Bad Lao Tzu meme adds to growing list of mis-identified quotes online

This bad meme is going the Internet rounds:

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” Lao Tzu

Well, although deep – if a bit saccharine – it’s not from the Tao Teh Ching, the only work that the Old Master (the literal translation of his name) ever produced.

The Tao Teh Ching is a notoriously difficult book to translate. Although it consists of a mere 5,000 Chinese characters, translations can vary wildly. Compare this one with the one linked above for example. One site compares three versions (Legge, Suzuki and Goddard). This site has 175 translations of the first verse alone, dating from the late 19th to early 21st centuries, which indicates the numerous, complex ways translators have approached this work and how many ways there are at trying to wrestle the meaning from it.

Hua Hu ChingThe quote actually comes from a translation of another Taoist work called the Hua Hu Ching (Huahujing), which although attributed to Lao Tzu, is actually a forgery. According to scholars, the Huahujing was actually written some 500 years after Lao Tzu lived, by Taoist Wang Fou, ca. 300 CE. Apparently he wrote it as an anti-Buddhist polemic after he was defeated in debate by the Chinese Buddhist monk Bo Yuan. The earliest text was only one section, but by the beginning of the eighth century it had been expanded into ten or eleven.

Historical Chinese records suggest it was first produced in the late third century CE. Some scholars give it a later date because the earliest reference to to the work is from the period of 420–477 CE. The oldest extant version is from a slightly later period. The content suggests it is much later than Lao Tzu because it contains references to all sorts of later Taoist practices such as herbal medicine, feng shui, tai chi and sex:

A person’s approach to sexuality is a sign of his level of evolution. Unevolved persons practice ordinary sexual intercourse. Placing all emphasis upon the sexual organs, they neglect the body’s other organs and systems. Whatever physical energy is accumulated is summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and disordered. It is a great backward leap. For those who aspire to the higher realms of living, there is angelic dual cultivation. Because every portion of the body, mind, and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The sacred ways of angelic intercourse are taught only by one who has himself achieved total energy integration, and taught only to students who follow the Integral Way with profound devotion, seeking to purify and pacify the entire world along with their own being. However, if your virtue is especially radiant, it can be possible to open a pathway to the subtle realm and receive these celestial teachings directly from the immortals.

The Tao Teh Ching has none of this material: it was added later to his teachings.

Hua Hu ChingThe Hua Hu Ching is a work of Taoist philosophy and practice also known as “the scripture of transforming the barbarians.” That’s because it’s recounts a fictional journey by Lao Tzu out to the “Western Regions” and into India, where, the legend goes, his teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. The work seeks to position Taoism as the supreme philosophy over other beliefs, especially Buddhism which at the time it was written was challenging Taoism for popularity among the Chinese populace:

The world is full of half-enlightened masters. Overly clever, too “sensitive” to live in the real world, they surround themselves with selfish pleasures and bestow their grandiose teachings upon the unwary. Prematurely publicizing themselves, intent upon reaching some spiritual climax, they constantly sacrifice the truth and deviate from the Tao.

Hardly objective: it’s a strong, often angry, political stance about the superiority of Taoist beliefs. The message is clear: there’s a fight over the hearts and minds of the populace here. To prove their superiority, Taoists had to portray Buddhism as a weakened, distorted version of Taoism.

The fault of attribution lies both with the people who repeat this quote online without checking its source, and the translator. This verse is from a translation by Brian Walker. The full verse (no. 75) reads:

Would you like to liberate yourself from the lower realms of life? Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. So find a teacher who is an integral being, a beacon who extends his light and virtue with equal ease to those who appreciate him and those who don’t. Shape yourself in his mold, bathe in his nourishing radiance, and reflect it out to the rest of the world. You will come to understand an eternal truth: there is always a peaceful home for a virtuous being.

People have cherry-picked from the work, taking lines out of context. It’s actually an interesting, deep and complex work, well worth reading for its historical and political context. You can’t simply remove lines without losing some of the meaning. In this case the verse exhorts the reader to find a suitable teacher and submit to his/her discipline in order to achieve self-transformation. It also assumes the reader’s beliefs are in concert with Taoist and Chinese beliefs about “lower realms.” Similarly other verses refer to the “immortals.”

Walker attributes the work to Lao Tzu, which is a surprising statement given the easily available research on its origins. A lot of material is available in English to explain when and why the book was written. In his 1993 introduction, Walker wrote,

The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is … believed among Westerners to be Lao Tzu’s only book. Few are aware that a collection of his oral teachings on the subject of attaining enlightenment and mastery were also recorded in a book called the Hua Hu Ching (pronounced “wha hoo jing”). The teachings of the Hua Hu Ching are of enormous power and consequence, a literal road map to the divine realm for ordinary human beings. Perhaps predictably, the book was banned during a period of political discord in China, and all copies were ordered to be burned. Were it not for the Taoist tradition of oral transmission of sacred scriptures from master to student, they would have been lost forever. I am permanently indebted to Taoist Master Ni Hua-Ching for sharing his version of these teachings with the Western world after his emigration from China in 1976. My work here is largely based upon his teaching.

Walker’s work is skillful, poignant and poetic, but scholarly writing I’ve found contradicts his attribution to Lao Tzu. He suggests it only exists in oral form, however, a copy was found in 1997 in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, China, dating from around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. Walker seems to ignore the inconsistencies in the text or its evident political stance.

One of the problems that oral traditions face is that transmission from one generation to the next is seldom if ever entirely accurate. Memories fail, ideologies intrude to change the message, people can mishear a word. verses handed down orally for 1,500 or more years is bound to be corrupt when compared with a written version. Walker’s work has to be read with that in mind.

An alternate translation of the book, by Hua-Ching Ni, is much longer than Walker’s version, and retains the debate format so it reads as a series of question-and-answer dialogues between a young prince and a learned Taoist master. It, too, incorrectly attributes the authorship to Lao Tzu despite the very obvious references to later practices and beliefs that post-dated Lao Tzu.

Here’s another bad quote mis-attributed to Lao Tzu, this one from Facebook, mis-identified as coming from Lao Tzu:

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

This is actually from the New Testament (Corinthians), not Lao Tzu. Once again the problem is that lazy people don’t check sources to confirm the author, and simply attribute it to whomever they decide seems like a likely source. Never assume that what is posted online – especially anything posted on Facebook – is accurate. Always research the content before you spread another bad meme or urban myth.

The return of measles a threat to us all

Measles: The InquisitorHere’s a scary fact: measles seems to be returning to the West. There has been a rise in the number of outbreaks in the last few years, including in Canada: Quebec and recently in London, Ontario. According to the Middlesex-London Health Unit, there have been recent outbreaks of both measles and mumps in many countries, including, “US states (including New York), United Kingdom, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, France, Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, Peru, Guatemala, Congo, Zambia, Bangladesh and India.”

So why are these diseases coming back?

It seems it’s not because science has failed us. It’s not because the diseases are evolving resistance and spreading beyond the reach of our immunizations. Immunization programs have been proven to work to prevent their spread.

They’re coming back because some dim-witted parents and religious groups have decided that vaccinations aren’t necessary or are dangerous. And these muddle-headed, wrong-thinking people are endangering everyone else. They are violating the herd protection defence that vaccination had raised.

Why? In part, I blame the gullibility of people to believe anything they read online, but there are other suggestions as to why people chose such a disastrous, self-destructive and antisocial path. As The Pediatric Insider notes,

Along with clean food and water, vaccinations are generally accepted as one of the greatest public health triumphs of the modern world. We are safe from diseases like polio and measles, which once ravaged millions. We no longer, really, have to worry about most kinds of bacterial meningitis, and we’re able to even prevent some kinds of cancer. Newer vaccines in development include protection against HIV and malaria. At the same time, immunizations are very safe, compared to just about any other medicine or medical intervention. Yet despite their incredible effectiveness and well-documented safety, suspicions remain. Many families choose to skip some or all vaccinations.
[snip]
There should be no doubt that vaccines are very effective at preventing diseases, and are still necessary to prevent serious illnesses. Just one recent example: a study published in May, 2009 showed that unvaccinated kids were 23 times more likely to contract whooping cough than children who were fully vaccinated. Do not doubt that the diseases that are prevented by vaccines are themselves quite serious and sometimes deadly.

The author writes further that the main reasons people choose not to vaccinate their children is that they distrust the government, science, pharmaceutical corporations or all three. That generally puts vaccination-refusers (aka vaccination-dodgers) on the same intellectual level as those who believe the 9/11 attacks were done by the US government, that NASA was hiding a face on Mars, and that angels protect us.

He also blames “Dr. Google” and “natural” or “alternative” remedy practitioners. These two have helped perpetuate many myths and misconceptions about science and medicine, including offering ineffective alternative preventions and cures. A lot of what goes unchallenged on the Net is simply bunk: but some of what passes off as “medicine” is downright dangerous, not to mention stupid. pseudoscience and superstition haves proliferated on the Web. It’s frustrating that so many people will take the word of an astrologer or self-described “psychic” before they take that of a researcher, doctor or scientist.

Some parents still cling stubbornly to the now-debunked hypothetical link between vaccinations and autism. It must be a government conspiracy because no matter how many times this link is disproven, there seems to be someone willing to revile the debunker (like Canadian actor Jim Carey did -it’s a sad state we’ve fallen to when people will heed the words of an ill-informed actor or a media idol over a scientist who spent years on the research). These myths are memes, not science.

I read one wild, unsubstantiated claim online that, “All vaccines are biological weapons that weaken or destroy the human immune system. They often fail to protect against diseases they’re designed to prevent and often cause them. The H1N1 vaccine is experimental, untested, toxic, extremely dangerous, and essential to avoid even if mandated.” What claptrap. Yet because there is nothing on the site to indicate this is an uninformed opinion, readers who lack critical thinking skills have no way to identify it as nonsense.

According the this article on The Inquisitr.com,

The World Health Organization reports that as of October, there have been 26,000 measles cases, and nine deaths, in Europe in 2011. That is three times as many cases during the same time period in 2007.

The United States – where vaccines are mandatory – had 205 cases of measles in 2011, more than any it reported in the previous decade. Normally the USA reports about 50 cases a year. The rest appear linked to visits to or visitors from overseas. Last May, health officials warned travellers to get vaccinated before flying overseas. As one doctor commented, “Air travel has extended the range of diseases from countries where people aren’t immunized. We’re no more than one airplane ride from being exposed to many diseases.”

As the Ontario Ministry of Health says,

The vaccine protects about 99 per cent of those who get both needles against measles. It protects 95 per cent of people against mumps and about 98 per cent of people against rubella. Protection from measles, mumps and rubella after getting the vaccine is probably life-long. Vaccination also makes these diseases milder for those who may catch them.

Here’s a list of common myths about vaccinations. Give it a read. And please, if you’re one of the vaccine-deniers, do some research and read the science, not just the superstition and pseudoscience.

Why does yogurt aid digestion?

I’ve always wondered why probiotic yogurt was good for you. Yes, it aids digestions, as many clinical studies have shown, but exactly why has never been explained to my satisfaction. Until recently, that is.

According to a story reported in The Scientist last fall, “The bacteria found in some fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, may alter gene expression in human gut microbes…”

Probiotic yogurtOne of the results of the study that surprised me was that eating yogurt did not significantly alter the existing population of your gut microbes. Food microbiologist, David Mills, is quoted saying, “To assume that you could eat a yogurt and numerically challenge what’s in your gut is kind of like dumping a gallon of Kool-Aid in your swimming pool and expecting it to change color.” As someone who swears by the benefits of eating yogurt, especially when on vacation in foreign countries like Mexico, I have always assumed gut populations needed rebuilding when foreign food and water challenged and reduced it. Perhaps not, it seems now. I still believe that one of the reasons we never get sick in Mexico is because we eat yogurt daily. But why?

…probiotic bacteria changed the expression of gut microbe genes encoding key metabolic enzymes, such as those involved in the catabolism of sugars called xylooligosaccharides, which are found in many fruits and vegetables. …[probiotic] organisms are capable of altering the metabolic properties of a human microbial community…

Seems like some recombinant DNA action happening here. Pretty fascinating stuff. A story from Live Science includes this:

Studies have shown that probiotics, such as those found in yogurt, can help with certain intestinal issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Recent research suggests that ingesting probiotics may even affect our behavior and could someday treat depression.

Affect behaviour? That’s food for thought… imagine instead of buying yogurt for its flavour, you’d buy it for its mood-altering effects. Replace strawberry and peach with happy and optimistic?

Google Earth 6.2 gets somewhat better, but it still needs work

It was big news this week that Google Earth 6.2 was released with a bunch of new pictures, and an improved satellite mesh that removed some of the previous patchwork of scans that made up some of its maps.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthThe media are full of articles praising Google Earth’s new release. CNET noted, “The result is a more realistic and less distracting (though still optimistically cloudless) view of the planet. Update: It turns out that by turning on the weather layer, you can dispel Google Earth’s sunny optimism and see if it’s really cloudy by showing live weather data.”

Collingwood from above, Google EarthAs much as I like Google Earth, and as much as I enjoy my virtual explorations of the world using it, it’s still less-than-impressive for local use (or in fact for most of the world outside the USA). First of all is the annoying cloud over our downtown that obscures the view of our beautiful main street. It’s not part of Google Earth’s live weather display. The original satellite image has a cloud. I don’t know if there have been later passes without a cloud, but I’d really like to see my home town unblemished. It has not been changed in several years, however.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthSecond is the grainy, mid-to-low-res of the overhead views. Some of the satellite images in Google Earth are pin-sharp. Look at the views of New York City, for example. But Collingwood is in the lower range that’s at the verge of interesting but not quite detailled enough to be really useful. It’s not too bad when you want a sprawling overview of the while town, but when you want to zoom in for a closer look at neighbourhoods, you get the image on the left: coarse and ugly. Again this may not be Google’s fault, but surely more accurate, higher-res images are available.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthThere are consistency issues, too. Take a look at this street-level image of downtown. Nice sunny day, trees in bloom. Cloudless sky (certainly not the same day as the satellite photo, which has leafless trees and that annoying cloud). Then move a few feet (or metres) north from that spot and what do you see?

Collingwood from above, Google EarthHmmm. The sky is suddenly cloudy. And the trees are different. We can’t see the new sidewalk and downtown design we’ve had the last two years, and it’s very evidently a different day. So many changes in the last two years, none recorded here. Google Earth is not very up-to-date for Collingwood: it’s showing our history, not our present. You can do the virtual drive through the downtown and see the same sort of abrupt changes from cloudy-to-sunny and back at almost every block.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthI’m sure there are many enhancements to this version of Google Earth worth crowing about. But the things that matter most to me – the accuracy and clarity in my hometown – are not among them. I also note the detailled 3D buildings visible in so many cities are not visible in Collingwood. I’m not sure if that’s because no one local has created models or entered any requisite data, or if it’s an oversight in Google Earth itself. But look at Toronto with its 3D buildings and you can see the difference.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthYou can see the difference in quality of images here in this capture of a neighbourhood in San Francisco, California. nice crisp view, lots of detail, and can be zoomed almost to street level with no loss of clarity. That’s the sort of image I want for Collingwood.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthHere’s the same scene, zoomed right down to ground level, but not in Google Earth’s street view perspective. See the difference 3D buildings can make in the landscape at this level? While not perfect it conveys at least some sense of proportion and depth. That kind of view would have helped us understand the visual impact of the proposed Admiral Collingwood development. But for that, and for many areas served only by lower-res, coarse images, Google Earth remains an entertaining but less-than functional tool.

It’s still a work in progress and despite improvements, Google Earth has a long way to go before it serves us here as well as it does in the USA. I’ll rate it a B for effort, but still a C overall. I may have to save my praises for version 6.5 or even 7.

Why is most TV so lame?

I would expect from the names of TV channels like Discovery, The Learning Channel and History Channel that these would be educational, documentary, engaging, informative, deep, and rich with content. Silly me. I forgot that the mandate of most TV channels is to entertain the lowest common denominator, not to educate or engage.

Couch potatoWith shows like “Freaky Eaters” and “Extreme Couponing”, the “Learning” Channel is the bottom feeder in the TV IQ pond. Of the 30 bathetic shows in its current lineup, four are about baking with a fifth on cooking, five are about weddings, two are about tattoos, two are about the daily lives of short people, there’s one on “freaky’ eating habits, another on “strange” addictions, a show on the daily lives of polygamists, a show on coupons and bargain shopping (“Extreme Couponing” which turns a perfectly good and functional noun into a flaccid and silly verb), and others of similarly pointless and drearily shallow content.

A whole series dedicated to a family with 19 kids? Why not a whole series dedicated to the benefits of contraception in an increasingly resource-challenged world? But that would be educational and the “Learning” Channel stays as far from educational content as possible. You will learn more from reading a single stop sign than from any of the shows this network offers.

Swimming only slightly above TLC at the bottom of TV’s intellectual pond is the “Discovery” Channel, supposedly a channel about science and technology. That is, if you you think ghosts, goblins, haunted houses, UFOs and self-described “psychics” (aka scam artists) have anything to do with science. If you do, then you’re probably a creationist and should stop reading any further because I will likely annoy you and challenge your petty, superstitious mind.

The “Discovery” Chanel’s lineup is equally impotent as far as educational, insightful or even useful content goes. Shows like Junk Raider, Cash Cab, Auction Kings, Licence to Drill, Canada’s Worst Driver and biker shows lead the low calibre content this channel offers. These shows demean the viewer by suggesting we’re not important enough for producers to craft something better for our viewing.

To add insult to injury, The “Discovery” channel offers a slew of pseudoscience and foolish shows about ghosts, goblins, hauntings, spirits and other claptrap. Paranormal? Parapsychology? Ghost hunting? Self-described psychics? Absolutely the worst nonsense a channel allegedly dedicated to facts or science could broadcast. Why not weekly shows about phrenology? Astrology? Creationism? Angels? I suspect with such shows they have only begun to plumb the depths where intelligent, adult programming is but a mere whisper of a hope.

On one of their paranormal pages, Discovery claims, “Ouija boards have been used to communicate with the dead since the end of the 19th Century. ” Huh? Communicating with the dead stated as a fact? Sure, that’ll happen when the dead have active Facebook pages (around the same time the “Rapture” happens). Communicating with dead people is about as likely as communicating with Harry Potter through your Kindle. Very depressing that this sort of superstitious, puerile nonsense is encouraged by anyone in the 21st century, let alone a channel that purports to be about science. Discovery Channel is a prime example of the dumbing down of our society.

Yes, Discovery has a science show: Daily Planet, which was once rather good when Jay Ingram was co-host, but Ziya Tong is an airhead who reduces science to bouncy cuteness and fake jocularity. Science reduced to the level of a 10-year-old is not real science. It’s a mightily light counterweight to the considerable pseudoscience they broadcast.

Dumbing downThe idea that you can take a weak premise that could barely withstand a sound byte and turn it into a weekly series through bad production seems to have hit numerous networks simultaneously. We now suffer endless “reality” shows that give us insight about what their untalented amateur actors had for breakfast or their choice of footwear-du-jour. Enthralling, mesmerizing stuff, if your life is so completely useless that vacuous TV is the only thing between you and suicide.

Discovery and TLC have far too many of these weak “reality” TV shows that depend on bad camera work, poor acting, worse directing, amateur and wooden dialogue and sloppy editing to make it seem like they’re unscripted video slices of real life. Only the very gullible believe this: anyone with an IQ higher than his or her shoe size is aware they’re as phoney as a government promise to respect your pension.

And why do actors on so many “reality” shows depend on embarrassing or insulting each other as their main way of getting any attention? Why would anyone want to waste time watching actors being uncivil to one another?

The third of this triad of sorry channels is History. How much “history” is really being presented in such mediocre shows as Pawn Kings? What’s In a Name (a restaurant show)? Canadian Pickers (the token tip of the hat to Canadian content by cloning the already pointless and drearily repetitive American Picker series). How about Hairy Bikers? The name alone just reeks of history, doesn’t it? Likes its stars, I suspect. Beast Legends – the zoological equivalent to paranormal claptrap. Outlaw Bikers – nothing like glorifying criminals on national TV.

To be fair, History Channel does live up to its name in several of its shows, although many of their documentaries seem aimed at 8-year-olds rather than adults, with repetitive segments that break big concepts into tiny bits so the average TV viewer can digest them, elementary-school vocabularies and flashy graphics that substitute for real content. It’s not the topic of these shows that annoys me, but rather the production and editing that makes them suitable for children of all ages, but not adults.

History Channel also has a lot of movies. Fiction. It doesn’t matter how good Saving Private Ryan is, or whether it is “based on” a true story, it is FICTION, not history. It belongs on a movie channel, not sloughed off on the public as “history.” Many of their movies make no pretense to anything more than mere entertainment. Surely there’s something better and more intelligent to show, even something historical in nature? Why not slot in a BBC docu-drama instead? Or would that be too intellectual for the average History Channel viewer?

Runners up for idiotic shows, channels that insult your intelligence or offer vapid superstition up as fact are, sadly, numerous. And these are just the so-called documentary channels. Animal Planet has shows about garbage like bigfoot, animal “hauntings” and hillbilly hand-fishing. The Military Channel ruins a rather good lineup with a moronic show on Nazis and UFOs (UFOs are in the same imaginary bestiary as ghosts, angels, psychics and bigfoot: unadulterated hokum. They don’t exist. period. If you actually believe in this crap, the TV networks have won: you’ve been successfully dumbed-down.)

Don’t even get me started on the too-numerous-to-mention coma-inducing shows on Discovery’s Fitness and Health channel or the drearily repetitive lineup we see on the Food Network (however, no ghosts or psychics, at least as far as I can tell).

The Biography Channel offers mind-numbing shows about “ghost” hunters, “psychic” kids and celebrity ghost stories. Travel and Escape TV – among its too-numerous cooking and kitchen shows – has the supercilious Ghost Adventure show where “Fearless ghost hunters investigate the scariest, most notoriously haunted places in the world…” It’s easy to be fearless when you’re confronted with something that doesn’t exist. I’m pretty fearless about entering Mordor, myself, which is as real as any ghost. But all those spooky camera effects surely have the dumbed-down couch potatoes quaking.

Along this theme are such annoyingly stupid shows as Medium, Most Haunted, Ghost Whisperer, Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters, A Haunting and others (A Haunting is described as “a chills-filled series, chronicling the terrifying true stories of the paranormal…” True stories about something that doesn’t exist? It’s a baldfaced lie.) I’m okay with dramas that don’t pretend to be nonfiction – ghost hunters and “psychics” comfortably belong in the same fictional category as vampires, werewolves, dragons, angels, Wily Coyote and Harry Potter. I rebel when such superstition and pseudoscience are passed off as “fact.” It discredits the entire channel and I refuse to partake in anything they offer.

TV like this is lame because we, the viewers, don’t protest more against the garbage, the claptrap, the intelligence-reducing and the superstitious nonsense that is being foisted upon us by unscrupulous TV producers and directors. I plan to drop my cable back to the basic level this week in protest of this garbage. I’ll still be able to get TVO and PBS which offer reasonable smart programming.

What’s wrong with SOPA and PIPA?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h2dF-IsH0I]Ever wonder what the fuss was about the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA)? This video really explains it well. Both acts basically make everyone online guilty of piracy because we have the potential to steal simply by owning a computer connected to the Internet. It will be up to the user (you) to prove he or she is not doing it. As the speaker in the video says, the big media companies want consumers; not producers, not creators, and certainly not people sharing: just consuming what they are fed.

As noted in a story in The Christian Science Monitor,

In short, critics say, Congress is looking for a 20th-century answer to a 21st-century challenge… The deeper problem… is that the music and film industries simply haven’t adapted quickly enough to the new realities of the online world, and are instead trying to use Congress to prop up outdated practices.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzqMoOk9NWc”]“SOPA will prevent innovation in order to prevent piracy,” says Vince Leung, cofounder of the social media site, MentorMob.com. This has been a problem with every one of the US’s recent copyright changes and protection acts since the late Sonny Bono’s meddling. They protect the monetary investments of media corporations, while stifling the creative abilities of artists and producers. Artists and producers sharing content are not creating profit-making consumers for the corporations, so are a threat that must be stopped.

As a Canadian, I have no direct way to protest SOPA and PIPA, but both will have a huge impact on how I use the Net, what I produce, what I record, write, link, or share. Even if it’s legal in Canada to do so, my acts may become illegal in the USA and my site (or sites in Canada and elsewhere that I post on) may be punished for potentially breaking the laws of a foreign state even though I don’t reside or work there. I don’t actually have to break those laws, merely have the potential to do so. And it puts the onus on me to defend myself legally (in the USA, not in Canada), repair my reputation and restore my site if I am accused from afar.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhwuXNv8fJM]But it gets crazier: if my site gets blocked, every site that has a link to my content – including Google and other search engines, or Facebook – gets blocked (guilt by association). Any site that sends me money or I use for sales or donations, has to block me, too. So even if what I did was not illegal in Canada, that act can take down dozens, maybe hundreds of other sites unless they shut me out. And I don’t have to actually have done anything illegal, either: all it needs is someone in the recording industry or other media firm to accuse me of doing it. The act says I can be shut down without proof or warning, and I can’t sue the company or companies for causing damage to my site or reputation even if I prove my innocence later.

So let’s say I find a fun video of a ukulele player doing a cover version of a popular song on YouTube. I post the video on this blog using the embed feature (as I’ve done here with these videos). Even though it’s only a link, and I’m not actually hosting the content – and I did not make or contribute to the video – by sharing it I could be accused of having copyright material on my site. YouTube becomes guilty, of course. Several other sites that take my RSS feeds become guilty. Google and Bing become guilty because I have an SEO package that provides links and keywords for search engines. Because I take donations, Paypal would be forced to cut off my account. My site – along with all these others could be removed from the DNS servers so you can’t find it by name. All this without prior warning or any other notice. I’d just wake up and find it had vanished when I typed in the name.

And what if I just post a text link to a site that has that video, and don’t embed it? Even though nothing shows on my site, I’m still guilty by association. Simply having a link makes me guilty and I can be blocked and even sued. I can even be sued if the other site has copyright material I don’t link to, and didn’t even know about. The link alone is sufficient to make me a criminal.

How Stalinist is that? Shy of actually having the secret police take me and my family away in the middle of the night, I can’t imagine anything as extreme or unjust as that.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBy7yooz3MM”]The issue is a morass of themes: censorship, freedom of speech, copyright, liability, ownership of intellectual property, corporate lobbying and political control by one state over the Internet. What’s really scary is that the main people in charge of the debate are elderly American politicians whose appreciation, understanding and knowledge of how computers and the Net work is limited by their age and inexperience. My cat knows more about string theory than most of these politicians know about the Internet. Not to mention how vulnerable these politicians are to the lobbying efforts of the bills’ supporters (money always speaks loudly).

Whose problem is piracy? The companies’? or the government’s? Is it a private sector service problem or a public legal issue? Whose money should pay to fight it: company profits or your tax dollars? Whose rights are more important: the board of directors of the media corporations or the millions and millions of users who demand a change in the laws to recognize the new reality of the Net? None of this is resolved by these bills. The concepts of sharing, the trust economy, open source and open data, cooperative creativity, free expression, and independent artistry that underly the Net are simply being ignored in favour of a punitive approach.

Which is the greater threat to media companies: a few people sharing files online or the thousands of pirate companies in China and Asia making ripoff DVDs, CDs and other products that end up for sale in North America and Europe? So why aren’t the legislators taking aim at China to stem this practice? Why can’t they block Chinese goods from being imported into the USA, or slap high tariffs on them until the piracy is stopped? Do corporate interests in maintaining a good manufacturing relationship with China make it so profitable the USA can afford to ignore this problem?

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MDMKk6DbRw”]How would the USA react if another country passed a law that said any foreign site that mentioned Tianamen Square, Tibetan freedom or the Dalai Lama would be blocked? Oh wait, doesn’t China already do that? In fact, SOPA/PIPA as proposed are remarkably similar to existing Chinese, Syrian, Iranian and North Korean censorship of the Net.

Why has there been so little traditional media coverage of this issue and so little editorial condemnation compared to online commentary and protest? Could it be that the same media companies pushing for this bill are those that control the content of the media that gives us the news on TV, radio and in print?

The result from these bills will be more sales for Hollywood movies, but fewer social media tools or outlets for expression for independent artists, producers, political commentators, bloggers, musicians and filmmakers. They will force creativity to go underground to hidden places on the Net, just like witchcraft laws forced fledgling scientists, philosophers, herbalists and doctors to hide in the Dark Ages. These bills will kill the kind of social change we saw in the Arab Spring movement.

I’m not condoning illegal activity, but these inappropriate and undemocratic proposals presuppose guilt without any due process of law. If this is truly such a large-scale problem, then we need proper solutions that match the reality of the connected 21st century, not this leg-hold-and-stockade approach from the 20th.