Ubuntu and GPRS

ubuntuI have been using Ubuntu (Linux) for a while now and I am quite happy with it. Most of the time I connect to the Internet via a direct Ethernet connection to my ADSL modem. The Ubuntu connection manager takes care of everything and it is rather easy to use. I also use Wifi (WPA PSK) and have no issues there. As before the connection manager takes care of everything for me.

I am not in South Africa, and in order to get internet where-ever I am, I decided to buy a prepaid data package from Vodacom. The main issue that I had was simply getting my Sony Eriksson P1i to work correctly. My phone was set up to try the cellular network and the afterwards a Wifi connection. What was happening was the phone was connecting to the GPRS connection and immediately dropping the connection presumably to try the Wifi connection. Interestingly enough this was even the case when using the phone as a modem.

I spend a bit of time looking on the internet and lo and behold someone was having a similar issue. After removing the Wifi connection from the list. The phone now has no problems connecting to the internet.

Ok so how does Ubuntu fare in connecting my Laptop via my mobile phone to the internet. Well if I use the USB cable to connect the phone to the laptop. It is a doddle. From the Network Manager, I select a GPRS connection. I then supply the country and the name of the cellular network. The connection manager is auto-populated with all the correct APN settings and off I go.

Bluetooth is not so simple. There is no simple was that Ubuntu allows me to use Dial-up Networking (DUN) via Bluetooth. First I need to pair the devices. This can be done via the GUI although there are tools (hci-tool) that allows one to do so via the command line.

The next stop is to create a RFCOMM device that can be used as a terminal by the PPP daemon. For this there is no GUI tool. The rfcomm tool however is your friend. Lastly you need to dial out and establish the connection. For the wvdial works well. There is a GUI tool as well. The only gotcha is that you need to enter the modem string AT+CGDCONT=1,"ip",,,0,0 The number to dial is *99# and off you go.

Given how easy is was to get the USB GSM connection going, it is a pity that Bluetooth DUN is so hard.

Posted on 24th November 2009
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Three Strikes and You’re Out

baseballThe music industry’s campaign of pursuing people caught downloading copy protected music and bringing it to court is slowly grinding to a halt. This is because of bad publicity and more difficulty in pushing the cases through the courts.

Because of this the music industry has decided to take a softer line and lobby the government to force internet service providers (ISPs) to cut off recalcitrant downloaders. In order not to be too draconian, the plan is to first issue two warning letters and only of the third strike, to cut off the copyright infringer.

On the surface, this sounds rather reasonable. However, as they say, the devil is in the detail. Simply put, there is no reasonable way for anyone to know if a link or torrent with which they can download a song or video is is legitimate or not.

An artist may well have put a link up to his or her music; a website may has licensed the music. All this is totally opaque to a user clicking on a link.

The plot thickens. Copyright has a fixed term. When does a derived work deviate sufficiently from the original to become a totally new work? All these are questions of great legal complexity and something that in no way can be determined by a downloader.

Can we chase the uploader then? This probably is a more tenable deal. At least here, there is a degree of intent. When threatened with cutoff, a person could possibly elect to take the matter to the courts and have it decided by a judge. But I don’t think that this is what the music industry is after.

In the end, I still believe that the best thing for society at large is to ease up on intellectual property and allow ideas and music to flow free.

Posted on 6th October 2009
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Lockerbie and Criminal Justice

pan-amRecently, the release of Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi on humanitarian grounds has kicked up a fuss the world over. Here we have a man who was convicted of killing over 200 people in cold blood and we are just letting him walk free. Did he show mercy to the 200 people that he killed? And yes he might be dying of cancer and want to die at home with his family. But did he let those 200 people die with their family?

Let take a step back and look at the big picture here and ask ourselves why we have a criminal justice system at all. Society is based on the idea that certain behavior damages is so damaging to the healthy operation of communities , that it cannot be allowed to happen. Out of all the crimes,murder is probably seem by most communities at the worst crime that can be committed. Criminal justice has evolved to ensure that such behavior is discouraged as much as possible.

The most common sanction in Western Countries is either monetary fines or incarceration. These serve the goal of crime minimization in the following ways:

Prevention. This is probably the most compelling reason to imprison someone. Simply put, a person behind bars cannot damage to society because he is not longer part of it. A killer cannot kill; a thief cannot steal; a rapist cannot rape; and and an arsonist cannot start fires while held in custody.

So strong is this reason that we may choose to incarcerate even people innocent of crime for the simple expedience of preventing crime. Two examples of this are keeping dangerously insane individuals in protective custody and quarantining people who have dangerously infectious diseases. Simply put, the danger that these people pose to society means that societies right to safety override their right to freedom.

Rehabilitation. The hope here is that the experience of incarceration will ensure that the person never re-offends.We can take this a step further and use the time in prison to either indoctrinate good behavior.

This goal is recognized as a failure. Prisons turn petty criminals into hardened offenders simple because when in prison, all of one’s peers are criminals.

Deterrent We hope that most people will fear punishment enough to ensure that they do not offend in the first place. Virtually nobody wants to go to prison and people will therefore modify their behaviour accordingly.

The most potent deterrent is knowing that you will get caught. When you get a fine after leaving you car illegally parked for 5 minutes, you probably will not do it again in a hurry. The more immediate being caught is, the better. The problem though is that catching criminals can be really expensive.

The makes one often opt for thinking that one can just get away with making the punishment for severe. The more one fears the punishment, the less likely one is to take the chance of getting caught.

This works up to a point. The problem is that at some point the punishment becomes the worst thing in the world – after-which more severe becomes pointless. For people who have never been to prison,going to prison is the worst thing in the world. A year or ten will not matter either way.

Sometimes, the crime itself involves huge risk. Robbing a bank or even house-breaking could get one killed. Once people have made the leap to commit the crime, more severe punishment will not help.

So where does this leave us with al-Megrahi? Lets for the time being leave aside that the evidence that he committed the crime was rather sketchy. Given that fact that he a dying old man means that his chances of re-offending are minimal so there is not Preventative reason for keeping him behind bars. Rehabilitation is irrelevant.

This leave is with just the last reason – deterrent. Truth is that terrorist are motivated by idealogical reasons. Terrorist are also willing to give their lived to the cause. The thought of dying in jail is highly unlikely to prevent terrorism. In fact it was only that Libya bowed under international pressure after twenty years of sanctions that actually got al-Megrahi extradited in the first place.

In light of the above,there seems absolutely no reason at all why a dying terrorist cannot be released to die at home with his family and it seems like the Scottish devolved government did right in letting him go.

So why the outrage? Why the diplomatic ruckus? Because there is a final reason for criminal justice: Retribution. Retribution is base desire that people have to cause pain to those that caused pain to us. I will kill you because you killed my brother. Killing you will not bring my brother back nor will it serve society in any other way (assuming none of the three reasons listed above apply). All that I think it will do is give me the knowledge that he who caused me pain suffers pain.

There are other words for this: spite and malice. In liberal countries we neither torture criminals and very few liberal countries execute murderers, not because the do not deserve it (although it is a huge arrogance to presume what someone deserves), but simple because doing so will cause more harm to our souls than to the criminals in question.

So lets hope that we can rise above the ill will and become better people for not letting our base instincts get the better of us.

Posted on 5th September 2009
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KissingerAt the moment I am reading a book by Henry Kissinger on Diplomacy. Kissinger himself is a rather controversial figure. Although none of the Watergate dirt stuck to him, he was a key player in Nixon’s administration. He served as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State and was heavily involved in expanding bombing during the Vietnam was into Laos and Cambodia.

Putting aside personal feelings, his book “Diplomacy” is top rate. The book itself recount European Diplomacy from the time of Cardinal Richelieu during the 30 Years War to modern times. The book is honest and insightful. Although it is apparent that he has lots of admiration for American Leaders, he is not shy to criticize.

Probably one of the central themes to the book is the balance that is played between raison d’etat / Realpolitik and moral politics. Richelieu, during the 30 Years War placed Catholic France on the side of the Protestant North of Germany and Sweden against Hapsburg Catholic Austria. This despite the fact that Richelieu was a Catholic Cardinal who had no problems suppressing Huguenot uprisings in stronghold like La Rochelle.

The reason why he did this was simply that a strong united Germany would have been a major threat for France while a weak divided Germany would allow France to rise to European preeminence. By the 1800s, raison d’etat could be use to justify any state intervention without any further recourse to a legal or moral reason for action.

Along comes America in the for of Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt and reintroduces the concept of morality into international relations. All of a sudden, international affairs is govern by moral rights and obligations.

The one problem with a moral foreign policy is that there are often times where nations are obliged to take risk for very little national gain solely because justice dictates. This ultimately backfires cause ones own reasoning use used to show up hypocrisy. How does America justify torture in the name of national security?

Interestingly enough, what does it reveal to us about Kissinger himself when his admiration for Richelieu, Palmerston and Bismark shine though. Interestingly enough, Nixon was probably the most Unamerica modern president. He may a be a rabid anti-communist but that did not stop him from pursuing his course of detentes with China and The Soviet Union simply because the Cold War was just to dangerous. One might have hated to Commies but nonetheless, raison d’etat said one needed to talk to them.

In the end though, love him or hate him. This book is one of the best on the Cold War that I have read so far. Simply because he looks beyond ideology in understanding what could have been the most dangerous conflict fought by man.

Posted on 25th August 2009
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72 and 08 US Presidential Elections

McGovernI have finished reading Hunter S Thomson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. It is one of the best works of journalisaposm that I have ever encountered.

Thomson uses his Gonzo style to great effect. Unlike proper journalism, by putting himself into the story, he captures that mood in a way that I have never encountered before.

It also got me thinking that the '72 Elections had strong similarities to the last one. In both elections, the Democratic Primaries were way more interesting that the Republican Primaries. In both the Democratic Primaries, the choice of the party bigwigs (Ed Muskie and Hillary Clinton) were beaten (by George McGovern and Barach Obama) through strong grassroots movements. Both had very close Primaries.

The difference is marked as well. George McGovern lost by a landslide (after the Eagleton Affair) while Barack won.

The similarities go deeper though. In both cases, the party hacks (Muskie and Clinton) offered very much what the Republican candidate (Nixon and Bush/McCain) offered. It was this that the grassroots rejects. McGovern and Barack were both change candidate.

According to Thomson, Nixon represented the dark side of the American People – the fearside. Bush went even further. Nixon was a ruthless pragmatist; Bush added religious conservatism to the mix. It was this that McGovern offered an escape from.

We will never know if it was Eagleton that killed McGovern’s chances or simple that the Americans were not ready the change offered by McGovern.

In any event, in '72 Nixon went on the win by an landslide and went on to become the first President to resign in scandal. The lukewarm presidency of Jimmy Carter paved the way for the religious right in the form of Ronald Reagan. Bush was the pinnicle of the religious right in American politics.

And finally America asked for change. Chances are that the Democratic party will not be the same after Obama. Chances are that the party will shift away from a protectionist, unionist party to one of political liberalism. Perhaps Americans did now what they were too scared to do in 1972.

Posted on 25th July 2009
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People often associate empathy with feeling someone else’s feelings. They miss another important aspect on empathy and that is to understand some else’s feelings. When people talk about emotional intelligence (EQ), at least in my opinion, the ability to empathize comes out tops.

One of the more interesting conversations that I overheard was that between a saleswoman and her manager. She had just got off the phone with a customer and complained that the customer was being unreasonable.

At this point it is easy to just write the customer off as just being a grumpy git. But the customer is still a grumpy git for a reason. Something that the customer wanted was not happening. The sales-woman’s manager went on and talked her through the various scenarios and pointed out to her what the issues were. The thing here is that the sales-woman’s manager was able to understand what was really the issue and by interpreting the situation correctly, was able to save the day.

Empathy becomes especially important in negotiations. Robert McNamara explained that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, having an empathy for the Russian position allowed the West to negotiate its way out of what potentially could have turned into nuclear war. In contrast to this was the Vietnam was. Here the US failed entirely to understand that the North Vietnam was fighting for independence and had no interest in either Chinese or Russian dominion. Instead the US ended up fighting a totally useless war that killed countless people.

The enemy of empathy is just believing that someone is insane. By avoiding this conclusion one can at least understand one’s counter-party. And once one understand one’s counter-party one is halfway there to reaching some form of accomodation.

Posted on 14th June 2009
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Animal Rights

catI think it is clear that a recognition of human rights is one of the most important innovations in modern morality. It is also an important tenant of liberalism – that all people must be treated with a sense of respect and dignity. So what about animals?

Lets face it. Although animals are not the same as us, the clearly are living and animated. They also experience pain and some exhibit extremely human-like gestures. If we are going out of out way to preach that humans have rights, is it not natural to extend those rights to animals as well.

I guess that one argument against doing so is to say that humans share a common thread that animals do not share. This can be attacked on two fronts, viz. that humans and animals also share a common thread or that the differences between people prevent them from sharing a common thread.

I always wonder what it was like for those first European explorers that discovered black men. I imagine that it was very difficult to see them as the same as their white skinned family. It is only when one looks deeper that one sees a commonality. Also any female human can bear a child from any male human. This gives a commonality that is independent of skin colour.

I am a bit cynical though. I am not a proponent of human rights because I believe it is a higher morality; I believe in human rights because I fear to be a member of the repressed class. I always ask myself, what would things be like if the tables were turned? What rights would I demand then?

It is this argument more than any other that prevents me from chasing after animal rights. Animals will never rule humans because simply they do not have the capacity to do so. This means that I never have to fear animals granting me lower rights than they grant themselves. So this makes me impervious to granting them equal rights to humans.

That does not mean that one may be cruel, but I will never argue that animals should be given the same rights as humans. One must look at people’s needs first and only then can one start looking at the individual needs of the animal. I eat meat and battery chickens for this reason. I also believe that people should not be the first first to try a new drug or treatment.

Posted on 25th May 2009
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Climate Change

smoke-stackThe world is getting hotter and people generally agree that this is caused by the increase in greenhouse gases that are the by-product of burning coal, oil and natural gas that have kept the wheels of industrialization going. We are also told that if we don’t stop emitting carbon-dioxide soon, the world weather patterns will change catastrophically.

Therefore governments around the world setting emission standards and are looking for cleaner and greener methods of reducing the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. All this is very good, if we are going to spread industrialization around the world, then we have to become stingier with our consumption of natural resources. This is all common sense.

The problem is that this is probably not enough. By the time the new technology is developed, chances are that climate change will be irreversible. The only hope that we then have of reversing the damage done is to reverse industrialization and move back towards a more agrarian economy. Doing this will probably result in populations becoming non-viable and result in mass starvation – a ghastly proposition.

The dangers of climate change are twofold. First is that melting ice will raise the level of the sea, flooding large portions of coastal land. Many of the worlds cities will then become flooded. The other danger is that the climate change will affect rainfall patterns. This will render farmland unviable or even cities too hot to live in.

There are two things that should be of net benefit. The first is that greater carbon-dioxide concentrations should leave to bigger plants and possibly higher agricultural yields. In certain controlled farm environments, carbon-dixoide levels are increased artificially to aid yields.

The second is that hotter air hold more water, this should lead to more rain. This could well cause flooding but may possibly held more arid regions.

The problem is that these changes will be erratic. Good cropland will turn poor. Cities will become unviable and one can expect large-scale displacement of populations. But for the losers, there will probably be winners as well. Some arid land will become viable. Climate change certainly does not spell the end of mankind.

The biggest danger in the end is warfare. This will come about by displaced populations making land-graps on neighboring countries. Or fatter nations will fight to keep the undesirables out. It is the consequences of war that the scariest.

The best plan to deal with climate change in my mind is not to try overly hard to prevent climate change but rather to deal with the consequences of it. We need to free movement of people as much as possible. Treaties need to be put in place to allow displaced populations to resettle and allow them to preserve a semblance of their own identity.

Allowing movement of populations is a hard sell but is doable and also something that can save the world. Trying to stop climate change in its tracks can potentially mean that the medicine is worse than the malady.

Posted on 25th April 2009
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leafThe 18th amendment to the US Constitution banned the sale or manufacture of alcohol. The was a large amount of popular appeal and people were confident that prohibition would not be repealed. But people wanted to drink and men of the underworld made a business of supplying what people wanted. Both the police and and the courts worked overtime trying to suppress something that people wanted.

Eventually seeing the error in their ways, the US passed the 21 Amendment that gave alcohol regulation back to the states. The states then went a allowed people to drink again.

We live in an era of prohibition – recreational drugs. Drugs have been banned since before most of us were born so we kind of take it as read that drugs are bad and that they should be banned. Yet seldom, do we think whether drug prohibition costs society and the world more than the harm caused by drugs do.

Lets not kid around. Drugs can wreck people’s lives. Drug overdoses and in some cases, normal use kills people. Yet much of the harm caused by drugs is over hyped.

If one takes marijuana/cannabis as an example. There are many people that use marijuana and still go to work and lead a relatively normal life. Yet were they caught with enough in their back pocket, they could go to jail. For something that is a personal choice and does not directly harm anyone else, this is wrong. It violates the principle that an adult can make any decision regarding him or herself that does not affect other people.

Then their is the the whole underworld. People who make money smuggling the drugs. Since the risk is high, they tend to transport the most potent variety and cut it with a whole bunch of potentially harmful substances. There is also no regulation since the sale is banned. Many people trying to make a living by providing a service that people want, end up in jail. They certainly don’t pay taxes either.

Then there are the police and the rest of the enforcers of prohibition. They are generally on the public payroll earning public money to perform a public dis-service. Public money can probable be much better spent than creating a bureaucracy whose job it is to stop people from doing what they want.

On top of this, prohibition prevents the investigation into potential beneficial properties of these substances. Marijuana has been shown to benefit certain sick people. These people are then prevented from getting the benefit because the law says no.

If drugs were legal, they could be regulated and taxed. Alcohol can cause harm. Cigarettes do cause harm. Yet adults can and should be allowed to make their own decisions. The state makes rules as to how people should relate to one another such that conflict can be avoided. They may not mandate restrictions on the use of a substance that harms no-one other than the person who made a personal choice to use the substance.

I am not a drug user myself but that is my choice. It should not be something that the state decided.

Posted on 19th April 2009
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A Case for the Queen

QueenThe British Royal family fulfill the role of celebrities. The paparazzi chase after them and the tabloid press publish their latest love affairs. What nobody does is view then as any type of force in politics.

Yet despite this, nominally, it is the queen who is the head of the government. It is the queen who appoints the Prime Minister, albeit from the party that won the most seats in the last general election. It is the queen who appoints the cabinet, albeit on the Prime Ministers recommendations. And it is the queen who reads out the government’s legislative agent at The State Opening of Parliament, albeit from a script given to her by the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

England has a long history of curtailing royal power. When Charles I asserted the divine right of monarch’s to rule, Parliament when to war and finally executed him. His nephew, James II was asked to leave and never return. Yet at the same time, England has never permanently abolished the crown and so to date, Queen Elizabeth II remains the head of state of the United Kingdom.

The Restoration of Charles II onto the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland nominally restored the king’s right to rule by decree. Yet at the same time no king could forget that could and would depose the king, should the supremacy of parliament be challenged. What emerged was that the king was given the appearance of power while real power moved away from the king to parliament.

It is for this reason that the absurdities exists where The Queen’s cabinet makes recommendations she could never refuse. So is there any benefit of letting the fiction continue.

I believe that there is. Any constitution will probably create a balance of power between executive, legislative and judicial bodies. In normal circumstances, these bodies work together to make a working government. Compromises are make that keep the wheels of government turning. Yet sometimes these bodies clash and a constitutional crisis occurs.

In the event of a constitutional crisis, The King or Queen as the nominal head of the government has the power to resolve the crisis. In 1909 a Liberal House of Commons and a Conservative House of Lords clashed over the budget. The Commons then put forward a bill, The 1911 Parliament Act, to prevent the Lords from vetoing a bill indefinitely. The Tory Lords obviously vetoed the Parliament Act, creating a standoff.

The Liberal PM then asked the King Edward VII to create hundreds of Liberal Lords so that the will of the people could be had. After going to the polls and getting a mandate from the people to create the new seats in the Lords, the Lords decided to accept the law that then became the 1911 Parliament Act.

The Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975 occurred when the Senate refused to pass the House of Representative’s Supply Bill. The crisis was resolve the the Governor General, Her Majesty’s representative in Australia, dismissed the Prime Minister and the called a new general election.

So what is comes down to is that the Queen must never interfere with the supremacy of Parliament. However, when the Gordian Knot needs cutting, it is only the queen that wields the sword.

Posted on 22nd March 2009
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