“We Come in Peace” – War, Fear, and How You Can Help

Imagine you are among the first settler colonial humans to discover extraterrestrial life. You have landed somewhere in a distant planet, disembarked, and were going about your daily tasks as you encounter the first signs. Some seemingly sentient, intelligent creature approaches you. It looks different, nothing like you or anyone you’ve seen, not even like a reptile or sea creature. It approaches.

You might be afraid–you have no means of communicating with this creature. Your first thought is to reassure it: “I come in peace,” you could proclaim… not that it would understand.

When encountered with an unknown being, one that potentially has the ability to take your life, how do you behave?

I wager that most humans will translate their fear to violence.

Better be safe and kill the thing, right?

I often wonder why humans even bother to say they come in peace as the explore the cosmos. It often feels like we are setting ourselves up for an impossible feat, virtually guaranteeing that Time will judge us as hypocrites if the day comes when we meet extraterrestrials with whom we cannot communicate. Our fear of the unknown “other” often seems insurmountable.

Back on earth, our fear of the unknown other continues to harm us, robbing our humanity day by day. While we have the mans of communicating with other humans, our view of the “other” in military, political, and ideological conflict, is not too different from our view of an alien creature. Our ability to empathize with other humans diminishes as we convince ourselves of their otherness.

This is a problem that plagues every part of our human civilization, and is the root of racism, fanaticism, terrorism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, partisanship, and many, many political conflicts. One of these problems is particularly close to my heart: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the fear of extraterrestrials though, this is a problem with a solution.

Seeds of Peace

The solution is simple: engage in dialogue to achieve coexistence.

In regions plagued with conflict, the sides often mystify each other and refuse to interact. A 2007 study by the Center for Research on Peace Education at Haifa University reinforces this idea: less that 50% of Jewish high school students surveyed were willing to meet Arab students. The percentage of Arab students willing to meet Jewish students is about 75% according to the survey, also a low percentage (the increased percentage on the side of the Palestinian Arabs could be attributed to the fact that Palestinians do interact with Israelis more regularly, through the IDF’s presence in checkpoints, etc.).

Other questions still reveal a disconnect: 75% of Jewish high school students thought Arabs were uneducated, uncivilized, unclean, and violent. On the Palestinian side, 27% believe Jewish people are uneducated, 40% believe they are uncivilized, 57% believe they are unclean, and 64% believe they are violent.

In this part of the world, Jews and Arabs view each other as strange and exotic. With this strangeness comes fear, then hatred.

Many organizations try to solve this problem by bringing together teenagers from opposite sides of conflict-torn regions and getting them to engage in dialog. Prime among these initiatives is Seeds of Peace. Dialog and argumentation rarely changes anyone’s minds when it comes to the facts. Instead, through dialog and living in close quarters, we get a more valuable outcome: camaraderie.

I will continue to hope that the politicians of today miraculously put an end to the Middle East conflict, but I will not count on it, sitting and doing nothing. What I am counting on, however, is that 20 more years down the line, the leaders of the next generation will be empowered with a new perspective, an insight on the humanity of the Other.

You can get involved or donate to Seeds of Peace if you are also not willing to count on the politicians of today to solve one of the most contentious conflicts of our time.

More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance

Like many, I feel uncomfortable with much of the information revealed about the NSA’s surveillance program. The reach and scale of the program are alarming at best, and for many of us, it demonstrates an unjustified attack on the right to privacy. Yet, as I read the arguments leveled against the NSA and other spy agencies for their surveillance programs, I find it hard to identify with or feel represented by any of these arguments: they seem somewhat lacking at best, and likely, fallacious. I am writing this post to demonstrate the flaws with most popular arguments against spying, surveillance, and the NSA. The goal—I hope—is clear: a call for more nuanced arguments that more clearly define why and to what extent is the NSA surveillance program ‘wrong’.

The most common arguments against the NSA are variations of the following:

  • The NSA serves no real national security benefits, only usurping the right of the citizens to privacy, or
  • The gains of the NSA surveillance program do not by any means outweigh the harms of becoming a surveillance state, or
  • Surveillance is only justifiable against enemies or in a state of war.

The problem with the first two arguments is that they ignore the clear historical benefits of spying and decipherment, from the Zimmermann telegram in 1917 [1, p. 107], to the cracking of the ENIGMA in World War II [2, pp. 16-17].

To claim that there must be no benefits to spying in recent times because we haven’t seen them is false; the ENIGMA project was secret until 1974, 29 years after the end of World War II. The United Kingdom also exposed the telegram under a false cover (that they obtained a leaked clear-text message from the embassy in Mexico), instead of exposing the cryptanalysis effort to allow the spying effort to continue.

To say the benefits do not outweigh the harms of being a surveillance state is not a good argument: it sounds like an inherently utilitarian claim that involves a cost-benefit analysis. Yet the argument is thrown around saying the harms always outweigh the benefits. What if we were dealing with Hitler, as we were in the 30s?

The argument, therefore, is either a practical one: “there does not seem to be a reason in today’s world to spy”, or an absolutist one: “it is never ok to spy on others”. I have not been able to see an absolutist argument why no benefit ever (i.e. preventing nuclear arms in terrorists’ hands) would outweigh surveillance.

Yet the argument also cannot be a practical one: in today’s world, we do in fact have plenty of reasons. Most political scientists agree that among the greatest geopolitical threats to global stability is nuclear proliferation among non-state actors (namely terrorist organizations) [3] [4] [5]. A world where nuclear weapons have proliferated to non-state actors is a world where deterrence does not work—where second-strike capabilities mean nothing [6]. This is clearly a big deal, and clearly requires spying, not on foreign enemies, but or non-state actors who can be citizens of any country, and reside anywhere.

What we need is a pragmatic argument against the expansive NSA surveillance program. One that says that spying is has benefits which sometimes should be utilized, but that certain kinds and extents of spying do not provide sufficient returns.

A blanket argument: “spying does not work” is clearly incorrect—spying has worked in the past and certainly has the potential to work now. Short of becoming an actual military and surveillance state, with full CCTV coverage, regular checkpoints, and strict closed borders, signals intelligence is our best bet. Arguments that are opposed to any form of spying are not going to fly; we need arguments against certain extents of spying.

Continue reading “More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance”

The Subscription Model is the Future of Software—and for good reason

Microsoft recently announced the launch of Office for iPad. Many people took note about the pricing model behind Office for iPad: the apps are free to download, and the user can open and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations for free, but must pay for an Office 365 subscription to edit these files. Many have taken notice.

At Microsoft, the move to a subscription-based model has been going on for some time. Office 365 was launched in 2011. With Office 2013, the move towards the subscription model has been consummated: a user with an Office 365 subscription can use click-to-run to stream any Office app on any machine, and has access to the latest bits of the software at all times.

Many in the tech community and elsewhere have met this move with caution or concern. At the heart of these concerns are two ideas:

  1. a subscription model to use the software, instead of being able to purchase it, means that we never really own the software we pay for, and
  2. a subscription model also seems like a way to bleed money out users, especially infrequent users.

These are legitimate concerns, but I will argue that out understanding of software ownership is outdated and harmful. Further, the financial concerns about software subscriptions can be mitigated.

It seems that it is fair to—and often, acceptable—to charge for a service on a continuous basis as it is being provided, but neither fair nor acceptable to charge a continuous fee for the use of goods, where one is expected to “own” such good. The renting of goods will come up as an obvious counterexample, but I suppose renting is an exception rather than the rule.

Software is seen as a good, and to pay a subscription for software exactly as an attempt to rent it out. Many will object to the business model of “renting out” software licenses because the use of software by one user does not exclude others. It therefore seems that renting out software is a greedy attempt at amassing profit, rather than a legitimate business practice.

But in this day and age, the use of software carries many hidden costs. A company must offer supports to users of software, including users who own older versions, or interoperate with other users who own older versions. A user could be complaining about a bug fixed several years ago, but if the user is having this problem, as a company, it is also your problem. A company could also choose to have strict terms of service and choose not to support some of these areas, but here we see another cost of having your old software out in the wild: its reputation.

Here, I hope an example from Microsoft software will be illuminating.

Case: Windows XP

Windows XP was released in 2001 and still commands a usage share of some 30% of traditional PCs today. Support for Windows XP has been extended multiple times since it was first slated to expire, but in April 2014, support for Windows XP will finally expire. This is good news for everyone in the tech world: a 13-year old operating system has no place in 2014.

30% of traditional PC users are currently using an operating system that is more susceptible to attack. Some team of programmers in Microsoft is writing software fixing bugs and closing holes in a piece of software written in 2001, when many of these bugs have been made irrelevant by new security models, access controls, and sandboxing techniques that their colleagues have developed years ago for Windows Vista, 7, and 8. Developers throughout the world need to make sure that their websites are compatible with IE6, 7, and 8, even though IE9 has been released in 2011 and support open web standards more properly than previous versions.

Windows XP costs everyone today. Microsoft especially sees issues: the reputation of IE has declined, many developers no longer support or attempt to use modern versions of IE because they have a negative impression of the browser. Customers compare a Windows XP netbook circa 2004 with a 2011 iPad and decide not to bother with Windows.

There is one “cost” that I have not mentioned yet, because I do not think it is a legitimate part of this debate. That “cost” is the cost of modern Windows licenses that could be sold to these PC owners. It is true that the biggest competition for a new version of Windows is the previous version of Windows. I will not concern myself with this idea as a justification for subscriptions; as users, it is not our job to accommodate our lifestyles to optimize a company’s profitability.

Therefore, I am building an argument that is quite straightforward: the continuous use of Windows XP costs Microsoft in real, meaningful ways, not only in opportunity costs of missed sales.

Many developers are horrified at the idea of anyone using Windows XP. Developers of course don’t care if those Windows XP users update their operating system to a newer version of Windows or a competing product.

These users, however, have purchased and therefore ‘own‘ the operating system. Imagine a washing machine maker going to your home and demand that you buy a new one: “It doesn’t need to be from us,” a representative would tell you, “you can buy any new washing machine, as long as it’s modern. This one is much too old and we can’t have you keep it.”

Enterprise users have more of a reason to continue using XP. The 30% usage figure, however, contains many home users of the operating system.

If we cling on to our conception of software ownership, then we really can’t demand anything out of these users. Maybe we should.

The Solution

The real solution to this problem is to rid ourselves of this conception of software ownership. It seems arbitrary at best to distinguish between software downloaded and running locally (“a good”) and software hosted on the web (“a service”), if the continuous use of both of them carries a similar cost.

A subscription means that you have access to the latest bits of the software you intend to use at all times. Third-party developers can count on the majority of their users using newer versions. The software maker will see a reduced need to support legacy formats, instead moving closer to (n) ↔ (n-1) compatibility guarantees. A subscription therefore means that development is more tractable, that users witness faster rates of improvement, and that software is generally more reliable.

Case: SimCity

Subscription-based models will also help speed up the advent of cloud-assisted and cloud-enabled software. When a user purchases a game or program, the user often feels entitled to the right of using this software offline. Developers who wish to be on the cutting edge are offering online-only options that are often being met with anger.

EA asked users to purchase SimCity, a game that required a continuous internet connection to be played. Users objected on for the following bases:

  1. the always-online requirement seems to be arbitrary and offer no real advantages that cannot be implemented in an offline-only version, and
  2. locking users into EA servers means that legitimate owners of the game will be left in the dark if EA decides to top supporting the game or close their servers.

I will not argue against the first point, other than to point out that other games could exist which legitimately take advantage of the cloud to offer superior online-only experiences. The real issue, however, is that users did not want to pay to own a game that they will not be able to use at some point.

The Big Picture: “Free” Software and Piracy

I am using “free” in quotation marks to refer to software that is “free (as in beer)” as opposed to “free (as in freedom)”.

My opinion on the EA and SimCity debacle is simple: EA should have offered SimCity for ‘free’, not purchase, and instead charged users a subscriptions to play the game. If EA ever shuts down its servers (as it often does), these subscriptions are terminated. The users got what they paid for (the use of the game for a given period) and we move on to the next innovation.

I will be the first to admit that this assessment is incomplete. It would be much preferable if EA opened up SimCity to allow other servers to spur up (at least if they choose to shut down the official servers). Whether EA owes this to the users, or whether it is simply a better alternative will be left as an exercise to the reader, and is definitely the next part of this debate on “free” software openness.

We are now looking at the big picture: in today’s world, buying, selling, and owning software are outdated concepts. Privacy advocates have long argued that the marginal cost of copying software is practically 0, and only potentially impacts software makers in terms of opportunity cost. Software is information and should be copied freely, they argue.

The subscription model ends the privacy debate. Companies should not be charging for copies of software, but the service of use and support.

What piracy advocates have noticed years ago is that software makers are charging for software illegitimately at the wrong stage of the development-distribution-use process. The subscription model admits this mistake and recognizes that the true cost of software—other than its development—is proportional not to the number of users using it, but instead the amount of user-hours the software is being used.

Does a future of subscription-based software mean it is more expensive for the user? I don’t think so. Companies should instead be expected to offer flexible options, such as day or week passes that should accommodate very infrequent users. We should demand that software makers provide affordable options: the cost of a one-year license to use a product should be significantly lower than the cost software makers currently charge to purchase a license indefinitely.

Simply put, charging users for a copy of an application is not the way forward for software. All (or perhaps most) software is a service that involves patches, updates, support, and more. A subscription-based model puts an end to many current-day arguments in favor of software piracy, allows software makers to innovate at a higher rate, and gives users access to the latest bits at all times.

Alhamdulillah – What one simple phrase tells us about Islam’s core conceptions of justice

I recently stumbled across a story from Jerusalem in the early days of the British Mandate of Palestine. Concerns over ethnic and religious tensions between the inhabitants of Jerusalem lead the British to restrict access to holy sites by religion. British guards were now seen in quarters of Jerusalem asking for the religious identity of the passers-by before allowing them in.

In front of the Dome of the Rock, a guard would stand and ask “Musliman?”—meaning, are you a Muslim?—and if the passer by is indeed Muslim, they would respond “Musliman, alhamdulillah.”—’I am a Muslim, thank God‘.

Alhamdulillah—‘thank God’.

I paused as I reflected upon this story, because suddenly I had saw new meaning in this simple phrase. A meaning I often glossed over. A meaning I might not necessarily believe, yet one I have come to appreciate.

The phrase Alhamdulillah is so ubiquitous in Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries. If someone asks a Muslim during the month of Ramadan if she is fasting, her response would be in the affirmative, followed by that same phrase Alhamdulillah—’thank God’.

At a very basic level, the reasoning behind thanking God for the most mundane of things is a typical religious tendency. God is the purported creator, after all, and He or She takes all the credit. But in Islam, I think, being grateful to God for the most mundane of things is not simply about giving credit to the creator, but a reflection on Islam’s understanding of Justice and Moral Desert—an understanding which I think is quite beautiful, at least in this instance.

When a Muslim thanks God for being Muslim, she is coming to terms with the very fact that she could have just as easily been born a non-Muslim (which, depending on the Muslim you ask, means her chances at going to heaven are greatly reduced). To me, it seems that this itself is an acknowledgement that humans are not owed anything at all by their creator. If you are born into the ‘correct’ religion, you should count yourself lucky—nothing about you is inherently better than others, no God, nature, or society ever owed you anything. You mere birth did not entitle you to be born in that religion. You should be grateful.

You might not see the beauty that I see in this take on the world. You might feel I am making the world sound like a harsh, unloving space, where you are entitled to nothing and are owed just that.

To this, I argue that Nature is indeed harsh and unloving, and that it shouldn’t take long to see that. Whether famine, death, or war—the simple fact that bad things happen to undeserving people should be enough to convince you that good things happens to undeserving people as well. The mere fact of being born does not entitle us to any form of dignity that we should expect from Nature—only our fellow human kind.

Islam reminds its adherents, it seems to me, that they should be grateful for being born in the right place at the right time. That the mere fact that they were born into privilege doesn’t mean that they had been entitled to it.

This, I think, holds lessons that the rest of us could find useful as well: Distinguish Nature and the harsh world we live in from the kindness of humanity around us; Accept that while Human Dignity is important, it is a contract and a set of mutual expectations that govern the realm of relationships in the Human Sphere—and not our relationship with Nature; Accept that Nature and Misfortune can strike the most unsuspecting man or woman.

Even if you are not convinced by the philosophical implications of reflecting on the state of Nature and the harshness of the world, I think these reflections could at least inform us on some of the core teachings of Islam. Many who are unfamiliar with Islam, attempting to understand it from the outside, quickly become uncomfortable with its most basic doctrine of submission to God. Some feel this submission is contrary to many humanists notions of free will and self-determination. But submission to God in Islam should not be conflated with a loss of self-agency, instead a mere resignation to—or, lack of rejection of—the realities on the ground. It is not a call to inaction, but rather a reminder that good and bad things happen to undeserving people alike, and rather than demanding compensation from nature, you should do something about it.

Of course, it goes without saying that I am projecting many of my personal and philosophical beliefs onto Islam. Something which is especially dubious when taking into account that I am not, and was never, an adherent of Islam. Instead of taking this as an explanation of Islam, take it as one person’s account of Islam—and even then, only an account of an aspect of Islam. I simply offer an interpretation which I think is consistent, and one which I think at least some Muslims adhere to.

Whether this is an account of the real Islam, or an imagined clone, I think it offers a few insights that anybody could appreciate and find helpful: expect nothing from nature, work to make sure fellow human kind can expect something from you, and hope there is someone you could expect something from.

%d bloggers like this: