We came so far for beauty: a useful metaphor

The sub-set of Mac OS X users and developer who actively prefer the platform to others = Oscar Wilde.

The sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others = H G Wells.

The metaphor's potential use is in its ability to make evident the often cross-purposes arguments of each community.

Both Wilde and Wells were concerned about the good people could and should do.

Wilde, however, saw good in aesthetic terms. Good is a form of beauty, and to the extent something isn't beautiful, it is not as good as it could or should be.

Wells, by contrast, saw good in ethical terms. Good is a form of worth, and to the extent something isn't worthy, it is not as good as it could or should be.

This simplifies the concerns of both men enormously, of course. And it doesn't map perfectly to the two communities, either.

But I've found these notions useful when I encounter yet another interminable ‘Mac OS X is just empty prettiness' trolling from the Linux community, or the roughly equivalent Mac OS X moron's troll: Linux is just a tech-weenie's paradise, with no idea of what ordinary people want or need.

Neither of these bits of trollish invective are useful discussion points. But they reveal assumptions both communities do appear to hold about the other.

And, when I apply the differences between Wilde's and Wells's concerns and priorities as presented above, it's easier to prise the assumptions out from the rhetoric.

To the stereotype Linux user, those Wildean, effete, Mac OS X users care only for prettiness, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the unworthy, even evil, things Apple and others do.

The stereotype, Wildean, effete, Mac OS X user, in response, argues that beauty is not just a surface quality, but a fundamental aspect of an object's purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting ugly things on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

To the stereotype Mac OS X user, those Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux users care only for engineering, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the pain, even hurt, this ugliness causes.

The stereotype, Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux user, in response, argues that engineering is not just an annoying necessity, but the basic truth of an object's purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting poor engineering on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

And, of course, both my faux-literary-giant straw men are right and both my faux-literary-giant straw men are wrong.

Wilde's aesthetics didn't make him blind to practicality, any more than Wells's ethics made him blind to beauty.

But, their ability to understand, or at least appreciate, the other's perspective didn't mean their differences were only ones of degree.

To agree with Wilde is to agree that beauty is a fundamental part of the problem of 'how to be and do good'. To agree with Wells is to agree that function is a fundamental part of the problem of 'how to be and do good'.

From the Wildean perspective, beauty is part of how things (indeed the entire world) function. From the Wellsian perspective, beauty is a consequence of how things (indeed the entire world) functions.

These are deeper differences than they first appear, so I'm not expecting rapproachment between the two communties anytime soon.

More practically, however, awareness of this deep underlying difference might reduce the number of pointless arguments. So long as the metaphor makes it easier to detect that disagreeing parties are talking at cross-purposes, it will be useful.

three addenda

A clarifying point: I suspect the majority of computer users, even Mac OS X and Linux users, don't actively prefer any particular platform. Further, I suspect the majority of computer users are, at best, indifferent, to computers. The metaphor is of no especial value with regards the point of view of this majority who don't have a particular preference about the computer they use.

A disclosure: I am a member of that sub-set of Mac OS X users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others. At the same time, I work for Red Hat, a company replete with members of that sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer that platform to others.

That said, working for Red Hat has made me more inclined to conclude that even Linux users don't necessarily prefer the platform they are using. I've encountered more than a few co-workers, good at their jobs and hard workers all, who use Linux primarily because it is (not surprisingly) mandated by the company.

A pre-emptive note: yes, the title is a tiny variation on the song title by Leonard Cohen. I knew that when I wrote the title. The song itself has only tangential connections to this piece. The title, however, struck me as being apposite enough to reference.

A Mundane Menacing

A mid-Winter's day. 2006/06/26 09:25 Australian Central Standard Time, to be precise.

I'd just dropped my wife off to work near the entrance to Peel Street on Currie. Strictly speaking it's an illegal stop. The car is straddling a bus zone and mostly blocking said entrance. Peel Street is closed to all but local traffic until August due to road works, however, so I don't feel even a moment's pang of guilt, especially since I've not blocked any actual buses or cars in the ten seconds I'm idling.

Having pulled out into Currie proper I'm now sitting in the right-hand lane, waiting with half-a-dozen other cars for the light to change so we can cross or turn onto King William Street.

It's about as mundane a setting as you could find in any city on earth. People in cars and on bikes and on footpaths going about their day.

Unfortunately, on the footpath to my left, only a lane away, something ugly and stupid is happening. Even worse, for all its ugliness, this happening is as mundane as the cars and bicycles.

A big, beefy yob (190cm tall and on the plus side of 100 kilos) is shouting at, harrassing and threatening someone walking beside him.

He's close to violence.

The object of his ire? A woman. 155cm tops, perhaps 60 kilos.

Oh, and she's dressed according to someone's interpretation of Hijab. (I'm no expert on the subtleties of these dress codes, but it looks like she's wearing an abaya and a headscarf).

She's half his weight, 20% shorter and half as strong. Which makes her a more than suitable opponent apparently. A fine example of Anglo-Saxon masculinity in action.

It's good to know some of the lessons of our 'bully those weaker than you but tug the forelock extensively when the bigger guys are around' Federal and State Governments are making it down to the street.

To top it off, he has his wife and daughter (who can't be more than 7) with him. I wonder what life lesson they're getting today?

Perhaps the lesson is 'it's OK to menace and demean those weaker and smaller than you.' Or maybe he's just emphasising to them both that, on this street at least, he's the bigger, tougher guy and they shouldn't forget that, especially when we get home and there's no-one watching. After all, a burly bloke who's willing to threaten a small woman in the street is probably willing to do a lot more to an even smaller girl in the privacy of home.

Whichever, they're good solid Family Values, at least so far as the term is used by people like Brian 'I've got a conservative, biblical idea that a man should take a role of leadership in his life' Houston and Nancy 'there is nothing more hideous than seeing a wife stand up to her husband' Campbell. So, that's positive news on the street-level success of their evangelical efforts as well.

As for the small woman wearing a headscarf? I don't know what worthwhile lessons you can draw from being threatened by a large, menacing stranger.

The few times it's happened to me the only things I took away from the encounters were a sharp distress at being hated or feared simply because I existed; a permanent concern there was nothing I could do or say that would deflect or diminish that hatred and fear; and a growing willingness to see violence as a legitimate, perhaps even necessary, response to such a menace. Nothing particularly worthwhile in any of that.

The yob's wife pulled at him to stop and the small woman turned up King William Street and away from the immediate threat of assault.

The light changed and the people in cars and on bikes and on footpaths (including the yob, the small woman and myself) continued about their day.

In Praise of Voting Below the Line


I've just voted. Or, more precisely, I voted about fifteen minutes ago and I've just finished the walk home from my local polling station.

There are an almost infinite array of things to take delight from when voting.

The fact that our elections are conducted by fellow citizens, wearing nothing more than a laser-printed badge saying 'polling official' (prima facie evidence of a working civil structure).

The father behind me in the queue explaining, quite specifically, what he's about to do (and why) to his kids, who are coming along with him because they're already convinced voting is a cool and interesting thing to do.

The crowd of people from a dozen or so ethnic and national backgrounds happily hardening their arteries by scarfing $2.00 serves of grilled-sausage-on-white-bread-with-grilled-onions-&-lashings-of-tomato-sauce after voting. (Like many polling booths in South Australia, mine is on the grounds of a primary school, and said school is doing a little fund-raising via a semi-captive audience).

But, just now, it's not the nobility of democracy in action, nor the worthiness of a healthy civil system, I'm moved to note. It's my unashamed shadenfreude at filling out my Legislative Assembly ballot below the line. (Shadenfreude aside, I vote this way because voting above the line gives too much power to the preference deal-makers within the various parties standing for election.)

There are 54 people standing for 11 open seats in the upper house this election and some of them are truly awful.

Now, I could vituperate these folk. I could suggest Barbara Pannach and Basil Hille (the two One Nation candidates) are representatives of a paranoid, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-reality, 'I can't handle complexity and want things to be the way I thought they were when I was young and stupid' party.

I could say that Dennis Hood (number one candidate for Family First) is a hateful fundamentalist who's arrogant swagger and self-righteous religiosity remind me more of Elmer Gantry than they do St Francis of Assisi or Hillel the Elder.

But it's a lot more fun to put the numbers 52, 53 and 54 against their names as I finish laying down my preferences.

And it's a lot more fun because vitriol doesn't do anything but make me feel (temporarily) better. Putting these pathetic examples of adulthood last on a ballot paper means I've taken a concrete step towards these folk not getting into parliament.

Of course, if there are enough xenophobic dullards or sanctimonious fundamentalists out there, Dennis or Barbara (and even Basil, if there are an appalling number of xenophobic dullards) may still end up taking up space and time on the corner of North Terrace & King William Street.

But it won't be because I've not done my personal bit to prevent them.

The Passion of the Christ: an inflammatory perspective

Take a quick trip with me back to the mid-1980s. My first job post-uni I luck out. I make a lot of money twiddling test tubes on the Moomba gas fields in the Cooper Basin (South Australia's mid-north, up near Cooper's Creek, where Burke & Wills died).

Moomba is a hyper-masculine world. There are no women, and there are a few men avoiding the watchful eye of the constabulary in their home towns. We work fortnight-on/fortnight-off shifts (fourteen days in the field, fourteen days at home, repeat ad nauseam). It's the embodiment of Australian 'mateship.' It's also the embodiment of Australian boozing and brawling.

Fast forward several shifts. We newbies aren't wet behind the ears anymore but we're still spending more time together than with the old hands. A kid my age and I are having lunch in a transportable behind the main laboratory. His parents are Greek immigrants. My mother's father escaped the Nazis in ’33 by jumping ship in Port Adelaide and staying on as an illegal immigrant. (He got legal by joining the army in ’39 and served in North Africa and New Guinea.)

I know about the kid's Greek (and Greek Orthodox) background, because he wears it on his sleeve. I don't know if he knows I'm Jewish. I'm not a closet Jew but I don't wear my religion on my sleeve (or my head).

I don't remember how, but the conversation turns to the then emerging AIDS crisis. It gets a bit tense. The kid's homophobic and very quickly suggests AIDS is 'their fault.' I note that HIV is not 'just a gay disease.' Besides, blaming someone for being infected by a disease is like blaming the Jews for being caught in the Holocaust.

I've never forgotten his reply.

'Maybe the Jews deserved it, too.'

I didn't hit him. I didn't shout at him. In fact, I didn't say anything. I walked away and never spoke to him again.

So, do I think Gibson's film will inflame anti-Semitic feeling? Do I think it will revive the deicide slander?

Yes, I do.

Do I think Gibson should be stopped? That the film should be banned?

Of course I don't. Supporting freedom of speech means defending speech you don't like.

Do I think Gibson has guts putting the film together in the first place?

Not particularly.

The Western world is still Christendom. Christians of whatever denomination may disagree, but they're distracted by details. Traditional Hindus decry the secularisation of India but that doesn't make day-to-day life in India less culturally bound to Vedic myths and traditions.

Similarly in the West. People living here may be woefully undereducated about their religious traditions and mostly clueless about history and theology, but Westerners still equate 'religion' with Jesus and Christmas and 'good will to all [people who look like me or at least dress like me and use the same civil calendar]’.

Making a gory film which says Jesus was the coolest guy ever is about as gutsy as singing a be-bop version of the US national anthem at a US baseball game. It's different but hardly threatening to the pre-conceived notions the audience has about the material.

For myself, I'm glad Gibson's film is fomenting the reactions it is. I've never trusted the whole post-Vatican II 'Jewish-Christian relations' schtick. 2,000 years of slander and blood and murder and suddenly it's 'all's forgiven, we really like and respect you guys?' Yeah, right.

If Gibson's film reveals a festering anti-Semitism just under the surface of Western society, I'm all for it. It's always good to know who your enemies are.

Field Notes From Inside A Car

The Anthropologist's Guide to Aggressive Drivers

Take away our styled hair, cotton underwear and antiperspirant and what are you left with? The Savannah-dwelling, hunter-gatherer social hominids we like to pretend we aren't.

This less sophisticated truth is a useful thing to keep in mind, however. Especially when forced to slam on the brakes behind that aggressive moron who's very existence is threatened if they don't get one car further ahead of everyone else.

Because aggression isn't useful for either hunting or gathering. Aggressive hunters end up pinned to the wrong end of the deer antlers or mammoth tusks. It's the careful planners who stay un-punctured and able to bring home the bacon (or venison or mammoth steaks).

Aggressive gatherers aren't any better. Roots, tubers, fruits, berries and nuts don't come labeled and packaged in the wild. Bringing home the groceries takes concentrated effort and attention to detail, not reckless running about with a fierce stare and a bad attitude.

Which is not to say aggression has no value to our inner hunter-gatherer. It serves two functions, both social.

First, aggression is used, mostly by males, to fend off competitors when seeking a mate. Second, aggression is used to ward off things which scare us spitless. Much in the fashion of the frill-necked lizard, which presents its impressive skin flaps and nasty hiss only when panicked.

So, the next time you swerve to avoid an aggressive idiot, take heart. Underneath the dark glasses and surly sneer is an insecure jerk who's afraid you'll steal their (likely imaginary) bed-mate. Either that or they're scared generally and are hoping everyone will just go away and leave them alone.

A Hypothesis Regarding 4x4 Frequency Distribution

My son recently suggested 4-wheel drives are distributed on our city streets in Starbucks end-of-the-universe fashion. Spend time walking around almost any US city and you'll understand what he means. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, there are more than 400 Starbucks. As you leave one Starbucks it's likely you'll see another just down the street.

And so it is with the truck-like four-wheel-drives lumbering through our streets. As one thunders past, chances are there'll be another somewhere within view.

Not quite herding, but definitely keeping within range of each other. And I think I've got an idea why: it's a silent affirmation they are not alone.

Let's face it, no-one else likes these monster trucks masquerading as family sedans. They're twice as tall and twice as heavy as they need to be. They roll over if you sneeze too hard when cornering. They're ugly. And they are a very public statement that the driver is too self-involved to give a damn about the people beside them who can't turn, overtake or even brake safely because of these hypertrophic panderings to juvenile fantasies of rugged individuality.

In such circumstances, I'd want to keep others like me within sight as well. Anyone driving such a monstrosity down a suburban street to drop their kids off to school clearly doesn't have much of a conscience. Social pressure isn't so easy to ignore in public, however. If there's always at least one other four-wheel-drive in view, such drivers can take some comfort from knowing there are others out there just as selfish.

Yet Another Reason to be Pleased You Bought a Station Wagon

When my children were younger they would pass the time on long car journeys (ie anything more than a five minute trip) playing ‘spot-a-bug.'

It's a pretty simple game. You look for Volkswagens and, as soon as you see one, shout out ‘spot-a-bug.' The first to do so wins the round. Keeping track of how many rounds you win was officially part of the rules but individual victories were much more important than extended counts.

Today both my kids are in high school and the game has changed. As we head in to school each morning, or around to their various after-school activities, I'm regularly assailed with cries of 'MLC.'

They aren't talking about the National Australia Bank's finance and insurance company.

MLC stands for ‘Mid-Life Crisis' and the cry goes up each time they see a 40-plus man driving by in an over-powered, too-small-to-be-practical-for-family-use, sports-car. Judging by the regularity of the shout, there are quite a few MLCs out and about each day.

A few days ago my son claimed to have seen ‘the king of MLCs.' When asked to defend the claim he pointed calmly to the stream of on-coming traffic: ‘over-50; balding; round, mirror-sunnies; grey pony-tail hanging down; driving a brand-new, black Monaro.'

We could hardly argue with him.

Despite being only a little younger than these MLCs, I find my kids' attitude refreshing. It's refreshing because it is only one part of a general perspective -- shared by their friends -- that finds substance more interesting than surface and style. It's not the aging skin they are laughing at, it's the gawdy plumage tacked on to cover the wrinkles.

So, fair warning to anyone looking to assauge the sudden onset of mortal dread with impractical but phallic cars. Those beautiful young people smiling and pointing as you pass by aren't laughing with you.

On Being Burgled

On December 30 1999, my suburban Adelaide home was burgled. Thieves broke in through a locked window and stole a VCR; 101 CDs; $110 in cash (from my childrens' piggy banks); a cricket bag; and a school bag. The last two items were used to carry the other goods. The thieves also left a mess more upsetting than the property loss.

My family was out, buying uniforms for my daughter's first year at high school. I was and still am working on an out-of-town contract (I am the very model of the modern flexible worker).

There are several pluses to all this, however. No-one was hurt and none of the stolen goods had real emotional value. I've also learnt three important lessons.

1. The police are criminally under-staffed.

There were obvious signs of intrusion, including muddy footprints in the kitchen and damage to a kitchen window and back door. Despite this, no specialist evidence gathering was done. The police believe the burglary was the work of drug addicts and further suggested that the goods had already been sold on. The chances of us seeing the stolen goods again are somewhere between Buckley's and none and the chances of the burglars being caught appear to be the same.

This is not to attack the three pleasant and professional officers who arrived promptly on my wife's call. In the end, however, they were little more than sympathetic visitors. My wife was initially asked that the house be left as it was. When the officers were leaving, however, she was encouraged to 'begin tidying up.' No further investigation of the scene would take place.

2. Victims of crime are not fit to judge perpetrators.

Since the burglary I've entertained several revenge fantasies, some of them horribly brutal and none of them commensurate with the actual harm done. Which is worrying since a drug addict's life is already awful. For them, joy and love and the hope of a better future have disappeared into a constant need for something that doesn't even make them feel good anymore.

This doesn't temper my anger. I'm incapable of overcoming my heart's desire to make these low-lifes hurt and hurt and hurt again, knowing all the while that each blow is pay-back for the helplessness I hear in my wife's voice, for the fear I hear in my daughter's voice, for the appalling effort to be 'the man of the house' I hear in my ten-year-old son's voice.

My cold hatred for these unknown people makes me unwilling to render fair judgement on them. It also makes me grateful for a formal judicial system that attempts (however imperfectly) to render justice rather than revenge.

One more beneficial side-effect of this rage: politicians and demagogues who push cold-blooded revenge fantasies masquerading as 'law-and-order' will be easy to ignore. I'll just file their names in my mental 'beneath contempt' drawer along with the burglars.

3. Making drug use illegal is stupid, counter-productive and morally indefensible.

The burglary occurred because the substance these thieves are addicted to is illegal. This illegality means there is no government oversight regarding costs. So cocaine, which is cheaper to produce than booze, ends up more expensive because it is supplied by organised crime, which takes greater risks and demands higher profits than legitimate business.

Illegality also increases the risks to end-users. With no surety of supply and no quality control it is difficult for people to use even cheap drugs like heroin and live an otherwise normal life. And don't try blaming this burglary on the thieves being stoned. This crime was committed by stone-cold sober people. If they had adequate drug supply they'd be doped up somewhere, not tearing my house apart looking for quick cash.

I'm not advocating drug use. My only drug is caffeine (taken orally as a carbonated, highly sweetened cola, especially when deadlines loom) and a few habits of self-discipline would make even this unnecessary.

Nonetheless, if someone chooses to use a mind-altering substance, their choice, in and of itself, doesn't harm anyone. So long as a drug user doesn't drive a car, operate other machinery or otherwise put themselves in a position of responsibility whilst under the drug's influence they won't hurt me or my kin.

The vast majority of adults use drugs, and most of them do so without causing harm to others. So why put useless barriers in the way of those who want to use drugs other than alcohol, nicotine and caffeine?

Making other mind-altering substances illegal doesn't protect us from the consequences of drug use. In fact, our current prohibitionist policies thrust my children into the heart of the problem. Made them victims just as thoroughly as if they'd been using the drugs themselves.

Making other mind-altering substances illegal doesn't make it easier for the police to investigate and solve crime. Instead, it increases the number of offences until there are so many they aren't equipped to properly deal with any of them.

Making other mind-altering substances illegal doesn't improve anyone's moral character. Instead, it leaves me with a withering hatred for people I don't even know. People I should, by all rights, be wanting to help are now the targets of a most uncharitable enmity that does me no credit and them no good.

Three life-lessons in one night. A personal record. It's almost a wonder I don't feel fulfilled and re-born.