Sunday, December 09, 2012

5 reasons why the separation of state and [church, mosque, synagogue, temple] is always a good idea, and is just basic human decency

in the light of recent events in egypt (the hijacking of the secular revolution by religion-based leadership), the us (religious arguments taking a central position in the party politics), and myanmar (the buddhist ethnic cleansing of the rohingya), i decided to create this lucid list of (mostly) simple, rational reasons of why religion and government should be very strictly separated. though my distaste of bigotry in general, and religion in particular, is no stranger to this blog, i hope to keep the tone of the entry as level-headed as possible. that is to say, i will not rage. the list goes from the most obvious to the more nuanced explanation of my argument.

  1. religion looks at everything in terms of black and white. few things are more dangerous than strict, always-right/always-wrong approaches to any problem, let alone running a country. religion, of course, is the epitome is b&w view of the world, where everything is basically either sin or not sin (in religious terms, either according to or against the teaching of a holy script). this danger is compounded when put into the hands of rulers because if one knows, with absolute certainty (as religious teachings guarantee), that one is right, then this will limit one's taking alternative decisions and possible solutions to problems. and with this certainty, one will never negotiate. one will never try to reach common ground. one will never care what anyone says if it doesn't agree with one's teaching. which brings us to reason 2:
  2. you can't debate with religious texts, teachings or figures (with debate i mean discuss with the possibility of admitting that you're wrong). in its most basic sense, religion is two things: first, it is a set of rules of how god wants you to behave, and second, an explanation of how the world was created and how it works. religion is usually documented somewhere (more often than not, a religious text of sorts), and it is taken to be the literal truth of god and his teachings. in other words, it is a set of infallible, unyielding laws and myths that are taken to be facts. how can an argument be made for abortion, for example, of a religion clearly forbids it? or for exploring space if "the heavens are god's and the angels' domain"? religion, of course, is subject to certain debate: that of debate between religious figures regarding vague or fuzzy points in the teachings. this leads to different sects of religions disagreeing on what the "right" teachings other. this is useless in public discourse, as it doesn't serve a country in any way. no other sphere of humanity has that kind of infallibility, and that infallibility is a hindrance to the running of the country.
  3. religion doesn't evolve based on observable facts or scientific reasoning. i would say this is religion's achille's heal, were it not so easily ignored by the religious person. if you look at any set of laws in human history (civil or otherwise), you will find that they change and adapt to what we know about the world. science makes changes to its view of the world all the time. if anything, science is the process of observing something, making a prediction about the world, then testing that prediction against reality. religion is the exact opposite: if a fact is discovered, it is to be tested against religious texts, and if it disagrees with religion, it is to be abolished. this opens the door for truth suppression (earth center of the universe, anyone?), human suffering (religion justifies - nay, it compels - parents to not treat children dying of disease because prayer is the only treatment they need), ignorance (just google the god particle) and plain old bigotry (you're evil because it says so right here in this book). why is that dangerous? for public policy to work in the long-term, is has to take scientific facts and statistical models and medical advice into its planning. if these facts are ignored in favor of religion, then the consequences can be seen in ksa, afghanistan, etc.
  4. religion, by definition, is exclusive. and i don't mean exclusive in the fancy sense (ooo i can have it but you can't), but in the literal sense of the word: it's designed to exclude those who don't adhere to it. nothing man has created comes close to the strength of the sense of "us" and "them" that religion indoctrinates. this exclusivity is not just dangerous in the risks is poses to world peace, but on a more micro scale, it's scary in how it allows one to commit heinous acts just because they're perpetrated against "them". religion is what allows otherwise rational, smart, humane people to drive their countrymen into suffering because they're not jewish. it's what allows the adherents of an essentially peaceful religion to prosecute their countrymen because they pray differently. the "other" ceases to become human - they become objects. in any other context, these actions are instinctively criminal and despicable, yet they are allowed to perpetuate in religious contexts. and running a country based on that worldview is disastrous. i mean, what of people of other religions in your country? what about your neighbors? how about different sects within the same religion?
  5. religion is manifestation of the basest human tendencies. this is perhaps the most controversial point of this entry, but it's also the most important. if religion was just about being good to your neighbor and honoring your friends, no one would have an issue with it. but religion is a tool of bigotry, oppression and control. we can't, as a human race, allow the suppression of what women want to say because most religions treat them as second class citizens. we can't allow under-educated, ignorant religious "experts" to guide humanity based on their understanding of books written 2000 years ago. we can't allow these leaders to further their personal (and as humans' are) flawed agendas based on the authority given to them by god. we can't allow people to be led to act in a certain way without critically analyzing that way, because god is watching. we can't allow the progress of science to stop because science discovered something that is in conflict with 2000 year old scriptures. we can't allow human suffering under the guise of religious teachings. we need to grow up, as a race. we need to do right because it's right, not because god is watching.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

muslims and their sensitivities

ok this is seriously getting out of hand. muslims need to seriously take a fucking chill pill. this is not an acceptable way to behave in the 21st century. if you can put down the burning flags and stop incoherently yelling for a few seconds, and read this, you'll understand why.

background: some dipshit made a film insulting your prophet and you're angry. the matter of fact is that no one gives a shit, really. only you do (the yelling, screaming ones). what they fuck are you protesting? i have a few ideas that may answer that.

first speculation, you may want to us government (which has nothing to do with this, mind you; it's not like they posted the film on their department of foreign affairs) to somehow stop this. newsflash: once something is out on the internet, it's almost impossible to contain. i can't explain why in a blog post, but suffice it to say that it's not a reasonable request.

second speculation, you want the us gov to punish the film's creator? you can't make that kind of request: the guy didn't break any american laws. if your logic that doing something that is illegal to muslims but ok by other laws is protest-worthy, then there is a long list of things you should be protesting: gay marriage, consumption of pork, consumption of alcohol, strip bars, open relationships, interest on loans, convicted thieves not getting their hands chopped off, adultery going unpunished.. the list is too long to include here. get it into your heads: you can't protest laws into effect in other countries. (a small aside here: the concept of freedom of speech is alien to most muslim countries, unfortunately. the idea that anyone can say anything within the confines of law is baffling. these countries have a few layers of limitations of speech that muslims are born with that the idea of such freedom is somewhat frightening. these layers include limitations of said freedom from the state (censorship in many forms), cultural limitations (you can't always say what's on your mind), religious limitations (islam is a way of life, not an additional layer of spirituality, so it literally defines the way one lives one's life), so the idea that certain things must not be questions and certain characters must not be insulted is accepted and normal).

third speculation, you want protection of religious sanctity? this is where things get interesting, for two main reasons: (a) which religions and (b) what's sanctitous? what these protesting muslims fail to see is that islam is far from being the only "true" religion (shockingly enough, all these religions claim they are the true ones, that only their gods are truly holy, that their religious figures are holy and must not be insulted). now say we agree that religion is something worth protecting by a state (which i personally think is not - a brief look at its results will tell you why), it will be a tall order for any legislator to put laws affecting that. i mean, which religions do we protect? the abrahamic ones (judaism, xianity and islam)? the "eastern" ones (hinduism, confucianism, buddhism, sikhism)? the more modern ones (mormonism, scientology)? how about historical ones (pharaoh gods, norse gods)? sci-fi ones (from star wars, or battlestar galactica)? the list goes on and on, hundreds of religions with hundreds of gods and thousands of holy relics. from a non-religious state point of view, followers of these religions all appear to be the same: they can pray to whatever imaginary friend they want, follow whatever imaginary laws they want, as long as they don't break the state law. now law will protect religious freedoms in the sense that one can practice whatever religion one wants, which is cool, but the law will not prosecute people for criticizing or making fun of a religion. regardless of the religion. i've seen fun made of every religion out there (this cartoon is ultra insulting to most major non-islam religions and not not suitable for work or humanity, yet perfectly explains my point), and it seems most adherents take it in stride. the only people who go out burning things are muslims. it's shameful, but true. 

so what to do? first of all, really, honestly, no one gives a shit about these films. this guy was nobody without the protests and only your misplaced anger made the film noticeable in any way. but much more importantly, none of these insults affect your life in any way. why are you so angry that someone insulted your prophet? you make fun of other religions all the time! you make fun of eating pig and drinking alcohol and having sex. you make fun of eastern religious symbols and deities because they are so alien to yours (in fact, you declare them blasphemous because religious adherents may kneel before statues or carvings of their gods). i don't recall a single buddhist saying anything about that. why is it just muslim symbols that shouldn't be criticized? so the first thing you need to do, is to stop taking everything so personally. muslim history itself states this: the prophet and his followers were insulted all the time, yet they never acted like barbarian hordes. instead they built a fucking civilization.

second, and this one is key, there are many, many, many, MANY, MANY MORE PRESSING ISSUES TO PROTEST IN YOUR PART OF THE WORLD! breaking into an embassy or burning the american flag will not improve your quality of life. it will not better educate your kids. it will not root corruption from your government. it will not increase your freedom of expression. it will not increase your manufacturing output. it will not increase your contribution to humanity's sciences or arts. it will not relief the misery of your "brothers" in palestine and elsewhere. there is are many much, much more important things that need to be addressed. there are so many more problems that need the attention and time of everyone. arab and muslim countries rank near the bottom of any meaningful ranking of countries (healthcare, education, invention, arts, patents, creativity, etc, etc). i'd much rather see a protest against the curtailing of freedoms, or the rampant corruption in governments, or in efforts to improve education.

i'd prefer to see a father teach his child that she can change the world with her words and thoughts, with her hard work and creativity, not with how loudly she can scream.

update: an important dichotomy exists in the us (indeed, the west in general) when it comes to freedom of speech. that is, of course, the anti-semitism laws, which limit free speech from insulting or in any way criticizing jews and judaism (and by sad extension, israel). this has been the foundation of the argument that most religious leaders in the region are using to point to the well-earned hypocrisy that the us government displays and say "we don't want islam to be treated in a special way, we just want the same protection that judaism gets." a well presented argument, i must say, because despite the historical relevance of the abuse of the jews in germany, this has nothing to do with the way the modern world works. just because a people were abused at one point, it doesn't mean they can do no wrong. by that logic, there should be laws protecting insulting native americans, native aboriginals in australia, genocide victims all around africa and others. having said that, this protection of the jews isn't done because they are helpless victims - it's because jews were able to insert themselves into the lifelines of western countries (mainly, the economy) and pressure and convince these countries to enact such laws. sadly, both sides (muslims and israeli jews), justify the anti-religion sentiment many intellectuals are developing, in that when it comes to protecting what's precious, both jews and muslims commit heartless atrocities.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

apple vs. samsung: what does it mean in the long run?

i am wondering how the outcome of this lawsuit will affect smartphones in general. regardless of my hatred of apple and its monopolistic, draconian practices (which i express here quite often), i see a possible twist ending to this story.

if you haven't heard, apple was just awarded (if the word can be used in this context) a compensation of around a billion dollars for patent infringes by samsung (basically, the jury found that samsung had copied apple designs). this is the biggest patent damage award in history, covering a long list of devices that infringed on the patents. the facts seem to be straight: samsung did copy some apple details and apple did patent these details, like patenting the rectangular shape with a bezel and slide to unlock, in addition to other frivolous ideas. despite these patents, the jury didn't seem to have done a good job, as detailed in this blog post at Groklaw. the judgement, of course, is still open to appeal and the sort, so it may not be the end of the story.

there are a few points i'd like to discuss here. first, the amount of damages is not realistic (note, i wrote this part before reading groklaw's post, which explains why the amount is so high, thanks to super-informed jurors), but not the principle. i don't believe the amount reflects apple's "losses" or samsung's profits from said infringement - think of it like this: if samsung didn't actually imitate apple, would apple have made a extra billion in profit? profit - not revenue: even at apple's inflated margin, they will need around 2.5 billion in sales to make a billion in profit. i doubt that. i also doubt that anyone who buys a samsung device thinks they're buying an apple one (or an apple knock-off). people are caring less about what they buy because both device platforms effectively deliver the same experience: touch screen, funky interfaces, app stores, etc. if i want facebook, instagram and maps, either device will deliver. unless apple manages to patent the smart phone experience, they can't corner that market forever. so my point is this: a billion in damages is not realistic.

the second point i want to discuss is the actual ruling, and how it relates to the patent laws in the us. the bottom line is this: samsung did copy apple patented ideas, and that gives apple the right to stop them. apple, in their turn, copied other companies (they have stood on shoulders of giants, if you will). why aren't they sued by them? because those giants simply didn't patent their ideas. they weren't assholes, you see. a presenter on TED showed multi-touch a year before the first iphone was out, with pinch to zoom and all that. but TED presenters are usually the nice sort, more interested in humanity's welfare than making money, so they didn't patent. in fact, to protect from bogus patents like apple's, a lot of scientists use open source licenses, creative commons or other open platforms to publish their ideas (which roughly means "here, copy this, make changes to it, profit from it, but on one condition: whatever changes you make, you release on the same terms"). when i say apple's patents are bogus, i don't mean they don't own them or profit from them, i mean they didn't really invent them; they were just the first to patent them. however, according to the law, even such profiteering allows apple to protect "its" intellectual property and its ability to profit from it. this case just reiterates an oft repeated complaint in the tech world: the us patent law is broken. apple are not to blame in this; it's the law itself that allows this kind of behavior.

the third point, which i hope will come true one day, was inspired by what one of the jurors said "Nokia is still selling phones. BlackBerry is selling phones. Those phones aren't infringing. There are alternatives out there" (complete article here). this, amongst other things, highlights the relative ignorance of a set of common people to make judgements about something as complex as technology patents. the ignorance is in the nature of the decision: it's not samsung that's being punished, it's the android os on which it runs. the fact that nokia or blackberry are presented as alternatives to ios is laughable; there really isn't an alternative to ios other than android. what the juror was practically saying is: you either buy this monopolistic device, or get kicked in the face with a shitty blackberry. the juror also misses out on a much more fundamental point: competition creates better products, not litigation. i'd argue that without android, ios would be no where near where it is today (things like useable notifications, cloud backup and storage, siri and others were available on android devices before ios). so a possible outcome is that manufacturers steer away from android, or others including a focus by manufacturers on the market outside the us (in the uk a judge basically made fun of apple for their lawsuit against samsung there), a general user migration to wp7 or 8, or cross-license from apple to phone manufacturers. however, there is another, more exciting aspect.

for argument's sake, i will use the modern view of the smartphone as represented by the iphone, which came out in 2007. the concept of said iphone - touch screen with icons and apps - was revolutionary in 2007. it's still pretty nifty today, and to apple, extremely profitable. that interface has been the defacto standard for a smartphone experience, and despite some cosmetic enhancements since 2007, remains essentially the same. in technology years, that's ancient! if android is shut down through litigation because their phone is too similar to ios, this may force the market to come up with a new, completely different (and hopefully, litigation-free) way for mobile computing. that's what i hope it'll mean for smartphone consumer in the long run: a completely new way of doing mobility. i can't even imagine what that can be, but if in 2006 you'd asked me how i could improve my nokia e61, i would've probably mentioned a bigger keyboard or something like that, not a touchscreen device with no copy-paste. so how can i improve on the current model? i don't know. but imagine this: think of what the iphone did the mobility experience, then imagine a revolution of a similar magnitude to the current touchscreen model. amazing, no?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

companies can just give you the finger

i hate my gym.

ok that's a hyperbole. i don't really hate my gym, i  just hate a few things about it. it's not that it's crowded or noisy or anything like that, it's that the company behind it thinks it's ok to not provide what they're contractually bound to. things like old, broken weights, non-functioning showers, no soap.. the list goes on. i understand the occasional problem, but to simply ignore members is unacceptable. i mean, i've been a member for 3 years, and one month my credit card payment didn't go through. they wouldn't let me in! i was pissed, of course, but recently i've been thinking about it and i noticed there's a massive asymmetry between the rights of companies and their customers. one slip on my side (didn't pay a bill) and i'm barred, many slips from theirs and life goes on.

and of course, this is isn't just my gym, it's all companies. first and foremost, of course, are banks. i think after law, financial services is the closest industry to actually being outright thievery. when they offer something, they explicitly mention that they can change the terms and conditions without notice! we read these terms and conditions and skim over them because they're boilerplate, but it's like this: imagine if you agree to rent an apartment and half way through the year you call up your landlord and casually inform her that you'll be dropping the rent by 15%. because you can't afford the current rent any more. and she can't complain. THAT'S what banks do to us with increased rates.

see the asymmetry stems from the fact corporations have to make a profit, while individuals have to make do. it's because corporations don't care about an individual customer (the gym certainly wouldn't care if i left), but do they do care about their bottom line (how much it would cost to get new weights). banks get record profits year after year, yet charge you $5 to stamp 5 pieces of paper. the list goes on and on, and the simple fact is this: modern economies have created enough protections and laws to protect companies from loss, but almost no laws to protect individuals from corporations. as an individual, your only options are to either sue (ha ha) or start a mass demonstration (ha ha ha).

so next time you feel the urge to complain to a company, keep in mind that they really don't give a fuck.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

we like to judge, don't we?

when celebrities say they will never get a boob job, only to get one a year after they're famous. when tech leaders say they will not copy someone else, or ask each other not to be evil. we like to point at a person and her broken vow, and exclaim at how weak she is, how she isn't worthy.

it's easy from where we stand, from where we are, from the comfort of our ipads, swiping through historical records and quotes and pointing out contradictions. it's easy to be indignant, to claim that we'd never do that if it were us!

from our static lives, someone changing is unthinkable. during the ten minutes it takes us to read an article, it's hard to imagine that a month or a year or a decade had passed. it's easy to snort at the passage of time, events, cuts, scars, misery, happiness and all that makes a person. it's easy to forget all that. easy to brush away the details.

easy to forget that the person who proclaimed the statement 10 years ago is not the same person rejecting it now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

why are we incompetent?

in developing countries, we take things that are broken for granted - shitty roads, shitty procedures, shitty everything. no, we actually expect them. when we deal anyone from our countries, we automatically assume that the quality will be inferior.

but why?

what is it that stops people from doing things well? i mean, the deeper question i'm looking for is, what is competence? what is that innate drive (ability?) that pushes some people to do things well, and others to do them half-assed? and from there, what is it in developed societies that guides the collective consciousness to just look not only at doing things well, but for ways to do them better?

is it a matter of skill? i'm sure it's part of it, but how much skill is required to slip a fucking burger properly? or realize that the bun is stale? or that the fries are mushy? is it a matter of education and sophistication? i really doubt it since the incompetence i've seen didn't seem to discriminate based on knowledge. like i said, how much does it take to know that a job was done well?

i may have finally figured it out, and i think my original question should be reversed. it shouldn't be a question at all - instead of asking "what is it about people from developing countries that stops them from being competent?" i should've stated the fact as "collective incompetence is what classifies the country as being a developing country." it's not the money or buildings or cars or cell phones or how much internet connectivity it has. bear with me.

i think it's basic human psychology: it's the link between effort and reward. the biggest difference between developed and developing countries is that in the earlier a job well-done is rewarding in itself. even if there was no money or recognition involved, people strive to do better because it makes them happy. it makes them feel accomplished and productive - alive, for lack of a more encompassing word. in contrast, people in developing countries look at things backward - they work for money. what that practically translates into is doing as little as possible to get the job "done" by the minimum definition of the word. what is lost here, of course, is what does beyond the minimum definition of the word, like the difference between a lada and a bmw (both, using the minimum definition, are cars).

i am, of course, generalizing, and i may be being unfair to many hard working, accomplishment driven individuals, but the generalization holds, i believe. until the developing country's collective consciousness starts recognizing competence as a reward in itself, it'll forever remain developing.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

living in shitty cities

i'm fortunate in the fact that i live in dubai. one may argue its merits and drawbacks, but there one thing i can assure you of: it's a great place to live. it's clean, getting things done is easy and everyone is welcome to call it home.

i'm also fortunate in the fact my work allows me to travel often. mind you, this is a double-edged sword: though sometimes my work takes me to awesome cities like istanbul or cape town, i sometimes find myself in riyadh or lahore. the entire time i'm in those substandard citie i'm wondering how the fuck do the people living here live here. for many reasons, these cities are difficult to live in. riyadh, despite its government having riches literally sprout out of the ground, is in a state of development more fitting for a dark-ages hamlet. and it's not poor roads and shoddy governmental services that give it that feel (though they definitely contribute to it), it's the general attitude of indifference and incompetence. lahore, on the other hand, is a mess of disorganization and chaos that, in my experience, is only surmounted by karachi (though i've heard wonders about indian cities).

what really baffles me about these cities is this: how do people, especially expats, just accept living there? it's not that they're developing countries; it's that they're so utterly chaotic that no amount of individual effort can can generate any noticeable return. so all of one's hard work and toil turns into frustrated rage when trying to queue at the local bakery. i was pondering that and then i remembered my time in amman, where i used to live before dubai.

human beings, i've come to realize, have an almost magical ability to accept the conditions they're in. whether in extreme cases like the Stockholm syndrome or in the slightly less extreme of contemplating living in saudi, the human psyche is extraordinarily adept at adapting to where we are. it really hit me after a completely normal and rational friend made the argument that riyadh is "not that bad." i don't want to imagine how much worse it needs to get to be "bad" (i've really never been anywhere i'd less rather live in), but that just points to how powerful our minds are adapting to our situations and making them "ok".

this, of course, goes beyond that to any shitty situation one may find oneself in. Whether it's a shitty job or boss or marriage or whatever, we always find ways to say "it's not that bad".

the problem here is that it's a mixed blessing. on one hand, it's a natural defense mechanism that keeps us sane; on the other, it allows us to accept the status quo. and that's fucking dangerous. being aware of things being shitty and accepting them (like a bad job that's tiding you over due to family and other obligations) is one thing; things being shitty and you thinking they're not bad is another: it's a cause for complacency and indifference. so accepting shit needs to be a conscious decision, not something one settles into. otherwise one wouldn't be aware of the shit one is steeped in.

like fucking riyadh.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

don't buy facebook

because everyone else is writing about it, i'll throw in my two cents.

first of all, don't buy facebook.

i know it's a limited controlled IPO with carefully dosed out quantities and us mere mortals have no access to said magical shares, it's still a bad idea to buy facebook stocks now.

why not?

i've been following the social media "explosion" for the last couple of years, and i've seen numbers about the growth of mobile devices vs. radio and tv, seen statistics about how if facebook were a country it would be the third biggest country in the world. i've seen how there are a billion tweets a week and how many people have followers. but the question is this:

who gives a fuck?

in case it wasn't clear, facebook isn't a country. not even as a metaphor. comparing it to a country is like saying if my car were an eagle it would have eggs the size of large dogs. that makes absolutely no sense. all the other numbers about social media out there are out there for us to ogle at them, but they really lack meaning. we have social media experts and certified consultants and analysts. we have this wave of change that everyone is speculating about, but the fact is this: they're all fucking clueless. facebook's 900 million members are tantalizing for their size and the info the share, but not because it makes a lot of money. in fact, facebook made around $4 billion in 2011, yet was valued at $100 billion. why? for the promise of making money from those users.

social media is a trend that's in flux and people still can't figure it out. think of the internet in the late nineties. speculators were betting that this new wonderful tech that's changing the world is worth far, far more than it really was. was it new? yes. was it wonderful? yes. did it see phenomenal growth? yes. did it change the world? absolutely. was it worth the money. nope. social media is in this state. think yahoo, hotmail, myspace, flickr... all past their prime and basking in their former glory.

so my projection is this: facebook has more or less hit its peak i think zuckerburg should've IPOed 2 years ago. i'm not saying it'll fade away, i'm saying it'll turn into something like email - everyone has it, most users use it, yet nothing exciting happens there. people will use it to share pictures and comment on them and all that, but it'll fade into a commodity that was once exciting.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

back from hiatus

i was pleasantly surprised today when i discovered that some people actually follow what i write. this blog has always been a personal thing for me, where i rant and swear. to find anyone actually interested in it is a nice compliment.

thank you.

for anyone still following this after the long, long hiatus, but i hope to get to posting more regularly.