Thursday, 18 September 2008

Wait, old people are protesting anti-smut legislation?

First up this morning, the slightly scary entertaining-sounding news:
Isn't that nice? What's even better is that they are wearing traditional dress while doing it!
Now, to be serious for a moment, this is a fantastic illustrastion of clashes of cultures and "cultural relativity". 
The synopsis is that Bali has an old traditional culture of their own, and the country they're part of, Indonesia, is Muslim. Which, right away, should indicate a problem and, yes, the Islamic dominated parliament has been debating an anti-smut bill intended to shield the young from pornographic material and "lewd acts" which would include (spare me) kissing in public.
Now, from my point of view sitting comfortably in a more-or-less liberal technically-western mostly-democracy, this is laughably reactionary and stupid.
But to the Balinese, it's not "old-fashioned" it's destroying their old fashions: 
""We in Bali see the body as aesthetic, but the pornography bill sees the body as an object of sin," said Sugilanus, one of the protesters at the rally in Denpasar, capital of the predominantly Hindu island of Bali."
I, personally, couldn't think of a wider gulf between "traditional" perceptions of modesty than between Bali - dominated by nude statues and paintings and where some of the sexiest clothed dances on earth originate - and the religion which has given us the Burkha.
It will be interesting to see if, if this bill gets passed and it almost certainly will, Bali gets an exemption and, if not, what happens to the tourist trade.
Link to ABC News Online story

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Does Nokia discriminate against people with long fingernails?

The keys on my N95 are very thin and, although they have a central ridge that makes hitting the right key easier, it doesn't make hitting them at all any easier. This is the one thing (maybe two, considering thickness) that I preferred about my old Samsung 701 - it had nice big pieces of plastic that even the most ham-thumbed could belt with confidence.

The problem is that when I last cut my fingernails, I somehow managed to miss my right thumb. The fact that I did this at all is faintly hilarious, how I did it is faintly puzzling, but I did it. Unfortunately, my right thumb, me being right-handed, does most of the typing. And because the N95 keys require a fairly pointed approach, which means thumb-tip, I am now hitting it with the thin and slippery thumbnail and not the spongy and grippy thumb tip.

Which is faintly uncomfortable and bloody annoying.

Repeat after me: Punishments don't work, behaviours will out

Two years of working in a culture supported by the principles of Positive Behaviour Support left me in no doubt about the complete ineffectiveness of punishment as a tool to modify behaviour.

Here's why: Behaviour is a result of an urge, or desire. Avoiding boredom, relieving frustration, communication, stronger communication, I-really-mean-it, relieving hunger, etc. All urges that result in behaviours. That's why behaviour, and what behaviour, and the key to understanding behaviour.

Which means that if you use punishment to prevent a behaviour you will leave entirely open the question of where the urge will manifest itself next.

The only meaningful way to change someone's behaviour is to identify what the urge is and channel it somewhere else, or head it off early. The threat of punishment has to be pretty severe and pretty imminent to convince people to find their own non-punishable alternative.

This is why incarceration doesn't prevent crime, and why our current society tries so desperately hard to call prison, "corrective services".

All which will explain why I laughed so sarcastically when the alcopops tax was raised. "We must reduce teenage binge drinking!" They said, and penalised already expensive, low-to-moderate alcohol, content-controlled mixed drinks.

And now the spirits industry has confirmed the inevitable: Sales of alcopops are falling but, surprise surprise, sales of neat, strong, bottled spirits has gone up. Sooner or later people will realise that they are now getting drunker, faster, and will thank the government.

Learn from this, Bligh & Co.

Link to ABC Online story: "Spirits industry confirms alcopops sales falling."
(N.B.: I hereby nominate that headline as the most deceptive and unhelpful I have seen this week)

Freedom of speech is far too complicated to let religion get in the way

As part of my journalism studies I am, naturally enough, learning about Freedom Of Expression (FOE) and differing national and philosophical attitudes. Which is fine, because it's one of the few areas left where philosophy has a real contribution to make (disclaimer: I have a Minor in philosophy, I'm not entirely without knowledge whereof I speak, but I do think that material evidence trumps a good idea).

The thing is: It's really complicated. It's not a simple "I have a right..." question. In fact, the complexities have lead to defamation being a messy, twisted area of law where only the foolish or the people who really need to get out more dare to tread. If you say something defamatory, is it true - in which case they have to prove that you did it maliciously - or is it covered under legal or parliamentary privilege, and do you live in a country where even truth that is defamatory has to be justified under public interest, and who gets to decide what that is anyway?

And so on.

I have just started skimming through a paper Mill's Liberalism, Security and Group Defamation. At the start, the author, Glyn Morgan, provides three examples of the conflict between hate speech/group defamation legislation and freedom of religious expression. In England (traditionally known for being litigant-friendly and tough on defamation, much like Australia), a homophobic street preacher was told (posthumously, but the case still had to be heard) that the police could tell him to shut up because keeping the peace trumped his right to FOE. In Denmark and Sweden, however, homophobic preachers in pulpits were eventually allowed to continue because it was a "legitimate expression of their religious views".

Now, that scares the hell out of me. In my own country, Islamic preachers (who, conveniently, still can't speak English and had to be interpreted, which gives them an instant defence of mis-representation), have been roasted for promoting violence against non-Muslim states and women who don't wear burkhas. I don't accept that, just as much as I don't accept Christians promoting violence against gays or abortion clinic doctors.

In those cases, the only value I see in providing them with freedom of speech is so that we can find out who they are.

Mill (who, according to Eric Idle, was frequently and of his own free will, particularly ill on half a pint of shandy), claimed that freedom of speech is paramount so that all individuals can come to the most completely informed opinion possible. Fair enough and yes I agree - this has enabled me to come to the opinion that certain Imams need to be deported, and certain Vicars need to be locked up for incitement to violence.

On the other hand, Communitarians (I almost feel ill typing words like that, but if you're going to talk about social structure you may as well hang your argument off worked-out theories) have argued that allowing hate speech on the basis of freedom of speech ignores the vital role that group membership plays in the self-identity of many individuals, and that hate speech is therefore a violation of individual rights.

Which is also fair enough, and in line with the appropriate UN Conventions and Statements on human rights and so forth.

I, personally, am struggling to see this clearly due to my natural reaction that any argument hinged upon religious grounds is inherently invalid anyway, and so whatever they say is worthless and we may as well just call it criminal hate speech and be done with it. I'll go so far as to accept that "We must work towards a society based upon Sharia law" is permissible while "We must destroy this decadent society so start now" isn't, and "The bible tells us that homosexuality is wrong, so I'm telling you not to do it," is okay, but "You will rot in hell and I hope you get sent there ahead of time," isn't.

I suppose the key principle is not so much hate speech, which I believe is inherently offensive, but incitement-to-violence-speech, which is a much more complicated and subtle thing, but which is normally a natural consequence of hate speech simply through reinforcing bigotry in the potentially violent.

In defence of this view that hate speech is problematic for practical and not just philosophical reasons, consider the point raised by Morgan that most western liberal democracies (please ignore the layers of qualification there and just go with "democracies" not shams like, say, Zimbabwe) have enacted legislation banning racial vilicification except the USA. See my point? Thought you would.

But back to religion. The problem with religion is that it tends to lead to certainty about inherently uncertain things, such as the worth of particular private behaviours, based upon inherently uncertain claims, such as something physically improbable which happened 2,000 or 6,000 or 1,500 years ago and comes down to us in the form of a book which may well have been translated numerous times and demonstrably edited along the way.

Now, there's so much uncertainty in there that such claims really desperately need to be open to criticism and debate - not abuse, if only because abuse is inherently unhelpful - and should not be allowed to make statements in support of sweeping legislation and cultural values without being forced to vigorously defend that viewpoint in public forums. In fact, although Mill's ideas are used to support freedom of religious expression, religions will themselves be the first to deny that expression to others, and for the very reason that Mill wanted it - they don't want people to come to fully informed opinions, they want people to come to their opinions based upon their information.

The desirable reaction to this is the "no sacred cow" defence: No idea, by itself, deserves special protection. And yet special protection is what we are affording to religions, and it just isn't good enough.

So here is my opinion:
  • You have a right to state your opinions in private or public forums (I somehow feel that should be 'fora', but never mind that now);
  • You do not have a right to advocate violence to others. On any grounds - violence even in warfare should be a last resort;
  • You have a right to defend your views, even offensive ones, however;
  • If you complain when people criticise your views, you have lost the right to express them;
  • If you express a view which is defamatory or hateful to another individual or group, they have a right to rebuttal, and if you can't defend yourself they have a right to an apology;
  • Deal with it.

Apparently, other people's criminal negligence is now your fault

This is going to be a closely related double-header on motorbike safety, starting with the fact that I not happy.

It started yesterday morning with this article on the Courier Mail website: Bike death toll tipped to be worst in thirty years.

What annoyed me wasn't the bald fact behind the title, or the many arguments over the reason, it was this quote from police spokesman, Inspector Peter Flanders:

"If you're riding a bike you need to keep in mind that other people can't see you. It's your responsibility to make sure you can be seen,"

What an absolute crock. We're harder to see, yes. People frequently don't, yes. However, it's the responsibility of every road user to ensure that they make themselves visible to other people, monitor the road and try and detect the incompetent (well, the more than usually incompetent, anyway). But other people can't see you? How about "Other people wilfully don't see you"? Or "Other people don't look where they're going"? Or "Other people don't display the basic competence needed to use the road safely"?

No matter how much I detest analysing language for microscopic nuances, there is a deeply disturbing suggestion in there that when a car merges into a bike because the driver wasn't looking where they were going we are supposed to understand. Apparently, the rider is at fault because it's okay for drivers to not take the simplest precautions. If someone pulls out in front of you they'll be forgiven, but you really should have done more than wear a techni-coloured helmet and a jacket with reflective bits on it while riding a bike in full racing livery!

Similar arguments include "It's your fault if you get raped while wearing a short skirt". I could go on, but I'll stop before someone calls Godwin's Law on me. 

Coming directly after the paragraph which says "Traffic coordinator for the North Coast region Inspector Peter Flanders said in most crashes it was the bike rider who was at fault." That makes me actively angry.

Part two of this rant is as follows: 

The background to this is that when traffic is at a standstill, or nearly so, on a highway, riders tend to use the verge. This has several advantages for everyone else, including getting the rider out of traffic (less congestion), getting them off the road sooner (less congestion and fewer emissions from an engine being run for less time and more efficiently) and the important psychological benefit of not looking at a broad bit of road containing just one bike, instead of a broad car containing just one driver. (In fact, when Sydney held a "ride to rule" day to protest against moves to make lane-splitting explicitly illegal, other road users were so frustrated that there were several cases of vehicular assault).

The police, however, tend to view this as "Failing to stay within a designated lane" (Or "Unfortunately there isn't a lane there, if there was I'd be in it"), and have a tendency to hand out $60 fines when they catch you at it.

Which happened to me yesterday morning, the very hour after I had read that idiotic article. 

Which was annoying, aggravating, frustrating and made me grumpy but I really couldn't complain about it because the officer was highly professional (even if he was a traitorous bastard for a biker), until he finished up with writing the ticket and just had to try and preach.  He said, and I quote from memory:
"It may be faster, but it's a hell of a lot less safe. Us bikers are being mowen down like nobody's business, and a lot of the time it's not our fault. You just can't trust someone not to pull over and answer their phone, and they won't be thinking to look for you." 

At this point my facial expression probably got a bit glassy and I did what I could to put my helmet on and get out of there. 

Ignoring that he has just contradicted the official line on where fault lies in the majority of cases (which is the bit I agree with)... You what?
Riding on the verge has risks associated with it, but you are grossly under-estimating the risks of riding in actual traffic if you think that this is the only argument. I thought about it on the way home:
  • Number of times I have been placed in a threatening position while riding on the verge: 0
  • Number of times I have seen it happen to someone else: 1, and in that case the scooter rider put herself in an unnecessarily dangerous position.
  • Number of times I have had to dodge and/or honk people moving into me while I was sitting entirely legally in my own lane: I've lost count.
This morning I kept off the verge (still grumpy) and counted: 5. Five times someone started moving sideways into me or dangerously close in front of me in the space of 40km, including a truck that was a metre in front of me when it merged without indicating. Admittedly, two of those events were the same car and I wasn't really surprised the second time. My all time favourite was a few months back when a black Falcon who was trying to push through traffic that was doing the speed limit dived across in front of me as soon as he thought he had a gap. He didn't, and the only reason he didn't collect my front wheel with his rear bumper was that I was already moving sideways away from him (because I didn't trust him) and braked instantly and hard (because I was keeping an eye on him). I wonder what the police would have put down for "cause of accident" in that one if I hadn't been paying attention?

The thing is, the chances of someone moving onto the verge without indicating or checking are a bit higher than the chance of them merging into another lane without indicating or checking properly, but the chance of them doing it at all are vastly less than the chance of them merging, which I claim makes the risk of them doing it dangerously, vanishingly small. 

I'll take the verge on a grid-locked highway any time.

Tips for drivers:
  • Don't ever move into section of road (including the one in front of you) without looking at it, and I mean properly, using your neck to check the blind spot.
  • Don't merge without letting the indicator click three times. This gives even dopey other road users notice of what you're doing.
  • If you don't let people in when they indicate, or if you go so far as to cut them off, you're part of the problem and are contributing to dangerous behaviours, you selfish prick.
  • Understand that bikes can accelerate faster than you, and probably will. If a bike is behind you on the roundabout, it'll probably be next to you coming out of the roundabout. Checking the road five seconds ago isn't good enough.
Link to Courier Mail article

Monday, 15 September 2008

STUPID little design decisions

I am currently using a laptop at work, and it is shitting me.

The blue Fn key, used as a modifier to make keys do more on the limited space provided to a laptop, is bottom left. Which is where the Ctrl key is on every other (English QWERTY) keyboard in existence.

Which is infuriating for an experienced touch-typer like myself - I keep hitting going for Ctrl-S to save a document, and end up with an 's' on screen. Ctrl-backspace, to delete the entire previous word, just gives me one backspace.

At this point you could suggest that I be grateful that I don't accidentally switch the screen off, or force-close the application. But I'm not going to be, because the problem shouldn't exist in the first place. Ctrl is a very useful key while typing, and not just for Emacs users. It should be easy to hit without having to remap a keyboard layout which is otherwise portable to just about any computer, anywhere.
Asus, that was a really bad choice.

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