Thursday, 28 April 2011

Veils and Freedom

As the readers are no doubt aware, France recently banned face coverings in public places. This law, in effect, bans the Muslim Burqa - the full-body covering with a veil that exposes only the eyes. Naturally, Muslims in France have protested the law as racist and deliberately targeting Islamic dress.

So what can be said in defence of the burqa? Firstly, by allowing Muslim women to wear the burqa, they would thus have freedom of choice to wear whatever they chose. Western women are permitted to wear miniskirts and low-cut tops, so, why, the question arises, should Muslims not be allowed their preferred form of attire? Secondly, remember that France, like many Western nations, purports to allow freedom of choice, freedom of association, equality, and freedom of religion. Surely, by banning the sartorial requirements of a particular religion, France is effectively disavowing her commitment to these values? Third, it may be argued, by showing that the French government officially condemns Islamic dress, will this action not foster Islamophobia?

Some Muslim women argue that the dress code is not imposed by patriarchal figures, such as Imams or their husbands. Some state that they choose to wear it. One Western response to this is to argue that there is no scriptural justification for the dress. But Muslims recognise that. That does not mean, however, that it is not an important facet of their religion. Consider, by comparison, the various rituals of Catholicism. Almost none of those rituals are prescribed in the Bible, yet they define Catholicism. So who, then, are Westerners to prohibit some aspect of Islam? Furthermore, Muslims argue, nuns are allowed to wear their severe clothing in Western society, and yet they are tolerated - so why should modest Muslim women’s dress be prohibited?

These arguments all seem sound, however, there are some responses which seem equally legitimate. Firstly, in some cases, the veil is sometimes imposed on a woman against her will. In a Western nation, this would be illegal, since it would be a restriction on her freedom. Secondly, it may be argued, the burqa promotes Islamic extremism and separation, with its refusal to identify with the secular values of the West, and hence, a failure to properly integrate. Like the 16th-Century arguments in England about Catholics being loyal first to the Pope, this argument aims to show that a Muslim is loyal first to Islam. Thirdly, the burqa prevents identification and allows for fraud; for example, one could pass a driver's test by getting a friend in a Burqa to do the test. It also represents a security problem, akin to balaclavas or motorbike helmets. Westerners are not allowed to wear such things in public, as they may commit crimes thus disguised.

I believe that I can see both sides of the argument, however, I'd like to add the following considerations:

If a Western woman goes to Saudi Arabia, is she allowed to wear a miniskirt? Of course not. So the people who oppose the burqa argue that people who wish to wear Islamic dress do not wish to integrate. Shariah states would not tolerate Western female attire, so why should we tolerate theirs? While I can see the point here, I do feel it is rather petulant. We should at least be leading the way in tolerance. The question of course, is how tolerant should we be? What if practitioners of sadomasochism decided that freedom of expression entitled them to walk around in their preferred subcultural gear? Would we tolerate such a public display? Or what about gimp suits that conceal the entire body? Probably not. So I don't quite see that tolerance needs to be indefinitely extended. The question is one of whether it should be extended to the burqa.

As to the question of whether tolerance should be extended to the burqa, for me, the deciding factor is security. We do not know who is under that veil, and whether or not in just this particular case, the person might actually be a man disguised - and that he's either a suicide bomber, terrorist, bank robber, or some other kind of villain. If we can at least see his face, then we can have a record of who performed whatever act it may be. As for the nun argument, it fails on the score that nuns do not cover their faces, and as such, are not perceived as threatening.

I saw a photo of a woman in her veil holding up a poster demanding Shariah law in France. And the question occurred to me: What benefit is there to her living in France rather than a country which has Shariah law? I can only imagine that she's in France either because she was born there, or that she was taken there unwillingly in some other manner, because she can't, surely, have come to France voluntarily, knowing that France did not implement Shariah law. It strikes me as a bit of having your cake and wanting to eat it too. Either you want the benefits of democracy and freedom of expression that is permitted in the West, which logically entails the absence of Shariah law, or, you want to not have freedom of expression and not have democracy, in which case you should live in a country that implements Shariah. It's really as simple as that. I do not understand the hypocrisy of calling for Shariah law and freedom of expression; the two are not compatible, since Shariah entails that one may not refuse the burqa. Freedom of expression is not just permission to wear a burqa, it's also permission to refuse.

I must conclude, therefore, that although both sides have legitimate arguments for and against, that the question of accountability and visibility trumps all the other arguments, and that the ban ought to be implemented.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A brief defence of moral skepticism

The point about skeptical consequentialism - is that there's nothing over and above the biologically or psychologically harmful consequences that marks something as wrong. It's a bit otiose. Here's an example. "The man was murdered and that was bad." Well, we know that murder involves a bad consequence, so what does saying "and it was bad" add to it? We have the full description in saying he was murdered. Adding "and it was bad" is irrelevant. 

Take another example. Rape, say, - I mean - that's sufficient as a description of what occurred. Adding "and it was wrong" seems to add nothing to the facts of the matter, apart from perhaps something like this: Maybe by "and it was wrong" one means something like "and it ought to have not been done". But what does "ought" mean? Does it mean, perhaps "is expected to"? Ok, so "it is expected to not have been done". Well, that doesn't quite work, so maybe - "is expected by me to have been" - so "and I expect it to have not been done" is probably the only translation of "is wrong" here. But so what if your expectations aren't met? What relevance do your gut-reactions (the "reactive attitudes") or expectations have to a murderer/rapist? If he cared about the opinions of unacquainted third parties such as yourself, he'd not perform his act. Yet he performs it. 

So again, what do we mean "and it was wrong" other than "and it was biologically or psychologically harmful"? But we know rape and murder are those things - we don't need to add that. It's like saying "it was water and it was wet". It's redundant. Anyway. There's the brief explanation.

There is also a psychologist's point - that Nietzsche makes. Moral posturing is an attempt to set oneself up as a power, as an authority - a bastion of respectability. By comparison, those whom we condemn are the lower ones, the ones we are superior to. So is moral posturing not merely a crude simian behaviour? Chest-beating? I think it may be that, in addition to being otiose.

Obviously, this argument does not justify morally "bad" actions. Nor is it saying they ought to be tolerated. No. It is merely saying, again, with Nietzsche, that there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena.


Now, regarding the reactive attitudes, proof by potency also does not work. We're not allowed to say "my gut tells me this is wrong" or "I react adversely to this action, so it must be wrong". That's proof of nothing more than conditioning or instincts. It's not proof of universal moral truths.


But now do not mistake this position for relativism. Relativism does not deny that there's a right and a wrong; it merely places the right or wrong within a limited social context. Skepticism denies that there is any kind of way we can make sense of "right" or "wrong" other than with redundancies such as "it was bad and it was harmful", or, with mysticism, eg "God ordained it," or with gut reactions, instincts.


If we accept, as some naturalists, such as Dawkins, do, that instincts are proof of a moral code being naturally bred into us - eg chimpanzee social behaviour - then we're guilty of a naturalist fallacy, viz that the natural is the right. But if the natural is the right, then we have to discard human culture. And in fact, I believe that many moral injunctions, apart from very basic ones such as against murder, incest and theft, are cultural. Theft may be cultural too. I can easily imagine a culture which does not have a concept of property. However, anyone watching a dog protecting his bone would disagree.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Open Letter to Steve Jobs - 4 - the iPhone

The following criticisms are of the iPhone 3G. I do not know if all of them have been remediated on the iPhone 4; I believe some have, but anyway, I believe these are important criticisms and that they will make the iPhone better if they were dealt with.

1. Your Maps program on iPhone is only passably adequate for the purpose most people will surely want to use it for: as a GPS.

It should at least do the following things:

a. Speak directions to you while you are traveling.
b. Not immediately stop tracking your position as soon as you touch the map. Currently if the bottom left arrow is blue, ie the satellite is tracking you, and you touch the map display, it stops tracking and the arrow goes grey again.
c. It should be able to recalculate the route to your destination if you change course.
d. The user interface for seeking directions from one point to any other is confusing. I am never sure how to use it, or how to exit the 'search for directions' mode and go back to the GPS/satellite tracking-me mode. And when I _do_ go back to the tracking mode, my search result, including the purple line showing the route, disappears. There should just be one mode: the GPS mode, with a search button that, after you've searched, automatically shows you the route and starts tracking your position (defaulting, as it presently does, to your current location as the starting address). In other words, unless you press a button that says "stop tracking", Maps must always track your position and show it in the centre of the screen with a pulsing dot and always show the route to your chosen destination.
e. Maps seems to not automatically scroll when I am moving. It should keep my pulsing dot in the centre and automatically scroll the screen as I move/drive. Even if I touch the screen to zoom in our out; it should just keep going.
f. When I drop a pin, it doesn't automatically, immediately, allow me to edit the name of the pin. This is very frustrating.

2. You should also ship or have an option for a car kit or some kind of holster for the iPhone so it clips onto a car dashboard more easily. This rounded casing slides around and I've had to resort to Prestik. Maybe a rubber backing and base?

3. The iBooks program: it must be possible to tell it to only use landscape or only portrait mode. I prefer to read in portrait mode, but as soon as I lie down in bed it switches to landscape mode, a process which takes up to a minute on long books. Then if I roll over it goes back to portrait, and then to landscape again, which takes another two minutes. I'd prefer it if, like on the picture viewer on the iPad, one merely used the pinch and rotate hand gesture to rotate the screen manually when required.

The same criticism applies to the SMS/"Messages" program. I'll be busy typing an SMS and then the thing will swivel around and I'll accidentally hit 'send' instead of the on-screen keyboard.

4. Also the limit on the number of SMSes you can send is frustrating. I wanted to announce my son's birth and had to do it in batches, and when I had more than five people selected, the rest were off-screen in the list of phone numbers, with the result that I was not sure and could not see to whom I was sending, or had already sent to, etc. Here's an idea. Bring up the list of addressbook contacts with just checkboxes next to their mobile numbers. You then check/tick all the ones you want, and press send.

5. The physical buttons are a bad idea. They all wear out very quickly. Google "broken lock button iPhone, broken home button iPhone," and you'll see that there are 8 million results for broken lock button, and 2 million for broken home button. This is clearly a manufacturer's defect. Make the Home button a drawn/graphical element on the screen and give us that valuable real estate at the bottom of the device, which is currently hogged by the home button. And the lock button at the top - change it into a slider switch like on the old iPods. Or remove it.

Ah, but you say, how does one wake the phone up when it is in sleep mode or keypad lock mode without a physical home button to do the trick? Well, just make the volume keys invoke the "slide to unlock screen" dialog.

But then you ask, well, what about when you want an app to quit? Simple! Just add a "back" button like web browsers have, in the new real estate that you garner on the screen by removing the home key, and have that 'back' button quit the app. In the Preferences app, there's a 'back' button that takes you up the hierarchy of preferences. But when you're at the top level of the preferences, there's no more 'back' button, because intuitively that would quit the preferences app. Well, my response is yes, that is exactly what I would like it to do.

Ah, but then you ask, how do you lock the screen manually without a lock button? My answer: Just have an app to do it. Or a gesture; maybe a u-shaped gesture.

6. There should be an easy way to reboot or shutdown from an app icon. Holding down a lock button, especially when the button is broken, is a nuisance and adds to the wear and tear on the lock button. Resetting the network preferences, to force the phone to reboot, is very obscure.

7. I don't see why there is a separate switch/button to put the phone into silent mode. Surely it makes more sense to just press the sound volume key down to zero? That's what every other mobile phone manufacturer does, and what I would far prefer.

Why not just have an on-screen app that you touch and voila, it goes to silent mode? Or just let us drop the volume to zero (with a preferences option that says: when the volume is zero, enable vibrate mode?)

8. So if you take point 5, 6 and 7 above, you have an app that when tapped offers:

- lock screen
- turn phone off
- reboot phone
- silent mode on?

Then, if you press the volume keys on the side or you stroke the screen, it comes up with the same app saying:

- slide to unlock screen
- slide to reboot phone
- slide to shut down
- slide to turn silent mode off?

and each of these options is a slider button.

8. An even worse problem: either your wifi cards or their power cables or data cables are bad. If you google 'broken wifi iphone' you'll see about 16 million results. Please investigate why your phones are frying their wifi. Mine is dead. I hardly used it, so it's not wear and tear. I saw someone claim it has something to do with a frayed USB cable. I can imagine that this might cause the phone to get a power spike. But I find that far-fetched. I suspect they just overheat and burn out.

9. As I've mentioned before, we need to be able to modify and read files stored on the iPhone from multiple apps. Currently, files are stored "inside" particular apps and have to be first downloaded from the app via iTunes or a web browser, and then reuploaded via the same method to the other app that needs access to the particular file. Surely a common documents folder is not that confusing for users familiar with computers?

10. I'd like an expert mode so I can SSH to the phone or FTP it. A "sharing" control panel would be nice so I don't have to use the clunky Mac iTunes interface to add/remove files to/from it. A "hard drive mode" like the iPods have would be ideal; I'd like to be able to drag and drop files from my Mac to the iPhone's common documents folder. Ditto the iPad.

11. I don't understand why you've created FaceTime. Seriously; why not just preinstall Skype? At least then I can call anyone, not just Mac Users and iPhone 4 users! Or at least, I would hope, have it that FaceTime is a Skype-compatible client and logs in to Skype, and then automatically takes your addressbook from the phone and asks Skype for these peoples' Skype accounts/logins to be added to your client's addressbook... PS. Can you set the video quality level, or does Facetime only use high resolution/definition? What do you think that will cost people in a country where bandwidth is expensive?

12. Calling the iTunes store application, 'iTunes', is confusing; it makes me expect to be able to play music through it. This is inconsistent. Rename it to iTunes store, and rename the iPod app to iTunes Player or something. Just a suggestion - to get iOS consistent with OS X.

13. I'd like to be able to log in to Ping from the iTunes/iPod app and I'd like to be able to share my current track automatically on Facebook as my Facebook status. As well as Skype. And Twitter.

14. iPod player app is frustrating for three reasons:

a) it automatically goes into landscape 'coverflow' mode if I turn the iPhone sideways. This would be OK if the coverflow showed only the tracks from the current playlist and a play/pause/forward/rewind button control set and the play extent or play progress bar - ie if it did the same thing as portrait mode. But the coverflow interface is unusable; it lets you randomly select covers of albums and plays the song from the album, but won't let you forward, rewind inside a track, show play progress, etc. It also shows all tracks on the phone, not the current playlist.
See above for why I dislike the autorotate, in the section above re iBooks.  I'd rather manually rotate.
b) iPod App doesn't do crossfade. It fades out when a call comes in, so surely it can crossfade tracks?
c) On my iPhone 3G it won't play through airtunes/airport/wifi to my Airport Express. But this was touted as a feature of iOS 4.2. Yet even when my wifi card was working, it would not see my Airport Express. My Mac saw it just fine. This works on the iPhone 4 so I assume that it has been deliberately disabled on the 3G. Would you mind sharing your reasoning on this?

15. I'd prefer a separate movie player for movies, as I do not want to have to place videos of my baby son into iTunes on my Mac in order to upload these videos to my iPhone. It's a bit weird having a cute baby video in amongst some metal videos. I also find the concept of playing videos of my son through the iPod music player somewhat bizarre. I can see the logic; you're assuming we'll only be playing back music videos. But in reality, no. How about letting Quicktime Player on the Mac talk to the iPhone and upload videos to Quicktime player on the iPhone?  Or are you wanting to decommission Quicktime Player and replace it with OS X's iTunes.app?

16. Why can my iPhone 3G not record video? There are third-party apps that do it, so why is a video recorder not installed by default?

17. Why is the RAM so low? The last time I had a computer with 128 MB of RAM was in 1997, and even then, it was an antique. If I try to use VNC it threatens to reboot because of low RAM conditions. Surely 1 GB is not that much these days?

18. Some Korean phones boast 5MP cameras, but the iPhone has 2MP? I always thought the iPhone was the absolute top-end phone in the world. Speaking of which, it takes AGES to load the camera app, by which time the photo opportunity has passed. Maybe give the phone more RAM and keep the camera app live from boot up time onwards?

19. Why when I choose a wallpaper does it only appear on the screen that asks me to unlock the screen? IE why does it not appear behind my app icons? Surely drawing a JPEG isn't that CPU-intensive for the 3G? This works on the iPhone 4 so I assume that it has been deliberately disabled on the 3G.

20. It can't display Tiff attachments in the Mail program.

List of useful mac apps

This is mostly a note to self so that I can share with others when they ask which apps I recommend. Android File Transfer.app (*) get file...