Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New gTLDs: the death of (the illusion of) seredipity

On June 20, ICANN will probably ratify the new Top-Level Domain Program. In the article on the Sydney Morning Herald web site, it explains that for a limited time at the bargain price of $US185,000 anyone will be able to register "dot.anything". In other words, corporations will be able to have domains like "www.ford" or "www.macdonalds".

In the story, it touts the potential benefits of this:

"Imagine bypassing Google because you knew you could go to 'restaurants.sydney' or 'bars.sydney' and find every restaurant and bar listed on those sites. You would imagine our reliance upon Google to walk through this labyrinth is diminished"
Well, pardon me for not necessarily seeing this as a benefit. Of course, I don't weep for the future of Google, nor of any of the other tendrils of Skynet who look to suck revenue from the ether and eventually doom us to a cyborg rising. Rather I am concerned that along with the fight over net neutrality and the 1984s of national filters and firewalls, this is one more step towards the brand-driven Internet whereby corporations and governments subtly manipulate information to their own advantage.

Now I know that this happens already, but that companies have to pay for the privilege. By paying for sponsored search results or other nefarious activities to boost page rankings and such. But at least there is the chance of serendipitously running across information which is useful or interesting. At the moment, if I type a word into the URL bar of my browser I get redirected to Google (which is customizable) and a host of information comes up. Similar to the example cited above, Sydney, links for restaurants, the airport, the Universities, the Opera House are presented to me. I can click on them or ignore them. I can go forward a couple of pages and find all sorts of other things.

Now I realise that this is the illusion of serendipity. Complex algorithms decide which links will be presented for my approval. However, if someone (likely a government entity in the case of Sydney or a corporation in the case of MacDonalds) owns "dot.sydney", when I type in Sydney, I will be redirected to where that organization chooses. The owner of "dot.sydney" may auction off the domain "hotels.sydney" to a particular chain of hotels. In the great new world of bypassing the search engine envisage by the commenter in the article, how exactly does this benefit the user? By reducing choice? By forcing companies to register domains not just in "dot.com", "dot.net", and "dot.org", but to pay for domains in "dot.sydney", "dot.melbourne", "dot.queensland" and "dot.victoria" too?

Forgive me for being skeptical that this innovation is anything more than a way for whoever can afford $US185,000 (to "prevent frivolous applications") from further commoditizing the Internet for their own gain. Only corporate entities and governments will be able to afford this. And they will use it to squash competition or to re-sell and make money themselves by creating monopolies on words and names.

It is always dangerous to try and predict what will result from a new technology (although strictly speaking this is not new technology, just new policy or politics). However, I don't see this necessarily making things better for consumers or for users, although I would be happy if it did. I can see how someone with a lazy $US185,000 can profit from it though. And after all, isn't that what the Internet is all about these days?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Qualifications - Update 2

Today I went to Brisbane and did the ICND2 exam. I got 958/1000, with the pass mark at 825. Just got the email saying I was not certified. Next logo.

Now on to CCNP studies? Don't know. Maybe a little break first.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Procrastination Theatre

This is my second post of the day. I have been pottering around, doing laundry and ironing, revising some stuff for the ICND2 exam I'm taking on Thursday, and it is a clear, cool day here. Needless to say, I've found it hard concentrating on the tasks at hand, and have been procrastinating by fiddling with Tweetdeck and writing blog posts that I worry don't make sense even though according to the Blogger stats, less than five people have ever read one of my posts.

In addition, I was getting ready for a hellish session with my personal trainer in about an hour's time, but he's just texted to say he is unavailable today and so my session will be tomorrow. It puts off the pain for a day, but now I am left looking for anything to do apart from going over OSPF authentication for the fifth time.

Which leads me to ponder about the gym I go to and the microcosm of technological society it appears to be. The gym I go to has televisions on all of the equipment - stationary bikes, treadmills, and so on - with earphone sockets for the gym goers to plug in to. Those who don't partake are wearing their iPods. People on recumbent bikes are furiously texting with their smartphones. I know I have spent time checking email while exercising. And nobody is talking to each other. Even people who come in to the gym in pairs or as a group split up, find a machine, plug in and tune out. It is extraordinary. It's like the Matrix.

The gym is an environment which lends itself to the solitary pursuit. I know when I'm drenched in sweat halfway though a ten kilometer stint on the stationary bike (how odd is that statement, referencing distance on a non-moving piece of equipment), the last thing I want to do is have a chat with a similarly sweaty person. But it is an odd thing, that many of these people are communicating, just not with anyone in the room.

So after posting up that pithy observation, it is time to get up and go to the gym. After I finish another chapter of the ICND2 book. After I have a cup of tea. And get the laundry off the line.

Can we all just calm down a bit

Damn it, calm down a bit.

This morning, the most popular story on the website of the Australian Newspaper was "Muslims to push for sharia". Pundit Andrew Bolt pointed to this story on his blog, too. And immediately the comments on these stories filled up with the usual outraged screeds, such as this one which seems to encapsulate the fear of or contempt for Muslims, "Lefty's (whatever that means these days) and immigrants:

"Ronnie Mac. replied to Hermit
Tue 17 May 11 (08:32am)

If the Muslims (and Lefty’s too) don’t like the way things are here, they are more than welcome to leave and see what it is like in places that embrace Sharia law.
My bet is that they would all be on the next boat(s) back here, quick smart."

It is all so predictably histrionic and knee-jerk. Bolt makes his position clear in his headline: "One law means no sharia law as well". But hang on a minute. What exactly are we taking about here. The Australian quotes from a submissions to a parliamentary inquiry into multiculturalism. I assume the inquiry is this one. I have read the submission mentioned and quoted in the articles, and am still a bit unclear what exactly is meant by the term "legal pluralism" as used in the document. Of course the context of the articles seems to suggest that this is a drive for a parallel legal system for Muslims, and this is what the commenters on the sites seem to assume. (An ironic twist is that many people who rage against such a suggestion will loudly proclaim that our laws are based on the Bible, when only two or three of the Ten Commandments correspond to crimes in our current system).

I think that most people would not be in favour of parallel criminal and civil courts for people of different religions, with different standards of evidence, differences in due process or differences in punishments. However, is this really what is being asked for?

There are already Jewish religious courts in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. In these cases, it seems they rule on religious questions important to the community they serve. Obviously, this falls outside the remit of the secular legal systems in these countries. In addition, they provide arbitration of disputes or litigation. However, in all cases I have read, the parties must voluntarily submit to arbitration and in order for the rulings to be enforced, the parties must enter into an arbitration agreement which complies laws of the countries concerned. In other words, for a ruling to be legally enforced, it essentially becomes subordinate to secular contract law. (Note that I am not a lawyer, this is simply my interpretation).

Similarly, Christian denominations have their own rules (such as Catholic canon law) which they apply within their communities. A practical example of where this has real-world effect is in the area of divorce. Many denominations will not permit a divorcee to re-marry in the church if they have had a purely secular divorce. Church Synods regularly meet to decide matters of doctrine and administration - to make the rules. These are not unlike legislatures in some respects.

Even outside the religious sphere, sporting associations have tribunals which hand down punishments for infractions within their remit. These are associations freely entered into and the tribunals, as far as I know, are outside the regular legal system - as a condition of membership, the players and clubs agree to this form of arbitration. And, if someone is dissatisfied with an outcome they can, and have, appealed to the regular legal system.

So while there are not separate legal systems per se, there are ways in which religious (and other) groups regulate their internal affairs and issues related to their religious practice and beliefs, and ways in which this can also be applied within the framework of secular law. Note that none of these impinge on the criminal law, as far as I can tell, and insofar as people submit willingly and voluntarily to the authority of these types of arrangements, I really cannot see a problem with this or an Islamic analogue in principle. After all, rather than litigate a dispute, any two parties - people, corporations, whatever - can agree upon an arbitration process which can have the force of existing contract law.

The only objection which I can see is highlighted by the italicization I inserted in the previous paragraph, in that if someone was to have a religious decision made or a civil dispute arbitrated by a religious tribunal or court, then it would need to be voluntary. In closed communities, I would imagine that the pressure exerted by that community to accept this kind of arbitration could be intense. The freedom to pursue a secular process which may or may not be more equitable, while available, may not be freely available to some.

So what does this all mean? A story written on the basis of an (to me at least) ambiguous and unclear submission to a parliamentary inquiry. Is the submission calling for a parallel criminal system? I don't know. Is it calling for something akin to a Beth Din for Muslims? I don't know that either. In any case, it seems that the article in the Oz is appealing to the base fears similar to those driving the "no sharia" legislation popping up all over the place in the U.S.

While I think the whole idea of basing an arbitration on religious grounds absurd, I really don't see why two members of a religious group of any stripe cannot go to their religious authority for a ruling about any matter - as long as it is done willingly and voluntarily, and that if the issue at hand is important, that it can be subordinate to and subject to appeal to secular contract law. This is hardly a separate legal system, and nor is it seeking to impose religious-based law on anyone else. The only real requirement here is for vigorous vigilance of the line between church and state, lest anyone of any religious bent view it as a foot in the door of the secular legal system.

Monday, May 9, 2011

On Morality (or at least the knee-jerk newspaper columnist understanding of such)

I am not a philosopher. I have not read the works of Plato, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, but I have read some more accessible books on various subjects. So perhaps the technical aspects of the field escape me. But today, I was reading an article on the Sydney Morning Herald website by columnist Paul Sheehan and I had a reflexive reaction to something he said in one paragraph about morality.

The article was ostensibly about drug policy in the light of the death of a jockey, originally from Toowoomba who had consumed a cocktail of drugs and died. In it he appears to be arguing that drugs are bad, and society believes that they are bad (the phrase "collective wisdom" is used), and that he is of the opinion that continued criminalization of drugs is the wisest course, indeed summing up his article "when it comes to hard drugs, more tolerance creates more misery". He takes exception to a former Public Prosecutor arguing in a debate that legalization of drug use may be a better course than prohibition. I don't know where I stand. Arguments that drug use is a "victimless" crime seem vacuous to me. However, prohibition, seems to create other problems.

The point in the article that I took exception to, though was specifically related to moral relativism.

"Drug legalisation advocates also love the word ''tolerance'' because it masks a position of moral relativism, the default position of progressive politics. Moral relativism encapsulates several mantras which favour victimology: social disadvantage is the root of social problems; addiction is a disease not a crime; prohibition drives crime, not consumption; underground markets drive underground behaviour."
I don't know specifically what Mr. Sheehan's politics are. I would argue that moral relativism is not just a trait of "progressive" politics, but putting aside that for the moment, how do the "mantras" he states follow from moral relativism? Morality, as far as I understand it, is concerned with right and wrong, good and bad. Perhaps that is too much of a layman's interpretation, but I would wager that the majority of the article's readership would take this definition as read. I suppose one could infer that the "mantras" being used here are arguments used by proponents of legalization. Would inverting each of the "mantras" be encapsulated by moral objectivism, or moral universalism? I can't see how.

Each of the four statements, apart from the second one may be true or false; and they are assertions which could be argued or discussed. However, I would argue that Mr. Sheehan has deliberately formulated these "mantras" as strawman positions, or at least as caricatures of the debates surrounding these issues. For example, social disadvantage might not be the root cause of social problems, but surely Mr. Sheehan would argue that social disadvantage is a contributing factor? Moving on, I would argue that prohibition and consumption both drive crime. Of course, one could be facetious and say that, by definition, without prohibition, there would be no crime to drive, but that would be falling into the same over-generalization. Next, how could you seriously argue that underground markets could drive behaviour that is other than underground? This seems like a tautology.

Coming back to the second statement he made, it sounds absurd to me. "Addiction is a disease, not a crime". Now admittedly it makes for a good soundbite, and is undoubtedly used by legalization proponents to highlight a point, probably that treatment is a more appropriate route for addicts that incarceration. However, I am sure everyone would agree that addiction is not a crime? Unless some strange legislation has been passed that I am unfamiliar with, addiction to a substance is not a crime - possession, sale and consumption of various substances are crimes. Whether or not addiction is a disease (a bad word, perhaps "medical condition" would be better), well, that is an area of debate.

So having unpacked the mantras which are asserted to be part of moral relativism in the sphere of drug legalization, I can't see how one follows from the other. Which leads me to moral relativism itself. Is moral relativism a bad thing? Is it just part of "progressive politics"? I cannot see how either of these things can be true. Morals evolve and change. Different cultures have different moral systems. Progress towards a universalist morality is a slow process of cultural, political and societal consensus.

Within this article, Mr. Sheehan believes that public opinion on drugs is right. Isn't this simply a morally relativistic position? After all, public opinion would probably be against the prohibition of alcohol, a drug which undoubtedly does harm to individuals and society? Even with regards to alcohol, some countries allow 18-year olds to buy and consume it. In some countries, you must be 21. In some places, it is banned. Some religions consider it profoundly immoral to consume alcohol. On what basis does one assess the morality of alcohol, and by extension, drug use? If one were to take the position, as Mr. Sheehan does, "when it comes to hard drugs, more tolerance creates more misery" as defining an objective moral imperative to prohibition, how can one ignore the misery that the non-hard drugs such as alcohol and tobacco cause and not extend the moral imperative there, too? Of course, there are some people who would like to do this. By what objective measure do we reject their moral stance?

And to what degree do we equate "immoral" with "illegal"? I am sure most people believe that adultery is immoral; however, in Western society, it is not illegal.

Morals are a human construct. Two hundred years ago, slavery was commonplace. It was justified by religious texts, by historical precedent and by economic imperatives. Today, it is almost universally held that slavery is immoral. And illegal. Today, with a comfortable existence divorced by decades from past excesses, it is easy to say that slavery was always immoral, that previous generations were less moral, blinded to a universal truth we now recognise. I've said it myself. But on what basis do we make those judgments? By what standards of behaviour? It would be nice to think that there is a way of objectively determining what is good and what is bad; what was always good, and what was always bad.

But there isn't. I have a moral system. Someone else has a different moral system. We can only approach consensus and universality by discussion and debate. Absolute objectivity about morality is a figment of the imagination. And with that Mr. Sheehan, the derogation you apply to moral relativity as the preserve of "progressive politics", and the implication that both of those things are inherently anathema, is rejected.

Qualifications - Update

Well, I took the ICND1 exam on Friday. I was a bit worried when I finished with nearly half an hour to go - everyone always says how there is time pressure in the Cisco exams. But I got 962/1000, with a pass of 804. I am now eligible to put up a logo:

Hooray! I will be taking the ICND2 exam on Thursday 19th of May.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

While the rest of the world has been doing their thing in the past few days, the local paper here in the wilds of the Queensland Bible Belt has been reporting on the surprise (and supposedly "forced") retirement of the Bishop of the Toowoomba Diocese.

What might cause the Vatican to look so scornfully upon the head man of the local franchise? Was he caught with his hand in the till? Or with his hands down someone's undergarments? No. If anything, it appears that the local Bishop is, by all accounts, a decent man who seems well regarded across his diocese.

His apparent sin was that a small group of his parishioners took exception to his thinking for himself. Back in 2006, in what I reckon was probably a pragmatic evaluation of the future of his institution's priesthood, he circulated a letter in which he said that perhaps, due to the difficulty in finding priests for regional areas such as western Queensland, the church may need to consider - in the future - the ordination of (gasp!) married men or (uh-oh) women. So some ultra-orthodox members of the church cried "Heretic!" and wrote letters to the Archbishop in Brisbane and to the Vatican. Since then, the Bishop has been under investigation, in secret and according to the reports, he has been under pressure from the hierarchy. I assume that the pressure is for him to "Confess!" and "Repent!". Apparently, the Bishop felt that his only option was to retire.

We are always told that Bishops and priests are educated men. That they are to show leadership and to guide their charges. It seems that this is not what the orthodox of the parish want. They want a guy (and it must man) in a dress to recite the liturgy precisely as prescribed by God's representative on Earth, to preside over weddings and funerals in the prescribed way and to in no way exhibit independent thought. Ah, give me that old-time religion! Who knows what these holier-than-thou parishioners think of the recent survey that 98% of American Catholics ignore the teachings of the church and use contraception. I'm sure that these people aren't "real Catholics" either, for thinking for themselves and admitting the realities of the modern world. And who knows what the orthodox would make of the latest bunch of god-wallopers to set up shop in town.

The religious like to charge that atheists, secular society, or whatever is the evil of the day are to blame for all of society's ills. That if only the country would turn to God, our mortgages would be paid, children would respect their elders, and unicorns would crap rainbows. And then something like this comes along to illustrate the hide-bound nature of orthodoxy. The danger to belief of thinking for oneself. Of rejecting the dogma. Some so-called cults shun members who stray from the path. Mainstream churches claim that this doesn't happen, that their faith is welcoming and tolerant. Well observe exhibit A of Bishop Morris. A small clique clubs together to dump their own leader of 18 years. He's not one of us. We reject his ideas. Not his actions. His ideas. And yet these self same people will defend their institution against allegations of much more heinous abuses.

I saw it first hand, attending a Lutheran Church as a kid. The groups, the cliques, the whispering campaigns. Judging your piety against the standards of mine in violation of the teaching Matthew 7:1. It reinforces to me that organized religions are a power structure like any other. Where status can be gained by tearing down others. Where the prideful can flaunt their humility. But above all else, where thinking for yourself is the greatest sin of all.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Right Royal Republic

I am a republican. Small-R, if you please. I am in favour of a two-thirds-of-parliament appointed Head of State for Australia. This represents a minimal change to the existing Westminster system, while providing the nation the dignity of a citizen as the formal Head of State. I also reckon we should keep the name - Governor-General, not President. I am not swayed by the pageantry or the fact that the good Prince seems like a good bloke, as it appears many are.

I know, the whole thing can become constitutionally complicated. Should we codify the powers of the Head of State or not? What about the State Governors who are also currently Vice-Regal appointments? What happens in the event of a constitutional crisis? There are arguments that our Governor-General is the Head of State already and that the Queen is the Sovereign.

I know, I know it is complicated. But this gets back to the post I put up a couple of days ago about the diminution of reasonable debate. Can't we work these things out? The lead-up to the actual Republic Referendum in 1999 was a shouting match that left the public uninformed about what was being proposed. I heard and still hear people gripe to the effect that "we don't want to be like America", or hear them pointing to failed states around the world, from the Soviet Union to Zimbabwe and saying that they are examples of republics. All of which exhibits gross ignorance of the nature of the proposed change. There are plenty of Parliamentary Republics where the President has basically ceremonial and reserve powers analogous to Australia's Governor-General, and in no way was anyone suggesting the type of executive presidency like the US, where the President is both Head of State and Government. And pointing to failed states as examples of what happens when a local citizen gets in charge I think is demeaning to the history and institutions and people of this country. As is pointing to a poll the day after a significant event and proclaiming that the pomp and circumstance surrounding a pair of pretty foreigners is enough to change people's minds about the political system governing their nation.

Do I particularly mind that there are people who hold a different view? Not really. This is not an issue upon which I would die in a ditch. However, there is a principle at stake, and I think it should be argued; calmly and rationally. For all the flaws and shortcomings of debate, the referendum went down in an example of democratic participation. I don't generally accept that the majority of Australians (especially the post-1960s generations) have an abiding love for the institution of monarchy in itself. Neither do I suspect that the affection with which the current Queen is viewed has a heck of a lot to do with it. I think in addition to a lot of apathy and a bit of ignorance, there is a great inertia in the view that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". It is a view I hold in high regard. Is there anything fundamentally "broken" in the current system? No, I don't think so, at least not insofar as the operation of the parliamentary and executive system goes. As I said earlier, it is a matter of principle that the Head of State be a citizen, whose authority is derived from a mandate of the people (insert Monty Python "Holy Grail" bit here...).

But if we can't argue these issues of princple in an informed way, what hope is there on the substantive day-to-day things? Taxes. Spending priorities. Going to war. Perhaps I'll write on the issue further in a later post, but one of the inequities inherent in the system (cue Python again) is the electoral system itself. While I did not vote for the Greens in the last election, the party gained 12% of the primary vote across the nation, yet received only one seat in the 150-seat house. While the preferential system allows the redistribution of these votes ostensibly providing a modicum of recognition, it obviously does not result in the views of those voters - almost 1.5 million out of a total of 12.5 million - being substantively addressed by representation in the lower house. Now, changing the voting system is arguably a bigger deal, which would have a significant impact on the day-to-day operation of politics in the country. How can we possibly have a serious debate about that in today's environment?

Earlier I implied that deciding upon great issues of state should not necessarily be swayed by the emotional impact of such a thing as a Royal Wedding. But that would be to deny the emotional aspects which colour both sides. Ties of history and tradition on one. Ambition of self-government and self-respect on the other. A bit of distance should probably be left. But in the end, the issue will come up again, and I hope the debate can be civil and reasonable.