Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Big news in the open source community as longtime foe of Open Source[tm] Microsoft signs an agreement with Linux provider Novell. Groklaw is blogging hard, naturally. No doubt my understanding will change considerably after reading through all the detail there, but for now...

The deal involved Novell paying Microsoft a total $40 million over 5 years "from revenues obtained through selling products containing Microsoft patents."(see this ITwire articl, among many others). My thought at the time was that this move should be read not so much as "Novell is free from threats of patent lawsuits from Microsoft" as it should be read as "Microsoft is about to start threatening linux companies that aren't Novell with patent lawsuits".

Steve Ballmer has now strongly implied that this is the case by bluntly claiming that Linux "uses our[Microsoft's] patented intellectual property" (see this Seattle Intelligencer blogpost), and claiming that Linux distributors owe Microsoft compensation for it.

The reaction from the open source community is similar to what happened when SCO tried to claim the Linux kernel contained copyrighted code that SCO owned and hadn't licensed under the GPL:"If Linux violates Microsoft’s patents, let’s see the proof".

Weeell....there's no certainty that Ballmer is referring only to the Linux kernel. It's easy to forget that "Linux" can refer both to the OS kernel and to the OS itself (Richard Stallman's probably futile effort to have the OS proper referred to as "GNU/Linux" instead of "Linux" notwithstanding). So the vague allegation is even vaguer than it first appears. Where could these alleged infringements be? The kernel? Glibc? Somewhere in Openoffice.org? Hiding in the multifunctionality of the grep command?

Software patents are becoming something of a headache in the US. It's possible that any number of large-scale software projects contain any number of patent violations owing to the sheer number of software patents floating around. It's entirely possible that the many components of your typical GNU/Linux system may have a few inadvertent patent violations in there.

IT companies usually manage to avoid patent lawsuits by acquiring software patents of their own which they can use as a deterrent: "you sue us, we see you", a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction policy. It's worth noting here that the Microsoft-Novell patent deal was reciprocal: Microsoft is safe from any fear of infringing on Novell's patents now. It is not clear to me how that works (or doesn't work) when a software system is designed and maintained not by a single limited liability company, but by an amorphous mass of volunteer coders.

Can open source software manage to deal with patents? Software licensed under the Gnu General Public License (which includes most components of most GNU/Linux distributions) has a fairly straightforward restriction laid out by Section 7 of that license: "if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program."

So, if Novell paid Microsoft $40 million for the use of Microsoft's patents which allegedly exist in GNU/Linux, and that money will be coming from "revenues obtained through selling products containing Microsoft patents", is Novell collecting royalties for Microsoft on its Linux sales? Has Novell committed to violation of the GPL?

Maybe it's all FUD. Maybe Linux distributions don't violate any Microsoft patents at all. But maybe the Novell deal is an opportunity to muddy the waters, suggest that, gee, maybe that pesky GPL is more of a burden than a benefit what with the possibility that you could be forced to stop distributing your software entirely if it's found to infringe on somebody's patents

Perhaps related to all this, here's an odd little co-incidence:
1. According to Novell's FAQ on the deal, the agreement focuses on technical co-operation in three main areas:virtualization, web services management and document format compatibility. Document format? Would that include Office document formats by any chance?
2. As of 20th November, basic support for Microsoft's VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) language has been thrown up into Openoffice.org's source code, per this blogpost
3.The ever-so-helpful and generous entity to give Openoffice.org this support for a previously Microsoft-only format? Novell. They've already incorporated the new functionality into Novell's own version of OO.o

Things that make you go hmmm...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The anti-gay perception of homosexuality

Leaving aside the actual morality of "outing" in general, and Ted Haggard's "outing" in particular, the responses from some of the anti-gay Right highlighted for me a distinction between the anti-gay perspective of homosexuality and homosexual people's perspective of homosexuality. It's a distinction which I think many supporters of GLBT rights miss.

I think most people know the story so far, but in any case here's a video summary of the Ted Haggard situation courtesy of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. The online reaction of arch-conservative David Frum to it all was...interesting, to say the least:
Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.

One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.

The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution.

Which man is leading the more moral life? It seems to me that the answer is the first one.

Naturally many people around the blogosphere took great exception to the idea that it is better to go behind your wife and children's backs, publicly condemning the very behaviour in which you're engaging to millions, than it is to live as an openly gay man. But Frum's perspective is partially understandable - in his understanding of homosexuality at least.

Note the phrasing he uses: not "homosexual", but "inclined towards homosexuality". Further down in the same article Frum says this:
If a religious leader has a personal inclination toward homosexuality - and nonetheless can look past his own inclination to defend the institution of marriage and to affirm its benefits for the raising of children - why should he likewise not be honored for his intellectual firmness and moral integrity?

Again, not "homosexual", but "a personal inclination toward homosexuality". And it's better to marry and try to embrace even a semblance of a "heterosexual lifestyle" than it is to "give in" to homosexuality.

See, in the anti-gay perspective, everyone is innately heterosexual. Homosexuality isn't an alternative sexuality that exists in a person instead of heterosexuality, but a fetish that stems from a distortion of the true (heterosexual) desires that God instils in everyone. Dr Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH summed up the perspective like this: "there are no homosexuals, only heterosexuals with a homosexual problem". For a man "inclined to homosexuality" to marry a woman isn't, as the pro-gay perspective would have it, an imprisonment of both man and woman in a loveless sham, but a valid and worthwhile attempt for the man to overcome his temptations and express his innate, Godly desire for a woman who, by God's law, he must marry.

That's David Frum's perspective of Ted Haggard as I understand it. His attempt to justify the emotional pain that this could be causing Mrs Haggard, though, is curiously missing. Then again, she is a woman after all, and misogyny and anti-gay sentiment often seem to be fellow travellers in my experience.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Al-Hilali's speech

You know, there are two things in Sheik Al-Hilali's speech which disturb me but which haven't been reported in the media. I guess the colourful "uncovered meat" analogy sells more papers without the pollution of more detailed analysis.

"Because there is a crime of polytheism. God does not forgive polytheism, and forgives everything else. These people said that God took a son, these people said that divinity united with man, and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and they will see mercy? They will never see it, not him or his father. Not dad or mum. No one will see mercy, of those who believe in polytheism....

...Those who disbelieve amongst the people of the Book and the polytheists, where will they go? Surfers Paradise? Gold Coast? Where? To the fire of hell."

I'm not sure how I feel about the preacher of one religion saying that the people who believe one of the core teachings of a rival religion are going to hell. I'm pretty sure that if a Christian preacher said something like "those heathens who follow Mohammed's teachings, foolishly and wrongly believing him to be a Prophet, are going to hell for their denial of the One True Saviour", then there would be outrage among the Muslim community. Should the Christian community react any diferently to a Sheikh preaching that believing in the Trinity is a gateway to hell?

On the other hand, I really can't get worked up over two Abrahamic religions essentially playing "My God is realler than your God". So juvenile.

The Al-Rafihi scholar says in one of his literary works, he says: If I come across a crime of rape - kidnap and violation of honour - I would discipline the man and teach him a lesson in morals, and I would order the woman be arrested and jailed for life.

I find the implication that a woman should be jailed for being raped to be deeply, deeply disturbing. The cat-meat analogy pales in comparison to this. I don't understand why it hasn't been reported more. Have I misunderstood somthing?

Moral fallacies?

That's the best name I can come up with so far. Maybe there's a better one, I don't know.

Anyway, I found a site called Muslim Village. The forums section has a post arguing that Sheik Al-Hilali has done nothing wrong and that it's a deliberate plot by Islam-haters to attack a good man:
It is well known that for the past few years there has been a concentrated effort to oust the Sheikh by some groups. To his credit and many of his supporters they have stood their ground. We, the rest of the community should support them and help them to make one more stand at this most vital time.

For if the events of last week are any indication the opposition is nothing but a self serving group of egomaniacs who have only their own interest at heart...

...in that group there was someone who recorded that conversation. Took the tape home laughing all the way back home trying to figure out how to best exploit their latest find. How best to damage the Sheikh? In the process completely ignoring the pain it will cause the community.

This is where you see how selfish these people were, for they have no interest in the Muslim community.

This is a moral fallacy I see a lot in several contexts: the writer appears to believe that an action is either a good action performed with good intentions, or a harmful act performed with evil intentions. There is no concept that the harm the writer of this piece feels at the attack on Hilali could have been unintentional, done with good intentions even, or that the person who provided the tape to the media might believe that the writer's feeing of hurt is unjustified and no actual harm has been done at all: it MUST be due to "a shadowy group who we know nothing about, who are driven by self interest" that want to promote evil, and there is no question that the accusations levelled against Al-Hilali MUST be false.

Why does the writer believe that the accusations must be false? Their reasoning shows another moral fallacy: judging the morality of an action not by the action, but by the identity of the person performing it. The core of the writer's claim that the content of the speech was wrong skips the actual content of the speech in question completely, favoring instead a moral calculus in which a person who does previously done many good works is immediately placed in the "good" camp, and nothing they then do removes them from it.
The issue is not that what the Sheikh said was right or wrong. After all he is only human, and has never claimed to be perfect so to err is only human. But his long track record of good work in the community with the youth and others surely far outweigh his one mistake.

Personally I've never subscribed to a school of morality which implies that a person who saves thousands of lives can be forgiven a murder or two (the "Faith the Vampire Slayer" school of morality).

Who's to blame for Pastor Haggard's fall from grace? His fat, lazy wife: an Evangelical implies that one of the things that might lead a married man into soliciting male prostitutes for sex is a wife who doesn't stay sexy:
Most pastors I know do not have satisfying, free, sexual conversations and liberties with their wives. At the risk of being even more widely despised than I currently am, I will lean over the plate and take one for the team on this. It is not uncommon to meet pastors' wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either.

The moral fallacy here is a common one to men: the belief that it is the responsibility of women to account for and work around the male sex drive. This far too prevalent belief is counter to the very concept of personal responsibility. Yes, the male sex drive is strong - I'm male, I know this - but it's not uncontrollable. Saying that a man's sexual motivations are the responsibility of women in any way is a shirking of the responsibility that a man has to learn self-discipline as far as I'm concerned.

And here's one where I don't know where the moral fallacy may lie: in the wake of an Evangelical preacher who was accused of maintaining a relationship with a gay prostitute and of routinely using crystal meth, right-wing commentator David Frum claims that a man who marries and has children while having gay sex and abusing drugs is morally superior to one who does so openly:
Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.

One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.

The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution.

Which man is leading the more moral life? It seems to me that the answer is the first one.

I'm so flabbergasted that someone could see it like that that I don't think I can locate the moral fallacy at all. The whole "lying" aspect of Haggard's situation seems to simply not register here. I think it has something to do with group loyalty over-riding objective assessment of the situation, but I really don't know for sure.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Muslims being rallied for Al-Hilali

Muslims rally behind embattled leader, from the Sydney Morning Herald. There's a rally being pulled together, without any central organiser judging by the contradictory texts that have been flying about in regards to time and place, to show "solidarity". God I hate that word.

I'm a little scared that this could turn violent. I'm not the only one, as the SMH also reports. That said, there's a strong desire for a peaceful rally among many potential participants if news.com.au is to be believed.

From the second SMH article:
He[Dr Jamal Rifi, a Muslim and critic of Al-Hilali] said the sheik's "lieutenants" had used the last few days while the sheik has been in hospital to bolster support for the cleric in Lakemba. "There are people out there in the street saying, 'This [backlash] is not against al Hilaly, this is against all Islam'," he said.

I can sort of see what's going to happen. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are going to demonstrate their non-support of Al Hilaly by staying away from the rally. Meanwhile the small but dedicated extremist Muslims will demonstrate in support of Al Hilali as if the problem is with the media reporting of Al Hilali's comments rather than Al Hilali's comments, portraying it as an attack on Islam. The Australian media, ever eager for controversy, will have reporting with headlines like "Muslims demonstrate their support for Al Hilali". The Daily Telegraph in particular I expect to be particularly bombastic - let's see...."Muslims line up to support evil cleric" would be about the tenor I think. The Muslims who didn't rally who see these headlines will be angered by the headlines and believe that maybe Al-Hilali's supporters have a point and it really is about attacking Islam, with actual truth like the thousands of Muslims existing who don't support Al Hilali being overlooked in the anti-Islam hate campaign.

The real reasons for the "the muslims support Al-Hilali" rhetoric from media would be I expect because the radicals would be publicly repeating it to try and make as many people as possible believe it. The over-reaching statement of full Muslim support would become a self-fulfilling prophecy as moderates find that simply remaining silent is not enough to make the "muslims suppport Al-Hilali" headlines go away.

Note the different places where the quotation marks full in the last paragraph. It's a small but absolutely vital distinction, and one I expect many of Hilali's radical supporters to be trying to gloss over at every opportunity.

It's nice and convenient to divvy up a population into "nice moderates" and "nasty radicals" but the division isn't so clear-cut. Radicals can de-radicalise, moderates can be radicalised, and it's not like there's a clean and obvious distinction between moderation and radicalism. The main problem as I see it with the Islamic community is that the heavy-duty radicals are trying to radicalise as much of the Muslim population as they can, the more moderately-inclined Muslims are unaware of this, or else are grievously underestimating the extent to which it is occurring, and this unawareness is making it easier for the radicals to radicalise Muslims by misportraying any reaction to radicalism as unfounded in reality (since the moderately-inclined don't view the radical minority as the problem that the non-Muslim community does) and re-orienting in the not-so-moderately inclined Muslims the idea that the reaction to radicalism is a reaction to the very existence of the religion of Islam.

One thing I am thankful for so far is that no mainstream organisation has (yet) come out and said that Islam is inherently evil. I think that would be, um, very bad: just what the hard-core radical Islamic minority would want in order better to radicalise more of the Australian Islamic community.