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Entries for June 2011

June 30, 2011

Early eyes

A new article published today in Nature finds fossil evidence that fairly sophisticated eyes had evolved as early as 515 millions years ago, around the time known as the Cambrian explosion.

There were no fossil bodies found attached to the eyes, but the eyes probably belonged to a shrimp-like creature.

The disastrous Middle East policies of US and Israel

Henry Siegman makes in more detail the point that I made recently, that the US and Israel are pursuing policies that will lead to disaster in the Middle East.

Lawrence Davidson says that the rising numbers of Israeli Jews who are leaving or planning to leave that country permanently is a sign that they too are concerned about the future. The ones who remain are amongst the most fanatically religious and ideological. He adds, "This is what happens when any group gives itself over to a doctrine, be it racial, religious or political, which destroys all notions of common humanity. That is what the prevailing ideology of Israel has done."

June 29, 2011

What makes a government legitimate?

Currently in the US the willingness to mount a sustained protest against injustices is usually lacking. Even the tea party movement, while very vocal, did not take to the streets on a continuous basis. The closest we came to that in recent days was in Wisconsin when there were continuous protests at the state capital against the laws eliminating collective bargaining for public employees. For a while those mass protests spread to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Why didn't they take root and spread?

Part of the reason is the fact that in the US voting is still perceived as a viable mechanism for change. This gives the government in power a legitimacy that people are unwilling to challenge. Many people in the US are wary of change that comes about through mass mobilizations in the street because of the sense that elected governments are more representative of the views of the population than crowds of demonstrators, however large.

This raises the question of what makes a government legitimate. One could argue that a government that gets into office as a result of a vote of the people has a presumptive claim to legitimacy, while authoritarian governments that seize and retain power without a vote of any kind are presumptively illegitimate. Those countries that have a tight grip on almost every aspect of their people's life and can intimidate them into submission (such as North Korea and Burma) are clearly seen as illegitimate.

But things are not that simple. After all, many authoritarian governments (such as in Zimbabwe) conduct elections. Even Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had 'elections' that he regularly won by a landslide. Such elections are hardly free and fair since the rulers monopolize the media, restrict, arrest, or otherwise threaten their opponents, rig the ballot boxes, and so on. So the legitimacy of a government ultimately rests on something more subjective, whether large numbers of people in a country feel that their government is legitimate and is responsive to their needs. In Egypt, people clearly felt that it did not, and were willing to challenge it.

In the US, elections are also rigged but not in an obvious way. Here it is done by creating a system in which money rules. The extremely long election season, the dominance of two parties that are merely factions of a single pro-war/pro-business party, a media dominated by corporate interests, the important role that television advertisements play, all conspire to make the ability to raise large sums of money the most important criterion for getting elected to high office, and effectively rules out anyone who wants to challenge the oligarchy. The legitimacy of American governments can be questioned but the abuses are not as yet blatant enough to cause vast numbers of people to take to the streets and demand change.

Conversely, some authoritarian governments that do not hold elections may have more claims to legitimacy than those that do. Take for example China. It is undoubtedly an authoritarian government. It too controls the media to some extent, arrests dissidents, and cracks down on too much open dissent. With its huge population it should be possible to get millions of people into the streets to protest against the government if they felt strongly enough. But the people have not as yet done so, suggesting that they are not as yet willing to challenge the government's claim to legitimacy.

So how does one measure the legitimacy of a country's government? The above discussion suggests that one important measure is the ability to mobilize sufficient numbers of people to challenge the government on important issues, people who are willing to risk arrest, beatings, torture, even death for their rights and by doing so are able to inspire enough people to join in the protests that they paralyze the government and even make the military, the ultimate power, hesitant to move against them.

In Egypt, the demonstrators inspired the organized worker trade groups to join them in the later stages and this was an important step in delegitimizing the government. Currently in Greece there have been ongoing protests against the government's austerity measures that are being forced on the people because of pressures from the IMF and France and Germany as a condition for getting aid that will eventually go to the banksters to bail them out of the crisis they were largely responsible for in the first place. The Greek trade unions have joined the protestors and are calling for general strikes.

The attempt to create a sustained mass protest beginning on October 6 that I wrote about yesterday is an attempt to relight the fires that flickered briefly in Wisconsin. The oligarchy in the US and its representatives in the US in the Democratic and Republican parties have been successful so far in their policy of divide and rule by pitting ordinary people against each other, public sector workers against private, whites against ethnic minorities, blacks against Hispanics, and so on. They will try to create such divisions again among the October 6 movement participants.

In the US, organized labor is often part of the Washington establishment and not eager for a confrontation in the streets and so they tend not to throw their support wholeheartedly into mass movements that they cannot control or which do not serve their narrow interests. This may change in the US as workers find themselves squeezed between losing their jobs overseas and facing cutbacks in wages, benefits, and public services at home. Sandy Pope, a 55-year old woman, is an insurgent candidate running for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, wants to make that union more independent of the Washington establishment.

But in the US, it is the unorganized and diverse middle class, even though getting steadily impoverished, that is the most significant group. How they respond to the protests will be a significant factor in its success. If the tea party groups ever realize that they have far more in common with the October 6 groups than with the oligarchy they have chosen to side with, then we might witness the beginnings of a real movement for change.

Test your Bible knowledge

Reader Chris sent me this link to 50 questions about the Bible. He got 26 right and he thought I would do better. Alas, I got only 25 right.

Where I think I went wrong was with my method of guessing for those questions that I did not know the answers to. I followed the recommended strategy for answering any multiple-choice tests and avoided the outlier options. But it often turned out that what I thought was too crazy to be true (even for the Bible) was in fact the right answer. So I was punished for giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt

Update on the Gaza peace flotilla

It looks like the Israeli government is nervous about the peace flotilla leaving Athens for Gaza and has been involved in some clumsy efforts by front groups to stall or stop it.

One effort involved raising bureaucratic objections with the Greek government, claiming that the boats were not properly insured.

Then a video that tried to discredit the flotilla organizers by claiming that they are dupes of Hamas and discriminate against gays has been exposed as a hoax and is suspected to have been produced with the aid of the Israeli government.

'American Spring' in the fall?

Although it seems to have stalled somewhat, the 'Arab Spring' of mass movements that resulted in the ouster of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens the despotic regimes of Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen is undoubtedly inspiring. It shows that sheer people power, the willingness of large numbers of unarmed people to mount a sustained challenge to the rulers, can result in significant change. (In the case of Libya, the uprising was armed and the intervention of the US and NATO into the conflict means that we can no longer consider this as part of the Arab Spring but more along the lines of a civil war with outside involvement.)

It might be wondered why these kinds of mass demonstrations worked in those countries when similar mobilizations fail in the US. After all, we saw repeated massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq with hundreds of thousands of people marching on Washington, and the Bush-Cheney regime went ahead with that war anyway.

The difference is that in the US these demonstrations are for a single day, usually a Sunday, and after it people go back to their normal lives. The government knows this and can just ride out the event. In the Arab countries, it was the willingness of people to make the demonstrations permanent, to stay day after day, risking arrest, injury, and even death, that caused a crisis for the authorities. It showed a commitment and determination that inspired more and more people to join them.

This fall there will be another attempt in the US to mobilize people in the streets but it will not be the usual one-day demonstration. On Thursday, October 6, which is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, a broad coalition of people and groups representing a wide spectrum will attempt to organize a demonstration at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC which is located between the White House and the Capitol building. This movement is basing itself explicitly on the one in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and similar to that, the groups pledge not to leave until their demands are met. They are seeking commitments from at least 50,000 people willing to occupy the square permanently.

Will it happen? And will this work to bring about real change? It is in the nature of mass mobilizations that they take on a life of their own and it is hard to predict how things will turn out. Syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall, who has long been critical of the high level of political apathy in the US, is hopeful:

I used to work for Democratic candidates. I was a campus activist. I marched in protests.
But, in the 1980s, I quit politics. I was fed up. The Left was impotent and inept. They didn't want to change things. They were content with theater. Bad theater at that: dorks on stilts, boring speakers, stupid slogans, the same old chants. "The people, united, will never be defeated!"

Except—we were defeated. We didn't even fight.

Our protests were poorly attended. The media ignored us. And we always lost. Even the Democrats didn't care about us or our opinions. By the time Bill Clinton won in 1992, the progressive wing of the party was good for one thing: voting Democratic.

Along with millions of others, I drifted away.

Now, finally, for the first time in decades, I am excited.

We can change everything. Here. In America. Now.

The idea behind October 6th is simple: to recreate Tahrir Square two blocks away from the White House.

"We are not packing up and leaving this time," says Tarak Kauff, one of the October 6th organizers. "We are preparing to stay as long as we possibly can or until some basic demands are met. If we are driven out, we will return."

In other words, clear your calendar for the 6th, the 7th, the 8th…however long it takes for the Obama Administration to yield to key demands, including immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the other wars. Participants are being asked to sign a pledge to attend at http://october2011.org.

I am not sure how the government will react if there is a huge permanent presence in Washington right under its nose. Will it arrest large numbers of people in an effort to disperse them? Will it send in riot squads and tear gas and beat up the protestors? The government now has coercive powers far exceeding those it had when it unleashed violence on the demonstrators in Chicago in 1968. And if it does use those repressive powers, how will the general public react? Will they side with the government or will they support the protestors? Or will they change channels and watch American Idol?

We should be realistic. Political consciousness in the general public seems to be mired between apathy and obsession with the trivial. But there is a chance that this might catch on because the underlying economic conditions are so brittle. Even if this event does fizzle out, that is no reason to despair because what we are seeing is a qualitative and positive shift in strategy. By focusing on the successful climaxes of earlier mass movements (equal rights for women, civil rights in the US, Indian independence), we mistakenly think that simply being in the right was sufficient for victory. We forget that those successes were built on the foundation of many earlier failures. We have to remember that for future generations to succeed, we have to be willing to fail and not be discouraged. As I. F. Stone put it so well:

"The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing -- for the sheer fun and joy of it -- to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it."

June 28, 2011

New article

The latest issue (July/August 2011) of the British magazine New Humanist has an article by me that tries to clear up the confusion about the distinction between atheist and agnostic. I received my print copy today and my article may be available online next week.

New Humanist is published by The Rationalist Association and is a highly entertaining mix of short and long form articles, cartoons, columns, and interviews, written in a cheeky, lively, and exuberant style, with plenty of eye-catching graphics.

New peace flotilla on its way to Gaza

A 10-ship flotilla of boats seeking to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza is setting sail from Athens any day now. NPR had an account of the flotilla on today's morning news show.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker is among the fifty or so Americans planning to be on one of the boats. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern is another and he writes about the real possibility of a repeat of the violence that Israel unleashed on the Mavi Marmara a year ago when it was part of a similar flotilla.

Of course, when it comes to Israel, the US government abdicates its role of trying to protect its own citizens. Recall the way it did not protest when a US citizen Furkan Dogan was killed by Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara. Hillary Clinton seems to be giving the green light for Israel to attack the flotilla and the US State Department is warning Americans taking part in the flotilla that they may be prosecuted.

Israel initially warned any journalists on the flotilla they that they would face a ten-year ban on entry to Israel, presumably to discourage them so that there could be no independent reports of what may transpire. But they later rescinded that order.

Jon Huntsman's 2016 strategy?

In yesterday's post I said that Huntsman's entry into the Republican race did not make much sense in terms of 2012. But if you think beyond the 2012 elections and look to 2016, it may be a smart move. For starters, few outside Utah have heard of Huntsman and name recognition is important in winning elections. By running now, even if he loses, by the time 2016 campaign starts he will be seen as a familiar face. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all had losing runs for the Republican presidential nomination before they later succeeded, and the latter two then went on to win the presidency on their first try.

Furthermore, the first time you enter the national political scene by running for major office, you face a sudden scrutiny of your past life, both personal and professional, that can throw up awkward information that needs to be explained away and distracts from your campaign. Just ask Sarah Palin whose family life and career became the stuff of soap opera. Since the media craves novelty, it is good to get all that baggage out of the way early on when the stakes are not so high, so that it becomes old news by the time the races that really matter come around. So running in 2012 allows Huntsman to see what is the worst that can be thrown at him.

But the most important factor is the general political dynamic at play. The economy is not doing well, unemployment is high, and the nation is draining its resources by waging three increasingly unpopular wars. These factors would normally doom an incumbent president running for re-election. George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 when conditions were not nearly as bad as they are now. But the Republican party is not in a position to take advantage of this prime opportunity because the tea party movement, although it is splintering into factions and is likely to become irrelevant soon, still has enough residual strength to wield veto power over the 2012 nominee and seems determined to want a true believer as the Republican candidate. Bill Clinton was able to win in 1992 by being a political chameleon and seizing the political center (in addition to being aided by Ross Perot's independent candidacy) but the Republicans now seem determined to only nominate someone whose swears allegiance to a long list of right wing extremist positions.

The supposedly serious elements in the Republican party who have been alarmed at the unserious direction the party has taken seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that the party nomination will go to someone who is either just plain nuts or is not nuts but has to take so many nutty positions to win the nomination that his candidacy is doomed in the general election. This seems to be the fate of Mitt Romney, whom I pick to be the eventual 2012 party nominee based on a simple but reliable political model which is that the candidate with the most money wins.

Obama winning re-election in 2012 may be viewed with horror by the Republican base but not by the oligarchy. The serious elements in the Republican party realize that Obama's policies on all except some social issues (like gay rights and abortion) are highly congenial to the oligarchy, so they can easily live with him. I see the medium term strategy of the Republican party traditionalists being to concede the 2012 election to Obama and focus on finding someone for 2016. The expected defeat in 2012, especially if it is a rout that drags down Republican candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives, will hugely diminish the influence of the tea party leaving the so-called 'adults', currently marginalized, in a position to regain control.

So after the 2012 debacle, expect the Republican party to blame the loss on too much adherence to the tea party agenda and to look for an 'adult' to be their next candidate, someone who is anti-abortion (which will continue to remain non-negotiable for the Republican party) but is not locked into an increasingly unpopular anti-gay and anti-science agenda, someone who is pro-business and for lower taxes and will look after the interests of the wealthy but can also appeal to a broader constituency simply by not appearing to be a nutcase. In short, an anti-abortion Republican Obama. Someone like Jon Huntsman.

So based on that rather convoluted analysis, here is my prediction. Most likely Romney will gain the nomination by being a faux loony, being pushed into that losing position by a semi-loony (Tim Pawlenty) and real loonies (all the rest of the current field except Huntsman), and will then handily lose the presidential election. This will be followed in 2016 by the party selecting a more 'adult' candidate.

June 27, 2011

A Judge's Dilemma

I received the following joke from my sister that I thought was worth sharing:

In a small town, a person decided to open up a brothel, which was right opposite to a church. The church and its congregation started a campaign to block the brothel from opening with petitions and prayed daily against his business.

Work progressed. However, when it was almost complete and was about to open a few days later, a strong lightning struck the brothel and it was burnt to the ground.

The church folks were rather smug in their outlook after that, till the brothel owner sued the church authorities on the grounds that the church through its congregation and prayers was ultimately responsible for the destruction of his brothel, either through direct or indirect actions or means.

In its reply to the court, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection that their prayers were reasons for the act of God. As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork at the hearing and commented, "I don't know how I'm going to decide this case, but it appears from the paperwork, we have a brothel owner who believes in the power of prayer and we have an entire church that doesn't."

Separating truth and lies in the Middle East

Veteran Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn warns about taking at face value reports out of Libya (and in that region in general).

Meanwhile cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reflects on the incredible Obama claim that the US is not engaged in hostilities in Libya and hence is not subject to the War Powers Act.

The perfect Republican candidate

Stephen Colbert has found him.

The curious candidacy of Jon Huntsman

I have been paying only the most superficial attention to the specifics of the race for the Republican presidential nomination because it is far too early in the process for it to serve as anything other than fodder to fill the inexhaustible appetite of television and the blogosphere for content-free political speculation.

But I have been intrigued by the entry into the race last week of Jon Huntsman, former two-term governor of Utah and until last month US ambassador to China. It is not because he brings anything new and exciting as a candidate. He seems to be pretty much the standard-issue rich, middle-aged, white, male, cautious, politician. As such, he seems to have nothing to distinguish himself from an already crowded field of people with much greater name recognition. So why enter a race in which he has such little chance of winning?

On the surface of it, Huntsman has many formidable obstacles to success. One is that he is a Mormon, always a problem for the evangelical Christian base in the Republican party. A recent Gallup poll says that 20% of Republicans would not vote for a Mormon for president. (The figure is 27% for Democrats). The other is that he was appointed as ambassador to China by Barack Obama, the first Kenyan-born-and-raised Muslim socialist who seeks to create a fascist dictatorship in the US, starting by having the government take over the health care system and instituting death panels to kill off the sick and elderly. Or so many of the Republican party faithful seem to think. Being willing to serve in the administration of the anti-Christ would seem to be a serious drawback.

But despite those obvious negatives, Huntsman came second in a recent straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans even though he did not personally attend and it was held before he had formally declared his candidacy. This surprised observers and there were charges that Huntsman's advisors had paid people to show up and vote for him. Ron Paul came first and Michele Bachmann came third in that same straw poll, which tells you something about the mood and views of the attendees at that event

But in addition, while Huntsman is your standard Republican pro-business, lower-taxes, anti-abortion candidate, he has refused to sign the anti-tax pledge and also has views on climate change and civil unions that are anathema to the party faithful, as can be seen in this interview with Time magazine:

Can you talk a little bit about how you came to favor civil unions for gay couples?

I’ve always been in favor of traditional marriage and thinking that you open Pandora’s Box when you start to redefine it. But we’ve had friends who are gay and we’ve heard horror stories [about hospital visitation and legal rights], and I thought it was an appropriate time.

You also believe in climate change, right?

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community – though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

He thinks gays deserve to have some legal rights? He respects science and the professionals behind the science? That's crazy talk. These are heresies in the current Republican party climate and are likely to doom his candidacy. But it has served to make him a favorite of the media who are fawning over him the way they did over John McCain in the days when McCain successfully wore his mask as a 'maverick'. Now that it has been stripped away revealing him to be nasty, vindictive, and cranky, the media needs a new person to hail as 'serious', and 'willing to rise above partisan politics', which are the media's designated desirable qualities. The way one shows those qualities is by occasionally taking a position that is against one's own party. The risk of this strategy on the Republican side is that the more the media likes you, the more suspicious the party's base is of your commitment to their causes, so convinced are they of the absurd idea of the media as liberal.

Huntsman seems like a smart man so why is he choosing to enter a race when it seems like certain defeat? The answer may be that he is treating the 2012 election as merely a stepping stone for the real prize, the 2016 nomination.

Next: The 2016 strategy

June 26, 2011

Separating fact and fiction in Afghanistan's history

Robert Parry sets the record straight.

LulzSec 'retires'

The anarchic hacker group LulzSec that I wrote about just a few days ago announces that it is disbanding. Whether this is a temporary or permanent move is unclear but it is inevitable that similar loose confederations of hackers will form and reform.

The Daily Show looks at the hacking issue.

New York makes the Pope cry

Despite a Republican controlled state senate and opposition from the powerful Catholic Church, gays have won the right to marry in New York state, joining Vermont and the District of Columbia as the only places where this happened legislatively. In four other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire) the change came about because courts ruled that denying gays this right was unconstitutional.

This is major progress in the march for equality for gays, a goal that is undoubtedly going to be attained. Like slavery, denying equality for gays is so manifestly unjust, so lacking in any rational basis, that future generations will shake their heads and wonder how the hell it could have taken us so long to realize that it was wrong.

In the midst of a generally reactionary political climate in the US, we should savor this achievement.

So congratulations, New York!

June 25, 2011

Peter Falk, 1927-2011

There was something very likeable about stage, screen, and TV actor Peter Falk. Just seeing his rumpled everyman persona appear on the screen made you smile, just as you would when an old friend enters a room. So his death yesterday brought some sadness.

He will be best remembered for his recurring character of Lieutenant Columbo. The TV series was formulaic but in a good way. There was no violence, no car or foot chases, no explosions, just old fashioned storytelling. The beginning showed the crime being committed so there was never any mystery involved. The plot revolved around how Columbo pieced together the sequence of events that resulted in him determining the culprit, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game leading to the capture of the guilty. This focus on the 'how' rather than the 'who' also solved the problem that besets traditional whodunit TV mystery series which like to cast a well-known guest actor each week because the most meaty guest role is usually that of the villain, which gives away the surprise.

As an added bonus (for me at least) there was also a class element to the Columbo stories. In every episode that I saw, the criminal was very rich and moved in high society and viewed with condescension the disheveled cigar smoker in the worn and grubby raincoat, driving a beat up old car, and alluding to his never-seen blue-collar family and background. The criminals would draw the conclusion that he could not be very smart and that they were safe, and the slow dawning on them that that they had underestimated him and that this befuddled character would be their Nemesis always added a pleasant zest to the ending in which they received their comeuppance.

Republican holy warrior

The ever-entertaining and acerbic Matt Taibbi aims his keyboard at Michele Bachmann. He warns us that even though she is indubitably nuts, treating her as a joke candidate who can be dismissed is a mistake. Here is a small sample from the article which is worth reading in full for the glimpse it gives us at the sorry state of politics today where we have to even pay attention to such a candidate.

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Bachmann's entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She's not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That's not what Bachmann's thing is. Bachmann lies because she can't help it, because it's a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can't tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

June 24, 2011

Fears of religious vandalism limit free speech

A bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively expensive insurance against vandalism from an atheist group that wanted to place an ad on its buses. Apparently they feared that the ad's message "Are you good without God? Millions are" would inflame Christians enough that they would attack the buses.

A spokesperson for the atheist group draws the obvious conclusion, "The insurance money needed from us basically says CATA [the bus company] and On The Move [the bus company's ad agency] trust the atheists in this community more so than the religious, otherwise the churches that advertise would have that extra insurance premium added to their total cost."

The Daily Show on the Greek crisis

It is the same old dreary story that we are unfortunately so familiar with, with the same financial chicanery buried in the same jargon. It should be no surprise that Goldman Sachs is once again involved in the collapse.

Cyberwars, a new front in the permanent state of war

There has been a recent spate of news stories about attacks on computer systems of various businesses. Most of these attacks seem to be for criminal purposes, to gain access to people's personal information to commit identity theft, credit card fraud, and the like.

But some hacker groups (such as LulzSec and Anonymous) have different motives. They recently announced that they are "uniting in a campaign aimed at banks, government agencies, and other high-profile targets, and they are encouraging others to steal and leak classified information."

These two hacker groups are not out to steal money or business secrets on behalf of competitors or kill people. They perceive themselves as righting wrongs and, in the case of LulzSec, to have fun while doing so. LulzSec and Anonymous seem to have as their intention to attack and subvert those organizations that are seen as doing wrong and opposing transparency, and are fighting government and corporate secrecy that lies at the heart of the control systems and which enable them to get away with their crimes. This is why the US government and businesses have taken such a vicious approach to news organizations like WikiLeaks, and the term 'cyberwars' has started to be used

The idea of secretive people or groups acting on behalf of transparency or to help ordinary powerless people to right the wrongs perpetrated on them by powerful and evil people, institutions, and governments tends to strike a chord. They form the romantic legends of history (Robin Hood, William Tell) and are the stuff of comic book heroes with their secret identities. It is perhaps no accident that the group Anonymous uses the V for Vendetta mask as its icon.

The US and other governments cannot afford to let these groups grab the imagination of the public as being fighters for justice. It cannot run the risk that these groups will be seen as the good guys. And so there has been a campaign to confuse the transnational, anarchic, and political computer hackers with those groups that seek to use hacking for merely monetary gain or those serving the interests of one nation against another.

As part of this propaganda war, there are ominous reports that nations hostile to the US (such as North Korea, China, and Iran) may try to infiltrate the computer systems in the US and disrupt or even paralyze their military systems. We receive warnings that these are grave threats to the security of the US and hence of its people.

To me, all this fear mongering sounds eerily familiar to the way in which the war on terror was ramped up. Stoking people's fears that their lives are in danger from vague threats is the standard mode of operation of governments that seek to control them. Could it be that that the government needs a new threat because people are getting a little jaded about the war on terror, especially since the main bogeyman Osama bin Laden is no longer around? The silly color-coded alert system has been laughed out of existence and there are increasing grumbles about the many annoying rules that airline passengers are subjected to, particularly in the US.

It is to be expected that with the ubiquity of computers and the widespread sophistication of computer users, we should see an increase in hacking. So the frequent news stories of this or that company having its systems attacked should come as no surprise. Some people will do it with criminal intent, others simply to prove that it can be done. There will be an escalating war between hackers and security systems, just as there is with ordinary crimes.

But we have to be vigilant is preserving the difference between political actions and criminal actions. The government seeks to criminalize everything that might erode its wall of secrecy, which is why it is pursuing WikiLeaks and whistleblowers with such vigor.

In the fight for democracy, the actions of political hacker groups that seek greater transparency and the exposure of wrongdoing may be one of the few means by which people can fight the trend towards increasingly dictatorial governments.

June 23, 2011

Atheists as uniters

A climate of fear

Glenn Greenwald describes how the Obama administration is continuing (and even expanding upon) the Bush-Cheney program to make people fearful of exposing the wrongdoings of the government.

A perpetual war state of mind

George Orwell's novel 1984 had as its background theme the idea of the world being split up into three great military powers permanently at war with each other but with regularly shifting alliances. Orwell's novel was published in 1948 and was extrapolating from the power structure following World War II, with the world carved up into three regions, those within the sphere of influence of the US, those within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world that came to be known later as the non-aligned bloc of nations.

With the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union dismantling itself and essentially conceding military dominance to the US and China not yet emerging as a major power, there was a brief period when it was hoped that this would lead to a flowering of real prosperity as a result of the 'peace dividend', as the wasteful expenditures on militaries that were no longer needed would be re-directed to improving the lives of everyone.

That hope died quickly but not because Orwell's dystopian vision in its pure form seems likely to occur soon. While there are signs of a tri-partite military world order centered around the US, Russia, and China being recreated that could turn into states of actual war between militaries, that does not seem to be the direction we are headed. The 'wars' of this century are more likely to be multipolar economic ones, with the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, China, India, and Brazil all reaching some level of economic parity in the near future and competing for dominance.

But it is within the US that one element of Orwell's dystopian vision is clearly emerging and that is of a nation whose people are exhausted and bowed down by thinking they are in a state of permanent war against some vague and ill-defined but somehow ominous enemy. Successive US governments, and the oligarchies behind them, have discovered how useful it is to have people living in this state of fear, so that they willingly give up their rights and freedoms in order to be kept 'safe' from the unseen threats that are supposedly all around us, in addition to being willing to spend vast sums of public money to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the military-industrial-financial complex.

One way in which people can be anesthetized to being in a state of permanent war is to get them used to the idea of wars all around them all the time, and this is helped by the ease with which war metaphors are introduced into the public discourse. It seemed to start out innocuously with 'wars' on poverty, hunger, cancer, and so forth, which were clearly metaphorical. The use of these metaphors had the benefit of getting people to think of the war word 'war' in a positive light, as something that can be noble and worthy of support.

Then we had the war on drugs, and the word war became less of a metaphor and more of the real thing, with armed action both domestically and overseas. The war against drugs was the first real permanent war, something that has no end because it is being waged against an amorphous and decentralized enemy and there is no measure by which you can determine if you have won. This made it the perfect prototype for creating a state of permanent war because the war will continue as long as the government says it needs to continue.

The next major step of course was the war on terror. Unlike in the case in the war on drugs where many of the so-called enemy, both users and dealers, are actually living amongst us and could be our neighbors, with this new war, the enemy are clearly 'the other', foreigners, aliens, 'not one of us', and all restraints on the government are off. As Glenn Greenwald writes, in the US today the word 'terrorist' seems to be reserved for "anyone -- especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality -- who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will." This is why there is such strong opposition to using the word 'terrorist' to describe people like Timothy McVeigh and the members of the various domestic armed groups that have attacked and killed Americans because of their ideological beliefs that the government or other organizations must be destroyed. The 'war on terror' serves its purpose of spearheading the elimination our constitutional rights only as long as it is seen as abrogating the rights of others and not of 'us'.

Those who hoped that the death of bin Laden would mark the beginning of the end of the war of terror were wrong. As Karen J. Greenberg, the executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security, writes:

The administration was visibly using the bin Laden moment to renew George W. Bush's Global War on Terror (even if without that moniker). And let's not forget about the leaders of Congress, who promptly accelerated their efforts to ensure that the apparatus for the war that 9/11 started would never die. Congressman Howard McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was typical. On May 9th, he introduced legislation meant to embed in law the principle of indefinite detention without trial for suspected terrorists until "the end of hostilities." What this would mean, in reality, is the perpetuation ad infinitum of that Bush-era creation, our prison complex at Guantanamo (not to speak of our second Guantanamo at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan).

In other words, Washington now seems to be engaged in a wholesale post-bin Laden ratification of business as usual, but this time on steroids.

This is why I believe the war on terror will never end or at most will be replaced by some new and equally vague threat that will justify the same restrictions on our civil liberties. As 1984 illustrated, a state of permanent war is simply too useful a device for controlling populations.

Next: The next new shiny endless war?

June 22, 2011

At least she's consistent

After quitting halfway through her term of office as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has now quit halfway through her bus tour of America.

Another excellent Glenn Greenwald piece

Among other things, it deals with the usual Orwellian world of language manipulation where 'troop withdrawals' don't actually mean what you think it means, the growing realization that Obama's justifications for the war in Libya are ridiculous, the accelerating assault on civil liberties, and how 'liberal' apologists for Obama are actually serving the conservative cause.

Read it here.

What we have lost in the so-called 'war on terror'

Radley Balko compiles a list of all the things that we have lost in the Glorious War on Terror. He said that he compiled this list simply off the top of his head without doing a lot of research but it seems pretty complete to me. Here is his complete listy:

  • We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
  • We've turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they'd be tortured.
  • In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
  • We've abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
  • The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are complicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
  • The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
  • Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president's designation of them as an "enemy combatant," essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I'd also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn't have been tolerated before September 11.)
  • The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
  • The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the "terrorist" designation in the first place.
  • Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
  • American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
  • Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.

If the government had issued all these new policies suddenly, there would have been a revolt (at least I like to think there would have been). But all these things were introduced gradually and by both parties, after the public had been softened up by a continuous drumbeat of fear-mongering. It is only when the full list is compiled that we see how far we have sunk.

This is the danger of creeping authoritarianism.

June 21, 2011

Myths about the Golden Ratio

Take a straight line. How should one divide the length into two parts such that the ratio of the length of the whole line to the longer segment is equal to the ratio of the longer segment to the shorter one? A little algebra gives you the result that longer segment should be 0.618 times the length of the whole line and thus the ratio of the full line to the longer segment is 1.618 (=1/0.618).

The number 1.618 is known as the 'Golden Ratio' and folklore ascribes deep significance to it and claims a ubiquity for it that far exceeds the reality.

Mathematician Keith Devlin tries to set the record straight.

Robert Reich explains the current problems with the economy...

… in two minutes, 15 seconds. He does a nice job. His cartooning skills are pretty good, too.

Paying for people's services

There is a 78-year old Austrian billionaire named Richard Lugner who likes to have women celebrities as his dates at a fancy ball that is held every year in Austria. He reportedly pays them as much as $150,000 for the pleasure of their company and in the past has squired such well-known names like Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Andie MacDowell. Apparently there are complicated financial negotiations that have to be gone through by representatives of both parties before the deals are finalized and contracts signed. It all seems a bit much for a few hours of socializing.

I had naively thought that people asked their friends to partner them to social functions and so this commercial aspect surprised me. It also struck me as quite odd but I could not quite put my finger on the reasons for my negative reaction. I have argued that what consenting adults do should be of no concern to others so why shouldn't people charge others for the pleasure of their company? One would guess that he people mentioned are quite rich and it is a little strange that they would feel the need to do this. I mean, does Paris Hilton really need the money? But we know that some people, however much they have, always seem to want more. If you are doing nothing one evening and someone offers you $150,000 to go to a ball with them, what is wrong with accepting that offer?

Also, is this any different from people being paid to attend any other events? Politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann charge people to have their photographs taken with them. And when people are willing to pay money to listen to a speaker, even though they know pretty much in advance what he or she is going to say, aren't they just paying for the privilege of being in the speaker's presence and to get a chance perhaps to have a brief conversation?

Taken further, how is this different from paying people for their services? Although I am not a celebrity, some people are willing to pay for me to come to their venue and give a talk, so I am also selling my services, even if my personality and name (and definitely my looks) by themselves have no marketable value.

I finally figured out what was bothering me about this commercial aspect. While it is partly the fact that it is blurring the difference between social interactions (which are supposed to be free of financial considerations) and commercial interactions (for which fees are charged), what really bothers me is not that these people are doing anything wrong but that we do not extend the social acceptance of paying for services to a wider range of people and services.

In particular, we treat sex workers to a different standard. For example, prostitutes are also paid for sharing with others the pleasure of their company and providing services. Why are they prosecuted and treated like criminals in so many countries, when the rest of us are able to sell our services and even be admired for doing so? When Richard Lugner gets to spend some time with a famous woman by paying for her presence, it is considered acceptable, if a little tacky. But if the agreement also involves having sex as part of the deal, the entire transaction is viewed with disdain and can become illegal and the people involved subject to harsh criminal penalties.

It is this double standard that drives sex workers into the underground economy and creates conditions in which they can be exploited and abused because they are operating outside the law and thus cannot easily call upon society to protect them.

June 20, 2011

Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen

I had always viewed it as a silly song that is simply fun to listen to. I never tried to make any sense of it. This article looks a little closer into what the song might be about.

Michael Lewis on The Colbert Report

Michael Lewis appeared on Stephen Colbert's show recently to discuss the financial crisis. I realize that this is a comedy show and that the humor is provided by Colbert using his guests as foils, but on occasion Colbert gets carried away and talks far too much. This was one of those episodes where he kept on interrupting Lewis and became really annoying. Lewis as a guest was interesting and amusing in his own right and Colbert was a nuisance and a distraction.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Lewis
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>Video Archive

The collapse of the Irish economy

Those following business news will have read that many European countries (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) are facing financial crises and are looking for help from external sources. The causes of their predicament are drearily familiar: a banking sector that lent money recklessly on the basis of endless growth in real estate prices and now that that market collapsed, the big banks are demanding that governments must bail them out or that the entire financial system will collapse. It is exactly the kind of extortion that happens in the US. This is why the terms 'banksters', which was coined as an amalgam of bankers and gangsters during the time of the Great Depression, is so apropos in describing them.

Currently all eyes are on Greece but in an article for Vanity Fair titled When Irish Eyes Are Crying, Michael Lewis describes the spectacular rise, and even more spectacular fall, of the Irish economy. "What has occurred in Ireland since then is without precedent in economic history. By the start of the new millennium, the Irish poverty rate was under 6 percent and by 2006 Ireland was one of the richest countries in the world." And yet, within a few years, it had completely tanked.

An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.

In late 2006, the unemployment rate stood at a bit more than 4 percent; now it’s 14 percent and climbing toward rates not experienced since the mid-1980s. Just a few years ago, Ireland was able to borrow money more cheaply than Germany; now, if it can borrow at all, it will be charged interest rates nearly 6 percent higher than Germany, another echo of a distant past. The Irish budget deficit—which three years ago was a surplus—is now 32 percent of its G.D.P., the highest by far in the history of the Eurozone. One credit-analysis firm has judged Ireland the third-most-likely country to default. Not quite as risky for the global investor as Venezuela, but riskier than Iraq. Distinctly Third World, in any case.

Ireland managed to collapse its banking sector without all the new fangled gimmickry of Wall Street with its derivatives and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs). They lost money the old-fashioned way, with a classic bubble where they kept buying and selling each other real estate at escalating prices using easily available mortgages on the assumption that prices would continue to rise.

But unlike in the US where a homeowner is only liable for the value of the mortgage and thus can walk away from their home if its market value drops below the mortgage amount (a state known as being 'underwater' or 'upside down'), leaving the bank to get what it can from the foreclosed property, in Ireland you are forced to pay back to the bank what you owe. This means that the average person faces unavoidable large and inescapable debts.

Ireland’s 87 percent rate of home-ownership is among the highest in the world. There’s no such thing as a non-recourse home mortgage in Ireland. The guy who pays too much for his house is not allowed to simply hand the keys to the bank and walk away. He’s on the hook, personally, for whatever he borrowed. Across Ireland, people are unable to extract themselves from their houses or their bank loans. Irish people will tell you that, because of their sad history of dispossession, owning a home is not just a way to avoid paying rent but a mark of freedom. In their rush to freedom, the Irish built their own prisons. And their leaders helped them to do it.

There is one major difference in what happened in Ireland and in the US. As Lewis says, "In America the banks went down, but the big shots in them still got rich; in Ireland the big shots went down with the banks."

But despite that one slightly positive aspect, the Irish banks are still draining the economy. In March, the Irish government said that they need another 24 billion euros to 'save' the banks, whose ratings have been reduced to junk status and the total cost of the bailouts keeps continually rising.

Currently Greece is in the headlines because of fears that it will default on its debts. I do not think this will happen because the banksters will demand that money be loaned to the Greek government so that it can then give it to the banks. Since these banks have global reach, they can exert pressure on the French and German governments to lend the Greek government the money. Of course, those governments will tell their people that this 'aid' is in order to save the European Union when it is really driven by the banksters' extortion.

June 19, 2011

Progressives and elections

Veteran political observer Sam Smith tries to provides some guidance as we enter the fairy tale period known as the presidential election season where desperate people pin their hopes on some leader to take us out of the mess we are in, not realizing that the game is rigged and that wars, assaults on civil liberties, and giveaways to the rich will continue whoever wins.

There has been over the past few decades a steady deterioration of the political difference between national Democratic and Republican politics, most notably with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Today it is hard to define that difference given the strong bipartisan support for several illegal wars, the unconstitutional Patriot Act, and a bottomless desire to bail out Wall Street, and a stunning indifference to the financial problems of everyone else.

It's more sensible to regard the two major parties as Mafia mobs fighting for control of a region known as the United States.

This isn't to say that there isn't a difference between them. But it's about survival, however, not politics. The Demos tend to do less damage to our lives than the Repubs. Both mobs may beat the shit out your father, but the Demos are less likely to harm your children or your grandmother.

If America is to be saved, it will because of movements outside the mainstream political game. It's always been like that and will continue to be so.

So enjoy the fairy tale that is bubbling up around us. Vote for the bastards who will be do us the least harm. But if you want to be part of the story – and you are whether you desire it or not – then that only thing that will really matter is what you do outside the voting booth.

Classifying the Republican candidates

There are so many people running for the Republican nomination that it is hard to keep track of them all, so I decided to make it easier by classifying them according to what I thought their intentions are. The asterisk is for those who are being coy and have not yet declared that they intend to run.

  1. Those who are serious about the 2012 election: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee*
  2. Those who are using this as a dry run for 2016: Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry*
  3. Those who are using this to gain visibility and promote ideas: Ron Paul, Gary Johnson
  4. Those who are using the election to promote/enrich themselves: Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin*
  5. Those who think that god wants them to be president or have otherwise lost touch with reality: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rudy Giuliani*

Some people may belong in more than one category. Palin, for example, could easily be put in 1, 2 and 5 as well but I limited myself to just one. Feel free to argue with my sorting. I may have also overlooked someone, the field is so crowded.

But where is my favorite candidate Alan Keyes? No major election is complete without the man who set the standard for the crazification factor. Run, Alan, run! God is calling you to save the nation!

June 18, 2011

More religious cruelty and stupidity

Blog reader FuDaYi sent me this news item about a Jewish rabbinical court that sentenced to death by stoning a dog that wandered into premises because they thought it was the reincarnation of a secular lawyer who had antagonized the court 20 years earlier and had been cursed by the judges to have his spirit passed to a dog when he died, which happened a few years ago. Fortunately the dog escaped.

What is it about religion that destroys people's minds?

A feature film that deals with atheism

I came across a film called The Ledge that supposedly has an explicit atheist as a main character. The film's website has this press release:

The Ledge is the first film in Hollywood history that puts an atheist into the hero role in a production that features A-list stars. It is written and directed by Matthew Chapman, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dawin, the scientist who discovered evolution, the biggest challenge to religion since Gallileo. The film was nominated for Best US Drama at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and stars Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy, Liv Tyler, Lord of the Rings, Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee, Patrick Wilson, Watchmen, and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, Crash, Iron Man.

On the rooftop of a city skyscraper, Detective Hollis (Terrence Howard) pleads with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) not to jump. What he does not know is that Gavin, an atheist, is involved in a deadly feud with Joe (Patrick Wilson), a Christian extremist. Joe's wife, Shana, (Liv Tyler) is caught in the middle as Joe seeks to test Gavin's faith or lack of it. Cutting between the present and the past, tension escalates as verbal shots give way to deadly threats in a race against time that neither God nor the police can stop. Along the way, the film provocatively explores the intellectual and emotional conflicts between religion and atheism.

Here's the trailer.

June 17, 2011

Fake lesbian bloggers

idog.jpg

This famous cartoon from 1993 in the early days of the internet has gained new relevance with the recent revelation that a supposedly lesbian blogger in Syria who had reportedly been kidnapped was actually an American man living in Scotland. What is more, the supposedly lesbian co-owner of the website on which this fake Syrian lesbian posted has also been revealed to be a (different) American man, a US military veteran no less. They say that they were doing this to raise the awareness of gay and lesbian issues and of the troubled situation in Syria.

What is the matter with these people? Don't they realize that by creating these fake identities, they actually diminish the causes they supposedly support, not to mention the credibility of real people who might be in danger and needing help?

The Daily Show comments on this weird story.

US life expectancy map, county by county

This interactive map shows surprisingly large variations across the US. The darker the region, the higher the life expectancy. The article states that the US is 37th amongst all countries in overall life expectancy at birth in 2007 (although the CIA Factbook estimates it at 50th for 2011) and is now stagnant or even declining, hardly something to be proud of for the world's largest economy.

The range within the US is huge, varying from highs of 86 years for women in some counties in Florida to a low of 65.9 years for men in Holmes county in Mississippi.

Limits to consensual actions

Although I do not consider myself a libertarian, I do agree with some libertarian principles, especially the ones that says that adults have the right to privacy and be able to engage in solitary or consensual practices that do not harm others free from interference from the state and society. But Michael J. Sandel in his book Justice: What's the right thing to do? (p. 74) provides a story that sorely tests my allegiance to those principles

In 2001, a strange encounter took place in the German village of Rotenburg. Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, a forty-three-year-old software engineer, responded to an Internet ad seeking someone "willing to be killed and eaten." The ad had been posted by Armin Meiwes, forty-two, a computer technician. Meiwes was offering no monetary compensation, only the experience itself. Some two hundred people replied to the ad. Four traveled to Meiwes's farmhouse for an interview, but decided they were not interested. But when Brandes met with Meiwes and considered his proposal over coffee, he gave his consent. Meiwes proceeded to kill his guest, carve up the corpse, and store it in plastic bags in his freezer. By the time he was arrested, the "Cannibal of Rotenburg" had consumed over forty pounds of his willing victim, cooking some of him in olive oil and garlic.

I had not heard of this shocking story before, even though it occurred quite recently. That two hundred people responded to the ad at all, even assuming that most of them thought it was a joke of some kind, was weird.

Is the negative reaction that most people will feel towards this story a result of revulsion towards cannibalism? And is that feeling rational? After all, once a person is dead, no further harm can be done to that person. When someone dies, we are allowed to use the body for research or to bury it or burn it. In the Zoroastrian religion the custom is to leave dead bodies out in the open to be eaten by vultures, so we could take the extreme position and say it is acceptable for it to be eaten by humans too.

Or is our feeling of revulsion due to the idea that a young and seemingly healthy person in a state of sound mind should voluntarily choose to have himself killed and eaten at the request of a stranger? The whole episode was videotaped (which is why we know that this bizarre transaction was consensual) but the tape also indicates that the dead person had some truly weird ideas of his own and was not of sound mind as we would understand the term, except in the narrow sense that he knew what he was doing.

As you can imagine, the case posed extraordinary problems for the justice system and made me glad that I was not the judge assigned to oversee it.

When Meiwes was brought to trial, the lurid case fascinated the public and confounded the court. Germany has no law against cannibalism. The perpetrator could not be convicted of murder, the defense maintained, because the victim was a willing participant in his own death. Meiwes's lawyer argued that his client could be guilty only of "killing on request," a form of assisted suicide that carries a maximum five-year sentence. The court attempted to resolve the conundrum by convicting Meiwes of manslaughter and sentencing him to eight and a half years in prison. But two years later, an appeals court overturned the conviction as too lenient, and sentenced Meiwes to life in prison.

Sandel reflects on what this might tell us about the limits of libertarianism as a philosophy.

Cannibalism between consenting adults poses the ultimate test for the libertarian principle of self-ownership and the idea of justice that follows from it. It is an extreme form of assisted suicide. Since it has nothing to do with relieving the pain of a terminally ill patient, it can be justified only on the grounds that we own our bodies and lives, and may do with them what we please. If the libertarian claim is right, banning consensual cannibalism is unjust, a violation of the right to liberty.

The weirdness of the story does not end there. Sandel says that, "In a bizarre denouement to the sordid tale, the cannibal killer has reportedly become a vegetarian in prison, on the grounds that factory farming is inhumane."

There are some truly strange people in the world.

June 16, 2011

The Daily Show on CNN's coverage of Monday's 'debate'

I do not, of course, waste my time watching these ridiculous 'debates'. Anyone who has taken part in actual debates will dismiss the idea that these events come anywhere close to the real thing. What they remind me of are circuses with a self-important host pacing the floor like a ringmaster and the 'contestants' (which is what they are, not candidates) waiting like animals to do their well-rehearsed tricks.

Some blog accounts of Monday's event said that the contestants had been asked questions like 'Coke or Pepsi?' I assumed that the writers were being funny, parodying the triviality of the whole thing. It was only when I watched the above clip that I realized that this had actually happened. Why didn't at least one contestant refuse to answer on the grounds that such questions were silly and beneath them? I am waiting for the day when one of the contestants tells the smug, overweening TV personalities that run these things (they are not journalists) to get serious or go to hell.

I find it hard to comprehend that we have sunk so low, that we have trivialized to such an extent such an important aspect of civic life as selecting the people who get to govern us. We have ceased to be a serious people and deserve the rotten governments that result.

Celebrating our body's organs

Allan Sherman celebrates a much under-appreciated organ of the body.

Who am I?

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the fact that different parts of our bodies keep regenerating themselves periodically. This fact alone should make nonsense of the belief of some religious people that our bodies become physically reconstituted after death in the afterlife, because if so, the resurrected body of a person who died at the age of 70 would be unrecognizably grotesque, consisting of around 70 livers and 7 full skeletons, all surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of skin.

But leaving aside that, there is an interesting question raised by this constant regeneration of the body and that is how we retain a sense of having a single identity over our full life spans even as individual parts of us get replaced periodically. The average age of the molecules in my body is around 7 to 10 years and yet I have the strong sense of continuity, that I am in some fundamental sense the same person that I was as a child, even though almost none of those molecules have stayed with me over that time. How is it that we retain a strong sense of permanence in our identity while being so transient in our bodies?

The answer may lie in the fact that our brain seems to be the most permanent of our organs, undergoing little or no regeneration. In the same article in the New York Times that I referred to yesterday, Nicholas Wade says:

Dr. Frisen, a stem cell biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has also discovered a fact that explains why people behave their birth age, not the physical age of their cells: a few of the body's cell types endure from birth to death without renewal, and this special minority includes some or all of the cells of the cerebral cortex.

The cerebral cortex is the thin sheet that forms the outer layer of the brain and is divided up into several zones that have different functional roles. If the cortex were removed and smoothed out to eliminate all the creases and folds, it would look like a dinner napkin. It is gray in color, the origin of its popular euphemism of 'gray matter'. The network of nerve cells in the brain (called neurons) determines how the brain functions.

brain.jpg

While the brain seems to be the most enduring part of the body, even here there is variation. The cerebellum seems to contain non-neuronal cells that are close to the birth age (within three years or so) while the cerebral cortex (which is responsible for our cognitive capabilities and is thus most closely identified with our sense of self) has a slightly greater turnover of non-neuronal cells. But the researchers do not turn up any evidence that there is neuronal generation after birth, at least in the region known as the occipital cortex.

It was long believed that the number of neuronal connections in the brain grew rapidly during the first year or two of life and then got pruned and this was how our lives shaped our brains without new neurons being created. In 1999, there was research that found that new neurons were being created in the cerebral cortex of adult monkeys, suggesting that it could happen in adult humans too. This would complicate things somewhat as to how we retain a permanent sense of self but also provide hope that brains could regenerate. But this summary of later research (much of it by the same Karolinka group that I referred to yesterday) that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that this does not happen with the neurons in the human cerebral cortex. (The neocortex referred to in the paper is the most recently evolved part of the cortex that is defined as containing the 'higher' functions and are "arranged in six layers, within which different regions permit vision, hearing, touch, the sense of balance, movement, emotional responses and every other feat of cognition.")

The results show that the average age of the neurons (with respect to the age of the individual) is age 0.0 ± 0.4 years, i.e., the same as the age of the individual. In contrast, the nonneuronal cells have an average birth date of 4.9 ± 1.1 years after the birth of the individual.

Both of the experiments of Bhardwaj et al. indicate that there are no new neurons, either long-lived or transient, produced in the adult human for the neocortex. Importantly, these experiments are quantitative and indicate a theoretical maximum limit of 1% on the proportion of new neurons made over a 50-year period.

Bhardwaj et al. settle a hotly contested issue, unequivocally. The two-pronged experimental approach clearly establishes (i) that there is little or no continuous production of new neurons for long-term addition to the human neocortex and (ii) that there are few if any new neurons produced and existing transiently in the adult human neocortex. Importantly, the results are quantitatively presented, and a maximum limit to the amount of production of the new neurons can be established from the data presented. The data show that virtually all neurons (i.e., >99%) of the adult human neocortex are generated before the time of birth of the individual, exactly as suggested by Rakic, and the inescapable conclusion is that our neocortical neurons, the cell type that mediates much of our cognition, are produced prenatally and retained for our entire lifespan. [My italics]

So basically, even though every other part of us gets sloughed off and replaced at different points in time, for good or bad we are pretty much stuck with the brains that we have at birth. This may be crucial to our ability to retain a sense of a permanent identity that lasts all through our lives, although this is not yet established. Even if new research emerges that new neuronal cells could be generated over time replacing older ones, it may turn out to be able to do this seamlessly and provide cognitive continuity, just the way our other organs give us the illusion of being permanent even though they are not.

It seems like our brains are our essential selves with the rest of our bodies just superstructure. Rene Descartes famously said "I think, therefore I am." We could also say, "My brain is who I am."

June 15, 2011

Amazing robots

Now that computers have beaten us at chess, robots are turning their attention to pool.

(Via Machines Like Us.)

Dick Goddard on religion and war

The well-known and long-standing Cleveland TV weatherman is an avuncular person, widely known for being an animal lover. In this radio interview on WCPN 90.3, he turns out to be quite outspoken about his anti-war views and his disbelief in god.

This 12-minutes portion of the interview begins at the 36:00 minute mark. (Thanks to Jeff.)

How old are you?

In an article in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade points out that our bodies are younger than we think, because there is a discrepancy between our birth age and the age of the cells that make up our bodies

Whatever your age, your body is many years younger. In fact, even if you're middle aged, most of you may be just 10 years old or less.

This heartening truth, which arises from the fact that most of the body's tissues are under constant renewal, has been underlined by a novel method of estimating the age of human cells. Its inventor, Jonas Frisen, believes the average age of all the cells in an adult's body may turn out to be as young as 7 to 10 years.

He quotes the work of Spalding, Bhardwaj, Buchhold, Druid, and Frisén of the Karolinska institute that uses the radioactive isotope carbon-14 to determine the age of the cells in bodies. Their paper appeared in the July 15, 2005 issue of Cell. They used carbon-14 dating to determine the age of cells. The carbon that forms organic matter is largely obtained from the atmosphere. Plants, for example, take in carbon dioxide from the air and exude oxygen as part of the process of photosynthesis. Hence the proportion of carbon-14 that is found in living organic matter is the same as that in the ambient atmosphere at the time it was absorbed. The level of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 that occurs in the atmosphere is fairly constant because its rate of production is balanced by the rate of decay. Once the plant dies, it does not take in any new carbon and the decay of the carbon-14 that it had at the moment of death results in a steadily smaller proportion of it and the difference can be used to measure how long it has been dead. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years and this method can be used to determine the age of dead organic matter up to about 50,000 years, which is a convenient range for archeological dating because it lies in the range required for those studies.

The way that Frisén and his co-workers used this knowledge to measure the age of cells in humans is quite clever. Carbon-14 is produced by cosmic rays and the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere should be constant. This is why we can tell how long something has been dead but not when it was 'born', i.e., when the organic matter was created. But in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sharp spike in carbon-14 levels because of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Once atmospheric test ban treaties came into came into being, the surge of carbon-14 that had been produced steadily became diffused in the atmosphere as it spread over the globe, and so there has been a steady decline in average carbon-14 levels over time. It is this that enables us to know when the carbon-14 was absorbed to create organic matter.

cell images_Page_02_Image_0001.jpg

The amount of carbon-14 in the genomic DNA can thus be used to measure when the DNA in the cell was created. The technique was checked against the age of trees which can be measured by the amounts of carbon-14 found in the various rings as the isotope is absorbed during photosynthesis. Their results and those of others show that different parts of the body get replaced after different durations, whose approximate values are given below. (I have included results from both the Wade newspaper article and the Frisen paper.)

Stomach lining: five days
Surface layer of skin: two weeks
Red blood cells: three months
Liver: one year
Skeleton: 10 years
Intestine: 11 years
Rib muscles: 15 years

This explains why our bodies seem so durable and able to withstand considerable abuse.

So why do we die if parts of us keep getting regenerated? It seems as if the ability of stem cells to keep reproducing declines with age. In other words there seems to be a limit to the number of times that cells can reproduce and once we reach that limit, the ability of the body to regenerate itself ceases. What causes this limit is still an open question. As Wade writes:

Some experts believe the root cause is that the DNA accumulates mutations and its information is gradually degraded. Others blame the DNA of the mitochondria, which lack the repair mechanisms available for the chromosomes. A third theory is that the stem cells that are the source of new cells in each tissue eventually grow feeble with age.

Frisen thinks his research might be able to shed some light on this question, especially the third option, saying "The notion that stem cells themselves age and become less capable of generating progeny is gaining increasing support."

June 14, 2011

The gays amongst us

I had never heard of Tracy Morgan until he appeared on The Daily Show a few weeks ago and I took an instinctive dislike to him. He seemed kind of obnoxious. I did not know if he was really like that or was playing a part and I did not really care.

The next thing I heard was that he had let loose a nasty homophobic rant during his stand up comedy routine.

Tina Fey, who plays his boss on a TV show, criticized his comments and in the process said something important that I hope all people will take to heart: "I hope for his sake that Tracy's apology will be accepted as sincere by his gay and lesbian coworkers at 30 Rock, without whom Tracy would not have lines to say, clothes to wear, sets to stand on, scene partners to act with, or a printed-out paycheck from accounting to put in his pocket."

Even if you don't like gay people, you would be wise to keep your anti-gay bile to yourself, not because they will threaten you, but because they are all around us and we depend on them whether we are aware of it or not.

Informative budget chart

cbppdeficit.jpgWith all the talk of the deficit and national debt, it is illustrative to see the chart that the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has published that shows the source of the projected budget deficits.

The main sources are the Bush-Obama wars and the Bush-Obama tax cuts for the rich, not 'big government', as is claimed by those who want to use the deficit as an excuse to further reduce government services and, more importantly, reduce government oversight over business.

This should come as no surprise to those who follow the numbers but it is worth periodically reiterating.

Patenting DNA and genetic tests

In an article titled Patently Unjust in the June 2010 issue of The Progressive (not available online), Kari Lydersen describes a similar issue to the one involving Henrietta Lacks, where private companies are making a bundle out of publicly funded research. In this case, the publicly funded Human Genome Project has made freely available the full human genome but some private companies have obtained patents over individual genes.

The particular case that Lydersen deals with involves the genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain mutations in these genes are predictors of breast and ovarian cancer, since women with such mutations are five times more likely to develop breast cancer and ten to thirty times more likely to develop ovarian cancer. We are now able to test if a woman has these mutations in which case they have to make difficult decisions about whether to preemptively remove their breasts and ovaries. These genes were discovered as part of the genome project.

It turns out that a single company named Myriad Genetics holds several patents on the genes and as a result claims exclusive rights to the tests they developed to detect the mutations. They charge about $3,000 for the test, which prices many women out of the market. They claim that if companies could not make money, they would not have the incentive to develop the tests. There is some truth in this but it is also true that a huge amount of federal (i.e. public) research funding went into the research that provided the basis for the company's work, which should also be a factor. If the public funds something, the public should also benefit.

The reasons given by the company's founder for the high price they charge for the tests is revealing about the why medical costs are so high in the US. He says, "In the U.S. what you charge for a test is a complex equation of what it costs you to do it and what people will pay" (my italics). This is part of the problem in a system with employer-based private health insurance coupled with monopoly providers. Well-to-do groups with power can pressure their insurance companies to cover the costs of tests which enables the testing companies to charge higher prices than they need to merely cover costs and provide a reasonable profit. The price then becomes prohibitive for those without insurance and drives up the cost of health care. I have written about this before.

As Lydersen writes, this is a widespread problem.

Myriad is far from the only patent holder on human genes; about 20 percent of the human genome is patented. This basically means that only the patent holder can offer testing and other services related to a specific gene. Patents currently cover genes related to other diseases, including Alzheimer’s, asthma, colon cancer, muscular dystrophy, and spinal muscular atrophy, a hereditary disease that kills children at a young age.

What is worse, because the company claims exclusive rights to the genes, women cannot get a second opinion on such a major question. At a minimum, what is needed is at least for more than one company to be able to provide services so that they can compete with each other. Giving private companies monopoly power over the use of research results that were largely publicly funded seems wrong.

The intricacies of patent law are too subtle for me to get into but on the surface the U. S. Patent Office seems to have been too generous in allowing companies to patent genes. It is illegal to patent a product of nature but the US Patent Office has granted Myriad and similar outfits patents on the genes on the basis that they were able to isolate them from their natural state and purify them. But others argue that this is far too expansive a view. After all, just because you develop a technique to highly purify gold (say) should not enable you to claim the patent to gold. I can understand patents being awarded to the purifying process because that is something the company did develop. That would reward their intellectual contribution while yet preserving the right of other companies to invent alternative methods of purification of the same gene and thus develop competing tests.

The right of private companies to patent genes was litigated and Lydersen writes that in March of 2010 US District Judge judge Robert W. Sweet ruled that Myriad's claims did not meet the test of what makes something derived from nature patentable and invalidated the patents, saying in his ruling:

"The patents issued by the USPTO are directed to a law of nature and therefore were improperly granted," Sweet wrote. "DNA represents the physical embodiment of biological information, distinct in its essential characteristics from any other chemical found in nature…. DNAs existence in an 'isolated' form alters neither this fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes. Therefore, the patents at issue directed to 'isolated DNA containing sequences found in nature are unsustainable as a matter of law and are deemed unpatentable subject matter."

Patents are valuable things and protect the rights of inventors and other creative people but the Patent Office should be wary of taking the claims of private companies too much at face value, especially when it comes to patenting things in nature like bits of DNA.

Myriad has appealed the ruling to the US Court of Appeals and much hangs in the balance.

June 13, 2011

And let the bad guys win?

Cartoonist Ted Rall describes the recurring problem that confronts progressives in US elections.

Rebecca Skloot on The Colbert Report

She talks to Stephen Colbert about the Henrietta Lacks case.

Who should own the rights to one's tissues?

People generally do not think about what happens to the blood and tissue samples they give as part of medical tests, assuming that they are eventually discarded in some way. Many are not aware that your samples may be retained for research or even commercial purposes. Once you give it away, you lose all rights to what is subsequently done with it, even if your body parts have some unique property that can be used to make drugs and other things that can be marketed commercially.

The most famous case of this is Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman in Baltimore who died from cervical cancer in 1951. A researcher who had been trying unsuccessfully, like others, to have cells reproduce in the test tube, received a sample of hers too. It turned out that her cancer cells, unlike other cells, could reproduce endlessly in test tubes, providing a rich and inexhaustible source of cells for research and treatment. Her cells, called HeLa, have taken on a life of their own and have travelled the world long after she died. Her story is recounted in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The issue of whether one's cells should be used without one's permission and whether one should be able to retain the rights to one's tissues is a tricky one for law and ethics.

"Science is not the highest value in society," [Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology] says, pointing instead to things like autonomy and personal freedom. "Think about it," she says. "I decide who gets my money after I die. It wouldn't harm me if I died and you gave all my money to someone else. But there is something psychologically beneficial to me as a living person to know I can give my money to whoever I want. No one can say, 'She shouldn't be allowed to do that with her money because that might not be most beneficial to society.' But replace the word money in that sentence with tissue, and you've got precisely the logic many people use against giving donors control over their tissues." (Skloot, p. 321)

It does seem wrong somehow for private companies to hugely profit from the lives and bodies of others without owing them anything. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, her family remained very poor and lacked health insurance and proper medical care even while her cells became famous and they bitterly resented this. They did not even know about the widespread use of her cells until two decades later.

On the other hand, it would put a real crimp on research if scientists had to keep track of whose tissues they were working on. Since we all benefit (or should benefit) from the results of scientific research, one can make the case that the tissues we give up are like the trash we throw away, things for which we have voluntarily given away our rights. If the tissues are used for medical research done by public institutions like the NIH or universities and the results are used not for profit but to benefit the general public, this would, I believe, remove many of the objections to the unaccredited use of tissues.

You can see why scientists would prefer to have the free use of tissues but what I don't understand are those scientists who go overboard in making special exceptions for religion.

David Korn, vice president for research at Harvard University says: "I think people are morally obligated to allow their bits and pieces to be used to advance knowledge to help others. Since everybody benefits, everybody can accept the small risks of having their tissue scraps used in research. "The only exception he would make is for people whose religious belief prohibit tissue donation. "If somebody says being buried without all their pieces will condemn them to wandering forever because they can't get salvation, that's legitimate, and people should respect it," Korn says. (Skloot, p. 321)

This is another case where religions try to claim special privileges denied to everyone else. Why is that particular claim legitimate? Why should religious superstitions get priority over other irrational beliefs? Our bodies are in a constant state of flux. It sheds cells all the time in the normal course of our daily lives, which is why DNA testing has become such a valuable forensic tool for solving crimes. Since we are losing old cells and gaining new cells all the time, it is a safe bet that hardly any of the cells that were part of me as a child are still in my body. So the whole idea that the afterlife consists of 'all of me' is absurd since that would require bringing together all the cells that I have shed during my life, resulting in me having multiple organs and limbs, like some horror fiction monster.

Rather than pandering to this fantasy, we should educate people that our bodies are in a constant state of flux, that our seemingly permanent bodies are actually transient entitites.

June 12, 2011

Undermining Social Security

The oligarchy has had its greedy eyes on the Social Security trust fund for a long time, seeking to divert all those funds to Wall Street to goose up the stock market and enrich themselves with it. The problem is that people are rightly suspicious of efforts to tamper with their one secure source of retirement funds.

Since the Republicans have traditionally been seen as the servants of the oligarchy, people have quickly reacted when they make any moves to undermine Social Security, as George W. Bush painfully discovered in his second term. The oligarchy knows that they have a better chance when Democrats are in power, which is why we need to be especially vigilant and oppose the current moves by the Obama administration. The reduction in payroll tax contributions by employees that was part of Obama's budget deal at the end of 2010 was for me a sign that he was seeking to undermine Social Security by reducing its revenue stream, thus artificially creating a crisis where none should exist.

His latest proposal to give employers a similar reduction in their contribution to payroll taxes, thus further exacerbating the problem, is confirmation of the fact that he wants to set in motion the wheels to privatize Social Security.

We need to realize that Obama, although he may make some positive moves on some social issues dear to liberals, is barely distinguishable from the Republicans when it comes to being a servant of the oligarchy.

June 11, 2011

The Sarah Palin History Channel

Sources of religious belief

Jerry Coyne discusses an interesting article that suggests that religious faith in countries is positively correlated with insecurity, as measured by income inequality.

Another interesting article supports the idea that fear of death can lead to greater religious belief. This study does not strike me as very rigorous in how it was done but it is suggestive.

June 10, 2011

God and the stock market

In this article in the New York Times, one paragraph jumped out at me because it touched a nerve.

"On the one hand the markets want a deal," said Howard Gleckman, an editor and analyst at the Tax Policy Center, a joint effort of two centrist research organizations, the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. "On the other they don't want a deal that's going to send the economy back into recession."

I find it really annoying when people speak so glibly about what 'the markets' want and don't want. How could they possibly know? The stock markets involve millions of people trading billions of shares each day for all manner of reasons. The idea that one can look at the behavior of stock market indices and deduce what is causing it to behave in a particular way is ludicrous except in the case of major events (like the financial collapse) in which case almost anyone can assign cause without being a Wall Street market 'expert'. And yet these people do it on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

Bob Garfield of the radio show On The Media had a droll piece on this glib single factor analysis. (Note: The audio is wrong and different from the transcript. To hear the seven minutes audio report, click on the link below, and begin at the 24:50 minute mark.)

The way these analysts speak so confidently about something they cannot possibly know reminds me strongly of theologians who also speak confidently about the properties of god and what he wants, even though they have no idea either. The way that politicians try so hard to propitiate 'the market' by doing things that will raise the stock indices also reminds me of the way that religious people try to do things to please their inscrutable gods.

China treats Greece as a cheap labor market

I wrote earlier about how European companies now feel free to abuse US workers the way that US companies abuse workers in the less developed world. Now come reports that China has also turned the tables and Chinese companies are abusing European workers, as described in this story about the giant Chinese shipping company Cosco.

Cosco doesn't allow unions or collective bargaining among its 500-plus Greek workers. The unions report that Cosco workers are largely unskilled and working on a temporary basis, with no benefits. Despite persistent rumors about their labor conditions, until now no Cosco workers have spoken out to the media.

But a former Cosco worker, who had just been sacked, spoke to NPR about work conditions on the Chinese-run pier, on the condition that his name not be used. The worker says he regularly worked eight hours a day with no meal breaks and no toilet breaks.

"I think their actions are breaking the law," the worker said. "The rights are to have something to eat around 12 o'clock [and] to have our breaks, and not work like a dog straight [through] from morning till afternoon."

He says workers were told by supervisors to urinate into the sea, rather than taking toilet breaks. Those operating straddle carriers had to take cups up into their cabins to urinate into, and he says they were not given breaks, either, despite the clear dangers of operating at such a height for so long.

The worker says he was paid 600 euros a month — about 50 euros each shift — around half the salary at the neighboring Greek-operated pier, with no extra money for working night shifts or weekends. There was no set schedule; he was kept on 24-hour call for nine months.

The Greek government seems unwilling or unable to protest because it desperately needs Chinese investments. Greece is vulnerable because of its deep economic crisis caused by the same banking interests that caused the debacle in the US.

When you read of the moves to 'bail out' Greece by the European Union, keep in mind that what is being advocated is a bail out of the banks, since the bail out money will pass through the Greek government to the banks to make up for their losses.

The bankers rule the world and are driving a race to the bottom for the world's workers.

Atheism is a byproduct of science

Science is an atheistic enterprise. As the eminent population geneticist J. B. S. Haldane said:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

While not every scientist would apply the highly successful atheistic methodology to every aspect of their lives as Haldane does, the fact that intellectual consistency requires it, coupled with the success of science, has persuaded most scientists that leaving god out of things is a good way to proceed and hence it should not be surprising that increasing awareness of science correlates with increased levels of atheism.

But it would be wrong to conclude that scientists have atheism as a driving concern in their work or that they actively seek out theories that deny the existence of god. God is simply irrelevant to their work. The negative implications for god of scientific theories is a byproduct of scientific research rather than the principle aim of it. Non-scientists may be surprised that discussions about god are almost nonexistent at scientific meetings and even in ordinary interactions among scientists. We simply take it for granted that god plays no role whatsoever.

For example, the idea of the multiverse has torpedoed the argument of religious people that the universe must have had a beginning or that its parameters seem to be fine-tuned for human life, which they argue are evidences for god. They seem suspicious that the multiverse idea was created simply to eliminate god from these two of the last three refuges in which he could be hiding. (The third refuge is the origin of a self-replicating molecule that was the precursor of life.) In his article titled Does the Universe Need God?, cosmologist Sean Carroll dismisses that idea.

The multiverse is not a theory; it is a prediction of a theory, namely the combination of inflationary cosmology and a landscape of vacuum states. Both of these ideas came about for other reasons, having nothing to do with the multiverse. If they are right, they predict the existence of a multiverse in a wide variety of circumstances. It's our job to take the predictions of our theories seriously, not to discount them because we end up with an uncomfortably large number of universes.

Carroll ends with a nice summary of what science is about and why god really has no reason to be postulated into existence. This is similar to the points I made in my series on why atheism is winning.

Over the past five hundred years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God's roles in the world. He isn't needed to keep things moving, or to develop the complexity of living creatures, or to account for the existence of the universe. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the scientific revolution has been in the realm of methodology. Control groups, double-blind experiments, an insistence on precise and testable predictions – a suite of techniques constructed to guard against the very human tendency to see things that aren't there. There is no control group for the universe, but in our attempts to explain it we should aim for a similar level of rigor. If and when cosmologists develop a successful scientific understanding of the origin of the universe, we will be left with a picture in which there is no place for God to act – if he does (e.g., through subtle influences on quantum-mechanical transitions or the progress of evolution), it is only in ways that are unnecessary and imperceptible. We can't be sure that a fully naturalist understanding of cosmology is forthcoming, but at the same time there is no reason to doubt it. Two thousand years ago, it was perfectly reasonable to invoke God as an explanation for natural phenomena; now, we can do much better.

None of this amounts to a "proof" that God doesn't exist, of course. Such a proof is not forthcoming; science isn't in the business of proving things. Rather, science judges the merits of competing models in terms of their simplicity, clarity, comprehensiveness, and fit to the data. Unsuccessful theories are never disproven, as we can always concoct elaborate schemes to save the phenomena; they just fade away as better theories gain acceptance. Attempting to explain the natural world by appealing to God is, by scientific standards, not a very successful theory. The fact that we humans have been able to understand so much about how the natural world works, in our incredibly limited region of space over a remarkably short period of time, is a triumph of the human spirit, one in which we can all be justifiably proud.

Religious believers misuse this fundamental nature of scientific inquiry, that all conclusions are tentative and that what we believe to be true is a collective judgment made by comparing theories and determining which one is best supported by evidence, to make the misleading case that unless we have proved one single theory to be true, other theories (especially the god theory) should merit serious consideration. This is wrong. While we may not be able to prove which theories are right and which are wrong, we do know how to judge which ones are good and which ones are bad.

God is a terrible theory. It fails utterly to deliver the goods, and so should be abandoned like all the other failed theories of the past. In the film Love and Death, Woody Allen's character says, "If it turns out that there is a god, I don't think that he's evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever." He is right.

June 09, 2011

The propensity for violent over-reaction

From China comes this terrible story about a 21-year old man, the child of wealthy parents, whose car hit a 26-year old peasant woman riding a bicycle. Although the woman supposedly suffered only minor injuries, the man then proceeded to stab her eight times, killing her, before fleeing the scene. He apparently thought that she might report him to the police and also seek compensation from him. He was executed for the murder.

When I read such stories, I wonder what makes some people, when confronted with a relatively small problem, lose all sense of perspective and escalate things into a major tragedy. What made this young man think that committing a murder would be better than dealing with the complications arising from a traffic accident?

One sees this all too often in the US where someone suffers some personal setback, such as losing a job or spouse, and then goes on a rampage killing multiple people, often members of their own family and even their children.

These stories make me wonder whether only some people have the propensity for extreme and irrational violence or whether everyone's brains contain these impulses and that they are only held in check by the more rational parts of their brains. Is what distinguishes one from another merely the amount of self-control we are able to exercise?

God is not the 'simplest' explanation for the universe

Believers in god (especially of the intelligent design variety) like to argue that a god is a 'simpler' explanation than any of the alternatives for many natural phenomena. But they seem to equate simple with naïve, in the sense that what makes something simple is something that should be understandable by a child. For example, if a child asks you why the sun rises and sets every day, giving an explanation in terms of the laws of gravity, Newton's laws of motion, and the Earth's rotation about its own axis, is not 'simple'. A child would more likely understand an explanation in which there is a man whose job it was to push the sun around in its daily orbit. This is 'simpler' because the concepts of 'man' and 'push' are familiar ones to a child, requiring no further explication. But this apparent simplicity is an illusion because it ignores enormously complicating factors such as how the man got up there, how strong must he be, why don't we see him, and so on. It is because such issues are swept under the rug that this explanation appears to be simple.

In his article titled Does the Universe Need God?, cosmologist Sean Carroll points out that introducing a new ad hoc element like god into a theory actually makes things enormously complicated. The erroneous idea that simplicity is linked to the number of entities involved is based on a misconception of science.

All else being equal, a simpler scientific theory is preferred over a more complicated one. But how do we judge simplicity? It certainly doesn't mean "the sets involved in the mathematical description of the theory contain the smallest possible number of elements." In the Newtonian clockwork universe, every cubic centimeter contains an infinite number of points, and space contains an infinite number of cubic centimeters, all of which persist for an infinite number of separate moments each second, over an infinite number of seconds. Nobody ever claimed that all these infinities were a strike against the theory.

The simplicity of a theory is a statement about how compactly we can describe the formal structure (the Kolmogorov complexity), not how many elements it contains. The set of real numbers consisting of "eleven, and thirteen times the square root of two, and pi to the twenty-eighth power, and all prime numbers between 4,982 and 34,950" is a more complicated set than "the integers," even though the latter set contains an infinitely larger number of elements. The physics of a universe containing 1088 particles that all belong to just a handful of types, each particle behaving precisely according to the characteristics of its type, is much simpler than that of a universe containing only a thousand particles, each behaving completely differently.

At first glance, the God hypothesis seems simple and precise – an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being. (There are other definitions, but they are usually comparably terse.) The apparent simplicity is somewhat misleading, however. In comparison to a purely naturalistic model, we're not simply adding a new element to an existing ontology (like a new field or particle), or even replacing one ontology with a more effective one at a similar level of complexity (like general relativity replacing Newtonian spacetime, or quantum mechanics replacing classical mechanics). We're adding an entirely new metaphysical category, whose relation to the observable world is unclear. This doesn't automatically disqualify God from consideration as a scientific theory, but it implies that, all else being equal, a purely naturalistic model will be preferred on the grounds of simplicity.

Religious people think that god is a 'simpler' theory because they give themselves the license to assign their god any property they wish in order to 'solve' any problem they encounter, without making the answer given in one area consistent with an answer given elsewhere. But the very fact that the god model is so malleable is what makes it so useless. For example, religious people will argue (as they must) that the way that the world currently exists, despite the suffering, disasters, and catastrophes that seem to afflict everyone indiscriminately, is evidence for a loving god. A colleague of mine who is a very thoughtful and sophisticated person told me recently that when he looks at the world, he sees one that is consistent with the existence of god.

This raises two questions. The first is whether the world that he sees also consistent with the non-existence of god. If yes, how does he decide which option to believe? If no, what exactly is the source of the inconsistency?

The second question is what the world would need to look like for him to conclude that the there is no god. Carroll gives a thought experiment that illustrates the shallowness of those who argue that the evils and misfortunes and calamities that bestride this world are actually evidence for god.

In numerous ways, the world around us is more like what we would expect from a dysteleological set of uncaring laws of nature than from a higher power with an interest in our welfare. As another thought experiment, imagine a hypothetical world in which there was no evil, people were invariably kind, fewer natural disasters occurred, and virtue was always rewarded. Would inhabitants of that world consider these features to be evidence against the existence of God? If not, why don't we consider the contrary conditions to be such evidence?

It is not hard to understand why the concept of god could only have arisen in primitive, or at least pre-modern, times.

Consider a hypothetical world in which science had developed to something like its current state of progress, but nobody had yet thought of God. It seems unlikely that an imaginative thinker in this world, upon proposing God as a solution to various cosmological puzzles, would be met with enthusiasm. All else being equal, science prefers its theories to be precise, predictive, and minimal – requiring the smallest possible amount of theoretical overhead. The God hypothesis is none of these. Indeed, in our actual world, God is essentially never invoked in scientific discussions. You can scour the tables of contents in major physics journals, or titles of seminars and colloquia in physics departments and conferences, looking in vain for any mention of possible supernatural intervention into the workings of the world.

The concept of god is a relic of our ancient history, like the vestigial elements of animal physiology such as the legs bones of some snakes, the small wings of flightless birds like the kiwi, the eyes of the blind mole rat, and the tailbone, ear muscles, and appendix of humans. It will, like them, eventually disappear for the same reason, because they have ceased to be of use.

June 08, 2011

Circuses

Glenn Greenwald captures precisely my own feelings on the Anthony Wiener episode and what it tells us about the state of politics and the media in the US.

There are few things more sickening -- or revealing -- to behold than a D.C. sex scandal. Huge numbers of people prance around flamboyantly condemning behavior in which they themselves routinely engage. Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation. Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright -- like proud peacocks with their feathers extended -- pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance. The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.

I am as titillated as the next person by salacious gossip about people I know either personally or as public figures. I won't pretend that I turn away in high-minded purity from such stories. But I wonder about the health of a society in which the private lives of people escape from the gossip columns of the tabloids (which is where they belong, if at all) and become a major obsession. It seems to indicate a society that seeks distractions because it does not have the stomach to confront the far more serious issues it faces.

As Greenwald says:

Can one even imagine how much different -- and better -- our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter? But that won't happen, because the people who comprise that press corps, with rare exception, are both incapable of focusing on things that matter and uninterested in doing so. Talking about shirtless pictures and expressing outrage about private sexual behavior -- like some angry, chattering soap opera fan furious that one of their best-known characters cheated -- is about the limit of their abilities and their function.

Greenwald's whole post is, as usual, well worth reading.

And they said it couldn't be done

Stephen Colbert proves empirically that Sarah Palin's version of Paul Revere's ride could have happened.

The failure of fine-tuning arguments for god

When I ask people why they believe in god, their response almost invariably comes down to them being impressed with the complexity of the world and thinking that it could not have come about without some intelligent agent behind it. It is highly likely that this 'reason' is not the actual cause of their belief but a later rationalization for beliefs that they unthinkingly adopted as part of their childhood indoctrination into religion. When people become adults, they realize that saying they believe something because they were told it as children is likely to expose them to ridicule, and so they manufacture a superficially more rational answer.

The more sophisticated among them, who like to consider themselves as modernists who are accepting of science, argue that the properties of the laws of science and the inanimate matter that make up the universe seem to have just the right values to make life possible and that this implies that god must have chosen those values in order to enable the emergence of humans. This is what is known as the fine-tuning argument for god. (See also the discussion in the comments in yesterday's post .)

In his article titled Does the Universe Need God?, cosmologist Sean Carroll elaborates on it.

In recent years, a different aspect of our universe has been seized upon by natural theologians as evidence for God's handiwork – the purported fine-tuning of the physical and cosmological parameters that specify our particular universe among all possible ones. These parameters are to be found in the laws of physics – the mass of the electron, the value of the vacuum energy – as well as in the history of the universe – the amount of dark matter, the smoothness of the initial state. There's no question that the universe around us would look very different if some of these parameters were changed. The controversial claims are two: that intelligent life can only exist for a very small range of parameters, in which our universe just happens to find itself; and that the best explanation for this happy circumstance is that God arranged it that way.

I have argued before that this makes no logical sense. It seems to imply that god was somehow locked into a blue-print for what humans should be like, and then had to carefully retro-engineer the evolution of the entire universe in order that the humans determined by that blueprint could emerge and survive. But this seems pointlessly Rube Goldbergish. The simpler thing for an omnipotent designer god to do would be to first create the universe and then design humans to fit into whatever emerged. After all, a god can presumably do anything and could have designed us to live in the vacuum of deep space or in the Sun or on any planet in the universe under any conceivable conditions.

But even if we take the fine-tuning argument of religious people on their own terms, we are by no means forced to the conclusion that a god is necessary. In fact, Carroll lists other possible alternatives:

  1. Life is extremely robust, and would be likely to arise even if the parameters were very different, whether or not we understand what form it would take.
  2. There is only one universe, with randomly-chosen parameters, and we just got lucky that they are among the rare values that allow for the existence of life.
  3. In different regions of the universe the parameters take on different values, and we are fooled by a selection effect: life will only arise in those regions compatible with the existence of life.
  4. The parameters are not chosen randomly, but designed that way by a deity.

So postulating a god is only one of many options to explain fine-tuning and by no means the most plausible one. It is not even the most attractive one.

Carroll then addresses the position that religion supplies the answers to the 'why' questions that science cannot.

These ideas all arise from a conviction that, in various contexts, it is insufficient to fully understand what happens; we must also provide an explanation for why it happens – what might be called a "meta-explanatory" account.

It can be difficult to respond to this kind of argument. Not because the arguments are especially persuasive, but because the ultimate answer to "We need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be" is essentially "No we don't." That is unlikely to be considered a worthwhile comeback to anyone who was persuaded by the need for a meta-explanatory understanding in the first place.

Granted, it is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase "and that's just how it is." It is certainly conceivable that the ultimate explanation is to be found in God; but a compelling argument to that effect would consist of a demonstration that God provides a better explanation (for whatever reason) than a purely materialist picture, not an a priori insistence that a purely materialist picture is unsatisfying.

There is no reason, within anything we currently understand about the ultimate structure of reality, to think of the existence and persistence and regularity of the universe as things that require external explanation. Indeed, for most scientists, adding on another layer of metaphysical structure in order to purportedly explain these nomological facts is an unnecessary complication.

It is hard for religious people to accept that there need not be an answer to every 'why' question. What is laughable is that after insisting that the why questions must have answers, religious people simply make up stuff, however preposterous or implausible it may be, without any evidence or even attempt at justification, and then proudly proclaim that they have solved the problem. It is better to accept that some things are just the way they are than make up an answer that has no evidence or reason behind it.

June 07, 2011

The pro-war one party state

Glenn Greenwald says that the war on Libya should dispel any doubts that what we have is a pro-war one party state that does not care about legality.

Church cancelled due to lack of god

From a 1996 issue of The Onion.

Parishioners of Pastor Theo Leobald's First Congregational Church of Holy Christ In Heaven will not meet next Sunday morning for a coffee social and morning Bible study as they do every week, gathering in fellowship and offering thanks and praise to God on high. The reason for the cancellation? Simply the fact that, according to Leobald, God does not now, has never, and will never exist.

When asked why he is convinced of God's nonexistence, Leobald became visibly irritated with reporters.

"What're you, an illiterate peasant? Aren't you familiar with 20th century thinking at all? Christ, read a book, or maybe just think about the idea for a minute. Pretty ridiculous, huh?" he said.

When pressed, however, he sighed heavily, and explained that thousands of years ago, tribes of nomadic desert peoples made up God because, being incapable of scientific reasoning due to caveman-like existences, they had no other way of making sense of things like sunshine, rocks and pork-transmitted trichinosis.

"They made it all up, and they were ignorant, unwashed, half-naked pre-historic barbarians," Leobald said. "So who are you gonna believe: Carl Sagan, and the pantheon of the world's greatest scientific and intellectual minds, or some guy who measured wealth by how many goats he had?"

Why a god is not necessary to create the universe

In an article titled Does the Universe Need God?, cosmologist Sean Carroll provides a rejoinder to those who would try to squeeze god in as an answer to what they perceive as unexplained gaps in our knowledge. It is a long article that is worth reading in full but for those who lack the time, I will excerpt some of the key points.

He starts by making the same point that I made in the series Why atheism is winning, that the long-term outlook for religion is extremely bleak because science and its associated modernistic outlook is making it irrelevant in ways that are hard to ignore even by the most determined religionist.

Most modern cosmologists are convinced that conventional scientific progress will ultimately result in a self-contained understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe, without the need to invoke God or any other supernatural involvement. This conviction necessarily falls short of a proof, but it is backed up by good reasons. While we don't have the final answers, I will attempt to explain the rationale behind the belief that science will ultimately understand the universe without involving God in any way.

Those who want to insert god somewhere, to show that he/she/it is necessary in some way, need to realize that they have at most a window of one second just after the Big Bang to work with.

While we don't claim to understand the absolute beginning of the universe, by the time one second has elapsed we enter the realm of empirical testability. That's the era of primordial nucleosynthesis, when protons and neutrons were being converted into helium and other light elements. The theory of nucleosynthesis makes precise predictions for the relative abundance of these elements, which have passed observational muster with flying colors, providing impressive evidence in favor of the Big Bang model. Another important test comes from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the relic radiation left over from the moment the primordial plasma cooled off and became transparent, about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Together, observations of primordial element abundances and the CMB provide not only evidence in favor of the basic cosmological picture, but stringent constraints on the parameters describing the composition of our universe.

He then clarifies what it means to talk about the Big Bang event, a singular event in time, as distinct from the Big Bang model that is the working out of the aftermath of that event.

One sometimes hears the claim that the Big Bang was the beginning of both time and space; that to ask about spacetime "before the Big Bang" is like asking about land "north of the North Pole." This may turn out to be true, but it is not an established understanding. The singularity at the Big Bang doesn't indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension. It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time. But it is equally plausible that what we think of as the Big Bang is merely a phase in the history of the universe, which stretches long before that time – perhaps infinitely far in the past. [My italics] The present state of the art is simply insufficient to decide between these alternatives; to do so, we will need to formulate and test a working theory of quantum gravity.

The problem with "creation from nothing" is that it conjures an image of a pre-existing "nothingness" out of which the universe spontaneously appeared – not at all what is actually involved in this idea. Partly this is because, as human beings embedded in a universe with an arrow of time, we can't help but try to explain events in terms of earlier events, even when the event we are trying to explain is explicitly stated to be the earliest one. It would be more accurate to characterize these models by saying "there was a time such that there was no earlier time."

To make sense of this, it is helpful to think of the present state of the universe and work backwards, rather than succumbing to the temptation to place our imaginations "before" the universe came into being. The beginning cosmologies posit that our mental journey backwards in time will ultimately reach a point past which the concept of "time" is no longer applicable. Alternatively, imagine a universe that collapsed into a Big Crunch, so that there was a future end point to time. We aren't tempted to say that such a universe "transformed into nothing"; it simply has a final moment of its existence. What actually happens at such a boundary point depends, of course, on the correct quantum theory of gravity.

The important point is that we can easily imagine self-contained descriptions of the universe that have an earliest moment of time. There is no logical or metaphysical obstacle to completing the conventional temporal history of the universe by including an atemporal boundary condition at the beginning. Together with the successful post-Big-Bang cosmological model already in our possession, that would constitute a consistent and self-contained description of the history of the universe.

Nothing in the fact that there is a first moment of time, in other words, necessitates that an external something is required to bring the universe about at that moment. [My italics]

The Big Bang event itself does not necessarily imply that the universe had a beginning in time and even if it should turn out that it had, it does not imply a beginner. This strikes at the heart of the arguments of religious apologists who need a beginning to make their claim say that a beginning necessarily implies a beginner. That argument is weak to begin with, but is the main one they have for god.

Religious people know that this conclusion is a devastating one for them. After all, if no god is required to create the universe, then he is truly an unnecessary concept. So they will fight or ignore or obfuscate this point with theological jargon.

June 06, 2011

Another bit of Fry and Laurie

More silliness from that comedy duo.

Politics for the lazy

Kevin Drum touches on a peeve that I share, which is how politicians toss out slogans that sound strong and tough when the actual ideas contained in those slogans are obvious, vague, impractical, implausible, or even meaningless.

He gives four examples:

  • Zero tolerance
  • Everything is on the table
  • Across the board cuts
  • Doing nothing is not an option.

He calls for further examples. Here are some of my pet peeves:

  • Eliminate waste
  • Reduce bureaucracy
  • Hold people accountable

Any other ideas?

Hotel housekeepers

The recent events surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund accused of sexually assaulting the person assigned to clean his hotel room shows, irrespective of the truth of the matter that eventually emerges, how vulnerable hotel housekeeping staff is to predatory guests.

Jacob Tomsky, who has worked in various capacities in the luxury hospitality business, says that events like those alleged in the Strauss-Kahn story are sadly all too frequent, and that guests not only often try to take advantage of the staff sexually, they also frequently falsely accuse them of doing things such as stealing, making international calls from the room, going through their belongings, etc..

I encounter the housekeeping staff in hotels quite a lot. When I go to conferences, the meetings take place in the hotel itself and so I frequently go back to my room during the day between sessions, sometimes for extended periods when there are no talks I want to listen to. Since I cannot read or work very well in public places with a lot of background noise and movement (a symptom of my need for lack of distractions when I am working), I prefer to work in the quiet of my room. As a result, I frequently encounter the housekeeping staff, sometimes in the hallways, and sometimes when they knock when I am in the room. It never happens that they come in unexpectedly because I always have the deadbolt in place when I am in the room.

The host-guest relationship becomes ambiguous when you stay in a hotel. Since you are renting the room, it 'belongs' to you in some sense and so, if you wish, you can think of yourself as the host and anyone who enters as a guest or, in the case of the housekeepers, your personal employees. On the other hand, you are the transient while the housekeeping staff is there permanently, which can make you feel like you are the guest and they are the host. I tend to think of myself in the latter category and so I try to accommodate the hosts and not upset the work schedule of the housekeeping staff. As a result, if they arrive and knock while I am the room, I tell them to go ahead and clean the room while I continue to work, and they usually do so.

My interactions with the housekeeping staff are friendly but minimal, limited to exchanging smiles and a few pleasantries, since we both have work to do. It had not occurred to me until the Strauss-Kahn story broke that the staff might have to make quick judgments in such situations as to whether I could be trusted to be in the same room with them.

As Dean Baker points out, one of the important facts about this case is that the reason that the employee was able to complain was that she belonged to a union.

This matters because under the law in the United States, an employer can fire a worker at any time for almost any reason. It is illegal for an employer to fire a worker for reporting a sexual assault. If any worker can prove that this is reason they were fired, they would get their job back and probably back pay. (The penalties tend to be trivial, so the back pay is unfortunately not a joke.)

However, it is completely legal for an employer to fire a worker who reports a sexual assault for having been late to work last Tuesday or any other transgression. Since employers know the law, they don't ever say that they are firing a worker for reporting a sexual assault. They might fire workers who report sexual assaults for other on-the-job failings, real or invented.

In this way the United States stands out from most other wealthy countries. For example, all the countries of Western Europe afford workers some measure of employment protection, where employers must give a reason for firing workers. Workers can contest their dismissal if they think the reason is not valid, unlike the United States where there is no recourse.

Unions matter for many things other than the ones we most focus on, such as obtaining decent pay and benefits. They also provide minimal protections against abuses by the rich and powerful. Without them, management of luxury hotels would be strongly tempted to sacrifice their employees in order to placate the wealthy clientele who abuse them.

June 05, 2011

What to expect in the coming primary season

This old clip from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, although written in the British election context, gives us a preview of what the speeches during the Republican primary campaign are going to look like.

(Via Balloon Juice.)

June 04, 2011

Example of how the Israel lobby works

M. J. Rosenberg relates a first hand account of what he experienced in 1988 when, as an aide to a US senator, he was at the receiving end of the intimidation that is delivered to anyone who crosses the lobby.

Stephen M. Walt has more on the nature of the 'special relationship' between the US and Israel.

Sarah Palin on Paul Revere

For obvious reasons, I don't write much about Sarah Palin. But I could not help passing on this clip.

Not having grown up in the US and learned its history in any formal way, my knowledge is a bit sketchy. It is especially weak on the specific details of some of the iconic events. But even I have learned enough of the folklore informally to know that Palin had botched the details of Paul Revere's ride, which raises the question of how it could be possible that she could grow up in the US and not know this. It truly baffles me.

June 03, 2011

Update on free will

Readers may recall my multi-part series on free will in which, among other things, I reported on the pioneering 1983 experiments of Benjamin Libet. Peter Hankins reviews a recent paper that uses latest developments that have been made possible by more recent sophisticated technology that can look at the activity of individual neurons in the brain. The researchers get results that essentially validate Libet's conclusions and provide further insights. Hankins explains what it might all mean.

Implications of the recent Middle East protests

Surely all freedom and justice loving people have to welcome the rise of ordinary people in revolt against autocratic rulers that we have seen in the Middle East. The events of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen have shown that ordinary people are able to overcome fear and dare their governments to crack down on them, while being unarmed to a large degree. Libya is the one country where the line between an unnamed popular uprising and an armed civil war became blurred and with NATO now fighting on behalf of one faction it is no longer clear where popular sentiment lies.

Veteran political analyst Tom Englehardt argues that it is hard to find precedents in history for this level of mass uprising. (Note that this was written back in February before the US and NATO got involved in Libya.)

Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous — or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth) — in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.

Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.

The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable… That the future remains — always — the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that’s the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.

Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what’s really possible on this planet of ours?

Another veteran journalist John Pilger writing on the same day has this to add:

The revolt in the Arab world is not merely against a resident dictator but a worldwide economic tyranny designed by the US Treasury and imposed by the US Agency for International Development, the IMF and World Bank, which have ensured that rich countries like Egypt are reduced to vast sweatshops, with half the population earning less than $2 a day. The people’s triumph in Cairo was the first blow against what Benito Mussolini called corporatism, a word that appears in his definition of fascism.

How did such extremism take hold in the liberal West? "It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity, and concern for the poor and oppressed," observed Noam Chomsky a generation ago, "[and] to replace these dangerous feelings with self-centred egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that [an order of] inequities and oppression is the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is under way to convince people – particularly young people – that this not only is what they should feel but that it’s what they do feel."

Like the European revolutions of 1848 and the uprising against Stalinism in 1989, the Arab revolt has rejected fear. An insurrection of suppressed ideas, hope and solidarity has begun.

In the US fear has been successfully used to keep people docile and accepting of the most atrocious violations of their constitutional rights. The oligarchy will be viewing the fearless uprisings in the Arab world with some concern and you can be sure that there will strenuous efforts to make sure that those feelings of hope and courage do not spread to the US.

June 02, 2011

Volunteering to clean up damaged Japanese nuclear plant

A BBC report highlights a heartening story of social consciousness taking precedence over hysterical fear and self-interest.

A group of more than 200 Japanese pensioners is volunteering to tackle the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station.

The "Skilled Veterans Corps", as they call themselves, is made up of retired engineers and other professionals, all over the age of sixty.

One of the group, Yasuteru Yamada, told the BBC's Roland Buerk that they should be facing the dangers of radiation, not the young.

The important point is that although these people are brave and noble, they are not being mindlessly heroic and self-sacrificial. They have a done a logical risk-benefit analysis and concluded that having old people take the risk of radiation makes the most actuarial sense.

Hope for the Middle East?

If, as is possible, the UN General Assembly in September recognizes a Palestinian state based at least somewhat on the 1967 borders, what happens next? In the short run, nothing much. The Palestinians have little power and the US will exert all its influence to make sure that nothing changes significantly. But that could change if non-violent protests in the region against Israeli policies become a mass movement.

What will happen if masses of unarmed Palestinians and Israelis march together the way that Gandhi and his followers marched in India to combat British rule? The recent Nakba demonstrations that resulted in Israeli forces killing about 20 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and wounded hundreds on May 15 in a crackdown on the borders with Syria and Lebanon is one possible precursor, suggesting that the Israeli government will act with brutal force.

Even if the Israeli forces shoot and kill many unarmed protestors, the US government and media will downplay these events and not express outrage, just as they are downplaying the killings of unarmed people in Bahrain and Yemen, in the former country by foreign troops (Saudi Arabian). But as the British discovered with Gandhi, attacking unarmed people and jailing their leaders is usually counterproductive in the long run. It stiffens the resolve of people rather than undermining it, and throws up a multitude of new leaders to take the place of those incarcerated or killed.

In his article titled Salt march to the Dead Sea: Gandhi's Palestinian reincarnation in the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine (subscription required), David Shulman says that Gandhian nonviolent methods are catching on in Israel and Palestine though it is by no means a mass movement yet.

New forms of civil disobedience are spreading within Israel, driven by peace activists and ordinary citizens who are fed up with the blatant injustice of Israeli policy and who are increasingly prepared to break the letter of the law when the law is discriminatory, indeed racist. You can read about some of the people involved in Michael Riordon’s fine book Our Way to Fight. As Palestinian independence comes nearer— hopefully, to become a reality this year—there will be more and more instances of such protests inside Israel and, in some cases, by Israelis working inside the occupied territories, together with Palestinian partners.

Make no mistake, when it comes to Israeli activism, we’re not talking about anything like a mass movement. But I’m not sure that numbers are the best indicator of what’s to come. The Israeli settlers who hijacked the entire political system to their utterly destructive goals some three decades ago numbered, initially, at most a few thousand. I think that even a few hundred brave individuals prepared to face the riot police and the soldiers and the courts in the name of the Eighth Commandment may, with the help of the outside world, be enough to spark the change.

No one can say what form the revolutionary fervor currently sweeping the Arab world will eventually take in Palestine. It may very well be directed, first, against the centers of power in Gaza and Ramallah (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, respectively; up-to-date studies show a sharp decline in popular support for the former). Eventually, however, the tide will turn against the Israeli occupation; the Israeli government has no effective response to a situation where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians decide to assert their freedom, one can hope, in nonviolent ways.

When I look at the Palestinian issue, I often feel a sense of despair because things seem so hopeless. It seems the parties are so entrenched so as to never permit a just solution. Then I remind myself that I used to feel the same way about South Africa, that the whites would never give up on their iron rule over the blacks, that Nelson Mandela would die in prison, and that it would end up either as a bloody mess or as a long slow strangulation of the black people. And change emerged, largely peacefully.

The catch is that for all their many faults, neither the British nor the Afrikaaners or the liberation movements were driven by religious fanaticism. It is different in the Middle East. Daniel Levy points out that the ultra-orthodox Jews known as the Haredim is one of the fastest growing groups in Israel. That is not a good sign. The dominance of religion usually makes peaceful resolutions of conflicts harder because each side thinks their god is the right one and he supports them.

But we must have hope. As Shulman says:

Hope is a spiritual act, far removed from, say, optimism, a rather shallow option. So let me say it: there is hope, today, in Palestine, more than I’ve ever seen before. The Israeli government is doing what it can to destroy it, but I doubt that the government will succeed.

I hope that he is right. I have pretty much given up hope that governments will do the right thing. They are too captive to either moneyed interests or to the narrow sectarian religious and political groups that the media pays so much attention to. But I do have hope that when ordinary, right thinking people join up with others who seek to live normal, dignified, decent lives, and are willing to put their lives on the line to achieve this, great things can happen.

Gandhi and Martin Luther Ling showed that it can be done.

June 01, 2011

News flash: Jesus wore pants!

One of the image problems that prevents Christianity from attracting men in America is that Jesus, with his long flowing hair that seems out of a shampoo commercial and wearing a robe that could be easily confused with a dress, seems effeminate and this can be off-putting to manly men.

But the undoubtedly manly Jesus' General (who scores an 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender) points out that evangelical pastor Steven L. Anderson has revealed the heretofore hidden truth that Jesus actually had short hair and wore pants and that the mistaken image people have of what Jesus looked like is the result of deliberately misleading depictions of him by homosexual artists like Michelangelo who were covertly seeking to advance their gay agenda. As Anderson says, "Sodomite homosexuals such as Michelangelo painted Jesus to look effeminate and to have long hair in order to make him fit their own queer image… Anyone who has not had their mind warped by a so-called theologian or historian knows that a dress is a woman’s garment. The only men I have seen wearing dresses in 2010 are homosexuals, Catholic priests (sorry to be redundant), Islamic clerics, and Buddhist monks. These men are an abomination according to the Bible." You can't argue with that logic.

We are lucky that we have people like pastor Anderson to tell the truth and stand up for what it means to be a man. And talking of standing up, Jesus' General highlights another important feature that pastor Anderson has cleverly deduced from the Bible that can tell you if someone is a manly man or not.

Gandhi's disciples in the Middle East

The winds of change sweeping over the Middle East are indicators of what the future might hold for Palestinians. What has been hopeful is that movements to demand justice in Egypt and Tunisia based on mass non-violent marches and protests have borne fruit. On the other hand, similar movements in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain are being violently suppressed. Libya is a special case in that the opposition took up arms early and have allied themselves with the US and NATO and is thus more like an armed insurrection against the government.

There are signs that non-violent mass mobilizations of the Egypt-Tunisia-Yemen-Bahrain model might develop in Palestine as well. That part of the world might not look like fertile soil for Gandhian principles to take root but in an article titled Salt march to the Dead Sea: Gandhi's Palestinian reincarnation in the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine (subscription required), David Shulman describes the actions of Palestinians and Israelis who are looking to the Gandhi model of non-violent resistance to Israeli policies. He says that masses of unarmed people, inspired by the events of the current Arab Spring and the possible declaration of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly in September, could lead to a major challenge the status quo.

No one can say what form the revolutionary fervor currently sweeping the Arab world will eventually take in Palestine. It may very well be directed, first, against the centers of power in Gaza and Ramallah (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, respectively; up-to-date studies show a sharp decline in popular support for the former). Eventually, however, the tide will turn against the Israeli occupation; the Israeli government has no effective response to a situation where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians decide to assert their freedom, one can hope, in nonviolent ways. I hope that some of us, at least, will have the privilege of standing beside them, sharing the risks, when that day comes. Here is another irony to contemplate—that of Palestinians in 2011 successfully adopting the method Gandhi recommended to the Jews in the 1930s.

He describes three of the people who are taking the Gandhian approach.

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, from the village of Bil’in, who was released from the Israeli military prison at Ofer, after fifteen months’ detention, on March 14. He is a central figure in the ongoing campaign by the village against the Israeli government’s appropriation of a large portion of its lands in the course of building the huge concrete separation barrier or wall, situated in this case, as in many others, on Palestinian land far to the east of the Green Line, the old international border.

Bil’in has become the stuff of myth in Palestine. This small village forged a grassroots nonviolent protest that has been sustained for more than six years with remarkable tenacity, despite continuing casualties—two killed and hundreds wounded by the Israeli army. (The weekly demonstrations, which start off with a peaceful march to the wall, inevitably deteriorate into violent clashes between the soldiers, who fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition at the protesters, and young village toughs throwing rocks.) Abdallah is thirty-nine years old, a teacher, and a father of three young children. He has read Gandhi and Mandela. He is soft-spoken, charismatic… You can see why the army is afraid of him; what Israel is doing in Bil’in, as in most places in the Palestinian territories, is indefensible, and Abdallah is perfectly capable of explaining why to the world at large.

Then there is Ali Abu Awwad, who runs the Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance from his offices in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem. He read Gandhi’s writings in what he calls “my Palestinian university”—an Israeli prison, where he spent four years in the early 1990s… Ali is tall, handsome, fluent in several languages, precise in formulating his thoughts, which seem to come from some irreducible core of experience; he is a Gandhian who has improvised a vision, and a method, suited to the particular circumstances of Palestine.

There are Gandhian figures within Israel, too—foremost among them, perhaps, Ezra Nawi, a tough-minded, soft-hearted plumber who, I think, has never read a line of Gandhi but who has reinvented Gandhian-style protest on his own, largely in the harsh region of the South Hebron Hills. Predictably, an Israeli court recently sent him to jail for a month, and the judge wrote a long decision concerning, what else, the virtues of law and order. (The circumstances in this case involved the gratuitous destruction by the army of Palestinian shacks and tents at a place called Umm al-Kheir; Ezra tried to stop it by throwing himself in front of the bulldozers and then running into one of the shacks.)

What is notable about the Gandhian model is that it can draw upon a potentially much larger base of volunteers than armed uprisings. Not only do the Gandhian ideals inspire more people (since most people have a distaste for perpetrating violence) almost anyone, of any gender, age, physical capability, can take part in sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations and feel they are contributing to the cause. I recall during the protests in England during the lead up to the Iraq war, an elderly lady phoned a protest organizer to say that while she could not take part in the marches because she needed a walker to get around, she was able and willing to lie down in the middle of the street if that would be helpful to stop the war from being started.

Martin Luther King showed that Gandhi's way was not limited by the specifics of geography or culture. Let's hope that it can spread to the Middle East too.