Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hollow assurance

In response to an International Olympic Committee inquiry about its new law banning "propaganda" of what the Russians characterize as "nontraditional sexual relations", Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak assured the IOC that Russia "will comply fully with the Olympic Charter's provision against discrimination of any kind".

The new law

... penalizes anyone who distributes information aimed at persuading minors that "nontraditional" relationships are normal or attractive.

The law applies equally to everyone and "cannot be regarded as discrimination based on sexual orientation," Kozak said.

Of course, what does it mean to "distribute" information? No one seems to know. Russia's government doesn't seem interested in nailing down the details. Convenient, don't you think? That leaves all the room the government needs to apply the law any way it likes.

The IOC was eager to give the Russian government as much credit as possible.

"We have today received strong written reassurances from the Russian government that everyone will be welcome at the games in Sochi regardless of their sexual orientation," [IOC President Jacques] Rogge said in a statement.
But of course, Rogge's statement (and Kozak's too) entirely misses the point.

There was never a question of gay athletes or spectators not being welcome at the Olympics. Russia could neither have won nor kept the bid to host the games if it had threatened to bar gays. That's a stupid strawman issue designed to distract from the real problem.

The real problem is, Russia is telling visitors (and natives, of course) that they'd better watch what they say. They'd better watch what they wear, too. Anything that could be construed as a message is fair game under the Russian law. For all we know, that could include something as innocuous as an athlete acknowledging a same-sex partner at a press conference.

Russian soil, Russian law. The thing is, those of us who aren't Russians deserve better from the IOC than a transparent evasion of the question at hand. We expect that from the Russian government. We should hold the IOC to a higher standard.

And beyond the Olympics, it behooves anyone who gives a damn about decent treatment of other human beings to consider whether doing business with Russia is moral. Visiting or trading with Russia tells Russians that bigotry is acceptable.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

New top-level domains

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is in the process of creating who knows how many new TLDs, or top-level domains — the outermost name components of the ubiquitous Internet domain name, e.g., foo.bar.com. Right now ".com", ".net", ".org", etc., are the only choices; ICANN wants to add new ones like ".app" and ".beauty". The New York Times has an article about the matter. (The article, I should add, incorrectly dubs ICANN "Icann". Forget that idiocy: it's ICANN.)

I can't fathom why ICANN has allowed the domain naming scheme to be mauled in this way.

Existing top-level domains like ".com" and ".net" conform to an organizational scheme that goes from general to specific. At the top level, sites are organized into broad categories like ".gov" for U.S. government sites and ".net" for network providers. The administrators of each TLD were then free to organize that TLD any way they chose, and each subdomain was free to organize that subdomain any way it chose. The University of California, Berkeley, for instance, having been granted the "berkeley.edu" subdomain (or simply domain), could then create more specific subdomains like "haas.berkeley edu" (for the school of business) and "kalx.berkeley.edu" (for the campus radio station).

The choice of the original TLDs was arbitrary, perhaps even capricious. Probably no one outside the U.S. government, for instance, is happy that ".gov" is the exclusive province of the United States government. There's definitely room for improvement in the ad hoc organizational scheme embodied by the existing TLDs. As exasperated as I get with the exhaustively detailed standards promulgated by ISO, I suspect only the kind of painstaking, comprehensive approach that ISO takes to its problems would result in a domain naming scheme that would be robust and extensible. (Of course, ISO solutions tend to have the drawback that they're largely incomprehensible to mere mortals and are a royal pain to implement, thus limiting their adoption. ISO's design for computer network protocols, for instance, is elegant and comprehensive, but to my knowledge the only operating systems that attempted to implement it abandoned the effort more than a decade ago in favor of the rough-and-ready TCP/IP stack.)

Nevertheless, as much as change is needed, I don't see how the equally arbitrary (or capricious) TLDs apparently being suggested by applicants to ICANN today are going to help matters. They'll increase "real estate", as one so-called expert remarked in the Times piece, but that's about all — and increasing real estate benefits the applicants, not the Internet as a whole. That's fundamentally wrongheaded. ICANN should be trying to make the Internet better, not catering to the whims of companies whose short-term profit motive is at odds with the long-term stability and usability of the Internet.

As far as I can tell from an admittedly quick and incomplete glossing of ICANN's documentation of its TLDs expansion project, ICANN didn't start by envisioning any kind of architecture for domain classification. Instead, ICANN laid out technical requirements for supporting what looks like an uncoordinated rush to create a TLD landscape without any structuring principle. If a name can be unambiguously converted to bits that all name servers can handle, it's good.

I suppose that ICANN's vision is in line with how typical Web users see the Internet today: hierarchies are inconvenient at best when massive search engines make data available at the click of a mouse. Why bother memorizing "haas.berkeley.edu" when typing "Haas School of Business" in the browser's search field brings up the business school's site as the first hit?

Yet an absence of structure in domain names can lead to unnecessary confusion. A TLD is supposed to be a generic category within which more specific objects can be found. However, there are all kinds of generic categories. ".car", for instance, might be a fine place for a Ford dealership to ensconce its domain name, but what about a bumper-car manufacturer, or a site devoted to Pullman coaches that wants to have "train.car" in its domain name? Or what about ".love", one of the proposed TLDs? How many kinds of love are there? How useful is "love" as a category?

The drive to expand Internet "real estate" has trumped any concern for why the original domain naming scheme was structured as it was (and is). If hierarchical/categorical naming is no longer important, why maintain the fiction of domain names at all? Why not create a different naming scheme that doesn't trade in the trappings or structure of the existing domain names hierarchy?

Part of the appeal of the existing TLDs is that they serve as a rough (admittedly, increasingly rough) guide to the purpose of their subdomains. The existing TLDs don't organize the world well enough, we can all agree. Yet is the answer to abandon all hope of organization? That seems to be what ICANN has decided.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Words matter

Yelena Isinbayeva, a world-class pole vaulter who happens to be Russian, was widely covered in the U.S. press for her remarks following a competition in Moscow recently. She defended Russia's law banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships".
“It’s unrespectful to our country,” she said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.”

...

“It’s my opinion also,” she said, adding: “You know, to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys.”

She added, “It comes from history.”

She apparently was speaking in English, a detail that might be relevant in that she now claims that her remarks might have been "misunderstood".
“English is not my first language and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday. What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries particularly when they are guests,” Isinbayeva said in a statement issued through local organizers of the world championships.

“I respect the views of my fellow athletes and let me state in the strongest terms that I am opposed to any discrimination against gay people.”

She wasn't misunderstood. She insisted on respect for host countries' laws: we got that. She simply seems to regret having said more than that.

She might have meant instead that she expressed herself poorly, but I find that difficult to believe. Her earlier statements were unambiguous and conveyed a consistent viewpoint. Her "clarification" seems to me nothing more than a clumsy effort to back-pedal in the face of international disapproval. She certainly didn't disavow her earlier remarks.

If she sincerely had trouble expressing herself, however, perhaps she (and others) should think about just how easily people can be misinterpreted. In particular, they should consider whether what they label "propaganda" might actually be expressions of identity — the voices of those who simply wish to live without lies and without fear. The voices of those who, right now, must live with both, thanks to the laws passed by their fearful and resentful countrymen.

Russians, of all people, ought to understand that you can't force everyone to march to the same tune. Didn't seventy years of brutal state dictatorship make that clear? Or did they learn the wrong lesson — that brutality is okay as long as it doesn't affect them?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The retrograde Russians

The article is "Gays in Russia Find No Haven, Despite Support From the West".

The Russian government strongly objects to characterizing recently passed laws as discriminatory.

Russian officials say the criticism is unfair and inaccurate. In 1993, Russia repealed the Soviet-era law that made gay sex a crime.

“This is not about imposing any kind of sanctions against homosexuality,” Mr. Putin said, defending the propaganda law at a news conference in June. “This is about protecting children.”

He added: “The law does not in any way infringe on the rights of sexual minorities. They are full-fledged members of our society and are not being discriminated against in any way.”

I'd laugh at that unabashedly bald-faced lie were the consequences not so brutal for gays and their straight defenders.

Still, there's a possible upside I don't think anyone has pointed out: the Russians, at long last, might have found common ground with the most extremely fundamentalist elements of the Islamic world. The 88 percent of Russians who support the laws keep spiritual company with the Taliban (among others). That ought to make the average Russian proud.

Russia and the Taliban, boldly marching toward the Middle Ages.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Stan Ridgway today

I caught Stan Ridgway live the other night at San Francisco's Red Devil Lounge (a cozy spot that I liked very much, by the way).

He put on a good show, but it was a decidedly low-key affair. There are any number of reasons for this, I suspect — not being backed by a major label, an elaborate touring group is likely beyond his reach, for one thing — but the main reason almost certainly is that he simply is no longer young. Midway through the show I realized that he looks like a grandfather. It's startling to realize that he is, or will be, fifty-nine this year.

I miss his more energetic performances of classics like "Camouflage" (and hey, Stan, what was the point of dropping the lines, "Well, I was gonna ask him where he came from when we heard the bullets fly / Coming through the brush and all around our ears / It was then I saw this big Marine light a fire in his eyes / And it was strange but suddenly I forgot my fears"?). I'm happy, though, that his voice remains more or less unchanged, and that he seems to have found reliable bandmates in Pietra Wexstun and Rick King.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear "The Roadblock" and "Knife and Fork", less well-known songs I've always enjoyed. Another pleasant surprise was "Lost Weekend", an unusually relaxed Wall of Voodoo number it has been years since I heard him perform live. It was a hoot to hear him forget a couple of lines from "Drive (She Said)" since I've always found that one difficult to memorize. (In contrast, "Camouflage" is easy despite being twice as long.) "Call of the West" was a highlight, in no small part because it brought out a little of his younger, edgier self.

He also did one or two numbers from his most recent studio release, Mr. Trouble, but I've already forgotten which. This is not to slight the album: I simply hadn't heard it before the show so I wasn't familiar with any of the songs. In fact, based on my couple of listens, Mr. Trouble's new material seems to be top-notch. I share the AllMusic reviewer's disappointment, though, that there isn't more of it: only six of the ten songs are new tracks, the remaining four being from a 2010 live show.

Ridgway hung out at the merch table after the show to chat and to sign autographs. Contrary to rumors I heard many years ago, he seems to be a genial and approachable man; he patiently listened to me blurt out that I'd been a fan since 1986 and was happy to sign my copy of Silly Songs for Kids, Vol. 1.

Ridgway continues to put out intriguing, sometimes fascinating music. I'm quite glad to have stuck with him as a fan for all these years.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Russian law and order

If I had had any plans to attend the 2014 Olympics in Russia, the remarks by Russia's minister of sports would have derailed them.
Russia’s minister of sports, Vitaly L. Mutko, said on Thursday that foreign athletes traveling to Russia for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi would be expected obey a new Russian law banning “homosexual propaganda” or face criminal prosecution.

...

“No one is forbidding a sportsman with a nontraditional sexual orientation to come to Sochi,” Mutko said. “But if he goes out on the street and starts to propagandize it, then of course he will be held accountable. Even if he’s a sportsman, when he comes to a country, he should respect its laws.”

What it means "to propagandize", of course, is up to Russia's government. You know, the one that nice Mr. Putin runs. That nice Mr. Putin who has thrown his lot in with Russia's homegrown versions of that hatemongering asshole, Fred Phelps. Or, to be fair, that nice Mr. Putin who might be a Russian version of Fred Phelps.

I might be able to obey your silly little law, Mr. Mutko, but I could never respect it. Just as well, then, that I have no plans to visit anytime soon. Russia seems to be happily reverting to its baser instincts. If you have Russian travel plans — well, maybe you ought to rethink them.

Ariel Castro a monster?

Infamous Ohio kidnapper Ariel Castro made a statement before being sentenced.
Mr. Castro claimed that he had not forced himself on the women, two of whom were teenagers — ages 14 and 16 — when he abducted them.

“The sex that went on it the house, practically all of it was consensual,” he said. “There were times they would even ask me for sex.”

He insisted that he was neither evil nor violent, but that he had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse and became addicted to pornography.

“I was driven by sex,” he told the court, saying that during some periods of his life he had spent several hours a day masturbating and watching pornography.

“These people are trying to paint me as a monster,” Mr. Castro said. “I’m not a monster. I’m sick.”

A rabid dog is both sick and a monster.

I don't know if you're sick, Castro. But you're a monster.

The rest of us need you locked away for the rest of your existence.