Archive for December, 2010

Airport whole body scanners have been in use for over a year in both the U.S and Canada, but they are being debated once more this holiday season during the annual travel blitz. Airport scanners or ‘advanced imaging technology (AIT)’ units have been rolled out across airports in North America and Europe. In the United States, 464 AIT units now operate in 75 airports across the country. While in Canada, 44 units operate at all of the country’s major airports. These machines have been widely debated on both sides of the border for their effectiveness, infringement on privacy, and health risks. The machines are here to stay, but are the criticisms valid?

The debate over airport scanners has long focused on the possible health risks associated with the machines. It is important to remember that not all airport scanners use the same technology. In fact, there are two main competing types of technology used in full body scanners. Backscatter X-ray units use low-doses of x-rays that bounce off the skin. The images are chalky and filters can be applied to hide faces. The TSA has argued that the health risks of these units are minimal as travellers are only exposed to as much radiation as would be received during 2 minutes of normal flight at altitude or about 0.03mSv of radiation. Other experts disagree: On April 26th, 2010, four University of California professors wrote a letter expressing their concern over backscatter X-ray technology. They argue that though the overall dose of X-ray energy is low, it is absorbed by the skin at possibly damaging levels. They argue that no independent safety data exists and more research needs to be done on low radiation exposure. About half of all airport scanners in the United States currently use this technology and are provided by American Science & Engineering (AS&E). AS&E CEO Anthony Fabiano has claimed the technology provides a superior level of detection when compared to existing technology and dismisses health concerns. The machines can be expected to be a part of the U.S security apparatus for the near future as large million dollar orders are being made for both airport scanners and mobile backscatter units for use at borders and checkpoints. By the end of 2011, 1000 X-ray machines will be in use in the United States, representing about half of the nation’s 2000 lanes of security checkpoints. These machines are currently not in use in Canada.

Millimeter wave scanners represent the main alternative to backscatter X-ray technology. They represent half of all airport scanners in the U.S and are the only technology currently in use in Canada. Millimeter wave scanners use extremely high frequency radio waves to produce images. This technology does not use radiation like X-ray units. The image quality resembles a negative and the TSA has claimed they scanners produce 10,000 times less energy than a cellphone call. With orders in the hundreds of millions of dollars from both the United States and Canada, the millimeter wave scanners produced by L3 Communications continue to be big business.

The effectiveness of airport scanners has recently been called into question, with experts claiming the technology can miss key threats. The TSA claims the technology has been effective in finding contraband that until recently may have been missed: items like small amounts of marijuana wrapped in plastic or ceramic knives stitched into the linings of clothes. However, experts believe the technology is ineffective in identifying explosives. Explosives like pentaerythritol tetranitrate or PETN are odourless and easily moulded into shapes that can fool scanners. Former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security Clark Ervin said, “It’s not an explosives detector, it’s an anomaly detector.” The results of studies conducted by the U.S government at the federal Transportation Security Laboratory in New Jersey are mostly classified, but a few findings were released. The main findings of the report indicated that the effectiveness of the scanners in detecting weapons and contraband varied by those evaluating the images. The study found backscatter X-rays can be obscured by parts of the body and these scanners may not pick up thin items seen “edge on”. Furthermore, objects hidden inside body cavities could be missed by both types of technology.

Perhaps the most vociferous debate over whole body scanning technology has centered on the privacy concerns associated with the images the machines produce. In fact, before the Christmas Day bomber attempted to blow-up a jet liner at the end of 2009, roll out of the technology was continuing slowly in America and limited to test runs in Europe. In the wake of the failed attack, the technology’s adoption was accelerated around the world. However, opponents of the scanners have never wavered in their belief that the scanners represent a dangerous infringement on freedom and privacy. Millimeter wave units have been criticized for the technology’s ability to see through clothes and reveal breast implants, colostomy bags, and body piercings. Furthermore, the promise that the images would not be stored and the files dealt with responsibly is one many find hard to swallow. The fact that during TSA training sessions for the scanners, TSA worker Rolando Negrin was ridiculed by colleagues for the size of his manhood did nothing to assuage public fears. Despite such fears, acceptance of whole body scanners seems to be widespread. TSA spokesmen have claimed 99% of travellers opt for a full body scanner rather than a pat down. Surveys performed in Canada have claimed 96% of Canadians prefer the machines to a body pat down as well. In a world where increasingly nothing is private, many may simply prefer the relative modesty of standing inside a scanner than submit to a clumsy and awkward pat down.

Whole body scanners may have been controversial from their inception, but in the wake of attempted terrorist attacks like the Christmas Day bomber, their opponents have been washed away by a tide of worry over security concerning air travel. With the health risks of the machines either non-existent or requiring years of scientific study for any kind of proof, the machines have been rolled out across the world with surprising speed. However, their adoption may have been too fast for a thorough assessment of their effectiveness in detecting contraband and explosives. The scanner’s effectiveness is dependent on the training and intelligence of the officer’s responsible for viewing the images and except for some minor successes, the TSA cannot provide solid evidence of the technology’s reliability. With future orders for both backscatter x-ray and millimeter wave units already placed, it seems governments around the world believe in the technology and for better or worse they are here to stay.


“Who else would celebrate three assassinations in a liquor store with Germans… Then you’re cool.” -Bent

Flammen & Citronen is a movie that oozes style, is filmed with the cream of Danish actors, and is simply one of the best WW2 movies ever made. The large battles of WW2 have been done to death (no pun intended) and it’s refreshing to see a film take on the far less well known Danish resistance. Flammen & Citron follows two assassins in the resistance who kill high value Gestapo and German collaborators spreading fear among the German Army. They receive their orders from Aksel Winther, a police lawyer with connections to the English. After a hit gone bad, Flammen begins to question Winther’s loyalties and everything enters a world of murky grey. Unlike almost all WW2 films, there are no clear lines between good and evil. Have Flammen and Citronen been killing innocent Germans, is Winther using them to settle old scores, are the two assassin’s becoming corrupted by power? Flammen & Citronen explores all these issues with intelligent dialogue and an impeccable visual style.

Written and directed by Ole Christian Madsden, the film does an amazing job of setting the tone and atmosphere of 1940s Copenhagen. Classic cars drive on cobblestone streets through German checkpoints and the great visual quality of the BluRay makes the overall grey palette of the movie really pop. Don’t expect bright scenes with over-saturated colours, the video is film noir in the best sense: sharp and understated. The audio is a very solid Dolby 5.1 mix and uses the surrounds well when appropriate. Though overall the audio could have been a bit more immersive, the sharp retorts of gunfire come across very effectively in a movie that mainly relies on dialogue to build tension.

The acting of the eponymous title characters deserves special mention as Thure Lindehardt and Mads Mikkelsen completely take over their respective characters. Mikkelsen is especially convincing as the quiet and nervous Citronen, while Lindehardt successfully pulls off a very subtle performance as Flammen. Flammen & Citronen is certainly the best Danish film I’ve ever seen (short list though it may be) and is in all honesty one of my favourite films of all time. Taking a well known subject in WW2 and giving it a film noir twist works so well that I’m amazed more films of its kind don’t exist. Above all though, the twisting story and intelligent conversation lend an extra tension to the fantastic action sequences. This isn’t a WW2 movie that relies on million dollar action stunts to pull itself through. Instead, Flammen & Citronen relies on subtlety and its amazing cast to become one of the greatest examples of the genre.

The Sweet Smell of Success - 1957 - 96 Minutes - Criterion Edition BluRay

“Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one – none too pretty, and all deceptive.” -J.J. Hunsecker

When people talk about the golden age of cinema, it’s easy to dismiss as sentimentality for a bygone age that never existed, but then you see a film like The Sweet Smell of Success and realize they were right all along. Released in 1957, The Sweet Smell of Success is a movie that takes the sharp dialogue of classic film noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and updates it with even sharper conversation , a more impressive cast, and a story that resonates over 40 years after its original release.

The film tells the story of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a slimy press agent willing to do anything to earn a quick buck. His ‘friendship’ with all-powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is on the ropes after his unsuccessful attempt to break up a relationship between Hunsecker’s 19 year-old sister and a jazz musician. Falco manages to hatch a plan that should see the couple split apart, but J.J.’s love for his sister borders on obsession and Falco finds himself in a moral minefield he cannot escape.

With dialogue you just don’t see in movies anymore and a sharp visual style that showcases the grandeur of New York City in the 50s, the film can’t be beat in the atmosphere and tone it sets from the opening frame. Hunsecker’s cry of “I love this dirty town” seems to come straight from the director’s lips. Curtis and Lancaster are impeccably cast and provide the perfect foils for each other. A film noir that doesn’t rely on violence or sex is rare and The Sweet Smell of Success is certainly for the thinking fan of the genre. But, that’s probably why the movie has aged so much better than other film noir classics.

The video quality is outstanding on this BluRay release with inky blacks and a perfect level of grain that provides authenticity without sacrificing sharpness. In fact, this release looks so good that if not for the lack of colour you might think you were watching a far more recent release. The audio is 2.0 mono as per the original, but despite the lack of surround, the dialogue comes through crisp and clear. In a movie that doesn’t rely on cheap sound effects, the surround is not missed too much and the audio serves more than adequately.

The Sweet Smell of Success is a rare breed of movie, one that you can’t imagine being made in this day and age. Containing some of the sharpest lines of dialogue in film noir history and offering an intriguing story that relies on morality and inner tension to develop the plot rather than violence or women, the film is certainly a rare breed. With two film legends taking the lead and a technically excellent BluRay release, film noir and classic cinema fans need not hesitate to pick this one up.

April 1st in December

No it isn’t April 1st and no that wasn’t an Onion headline you thought you saw, the United States Congress or more specifically the Senate actually managed to pass some legislation… consecutively! Rejoice all ye faithful, Santa (or is it Jesus?) has delivered a Christmas miracle. On the heels of his much maligned ‘tax cut compromise’ bill, Obama managed to push through ratification of the START treaty, the passage of the 9/11 responders healthcare bill, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell just before the holidays. Many have hailed these achievements as the heralds of a new era of compromise in American politics, but this flies in the face of the facts.

While Obama’s tax cut compromise was widely viewed on both the right and left as a failure (at least initially), they don’t appreciate the delicate position President Obama found himself in. After receiving a whipping in the mid-term elections, Obama was facing a congressional session in 2011 that was shifted sharply to the right and filled with new and uncompromising faces. Republicans were threatening to filibuster all bills until the full extension of the Bush tax cuts were passed. They argued the filibuster was warranted due to the intense distress that would befall the economy if the cuts weren’t extended. Facing this kind of opposition, Obama got a far better deal than he ever got on healthcare, even if he added significant amounts to the national debt. For a President these days, that doesn’t even make the back pages. Furthermore, it opened the Senate up to new legislation before the end of the ‘lame-duck’ session.

Republican opposition to the START treaty was somewhat baffling and seemed to come from their general unwillingness to work with President Obama on anything. Republicans said they wanted ‘more time’ to consider the treaty. Those few republicans who publically cited specific problems with the treaty were concerned with provisions that would in their mind hamper American efforts at constructing a missile shield. This, despite assurances from the President that this was not the case and also with the knowledge that at worst development of a comprehensive missile shield would lead to Russia pulling out of the treaty. In the meantime, the treaty allows for inspections of Russian nuclear facilities to begin after the previous treaty expired, one year ago. However, a push from Democrats and elder Republican statesmen like General Brent Snowcroft (ret.), led to the treaty’s passage.

If Republican opposition to the START treaty was baffling, their opposition to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was something beyond mindboggling. Republicans like John McCain, who had long been an advocate for gay rights, had begun to abruptly shift their tunes beginning in 2008 and made vague statements that essentially passed on the decision to the military brass. However, statements from figures like the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that it was time for the law’s repeal were ignored in an election season dominated by the tea party. Obama’s passage of the repeal is a historical landmark and will go some way in appeasing his liberal base, alienated by previous compromises on healthcare and tax cuts.

The fact that the 9/11 responders healthcare bill had to be even debated was probably the single biggest sign that something is extremely wrong in American politics today. The bill closed a corporate tax loophole and used the money saved to fund healthcare for those afflicted by serious health problems relating to injuries/illnesses sustained while working at ground zero. Unlike the other bills, the passage of this piece of legislation can be linked to a media push in the last few days at Fox News, MSNBC, and even the Daily Show. A trifecta not likely to be seen again! Jon Stewart began talking about the bill and the ludicrous fact that Republicans were even filibustering it on December 16th. He would even devote almost an entire episode showcasing the issue with actual 9/11 responders arguing for its passage. Rachel Maddow at MSNBC also made a concerted effort to bring the issue to light. However, in a world where nothing is real unless you saw it on TV and ratings are king, it can be argued that no one did more to expose the issue than Sheppard Smith at Fox News. Smith asked Senators “how they could sleep at night” and called out specific Senators such as Tom Coburn who were stalling its passage.

Maddow even praised Smith for his effusive coverage of the issue.

Republicans and Democrats working together to pass laws? MSNBC extending an olive branch to Fox News? Are these signs of the end times or is there really a shift in the tone and hyper-partisanship of American politics? Alas, recent events to the contrary, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a shift in anything. Republicans like Laura Ingraham and Dick Morris were quick to condemn Republicans for supporting the bills and even railed against the tax cut compromise as a capitulation. Why, they argued, should Republicans have to compromise after they just took over the House and picked up so many seats in the Senate? And their attitude is shared by many of the new Republican congressmen and the influential tea party. If the passage of these four landmark pieces of legislation is a Christmas miracle, it looks like it’s going to be a long and cold winter.

From the time of Socrates, the nature of morality and whether or not it proceeds from religion has been debated.   As even today a majority of people claim some religious faith, the commonly held view is that morality descends from religion.  There are the three main arguments for those that believe morality cannot stand without religious beliefs:  First, that without religion providing motivation, people would not do the right thing.  Second, that religion provides guidance and shows people what the objectively right action is.  Finally, people have argued that without religion and the existence of God there would not even be a right and wrong since these concepts cannot exist without a God.  However, logic easily shows us that all of these arguments are invalid and that religion is not required or even useful in providing moral motivation or guidance and that morality exists independently of religion and God.

First, we must clearly define the terms of the argument.  Morality will be defined as “the tendency to evaluate the behaviour of others and to feel guilt at certain actions when we perform them”.  Religion is defined as belief in a supernatural power(s) that created and perhaps also control nature along with a tendency to worship and pray to those supernatural forces.  These assumptions are logical and clearly define the terms of the debate.  While others have argued that religion provides a motivating force to do the right thing and that people are incapable of doing the right thing otherwise, logic argues against this premise.  When making any choice there are a number of reasons people assess when deciding between actions.  There are many reasons to do the right thing and most of them are not related to religion at all.  There are societal and cultural pressures along with a myriad of other reasons to motivate people to do the right thing and so logic argues religion is not required as a motivating force.  This argument though simple, is readily self-evident, as religion at best only provides a further incentive to do good and is certainly never required as the only reason to do good.

Logic also argues against the premise of religion providing a moral understanding that humans are incapable of achieving alone.  This premise relies on an assumption that a God actually exists and raises debate on which of the many religions is the true one.  Even when looking at the bible or any other religious document there is debate on how literally to interpret it and which passages to highlight, as often times there are contradictions within the document itself.  Logic argues that rational thought and human intellect are enough to base morality on and that religion actually serves as a hindrance, allowing people to claim divine backing for beliefs they already hold.  This argument succeeds due to the innumerable historical examples both between and within religions of disagreements on the boundaries of the moral code.

Divine command theory, is the belief that without God morality and its laws would not exist and that only this theory can explain the objective difference between right and wrong.  Divine command theory presupposes that morality must even be objective when there is no reason to make that assumption.  Furthermore, if this theory were true then morality could change on God`s whim and as has happened according to the bible, order atrocities that are morally required.  The dialogue of Euthyphro by Plato contains a passage in which Euthyphro says that the Gods love what is holy because it is holy and he implies they do so with reason and not arbitrarily.  This means that if God approves kindness because it is a virtue he is discovering morality and not inventing it.

After four years of war, Mexico is exhausted.  Mexico’s struggle against its indigenous drug cartels have led to the deaths of over one thousand police officers, judges, and prosecutors, while fifty-eight reporters and over thirty-thousand civilians have also lost their lives.  Perhaps most disconcertingly, the government seems further away from victory than ever before and deaths have been increasing by nearly fifty percent year-on-year.  It may not be surprising that a war with such a heavy human cost would also have a high economic one, but the Mexican government’s $7.2 billion expenditure over the first eighteen months of its war on drugs still comes across as startling.  Those statistics may seem horrifying to Westerners with little experience of drug violence, but they barely register a response in Colombia, the country most affected by drug violence in the world.  Colombia serves as a potent warning sign of things to come if Mexico cannot shift its strategy and turn the tide against the drug cartels.

Colombia and Mexico have long been hotbeds for revolution and violence.  Like Mexico, Colombia was colonized by the Spanish in the early 1500s and in both cases indigenous populations were quickly destroyed by diseases like smallpox or through a combination of force and superior technology.  Both states achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and suffered subsequent upheaval and revolution, but there were key differences in their development that led to Colombia’s rapid descent into anarchy.  Mexico’s development was greatly aided by its proximity to the United States of America.  America provided Mexico with access to the world’s largest economy and created jobs by way of cheap Mexican labour.  Mexico was also able to achieve a relatively stable political system by the 1920s and this led to a serious commitment to primary education.  By the 1940s, investments in primary education led to the ‘Mexican Miracle’ a period of sustained economic growth of between three to four percent year-on-year from the 1940s until the 1970s.  During this same time, Colombia was experiencing a period of intense conflict known as ‘La Violencia’ that had claimed two hundred thousand lives by 1964.  It can be said that Mexico prospered under conditions of ‘mango corruption’, in which corruption is relatively high, but the economy grows at a rate that appeases the populace.  Unlike Mexico, Colombia has never been able to achieve anything close to resembling a stable political system and is hampered by the control of an elite upper class whose interests are out of touch with the majority of the populace.  Given these conditions, Colombia suffered under ‘baobab corruption’ where corruption is high and economic growth low.  These twin pressures led to the creation of left-wing paramilitary groups whose original aim was to fight the right-wing elite.

Emerging in the 1970s, drug cartels developed in Colombia from paramilitary groups looking for easy cash to finance their political goals.  Soon groups from all sides of the political spectrum entered the drug trade due to the lure of ever increasing profits.  This process was aided by the weakness of the Colombian government and its inability to control and police its own territory, factors also present in Mexico.  However, it is important to note that the success of the drug cartels was directly proportionate to the insatiable American appetite for cocaine and marijuana.  These factors were also present in Mexico during this time, but were partly assuaged by the greater economic growth seen in that country.  Furthermore, the creation of powerful drug cartels in Mexico was initially hampered by the total domination exercised by Colombian cartels.  Colombian cartels, especially the Medellin cartel, grew and manufactured the drugs and used Cuban and Mexican gangs to smuggle them into America.  This arrangement allowed the Medellin cartel to earn over sixty million dollars per day during its height in the 1980s.  The Medellin cartel and others were able to control large swaths of the Colombian countryside as their own personal fiefdoms and exercised tremendous influence over all branches of government whether through bribery, extortion, or violence.  Colombia would eventually achieve marginal success against the cartels through an extensive military and police campaign that was aided by the support of the United States Army Delta Force and the CIA ‘CENTRA SPIKE’ intelligence team.  However, cartels were able to make a sham out of the demobilization process that began in 2005 and turned in few guns and fewer members.

However, the government of Colombia’s efforts against the drug cartels were not a complete failure and indirectly led to the creation and development of ever more powerful cartels in Mexico.  Today, Colombian cartels still grow the majority of cocaine for export to the world market, but these drugs are now imported, distributed, and sold in America via Mexican cartels through a porous border.  Colombian cartels began to offer their Mexican counterparts a payment-in-product scheme, which saw Mexican cartels given thirty-five to fifty percent of cocaine shipments for their own sales.  This has allowed Mexican cartels to become significant distributors in their own right and has led to the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels taking over Colombian cocaine trafficking to the world market.  Mexico’s lack of control over its territory and its proximity to the United States (the world’s largest drug market) has allowed the cartels to amass untold amounts of money, which finance and strengthen cartels’ resolve to protect their territory.  As seen in Colombia, these immense profits allow cartels to find new and willing recruits extremely easily.  All while making it possible to equip these recruits with weapons that eclipse those of the armed forces and police.

This is why despite four years of struggle between the Mexican armed forces and drug cartels, the Mexican government finds itself battling the status quo with no solution in sight.  Some have claimed the cartels have infiltrated the government and use their influence to stop cartel leaders from being arrested.  Whether these rumours of such blatant corruption are true remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Mexican people do not and should not expect much from future government efforts to stop drug violence.  America is beginning to offer its assistance and expertise, but likely face a much tougher battle in Mexico than the one they waged in Columbia.  Colombia was mainly controlled by the dominant Medellin cartel and all their resources went into its destruction.  Mexico has over seven cartels organized into two loose coalitions: The Juarez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas, and the Beltran-Leyva Cartel constitute one faction, while the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel, and La Familia cartel comprise the other.  These cartels conduct their business while warring against rival factions, each other, and the Mexican government for control of an industry that creates an estimated $13.6 to $48.4 billion dollars in cash profits annually.

The magic bullet cure for cartel violence has yet to be discovered, but the example of Colombia shows us that a military and police effort that operates without political or economic reforms is doomed to failure.  Cartels will simply use their influence to negotiate terms to their advantage or continue indefinitely their campaign of violence, intimidation, bribery, and extortion.  Some have argued that the fractious nature of drug trafficking caused by the numerous competing cartels in Mexico has led to increased violence and that a domination of the drug trade by one cartel would lead to greater order.  There are even those who claim that the Mexican government is encouraging this outcome and providing assistance to the Sinaloa Cartel.  While this could possibly lead to a reduction in violence it does nothing to address the issue of drug trafficking or corruption and amounts to sweeping the problem under the rug.  Legalization of drugs has also been touted as another possible solution.  Under this view, the legalization of the growth and manufacture of drugs leads to legitimate business driving out illegal cartels, but without the support of the United States this kind of policy is most likely doomed to be unsuccessful as the cartels would still operate illegal smuggling routes into America.  While it can be argued that legalization would stop the cartels from waging war on the state, levels of violence could simply shift to the cartels battling each other for the now legitimate growth and manufacture of drugs, as well as the previously mentioned problem of the illegal importation of the drugs into America.

The military and policing strategy currently employed by Mexico is a logical and necessary first step response to drug cartel violence, but such a strategy cannot achieve its objectives when taken alone.  Successful change can only come from profound economic, social, and political reforms that reduce corruption, restore the ability of the state to control its territory, and renew the people’s trust in their government.  Mexico has suffered four years of misguided policy; the question is whether they can survive another four.