Thursday, 31 July 2008

Losing religion or gaining psychological freedom?

The letter below was sent to The Times but was edited prior to publishing. Here is the unedited version:

Oh dear, I feel a bit guilty writing this letter - a bit like telling a child that Father Christmas is not real. Still, Jacqueline Calleja's letter in The Times of 25 July merits some corrections.

The most glaring and often-repeated falsehood is that Europe owes its roots and identity to Christianity. Europe has existed since long before Christianity started, and owes its identity mainly to the presence of the Mediterranean separating it from North Africa, which affected the spread of the Greek and Roman influences, and formed a barrier to a greater mixing of cultural influences. Although Christianity has been a major influence in Europe for over 1500 years, that influence has not been too positive. Consider that, 200 years before the birth of Jesus, in Greece, Erastothenes had accurately calculated the diameter of the earth, the angle of tilt of its axis, and invented the leap day after calculating the exact length of a year. By comparison in 1600 the Catholic church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for saying there were other worlds besides our own, and in 1633 sentenced Galileo Galilei to house arrest for life, for the heresy of claiming that the earth orbits the sun. It was only in 1992 that the church finally conceded that Galileo had been right all along. From the achievements of the Greek and Roman worlds, Europe was dragged into the dark ages. We went through the crusades and the inquisitions thanks to the church. Did you know that the Holy Inquisition remained until 1908? After that it had its name changed - it is now called the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It was headed by a certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until he got a big promotion.

Many might object that these acts are all in the past, and the church of today is totally different. Then again, when one hears a Cardinal of the church telling people in Africa not to use condoms, when 1 in 5 people of the region are HIV positive, one has to wonder - has it really changed? He told them that condoms have small holes through which the AIDS virus can pass. How many lives were lost thanks to Cardinal Trujillo's words? Some priests in Africa were even telling their congregations that condoms are laced with the AIDS virus. Throughout all this the Vatican remained silent.

I am not at all surprised at Ms. Calleja's statement that "the Church is witnessing a wondrous growth" in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. In both of these regions there is severe poverty, and a lack of educational facilities, medical facilities and so on. The inhabitants are faced with a terrible choice - adopt Christianity and get education for their kids and food and medical care for the whole family, or stay with your own religion and starve. The objective of missionaries is to use material items like food as the carrot with which to bring in converts. Of course, in their eyes the latter is the greater benefit, but it's good to keep in mind the reason why Christianity is growing so much in these regions. I'm not saying that the missionaries there actually refuse to provide material needs to non-Christians, but if you place your kids in a school run by Christians every day, getting a mix of academic tuition and religious indoctrination, they will be converted. Of course there are also some cases when they do refuse, such as in the tsunami-struck village of Samanthapettai, where a group of nuns insisted that the starving locals convert to Christianity before getting food and water - and when these devout Hindus refused to convert, packed up and left. Obviously this was an unusual and extreme case, but I wonder how many Christians are aware of how their contributions are used when they give generously to such causes.

It is not surprising that Christianity is in decline in the better-educated regions of the world. There was a time when gods were used as an explanation for phenomena that we could not otherwise explain. We had gods of thunder and lightning, of storms, volcanoes, of the sun and so on. We are a curious species, always seeking to understand everything around us - a trait that fuelled our intellectual progress. As science grew and started bringing us better and more accurate answers, these ancient deities were discarded, their carcases littering the road to knowledge. Eventually, deities started needing more explanations than they provide. We don't need them to provide answers, we don't need them to provide food or resources, the moral leadership of their self-appointed ministers has been questionable at best. So what's left to justify belief? A fear of retribution perhaps? It appears that even that story is not convincing many any more.

Friday, 25 July 2008

25% against DISCUSSION on divorce?

At the time of writing, almost a quarter of all respondents to an online poll on The Times voted no to the question "Do you feel the time has come for Malta to discuss the introduction of divorce?". Holy beeep! 24.5% don't want it discussed! Makes you wonder whether the question should have been "Do you feel the time has come to start thinking about the concept of entertaining the possibility of eventually starting to consider a discussion about divorce".

Meanwhile, the bishop of Gozo chimed in, adding his view that Christians should not be held back from expressing their views about "a monogamous and indissoluble marriage". Here's a thought Bish, why not find out what those Christians think rather than telling them what to say? Most of us know of a few cases where that indissoluble marriage turned out to be not so indissoluble after all.

Divorce is one of the main issues in which the church keeps repeating its mantras, about how it will undermine society, weaken the family and so on. Of course one has to wonder just how healthy our divorce-free society is. "Oh yeah my mom is married... but not to the man she's with".

Divorce does not break up families, nor does it dissolve marriages. It is the recognition that a marriage has already ceased to exist. It's not happily married couples who get divorced. It's the couple who are already living apart, often with new partners, and whose love for one another has either been quenched, or sometimes turned into bitterness. To call a couple in such a situation "married" is absurd.

In fact it is not divorce that renders marriage meaningless, it is the absence of divorce. It's better, and more meaningful, to accept and admit that a marriage has failed, than either to pretend that it's still valid, or (in the case of annulment) to pretend that it never happened. These anomalies are based on the flawed assumption that marriage is forever. Certainly, couples getting married should - and do - try to make it work forever, but good intentions are not always enough. Sometimes they break apart despite the good intentions on both sides, and sometimes the good intentions become one-sided with time. This is certainly an unfortunate situation, and it's a good thing for society to try to examine the causes and do what it can to prevent couples from getting to this stage. Eventually however, some will still get to a point when there is no way to stay together. When the only thing left of a marriage is a piece of paper in the public registry, it's time to call a spade a spade and accept that the marriage is over.

Divorce needs to be introduced, and care needs to be taken not to repeat the mistakes of other places. Nobody is calling for a Hollywood-style situation where you can get married in the morning and divorced in the afternoon. Neither should we go for the situation in which a divorce requires one of the couple to sue the other for wrongdoing, which inevitably leads all divorces to become bitter legal battles with hatred on both sides. Hence the need for a discussion and a well planned introduction.

Divorce has been available in most countries around the world, and statistics exist to show where the rate is highest. Not surprisingly, the US tops that list. Italy in the meantime remains closer to the bottom - and personally I think that Maltese society and personalities are much closer to Italian than Las Vegas.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Recipe for Success

The announcement by the Ministry responsible for IT that it is actively seeking open-source solutions came as a surprise, albeit a very welcome one. It signals a shift from our government being bound to and dependent almost exclusively on one supplier, to a more open IT scene, and one which is based on some very healthy practices of openness and competition. It's no secret that the Government's policies in IT will propagate across the private sector, as well as MCAST and the University.

Open source products have already been used by the government, both internally by Government IT workers, as well as in projects delivered by third-party suppliers. Unfortunately this was not a policy, but rather something that just happened, and even kept somewhat under wraps. Its use is much more comprehensive – and open – in the private sector.

Open source software has long since shed its initial image of hobbyist products. Now, industry heavyweights like Oracle, IBM and Sun have put their weight behind open source. Even Microsoft, often seen as the arch-enemy of open source, changed tack and has already released a variety of products under an open source license. Open source software is used by banks, hospitals, stock exchanges, military, and is even happily running up in the International Space Station.

A great analogy for software production is cooking. The source code for a software product is its recipe. The product itself is the finished cake. With "normal", closed-source software you get the finished cake. It tastes great, and presumably it's well-made.

Open source delivers each cake together with its recipe and a lifetime supply of all the ingredients and equipment needed to make it yourself. Not only can you have your cake and eat it, but you can alter it too. Maybe you want to make a low-fat version, or with no peanuts. You can. Cuisine would be boring indeed if everyone who had created a recipe could prohibit anyone from creating any variations of it.

This openness delivers a long list of advantages. Cost is one of them. Open source software leaves the user free to negotiate the best terms with a supplier. One can simply download or share that software (legally) without paying a cent – which is a perfectly good option for a tech-savvy kid who prefers to learn by doing. On the other hand a company or government agency will want the peace of mind of having a formal support contract in place. Even here, open source means that the entity in question can choose between different suppliers, negotiating the terms that suit it best. The government could negotiate a lower rate based on the fact that it has its own IT experts in MITTS who can handle most internal support. This kind of negotiation is only possible because the government has more than one supplier to choose from.

In education, open source software is particularly attractive. A training facility can choose the software it wants, and then supply each student with a free, legal copy of all the software being used in the classes. A beginners' course in the use of office software could supply each student with a free copy of If on the other hand they conduct all their training using Microsoft Office, apart from the school's own costs, for a student to buy Microsoft Office (home & student edition) costs close to €100 each, going up to almost €450 for the full edition. The costs for IT students can be much higher, and if the trainee is not a full-time student, academic prices generally do not apply.

Not only can IT students be given a CD containing all the software they will use, they can actually look under the hood of that software, learning from the experience of thousands of highly skilled IT professionals worldwide, looking into real-world projects with teams of anything from a few to hundreds of developers.

One of the serious concerns about Maltese IT courses is that many of them are almost exclusively based on Microsoft technologies. When job offers start coming out of SmartCity, not all of them will be seeking Microsoft skills. Most will want students with diverse skills. The student who has hands-on experience in Linux as well as Windows, mySql as well as SQL Server, PHP and Java as well as .NET will be much better placed than being one of the thousands who all know Windows, SQL Server and .NET, and only those. Open source allows students to gain as much experience and knowledge as their talents allow, rather than being held back by cost.

An extremely important aspect of open source is that it allows that software to be modified legally and without needing anyone's authorisation. While most users will not particularly care about changing the source code themselves, to an entity like the government, that freedom is very important. The government may well be Malta's biggest economic entity, but on a global scale it's a small fish. If the Maltese government's needs run counter to the interests of a major supplier, it's unlikely that the supplier will go against their own interests. With open source, the government retains a level of independence from the supplier. It could continue using a product that the supplier does not consider sufficiently profitable. It can pool its resources with other countries to maintain a product that it needs, or could outsource support for an important product to the private sector.

Open source software frequently coexists quite happily with commercial software, and indeed there are still many areas where the best products available are not the open-source ones. This is why another vital policy for the government is to insist on open standards. These are computer standards that allow different products to exchange data and work together in a heterogeneous environment. The reason you can send email using Thunderbird and receive it in Outlook Express or Google Mail is that there is a set of open standard for emails. Nowadays there is also ODF as a standard for the exchange of word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Web Services allow web applications written on different platforms to be work together and share data easily. The ZIP file has become a ubiquitous standard for exchanging compressed archives. MP3 files allow music to be used on devices as diverse as computers, portable players and car stereos. It is important that the government insists on such open, free standards for the storage, retrieval and exchange of its data.

This new announcement could be the beginning of an important new phase in the Maltese IT scene and augurs well for the future.