Jason Halek, Website Vandal

One of my duties at work is to be an admin on a company wiki, which largely consists of cleaning up spam entries thrown in there by black-hat search engine companies. They link to their clients’ sites with the search term they’re trying to boost, and places like Google see the link as a “vote” from a respectable company like ours, for the relevance of the search terms and the target site. Usually, it’s the standard mix of pharmaceuticals, weight-loss products, etc. much like your spam folder, but the other day, I noticed an odd one. The name “Jason Halek” had been inserted into a page, linking to his name as a . net domain [For obvious reasons, I’m not going to link to any of the sites in question].

I was mildly intrigued, especially as the destination site had two articles, headlined: “Jason Halek Makes Life-Changing Impact On Texas Children” and “Jason Halek Reaches Out To Disadvantaged Children Through Halek Charities” Who was Jason Halek, and why was he so keen to make sure his name was linked to these charitable enterprises, that he apparently paid for the services of a company to deface another website?

Naturally, I started with a Google; after the site above, and what appears to be a Facebook and Twitter account (the latter mostly re-Tweets of Donald Trump!), the first result was to his name as a .org, headlined “Jason Halek’s Personal Statement”, with one entry: “Jason Halek, in his own words.” Which it certainly does not appear to be, unless Mr. Halek believes in referring to himself entirely in the third person. Here’s a sample, to show you what I mean:

Jason Halek has never, however, intentionally attempted to misrepresent himself, his business, or investments relating to his business to anyone in any way, and would never dream of doing so. Jason Halek feels strongly that he was unfairly targeted and persecuted by certain individuals and agencies to further their own agendas rather than seek the truth, although he made every effort to cooperate with inquiries and accusations with transparency, honesty, and accurate information. Jason Halek had enormous pressure placed upon himself from a government agency at a time when he did not have the financial ability to defend himself.  The claims made against him were completely unfounded, and Jason Halek believes the agency and individuals within the agency were aware of this fact, but nevertheless continued to pursue it.

Ooooh… If I was curious before about Mr. Halek, now I’m downright intrigued. What had happened? The absolute vagueness of the statement There seemed to be a clue in the last couple of sentences, which said “Together they have unlocked many production secrets and will continue to produce large amounts of oil and gas that were previously thought to be unrecoverable.” But the first couple of pages of results appear to all be planted articles, since the start of October, with headlines like “Jason Halek Creates Inspirational Nonprofit Organization” and “Jason Halek Supports Wounded Veterans”. I was also expecting to see, “Jason Halek Personally Saves Kittens From Tree” and “Jason Halek Nice To Orphans: Fact”.

But, finally, after 19 entries largely comparing Mr. Halek favourably to Mother Teresa, we hit pay-dirt, and a link to a press-release from the SEC, which I will link to using the term Jason Halek

The Commission’s complaint alleges that, between June 2007 and September 2009, Jason Halek, Halek Energy and CBO Energy raised approximately $22 million from at least 300 investors nationwide by making materially false and misleading statements about the risks of the oil and gas projects, the use of investor funds, and potential returns from the investments. The complaint further alleges that Jason Halek knew these representations were false and that the vast majority of the oil or gas projects never provided the promised returns to investors.

If you have any doubts it’s worth reading the complaint against Jason Halek in full, which provides particularly damning details of the specifics.

The projects in which Halek Energy and CBO Energy offered interests were “wildcats,” meaning that they were speculative plays in areas not previously known to have significant oil or gas production. The oil and gas wells near these projects lacked any history of significant production to support the PPMs’ projections. The wildcat nature of these wells was not disclosed to investors.

The probable and possible ROt figures were formulated by a Halek Energy employee who had no oil and gas experience. The employee, with Halek’s consent, merely extrapolated data from wells he deemed comparable to the Halek Energy and CBO Energy leases. The employee’s methods were unreliable. Among other things, he did not consider, and was not qualified to evaluate, the different geological conditions that existed between the wells, which could greatly affect prospective production.

Moreover, he used data that was flatly contrary to actual results from wells that surrounded the Halek Energy and CBO Energy prospects… For example, the PPM for the King prospect projected that the wells would produce between 100-300 barrels of oil and 1,000-3,000 MCF gas per day. In fact, there were very few producing wells near the prospect – and none producing at the levels the employee projected. Additionally, Halek Energy performed no additional tests to determine if its wells could be productive. Investors were not told any of these facts.

Damn. No wonder he’s desperate to clean up his image. Desperate enough to pay black-hat companies to post fake – or at least, incomplete – accounts of his recent activities, and then vandalize third-party websites to promote these. It seems to be a concerted effort to swamp existing websites about Jason Halek like halekenergy.com, which contains nothing except “Bankruptcy Related Information”, with sentences such as, “Some investors have indicated issues with checks. These will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.” In the light of this, maybe Mr. Halek should be less concerned about giving money to charity, then paying his company creditors.

Mr. Halek does seem to have a bit of a reputation. Witness this post, apparently concerning Jason Halek, from a penny stocks forum, dating back to February 2007:

If anyone has any doubt that this is a classic pump & dump scam then consider the follow:

Try contacting Desmond.  His phone is no longer in service.

Try contacting him thru the ecarfly website…goodluck on that!

Remember the last of the many, many “almost mergers” with Magnum?  Well Magnum is owned by Jason Halek, who also owns Halek Auto on Harry Hines Blvd in Dallas.  Has anyone reading this post ever been to Harry Hines Blvd in Dallas?  I live in Dallas and Harry Hines Blvd is where all the hookers work.  I’ts a very trashy part of town.  Lots of porn stores, strip joints and pawn shops…oh, lets not forget the drug dealers too! Halek Auto is simply a low end used car lot. Do you really think a used car dealer in a hooker drug invested area is really going to be drilling for oil and make you rich?   Ha! If you do then I have some ECFL stock to sell you.

There are some amusing bits of blowback from the flood of Halek-related content. One site – in among the motivational quotes such as “Persistence is one of the most common qualities of great achievers” – had the following.

I don’t know about you, but this image doesn’t exactly scream “oil magnate,” does it? More like “Texas swamp”. I am not a petrochemical geologist, nor do I play one on TV. But if someone came to me with an investment opportunity, giving me the chance to commit my funds to “one of Jason Halek’s recent projects,” you’d have to be blind not to see the problems. And I mean that literally, given this FBI press-release, which says that in addition to the SEC charges listed above, they “also charged Priscilla Sabado, a broker-dealer and investment adviser representative at AXA Adisors, LLC, with fraudulently selling Halek Energy interests to her clients, including a financially unsophisticated 24-year old blind man.”

I have to say, I’m impressed with the fictitious web presence generated on his behalf. It’s a whole network of imaginary friends, whose only contact is with each other – it reminds me more than little ofCatfish. For instance, a webs.com account by “Ericka Reese” has one post – it has two links, one to the .com version of Mr. Halek, the other to a posterous.com account of “Kendall Sheridan”, whose solitary entry has one link – yep, to the .com. But the exact text used by Ms. Reese turns up, verbatim, on the YouTube channel – with no videos or  subscribers – belonging to a “Rose McBeal”. And my company’s was not the only wiki vandalizes: Mr. Halek shows up in a whole bunch of them, even the Alfred Hitchcock wiki, as part of the technical information for Marnie…

I have no particular opinion on Mr. Halek, but when someone is going to such extreme measures to whitewash the Internet of his presence, I feel almost obligated to dig around and find out what exactly they are trying to whitewash. In this case, it’s pretty clear what that is, and when their efforts involve vandalizing other people’s sites to try and bury the past in a blizzard of irrelevance, I have an overwhelming urge to try, in my own small way, to push back against their unpleasant techniques.

Update, September 2013
A lot more information regarding Halek has since come to light, largely explaining why he was so keen to apply Internet spin to the sites out there. EnergyWire had a particularly good article covering Jason Halek and his history, depicting a litany of shady practices from environmental violations to securities fraud. And last month, the Dallas Observer described Jason Halek as “a flim-flam man,” covering similar ground as it reported that “The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he does in fact owe some $26 million for the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains.” A Google search for his name includes both the above stories on the front page, despite Halek’s best efforts. You can run, but you can’t hide…

Update, September 2017

Dismissing recommendations from federal prosecutors, and a defendant’s guilty plea, Federal Judge Daniel Hovland handed down a sentence for a Texas businessman that includes no jail time, just three years probation and six months in a halfway house. Jason Halek, of Southlake, Texas, was also ordered to make $71 million dollars in restitution for the environmental problems caused by his North Dakota disposal well and the fraudulent sale of investments in Texas oil and gas projects. Following the hearing, his attorney admitted there was no way Halek could ever make restitution of that amount.


Update, May 2019

The Securities and Exchange Commission instituted this proceeding pursuant to Section 15(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 on June 7, 2018. This proceeding is based on the civil injunction entered against Respondent Jason A. Halek in a 2014 lawsuit. See OIP at 2. The order instituting proceedings (OIP) reiterates the same llegations as the 2014 lawsuit—that is, between September 2009 and June 2010, Halek operated as an unregistered broker-dealer and fraudulently offered and sold unregistered securities… I GRANT the Division of Enforcement’s motion for summary disposition. I ORDER that, pursuant to Section 15(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, Jason A. Halek is BARRED from association with any broker or dealer.

SEC Ruling

My Journey Into The Hell Of Amazon Customer Support

It was my sister Pat’s birthday last week. I thought it would be nice, as a last-minute present. to get her a gift-certificate from Amazon.co.uk. Very simple: hop on their website, buy a certificate, and they’ll send her an email with the code. What could possibly be more painless?

Well… The long list of things which now fall into that category include items such as “being dragged backwards over shards of broken glass while having your prostate checked by an enthusiastic doctor with extremely fat fingers”. Let’s say, as far as customer service goes, Amazon are not among the finest companies with which I have dealt.

After the jump, you’ll find the whole sorry saga. Go get a cup of coffee. And a sandwich.

Birthday + 3 days. The first inkling I got of any trouble was when my Pat replied to my birthday wishes, saying, “An e mail from Amazon – no sign. I don’t check every day, but there is nothing today or previously.” Oh-oh… So, I tried to log in to my Amazon account and check. However, my password was rejected. No big: I have a few I use, so I requested a password reset link, and reset my password. Still wouldn’t let me in. I tried with another password reset. I’m even getting the message that my account has been updated, but still, nothing. Restarted my browser. Rejected. Tried in Chrome. Uh-uh. Used Chris’s computer. None shall pass.  So, I filled in the form on the website, begging for help.

Birthday +4 days. And, whether coincidentally or not, I got this email:

Dear Customer,
Thank you for your recent order xxx-xxx-xxxx. Your account and order are currently on hold while we verify your order.

We have left a message at the telephone number associated with the card used with further instructions. In order to verify this transaction, please contact us as requested in our telephone message.

Unfortunately, we are unable to proceed with this order until we have received a response to our answer phone message. If we do not receive a response within 3 days your order will be cancelled.

Thank you for your patience and understanding. We look forward to hearing from you shortly.


Account Specialist

Ok, fair enough. It was an order placed from America, going to a British address. I can see how that could have raised red flags. I checked my voice-mail, and yes, there was a message. It was barely intelligible, delivered by a heavily-accented South Asian apparently reading from a script scrawled by a doctor on the back of a napkin, but it was there. And it had a telephone number! Surely my sister was now within reach of her present…

Not so fast. The guy gave the number twice, but it wasn’t actually the same number. Heck, it didn’t actually have the same number of numbers. [Yay for minimum-wage outsourcing!] A bigger problem soon surfaced. Both numbers were 0800 toll-free ones – utterly unusable from America. It was 7pm Arizona time, too late to so anything about it that day.

Birthday +5 days. After a good deal of hunting around the Internet, I track down a number for Amazon customer service that can be called internationally. In case anyone else is wanting it, here it is: 0207 084 7911. I call, speak to another person who is apparently closer to the Amazon than the UK, and am promised someone will call me back within 24 hours to verify the order.

Momentarily overcome with madness, I believe this promise. Oh, I can just imagine the call-center staff chuckling after I hung up the phone: “Hahahaha! Chalk up another victory over the British Raj!” Yeah, as somebody who used to be the one making those promises, I should really have known better. You will not be surprised to hear that 24 hours passed, and my telephone was completely untroubled by any contact from Amazon.co.uk.

Birthday +6 days. I adopt a different tack. I try Amazon.com, first attempting their live chat service.

You are now connected to Arun Kumar from Amazon.com.

Me: I’m hoping you can help – the order referenced was placed with Amazon.co.uk, as a birthday present for my sister, but they put it on hold and I have not been able to contact them.

Arun Kumar: Hello, my name is Arun. I’ll be happy to help you.

Arun Kumar: It appears your account and order are on hold at the moment, so I’m unable to view your account. I’ll need to transfer your information to an account specialist, and they’ll get back to you within 24 hours.
Arun Kumar: Could you provide me with the following information, so I can make sure that it is passed onto the Account Specialists.
Arun Kumar: 1. Order # (If applicable):
Arun Kumar: 2. Billing address the bank has on file:
Arun Kumar: 3. Phone number the bank has on file:
Arun Kumar: 4. Contact phone number for your bank (found on your statement, or the back of your card):
Arun Kumar: 5. Any other comments or concerns you’d like me to forward:

Me: I have already done this, and was told someone would be calling me within 24 hours. That has not happened.
Me: This was supposed to be a birthday present, but it has now been five days.

Arun Kumar: I’m sorry you’ve not received a contact from us. I’ll make a note on your account for this.9:27:19 AM
Arun Kumar: So that they will contact you sooner.

Me: I am happy to call them, but need a number I can actually call from the US.
Me: What is the number for that department?

Arun Kumar: Unfortunately, they do not have a phone number to contact. Possibly they will contact you sooner.
Arun Kumar: Thank you for visiting Amazon.com.
Arun Kumar: We hope to see you again soon!
Arun Kumar from Amazon.com has left the conversation.

Yep: I got hung-up on by a live chat customer support agent, before I could even point out that I know they do have a phone number to contact (albeit a useless one for me), because they left it for me in a voice-mail. I then call Amazon’s number, only to be told by the girl – who sounded like she was on her first day on the job – that they couldn’t help with Amazon.co.uk orders and I’d have to contact them directly. Clearly, information of which Amazon chat had not been made aware. She provided exactly the same number I had already found.  Since she was clearly a n00b, I restrained myself.

But, hey, what the heck. Called Amazon.co.uk support, asked to speak to a supervisor. Got through to one, explained the problem… And the call was disconnected. Whether deliberately or by happy accident from her point of view, I don’t know. Convenient, though. I called back, now royally pissed, and asked for another supervisor. Got the “I’ll put a note on your account” argument. BANG – you’ve already done that, mate. Got the “They don’t have a direct number” argument. BANG – so what is this on my voice-mail, Scotch mist? I unloaded on the man, slating Amazon’s incompetence, shoddy business practices, poor customer support, disdain for their client base and direct responsibility for global warming.

Did I get anywhere? Of course not: just more assurances someone will call me back within 24 hours. But I certainly felt a lot better for it. It’s very cleansing to yell at someone, even if they are only tangentially responsible for the actual problem.  While waiting for the promised call, I thought I had perhaps found a work-around. Buy a card from Amazon.com, and she can use it at Amazon.co.uk! Or not. “Amazon gift cards can only be used at the issuing website.” [Shakes fist in air] Curse you, Amazon! That’s nailed that one down. Think I might as well give up and send my sister a set of towels.

Birthday +7 days. Another email received overnight, exactly the same as the one on Order +3. No voice mail or additional information. In fact, no indication Amazon actually tried this time: my phone showed no missed calls.

I realize that what I have gone through corresponds nicely to the Five Stages of Grief:
1) Denial – “Must be something wrong with my computer…”
2) Anger – “F*** Amazon!”
3) Bargaining – “I am happy to call them, but need a number I can actually call from the US.”
4) Depression – “I think I might as well give up.”
5) Acceptance – I guess this is where I now sit, and am strangely comfortable with this. It has certainly been a learning experience – specifically, I learned not to buy anything from Amazon ever again.

Much though I’d like to reveal a happy ending, with an apology from Amazon for their dreadful service, there is none. However, a degree of closure was obtained, since I phoned them up this morning and cancelled the order. Well, I think I did. I got exactly the same BS that the “information will be passed on to the account specialist”, i.e. exactly the same as I’ve been told in all my previous conversations, without any positive results. Needless to say, I strongly suspect the order will not be canceled, and I’ll need to file a chargeback with my credit-card company. Trust me, I will…

I’m really sorry it didn’t work out, Pat. But, hopefully. you will at least appreciate, that this was the most troublesome, problematic non-gift you didn’t receive this birthday.

Torrenting. You’re Doing It Wrong

Curiously, a couple of days after our article on ethical piracy, we got a cease-and-desist letter from our Internet service provider, telling us that they had received a complain regarding copyrighted material being shared from our IP address. Hmmm… Coincidence? Or something more sinister!!!!?!?! Actually, no, I think it was just coincidence, as the files in question actually were our son’s responsibility. We had to have The Talk with him, expressing our severe disappointment that he had been busted; and, in particular, that it was for episodes of Eureka. Sheesh. I think we’d have preferred it to have been German scat porn.

Naturally, we are complying with our ISP’s request, because sharing copyrighted material is bad, m’kay? But, if we were still doing so, here are a few simple steps we would probably be taking, to avoid incurring the wrath of the entertainment industry.

1. Avoid the obvious stuff. The MPAA, RIAA, etc. are driven by money, and they naturally concentrate their anti-piracy efforts on what is driving their revenue stream. That means movies that are still in cinemas, TV shows currently in their first run, newly-released CDs, etc. These are what they are monitoring for, so should generally be avoided. There’s enough interesting stuff out there, you shouldn’t need to be obsessed with getting the “latest” films.

2. Sharing is not caring. Leeching – downloading without uploading – is a good deal safer. ISP’s act on complaints from copyright holders, and it is relatively easy for them to tell who has a file available for sharing, compared to working out who has downloaded it. Once you’ve grabbed a file, remove the torrent so that it is no longer accessible by others online. Selfish? Yep. Safer? Definitely.

3. Make things somewhat tricky. It doesn’t take much, like the proverb says. You don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than the guy next to you. Simple steps like encrypting your torrent connection will help make things tougher, rather than operating an open door policy for anyone who wants to waltz in and see what’s in your Download directory.

4. Use Peerblock. This is an application which has an updated list of IP addresses belonging to the “bad guys” (from your point of view, this means media companies, Internet service providers, and so on) and will block them from making connection attempts to your PC. While, not fool-proof, and it can occasionally interfere with accessing things like newspaper websites, the application makes it tough enough the watchdogs will generally go after some other, lower-hanging fruit.

5. Use an intermediary. For about ten euros a month, you can buy yourself a “seedbox” – a share on a standalone computer, which you can use as the torrent box. It does all the downloading, rather than your PC, and since it’s not your IP address, your ISP won’t care. When the download is finished, you connect to the seedbox and retrieve your content over http, just like accessing any other website. If that’s too much effort, use a free service like torrific.com – you give them the torrent file, and they download it onto their server. No more torrent traffic.

6. Private trackers. These are sites where, to access the torrents, you need first to login. The torrent has additional information attached to it, that means only other members can see and share it. Generally these sites are themed, specializing in say, British TV, cult movies or Asian films, and some are invite only. There’s nothing to stop the MPAA from signing up for a membership, but there’s enough people using public trackers like The Pirate Bay, that it’s not worth the hassle.

7. Open All Hours. It seems a reasonable assumption to make that those hunting you down – both on the copyright holder’s side and at your hosting company – are doing so as a job, and thus likely work business hours, i.e. 9-5 Mon-Fri. There is therefore less chance of being nabbed if you kick your Torrent application on late on a Friday night, and then switch it off Sunday evening, or otherwise use non-peak hours.

8. Hide in plain sight. Don’t just Torrent illegal stuff. There’s plenty of public-domain movies, music and software out there that are perfectly legal to share over a Torrent. If you are doing that on a regular basis, then this will provide a background hum of legitimate traffic that will be less likely to draw the attention of your ISP. You may never watch that copy of Atom-Age Vampire, but it can still serve a purpose.

9. Stick to trusted sources. One recent trick used by authorities is to become seeders themselves, announcing a great-quality torrent of hot new release X. But anyone who connects to this gets their IP address immediately harvested, and passed on to their provider for action. As mentioned before, avoiding “hot new torrents” will help, but sticking to torrents posted by users who have a previous good history is even better.

10. Move out of the UK. Sorry, guys. The Digital Economy Act, passed by Parliament shortly before the election, is a scary piece of legislation, that gives the government wide-ranging powers to cut off Internet access to broadband users accused of file-sharing, and also block access to sites that are “likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright.” You guys have fun with that…

In Support of Ethical Piracy

My name’s Jim, and I am an ethical pirate. The music and film industry would have you believe that downloading “their” material is wrong, an approach best summed up as “Piracy is stealing, mkay?” But, the reality of it is, that the morality is a great deal less clear-cut. Here, courtesy of an interesting series of articles, well ahead of the curve, from David Pogue are some hypothetical scenarios, all of which describe what is technically piracy. How many of them do you think are morally wrong?

  • I own a certain CD, but it got scratched. So I borrow the same CD from the library and rip it to my computer.
  • I have 2,000 vinyl records. So I borrow some of the same albums on CD from the library and rip those.
  • I buy a DVD. But I’m worried about its longevity, so I make a safety copy.
  • I meant to record a movie – perfectly legal – but my recorder malfunctioned. My buddy recorded it, so I copy his DVD
  • I meant to record a movie, but my recorder malfunctioned and I don’t have a buddy who recorded it. So I rent the movie from Blockbuster and copy that.

Before getting into the ethics of the topic, let’s nail a few myths. First, the one that piracy is somehow destroying Hollywood. In 2009, total US box-office was the highest ever, exceeding ten billion dollars for the first time, and outpacing the previous mark by almost 10%. Even the raw number of tickets sold – thus removing the effects both of inflation and high-priced 3D screenings – was the highest since 2004. And that’s despite the fact the 12% fewer movies were released than in the previous year. Doesn’t exactly sound like an industry in crisis, does it?

That’s in part because the movie business learned some things from the horrific errors of their musical brothers, who sat around with their thumbs up their asses, refusing to adapt and embrace legal downloading, or accept the realities of the new marketplace. Physical CDs were deemed untouchable until it was too late. The result? “U.S. album sales in 2009 declined for the eighth time in nine years,” and even including digital downloads, overall numbers dropped by 8.5% on the 2008 number.

And no wonder: the CD is basically the same now, as it was when they were introduced in 1982, no better or cheaper. In contrast, the movie industry has vastly improved the theatrical experience with things like Dolby, THX and now 3D [though Chris might argue whether “improved” is the right word for the last!]. The “added value” means that going to the cinema still remains an entirely different experience from downloading a film and watching it at home; there’s no such separation between a bought and downloaded CD.

Not that the process has been without its flaws.  For instance, regional coding of DVDs, intended to protect copyright has actually done quite the opposite. There are many DVDs out there that are unavailable in NTSC, Region 1 format, and so are not compatible with my system. If I want to see these movies, the only options are black-market providers of one kind or another. This means that rather than one rights owner – albeit, perhaps not the geographically “correct” one – getting payment for the work in question, nobody does. Well done, movie industry! Would you like to reload and try for the other foot too?

If you look at DVD sales, there has been a recent dip, dropping 13 percent from 2008-09 to $8.73 billion, down from $10.06 billion. Interestingly, this drop almost exactly balances the increase at the cinema, meaning that overall movie spending remained almost static last year – an impressive feat given the ongoing economic issues of recent times.  The DVD drop may also reflect that the stock of older movies people actually want to see has now largely been mined out – #1 on TCM’s list of “classic” movies unavailable on DVD is now So Big, a 1953 Jane Wyman vehicle which I don’t give a damn about, and am pretty sure you don’t either.

However, I note there is little or no resistance to other methods of films being seen, which also result in no payment being received by the creators or distributors. For instance, ever watched a DVD borrowed from a friend? Or perhaps, rather than buying a new copy of a movie, instead opted to buy a cheap, second-hand DVD? For that also “robs” the studio of income they would have had. Among the biggest culprits there are Blockbuster and their massive piles of ex-rental DVDs [well, assuming you can find a branch that hasn’t shut down, anyway…], but no-one claims this is “financing terrorism.”

Which brings me naturally to the dubious claims of the MPAA and its associates that video piracy equates to organized crime and terrorism. I’ve no doubt that organized crime use it as a fund-raiser: it’s a low-risk and potentially lucrative trade, so merits no more than a “Well, duh…” response there. But the sweeping generalization connecting the two is laughable. The vast majority of people who download movies are not organized criminals or terrorists, and the near-hysterical attempts by the business to label them all as such, are manna for parodies, such as the one below from The IT Crowd.

YouTube video

The key difference between myself and large-scale, commercial pirates – I should stress, I have no problems with the industry going after them – is that I have basically zero interest in downloading Twilight: Eclipse or The Last Airbender. My interest in downloading material is limited to two areas: replacement and obscurities. And it’s here that we enter the realms of “ethical” piracy – the unofficial downloading of material, that technically breaches copyright law but is, to an extent, morally justified. Let’s go into each of these categories in more detail, starting with format replacement.

Take Blade Runner. I have, over the years, bought it on: VHS tape; letterbox VHS tape; laser-disc; DVD; and DVD box-set. All told, I have probably spent about a hundred quid or so, on just a single movie, to keep up with the format changes imposed on my by the industry, with most of my copies now being completely obsolescent. Downloads provide a credible and, to me, entirely legitimate, alternative to this. It’ll remain that way until Hollywood lets me trade in my DVDs for the Blu-Ray version. Contrast music: if I buy a CD, I can rip it to my computer, rather than needing to purchase the MP3 from Itunes.

The need for this became clear during the recent re-view of the TC Top 50, as I found a significant number of movies listed were no longer accessible to me. We don’t even possess a video-recorder of any kind these days, let alone one that can handle PAL tapes – as a result, almost all of our VHS tapes became landfill fodder during the Great Leap Sideways of 2009. I view my replacement of these with digital copies as closer to a basic human right, rather than the threat to the fabric of civilization as we know it, which the MPAA would have you believe.

The last thing I downloaded was a 1982 TV version of The Woman in White, which I remember fondly from my youth, and which had apparently vanished without trace since. It was hardly high-quality, having apparently been ripped from a VHS print. Even viewed on a computer, it looks grainy and choppy: on a big screen, I suspect it would resemble a game of Tetris in period costume. But, still – I was delighted to have it. Of course, after spending gigabytes of bandwidth on that, I discovered days later that it was getting a UK DVD release. Oh, well…

Still, this does illustrate the basic principle, and I have few qualms about downloading material which is simply not available in a legitimate fashion. It’s more than a bit like the VHS-trading community which flourished among the horror community in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when James Furman and the BBFC were in full-on Stalinist mode [“What? Nunchakus?”]. More hi-tech, of course, and a good deal simpler too. No buying of VHS tapes by the box, or kicking off dubs using your two VCRs: by default, when you download a file through BitTorrent, it automatically becomes available for others to share.  Very democratic.

You can also use it to cover unforeseen circumstances, such as when a TV schedule change screws up your recording. We had this just this weekend, when for some reason, MI-5 didn’t start at the scheduled time, which meant our Tivo of it cut off with five crucial minutes remaining – and it’s not on Hulu or any of the other official sources. However, courtesy of the marvellous thebox.bz, a repository for British TV shows, we were able to see the missing chunks immediately. It’s hard to conceive of even the copyright holder truly objecting to this.

If I do have any sympathy, it’s with the group who made the PSA below – porn stars. The Internet was once an open money-pit for the adult entertainment industry, but things have now reached the stage where, if your tastes are for straightforward heterosexual fun at least, you’d be an idiot to pay for it. Still, it’s an industry that has always been on the cutting-edge of technology: VHS, the Internet, home camcorders, etc. so I’m sure they’ll adapt and survive. Maybe the next thing will be 3D-porn? Hey, bet you didn’t see that coming… Er, as it were…

YouTube video

And that’s the way the entertainment industry operates. TV was supposed to kill off the movies, which were supposed to kill off live theatre, which was supposed to kill off… I dunno, gladiatorial combat or something. It didn’t happen. The media which deserve to survive will do so. They may need to change, but even if the impetus for that is morally-doubtful activities such as piracy, can we really say that is a bad thing? Online downloading is a door the industry may not want to open, but there’s a battering ram coming, driven by the 16.7 million seeders currently present at The Pirate Bay. Get in the way if you dare.

Border-ing on the Surreal…

Here in Arizona, we have become the center of a political tornado over the past couple of weeks, thanks to the passing of SB 1070. This law says that when police come into contact with people, they must make “a reasonable attempt…to determine the immigration status of the person,” where “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” Fairly innocuous, really. Not that you could tell by the reactions of some, who have reacted to the bill with hysterical exaggeration, bordering on the offensive.


For instance, the cartoon to the right, which drew a sharp rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League. “We are seeing these offensive and inappropriate Nazi and Holocaust comparisons come to the fore in the public debate once again… There is no comparison between the situation facing immigrants, legal or illegal, in Arizona and what happened in the Holocaust.” Not that this stopped Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane from shrieking much the same idiotic nonsense, telling Reuters Television:

“Nobody but the Nazis ever asked anybody for their papers. Walking down the street, a cop can come up to you and say ‘May I see your papers?’ — I think they should be required to ask that question in German if the law sticks around… That’s more shocking and egregious than anything we’ve ever done on the show.”

Insert picture of a quizzical owl here. O RLY? Apparently, as well as McFarlane’s woeful ignorance of history, it seems he has never flown, rented a car or even bought a beer, because all of those would require as much, if not more, showing of ze paperz than the new law, which explicitly says that an Arizona driving license is all that anyone needs to show. As for his last statement, I was watching an episode of Family Guy this week with this exchange:
Lois Griffin: “Peter, you got me a card, ‘I’m sorry for selling our daughter.'”
Peter Griffin: “Do you know how hard it was to find one of those in English?”
Hard to believe the man concerned is sensitive about “racial profiling.”


That seems to be the main thrust of opposition; that the bill would open the door to police stopping someone based on the colour of their skin. However, the bill explicitly prohibits this, saying officers “may not consider race, color or national origin”. Now, admittedly, as originally written, was certainly badly-constructed: it could have required police to question, for example, a rape victim about her immigration status. Frankly, I’m a bit disturbed it made its way through the legislature without these obvious holes being spotted. But they were quickly addressed when pointed out.

Yet, the misinformation goes on, to a degree that simple ignorance no longer seems plausible – this feels more likely deliberate deceit, to stir up misplaced anger. Witness the Huffington Post saying, “Arizona has a new immigration law that requires police officers to detain anyone who “looks like” an illegal immigrant and fails to produce proof of American citizenship.” That’s factually wrong on just about every level – beyond “Arizona has a new immigration law” – and gives some sad idea of the tone of the debate. Proponents of the bill are all racists; opponents all illegal-lovers. Even the US Attorney General, who had been sharply-critical, admitted, “I have not read it.”

But is the new law necessary? It’s the product of long years of growing frustration in Arizona over the federal government’s failure to act regarding the problem of illegal immigration. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have done anything to fix it over the past 20 years: one in bed with big-business, who enjoy the flow of cheap, non-unionized labour into the country, the other with no desire to alienate a fast-growing ethnic group who has traditionally been rock-solid support for them. Self-interest rules the day, regardless of the cost to the country.

Certainly, about the only thing all sides agree on is that immigration reform is desperately needed. However, it seems pointless to start passing any new laws, when we are completely incapable of enforcing the existing ones. And that, basically, is what SB 1070 is trying to do. Very little of what is included, is not already part of federal law: however, what it does, is require state law officers to get involved in immigration enforcement, when typically, they have largely turned a blind eye to it. It’s important, because at this point, immigration is something where almost all the work is done at or near the points of entry.

While there’s a lot of talk about “securing the borders,” almost half of all illegals entered the country by legal means – they just don’t go home after their visa ran out, for instance. The odds of them then being caught, due to the current lax approach to the law, is very slim. Once you reach a major city, you’re more or less home free. That’s the reality of the current policy, and any “reform” must certainly address what is otherwise a major flaw. I’m all for a better process to emigrate to the US – god knows, it took us far too much time, money and effort to get me a Green Card – but those who bypassed the law and waltzed across from Nogales on a tourist visa, never to return, can not be allowed to jump the queue. Basic principles of fairness should prohibit that.

Polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans, not just those in Arizona, support the new law, and it has been eagerly seized upon by Republicans as a potential tool against the Democrats. There will be legal challenges, and possibly also a ballot measure to overturn it, and that’s how it should be in a democracy. But I think, in the end, the law will stand, albeit perhaps in an amended form: some people may not like it at all, but it seems to me to be a well-founded piece of legislation, stemming from a genuine societal need. At the very least, even if it falls, it will have focused the federal administration on a topic which they have basically abandoned for too long, and if it leads them to take appropriate action, the bill will have served its purpose.