefield of privacy invasion"

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The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) has filed a complaint against Facebook with Canada's Privacy Commissioner. The substance of the complaint is that Facebook collects sensitive information about users and employs it without their permission.

There are legitimate security concerns with Facebook use
, also with the site's lack of transparency. Privacy protection options aren't always spelled out clearly. Facebook's claim that "we pride ourselves on the industry leading controls we offer users over their private information," doesn't tell the whole story.

The outcry over Beacon is an example of Facebook's controversial data mining practices.

Facebook is partnered with sites such as Blockbuster, Fandango, Kongregate, Vox, NY Times, TypePad and others. Thanks to the miracle of javascript, these sites are in a position to relay info to Facebook in the form of a "user alert." Users online purchases show up on their news feed. Great eh! Some poor innocent who purchased sex toys, leather underwear or other racy items online risks having the info show up on his/her social graph. Exactly the type of info a person would want to share with the extended family.

Facebook has since responded to pressure from groups such as Move.On Org. and has changed some settings so that off-line purchases aren't published by default. However data is still transferred from affiliated sites to Facebook and there isn't much users can do about it.

Why does it require a major uproar to get Facebook to act? They weren't as up-front about Beacon as they could have been. Their page about Beacon was more or less a PR exercise, hyping the cool aspects while understating privacy concerns. It's hardly surprising some users felt they had been overexposed.

A lot of Facebook users are students, some in their early teens. Not all will be sufficiently tech-savvy to use their setting options to maximum advantage. The Canadian study accuses Facebook of "deceiving its users" and this applies most of all to those users who have vulnerability issues as a result of lack of knowledge.

Harley Finklestein, who took part in the Canadian study pointed out some of his concerns:

Our investigation found that ... even if you select the strongest privacy settings, your information may be shared more widely if your Facebook Friends have lower privacy settings ... As well, if you add a third-party application offered on Facebook, you have no choice but to let the application developer access all your information even if they don't need it.


The director of the Canadian clinic, Phillipa Lawson, has described Facebook and similar social networking sites as "a minefield of privacy invasion:"

Facebook promotes itself as a social utility, but it's also involved in commercial activities like targeted advertising. Facebook users need to know that when they're signing up to Facebook, they're signing up to share their information with advertisers.


On its part, Facebook emphasized the voluntary nature of data sharing on the part of its users:

We've reviewed the complaint and found it has serious factual errors, most notably its neglect of the fact that almost all Facebook data is willingly shared by users.


Earlier this year Facebook introduced new tools that give more privacy options, for example the ability to choose which groups of friends get to see photos and other personal information.

Problems still remain when it comes to privacy issues. One of the most annoying drawbacks for many users is the inability to simply terminate an account. This raises the concern that users' data will remain indefinitely on Facebook's servers.

Not so friendly

Facebook friend is not so friendly