19 August 2014

'Secret' App on Thin Ice in Balmy Brazil

It may be hard to keep Secret in Brazil (pun intended). Judge Paulo Cesar de Carvalho of the 5th Civil Court of Vitória has issued an injunction ordering the removal of the Secret app from availability to people in Brazil, and further demands that the app be removed from smartphones throughout the country.  This according to a late-breaking report from Estadão.

Earlier in the week Estadão reported on the civil action in more detail. relating that the Public Ministry of the state of Espírito Santo (a public prosecutor's office of the government similar to the state Attorney General's office in the United States) had sought the removal of the 'Secret' app from Apple and Google app stores, as well as its removal from devices that already had it installed.

A prosecutor in the city of Vitória initiated a civil action last Friday asking that the app stores from Google, Apple and Microsoft make the app unavailable for Brazilians. According to public prosecutor Marcelo Zenkner, "the Brazilian Constitution does not allow anonymity. Therefore, this application has to be uprooted."

Zenkner says he's been contacted by victims in his state who claimed they were being harmed by posts made ​​anonymously via the application. The prosecutor cited as an example a student that stopped going to school due to rumors spread via Secret by classmates. In other words, cyberbullying is in play here. As he puts it in rather picturesque fashion: "The person is suffering 'bullying' without knowing who is attacking. It's like being in a dark room being beat up."

The prosecutor also says that the application not being based in the country hinders the removal of content that offends the image and honor of its members. "There are mechanisms for removal, but the complaint must be made in English. To go to court, the judge here has to send a letter of request to an American judge via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an expensive and slow process. When you have damage to your reputation, a single day is already a long time."

The anonymous messaging service is further criticized for not presenting its Terms of Use and Privacy in Portuguese, which would violate Brazil's Code of Consumer Protection. The law makes it clear that these terms must be available in straightforward, plain-spoken Portuguese. Though this makes sense to me, I can't help wondering at the same time what the impact would be if every app had to present its terms of use and privacy in every language in the world. Perhaps some boilerplate copy could be used, thought this might well introduce legal risk for app developers as well if the terms do not apply correctly.

Secret is distributed in Brazil via Apples App Store and the Google Play application. For Windows phones the service is available through a different app, called Cryptic. The user must login using his or her mobile number or Facebook account, and can post messages or pictures without their identity being revealed. Since this information is stored by the app, it is debatable whether the app can truly be described as completely "anonymous."

In addition to the request for the removal of applications of virtual stores, the prosecutor also sought that the companies responsible for the operating systems (Apple and its iOS, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows Phone) remove the applications already installed on smartphones. I'm not sure how this will work, although I've given to understand that it's possible. When Flappy Bird was taken down by its owner, for example, it remained on the smartphones of users as long as they did not delete it. Perhaps there's a mechanism in place for pulling such apps. I'll be interested to find out.

The civil action was referred to the 5th Civil Court of Victoria. After receiving the notification, the companies have 10 days to remove the app and delete it from users' smartphones. The daily fine provided for noncompliance is R$ 30,000, roughly equivalent to US$13,245 at current rates

What we are seeing here is a very different culture of freedom and anonymity from that of the United States, where Secret is hosted. The Brazilian constitution prohibits anonymity in order to prevent people from causing damage to others with impunity, not allowing for defense. As I mentioned above, Secret has user information, including either phone number or Facebook profile (for login) as well as usage, so it would be possible through legal action to have a judge request this information. Secret's anonymity is ultimately an illusion that could well be dispelled through individual cases even if the judge's decision is somehow reversed

See Also:

That Last 10% of Perversity

Languages have long fascinated me. As I child I taught myself "Pig Latin" and then explained it to a select few classmates. Later, as a teenager I made creating artificial languages my hobby. That was just before the Internet Age began, so I was without any external support and on my own in the endeavor. At the university I took Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament of the Bible was written. I can still pronounce words in Koine Greek and recognize most of the vocabulary, despite not having continued using that language. Also in college, once I was online, I discovered Esperanto. I loved this artificial language with its simplified grammar and funky sound. It actually helped me quite a bit when I came to Brazil for the first time in 1997, as it gave me a basis for making association. In other words, Esperanto gave me the tools to get a foothold in Portuguese.

If given the choice, I'd much rather read Brazilian literature in the original Portuguese, not in translation. The first book I read cover-to-cover in Portuguese was Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist." I'm certain something of the richness of the text would have been lost to me had I read it in English.

Though I teach English in Brazil, aside from my role as a product manager with The Loop, I spend most of my day speaking, hearing, reading and writing in Portuguese. Oh sure, there's this blog I keep in English, but that's about it. Despite my high fluency in Portuguese, I agree with the sentiment expressed in the audio below. In Portuguese I'm still missing "that last 10% of perversity." There's a 'zing' that's missing when I speak in Portuguese, no matter how well I'm doing with it. Though that's a shame, I'm certainly glad to speak the language as well as I do. This ability has opened my world up and even helped me to think differently than I did in English alone. It seems to me that languages are bound tightly not only to culture, but also deeply in a shared worldview.

The New Yorker interview below is about what I've shared here, and is worth a listen.

See Also:

18 August 2014

Book Review: In the Beauty of the Lilies

''At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct -- a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.'' 

"In the Beauty of the Lilies" is the first novel by John Updike that I've ever read. That being the case, I can't compare it to his other work. This novel was entrancing, in any event.

What struck me first what Updike's attention to detail. It was easy to get lost in his verbose descriptions of household items and the patterns in woodwork. In the first few pages I was already considering setting the book aside because of all the minutiae covered. It's a very good thing I slogged on, as the book most definitely paid back my effort.

The story spans 4 generations of a single family, and most impressive to me was how it all felt written in period. Even the language used as far back as the first decades of the 20th century sounded accurate, and the descriptions of locations and customs virtually transported the me to the scenes described. It was a particularly odd feeling to hear Paterson, New Jersey and Manhattan discussed, as I lived and worked in the northern NJ, metropolitan NYC area for around a decade. It was as if having lived there, I really didn't know the place at all.

Everything begins with a Presbyterian pastor, Clarence Wilmot, losing his faith. Well, really, the novel begins with an actress filming a silent movie in New Jersey passing out from the heat. Really, the two events have much to do with each other and with the remainder of the novel. Just as easily as the actress was overcome and lost consciousness, falling from a horse, so Pastor Wilmot's faith was overthrown not by doubt, but rather by certainty that there is no God.

The two threads that run most prominently through this narrative, over the 4 generations, seem to be passivity and films. Clarence Wilmot was almost ridiculously passive, losing his faith and then simply quitting the one job he knew how to do, despite even his regional denominational director attempting to convince him to stay in the ministry. His was a stubborn passivity, something that recurs throughout the following generations of his family. The other thread, that of films, comes up as each generation continues a love affair with the big screen, culminating in Clarence's granddaughter becoming a legendary actress (although clearly in a universe parallel to our own, as none of the films attributed to her really exist).

Returning to the Reverand Wilmot, as I have much to say about him, his stubborn passivity was absolute folly. Everyone tried to stop him, including -- as I mentioned above -- his denominational adviser. This latter tried to dissuade him with reassurances that there are many progressive, even liberal religious options. Wilmot could remain in active ministry even while not truly believing in the literal existence of any god. Wilmot's pious wife suffered terribly, though not so much because of the matter of faith. She went from an essentially middle-class existence to living hand-to-mouth because her foolish husband insisting on quitting the ministry, even without any other marketable job skills.

The parson's defeat is something I simply can't understand. Even in those days it would have been possible to have switched over to the Unitarian denomination, as it then existed, had he preferred to be more open with his non-theistic views. Anything to go on living and supporting his family, doing what he knew best and helping people along the way.

This passivity was expressed not only in Clarence's fall into unbelief, but also in one of his son's drift into postal service work, his granddaughter's tumble into countless beds (again, a decidedly stubborn passivity) and his great-grandson's meander into a religious cult.

Two other themes run strongly through this book: sex and religion. The granddaughter in particular is especially promiscuous, offering herself even to her cousin only hours after first meeting him in New York (it didn't go as she expected). It's funny that this is the case, as the girl was a Presbyterian and quite convinced, at least at first, that drinking alcohol was completely unacceptable. She had apparently learned temperance from her upbringing, but nothing about chastity or sexual purity. It is further strange that despite her religious background and the fact she prayed well into adulthood, she didn't bother to pass along any of these beliefs to her son.

It took me about two weeks of fairly regular reading to plow through this book, and it was quite a story to take in. There would certainly be no satisfying way to tell such an ambitious tale of multiple generations in a shorter book. "In the Beauty of the Lilies" most certainly deserves to be considered a classic in years to come. It's thought provoking and simply a book you can sort of move into and take up residence for a while.

See Also:
Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

17 August 2014

'Church' Options for Non-Theists

"A Humanistic community can and should be a place where members feel support and encouragement, where they and their family members can learn more about their values and tradition, where they can engage with other like-minded persons in social justice work, and where they are part of a caring community." - Rev. William Murry

Several years ago a friend commented to me that he sometimes wished there were options for atheists to gather in something like church. A father, he wasn't interested in getting his family involved in even a liberal church of any kind. What he wanted was community and shared values. At that time I'd heard inklings of such groups forming, but it was only in more recent years that  non-theistic 'churches' have begun to gain notoriety.

In recent weeks I've blogged about a few alternatives for atheists looking for community. In this post I'm bringing together what I've learned so far and sharing it in the interests of getting word out. There's no reason for atheists/agnostics, whether self-describing as humanists, skeptics, freethinkers or "none-of-the-above," should feel like they have to go it alone.

Before anything else, a couple of points. First, although these groups are either atheistic in nature or else welcome atheists, none are "anti-theistic." The term I'd use would be non-theistic. In other words, don't go looking for a gripe-fest about religions. Keep it positive. Second, take the time to look deeper into what each group stands for and what they do before making any commitment. If you live someplace that has more than one of these groups in the area, check them all out and get a feel for what they're like. Have a little patience too, not judging an organization on a single gathering (we all have 'off' days) and not setting your expectations too high. Look for the good while evaluating honestly.

Unitarian Universalist Association
The first organization under consideration is one that isn't even expressly atheistic, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Founded in 1961 with the union of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, the UUA welcomes people from all faith traditions as well as humanists and others into a liberal religious environment. The line of particular interest here from the UUA's Principles and Purposes, speaking of sources for the denomination's perspective, is as follows: "Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit."

There are explicitly humanist congregations in the UUA, such as First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. This particular group has even played host to the Sunday Assembly currently in formation in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The majority of UUA congregations, however, are more inclusive than anything else. This means that an atheist in attendance would need to be willing to hear "god-talk" during the service. Some churches, like All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma have a humanist service on the Sunday schedule. There is a Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association which is very active in promoting humanism within the denomination. My best advice with regard to the UUA is to check for local congregations, do a little investigating and check it out. Click here to find a UUA congregation near you.
Ethical Culture
Non-theistic gatherings are making headlines now, but Ethical Culture has been around for well over a century, bringing people together to do good without doctrine and under the banner of reason. Though this is a relatively small group, numbering only around 25 societies in the United States, the effects of its labor have been far-reaching. Most importantly for atheists, this group is expressly humanist in nature. The various autonomous societies are connected through the American Ethical Union, which in turn is affiliated with the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Click here to find an Ethical Society in your area.
Sunday Assembly
The better-known of the nontheistic groups in recent times, Sunday Assembly has been making headlines since its first group started up in London in January 2013. Dubbed "the atheist church" by the media, Sunday Assembly promotes itself as "all the best bits of church, but with no religion, and awesome pop songs!" By "no religion" they mean no supernatural beliefs. However, there's no restriction on theists of whatever stripe joining in, even saying officially "We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do." From the website:
The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.
Of all the groups reviewed, Sunday Assembly is the most "evangelistic," making it relatively simple for people serious about starting a local assembly to do so. A major push is underway to launch 100 new assemblies around the world on 28 September 2014. Click here to find a Sunday Assembly local to you, and here to find out how to start your own.
Houston Oasis & Kansas City Oasis
Naming this section was a bit awkward, as I'm not certain whether I should be speaking of an "Oasis network" or of the "Oases" individually. In any event, the Houston Oasis was founded first by Mike Aus, a former Lutheran minister who went through The Clergy Project as he left theism behind. Houston Oasis, and its sister gathering in Kansas City, exists to provide community and action based on shared values and ideals.
Fellowship of Freethought Dallas
Fellowship of Freethought Dallas (FoFD) began in January 2010. FoFD is a member group of the Dallas–Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, which in turn is affiliated with the United Coalition of Reason. This latter makes common cause with the American Humanist Association. Additionally, FoFD is also a member organization of Foundation Beyond Belief's volunteer network.

The motto of FoFD is Freethought, Fellowship, Friendship, and Family. These are represented on the four petals of the pansy on their logo. This group aims to be replicated, and so the logo and content related to the organization's purpose and vision is under a Creative Commons copyright. Anyone who wants to know how to get started with a Fellowship of Freethought in their area should reach out to Zachary Moore.
There are most certainly more non-theistic communities around than what I've listed here. I've heard of others and will follow up as time permits. If you do not believe in the supernatural, prefer an evidence-based approach to life and don't want to go it alone, I encourage you to seek out one of the groups below or something similar in your area. If nothing seems to exist, why not try to find others and get something started? In the end, all we really have is each other.