THIS BLOG HAS MOVED AND HAS A NEW HOME PAGE.

Entries in "Other"

January 10, 2012

This blog has moved to Freethought Blogs

I have decided to take up the offer to move to Freethought Blogs. The change will take effect immediately and my new site is already up here. I reposted yesterday's Santorum post over there to get a feel of how to use the new platform. I will continue to maintain this site with all its archives and will monitor it to clear up the spam and respond to any questions and comments that warrant them but new posts will only appear over at the new site.

Thanks to all who responded to my request for comments on the move. It was gratifying to hear the messages of support and that most of you felt that you would go to the new site. I was surprised at the number of people who said that the present site had a sense of intimacy and coziness that they feared might get lost at FTB. One does not immediately think of the internet as an intimate place but I understand what they are saying. Over time, a community of people gets created and I feel that I 'know' many people who comment here though I have never met them and all that I know about them is the name and URL they choose to provide.

People have warned me about possible trolls at the new location. I think of internet trolls as commenters who deliberately try to deflect a discussion to irrelevant issues or start a flame war or otherwise disrupt a discussion. I have not had to deal with that problem here, mainly because the readers here seem to be able to keep things on track and ignore irrelevancies. It will be interesting to see what the new site will bring.

What I have had to spend a lot of time on is spam. Every day I get hundreds of spam comments, a few of which get past the system's filters and appear on the site. Several times I day I go in and clean them out, so that the real comments don't get lost in the clutter. More time consuming is going into the spam folder and rescuing and publishing real comments that the filter has mistakenly identified as spam. In the new system, you can freely post comments as here except that I have chosen the option that the first time someone posts a comment, I will need to authorize it but after that there is no restriction and your comments should appear immediately. Sorry about that inconvenience but that should reduce the spam problem.

I would like to express my special thanks to Norm Nason, editor of the excellent web magazine Machines Like Us, and a person of many artistic talents whose wide variety of work can be seen here, for designing the nifty new banner that graces my new site.

I must also give a lot of thanks to Jeremy Smith, the system administrator here, who has been immensely supportive in keeping the system going and helping me out when necessary when I have done something stupid, such as banning myself from my own site, if you can believe it. (I have never banned anyone but the system has filters that identify most spam and can ban the more egregious offenders and on occasion I have accidentally triggered it.) I must thank Jeremy, Heidi Cool, and Vincenzo who commented on my first few posts and encouraged me to keep going. But they should not be blamed for the quality of the roughly two million words that have subsequently emerged!

I also have to thank Case Western Reserve University for creating this blogging platform without which I might never have had the nerve to start blogging. This platform made it so easy that I took the plunge on January 26th, 2005 and I will mark the seventh anniversary of blogging this month. The university has never once interfered with anything that I have posted, although I have taken some pretty controversial positions on occasion. Colleagues have on occasion asked me if I received any push back from the university administration for things I said and have been surprised when I reply that no one has given even the remotest suggestion that I tone things down. Universities should be the most dedicated defenders of free speech but we know that in these days, with so much pressure from external sources such as alumni and funders, many are wary of stepping on toes. Hence it reflects great credit to CWRU that they have left me completely alone to write what I wish. It is not that they don't know this blog exists because I know that I am read quite widely on campus.

So onward and upward to the new frontier!

January 04, 2012

This is not your grandfather's model railroad

There is something quite fascinating to me about miniature railroads. I had a toy train set as a boy but this is something I could never have imagined.

(Via Machines Like Us.)

January 02, 2012

Moving to Freethought Blogs?

I have been invited to join the stable of bloggers over at Freethought Blogs. There are some well-known ones already posting there, such as Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, P. Z. Myers, John Loftus, and Ed Brayton.

There will be no restrictions whatsoever on what I post and so the content will remain the same. I am leaning towards joining but before I make the decision, I wanted to throw the idea out to the loyal readers of this blog as to how it might affect their reading enjoyment.

The present site is on a platform run by my university and has been terrific in providing support whenever I needed it and not placing any restrictions on my writing, so any move will not be due to any dissatisfaction with the current situation but purely as a means of creating greater visibility by being part of a broader network of bloggers with similar interests.

So, what do you think?

December 30, 2011

Spaghetti night

What is better than friends sharing food?

(Thanks to Norm.)

December 19, 2011

Matt Damon goes undercover to promote reusable water bottles to children

Happy Anniversary to Baxter, the Wonder Dog!

He became part of our family six years ago today and is resting up before the partying in his honor begins.

Baxter.JPG

Some thoughts on Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens undoubtedly died well, by which I mean that he faced his terminal illness with dignity, not falling into either one of the common twin traps that snare people who are told they have a serious terminal illness, that of maudlin sentimentality of the 'why me?' variety or fake bravado that he would defeat the cancer somehow when all before him had failed. He was above all, a writer, for whom the compulsion to pour words out was unstoppable. Not for him the idea that his last days should be spent in doing those things he had had no time for before. He was apparently working on an essay until the end, even when he was so weak that he could barely drag his IV drip with to the chair and would nod off periodically and could barely hit the keys. One has to admire that.

The only book I read of his was God is Not Great and my review was decidedly mixed. But there was no doubt that his debating skills in favor of the atheist cause were definitely something I welcomed. He had a quick wit, an easy facility with words, was widely read, and seemed to have a prodigious memory, all of which come in handy when engaged in the kinds of polemical battles he seemed to relish.

It must be said, however, that his other politics in the latter part of his life were atrocious. He seemed to have bought the entire neoconservative package, demonstrating an enthusiasm for wars against Muslim countries that was appalling. Critics claimed that he was a social climber, eager to move in elite American political and social circles and that his entry ticket to that world was to join in the jingoistic hysteria that followed the events of September 11, 2001. Recall that in those days, to decry the reaction to lash out at perceived enemies was seen as irrelevant and not serious at best and borderline treasonous at worst.

Since I am not of that world, I am in no position to judge if that charge is accurate, but I thought that this remembrance of him by Alexander Cockburn was worth linking to.

December 18, 2011

Grandparents

Strange as it may seem to some people, gay couples react to the news of becoming grandparents pretty much the same way as heterosexual couples do.

Explain to me again why we should not let gay people adopt children?

December 16, 2011

Animals and me

I am not a fan of violence, even of the fake kind in films and TV. I do not seek violence out and an advisory on a film that it contains a lot of it is enough to make me want to give it a miss. I never watch any films in the slasher/horror genre. But I can stomach film violence if I have to. I have seen my share of cinematic deaths and injury and bloodshed and survived, and usually forget about them soon afterwards. In more mainstream films, if there is a violent scene or two and I can anticipate one coming, I can turn away. I recently saw the trilogy of films that began with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and although they had some pretty rough stuff from time to time, I enjoyed the films enough that I could get through those scenes.

Sometimes it is too much, though. The film Pulp Fiction sickened me because the violence seemed just gratuitous and turned me off Quentin Tarantino films forever. I also went to see the film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover which had some pretty gross scenes early on which I sat through but towards the end it was so clear that it was heading towards a ghastly denouement and I simply got up and left, the only time that I have actually left a movie theater before the end.

But there is something that I cannot stand and that is violence towards animals. Any hint that animals are going to be shown treated cruelly is enough to ruin the film for me. Even the portrayal of the natural death of an animal upsets me. If animals have to die, I definitely want them to die peacefully and off-screen. This is true even in books. I read a novel some years ago that had one scene in which a dog is treated cruelly. That scene remains in my mind long after the rest of the novel has been forgotten.

In nature films, the only animal video clips I will watch or link to are those with happy outcomes but even then there are limits. Sometime ago, a blog reader sent me a link to a video clip of a baby wildebeest in the wild that was being dragged underwater by crocodiles until it was saved by the collective action of the herd. It was a happy ending but watching the baby struggling for survival was too much for me to watch again and I never linked to it.

The funny thing is that I am not an animal lover, as the term is popularly understood. I did not even have a pet as a child nor do I recall ever asking for one. The first dog in my life arrived when I was over forty years of age and I consented only because my children's pleas for one finally overcame my strenuous objections. I definitely do not gush over animals. When I encounter them, I treat them as I would when I meet children for the first time, friendly but keeping a slight distance. I do not rescue strays, visit and help out at animal shelters, join organizations dedicated to protecting them, or do any of the countless other things that true animal lovers would do. I even eat meat, despite knowing of the widespread use of horrendous factory farming practices in the US. And yet, news items about people treating animals badly fill me with rage against the perpetrators.

Quite a few of my loved ones have died and I know that many others in my life that I am fond of may die before me. While the prospect makes me sad, I can still think of it without becoming too upset. But I cannot bear to even contemplate the death of my dog. The thought fills me with such dread that I resolutely push it out of my mind. Even writing these words cause me discomfort.

I have tried and failed to explain this seemingly contradictory behavior on my part. The best I can come up with is that because animals are so dependent on us, and we have such power over them, treating them badly is a gross violation of our duties and obligations to them. It is like mistreating children or people who are powerless, something that also makes me really angry. There is something overwhelmingly wrong in abusing those over whom you have power.

December 07, 2011

Glenn Greenwald annual fundraiser

Once a year, Greenwald has a fundraiser and it is going on now. He is undoubtedly one of the most valuable resources on the web and I would strongly urge you to contribute whatever you can so that he can continue his work.

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

I hope all of you have a quiet and enjoyable day with family and friends, which is what I will be doing.

What I will not be doing this weekend is going anyway near any store. Recession, depression, or good times, the madness of shopping that accompanies this weekend is what I hate most about this otherwise wonderful holiday.

November 13, 2011

"Grinding the Crack"

Amazing.

(Via Norm)

November 11, 2011

How far did the Penn State rot spread?

John Cole makes a good point. Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky who is the target of the sexual assault allegations against young boys for the period 1994 to 2009 was considered a top defensive coach and heir to Joe Paterno when he suddenly 'retired' in 1999 in his prime. Why was he not recruited by other colleges or pro football teams? Was it because his behavior was an open secret within the football fraternity? If so, this could be the beginning of a much wider scandal. Former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer says that from his knowledge of the coaching world, every senior person on the coaching staff at Penn State had to have known what was going on. "Having been in this profession a long time and knowing how close coaching staffs are, I knew that this was a secret that was kept secret," Switzer said. "Everyone on that staff had to have known, the ones that had been around a long time."

There are now articles suggesting that many people don't know what they should do when they suspect child sexual abuse and so perhaps the actions (or more precisely the non-actions) of the people at Penn State should not be judged too harshly. I think this is a wrong argument. It is one thing to not know what to do when you just suspect that something is wrong. But in this case, someone actually saw a grown man having sex with a child. The person who saw it was a football player in his twenties and the perpetrator of the abuse was an older man of about 60 so it should have been possible to physically intervene and stop the abuse. But he did not try to stop it nor did he report it to the police, nor did the people he told it to report it to the police. This is not really a grey area.

Jon Stewart sums it up well.

November 10, 2011

Joe Paterno deserved to be sacked

The rioting by Penn State students on hearing the news that football coach Joe Paterno was summarily sacked (along with the university president) by the university's Board of Trustees is inexcusable.

According to news reports, graduate assistant Mike McCreary (sometimes spelled as McQueary) observed assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year old boy in the showers in the locker room all the way back in 2002. Why he did not immediately try to stop it is bad enough. He apparently reported it to Paterno the next day but Paterno says he was not told the details and simply reported to his superiors that there was some kind of problem and left it at that.

I find that unbelievable. Paterno exercises tight control over his operations. To think that he would not have asked for details of what McCreary had observed is preposterous. The fact that he and McCreary did nothing even when no action was taken against Sandusky for nine years is shameful. We are talking about the rape of a child. Paterno and McCreary and anyone else who knew of Sandusky's serial predatory behavior and did nothing deserve a far greater punishment than firing.

The code of silence and cover-up in the Penn State football program reminds me of the Catholic church's child abuse scandal and raises the question: Is there something about an all-male culture that makes people tolerate horrible abuses such as these?

November 09, 2011

Corruption in sports

That corruption exists in professional sports is obvious, often caused by gambling. Usually when players get caught fixing results they face punishments of fines or suspension and exclusion form the game. Last week though, three Pakistani cricketers were sentenced to jail for periods ranging from six to thirty months for agreeing to fix games in return for money, in addition to fines and suspensions.

The deals between the gamblers and the players were arranged by an intermediary but the way that the players signaled to the bettors that they were in on the deal was by bowling a 'no ball' at a pre-determined point in the game. For those not familiar with cricket, the closest analogous situation in baseball is where a pitcher balks. This is a fairly rare event but one that is totally within the control of the pitcher and can be done at will.

Though I used to be a fan, I am now frankly sick of professional sports, and this includes the big college sports programs that seem to provide a steady stream of scandals, the most recent one being the disgusting one emerging from Penn State. I still pay casual attention to it but it increasingly seems like big business, not sport anymore, with all the venality that accompanies it.

November 04, 2011

Jeff Sharlett talks at CWRU

Jeff Sharlett, author, investigative journalist, and TV political commentator, is a prolific writer on the intersection of religion and politics. The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) is one of his works. His bio is here.

He will be talking on The Noise of Democracy Occupying Our Minds on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 5:30 PM in the Ford Auditorium in Allen Memorial Library Building, which is on the CWRU campus at the corner of the Euclid and Adelbert, just across the street from Severance Hall.

The talk is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.

[Updated to include the time.]

November 02, 2011

The role of religion at a secular university

There will be a panel discussion followed by a free and open forum on the above topic to discuss the role of religion, involving questions such as: Should we support it, promote it, accommodate it, respect it, or just ignore it?

The panelists are: William Deal (moderator, Professor of Religion), Peter Haas (Chair of Department of Religious Studies), Colleen Barker-Williamson (Director of Student Activities and Leadership), and Mano Singham (Director, UCITE)

Location: Nord 310 on the Case quad of CWRU
Time: Friday, November 4, 2011, 12:30-1:45 pm

Pizza and drinks will be available.

October 21, 2011

Tragic death of exotic animals

The big story in Ohio has been the tragic one of a private owner of a large menagerie of exotic animals in a rural area of central Ohio who reportedly released all of them before killing himself. The authorities, confronted with dangerous animals roaming wild in populated areas, shot and killed almost all the animals.

I was stunned to learn of the scale of the carnage. 48 animals were killed, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, and eight bears. The photo of the corpses of these magnificent animals was heartbreaking.

I was also furious that it is even possible for private individuals to obtain and keep these animals in poor conditions but apparently the laws allow it. According to the news report:

Since 2004, Thompson had been charged by local authorities with cruelty to animals, allowing his animals to run free and improperly disposing of dead animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also received two complaints about the farm in 2008 and 2009, involving such things as pens that may have been unsafe, animals that were too skinny and dead animals on the property, said Dave Sacks, a USDA spokesman. But the agency decided it had no authority to act.

Federal officials said the government had no jurisdiction over the farm under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Endangered Species Act, since the animals were held as private property and were not exhibited or being used for other commercial purposes.

There are estimated to be less than 2,500 Bengal tigers in the world. Ohio apparently has the dubious distinction of having the most lax, some would say even non-existent, state regulations in the country. How is it possible that we allow a single individual to acquire and keep 18 of them legally? Because of that, laxity about 1% of the world's population of Bengal tigers have been killed in a single day.

I am not a fan of publicly owned zoos because they keep animals confined away from their normal habitat. The big animals especially never look happy. But at least a case can be made that zoos raise awareness of the need to protect and preserve species and perhaps even help in conservation efforts. But I cannot see any reason why private individuals should be allowed to keep rare, exotic, dangerous, and endangered animals as pets. The practice should be banned.

October 18, 2011

Throwable panoramic ball camera

A ball containing 36 cameras is programmed to take simultaneous photos when it reaches the highest point in its trajectory, providing an instantaneous panoramic view. This not only looks like it would be fun to use, it could have many practical uses, such as seeing over high barriers.

(Via Boing Boing.)

October 15, 2011

How to choose passwords

All of us who are heavy users of computers and the internet know that we get drowned in the number of passwords we need and that it is hard to keep track of them.

James Fallows describes what he learned after his wife's Gmail account was hacked and gives a list of suggestions for passwords.

The science, psychology, and sociology of creating strong passwords is a surprisingly well-chronicled and fascinating field. On The Atlantic's Web site, we will describe some of the main strategies and the reasoning behind them. Even security professionals recognize the contradiction: the stronger the password, the less likely you are to remember it. Thus the Post-it notes with passwords, on monitor screens or in desk drawers.

But there is a middle ground, of passwords strong enough to create problems for hackers and still simple enough to be manageable. There are more details on our site, but strategies include:

  • Choose a long, familiar-to-you sequence of ordinary words, with spaces between them as in an ordinary sentence, which more and more sites now allow. "Lake Winnebago is deep and chilly," for instance. Or "my favorite packer is not brett favre." You could remember a phrase like that, but a hacker's computer, which couldn't tell spaces from characters, would see only one forbiddingly long password sequence.
  • Choose a shorter sequence of words that are not "real" English words. I once lived in a Ghanaian village called Assin Fosu. I can remember its name easily, but it would be hard to guess. Even harder if I added numbers or characters.
  • Choose a truly obscure, gibberish password—"V*!amYEg5M5!3R" is one I generated just now with the LastPass system, and you're welcome to it—and then find a way to store it. Having it written down in your wallet is one, though the paper it's on shouldn't say "Passwords" at the top. The approach I prefer, and use for some passwords, is to entrust them to online managers like LastPass or RoboForm. Even if their corporate sites were hacked, that wouldn't reveal all your passwords, since the programs work by storing part of the encoding information in the cloud and part on your own machine.

At a minimum, any step up from "password," "123456," or your own birthday is worthwhile.

Finally, use different passwords. Not hundreds of different ones, for the hundreds of different places that require logins of some kind. The guide should be: any site that matters needs its own password—one you don't currently use for any other site, and that you have never used anywhere else.

"Using an important password anywhere else is just like mailing your house key to anyone who might be making a delivery," Michael Jones of Google said. "If you use your password in two places, it is not a valid password."

I asked my experts how many passwords they personally used. The highest I heard was "about a dozen." The lowest was four, and the norm was five or six. They all stressed that they managed their passwords and sites in different categories. In my own case, there are five sites whose security really matters to me: my main e‑mail account, two credit-card sites, a banking account, and an investment firm. Each has its own, good password, never used anywhere else. Next are the sites I'd just as soon not have compromised: airline-mileage accounts, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, various message boards and memberships. I have two or three semi-strong passwords I use among all of them. If you hacked one of them you might hack the others, but I don't really care. Then there is everything else, the thicket of annoying little logins we all deal with. I have one or two passwords for them too. By making it easy to deal with unimportant accounts, I can concentrate on protecting the ones that matter.

Seems like good advice.

Dogs Decoded

The PBS series Nova has a wonderful program about dogs with the above title that looks at the amazing things we are learning about them. It was broadcast on October 12 and will be available for free viewing online for only a week after that. Don't miss it, especially if you are fond of dogs.

I particularly enjoyed it because there were lots of scenes in which they showed dogs that were exactly like Baxter, the Wonder Dog.

baxter.jpg

October 11, 2011

Phasing out small shampoo bottles

Those tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner that hotels provide would last me about two weeks but I usually stay just one or two days and I suspect that the rest will be thrown away, which seems awfully wasteful of both shampoo and plastic. Do hotels expect you to leave the remnants behind or are you doing them a favor by taking the partially used bottles with you, saving them the trouble of throwing them away? It seems vaguely wrong to take them home with me without being given explicit permission and I have personally vacillated between taking them and leaving them. It would be nice if hotels left a little note telling guests like me who worry about such trivialities what to do.

But now apparently some hotels are going to be providing full-size bottles that are refillable, so that the ambiguity is removed.

That's a welcome development. Now if they could do something about the waste of the remnants of those little bars of soap …

October 09, 2011

Penn and Teller on the Indian rope trick

October 03, 2011

Amazing goal

A soccer player scores a goal with a header from inside his own half.

What is surprising is why the goalkeeper was so far out of position. You can see him in lime green right at the beginning near the opponent's goal and could not get back in time to guard his own goal.

September 22, 2011

Discussion on the scientific basis for justice and altruism

On Friday, September 23, I will be leading a discussion on these ideas, especially the work of Frans de Waal, Paul Bloom, and Peter Singer on the implications of the theory of evolution.

It will take place from 12:30- 2:00 pm in Nord 310B on the CWRU campus.

The event is free and open to all. Drinks will be provided and you are encouraged to bring your own brown bag lunch.

September 21, 2011

We're #25!

At least as far as internet speeds go, just behind Romania.

If it seems extraordinary to you that the country that pioneered the internet should lag so far behind now, Tim Karr explains that the prime cause is the lack of competition here, thanks to the ability of the telecommunications giants to pressure regulators.

In the years that followed the signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, lobbyists working for powerful providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon pressured a compliant FCC to tear down all of the important safeguards established by Congress.

While the U.S. blindly followed a path of "deregulation," other nations in Europe and Asia beefed up their pro-competitive policies. The results are evident in our free fall from the top of almost every global measure of Internet services, availability and speed.

The lack of competition has turned America into a broadband backwater. In the aftermath of the FCC’s decisions, powerful phone and cable companies legislated and lobbied their way to controlling 97 percent of the fixed-line residential broadband market — leaving the vast majority of consumers with two or fewer choices of land-based providers in any given market.
The absence of true consumer choice has driven prices up and services down.


September 20, 2011

Bathroom mania

For reasons that are not clear to me, the Plain Dealer wasted a huge amount of the limited space in its front section to a story about a fancy lakefront property that was on sale for nearly $20 million. The item read like a huge, free, real estate advertisement and fell into the category of what is known as 'real estate porn', that showcases the absurdly extravagant homes of the wealthy.

But what struck me was that the 38,000 square foot house built on 160 acres consisted of five bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and seven half bathrooms.

Why would you need sixteen bathrooms for a private home that has just five bedrooms? Do rich people need to go to the bathroom a lot and so must have one handy at any moment?

September 19, 2011

The inexplicable popularity of awards shows

I see from the news today that yesterday was the Emmy awards show. I do not understand the appeal of such shows for viewers and am curious as to why people watch them at all. Surely it can't be to see the stars since we see them all the time in their performances themselves. The shows apparently have some moments of comedy and some music and dance but most of the time seems to be spent announcing the nominees, showing clips from their performances, and the acceptance remarks of category winners. Surely this must get stale about fifteen minutes into the proceedings?

It is true that I do not watch TV or go to many plays much, which may explain my lack of interest in the Emmys and the Tonys. But I do watch films a lot and my disinterest extends to the Oscar awards show as well.

Do viewers of these shows see it as a quasi-sporting event and root for particular people to win, thus enjoying the suspense of seeing if their 'team' won?

I am genuinely curious.

September 14, 2011

Happy Birthday to Baxter, the Wonder Dog!

baxterjune2011.jpg

September 12, 2011

P. Z. Myers to speak at event honoring Page Stephens

The Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry is having its 2011 Humanism Award banquet on Friday, September 30th 2011 at 7:00 pm at the Crowne Plaza Independence, 5300 Rockside Road, Independence, OH 44131.

The award is being given to Page Stephens, PhD, "who, as cofounder and seventeen year president of the now-disbanded South Shore Skeptics, was instrumental in cultivating a burgeoning skeptics community on the southern banks of Lake Erie and proved himself a staunch defender of science over pseudoscience."

The featured speaker is the well-known biologist blogger P. Z. Myers.

More details can be found here.

September 08, 2011

The importance of balancing one's life

One of the odd features of life in the US is the boasting (either overt or subtle) by professional people about how much they work. They seem to seek bragging rights about who puts in the most hours, as if the more hours you work the more important you must be. My daughter worked for a couple of years in the financial sector and sent me this article that illustrates the mindset of many of the people she encountered in that world. The author highlights a trap that young professionals especially can fall into.

Because fulfilling and engrossing work - the sort that is thought to provide the most intense learning experience - often requires long hours or captivates the imagination for long periods of time, it is easy to slip into the idea that the converse is also true: that just by working long hours, one is also engaging in fulfilling and engrossing work. This leads to the popular fallacy that you can measure the value of your job (and, therefore, the amount you are learning from it) by the amount of time you spend on it. And, incidentally, when a premium is placed on learning rather than earning, people are particularly susceptible to this form of self-deceit.

Thus, whereas in the past, when people in their 20s or 30s spoke disparagingly about nine-to-five jobs it was invariably because they were seen as too routine, too unimaginative, or too bourgeois. Now, it is simply because they don't contain enough hours.

Young professionals have not suddenly developed a distaste for leisure, but they have solidly bought into the belief that a 45-hour week necessarily signifies an unfulfilling job. Jane, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer who works in the City of London, tells a story about working on a deal with another lawyer, a young man in his early 30s. At about 3am, he leant over the boardroom desk and said: "Isn't this great? This is when I really love my job." What most struck her about the remark was that the work was irrelevant (she says it was actually rather boring); her colleague simply liked the idea of working late. "It's as though he was validated, or making his life important by this," she says.

Unfortunately, when people can convince themselves that all they need do in order to lead fulfilled and happy lives is to work long hours, they can quickly start to lose reasons for their existence. As they start to think of their employment as a lifestyle, fulfilling and rewarding of itself - and in which the reward is proportional to hours worked - people rapidly begin to substitute work for other aspects of their lives.

Jane, Michael, Robert and Kathryn grew up as part of a generation with fewer social constraints determining their futures than has been true for probably any other generation in history. They were taught at school that when they grew up they could "do anything", "be anything". It was an idea that was reinforced by popular culture, in films, books and television.

The notion that one can do anything is clearly liberating. But life without constraints has also proved a recipe for endless searching, endless questioning of aspirations. It has made this generation obsessed with self-development and determined, for as long as possible, to minimise personal commitments in order to maximise the options open to them. One might see this as a sign of extended adolescence.

Eventually, they will be forced to realise that living is as much about closing possibilities as it is about creating them.

I grew up at a time and in a country where this mindset was not present, so I did not fall prey to this kind of thinking. Also academia is an area where people do work long hours but because the research involves largely self-motivated learning, it does not seem like work, and since there is already a consensus that the work is worthwhile, academics tend not to brag to each other about the hours they put in.

Now of course, I am in the twilight of my work life, approaching the age when retirement becomes a factor to consider. Getting old is no picnic, mainly because your body starts to fall apart. But one of the benefits, if one is able to recognize it as such, is that you realize that because time is running out, many of the options that you once considered are no longer open to you, and so you begin to think of how best to maximize the benefits of the life you have rather than constantly seeking new fields to conquer.

It is not that one has become resigned to one's lot in life. It is that one sees more clearly what options are realistically available and can then focus on making the most of them.

September 07, 2011

The 'student athlete' fraud

A recent news report says that football players in Division 1A colleges average about 44.8 hours on that sport and less than 40 on academics.

This is crazy. A full time student is expected to spend a minimum of about 50 hours per week on academics (attending classes and doing out of class work). Assuming they sleep 8 hours per day, that means that they have 17 hours per week, or 2.5 hours per day, for everything else in life. It is ridiculous to think that these athletes are sacrificing all the other things and living the ascetic life of a hermit in order to completely meet their athletic and academic demands.

The NCAA, the governing body, is pretending that this shows the commitment of these students to living up to the 'student-athlete' ideal. An NCAA spokesperson Myles brand says, "These young people are very competitive. It's in their fiber… and they will do everything they can to succeed… Frankly, I'd rather have that student go to sleep early, wake up in the morning and do an extra run than I would (him or her) staying up late and going to the bars… The fact that they choose to balance athletics and academics as a primary activity, I think that's fine."

Yeah, right. What is obviously happening is that these student athletes are cutting back on their studies at these big sports schools, which are notorious for finding ways to circumvent academic requirements.

What these students really are are professional athletes masquerading as students, providing income for the schools in return for the small chance of making it in professional sports after they graduate with a worthless degree. Some undoubtedly feel that they are being exploited, hence the periodic scandals involving 'secret' benefits and payments to players, with coaches and school administrators pretending not to notice. Ohio State University is the latest school to be found guilty of such infractions and its football coach resigned but he will merely move on to another position and the cycle goes on.

September 01, 2011

Short break from blogging

I realized that I have not had a break from blogging for almost two years. Since my daughter will be having a wedding reception this weekend and there will be many friends and family that I will be meeting, I will be taking some time off to enjoy their company.

Regular blogging will return after the Labor Day weekend but I will likely check in from time to time with some short posts and to clean up the spam in the comments.

But until then, here is a photo of Baxter, the Wonder Dog, taking a well-earned rest.

Baxter.JPG

August 31, 2011

Competitive lock picking

I am constantly amazed at the kinds of things that get made into serious competitions.

In this video, Schuyler Towne explains what this particular sport is and how it is done (via Boing Boing).

August 24, 2011

Malcolm Marshall

There is perhaps no more graceful sight in cricket than to see a great fast bowler in action. The long flowing run up, the planting of the feet and the swiveling of the body before the arms wheel and delivers the ball at high speed, is really something to see.

Perhaps the greatest of such bowlers in modern times was Malcolm Marshall of the West Indies, who stood out even during the 1970 and 1980s when that country was churning out great fast bowlers that were demolishing their opponents. He was not a big man by fast bowler standards but his sheer skill and athletic ability made him successful. His untimely death in 1999 at the age of 41 a few years after he retired from international cricket was a great loss to the sporting world.

Here he is in action in one international match against England.

August 23, 2011

Rubik's cube contests

The son of a friend of is very good at solving the Rubik's cube and takes part in the annual national contest to see who is the best in the US. In successive years he has come in 3rd, 2nd, 4th and 5th, but frustratingly has never won.

Here is a video of someone solving it in competition in 6.77 seconds.

What I learned recently is that the contest also has a category where people are required to solve the puzzle with their feet! Here is someone solving it in 31.56 seconds.

Being somewhat of a klutz myself with quite poor small motor skills, I find this amazing.

You have to be a bit cautious about YouTube videos of people claiming to be able to solve the puzzle quickly with their feet or hands. Some of them are hoaxes where they start out with an ordered cube, make it disordered while filming it, and then run the video in reverse. Make sure there is a lot of background stuff going on which unambiguously indicate forward time, and that there are no cuts.

August 22, 2011

"Don't call my bluff"

Recently Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters, speaking about the Tea Party, said: "They called our bluff and we blinked. We should have made them walk the plank."

Similarly President Obama said to Eric Cantor during the debt ceiling discussions: "Eric, don't call my bluff. I'm going to the American people on this."

In both these cases, the speakers implied that they possessed the stronger hand so it does not make sense to say "Don't call my bluff". In such situations, you either call your opponents' bluff or you want your opponent to think you are bluffing and call you on it. To say that you are bluffing and then warn them not to call you on it does not make any sense.

It seems like in both cases the speakers meant to say "Don't think I am bluffing because I am not." In other words, the people who are saying "Don't call my bluff" should really be saying "I am calling your bluff."

August 21, 2011

The need to have a plan B

NPR had a story about people who get lost, stranded, and even die in Death Valley because their GPS devices led them astray. After repeated instances like this, a Death Valley Ranger investigated and discovered that the devices were using old maps with roads that had long since disappeared. People following the GPS devices ended up on dirt roads that led nowhere.

I have written before at how surprised I am that people put their faith implicitly in technology. I find it incredible that anyone would even go to a place like Death Valley without at least some backup plan in case the GPS failed. Apart from errors, what would they do if the device started obviously malfunctioning or stopped working?

Just recently I had to go to someone's home. Their address was on Shaker Boulevard, which is a very long street with a wide grassy median with few crossover points, so I put their street number into Google Maps to get a rough idea of where the house was. I was surprised to find that the location given was two towns away from mine, since I was pretty sure that they lived in my own suburb. So I tried MapQuest and sure enough, it was very near my home. Google Maps had made an error. My habit of being skeptical and checking saved me from wasting time.

I also recently drove to a distant town for a wedding party and as is my practice before I left got directions from Google Maps or MapQuest and compared it with a physical map. But when I got to that town, construction had closed off many of the streets that I was supposed to go on. This did not bother me because I had a map and quickly found an alternate route to my hotel.

I don't have GPS but was wondering what it would do in situations where its directions cannot be followed due to various reasons. For example, for people traveling in Death Valley, if they sense that the dirt road they are asked to go on is a mistake, what options do they have? Does anyone know?

August 18, 2011

Stanford prison experiment

This week marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous experiment that showed how quickly people can turn into brutes when given unchecked power over someone else.

The video in the link is worth watching for its interviews with some of the original participants.

August 11, 2011

Such people are scum

One of the most sickening cases of recent times was that of a Pennsylvania judge getting bribes from a builder of juvenile prisons, in exchange for which the judge sent thousands of children, many of them first-time offenders convicted of minor crimes and some as young as 10, to the private jails.

About 4,000 of those convictions have now been tossed aside because he violated the constitutional rights of the accused, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea. The judge was portrayed as not only corrupt but as "vicious and mean-spirited" who "verbally abused and cruelly mocked" the children whom he sent to jail.

His trial has ended with the judge being sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Another judge accused of a similar crime has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

The 'Internet Explorer users are stupid' hoax

Some of you may have read about a study that supposedly showed that people who used Internet Explore had lower IQs than those who use other web browsers. The hoax fooled many major news outlets like the BBC, which picked up and reported on it.

The hoax's perpetrators explain why they did it and their surprise that so many people did not seem to question the results, as if it were fairly common knowledge that IE users were stupid. They listed eight things that should have quickly indicated to people, especially reporters, that the story was fake.

Christopher Budd explores what the widespread and uncritical acceptance of this hoax story might tell us about ourselves and the media.

August 07, 2011

Happy birthday, World Wide Web!

Yesterday, August 6th was the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, which was built on the foundation of the much older internet. The internet was the name given to the network of linked computers around the globe that was used in the early days primarily by research institutions to transfer data and send email.

The World Wide Web was a radical advance created by Tim Berners-Lee when he standardized the three protocols that now enable users to easily put up information on servers in a manner (using HTML) that other users can use their web browsers to find because of its unique address (the familiar URL), and then transfer that information from the remote servers to their own computers (using HTTP).

The internet and the World Wide Web certainly are the biggest revolutions in my lifetime, the one thing that I simply cannot imagine life without.

August 05, 2011

The oddest things are considered offensive

It is odd how society decides that some things are offensive. For example, raising your index finger is fine. Athletes often point to the heavens after a good play to thank their god for taking time out from his busy schedule to help them out. But the third finger pointing to the heavens is considered such a dire insult that it can result in murderous fury.

We know that certain words are not allowed on broadcast television. But when I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, they bleep out these words too, even though those shows are on cable and I watch them online.

But what surprised me is that when the people on these shows raise the third finger, it is pixelated. Despite the fact that many of the comedic segments on the show involve gestures that have obvious similarities to sexual acts and are not pixelated, 'giving the finger' is seen as so toxic that it gets special treatment.

Construction worker karaoke

I love it when regular people do this kind of unexpected stuff, bringing some fun into the daily routine.

July 31, 2011

The Wrongulator

I never unquestioningly accept the results produced by machines and as much as possible try to find independent ways to check if they make sense. The following story may explain why.

When I was in graduate school, my doctoral thesis involved a lot of detailed calculations that required using a computer. This was in the days prior to the personal computer and we used massive mainframes, entering the programs and data using punch cards and later advancing to remote terminals. Because the computer programs I had written were so complicated and there were so many opportunities for making errors, as much as possible I would check its output in special, simplified cases where I could also do the calculations using just a pocket calculator.

There was one occasion where I simply could not get the two results to agree. After days and days of work trying to find the source of disagreement, going to the extent of doing elaborate calculations without even the calculator, I found the source of the problem. It turned out that my hand calculator had this bug that if you had a number in the display that had the digit 8 in the fourth decimal place, and stored this number in the memory, when you recalled this number, the 8 would have been replaced with a zero. It was a very specialized error, occurring only with the digit 8 and only in the fourth decimal place. Everything else was fine. When I told my thesis advisor what had caused the problem he was shocked and said, "If you can't trust your own calculator, what can you trust?"

It was the kind of bug that could escape detection for a long time because the chances of it making a noticeable difference in a calculation was extremely small but it shook me up so much that after more than three decades I still remember the details of that story.

I was reminded of this when I came across this item about a 'Wrongulator', a gag calculator that always gives you the wrong answer.

I am not sure how it works. I would think that a calculator that is invariably wrong would be easy to detect unless you are totally innumerate. It also depends on how wrong it is. To fool someone, the error would have to be subtle, like my own experience. If the wrongulator said that 4x6=543, that would be easily detectable, whereas one that returned the answer of 26 may fool some.

I actually don't like gag gifts like this. They could have very serious negative consequences in the hands of innumerate people who accept unquestioningly whatever machines tell them.

July 21, 2011

Dramatic horse rescue

In October 2006, more than one hundred horses got trapped in a small patch of dry land as a result of a sudden flood in the Netherlands in which 18 horses drowned. All rescue attempts failed and the horses seemed to be getting desperate until four women decided to try a different approach.

The episode has been set to music. Watch.

July 17, 2011

How do you evaluate 'expert' opinion?

None of us are in a position to figure out everything for ourselves. We are all dependent on experts in specific fields for knowledge. While an expert's reputation and record of reliability and honesty can and should be factored in, we don't want to unquestioningly accept the assertions of authorities since it is possible that they may be mistaken or not as expert or knowledgeable as they claim to be or may even be lying

So to what extent is it reasonable to depend on experts? Bertrand Russell in his 1941 book Let the People Think suggested that rather than depend on this or that expert, one should look at the views of the aggregate of experts and draw the following reasonable inferences:

  1. "that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;
  2. that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and
  3. that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment."

That seems like a good rule of thumb.

But of course, you will rarely get unanimity among experts. There will almost always be dissenters. But at least when it comes to scientific matters, there often tends to be an overwhelming consensus and what I do is see what the dominant views are. So for example, in the case of global warming, since an overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that it is occurring and is man-made, Russell would say (according to rule (1)) that it would be foolish to insist that they are wrong. Similarly, since an overwhelming majority of biologists accept the theory of evolution as the means by which speciation occurred, Russell would say that it would be silly to confidently deny it. At most one should voice tentative dissent.

When it comes to economic or political questions where there is often not only no unanimity but not even a dominant consensus, rule (2) comes into play and it is wise to not place one's faith too strongly on one particular view.

July 14, 2011

Something that puzzles me

I saw a news item that said that the plane that managed an emergency landing in the Hudson river without any casualties is being shipped to a museum in Charlotte, NC for display.

My question is: Why? I am as pleased as the next person that no lives were lost in that accident but why would anyone care to see that particular plane, which is just like any other plane? Do they think it has some special significance?

I feel the same way about the things in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum is Cleveland that I have not as yet visited. Why would I want to see (say) the clothes worn by Elvis or a guitar played by Jimi Hendrix? It would be different if there were something unique about the item itself that was distinguishable from the person it is associated with that made it interesting. If, for example, Jimi Hendrix had a special guitar made that enabled him to play in ways that other guitars would not allow, then I can see its value in a museum.

I can also understand wanting to preserve and see (say) the marked up copies of drafts of music or book manuscripts to see how the creator's ideas evolved. But the mere fact that something was owned by someone famous or is a relic of a famous event does not (for me at least) count for much.

July 04, 2011

On the pursuit of happiness

On this independence day holiday, I am repeating a post on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a revolutionary political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who drafted it.

While happiness is a laudable goal, the suggestion that we should actively seek it may be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so." [My italics]

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don't realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Good advice.

July 02, 2011

Why must we buy shoes in equal-size pairs?

Apparently 60% of the population have left and right feet that are of different sizes, and of those 80% have larger left feet, which apparently has something to do with right hand dominance. (I got this information after a quick search from this website but cannot vouch for its reliability.) So that means that 40% of the general population have feet of equal size, 48% have larger left feet, and 12% have larger right feet.

I belong to the larger left foot group. When I buy a new pair of shoes, if I forget to try it in the store with my left foot, I end up with a pair in which the left foot starts to feel pinched and uncomfortable later in the day when people's feet start to swell. For some, the inequality is so great that they buy two pairs of shoes in two different sizes and use only one of each, which seems like a colossal waste. As a partial and somewhat clumsy solution, this website offers people a way of exchanging unused mismatched shoes.

But why must shoes be sold in equal size pairs at all when this does not suit the needs of more than half the population? Why not allow people to pick the correct size for each foot? Doing so should lead to little or no waste, even if 100% of the population had the same side foot being larger. For example, if I needed a size 11 left shoe and a size 10 for the right, someone else with a larger left foot would need a size 10 left and a size 9 right, and so on. So all the mid-range sizes would be paired off and sold, except to different customers.

There may be a few left over of the largest right shoe sizes and the smallest left sizes but assuming the above distribution is right, a quarter of those would be bought by people with larger right feet, leaving only a few unsold. And over time, manufacturers would be able to estimate production more accurately and eliminate even this waste.

So shoe manufacturers and retailers, what about it?

June 17, 2011

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.

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.

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?

June 06, 2011

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.

April 30, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on the British monarchy

He gives it the drubbing it deserves but has some friendly advice for the new bride: persuade your new husband to abdicate before it is too late, and that corrupt and soul-killing institution gets you too.

Myself, I wish her well and also wish I could whisper to her: If you really love him, honey, get him out of there, and yourself, too. Many of us don't want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a dessicated system. Do yourself a favor and save what you can: Leave the throne to the awful next incumbent that the hereditary principle has mandated for it.

April 20, 2011

Royal wedding refuseniks

Apparently a lot of Britons share my distaste for all the hoopla over the wedding celebrations of the British royal family and are planning alternative events or even leaving the country for that day.

April 18, 2011

Friends

(Via Balloon Juice)

April 13, 2011

'Invite' as a noun

I have seen an increasing use of the word 'invite' to replace 'invitation'. The distinction between the two words seemed pretty clear to me. One invites someone by sending them an invitation. And yet the latter word seems to be disappearing, with the former taking its place, with people saying things like "Hope you got my invite" and "The invites have gone out".

I find this use jarring. I thought that it was simply wrong but on checking the Oxford English Dictionary it appears that the word invite can be used as a noun this way and has been thus used since the 17th century.

Was this usage common and I just did not notice it until recently or did it fall out of favor and is now coming back?

April 12, 2011

A little puzzle

Some organizations that request money or information often include return self-addressed envelopes. This is convenient. What I don't understand is why a few of them also include their own address again in the top left corner, where, as the sender, you would normally insert your own name and address. What is the point in the organization's address being in both sender's and recipient's locations on the envelope?

The only reason that I can come up with is that if you forget to put postage on a letter, it is sent back to the presumed sender at the address on the top left. Is this a ploy to fool the postal service so that the letter reaches them whether there is postage or not? Surely they must be wise to that trick?

What does the postal service do with letters that do not have adequate postage but where the sender's and recipient's names and addresses are the same?

The menace of surprise parties

It's been awhile since I let loose one of my rants about something trivial that yet bugs me, so here's one.

I hate surprise parties.

I must admit that the appeal of surprise parties completely eludes me and I am getting to dislike them even more as I get older. Maybe it is because they are an acquired taste and since they were unheard of in Sri Lanka when I was growing up (at least I don't recall ever hearing about one, let alone attending any), I just didn't learn to like them. And yet in the US people seem to really like them.

The whole thing about sneaking in early and then hiding and waiting until the guest of honor arrives and then jumping out and shouting in unison "surprise!" strikes me as childish.

What happens after the surprise is sprung is equally bad. Much of the rest of the time consists of the honorees going around to each guest telling them how surprised they were and how they were puzzled by some vaguely unusual things that happened that were related to the surprise but which they did not suspect were due to a party being planned for them. One often suspects that they knew that a surprise was in the works all along but went along with the charade in order to not disappoint the organizers. Meanwhile the organizers of the surprise go around telling people in excruciating detail how they planned the surprise and how they lulled the honoree into not suspecting, the various glitches that might have unraveled their plans, and how they managed to overcome them.

I have attended a few surprise parties and find them dreary in the extreme, so much so that my heart sinks when I receive invitations for one, as happened just a few days ago. When I do go to them, I dutifully stay out of sight so as not to be a party-pooper and emerge once the ritual is over but I studiously avoid the post-mortems of how it was carried out, preferring to converse with a congenial fellow guest on other topics.

It is not clear that the pleasure of being surprised with a party thrown in one's honor (if it is a pleasure at all) overcomes all the negatives associated with it. People who don't like to have parties thrown for them of course hate it. Those who would have liked their loved ones to remember the special event are often deliberately misled before the event that no one seems to care or remember the day and thus may carry around with them feelings of sadness and disappointment for days and even weeks. Is that worth it for the momentary rush that the surprise brings with it?

This is particularly true for children, who may be truly sad that no one seems to care about their birthday. Isn't it better for them to be aware that a party is being planned for them so that they can share in the fun of planning for it and the build up of excitement until the day arrives? Furthermore, because surprise parties seem to be so ubiquitous, some people might mistakenly think that the lack of any talk of a party means that a surprise party is being planned for them and the realization that there really was no party at all may be even more disappointing.

For the guests, a surprise party is a real nuisance because one has to go really early, long before the party proper begins, and just hang around until the time the honorees arrive, which often gets delayed because of the convoluted planning.

The last straw for me was when I was invited to a surprise party for a friend's birthday that was organized by his wife and children. This family is notorious for having 'surprise' parties for each other for almost every occasion and one would think that they would have to be really dim bulbs to still be surprised. The friend is Sri Lankan-born and lives about an hour's drive away from us. We were given a time of arrival and then asked to park at a nearby parking area and wait for a phone call that would tell us that it was all clear, that the honoree had been sent out of the house on an errand and that we could then sneak into the house and hide. Of course we had to park far away so that there would be no telltale collection of recognizable cars when the honoree returned and entered the house.

I grudgingly went along with the plan. What I did not know was that I had been asked to come much earlier than necessary. Their circle of family and friends includes people of Sri Lankan and US origin. Sri Lankans have the reputation of not being punctual for parties (the friend who was being honored with the party being one of the worst culprits) so the organizers had told just them to come an hour earlier than they told the US-born people. Since I like to be punctual, I had come at the requested time (early in fact to avoid messing up the surprise) and was annoyed to discover that I had been tricked and had to wait in the parking lot for well over an hour.

It strikes me that the only people who really enjoy these surprise parties are the organizers themselves because they have the anticipation of being congratulated by everyone for pulling off a successful surprise and receiving the gratitude of the honorees for going to all the trouble. For everyone else, it seems like a pain. The only exception might be guests who are very small children for whom keeping a secret and hiding and jumping out and surprising someone can be a giggly delight.

End of rant.

April 07, 2011

Censoring language in comments

An odd situation has occurred. A comment has been posted containing explicitly sexual words. I personally am not bothered by language that some find offensive but I do warn people when some of the things I link to contain such language so that those who do can avoid it.

The commenter clearly disliked what I wrote in the post The rise of racism and religion in Israel.

While I delete suspected spam without any qualms, I allow all genuine comments. This particular comment does not look like spam (it includes my name and does not contain any links to sites) but does not make any substantive point and consists of a purely personal attack on me. I did not want to delete it because people have a right to dislike me or disagree with me and say so.

I have decided that if necessary, I will censor particular words in comments using the common practice of replacing selected letters with hyphens. Those of you who are angered by a post and do want to use such language in comments can spare me some trouble by putting in your own hyphens.

April 02, 2011

India wins World Cup

India defeated Sri Lanka in a closely fought final game.

Sri Lanka batted first and scored 274 runs off their allotted fifty overs, losing six wickets in the process. India batted well in response, scoring 277 with 10 deliveries to spare, losing only four wickets along the way. Throughout their run chase India maintained the required scoring rate and always looked steady and confident.

It was a well-played game by both teams and India were the deserved winners.

So now it is on to the next World Cup to be played in 2015 in Australia and New Zealand.

April 01, 2011

Cricket World Cup final: Sri Lanka v India

The World Cup final will be played in India on Saturday between Sri Lanka and India. The teams are fairly evenly matched. Although I am rooting for Sri Lanka, I think India is the slightly better team and given that they have the home field advantage, they have to be considered the favorites. You can see a live video stream of the game here, with the game starting at 5:00 am Eastern and ending around 1:00 pm. That pretty much takes care of my Saturday morning.

If you do watch, one thing to bear in mind is that in the one-day format in which the World Cup is played (unlike the five-day Test matches), each team bats for just one inning lasting for 50 'overs', with each over consisting of six balls (pitches). So the batting team faces a total of 300 deliveries or until they lose ten 'wickets' (i.e., ten batters get out), whichever comes first. On the fielding side, any given bowler is limited to a maximum of ten overs (60 deliveries). The team batting first has to score at least 250 runs to be competitive and over 300 to put real pressure on the team batting second. (For those who want to know more about how the game is played, see my post from 2006 here and you can also see a short video explaining the game here.)

In the first semi-final game, Sri Lanka defeated New Zealand as expected. New Zealand batted first and scored 217 runs from 293 deliveries before losing their tenth out terminated their innings. Sri Lanka surpassed that score in 287 deliveries while losing only five wickets. Although on paper it looks like a comfortable win, they received a scare at one point when New Zealand seemed to be about to repeat their upset win over South Africa in the quarter finals by causing a dramatic collapse in the Sri Lankan batting just as they seemed to be cruising to an easy victory. But unlike the South Africans, the Sri Lankans did not completely fold but recovered to win.

In the other game, watched by an more than one billion people worldwide, India beat Pakistan in a fairly close game. India batted first and scored 260 runs off 300 deliveries while losing 9 wickets in the process. Pakistan started off well and looked to have a chance to beat the more favored Indian team but could not maintain the pace and managed to score only 231 runs when they lost their tenth wicket on the 299th delivery.

This game had some political overtones. India and Pakistan have had conflicts over Kashmir and other issues that have lasted for more than a half-century so any contest between the two nations takes on a significance well beyond the game itself, like the athletic competitions between the USA and USSR during the cold war. Relations between the two nations reached a nadir with the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in 2008 by elements from Pakistan. In a gesture towards rapprochement, the Indian Prime Minister invited his Pakistani counterpart to watch the cricket game with him and the offer was accepted. Whether this will go beyond being a merely symbolic gesture and leads to a real thaw in relations remains to be seen.

The championship game will be the final international outing for 38-year old Muttiah Muralitharan, who has for nearly two decades been Sri Lanka's ace bowler and is recognized as one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game, whose career record of 800 test match 'wickets' (i.e., the number of batsmen he has got out) is far ahead of the next highest total of 708. In addition, his ebullient personality and obvious love of the game have endeared him to fans worldwide. He is not fully fit but you can expect him to put forth maximum effort and to be given a grand farewell, whatever the result, though he would obviously like to retire with a second World Cup championship, having been part of the Sri Lankan side that won the trophy in 1996.

In cricket, the bowler pitches the ball is such a way that it bounces once on its way to the batsman. This allows the bowler to spin the ball so that it can turn to the left or the right after bouncing, or even keep low or rise higher than expected. The condition of the ground can thus also play a crucial role. Muralitharan's skill lay in his ability, on good days and with suitable ground conditions, to produce not only prodigious amounts of turn but also disguise its direction, which resulted in batsmen flailing away at the air while the ball went elsewhere.

Watch a few of the highlights of Muralitharan's career to see what I mean.

On India's side is Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest batsmen to ever play the game who, at almost 38, is also in the twilight of his career and whose career record of 14,692 runs is also far ahead of the next highest career total of 12,263. Tendulkar is actually quite small in stature (5 ft 5 ins in height) but in cricket this is not so important and he more than makes up for this by superb technique, good eye, quick reflexes, and exquisite timing. In cricket, aesthetics are much appreciated by the fans (even the fans of their opponents) and Tendulkar's style is so good that he has been bestowed the title of 'The Little Master'. Tendulkar will undoubtedly want to win the championship too since this is likely his last World Cup. India's only other win in the tournament was in 1983. You can watch him and judge for yourself.

The records set by Tendulkar and Muralitharan are so far ahead of their nearest competitors that they are like the one set by Bob Beamon in his spectacular long jump in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico that broke the previous world and Olympic records by nearly two feet.

That leap was so far ahead of everyone else that I for one was certain that it was a freak event, the result of an unlikely convergence of circumstances that would never be repeated and that the record would last forever. But human beings keep achieving the seemingly impossible and just as Beamon's world record was eventually surpassed in 1991 (although his Olympic record is still unbroken), so will those of Tendulkar and Muralitharan, though they too will likely last many decades.

Whatever the outcome, competing against each other in World Cup championship game is a fitting reward for all that these two great players have contributed to the game.

March 29, 2011

Interactive census map

The New York Times has created an interactive map based on the census data released last week. It is a good example of using technology to bring dry data to life.

You can spend a lot of time on it seeing how patterns are changing in the US.

March 28, 2011

The game of cricket

Since I am giving updates on the cricket World Cup, you may want to read my 2006 post explaining the game, along with watching this short video.

March 27, 2011

Cricket World Cup update

It turned out that only three of my four quarter-final predictions were correct. Pakistan and Sri Lanka trounced West Indies and England respectively. India beat Australia (who had won the three previous world Cups) in a more evenly balanced game. The one upset was New Zealand who won in dramatic come-from-behind fashion over South Africa, the country that I thought would become the eventual champions.

South Africa is an enigma. They consistently field strong teams and have often been thought the best in the tournament. And yet they suddenly collapse and lose at key moments, giving rise to the reputation of being chokers. They have not won the quadrennial World Cup since they first took part in 1992 when they were first allowed back into international sports competition following the end of apartheid. England and New Zealand have not won since the series started in 1975.

The semi-final games consist of Sri Lanka v New Zealand on Tuesday (in Sri Lanka) and Pakistan v India on Wednesday (in India). The teams are quite evenly matched and my picks are Sri Lanka and India, because I think they are slightly better teams and each has the home field advantage.

March 25, 2011

Talk: The Christian Delusion by John W. Loftus

A former preacher turned atheist, Loftus has published two books Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (winner of the 2011 About.com Reader's Choice Award). His blog is ranked in the top 5 atheist/theist blogs on the internet today. He has three master's degrees in the Philosophy of Religion and is a graduate of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

His talk is on Saturday, March 26, 2011 in Wickenden Hall, room 322 on the CWRU campus. The talk is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry.

All are welcome and refreshments will be available.

Wickenden Hall is on the Case quad. It is likely that the parking lot 1A right behind Wickenden (entering from northbound MLK Drive) will be open. If you park there, go up the outdoor steps and Wickenden Hall is the building on your immediate right.. The visitors parking lot between Crawford Hall and Amasa Stone chapel (which you enter from Euclid Avenue) will be open.

March 22, 2011

Talk: The Christian Delusion by John W. Loftus

A former preacher turned atheist, Loftus has published two books Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (winner of the 2011 About.com Reader's Choice Award). His blog is ranked in the top 5 atheist/theist blogs on the internet today. He has three master's degrees in the Philosophy of Religion and is a graduate of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

His talk is at 6:00 pm on Saturday, March 26, 2011 in Wickenden Hall, room 322 on the CWRU campus. The talk is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry.

All are welcome and refreshments will be available.

Wickenden Hall is on the Case quad. It is likely that the parking lot 1A right behind Wickenden (entering from northbound MLK Drive) will be open. If you park there, go up the steps and Wickenden Hall is the building on your immediate right.

(Note; Loftus will also be speaking on Thursday, March 24 at 7:00 p to the Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry. More details can be found here.)

March 21, 2011

The iPad and me

Although I use a Mac computer and much prefer its operating system to the Windows alternative, I am not really a fan in that I do not run out and buy the latest Mac gadget unless it has really useful functionality. I do not, for example, have an iPhone. I do have an iPod touch because it is functional. It fits in my pocket and enables to carry around my calendar and address book and sync the former with others in my office. If I am in a Wi-Fi hotspot I can check the internet, though I find the small screen wearying to look at for any length of time.

So when the iPad came out, it was not clear to me what additional functionality it provided. It seemed like a big iPod touch and why would I need that when I had a laptop? It is true that it is smaller than a laptop and so would be easier to carry around to meetings, but it was not clear to me that that was a sufficient advantage to invest in one. As far as I was concerned, it seemed like a solution to a non-existent problem.

But my university's technology department had a few iPads that they were passing around for people to check out to see if they had any ideas about how to use it at work and in teaching so I had one to play with for a few weeks.

My experience with the iPad has been interesting. Initially it was frustrating because I expected it to do everything a laptop did. In particular, I use my computer to write a lot even while reading. For example, I frequently want to jot down notes and ideas that occur to me while reading and the laptop enables me to go back and forth between reading and writing easily. The iPad? Not so much. You had to close one application to open the other and although it was quick, it was still awkward. The touch screen keyboard is big and easy to use but the keyboard being at the same angle of view as the screen made it awkward for me.

I realized that I was asking the iPad to do what it was not primarily intended to do. The iPad is great for receiving information but not so good for input. Once I let go of that expectation and worked with its strengths, it was better. I began to use it primarily as a reading device, to surf the web and read documents and that improved my experience.

One of the things that I was curious about was whether I would enjoy reading books on an e-reader. I had tried it with one of the earlier versions of the Kindle and had not liked it. I decided to give it another shot with iPad. There were five books that came with the iPad that was loaned to me. I had read four before but the fifth (The Count of Monte Cristo) was one that I had wanted to read for a long time, so clearly the anonymous person who had loaded these books onto the iPad was a kindred soul. This book is very long, over a 1,000 pages, and I figured it would be a good test of my ability to enjoy using an e-reader.

It is in reading this book that I have come to like the features of the iPad. The book features are easy on the eye and intuitive. The ability to search the book for events and characters that occurred before (important in long epic novels with lots of characters and complicated plot twists) and the built in dictionary and search features that link to Google or Wikipedia (again useful for a book set in another time and place and originally in another language so that there are many unusual words) are all nice to have. The Count of Monte Cristo has a complicated plot with many characters who take on different names and identities over time and whose stories intertwine. Characters whom one had encountered early on suddenly pop up much later. The ability to search the book made it much easier to keep track of things. I wish I had had it when I read other epic novels like War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

The deficiencies in the iPad as a book reader are the same as I had with the Kindle. One is that while you can change the font size, the size of the illustrations cannot be changed, which makes that feature irrelevant for technical books with lots of intricate figures. The other is that to give citations to things in books, you need to have the page number of a specific print edition. The books on the iPad have page counters but they are internal and vary with the chosen font size. Maybe there are ways to overcome these features that I am not aware of.

One big advantage is that with the iPad, you have immediate and free access to a vast array of classical literature that is now out of copyright. So with the purchase of this device, you had immediate access to all the old books you ever wanted to read without having to track them down. For someone like me who, when it comes to fiction, prefers to read the classics more than contemporary authors, this is a huge benefit.

I also played with some of the games that were on the iPad, including Angry Birds which I had heard so much about. They were ok but I am not a big fan of games and so soon got bored.

I found that I ended up using the iPad most in the last couple of hours at night in bed, reading the book and surfing the web before sleeping. It is much easier to use in bed than a laptop and the big backlit screen makes it easy on the eyes.

So my verdict is that the iPad is primarily an entertainment device and secondarily a work device because of the limited input capability, while the laptop is primarily a work device and secondarily an entertainment device.

Will I get an iPad, especially now that the new iPad2 is out? I've not decided but am thinking about it. Have any readers of this blog used an iPad? I'd be curious to hear your reactions.

March 20, 2011

March madness

No, not basketball. For all the cricket fans of this blog (yes, both of you), this of course refers to the 2011 World Cup currently taking place in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The group round-robin qualifying matches have just been completed with no upsets, leaving the eight top-seeded teams to advance to the quarterfinals. From now on, it is sudden death format.

The quarterfinal matchups are:

March 23: Pakistan v West Indies (played in Bangladesh)
March 24: Australia v India (played in India)
March 25: New Zealand v South Africa (played in Bangladesh)
March 26: Sri Lanka v England (played in Sri Lanka)

My picks are Pakistan, South Africa, and Sri Lanka to advance. The India v Australia game is tough to call but I will have to give the home field edge to India.

The semifinal games will be played on March 29 and 30 in Sri Lanka and India, and the final will be on April 2 in India.

March 19, 2011

Rescue in Japan

Here is some video footage of people who barely escaped the waters of the tsunami and, incredibly, kept their video camera running while they clambered to safety and then observed a rescue.

March 18, 2011

Aftermath of tragedy in Japan

Usually after a catastrophe like what occurred in Japan there are a lot of human interest stories of people mourning lost loved ones, frantically search for the missing, selfless heroism and generosity, with the occasional good news of someone surviving in the wreckage and being rescued after being given up for lost.

In this case, although we had a double catastrophe of an earthquake followed by a tsunami, the focus on the fate of the nuclear reactors has eclipsed almost everything else. While this is understandable, there are some stories that I feel should have received wider coverage. One is the absence of widespread looting, or any looting at all, in the wake of the disaster. The other is the absence of price gouging by merchants. In fact, many merchants are reducing prices in order to help out the survivors. The third is the orderly and neighborly way that people are behaving to ensure that resources are shared amongst everyone.

All these things reflect well on the capacity of human beings to think of others and the greater good even in times of dire stress and on the Japanese people and culture in particular, and are deserving of greater recognition.

March 14, 2011

Frightening power of the tsunami

The BBC has posted new video of the moment when the water struck land.

March 13, 2011

Heartbreaking

These before-and-after satellite photographs show the massive devastation wreaked by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The Overton window

The new atheists are considered 'bad' atheists because of their clearly stated belief that all beliefs about god are without any foundation. They have been criticized by 'good' atheists (i.e., atheist accommodationists) for being too extreme.

I have said before that the accommodationists should actually thank the new atheists because few people like to be on the extremes of a public debate and the new atheists have greatly broadened the range of the views and made accommodationism part of the center and thus acceptable the religious community. In fact, religious moderates seem to just love accommodationists.

Randy Pelton, president of the Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry, tells me that this phenomenon of the range of acceptable views being limited and the ways to expand it actually has been studied by the political science community and has the name of the Overton window. The Wikipedia article gives a passage from Anthony Trollope's novel Phineas Finn which captures the idea:

"Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."

"It is no loss of time," said Phineas, "to have taken the first great step in making it."

"The first great step was taken long ago," said Mr. Monk,–"taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards."

Oddly enough, it appears that Glenn Beck has written a novel with that title. I have no idea what it is about.

March 11, 2011

Tsunami hits Japan

The BBC plays video of the awesome power of the tsunami that hit Japan today, inflicting heavy casualties.

March 03, 2011

Cleveland Freethinkers March Roundtable

I will be talking to this group on Why atheism is winning (followed by a Q&A) on Saturday, March 5th at 7:30 pm.

More details can be found here.

February 16, 2011

The no-more-secret formula for Coca-Cola

One of the things I learned early in life is that the recipe for Coca-Cola was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world, almost on a level of the nuclear launch codes. But apparently Ira Glass of This American Life has stumbled upon it and released it.

So if you want to make your own Coke, go right ahead.

(via Why Evolution is True.)

February 14, 2011

Antiwar.com fund drive

The website Antiwar.com is holding its quarterly fund drive. This is an invaluable site for world news so if you can, please donate something.

February 13, 2011

Gangland cricket

The cricket World Cup matches start on the 19th and will be played in venues in Sri Lanka, India and Bangla Desh. While I like the game of cricket, I could never have imagined that this game that originated with the idle rich of England would catch on with gangsters, ex-cons, street kids, and the homeless of Compton, Los Angeles.

But it has and the Compton Cricket Club has toured England and Australia. What is even more interesting is that the homeless activist behind it says that the game teaches people how to be competitive while being civil and those lessons have enabled some of the players to move on to productive lives.

It struck me that this story could make a good film, a US version of Lagaan. Keanu Reeves is apparently a cricket fan and could star in it. His skills at the game surely must be better than his acting.

January 25, 2011

Chaser's vocabulary

Chaser is a border collie that not only can identify over a thousand objects by name, she even knows basic grammar and the three verbs paw, nose, and fetch, thus being able to distinguish what she was expected to do with each object. That is not all. She could also recognize categories, in other words common nouns. "She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar."

Chaser will appear in the PBS show Nova on February 9.

Chaser learned one or two new words each day, requiring four or five hours of daily practice. That is some dedication. My own dog Baxter, while an eager learner, tends to call it a day after about fifteen minutes and go off and take a nap. "Everything in moderation" seems to be his motto.

I was intrigued to read that in order for her trainer to remember what he had called the thousand objects, he wrote the name of each on the object with indelible ink. It is, of course, possible that Chaser is so smart that she had learned to read, thus saving herself the trouble of learning the names of all the objects.

January 01, 2011

Best wishes for 2011 to all this blog's readers

Let 2011 be the year in which justice and law begin to replace oligarchic rule.

HappyNewYear2011.jpg

December 31, 2010

Color changing card trick

(via Machine Like Us.)

December 30, 2010

The letter i

As someone who grew up with English English and then came to the US, I have got used to the different spellings, especially the missing u in words like color and favor and honor. In general, American spellings make more sense, so switching to it was easy.

When it comes to the letter i, Americans also sometimes drop it, to say (for example) 'aluminum' instead of the English 'aluminium'. But recently I have heard people drop the i in the word 'verbiage' to coin a new word 'verbage' which does not currently exist even in America, at least according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Also, unlike the u, which seems to be always dropped, the policy on i is not so consistent. I have heard people add i to the word mischievous to say 'mischievious', a word which also does not currently exist.

I am not one of those people who think that language should be unchanging. English is a rich language precisely because it grows by adding new words. But these are not new words but spelling variations on old ones and I was curious as to whether what I have heard is merely a regional idiosyncrasy or whether others have heard similar usages.

December 29, 2010

Why the other line moves faster

(Via Progressive Review.)

December 28, 2010

It's snow story

Here are some simple facts.

Weather is unpredictable. In the northeast we get snow during the winter months. Most of the time the falling snow is spread out over time. But as with any stochastic process, on occasion a lot of snow will fall in a short time, more than one can be reasonably prepared for. During such times, there will be disruptions, such as flights being cancelled, roads being treacherous, and delays. This will happen a couple of times each winter and is completely normal and to be expected.

So why is it that when it inevitably happens, the news media get so worked up over it? Why is it treated as being of major national and even international significance instead of just a local story? Why are cities berated for not being prepared to deal with it? A snowstorm is not like a flood or an earthquake that can cause widespread and lasting damage. It makes no sense for cities to spend a lot of money to be ready for a problem that will disappear by itself in a day or two.

It's just snow, people. It's just pure, clean water and it will go away.

December 20, 2010

Happy anniversary to Baxter the Wonder Dog!

baxter1.JPG Yesterday (the 19th) was the fifth anniversary of Baxter the Wonder Dog joining the family as a three-month old puppy. On the right is a photo of him five years ago. Below is a recent photo of him.

baxterS.jpeg

And if you drop in at home you will often see this scene.

baxterM.jpeg

December 11, 2010

I will be on the radio

On Tuesday, December 14 from 9:00am to 10:00 am, I will be on our local NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 on their Sound of Ideas program to discuss the results of the latest Pew survey on the state of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics came out as the best informed.

This was the show that was re-scheduled from two months ago.

You can listen live or to a podcast after the show.

December 06, 2010

Random acts of culture

Here's another flash mob of singers from Florida Grand Opera surprising shoppers at a Macy's department store in the Dadeland Mall in Florida.

Random Act of Culture at Dadeland Mall from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I hope everyone who celebrates this really nice holiday has the opportunity to spend the day with family and friends.

This article provides some of the facts and debunks some myths about the origins and traditions of this holiday.

I have been disturbed by the creeping commercialism that is threatening to overtake this holiday. In order to lure customers to come to their stores first, they are scheduling sales that begin at midnight. What this means is that their employees are forced to work on Thanksgiving day, getting ready for the hordes of people camped out in front eager to get their hands on the few loss leaders that the stores put out. I hope we do not have a repetition of 2008:

A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an "out-of-control" mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store's front doors and trampled him, police said.

The Black Friday stampede plunged the Valley Stream outlet into chaos, knocking several employees to the ground and sending others scurrying atop vending machines to avoid the horde.

On a passing note, this week my bank sent me a 'Happy Thanksgiving' card from its vice president. Do these big corporations think that people are pleased to receive formal greetings churned out by a computer? This not only seems like an absurd waste of money, I fear it might be the start of a new marketing trend to inflict the same cards-and-gifts consumer binge that afflicts Christmas.

November 02, 2010

We're #1!

Once again, an American team has won the World Series, which means that, apart from 1992 and 1993, a US team has been world champions every single year, a truly impressive achievement.

October 27, 2010

The "One laptop per child" project

Nicholas Negroponte is a real visionary whose project could revolutionize the world.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nicholas Negroponte
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

October 24, 2010

At last, a competition I think I can win

It is to see who can take the longest nap at a busy location.

Perhaps my greatest skill is the ability to take naps anywhere at any time.

October 13, 2010

The Chile mine rescue

The rescue of the trapped miners in Chile is a truly wonderful story. The careful plan put together by international teams seems to be working smoothly in bringing the stoic miners back to the surface and 21 of the 33 all have been rescued so far, after spending over two months trapped half-a-mile below the surface. See here for how the rescue was carried out. It is a triumph of perseverance, endurance, cooperation, patience, technology, and science.

But apparently three different Christian denominations are claiming it was their prayers that resulted in god intervening that resulted in the successful rescue and are vying to claim credit for the successful rescue. They did not explain why if god wanted the miners rescued he didn't simply lift them out of the mine himself or why their gods were silent when the 29 miners died in the West Virginia in April. It is pathetic to see people so desperate for a sign from god that they clutch at these straws.

In another footnote to this story, NPR depended upon an al-Jazeera reporter to get an on-the-spot report from the mine site earlier this week. NPR frequently uses reporters from other news services like the BBC but al-Jazeera is used only for stories in which either al-Jazeera itself is the story or because there are some situations (like the Gaza aid flotilla) where only they venture to send in reporters. This was the first time I had heard NPR using them for a 'neutral' story. It signals the long-overdue recognition that al-Jazeera, which provides excellent news coverage, is being seen by US news outlets as a legitimate source.

October 04, 2010

Radio program re-scheduled

The show on the Pew religion survey has been re-scheduled and will not occur at 9:00 am on Tuesday, October 5 as I said before.

I'll post the new date when I hear it.

September 27, 2010

Baxter, the Wonder Dog

He just turned five.

Bax2A.jpg

September 14, 2010

Jazzing up the national anthem

I wrote sometime ago about the veneration that Americans had for their flag that bordered on fetishism. This contrasts with the liberties taken with the national anthem. While Americans jump to their feet, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, and do all manner of things to show respect, the singers of the anthem are allowed to take all manner of liberties with it.

At any public event, for example, you are never sure if you are going to get a jazz or blues or classic version. The variations that I have not heard so far consist of rock and disco, though maybe even that was done in the 70s. Has anyone ever heard a rap version? Are their some music modes that are considered inherently disrespectful and so are not even attempted for fear of causing outrage?

I can't imagine that this freedom to interpret the anthem broadly always existed and I wonder when people in the US began allowing the anthem to be varied this way.

By contrast, whenever I hear the national anthem of other countries, they always seem to do it straight.

Update: In the comments Scott reminded me of Jimi Hendrix's version at Woodstock in 1969. That counts as a rock version and was pretty wild.

Blog comments policy

Here is the final comments policy. I will repost it periodically for the benefit of new arrivals to this blog.

  1. In the comment box that says 'Name', you must insert a person's name only. The name can be a pseudonym but inserting the name of a product or company or service is grounds for deletion. So 'Ann Jones' or 'Joe' or 'Genghis Khan' is allowable, but 'Acme Roofing Company' or 'Diet Coke' or 'essay writing services' or 'Joe the plumber' is not.
  2. If a comment seems genuine but violates the above rule, I reserve the right to delete it entirely or simply replace the name with a made-up name of my own choosing.
  3. You can continue to insert a link to a company or product or commercial service site in the URL box and this will make the name in the name box into a hyperlink to that site. This will be the only means by which to advertise or drive traffic to a site or product.
  4. Any link inserted in the body of a comment is also grounds for deletion of the entire comment unless the link is pointing to information relevant to the post.
  5. Even if a comment meets all these criteria, I still reserve the right to delete it if I think its chief purpose is to advertise and not advance the discussion. So comments like 'Great post!' and 'I would like to read more on this topic' will get the boot.
  6. The comments will continue to be unmoderated, so almost all genuine comments on recent posts should continue to appear almost immediately, just as before. If your comment does not appear immediately or even after a few minutes, it means it has been flagged as potential spam because of the appearance of some words that trigger the filter (words which in isolation can be quite harmless but in combination with other words can cause the filter to sit up and take notice) and it will appear only after I have got around to checking in on the filtered comments board.
  7. If a comment contains language that might offend, I reserve the right to censor specific words using the common practice of replacing selected letters with hyphens.

September 10, 2010

Light blogging until Tuesday

Because of some personal commitments, the long posts will continue on their regular schedule, but I will not be able to respond to comments until Tuesday.

September 07, 2010

The last word (I hope!) on comments and spam

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions in response to my earlier post about how to manage the spam comments menace. There were some very useful ones from people on all sides of the issue.

The problem that I faced was that people sometimes use the comments feature of blogs seemingly purely to insert hyperlinks to their commercial interests in order to gain visibility for some product or service and to drive up their website rankings, and these pointless comments were cluttering up the boards and wasting the time of people who were trying to follow a discussion.

As the always highly knowledgeable Heidi Cool said, this blog server software already has a filter that flags some comments (using some algorithm) as suspected spam and sends them to me for approval, which may explain to some puzzled readers why their comments sometimes take a long time to appear whereas other people's seem to appear immediately. My problem was that it was getting harder and harder for me to decide which published comments to delete and which unpublished ones that were flagged as possible spam to approve, and I was spending far too much time agonizing over it.

One solution would be to make the comments board entirely moderated so that I would have to personally approve each comment before it appeared. This would take a lot of time (at least initially) because it would still require me to read all the comments but over time the volume should decrease as it should discourage spammers from posting in the first place as they would realize that the chance of it being approved would be small. I don't like that solution because that would cause delays in genuine comments appearing.

Another brutally simple solution that was suggested would be to get rid of the box where people can insert a URL. That would definitely solve the problem but I hesitate to do that because I see no real harm with people who are genuinely interested in the blog's content and want to add something to the discussion also giving a little boost to their own site along the way, even if it is a commercial site. I am sympathetic to the needs of such entrepreneurs and small businesspeople. I have on occasion discovered some genuinely interesting websites because of those links. It is the professional spammers that I want to get rid of.

I think that I have arrived at a policy that manages to achieve a balance and makes it easier for me to police the site. Here are the new comment rules that I am thinking of imposing that will not cause genuine commenters any inconvenience or require them to change anything. I will defer implementing them for a week to allow for knowledgeable people to point out any potential flaws.

  1. The comments will continue to be unmoderated, so almost all genuine comments on recent posts should continue to appear almost immediately, just as before. If your comment does not appear immediately or even after a few minutes, it means it has been flagged as potential spam because of the appearance of some words that trigger the filter (words which in isolation can be quite harmless but in combination with other words can cause the filter to sit up and take notice) and it will appear only after I have got around to checking in on the filtered comments board.
  2. In the comment box that says 'Name', you must insert a person's name only. The name can be a pseudonym but inserting the name of a product or company or service is grounds for deletion. So 'Ann Jones' or 'Joe' or 'Genghis Khan' is allowable, but 'Acme Roofing Company' or 'Diet Coke' or 'essay writing services' or 'Joe the plumber' is not. Heidi says that putting a commercial name does not add to your site's search engine rankings anyway.
  3. You can continue to insert a link to a company or product or commercial service site in the URL box and this will make the name in the name box into a hyperlink to that site, which does contribute to your rankings. This will be the only means by which to advertise or drive traffic to a site or product.
  4. Any link inserted in the body of a comment is also grounds for deletion of the entire comment unless the link is pointing to information relevant to the post.
  5. Even if a comment meets all these criteria, I still reserve the right to delete it if I think its chief purpose is to advertise and not advance the discussion. So comments like 'Great post!' and 'I would like to read more on this topic' will also get the boot.

I hope this new policy will make the site better and my life easier!

As suggested by commenter HP Bryce, here (I hope) is the last word on spam from what triggered the idea of adopting the name of a meat product for this ubiquitous feature of electronic communication.

September 06, 2010

Labor Day musings and some changes in the blog

On this Labor Day I want to wish everyone a great holiday, at least to my American and Canadian readers who are the only ones who celebrate workers on this day, while most of the world does it on May Day (May 1st).

Ironically enough, May Day has its origins in the US as the day that commemorates the Haymarket Riot in 1886 in which police in Chicago fired on workers who were striking for an eight-hour workday. The international worker's movement adopted a resolution in 1891 to use the anniversary of the Haymarket event to celebrate workers rights. Following another bloody suppression of workers in 1894, again in Chicago, in which federal troops were sent in to break up the Pullman strike and in which over a dozen strikers were killed, the US government sought to try and make peace with US workers by granting a holiday to celebrate workers. But since they did not want to remind people of its history of brutal opposition to worker rights that a May Day holiday might trigger, the US government and Congress in 1894 made the September Labor Day a federal holiday.

So I am taking the day off somewhat but want to flag some minor changes in the blog that will take place immediately.

Long time readers of this blog know that there is a routine here in which I post a single essay of around 1000 words on some topic each weekday at around 9:00 am Eastern time in the US. My goal of writing a daily long form essay serves largely a selfish purpose. Writing about things in some depth sharpens my thinking about them and forces me to look up sources and evidence for my views and not toss off glib, gut-level reactions. It is remarkable how much I learn by doing this and how often that process makes me realize that what I remembered as having happened or said is not correct and forces me to revise my views, as well as serving as a useful reminder of the fallibility of even strong memories. The essay form also keeps me writing regularly and thus improves my writing skills.

But I am finding that my self-imposed rule is too constraining. In the course of keeping up with the news and researching topics there are many interesting, funny, and quirky things that I come across (or are sent to me) or updates to earlier postings that I want to share with readers. I usually collect them and keep them until I can make them part of a later essay, either in the body of the text or, if it does not quite fit, as a post script. The catch is that there are many such interesting items that do not merit a long essay and which do not relate to anything that I am likely to write about at length. I still include some of those things as post scripts but they keep accumulating faster than I can use them and sometimes even go out of date, which seems a waste.

Since I want to preserve the weekday essay feature of the blog, I have decided to supplement it with occasional short postings that will appear randomly as needed.

From the point of view of the readers, the upside is that there will be more content than before (at least I hope that is viewed as an upside). The downside is that it is only the weekday essays that will appear on a regular schedule and the appearance of other items will be unpredictable. I assume that many people have RSS subscriptions that alert them whenever new content appears.

August 30, 2010

No blog posts until further notice

Due to technical problems with my computer, I will not be able to post anything until it is fixed, which I hope will be later today.

August 27, 2010

To CAPTCHA or not to CAPTCHA?

One of the interesting things about a blog is the comments section that enables readers and author to interact. The problem, as I have written before, is spam comments that just clog up the boards and waste people's time. I have an open and unmoderated comment system which means that anyone can comment without registering or getting my prior approval but the catch is that it can be exploited by spam. The people who run the servers have filters for detecting and eliminating or quarantining spam but it is not foolproof and sometimes genuine comments may be excluded while spam comments may be allowed.

Spam is not generated by people who are merely being pests but because there is an underlying economic reason. Some email spammers seek to gain access to mail accounts from which to send their advertisements, while blog comment spammers are seeking to place links to businesses and hence drive up their search engine rankings. As a result, businesses have a financial motivation for creating spam and have generated software for doing so. The more popular your website is, the more you get targeted since the payoff is greater.

I get hit with quite a lot of spam that seems to come in waves. So a couple of times a day, I go into the comments file and clean house. I do this because it would be irritating for readers to encounter spam there or to have their genuine comments rejected. This housekeeping is quite tedious because I have to read all the suspect spam. Often it is easy to spot them because they contain gibberish. On other occasions they are generic comments or comments that are repeated over and over with slight variations and signatures. If it seems clear to me that a comment has no relevance to the post, I delete it.

But I have noticed recently that detecting spam is getting harder. Some spam comments try to deceive by using a sentence from the actual post as the comment. This makes the comment seem relevant though lacking a point. I can usually detect this dodge, even if my post in question is several years old, because I have a good sense of my own writing style. More difficult is when the spam consists of a sentence taken from the posting of a genuine commenter. If the comment does not quite fit, I look at all the comments to that post to see if this is the case.

Even more hard to judge are those short comments that are not copies of other people's words but seem vaguely relevant to the topic. They often use some of the key words in the post, but are not really adding any value to the discussion and are written ungrammatically. These do not look like machine generated spam and are also not the mistakes of a careless or poorly educated native English speaker but more characteristic of someone for whom English is a second language.

Up until quite recently, my only criterion for accepting and rejecting comments was whether the comment was being generated a human or a machine. In making these judgments I am, in effect, running my own personal Turing test. To help me, I suggested to our webmaster that perhaps we should install one of those little tests that some sites have to detect whether a human or machine is trying to access it. These screening devices have to be simple enough that any human can easily solve them but difficult enough to fool a machine. The most familiar are the so-called CAPTCHAs, those curved letters and numerals on a cluttered background that you have to identify and type in before you are allowed in. Some sites like Machine Like Us require you to do a simple arithmetic sum.

I had thought I was fighting only machines because it would not be worthwhile to have real humans wandering the web and inserting spam. But it turns out that I was wrong. My increasing difficulty in telling whether some comments were being created by humans or machines was because, as a recent study of spam by a team of researchers at the University of San Diego showed, a lot of spam nowadays is being generated by actual humans and not machines, which would make adoption of a CAPTCHA system not as useful as I had thought. (Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.)

The article discusses the economic basis for this development. The authors argue that in the arms race between software that generates spam and software designed to defend against these spam attacks, the defenders have pretty much won because the attackers are always playing catch up and really sophisticated automated CAPTCHA solvers are quite expensive and have to be updated so often that it discourages most spam operators from using them as not being economically viable. So CAPTCHA solving software is only used for sites that have low-level and static defenses, which are also usually not desired high-value sites.

But one consequence of this defeat is that the spam operators have turned to actual human beings to overcome the defenses. The study finds that businesses now hire people to prowl the web and insert spam. Like many things on the internet, while the market for CAPTCHA solving services has expanded, the wages of workers solving CAPTCHAs have been declining. The paper's authors report that companies now commonly charge their customers as low as $2, or even $1, to have 1,000 successful hits. As a result, those companies now pay their workers even lower amounts, $0.75 or even $0.50 per 1,000, down from highs of $10 in 2007 As you can imagine, these jobs are being outsourced to those countries that have cheap labor (such as in Eastern Europe, Bangladesh, China, India and Vietnam) which probably explains the unusual grammatical errors of the spam I now detect. I am guessing that these workers are told to take some words from the blog post and insert into a generic comment to make it seem relevant.

All this leaves me with a minor moral dilemma. My obligation to the blog's readers to maintain a clutter-free comment section means that I should ruthlessly weed out every comment that looks like it could be spam (human or otherwise) even if some genuine comments get thrown out in the process. On the other hand, I feel sorry for those poor bastards who are so desperate for work that they have to take dead-end jobs like this and spend their days posting pointless comments on site after site.

I decided to give my bleeding heart a vacation on this one issue and be ruthless. I figure that there are enough websites that do not care so much about preventing spam so as to provide income for these workers. Also, once the spammers get a 'hit' by successfully posting a bogus comment, they presumably get paid even if I come along a few hours later and delete them.

So if you find that I have deleted your genuine comment, please let me know and accept my apologies for thinking you were a spammer. And if you are puzzled by why some comments appear and then later disappear, you now know the reason.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on objectionable words

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August 23, 2010

From consumer to citizen

(Text of a talk given at Case Western Reserve University's Share the Vision program in Severance Hall on Friday, August 20, 2010 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte.)

As those of you near the front rows can see from my grey hair, I am roughly the same age as your parents, which means that I am a member of the infamous group that, like locusts, exploded upon the world and consumed everything in sight. I am speaking of course of the baby boomer generation.

As you would thus know and are probably sick of already, baby boomers love to talk about themselves and the wonderful things that their generation achieved. And a lot of good things really did happen during the time that we grew up and started running things. We had great advances in science and medicine, sent people to the moon, advanced civil rights, obtained greater equality for women, and fought for equal rights for gays and lesbians. We also invented the personal computer, the internet, and the ubiquitous cell phone, things we cannot imagine being without today.

But while we did many good things, we also are responsible for one major bad thing and that is that we well and truly trashed the planet. We baby boomers have been like children who have inherited a fortune in the Earth's resources and have busted it on one long big party. And that is something so bad that not even our greatest contribution to humanity (the invention of rock and roll) will excuse.

The people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful that we risk leaving future generations resource poor. And we are leaving it to you, the next generation, to clean up our mess. If you are not angry about that, you should be. But at the same time I am hopeful that you will channel that anger into finding real solutions to the major problems of energy use, water, and food sufficiency for everyone, and to the careful use of resources in the future.

How did the present state of self-absorption come about? I think the crucial change occurred when at some point along the way, we were persuaded to think of ourselves not as citizens but as consumers. Everywhere in the media today people are referred to as consumers. The word citizen is now used only in a narrow sense, when people are talking about immigration and the like. But the word citizen is much more meaningful than that. When we think of ourselves as citizens, it carries with it a sense of community, a sense of social responsibility, a concern for people other than ourselves.

Consumers, on the other hand, are people who merely consume, who think only of themselves. As a result of this change in self-perception, we started to think that we were entitled to have all our wants gratified, and we started consuming the Earth's riches at a rapid pace, at the same time creating enormous amounts of waste products. It bred what the book calls 'hyperindividualism', that "lets those can afford to opt out - whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water - to further isolate themselves, in style." (p. 45)

While this perception of ourselves as consumers has resulted in high standards of living for the elites in the world, it has also resulted in wasteful excess. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that drives people to buy things that are not based on any actual need but instead from the impulse to flaunt wealth and consumption, to let others know how 'successful' we are. We have a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where people feel the need to buy new stuff they don't need even before the old stuff they also didn't need is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts not only the affluent. Since the media celebrates those living lavish lifestyles, the middle classes also seek to emulate the very rich by living like them. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on. The resulting mindless consumption is like a virus that has spread all over the world. The bottled water craze is a symptom of this collective madness, giving everyone the chance to emulate the wastefulness of the rich. Bottled water first became a status symbol and now is seen as a necessity, when it should be neither.

The absolute low point in this consumer mentality occurred right after 9/11 when the president said that the best thing that people could do was to go out and shop. Imagine that. Nearly three thousand people killed in an act of mass murder, and the president's concern was that it might deter us from shopping and consumption.

Right now, as a result of the recession that has thrown many people out of work or fearful of becoming unemployed, people are being more frugal, living simpler, less consuming lives out of necessity. Amazingly, I hear commentators in the media actually worrying about this, fearing that during this period, people might discover that a simple life is actually enjoyable and that they might not start consuming wildly again when things get better. Oh, the horror!

How did it happen that being an addicted consumer, wasting money and resources on things we don't need, is the new standard of good behavior? How have we let ourselves be duped into thinking that being a consumer is better than being a citizen?

Not all consumption is bad, of course. Some increase in global consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the benefits of increased availability of drinking water and food, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, and the construction of homes that are better able to withstand the elements. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But we have to come to terms with the consequences of the fact that the Earth's resources are finite. Once we use them, they are degraded and we have no means of getting them back to the original state however conscientiously we recycle. Hence higher levels of basic consumption by the poor of the world have to be balanced by less wasteful and unnecessary consumption by the affluent. But that kind of thinking will occur only to people who think of themselves as citizens, not as consumers, who see themselves as responsible for others, not just for themselves.

The one hopeful sign that I see is that the next generation, people like you, is far more conscious of the need to conserve resources than ours was, and more likely to be good stewards of the planet. But to be really effective at changing course, you will need the most sophisticated tools at your disposal and that is where your next four years are crucial. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded, smart, and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Whatever subjects you choose to study, remember that your ultimate goal is to learn how to be a good citizen and not a mere consumer. In fact, the future of the planet depends upon it.

POST SCRIPT: The Hollies

Talking about rock and roll, I love this song Stop, Stop, Stop, especially the banjo playing.

And one great Hollies song deserves another, this time it's Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.

August 13, 2010

Be nice to hospitality workers

By now everyone in the US must have heard about the JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater who got so fed up by the way he was treated by a passenger that he used the intercom to curse her out and left the plane. Grabbing a beer and using the emergency chute to make his dramatic exit was an inspired touch. Slater has become something of a folk hero for his take-this-job-and-shove-it action and I would not be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie about disgruntled flights attendants soon. Slater even became Stephen Colbert's Alpha Dog of the Week.

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Slater was arrested and is now out on bail, facing charges of reckless endangerment and criminal mischief that could put him in prison for up to seven years, which seems excessive to me. His lawyer has provided more details of what happened.

Flight attendants in general have expressed great sympathy for him, saying that he did what many of them have only fantasized about. My niece worked as a flight attendant for a few years and has her own share of stories about rude and obnoxious people on planes. The following apocryphal story describes the kind of pettiness and self-indulgence that airline workers have to routinely deal with:

In my youth, I was friends with a TWA flight attendant who used to tell this tale: A fellow attendant had just finished serving dinner (so you know how long ago this was), and a woman rang her call button. “This potato,” she said to the attendant, pointing to a small baker on the tray, “is bad.”

He calmly picked up the potato, placed it in the palm of his left hand and shook his right index finger at it, saying in a scolding tone, “Bad potato. Bad, bad potato.” His attempt at humor won him a suspension, my friend said.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Slater should have done what he did and deserves the adulation he has received from some quarters, the whole episode illustrates the inequality and tension that exists between workers in the hospitality industry and the customers.

A couple of years ago my flight was cancelled due to bad weather and there was chaos at the check-in counter as a large number of people tried to find alternative flights. There was only one person to serve all the coach passengers and naturally there were long lines and delays and tempers became frayed, and some people started berating this poor woman although she was not responsible for the mess. Things got so bad that a policeman had to come in to keep some order. I was there for over six hours because I was trying to make an international connection and so was able to observe the fact that this woman did not leave her position even to get food or go to the bathroom but kept a pleasant and smiling face throughout the ordeal, never raising her voice, and standing all the time. It was only late in the evening, after everyone had left and I was the only person remaining that she confided in me that a co-worker had called in sick that day, which was why she was alone, and that she was totally exhausted. I asked her if tough days happened to her often and she ruefully said yes.

One reporter worked as a flight attendant for two days to see what it was like and wrote about her experiences. Her co-workers told her that working first class was harder than coach and that did not surprise me. Airlines themselves are partly responsible for this. In order to get people to fork out extra money for these more profitable upgrades, they have pandered to them that they are so special, giving them all manner of little perks, including laughably ridiculous ones like the little carpet near the boarding gate that ordinary coach passengers are not supposed to step on. It always cracks me up when the person at the gate announces that the proletariat is forbidden to step on that rug. Should we be surprised that some of the pampered people treat flight attendants as their personal servants?

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat those who they perceive as subordinate to them. As Dave Barry once wrote, "A person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person." The notorious John Bolton, hysterical warmonger and George W. Bush's choice to be US ambassador to the United Nations, was known to berate his staff while being ingratiating to those he felt were his superiors. He was described by an observer as the "quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy", adding, "I've never seen anyone quite like Secretary Bolton in terms of the way he abuses his power and authority with little people… The fact is that he stands out, that he's got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he's kicking."

It is true that modern airline travel is frustrating for passengers. But that does not excuse being nasty to the people who are the public face of that industry because they are not responsible for this state of affairs. In fact, they are as much victims as we are because airlines have cut back on personnel to the minimum, requiring those remaining to work much harder and longer. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who work in the hospitality industry like waiters, flight attendants, hotel employees, and the like. These people are on their feet almost all the time, for pay that is not that great, and are required by their employers to be smiling and friendly and obsequious to everyone. And while most people are polite and considerate, because these workers deal with so many people every day, the odds are that they encounter a fair number of jerks in the course of their work day, people seeking an outlet for their own personal frustrations and demons, who take advantage of them by being abusive and rude, knowing that they have to take it and still keep smiling.

Ideally, we should treat everyone equally and well but that is hard to do in practice. But a good rule-of-thumb is that the less power that people have, the greater effort we should put in to swallow our own irritation and annoyance and be nice to them and show consideration and respect, because they have likely had a much harder day than we did.

POST SCRIPT: Anthem for Steven Slater

I remember when this song was released in 1978 that it struck the same chord with fed up workers that Slater's actions did.

August 06, 2010

Greedy old people

I recently turned 60. I don't pay much attention to my birthdays but this one is a little special because it signifies that by almost any measure I am now officially an old person, a member of a group a subset of whom has been annoying the hell out of me for a long time: greedy old people.

Let me make it quite clear whom this rant is targeting. It is not aimed at old people who after many decades of hard work are even now struggling to make ends meet on their meager savings and social security checks, some of whom have to continue working well past normal retirement age at dead-end and physically demanding jobs which take a toll on their bodies, in order to obtain the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Those people can leave the room because my words are not aimed at them.

This rant is targeted at those well-off people, who have done well financially and can live comfortably in their old age and yet are constantly on their guard to protect their own standard of living and fight off any changes that might affect them negatively in the slightest, even if those changes might benefit others in great need.

Recently I seem to see an explosion of these people and it is an ugly sight. These people seem to feel that they are entitled to a life of luxury in their old age. They seem to have this sense that such a life is due to them because they have 'worked hard' and 'played by the rules', though their hard work does not come close to the difficulty of the work done by most poor people.

This increasingly vociferous and obnoxious group of elderly people seem to feel that they deserve to retire to a life of endless golf and travel and restaurant meals and cruises and card games and all the other symbols of the good life. Very few things annoy me more than the spectacle of such well-to-do retirees in their resort complexes complaining about their taxes going towards improving the conditions of those much less fortunate than themselves. They recoil with horror at the words 'socialism' and the 'welfare state' without realizing how much they themselves benefited from such policies in the past, and do so even now in the form of Medicare and Social Security.

The health care debate brought out some of the worst in this crowd of greedy old people. Some of these people were adamantly against the idea of expanding Medicare for all and other forms of expanding health care access to everyone because they feared that this increased pool of people able to seek treatment might mean longer waits for them to see a doctor. So in order to hoard the benefits of Medicare just for themselves, they were willing to sacrifice the chance for others to get any treatment at all. I am fed up with hearing them complain about the 'doughnut hole' in covering prescription drug costs, especially since a single-payer health care system (that they opposed because it was 'socialized medicine') would have eliminated that problem. Such people make me sick.

Sam Smith highlights this hypocrisy:

People who complain about the welfare state remind me of the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he's retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

One of the reasons I detest the so-called 'tea party' movement is that its ranks, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, seem to be full of just such people, those who are older, richer, and mean-spirited, who want to hold on to their own benefits while cutting those that they no longer need but serve others. They do not seem to care if public education and public services deteriorate, as long as the grass in their retirement communities is well manicured.

[D]espite their anti-spending rhetoric, Tea Party supporters told pollsters that two of the federal government's most money-consuming programs, Social Security and Medicare, are worth the cost to taxpayers (maybe not a surprise, given the Tea Partiers' average age).

While the Tea Partiers take pains to avoid appearing racist, they're still operating at the nexus of class and race. This seems to have reached a head with healthcare reform. The UW survey's director, Christopher Parker, summed it up this way: "While it's clear that the Tea Party in one sense is about limited government, it's also clear from the data that people who want limited government don't want certain services for certain kinds of people. Those services include health care." (my italics)

These people are hypocrites of the worst sort. They take for granted all the benefits that society has provided them, and that they enjoyed when they were starting out in life and needed them, and now think that they made it on their own and are quite comfortable demanding that they be no longer available to future generations. They preach the virtues of the simple life and hardship, but it is only for others. And because this group is wealthy, noisy, and votes disproportionately, they get endlessly pandered to by politicians and covered by the media, breeding in them an even greater sense of entitlement. These people are a menace to the well being of society, disproportionately sucking up resources that should be distributed more equitably to the elderly poor, the sick, children, and young people starting out in life.

Such old people should count themselves lucky that they were able to work all their lives in jobs that enabled them to have a comfortable retirement, unlike many poor people who worked as hard or even harder than them but lived a life of constant worry and stress from paycheck to paycheck, trying to make enough money to feed and shelter their families and give their children a decent education. It is the latter people who really deserve a worry-free retirement to at least partially compensate for the hardships they endured all their lives.

So listen up, you greedy well-off old people! You do not seem to realize that you are the ones who should complain the least. We are all lucky just to be alive at all. To have lived long lives in fairly good health and without serious deprivation is to have been extremely lucky. To want to hold on to your privileges without sharing those benefits with people who have never enjoyed them is to be piggishly greedy. You should be ashamed of yourselves. So stop whining and shut up.

Thank you.

End of rant.

POST SCRIPT: Those were the days?

And spare me the justifications for the self-centered attitude of greedy old people based on the hardships they allegedly experienced when they were young. Even if people did have a hard life earlier and had to struggle to get to where they are now (though that too is often exaggerated), that still does not justify greed and selfishness.

This classic sketch comedy called The Four Yorkshiremen captures this mentality perfectly.

July 28, 2010

Crime and punishment

Studies "indicate that across a wide spectrum of the population and independent of local crime rates, viewing local television news is related to increased fear of and concern about crime." That is consistent with my personal experience. I hardly ever watch TV and definitely not the local TV news. As a result, I tend to be less fearful of crime than those who watch the steady diet of fear-mongering that local news channels depend upon in order to get ratings.

I also live in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood in a middle class community with people walking their dogs and children playing on the sidewalks, and all these feed into the impression that one is living in a crime-free area.

But I recently started subscribing to the local weekly paper that reports the news in about four or five small suburbs including the one I live in. The items mostly consist of local community events and people, city council and school board meetings, and the inevitable zoning controversies of which at least one involves the proposed construction of a McDonalds to which the neighbors object. There is something about a proposed McDonalds that galvanizes opposition in middle-class neighborhoods.

But there is also one curiously fascinating feature that consists of the police blotter that lists all the crimes reported and I must say that reading it changes one's perception of the neighborhood, reminding one that there is petty crime all around. And when I say petty, I do mean petty. Most of them deal with stolen bicycles left unattended, people entering unlocked garages and homes and stealing small items, minor altercations, and domestic violence.

There was one item that jumped out at me and that was the arrest of a man for stealing a toothbrush. I can't get that terse one-sentence story out of my mind because it raises so many questions. What would lead someone to steal such a cheap item as a toothbrush? Was it someone who had recently fallen down on his luck but still valued personal hygiene? There seemed to be something poignant about someone who would risk arrest just to get a toothbrush. Or was the 'thief' (the word sounds jarringly strong for someone committing such a petty action) a kleptomaniac? Or was it an adolescent who could easily afford to buy it but wanted to steal it as a lark or a dare?

If the theft was out of genuine need, why would the drugstore (which is where presumably the attempted theft occurred) be so hard-hearted as to report such a person to the police? Surely you would give a person so desperate to maintain personal hygiene a chance and perhaps even a toothbrush free of charge? If it was a stupid childish prank, surely a strong warning would have been sufficient?

Another blotter item spoke of the arrest of a person for stealing a 12-oz can of beer. Again, the pettiness of the crime causes one to raise one's eyebrows and wonder about the story behind the story.

There is often a class element involved in determining whether a petty crime gets reported to the police or not. I recall that when I was in high school in Sri Lanka a couple of boys from my school were caught stealing books from a store down the street. These boys were from well-to-do families who clearly did not need to steal and were presumably doing it for kicks or on a dare or for one of the many other reasons that make young boys act stupidly. Because their families were influential, the matter was hushed up and the boys quietly allowed to transfer to another school. But a little later two classmates and friends of mine who were not members of elite families got caught stealing books from the same store, confirming that young boys are incorrigibly stupid. But in their case, they were immediately expelled with all the shame that accompanies such an outcome, and their case was publicized and made into a stern lesson for us all on the evil of stealing.

There is no doubt that I benefit from the class bias of society in that my honesty is taken for granted for reasons that have nothing to do with knowledge of my personal character. Once at the grocery store I forgot to take the items on the bottom rack of the shopping cart out and place it on the counter for checking out and so they were not rung up. I discovered this only later after paying my bill and heading out the store. When I discovered my error I of course told the cashier and we all laughed at my forgetfulness. I suspect that if I had actually wheeled the cart out of the store without noticing my error, I still would not have been arrested for theft because my age and my ethnicity and my 'respectable' demeanor (at least I think I look respectable) would have protected me. It would have been treated as the honest mistake it was. But others who have the 'wrong' profile will not be so fortunate and will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

I recall once a conference presentation in a hotel meeting room that I made together with my African-American female colleague. After our session, we cleared up and took our stuff out to make room for the next presenters. I picked up what I thought was my colleague's expensive-looking coat (she is always well dressed) but it was only later after relaxing in the lobby and getting ready to go home that she said that the coat did not belong to her and I realized that it must belong to the people who had been setting up after us. Her boyfriend was also present and he started to take the coat back to the room to return it, but then stopped and asked if I could do it because he said that it would be awkward for him to do so as people 'might not understand'. The problem was as clear as it was unspoken. It did not matter that he is a very distinguished-looking and impeccably dressed man who could easily be mistaken for an ambassador or college president, while I was my usual nondescript self. The basic fact was that he is black and I am not, and that made all the difference in whether we would be presumed guilty or innocent of theft.

Most of us are unaware of the class and race privileges we enjoy and assume that it has been eradicated until we are directly confronted with it.

POST SCRIPT: Girl raised from birth by Wolf Blitzer

From The Onion News Network.


Girl Raised From Birth By Wolf Blitzer Taken Into Protective Custody

July 16, 2010

World Cup musings

Although I am not a soccer fan, I watched the World Cup soccer final between the Netherlands and Spain. I had nothing better to do last Sunday afternoon and thought that I should at least see the culminating event of something that had been engrossing the entire world for a month.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, although the game itself was not that great and the amount of roughness was excessive (especially by the Netherlands), even allowing for the absurd histrionics of players who collapse on the ground (referred to as 'flopping') and writhe in agony when tacked for the ball, as if they received a fatal injury, only to jump up and continue playing normally once the referee has penalized the tackler. Surely veteran referees must be aware of all this gamesmanship and discount it when awarding penalties, so for whose benefit is all this acting?

Some of the tackles were genuinely vicious and it surprises me that more players do not get actually hurt. The one time where the Spanish player was kicked directly in the chest with what seemed like a martial arts kick was such a flagrant foul that I was amazed that the kicker was not immediately red-carded and ejected from the game but apparently the referee's view was obscured and so could not see how bad it was. I started the game with no team to root for except a mild preference for the Netherlands but the nasty style of play by the Dutch players made me switch my allegiance to the Spanish.

I really like the fact that the game moves so fast, with no breaks in the action, so that a 45-minute half actually lasts for only 45 minutes, with no time outs, stopping the clock, endless replays, challenges to referee calls, etc., the kind of things that drag American football out so that an allegedly 60-minute game actually can go on for well over three hours. Even though I am not a connoisseur of soccer and there was no scoring until almost two hours of play at very end of extra time, I was not bored at all, and was surprised at how quickly the time went by. Of course, this means no time for commercials except for the ones that are in the stadium and form part of the background to be captured by the cameras.

Another thing I like about soccer is that it is so simple. The players wear no special padding or helmets or other equipment. There is just one referee whose call is binding with no second-guessing involving replays or consulting with other officials, other than depending on the two line judges for offside calls. Although players do argue with the referee, the chats are quite short and the threat of the dreaded yellow card is enough to deter them from making too big a deal.

I am not sure why Americans do not prefer soccer to football. Soccer players look like regular people who happen to be athletic. They are normal-sized, quick and skilful, and fit enough to run around on the field non-stop for 45 minutes at a stretch. Anyone can aspire to being a good soccer player and still look a normal person. Who would want to be like the behemoths in football who pant heavily after a single run and have to go and rest on the bench after a few plays, or the absurdly tall basketball players?

I suspect that the very cheapness of the game and the lack of advertising opportunities during play works against it, since it prevents businesses from making huge amounts of money from it. Basketball is even simpler than soccer, requiring fewer people and less space but the way it is played in the US allows for a lot of stoppages for commercials, which may explain its appeal to sponsors. But given that soccer has managed to attract strong commercial support in the rest of the world, it is perhaps only a matter of time before it becomes a major sport here too.

The paranormal played an unexpectedly large role in the tournament. I found hilarious the soap opera surrounding the French team's collapse and ignominious early exit, along with their coach's dependence on astrology in selecting his line up. He will apparently not play people who are Scorpios and is dubious about Leos on defense. His faith in the stars did not do him or his team much good but I am sure that he will continue to be a firm believer.

Meanwhile, what about the Paul the Prophet? The octopus in the German aquarium correctly predicted all three of Germany's group matches (2 wins, one loss), plus their next three games (victories against England in the round of 16 and Argentina in the quarter finals followed by the loss to Spain in the semis), and then wrapped it up by predicting Germany to beat Uruguay for third place and Spain to beat Netherlands in the final. That's 8-for-8 with odds of only 1 in 256 of getting it by chance. That's pretty impressive and has, I am sure, impressed at least some superstitious people that Paul has real powers.

But as with most paranormal claims, on closer examination things are not so impressive. There is some selection bias at work. Given the intense interest in soccer in the world, Paul was just one of many candidates that people were seeking signs from and it is only those that were successful in the early rounds (say the first four) that attention was focused on as prognosticators, and all the others were ignored. (See my earlier post on these kinds of selection effects. You can read about some of the failed animal oracles here.) Paul started getting real attention only later in the tournament, after Germany beat England. That means only the last four picks should be considered as real predictions, and that works out to 1 in 16 chance of success, which is good but not spectacular.

Paul has a track record even before the World Cup, though. He made predictions in the 2008 Euro Cup, picking Germany to win in all six games they played but getting only four right, which is not that much better than chance. Also he seems to have a preference for selecting the container with the German flag, selecting them to win 11 out of the 13 games they played. Since Germany has a strong team (winning 9 out of the 13 games), this increases his odds of success. So I will have to conclude that the evidence is just not convincing that Paul can see into the future and stick with my theory that he is simply an astute soccer fan.

Paul has, however, retired from the oracle racket, which is a wise move since it means that he can go out a winner and preserve his reputation. What ruins it for most claimants to paranormal powers is that they go to the same well too often and eventually the odds catch up with them. And when prophets fail their followers, they often suffer nasty fates. I am glad for Paul's sake that he quit while he was ahead.

POST SCRIPT: The football sniper

July 14, 2010

Overdoing public grief

On the radio yesterday morning I heard a report on camps designed specifically for children who have recently had a bereavement in the family to attend with other similarly situated children. The camps will be staffed by people trained in grief counseling and the children will be encouraged to express their feelings through artwork and conversations and even cry.

Although I am not a psychologist, I must say that the story made me uncomfortable. Is it really a good idea to take a child who has just lost a parent, grandparent, or sibling and put them together with other grieving children so that they are surrounded by grief all the time? My impulse would be to keep the child at home, play games with them, send them out to the movies, or to encourage them to play with other children. Their sense of loss must be palpable and surely what they need is relief and distraction from it, not reinforcement.

For example, I think it is great that most people use the Memorial Day holiday to have picnics and barbecues, and strongly disagree with those pious scolds who every year complain that people are not treating the day with appropriate solemnity. What d they want people to do? Visit graveyards? Fast? Pray? Listen to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings on an endless loop?

It seems to me that nowadays rather than encouraging people to be stoic in the face of tragedy, they are now being encouraged to wallow in public grief. We seem to be telling people that what needs to be done is to drag out the grieving process and make their emotions public. Is this a good thing?

Take for example tragedies where many people die, such as the events of 9/11 or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City or the Virginia Tech shooting. Immediately calls go out to build a memorial for the dead, which is usually followed by squabbles as to the appropriate design. And on every anniversary the events are commemorated with all kinds of symbolic events, such as the beating of drums or the pealing of bells once for each death, accompanied by the reading of the names of the victims. Even now, fifteen years after the event, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is publicly commemorated this way.

It has now got to the stage where following the (unfortunately frequent) senseless killing of several people by a deranged shooter, there are calls for a memorial to be set up to commemorate the victims. When I drive on the highways I often see small private memorials by the roadside, presumably to commemorate a highway fatality. If we are not careful, we will become a nation of memorials.

I don't understand this need to memorialize. They say that time heals all wounds. I believe that to be true but how can time do its work if every year people pick at the scab by reliving once again in a big ceremony the events surrounding the tragedy?

Maybe I am weird but to me grief is something that one deals with privately. If I had had someone close to me die in a tragic and untimely way, the last thing I would want is to have other people, total strangers, make a big fuss on the anniversary, reminding me of it over and over again, and obliging me to act grief-stricken on schedule on that day. As anyone knows, feelings of sadness at the loss of a loved one hit randomly, triggered by inconsequential things. For all other people know, I might be feeling pretty good on the anniversary and now have to put on a show of sadness for the public which would make me feel hypocritical, which is worse than feeling genuine grief.

What has happened is that the grief counseling industry has taken over and decided that we need to show our emotions with a great outpouring of feelings. The media is a major culprit as can be seen in the way that they treat deaths of public figures as events of great sadness and public importance, when they are not. The recent coverage of the deaths and funerals of Michael Jackson, President Ford, Tim Russert, etc. was way over the top. As a result, it seems that we should all feel sadness on demand.

Even people who have the most tenuous of connections to the events now seem to feel that they need grief counseling too. Rosa Brooks commented on this phenomenon in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings:

Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don't just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace's Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible.

Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, "Where to Find Support" — apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.

The death of Michael Jackson produced vast hordes of people who did not know him in the slightest but acted (at least in front of TV and news reporters) as if they had been devastated by the loss of an immediate family member or close friend. When John Lennon was murdered (the equivalent of Michael Jackson's death for my generation) I recall being shocked at the murder and sad at his untimely end but I did not feel grief, did not mourn, and definitely did not need counseling despite my close identification with Beatles music.

Everyone now seems to have even internalized the jargon of grief counselors, with ordinary people now glibly talking about the need to 'allow for the healing process to take place' in order to 'bring about closure', as if one can end one's sense of loss tidily at a scheduled time by going through some prescribed set of rituals.

Each person comes to terms with grief and loss in their own way. In my case, I tend to busy myself with mindless activities, such as cleaning out the garage and closets, sorting papers, watching TV, and so on. I let the minutiae of daily life consume my thoughts, except for brief moments when I let sad memories enter in small doses that I can deal with privately and alone. I don't want to talk about my loss, and I definitely do not want other people encouraging me to 'let my emotions show'. I just want to be left alone.

I would hate to have memorial activities on each anniversary that force me to confront, once again, the fact that they have died. I do not even visit my parents' graves and do not do anything special on the days of their birth or death. Why force myself to think about them? I think about them often at random moments and that for me is enough.

I am sure that other people react differently to tragedies in their lives. That is my point. We all react differently. Each of us deals with grief in our own way and should be allowed to go it alone and not feel obliged to conform to other people's expectations of how we should feel and behave. The rest of us should simply make room for bereaved people to respond in any way that works for them. Public memorializing tends to impose one set of expectations on everyone and serve no purpose that I can see, except to allow public and elected figures to grandstand.

POST SCRIPT: Get religion! Waste time!

July 12, 2010

The end of an affair

Well, the great drama of where LeBron James would play in future years has mercifully come to an end. There must not be a single person in America, however remotely located or disinterested in sports, who escaped from the endless speculation that culminated with an actual TV show where he revealed his decision. Surely the last was an act of egotism that has not been exceeded by any sports figure?

Living as I do in Cleveland, which was at the center of this spectacle, I could only marvel at how emotionally swept up people got about this whole thing. Even though I resolutely tried to ignore the coverage, not reading the endless newspaper articles, I still could not avoid being nauseated by the headlines alone, and the sight of an entire city and region, including civic leaders, begging and pleading with him to stay. This was over and above the usual and also highly excessive day-to-day adulation that we have lived with over the last decade ever since it became clear, even while he was in a local high school, that he had exceptionally good basketball skills. This devotion to him manifested itself in huge murals with him in messianic poses and his every movement adoringly reported in the papers, with front-page photos of him appearing regularly.

Just think about this for a moment. All this was because he was able to play with a ball better than others. Of course some would try to rationalize their childish involvement with something so trivial by trotting out economic arguments, such as that his playing here brought a boost to the economy by having people come to the city to go to the games, patronize the restaurants, and so forth. I have no doubt that there was some economic impact but it was clear that what was going on was based on far more than economics. This city is desperate to win a national championship in a major sport and winning the spelling bee simply does not cut it.

This desperation manifested in the city and its sports fans acting like a needy lover who is willing to do anything in order to keep the object of devotion around. And as often happens, when the lover is spurned and the object of adoration finds someone new, love turns to hate in a second. Instead of the spurned lover throwing all the stuff out the window, in this case fans are destroying or defacing the ubiquitous James memorabilia. The murals are coming down. Angry, vicious letters appear in the newspapers. The city has called James selfish, ungrateful, and a traitor. They seem shocked that he would leave them after all the love they have given him

What did they expect? Shifting metaphors, the city is like overly indulgent parents who give in to their adored child's every whim, praise him incessantly, overlook or excuse every misstep, and then are surprised to find that he has grown up to be thoroughly spoiled, only cares about himself, and spurns his parents when he no longer needs them. In his TV special he said quite explicitly that he wanted to do what's best for himself with no other consideration in mind.

I can understand that, actually, but that is because I know that major sports is a business in which sentimentality plays little or no part. Players are businessmen, going where they can make the most money. So are the team owners. The Cleveland Cavaliers owner called James ungrateful, which he is, but is that news? I am certain that he, like other sports team owners, would in turn dump the city in a heartbeat and move somewhere else if they did not cater to his whims. The owners and players can be like this because they exploit the fans' sentimental attachment to their teams, which makes them willing to shell out huge amounts of money for taxes to pay for new stadiums with luxury accommodations for wealthy patrons, highly inflated ticket prices, buy team merchandise, and watch their teams on TV.

I used to be a sports fan once, long ago. My emotions would rise and fall with the success of my team and I would eagerly discuss with other fanatics the possibilities of the next game or do a post-mortem on the one just passed. But then I grew up and realized that there were other things in life that were more important. I got further disenchanted when I became aware how cynically owners and players viewed the fans, as people with pockets to be picked. Now sports is something I follow casually by flipping through the sports section of the daily paper in a few minutes, but refuse to take seriously.

Since I live in Cleveland, I would like the city to win a football or basketball championship only because it is painful to watch actual adults agonize over not doing so for so long, and winning would put an end to that misery, at least for the next few decades I hope. (As for the local baseball team and its fans, I have no sympathy whatsoever for them because of their determination to hold on to the offensive Chief Wahoo logo.) It is pathetic that the city feels so invested in achieving something so trivial and I am embarrassed for them. In Bertholt Brecht's play Galileo, Andrea tells his teacher "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero" to which Galileo replies, "No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero." How much more unhappy (and pathetic) is a city that needs as a hero someone whose main skill is the ability to throw a ball through a hoop?

LeBron James can go wherever he likes and apart from feeling sympathy for how badly the people here feel because they suspect that their one chance of success has slipped through their hands, I simply couldn't care less. I am grateful, though, that the hoopla surrounding him will now take place far, far away.

POST SCRIPT: Paul Robeson

If people feel they must have heroes, then instead of venerating athletes with just one talent who simply look out for themselves, people should emulate figures like the multi-talented Paul Robeson, athlete, singer, actor, and activist, who was willing to sacrifice his career to fight for justice for the poor and against racism. Because of his outspokenness, he was hounded by the US government and his passport seized for many years. My parents had the great privilege of attending a concert given in London by Robeson after he got it back, and said that it was electrifying.

Here is Robeson singing the song that became identified with him, Old Man River from the musical Show Boat. It is a performance that never fails to move me, especially its memorable lines, "I get weary and sick of trying. I'm tired of living and scared of dying."

Later in life, Robeson would change the lyrics to make them less despairing and more inspiring.

The commentary you hear is by Harry Belafonte, a worthy successor to Robeson as someone who uses his celebrity to advance the cause of justice.

June 30, 2010

Is cheerleading a sport?

In the seminar that I teach that deals with scientific revolutions, one of the difficult questions that we grapple with is how to distinguish science from non-science. In other words, if we have two boxes, one labeled 'science' and the other 'non-science', can we establish some criteria that will enable us to take any given theory and determine which of the two boxes it should be put into? To be able to do so requires us to establish the existence of both necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered science.

If we have only necessary conditions, then any theory that does NOT meet those criteria is definitely not science so it goes into the non-science box. But if it does meet just necessary criteria, all we can say about it is that it may or may not be science. i.e., we do not know which box to put it into. So for example, the commonly accepted idea that scientific theories are materialistic and generate predictions that can be tested are necessary conditions. This is why any theories involving supernatural entities or that are untestable tend to be immediately classified as non-science. But all theories that are materialistic and testable may not be science. For example, the idea that soccer fans are intrinsically rowdier than football fans is not a scientific theory (in the usual sense we use the words) although the methods of scientific investigations (such as statistical analysis and correlations) may be used in seeing if it is in fact a true statement.

Similarly, if we have criteria for sufficiency and a theory meets those criteria, then it goes into the box marked science. But if it does not meet the criteria, it may or may not be science, so again we do not know which box to put it into. As an example, if we say that a theory is science if it has been cited as the reason why its inventors were awarded a Nobel prize, then quantum theory would be scientific without a doubt. But what about the theory of relativity? It has not been cited in Nobel awards so by our rules we cannot definitely say if it is or is not science.

This is why we need BOTH necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to make unambiguous statements that theory A is science while theory B is not science..

One would think that it might be easy to simply make a list of necessary conditions and say that if a theory meets ALL of those necessary conditions, then that is sufficient. But it is not that simple. What complicates things is that any demarcation criterion that tries to distinguish science from non-science would have to be such that all theories that are commonly accepted as science (such as Newton's laws of motion) would meet the criteria and be included while those that are commonly thought to not be science (say astrology) are excluded. Trying to ensure that existing theories go into the correct boxes is where the difficulty arises because there are always difficult marginal cases.

Finding necessary and sufficient conditions for science has been so difficult that some have declared this problem to be either insoluble or not worth the effort to solve it.

In teaching these somewhat abstract concepts of necessary and scientific conditions, I try to give my students a more down-to-earth parallel by posing to them the question: Is cheerleading a sport? This usually generates a lively discussion and they soon realize that in order to answer this question, they need to arrive at necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes something a sport or non-sport and they quickly discover that it is hard, if not impossible, to do so. And the difficulty is exactly the same as that confronting demarcation criteria for science. While it is possible to make prescriptive lists of conditions for what constitutes a sport, what complicates things is that whatever conditions we arrive at should also be such that things that are commonly accepted as sports (say tennis and soccer) and those that are not (drinking a beer or taking a nap on the couch) fall, using those criteria, into the correct boxes. And there are some tough marginal cases, not just cheerleading. Is chess a sport? Is the card game bridge a sport? (Both have applied to be part of the Olympic games.) How about video games?

It turns out that my classroom discussion question of whether cheerleading is a sport is not a purely academic exercise. It is actually being argued before a federal judge in Connecticut. The reason is that Quinnipiac University has been accused of subverting the requirements of Title IX, the federal legislation that requires colleges to provide some level of equity in support of women's athletics. The university cut costs by classifying the high-numbers, low-cost, women-dominated cheerleading as a sport, enabling them to eliminate other women's sports (such a volleyball) that cost more per student. The women's volleyball team has challenged the university's classification of cheerleading as a sport and this is what has led to the lawsuit.

In arguing the case, we see the same necessary and sufficient arguments surfacing.

While physical effort and ability are a given for many of the high-level gymnasts who cheer, Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport when it comes to equity in athletics: a program must have a defined season, a governing organization, and feature competition as its primary goal. Competitive cheer is not recognized by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as a sport. Nor does it have a governing body: two versions of organizations that have filled the role have been associated with Varsity Brands, Inc., a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 "national championships" a year. To amplify its case that competitive cheer can indeed count as a varsity sport, Quinnipiac has joined with seven other schools to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, which is intended to be a new governing body for the sport. Four more schools need to sign on for it to be recognized as a legitimate governing body, and the sport itself to be seen as "emerging."

It looks like what Title IX has tried to specify are just necessary conditions which, as we have seen, can only definitely say if cheerleading is not a sport. It is not clear if it says that if an activity meets ALL the necessary conditions, then that is sufficient to make it a sport.

Whatever the outcome, Quinnipiac University should be ashamed of itself for trying to subvert the spirit of Title IX and eliminating women's volleyball.

But what I am really curious about is how the judge is going to arrive at a verdict. Will he be able to specify necessary and sufficient conditions and thus arrive at demarcation criteria, something that has so far eluded my students and me? If so, I will gladly say that you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

POST SCRIPT: Who is an atheist?

June 22, 2010

Fashion and foot binding

The novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005) is the story of the lifelong friendship, starting from childhood, of two women in early 19th century China as each undergoes major life changes, one moving up the socioeconomic ladder, the other down. Told through the eyes of one child who begins life as the daughter of a poor farmer and rises, through marriage, to become a noblewoman, it gives insight into the curious and sometimes brutal life of the various classes of women in the patriarchal Confucian system.

The book describes the hidden and secret world of women in that gender-segregated society, its superstitions and rituals, and the rigid hierarchy and roles that people, especially women, were assigned to. Women were meant to stay in the home and drilled with the rules known (p. 24) as the Three Obediences ("When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son") and the Four Virtues ("Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery") so that they will grow into the ideal of a virtuous woman. Women are told repeatedly from birth that they are worthless and any woman who does not bear sons is treated even worse than normal.

But what I found truly horrifying were the descriptions dealing with the binding of feet. I had been aware of course of this terrible practice but to have the process described in detail in the novel was chilling and makes one wonder how such a barbaric standard of beauty could have even been conceived and implemented except as a means of dominating women and breaking them both physically and in spirit.

The ideal of the perfect foot sought by the binding process seems grotesque now:

Of these requirements, length is the most important. Seven centimeters – about the length of a thumb – is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all the weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and the arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. (p. 26)

This result was obtained by brutally binding the feet of very young children with tightly wound bandages. Children started undergoing this process around the age of six or so, and it is, as you can imagine, not only excruciatingly painful but dangerous, with death from gangrene and permanent crippling not being uncommon. Even when "successful" the result was women whose mobility was impaired. To be quite frank, I found those sections too difficult to read and skimmed them. The descriptions of little children screaming in pain as their mothers put them through this process was just too much for me to take. This is another example of adults callously violating the bodily integrity of children by imposing their own beliefs on them.

How could such a terrible practice ever become seen as the norm or even desirable? From the point of view of men, having women who were restricted in their movements may have been seen as good thing as it enabled them to dominate them more easily. (The efforts by the Taliban and other Muslim fundamentalists to deprive women of education and keep them virtually prisoners in their homes seem to serve a similar purpose.)

But how did it happen that women also internalized this as a desirable standard of beauty? It is suggested that the practice began with wealthy women and that the very negatives associated with it, such as impaired mobility, were seen as signs of wealth and privilege since it implied that one was a woman of leisure who had servants to do all the work on one's behalf.

But as is often the case with fashion, what begins as an extravagance to be flaunted by the wealthy is then adopted by everyone as the standard and that may be why foot binding took hold among almost everyone in China except the servant classes, who were needed to do work. Thankfully the abolition of the Chinese monarchy and the creation of a republic in 1912 resulted in the banning of the practice, and after the Communist Revolution of 1949 the ban was even more strictly enforced so I believe (and hope) that the practice has disappeared altogether.

While reading the novel, it struck me that this kind of practice took place in the west too, though in less extreme forms. The kinds of clothes women wore in Victorian times, with highly restricting corsets, suffocating layers of petticoats, and ornate wigs and makeup were also a means of flaunting the fact that one had nothing better to do than spend vast amounts of time and money paying attention to one's appearance.

Nowadays, fashions are not so physically constraining but there are still things that are the result of rich people's lifestyles being adopted by others. For example, take the idea that one's wardrobe must be changed frequently. To be seen in the same outfit more than once, let along many times, is to commit a fashion faux pas. This strikes me as absurd. It seems logical to me that if someone looks good in an outfit, they should wear it many times. Just because rich people can afford to purchase vast numbers of outfits and discard them after one or two wearings does not mean that this is not a silly and wasteful practice. But it becomes positively ruinous for people who internalize this as good fashion sense but cannot afford it.

The spending of vast sums of money on accessories and makeup and hairstyles and other 'beauty' treatments are other examples of rich people's extravagances being adopted by people who cannot afford them.

As anyone who has seen me and the way I am dressed and groomed will immediately realize, I am not really an expert on fashion so there may be other contemporary examples of women going to extremes (either physically through plastic surgery or cosmetically or sartorially) that I am unaware of, purely because they have internalized a concept of beauty that has as its source nothing more than the flaunting of wealth and privilege.

I am not saying that one should not take care of one's appearance or try to look nice. But what we talking about here goes well beyond minimal requirements or common sense.

POST SCRIPT: The metrosexual danger

David Mitchell points out easy it is for men to look well-dressed and warns that those few men who pay too much attention to their clothes and grooming risk ruining it for the rest of us.

June 11, 2010

The strange appeal of the Spelling Bee

My adopted hometown Cleveland has a serious self-esteem problem despite the fact that I have found it to be a nice place to live and raise a family and have been very happy here. Of course, it has many real problems that it shares with other mid-sized cities in the northeast, such as the poor economy, the effects of the housing crisis, schools in trouble, and declining population coupled with rising unemployment.

But what really seems to stick in the craw of this sports-obsessed town is that it has not won a major national sporting championship since 1964, when it won the NFL trophy before it became the Super Bowl. The near misses since then have only added to the feeling that there is some curse on the town, perhaps as a result of their baseball team insisting on retaining the ghastly Chief Wahoo logo despite regular protests that it is a highly offensive caricature of Native Americans. It amazes me that some fans are so attached to that awful logo that any suggestion of removing it brings them out of the woodwork with angry letters to the newspapers..

Cleveland's best shot at a major national title seemed to be an NBA championship with LeBron James, but their second serious try at it fell short again this year even before they reached the finals, and with James now a free agent and heavily recruited by other teams, the city is glum.

So it was with some pleasure that our local newspaper The Plain Dealer reported last Saturday that one of our own, 14-year old Anamika Veeramani, had won the 83rd the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship, after coming fifth the previous year. Her path to victory lay in her ability to by correctly spell "such tongue-twisters as nahcolite, a white mineral consisting of sodium bicarbonate; epiphysis, an end part of a long bone in higher vertebrates; and juvia, a Brazil nut." Her final winning word was Stromuhr, which is apparently a tool that measures the speed of blood through an artery.

The paper has been covering her victory tour the whole week. While I am pleased for her and her family for her success, I must admit that the appeal of this contest completely eludes me. Spelling words, like naming state capitols, could be an amusing parlor game to while away a few minutes but how could such a contest ever have gripped the imagination of so many people that the event actually gets national TV coverage?

Over at Mother Jones Kevin Drum is equally puzzled at the popularity of this contest and in his investigation finds that the kinds of words that are thrown at the contestants these days are a far cry from those of the past. In 1930, for example, words that contestants stumbled over were blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, license, and primarily. As he says, these are words that nowadays "probably wouldn't show up in the first round of a district competition, let alone in the final round of the nationals." In fact, all the words that knocked out the students in the final round in 1930 were ones that any reasonably literate adult would be able to spell today. The list of winning words since 1925 provides a fascinating window into the evolution of difficulty. Even though I read quite a lot, since 1986 I had heard of only two or three of the winning words and never encountered the words that Anamika Veeramani spelled this year and would not get correct even a single one of them, except by sheer luck and guesswork.

Has the vocabulary of our teenagers actually got so good that now we need to test them with esoteric words that one is unlikely to ever use? One of Drum's commenters, however, gave out the secret for this evolution.

Don't be too impressed with modern young spelling champs. Back in the late 80's when I was in junior high, I participated in the regional spelling bees from which winners went to the national bee (now televised on ESPN). I had the good fortune to qualify 3 years in a row for the regional contest for the greater Philadelphia area and learned the "game."

The game was that you can officially be asked any word from some version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So, it's it's impressive when a 12 year old kid spells a crazy word. However… they give all contestants a thin pamphlet of study words for practice. During my first year, my parents overheard that all words in the competition came from the pamphlet (I can confirm this from subsequent competitions). The pamphlet is thin enough that a studious competitor can study and memorize it within a few months. This is how the modern spelling feats are explained in the televised competitions.

So in order to draw viewers, the sponsors of the contest seem to have rigged it to create amazement at the ability of young people to spell words that even adults have never heard of.

I recall seeing the documentary Spellbound a few years ago, that tracks a group of children as they work their way through the competition. I was impressed at the deep dedication of the children and their families as they spent hours and hours and hours each day over weeks and months drilling on the words. I was also depressed that they were devoting so much of their time to such a useless activity.

I can understand the need for contests of intellectual skills to at least partially balance the emphasis on athletic competitions in schools. But there must be other intellectual contests that have more intrinsic value. Surely among intellectual skills, the ability to spell obscure words must rank near the bottom in usefulness? I can understand, for example, a Scrabble contest. That is a game where you need to be able to draw upon a vocabulary of both ordinary and obscure words but also use strategy and ingenuity in placing them. A spelling competition involving a given list of esoteric words seems so incredibly pointless.

The format of the spelling bee also seems unfair, since all contestants do not spell the same words and an unlucky contestant may get knocked out by chancing to get a tough word early. A game in which all the contestants write down the words they are asked to spell would be fairer but would not provide the visual drama that TV requires. Perhaps people like to see children sweat under pressure, the agony of getting it wrong and being bumped, and the relief of getting it right, all of which you can see in Spellbound. I felt really sorry for them.

The fact that the whole thing is aimed at TV ratings also explains the controversy that erupted at this year's event when the organizers, in order to maintain the proper pacing of eliminations to fill their allotted TV time slot, invoked an obscure rule that seemed grossly unfair to the participants. Frankly, I do not understand the details of what the complicated controversy was all about and did not feel like spending a lot of time on it, but Shaquille O'Neal was involved, if you can imagine it.

There is one other thing that is puzzling. It strikes me, as a casual observer, that a lot of the students who reach the nationals are of Indian origin. In fact, 40 percent of the winners since 1985 seem to have ethnic Indian names. In addition, they seem by their names to be of South Indian ethnicity, in particular the Tamil community, which has a worldwide diaspora. What is that all about? Why is this particular group so attracted to this contest? Even though I am an ethnic Tamil, I have no idea as to the reason. Was there some memo that I did not get?

The whole thing strikes me as weird.

POST SCRIPT: Ricky Gervais on how and why he became an atheist

At the age of eight, it took him only an hour to figure out that there was no god.

(Thanks to Machine Like Us.)

March 11, 2010

Overdependence on technology

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I like a lot of the conveniences that modern technology provides. At the same time, there is so much new stuff that is coming out that I feel reluctant to waste my time learning things that will prove to be transient. I am also somewhat cheap and tend to wait until the dust has settled and only the truly useful is left standing before spending money on it. So an early adopter I am not. I tend to keep an eye on trends but not adopt anything new unless I think I really need it or it solves a problem that I have or it looks like something that will really improve my life.

Personal GPS navigation systems have so far not passed that threshold. Yes, I can see that it might be fun to have but so far I am not persuaded that it is a must-have.

Last Friday, someone knocked on my office door. He said that he was looking for a conference that the university was hosting. I knew that there was nothing going on in my building and asked him why he had come there. He said that this was the place that his GPS has sent him to. I asked him if he could give me the name of the building where it was to be held or the people organizing it so I might be able to help him more easily. He said no. He had simply plugged some information into his GPS device and followed its directions to the end, which happened to be my building.

It so happened that I was able, from the topic of the conference, to track down the exact location and send him on his way. But I marveled at his total dependence on technology.

He is not alone. Recently my cousin was driving to New York City from Toronto for a wedding that I also attended and depended totally on his GPS system to get him there. For some reason, the street address of the hotel was not the address that you are supposed to insert into the GPS to get accurate directions, but he overlooked that and as a result he got lost and spent several wasted hours wandering around NYC (at the end of a long drive from Toronto when everyone in the car was already tired and irritable) until he found the hotel. It had not occurred to him to carry a map with the location of the hotel on it or to use MapQuest or similar sources to gets directions as backup.

While these two cases were benign, overdependence on GPS can be potentially deadly as one Oregon couple found when they blindly followed their GPS directions into a remote forest road and became stuck in the snow for three days before they were rescued.

I myself do not use GPS because I find that I am perfectly able to get to places with just street maps or with help from MapQuest. I also dislike the idea of voices breaking into my consciousness when I am driving and telling me what to do, when most of the time I don't need directions. Before I leave to go anywhere unfamiliar, I make sure that I have located my destination on a map and created a visual map in my head, and I take actual maps with me as a backup.

There s nothing wrong with using GPS. What surprises me is that some people are totally dependent on it and have no plan B, no backup, if the GPS goes awry.

POST SCRIPT: Wedding speeches

Over my lifetime I have attended many weddings and listened to quite a few speeches and I must say that That Mitchell and Webb Look captures their over-the-top praise nature well.

January 26, 2010

An unnatural blog

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Today marks the fifth anniversary of this blog, so I thought I would pre-empt my series on the end of politics where I excoriate Obama and the Democrats and indulge in some self-indulgent musing about the whole blogging exercise and my contribution to it.

After some initial hesitant steps when I was not sure what I would do with this new medium, I soon settled into a routine of one op-ed length essay of about 1,000 words on a single topic each weekday. Apart from repeating some postings when I am on travel or for holidays, I have not taken a break. As a result, I have now written about 1250 essays and well over a million words. But I realize that this type of blogging is not natural for the form.

The big advantage of a blog is that it can be a way of providing immediate and informed commentary on news, whereas newspapers and magazines have lag times that can be quite considerable.

The second advantage is that a blog post can be of any length. Magazine and newspaper and journal article are of the 'long form' type and there are often constraints of length that one must conform to, about 800 words for op-eds, or 1,500 or 5,000 or 10,000 word lengths for magazines and journals. But a blog can be any length at all, from just a few words to thousands. So you can say exactly what you want to say, no more, no less, as the need arises, which can be enormously liberating and prevent needless verbiage.

What I have done is seemingly take the negative aspects of the long form essay (fixed word length and more analytical pieces) and used it as a basis for my blog. I am not entirely alone in this. Glenn Greenwald's excellent blog (which should be a must read for anyone) also has usually one long (often very long) analytical piece each day, but his deals with breaking news on the legal and political fronts. I often learn about breaking news from his blog. I cannot do the kind of quick analysis that Greenwald can (he is a constitutional lawyer and has a lot of expertise at his fingertips) except on rare occasions, so I rarely publish things in such a timely way.

So why I am blogging in this unnatural way? Partly out of necessity. It takes me a while to digest information and make sense of it. I jot down ideas that I think are interesting and may have some insight into, and sometimes think about them for weeks or even months before I write them up. Also I have other work to do so that I cannot spend a lot of time keeping up with breaking news or cruising the web picking up interesting tidbits to comment on.

I know that every one is busy so it has been my goal to not waste the reader's time. I arrived at the approximately 1,000-word length because it can be read in a few minutes. Since what I write about usually deals with old news, to add value, the blog post should contain things that are at least useful or new or interesting. One way of adding value is to provide at least some original analysis. As someone for whom teaching is in the blood, I also try to explain science or other difficult topics in ways that I hope will be clear and helpful to those who do not have the time to invest in learning these things on their own. The combination of trying to explain something in depth while restricting myself to the daily word limit has resulted in the many multi-part series of posts.

I also try to write the post as well as I can, given the limited time that I can devote to it, because I know how annoying it is to read something that has typos, factual errors, poor grammar, and generally looks sloppily done. I feel that such writing is an insult to the reader. So each post is rewritten and edited several times before it is posted, which is another reason that I rarely comment quickly on breaking news stories. I also try to be as accurate as I can about the information presented and give the sources so readers can follow up for themselves. All that takes time.

The benefits of blogging for me personally have been tremendous. In researching the information for the posts and in trying to explain things to others, I have learned a lot myself. I think I have also become a much more proficient writer as a result of the practice I have gained. The blog posts have often formed the first drafts of articles that I have subsequently published in more formal venues. Even my recent book God vs. Darwin began as a series of blog posts.

In the process, I have learned a lot from the readers and made many new contacts and renewed others thanks to people finding the blog.

At each anniversary I wonder how long I can keep up the pace. My main worry is that I will run out of things to say and start repeating myself. So far, I think I have avoided that danger. It has been fine and fun so I plan to keep going.

So thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting and sending me information. Here's to another year!

POST SCRIPT: Book signing and talk

I will be giving a talk and having a book signing on God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom at the Joseph-Beth book store in Legacy Village in Beachwood, Ohio at 7:00 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, January 27, 2010).

I would enjoy meeting any readers of this blog who can make it.

December 25, 2009

Reason's Greetings!

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

Baxter and I would like to wish all the readers of this blog our best wishes for the season. May all of you find peace and happiness.

We live in a world divided by conflicts based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality. But all these divisions are of human creation that merely serve to set groups of people up against each other by encouraging appeals to tribal loyalties. They have at best merely superficial meaning, and all came into being within the last four thousand years or so, a mere instant in the vastness of time that life and the universe have existed.

Contrast the divisiveness of religion, ethnicity, and nationality with the unifying effects of science in general and evolution in particular. If everyone were to accept the truth of evolution, that each one of is connected to every other living organism that lives now and has ever lived by the Darwinian tree of life, perhaps we can overcome tribal feelings and move towards a truly just and peaceful world.

We are fortunate that we are alive to experience life in its gloriousness. We should strive to enable everyone to experience that life to its fullest, free from want, and with the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical needs met. We can do that it we do not waste so much time and energy and resources on parochial interests at the expense of the general good.

So let's spread that message.

baxtertree.JPG

November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving musings

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(I am taking the day off for the holiday and reposting an item from Thanksgiving of last year. I would like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving holiday.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn't repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War, declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick off for the shopping orgy, but not too close or people won't have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October (like it is in Canada), not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday's roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is just a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season" which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: When evil supervillains meet building safety codes

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

July 03, 2009

On the pursuit of happiness

On this day before independence day, I am posting again a reflection from two years ago on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who created that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, the suggestion that we should actively seek happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so."

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don't realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Good advice.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Sanford: The Movie

Here's the trailer.

June 23, 2009

Reflections on Hong Kong

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Hong Kong for the first time to do some consulting work. The universities there are shifting from the British model of a narrowly focused three-year degree to the American model of a four-year degree, with broader educational goals and more general education courses, and they had invited me because of my familiarity with implementing such changes.

Arriving there, it was clear that they were taking the swine flu very seriously. All of us on the plane were given flu kits consisting of a mask and a thermometer, and most employees at the airport and in restaurants wore masks, though only a few ordinary people did. A week before my arrival an entire hotel had been quarantined for a week when one of their guests had tested positive for swine flu, and so I was nervous even to sneeze at the airport in case I was whisked off to isolation.

One thing that impressed me was the public transport. It seemed like everyone used it. There was a constant stream of double-decker buses on the street and the seats in them were like those in long-distance trains, high-backed, cushioned, comfortable, and in groups of four arranged to face each other. People waiting for the buses would spontaneously queue up and enter in an orderly fashion. There were also plenty of taxis. Everyone I spoke to at the university (with one exception) said they used public transport to get to work, and did not own a car. In fact, over 90% of daily trips are done on public transport, the highest rate in the world. Hong Kong is perfect for this, of course. The population of over 7 million occupies just about 400 square miles, making it one of the densest populations in the world. Also, there is very little street parking, and residents told me that the cost of parking is very high, further discouraging private car use.

Given the density of the population, the streets were remarkably clean. The traffic was orderly though drivers tended to go fast which meant that one should only cross busy streets at the designated crossings. At some large and busy intersections they did have pedestrian overpasses and they encouraged use of these by having up escalators from the sidewalk.

The main areas of Hong Kong are full of high rises, though the road from the airport passes through surprisingly remote-looking areas, with steep hilly sides by the road reminding me of driving on the highway through rural Pennsylvania, though with different vegetation. In fact, I was surprised at how hilly and uninhabitable most of it was, which is why everyone is crammed into the rest of the areas.

Although my visit was short, it was very pleasant. The people were hospitable and friendly. My hotel (Ramada) was not luxurious but the room, though smaller and with lower ceilings than a corresponding American hotel, was well-equipped. I particularly appreciated the slippers that were provided for guests. A nice energy saving feature was that you had to insert your room key card into a unit to get the electricity turned on in your room, which meant that all the lights and appliances automatically turned off when you left.

The legendary efficiency was on display. The bedside light did not work and when I told the maid, she first tried to fix it herself and when she couldn't, she called someone on her cell phone and within an hour a technician came and replaced the unit. And this was on a Sunday morning.

I managed to visit the Hong Kong museum which was excellent. They traced the history of the region from 400 million years ago to the present, starting with the formation of the island from volcanic eruptions. The whole exhibit seemed to be done on the basis of strict science and there seemed to be no accommodation of absurd religious ideas such as that the Earth is just 6,000 years old or that humans were special creations. There were no caveats or suggestions that the geological and evolutionary history they were presenting were 'just theories', which was refreshing.

In going through the Hong Kong museum, I discovered something about myself based on how much time I spent in the various rooms. I really like ancient geological and biological history, showing developments over the long time scale evolution of the world. And I also like modern political history, events that occurred within the last 200 years. What I find boring is the part in between, after humans appeared. I tend to skip over all the stuff about early human life with the development of pots and tools and agriculture.

POST SCRIPT: Jokes are serious things

As most people know, David Letterman made a tasteless joke about Sarah Palin's daughter. There has since been a concerted attempt to blow this up into a huge issue. A demonstration called to protest his show was held in front of his studio. But what the protestors lacked in numbers (CNN said that only about fifteen people showed up, vastly outnumbered by the media), they made up by being even more tasteless.

Watch this video of the protestors (thanks to Wonkette).

Sam Seder was also at the protest and had some fun with them.

I wonder about such people. Do they realize how silly such over the top rhetoric sounds?

The inimitable Tbogg weighs in.

June 03, 2009

Okie from Muskogee and Hardware Wars

In 1969 country and western singer Merle Haggard released a song called Okie from Muskogee which was a huge hit. Part of its appeal was the ambiguity of its lyrics. Released at the height of the Vietnam war protests with the country deeply divided, widespread campus unrest, and protests in the streets, some saw the song as a repudiation of the hippie, drug using, counterculture movement and an upholding of so-called traditional values, while others saw it as poking fun (in a sly, tongue-in-cheek way) of narrow minded, small town, flag-waving patriotism.

As an example of the song's ambiguity, the term 'white lightning' can be taken at face value but is also a euphemism for illegal home-brewed moonshine liquor, popular in some rural areas. So is Haggard praising the simple values of small town life or taking a dig at how people there really get their kicks?

Even after all these years, I still cannot decide which characterization of the song is true, which is a sign that Haggard is a clever songwriter. Whatever its politics, it is still a great song. You can see it performed here and judge for yourself.

Part of my reason for showing the clip is its tenuous connection with what I originally planned this post about. When the first Star Wars film came out in 1977, it caused a sensation. That same year at another film I saw a short parody called Hardware Wars, that was constructed as a mock trailer of the original film, a deliberately cheesy, low-budget production that used ordinary household appliances in place of futuristic technology.

I am not sure if current viewers will find Hardware Wars as funny as the audience in the theater did when we first saw it and hooted with laughter, since some of the allusions are dated, and people may not remember the details of the original film either. For example, to fully appreciate the parody of the famous bar scene with its weird assortment of aliens, you have to recall that scene as well as know the first line of the chorus of Okie from Muskogee ("I am just an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball."), which was still hugely popular.

Anyway, here it is:

Part 1:

Part 2:

POST SCRIPT: Yet more parody

Kinky Friedman sings his own version of Haggard's song.


May 25, 2009

Language and Evolution

(Due to the Memorial Day holiday, I am reposting an old item.)

I have always been fascinated by language. This is somewhat ironic since I have a really hard time learning a new language and almost did not make it into college in Sri Lanka because of extreme difficulty in passing the 10th-grade language requirement in my own mother tongue of Tamil! (How that happened is a long and not very interesting story.)

But language fascinates me. How words are used, their origins, how sentences are structured, are all things that I enjoy thinking and reading about. I like playing with words, and enjoy puns, cryptic crosswords, and other forms of wordplay.

All this background is to explain why I recommend an excellent book The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, who used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the book he discusses the complexity of language and points out that the evolution of language is very similar to that of biological life. He suggests that there was originally just one spoken, very primitive, language and as the people who spoke it fanned out across the globe, the various languages evolved as separated communities formed. And in the process the languages became more complex and sophisticated, and evolved intricate features in their vocabulary and grammar that now seem to have little functional purpose, in a manner very analogous to biological systems.

The precise origin of spoken language is hard to pin down. McWhorter argues that it probably arose with the evolution of the ability to form complex sounds and roughly synchronous with the arrival of homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago. Others have suggested a more recent date for the origins of language, about 12,000-15,000 years ago, but pinning this date down precisely is next to impossible given that spoken language leaves no traces. What we do know is that written language began about 5,000 years ago

McWhorter points out that purely spoken languages evolve and change very rapidly, resulting in an extremely rapid proliferation of language leaving us with the 6,000 or so languages that we have now. It was the origin of writing, and more importantly mass printing, that slowed down the evolution of language since now the fixed words on paper acted as a brake on further changes.

He also makes an important point that the distinction between standard and dialect forms of languages have no hierarchical value and is also a post-printing phenomenon. In other words, when we hear people (say) in rural Appalachia or in the poorer sectors of inner cities speak in an English that is different from that spoken by middle class, college-educated people, it is not the case that they are speaking a debased form of 'correct' or 'standard' English. He argues that dialects are all there is or ever was, because language was always mainly a local phenomenon. There are no good or bad dialects, there are just dialects.

We can, if we wish, bundle together a set of dialects that share a lot in common and call it a language (like English or French or Swahili) but no single strand in the bundle can justifiably lay any intrinsic claim to be the standard. What we identify as standard language arose due to factors such as politics and power. Standard English now is that dialect which was spoken in the politically influential areas near London. Since that area was then the hub of printing and copying, that version of language appeared in the written form more often than other forms and somewhere in the 1400s became seen as the standard. The same thing happened with standard French, which happened to be the dialect spoken in the Paris areas.

McWhorter points out that, like biological organisms, languages can and do go extinct in that people stop speaking them and they disappear or, in some cases like Latin, only appear in fossilized form. In fact, most of the world's languages that existed have already gone extinct, as is the case with biological species. He says that rapid globalization is making many languages disappear even more rapidly because as people become bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and as a few languages emerge as the preferred language of commerce, there is less chance of children learning the less-privileged language as their native tongue. This loss in the transmission of language to children as their primary language is the first stage leading to eventual extinction. He points out that currently 96 percent of the world's population speaks at least one of just twenty languages, in addition to their indigenous language. These languages are Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portugese, Japanese, German, French, Punjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Italian, Korean, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and Vietnamese and thus these are the languages most likely to survive extinction. It is noteworthy that the population of India is so large and diverse that seven of these languages originated there, and two others (English and Arabic) are also used extensively in that country.

He also points out that languages are never 'pure' and that this situation is the norm. Languages cross-fertilize with other languages to form language stews, so that language chauvinists who try to preserve some pure and original form of their language are engaged in a futile task. For example, of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, more than 99 percent were originally obtained from other languages. However, the remaining few that originated in Old English, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from turn out to be 62 percent of the words that are used most.

McWhorter is a very good writer, able to really bring the subject to life by drawing on everyday matters and popular culture. He has a breezy and humorous style and provides lots of very interesting bits of trivia that, while amusing, are also very instructive of the points he wishes to make. Regarding the ability of language to change and evolve new words, for example, he explains how the word 'nickname' came about. It started out as an 'ekename' because in old English, the word 'eke' meant also, so that an 'ekename' meant an 'also name' which makes sense. Over time, though, 'an ekename' changed to 'a nekename' and eventually to 'a nickname.' He gives many interesting examples of this sort.

Those who know more than one language well will likely appreciate his book even more than me. It is a book that is great fun to read and I can strongly recommend to anyone who loves words and language.

POST SCRIPT: Rhythm of Life

I didn't care much for the musical Sweet Charity but there was one song by Sammy Davis, Jr. that was terrific.

That song was used in a great advertisement for Guinness Beer that linked it to evolution.

May 05, 2009

Spam comments dilemma

My policy with comments to the blog is to leave them unmoderated. So anyone can post any comment any time without getting prior approval from me. My feeling is that people have a right to express their opinion. So even though there seem to be some people who scan the web to find anything even remotely related to their pet topic and then post very long screeds about their pet theory that has only marginal relevance to my post, I have let those comments stand, not wanting to be in the position of censor.

But one problem with such an open-door policy is that it allows for spam comments to fill up the comments section. One of the curses of the internet is the amount of spam that goes around. Every day my mailbox contains a large amount of it that I have to delete but with the blog has come a new form of spam, in the form of comments that are generated by so-called spambots, automated devices that crawl around the web being a nuisance. The purposes of these are to either advertise a product (often sex-related) or to post hyperlinks that will boost the search engine ranking of a particular site.

Most of these comments are obviously spam, some consisting of random phrases or gibberish or even the alphabets of other languages, others fulsomely praising my entries with repetitive phrases, such as "Cool site", "I love this site!", "This site is cool/crazy", "I just discovered this terrific site and will bookmark it", "Nice design", and "I'm happy. Very good site."

Some reassure me that things are going well for them, saying things like "I'm fine" while others try to keep me up with popular trends by saying "Punk not dead."

Since the point of the blog is to generate meaningful conversation, I have to take steps to prevent the comments section from being filled with spam and discouraging genuine posts. The server that hosts my blog has some features built in that detects and prevents spambots from posting most of their comments. But some still sneak through and I have to go through all the comments a couple of times every day to eliminate those. If a comment looks robotic and has no relevance to the post, I delete it. I also use the opportunity to rescue and publish some genuine comments that the filter has wrongly eliminated

But spambots are getting cleverer. Sometimes I find comments that seem as though they are written by a real human because they are sort of relevant to the post, but yet seem vaguely familiar or slightly off. On closer investigation, I find that it is because the spambot has taken part of the text of a genuine comment by a real user, or even my own words in the post, and inserted them as its own comment, in order to get past the filter. I delete those comments too.

More recently, though I have encountered an even more difficult situation. This is where there is a brief comment that seems to be written by a genuine person, but which seems to be advertising a product. The comment feature has a space where people can insert their url and I have no problem with genuine commenters using that to link to their own website, even if that website is a commercial one.

But what is happening is that companies are apparently paying real people to visit blogs that have vaguely relevant posts and post comments that are mainly meant as advertisements. One of my posts has been especially hit by this phenomenon, generating 35 comments, most of which appeared to me to be of doubtful origin. Take a look.

This is apparently part of a trend called viral marketing where companies are using real people to create fake grass roots buzz about something, because it turns out that studies suggest that people trust word of mouth information, even from people they don't know, more than they do official sources and vastly more so than commercial advertising. So you may find 'friendly' people you meet in a bar or a coffee shop (they are called 'leaners' in the trade) talking about how great some product is, and you do not realize that they have been paid to go around doing this.

Andy Sernowitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing, talks to On the Media host Bob Garfield about how this phenomenon is now being used on the internet.

ANDY SERNOVITZ: There's two big ways that people try to sneak past you: either they lie about who they are, so you think you're reading an honest comment on a blog and it's actually a marketer in disguise with 20 different logins, or they're paying other people to recommend something on their blogs or email or Facebook and not telling you that those people have been paid.

You usually see it most from either sort of low-end, sleazy, like, health remedies and get-rich-quick schemes and that end, or you see it from entertainment companies, from folks who are out there to hype a song or a movie.

BOB GARFIELD: Some of this is called pay-per-post, right – bloggers getting X number of cents for every time they post a favorable appraisal of a new song or something?

ANDY SERNOVITZ: Yeah, you see a couple of big operations. One company's actually called PayPerPost, and it pays you to write blog posts about stuff. There's a new one called Magpie that pays you to send stuff out over your Twitter account under your name.

And where it gets more interesting is the way things get repeated in social media. And this is what concerns me more, is that a company might pay through this pay-per-post service to get 200 people to blog something about them. And it says this was a paid placement in the blog post, so technically that's okay. They did say it was paid for.

But then those blog posts get repeated on their Facebook page and then on Twitter, and then someone else copies it, and suddenly 10 times more posts have the exact same paid review. Well, we've lost the disclosure that made it honest. I mean, really, the big idea here is this word "disclosure." And what it says is, it's okay to pay for coverage. That's called advertising. But you have to say, and now a word from our sponsors.

So what should I do when I suspect that a comment is being posted by a real person but for commercial reasons rather than for having a genuine conversation with other readers or with me? Should I delete them or give them the benefit of the doubt?

I am leaning towards this policy: If I suspect that a comment is either spam or being posted purely for the sake of advertising something, I will delete it unless the comment contains some redeeming features, such as advancing the discussion or providing relevant information.

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT: Corruption in medicine

The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is published by Elsevier, an outfit that publishes many leading journals. It is sent to many doctors. But the magazine The Scientist just revealed that this "journal" is not a real, peer-reviewed journal publishing original articles. Instead it is funded purely by the drug company Merck and contains reprinted or summarized articles favorable to Merck products.

George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An "average reader" (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a "genuine" peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. "Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A]."

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. "I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors," Jelinek said at the trial. "This is straightforward marketing."

If there is one area of science where fraud and corruption will threaten to discredit the whole enterprise, it is medicine, because of the money and influence of the drug industry.

April 06, 2009

God save us from the Queen

One of the things about America that most endeared it to me when I first arrived for graduate studies was the lack of stuffiness in personal and business relationships. There was an easy informality, casual yet respectful, friendly yet polite, that I liked and found easy to get used to. I put this down to the American revolution, that decided that along with getting rid of direct rule by the English king, they also decided to get rid of all the pomp that went along with the English court. It seemed to reflect a sturdy democratic and republican (small 'd' and small 'r') spirit.

So it always surprises and amuses me that whenever the US president goes to England and meets with the Queen, the media of the very country that inspired the rest of the world to overthrow colonial and monarchial rule, gets into all of a doo-dah at the alarming prospect that the president or his wife will commit some awful faux pas that will embarrass the country because it will reveal to the world that Americans are ignorant hicks who should not be allowed into polite society.

We are not talking about things like the president picking his nose at the dinner table or chewing tobacco and spitting on the carpet. We can take as a given that such things are generally understood to be not done. We are not even talking about making mistakes of esoteric etiquette at formal dinner parties, like which fork to use for what or what one should do with one's napkin after one is done or what one should drink at any given stage of the meal. Although these latter issues are trivial and I do not understand why anyone even cares about them, I am talking about the even more arcane rules of etiquette that involve just the Queen. Apparently one should never turn one's back on her, not touch her, not speak to her until she speaks to you, and so on. If you do any of these things, the journalists covering the event suddenly get transformed into a bunch of Victorian ladies either getting the vapors and reaching for their smelling salts or raising their eyebrows and peering disapprovingly through their lorgnettes with a lot of harrumphing and tut-tutting, saying, "This is perfectly frightful. This will never do."

The hot topic this time is whether Michelle Obama should have touched the Queen and whether their gift of an iPod was appropriate. There was little discussion about the fact that the Queen gave them in return a signed photograph of herself and her husband, which struck me as quite odd. If an American president had done that, the press corps might have collapsed with apoplectic embarrassment.

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But the real question is: Why the hell should anyone care about any of this? Why should anyone else be bothered by the possibility that the Queen will be offended by the violation of some private rule of etiquette? Just suck it up, Queenie baby!

These absurd rules were imposed by the kings and queens of yore because they wanted people to be afraid of them and to grovel before them. The way you keep people off-balance and apprehensive is by making them not know whether they are transgressing a rule or not. And the monarchs of those days had the power to create and enforce rules arbitrarily. Breaking any of the rules could result in them ordering the offender's head to be cut off and placed on a spike for public view. That's how "civilized" the British royalty were. And yet we admire them?

The Queen may be a nice old lady but the respect she deserves is the same as what one should give any other nice old lady, such as the grandmotherly types of one's acquaintance or the cashiers at the supermarket, no more and no less. All this bowing and scraping is unseemly. Who knows, maybe the royal family makes up weirder and weirder rules just to see how far they can make gullible Americans tie themselves up in knots, and then secretly laugh uproariously at their expense afterwards.

Furthermore the British monarchy is a totally parasitic institution, living off inherited wealth that was taken by force from the people, and it should be abolished rather than pandered to. To abide by these arcane rules and not to ignore them or treat them with contempt is to endorse some of the worst legacies of feudalism.

In the unlikely event that I receive an invitation to Buckingham Palace and decide to go, I will not say upon meeting her "Yo, Lizzie, what's shakin?" but I am definitely not going to bow to her or follow any of the rules that somebody decided long ago was the proper way to behave in her presence. I will treat her like I would treat any elderly lady of my acquaintance. I will stand when she enters, offer to shake her hand, and make appropriate small talk. That's it.

The British have been warned.

POST SCRIPT: John Oliver explains why one should not touch the Queen

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
The Poisonous Queen
comedycentral.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesEconomic CrisisPolitical Humor

March 30, 2009

Road rants

It is time for another edition of Road Rants where, after going on a road trip where I have time to think of these things, I note the driving practices I see that annoy me and make suggestions for improvement. The previous rants were here, here, and here.

Turning on lights

On the highway several times I came across a sign saying that there was construction ahead and to turn on the headlights. In each case there were about six or seven cars ahead of me, not one of whom bothered to turn on their lights. On the other hand, when there was a sign saying that we were about to enter a tunnel and to turn on the lights, everyone people did so. Though some only after entering the tunnel

Why is this? I suspect that most people do not realize that turning on the lights serves two purposes. It helps you see better but it also helps others see you better. Most people only think about the first. As long as they can see without turning on their lights (which is the case in daytime), they see no point in turning on their lights. It does not occur to them that it helps the construction workers on the road see cars earlier and better and take evasive action if necessary.

This reluctance to turn on headlights is annoying and dangerous when driving in heavy rain or snow where the visibility is poor. Turning on your headlights doesn't enable you to see further, so some drivers don't turn them on, not realizing that by keeping them off, they become largely invisible to others on the road. Very often you will find cars suddenly emerge from the gloom without warning because they did not have their lights on. I wish Ohio would enact and enforce a law that some states have that says that when your wipers are on, your lights must also be on.

Hogging the passing lane

Another practice that puzzles me is that of those drivers who get onto the passing lane of the highway and stay there. Apart from the fact that it is against the law, what are they thinking? People who do that in moderate levels of traffic can block traffic behind them for quite a distance. Surely they must notice that other drivers drop back into the slow lane after passing? Surely they must wonder why they do that? Or are they so oblivious to others that they think that as long as they are going close to the speed limit, it does not matter which lane they are in? I used to think that the people who did this were the stereotypical old geezers but on my last trip I noticed that the culprits were middle-aged and even young drivers.

Cameras

Recently cities and states have been increasing the use of cameras to detect people who go through red lights or speed in built up areas or construction zones. This has generated a remarkable level of angry opposition with citizen petitions seeking to outlaw the practice.

I am a little puzzled by this reaction. While I am usually concerned by invasions of privacy, this does not seem to me to be such a violation. It seeks to deter dangerous driving practices and nab those who do so without the wastefulness of having police idling for hours in hidden spots, when they could be doing far more useful things like preventing and solving more serious crimes. So what is the problem with these cameras? Do people want the freedom to drive dangerously? It is true that some communities are using these devices as a means for increasing revenue but that does not seem to me to be a disqualifying factor.

Highway merging (again!)

Some time ago, I suggested that when the number of lanes is reduced on a highway (which usually creates a bottleneck), that it was most efficient if traffic in both lanes went up to the merge point, the so-called 'late merge' policy, rather than merging much earlier which is what traffic etiquette seems to require.

In response to other points of view, I modified that stance to say that perhaps the most efficient way to merge was if both lanes could maintain speed while doing so, which suggested an 'early merge' policy, before traffic congestion built up enough to prevent merging while maintaining speed.

It now turns out (thanks to a subsequent comment on the first post by Chandra, who is both a traffic engineer and an old school friend of mine who stumbled on my post while doing some research on this topic) that a study finds that during congested times, the late merge is best after all, while at other times the regular merge rules should be followed.

A new book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt cites other research that supports the late merging policy.

Among Vanderbilt's findings is the discovery that "late merging" may actually cause traffic to move more quickly, contrary to popular belief. When a sign warns that the lane will end in a given distance, standard driving etiquette causes many to move over as promptly as possible. However, if everyone were to merge at a single point when the lane ends, the road would get maximal usage and lane changes would become more orderly. The result would be traffic that moves 15% faster than current behavior allows.

"If people were told exactly to not leave the lane that was closing until the very point it actually did close, and then we did a nice alternating merge — it would be faster," says Vanderbilt. "Another benefit would be the queue of vehicles stretching back from the construction site would be smaller."

More traffic circles please!

Vanderbilt's book also supports my feeling, based on my driving experience in Australia and New Zealand where traffic circles (or 'roundabouts') are ubiquitous, that we should have more traffic circles here.

Vanderbilt also argues that round-abouts may be safer than traditional stoplight intersections. Though traffic circles may seem confusing, they have fewer "conflict points," places where cars can physically hit an object or person. Intersections have 32 of these conflict points, where round-abouts only have 16. The round-about is particularly safe because it completely eliminates the left-turn, one of the most dangerous driving maneuvers.

POST SCRIPT: Common food myths

Following up on my recent series on food, I was sent this interesting article on common food myths (Thanks to Ashali).

March 26, 2009

The Nigerian 419 scam goes meta

Is there anyone by now who has not heard of the 'Nigerian 419' scam or been approached by the people behind it? Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive several of these things in my email (sometimes several in one day). Word must have spread in the confidence trickster world that I look like a real sucker because I used to get these solicitations long before they became well-known as a fraud. Even before the internet I used to regularly get actual letters. But despite their notoriety, even now it appears that there are still people falling for it. In the US alone, it is estimated that about $200 million is conned per year.

The fraud starts with the arrival of a letter or email from someone in another country saying that a vast some of money, running to many millions of dollars, has come into their hands and they are seeking ways to get it out of the country. They have heard that you are a trustworthy, responsible, and discreet person and if you are willing to have your bank account used as a conduit, then you get to keep a third or so of the total.

The letter preys on the greed or desperation of people. It usually is purported to come from an official in a bank or government who has stumbled upon a dormant bank account of a diseased rich person with no heirs, or it is the secret stash of a dead or deposed ruler of a country. Sometimes it comes from a lawyer (these letter writers are seem to think that British lawyers have credibility) who says that he is acting on behalf of a client. Sometimes it comes from the widow or other relative of a former ruler who is now being persecuted by the current regime and is in hiding or in a refugee camp but knows where the money is secretly hidden. Sometimes you are told that you are the winner of a lottery. Sometimes it is from a dying wealthy, religious person, who wants their money to be spent in the service of the poor after they are dead and they have heard that you are a religious person who does good works and they want to support your work.

These letters are an art form in themselves. Douglas Cruickshank writes of the:

almost poetic sweetness (swaddled in lavishly stilted prose excavated from an 18th century protocol handbook) in how the letters begin. "It is with a heart full of hope ..." reads one. "Compliments of the season. Grace and peace and love from this part of the Atlantic to you" is how another starts. "Goodday to you, I would here crave your distinguished indulgence" begins a third." And still another opens, "It is with my profound dignity that I write you."

My favorite is perhaps this one (the phrasing is less lyrical than the others, but its deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity can't be matched):

It is with deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity that I write this letter to you knowing full well how you will feel as regards to receiving a mail from somebody you have not met or seen before. There is no need to fear, I got your address from a business directory which lends credence to my humble belief. I also assure you of my honesty and trustworthiness.

You've no sooner started to read one of these slyly poignant pleas before you're bathing in the warmth of the author's lofty intentions, a soothing hot tub bubbling over with reassurance, honesty and trustworthiness.

Whatever the story, you are asked to furnish information, including your bank account number so that the money can be transferred to you. What happens next varies. In the simplest case, they find some way to empty the sucker's account of whatever money it has. They are the lucky ones.

In other cases, when they hook a sucker, they then say that a minor glitch has occurred and that they need some small amount of money to pay some fees or bribe an official. Once you send the money, you are hooked and you get requests for a little more money to solve another minor problem, etc. all of which are hard to resist, since you have already invested some money. It has sometimes got so bad that people have even traveled to the country to help facilitate the release of the money they've been promised and only then discovered that they've been had.

There have been people who have had fun reversing the scam. Here is one hilarious story of one such counterscam, though it is better not to have anything to do with the scammers because they are criminals, and just ignore the emails altogether.

Perhaps because the original forms of the scam are now so well known, I recently received a more sophisticated meta-version that exploits the very fact that the original appeals are largely known to be frauds. Here is the email I got last week:

Dearest One,

I am Susan Walter, I am a US citizen, 39years. But I reside and work here in the States, and my home town in the States is Texas. My residential address is as follows. [Street address provided].

I am one of those that executed a contract in Nigeria years ago and they refused to pay me, I had paid over $70,000 trying to get my payment all to no avail. So I decided to travel down to Nigeria with all my contract documents.

And I was directed to meet with Barr Mat Oto, who is the member of CONTRACT AWARD COMMITTEE, and I contacted him and he explained everything to me. He said that those contacting us through emails are fake. Then he took me to the paying bank, which is Oceanic Bank Int., and I am the happiest woman on this earth because I have received my contract funds of 4.2Million USD.

Moreover, Barr Mat Oto showed me the full information of those that have not received their payment; and I saw your contact. This is what you have to do now. You have to contact him direct on this information below;

Name: Barr Mat Oto [Email, phone, and street addresses provided]

You really have to stop your dealing with those contacting you, because they will dry you up until you have nothing to eat. The only money I paid was just $1,200 for IRS, which you know. So you have to take note of that.

Thanks.

Mrs. Susan Walter.

It is really sweet of the now-very-rich Susan Walter to take the trouble to track me down and let me know that I too am the genuine recipient of millions of dollars and to warn me away from all the swindlers out there and point me to the one genuine individual. Unfortunately, what with one thing and another, I am a little busy now and don't know that I can spare the time to contact Mr. Oto myself.

So here's my offer. I am willing to share my good fortune with someone who is willing to do all the work to get me my money. I have heard that the readers of this blog are trustworthy, responsible, and discreet persons. If any of you are interested, please tell Mr. Oto that you are my authorized agent and once I get my millions of dollars, I will wire you one third of it. Just give me your bank account number, ok?

March 04, 2009

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

I want to pay a long overdue tribute to Paul Newman, who was one of the truly great actors of our time. Although his good looks and acting talent alone could have secured his place purely as a romantic leading man, what made him special was the roles he chose, taking people who were flawed in some way, people whose moral compass did not quite point true north, and making them sympathetic.

He also did not seem full of himself, shying away from the celebrity culture that films spawn. Despite his success and fame, he did not seem (at least publicly) to suffer from excessive ego and was self-deprecating, always a good trait to have. He delighted in telling the story of how he once spoke to a group of school children and one of them raised his hand and said, "So what did you do before you went into the salad dressing business?"

Paul Newman's films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting have given me hours of pleasure.

I cannot really pick a top favorite but surely Cool Hand Luke, which inserted into popular culture the line "What we got here is a failure to communicate", must rank high on anyone's list.

Here are two other back-to-back scenes from that film, featuring that other great character actor George Kennedy.

Although Newman's politics was progressive (he was very proud of making it into Richard Nixon's 'enemies list'), his films were not overtly political. But that did not mean that they did not have political meaning, since they often dealt with an individual fighting the odds, finding deep reservoirs of inner strength, and not giving up.

Newman aged gracefully. As one observer put it, he did not seem to get older, just purer. Here is a scene from a later 1982 film The Verdict that is apropos for today's political climate.

Paul Newman grew up in the suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights where I now live and went to the same high school as that my daughters attended. That is the full extent of my links to him but his death brings with it the kind of sadness that follows the loss of an old and good friend.

I spent some wonderful times with him.

POST SCRIPT: Spotting a hidden religious agenda

In this 28 February 2009 New Scientist article, Amanda Gefter lists the cues by which you can identify people who are pursuing a religious agenda while seeming to talk about science.

February 02, 2009

Relative and absolute loss

Change is difficult to deal with, especially if it is a change for the worse in one's financial status. Losing one's job and being forced to accept a lower paying one or having to lower one's lifestyle is not easy to accept, irrespective of what one's initial and final level of living was.

In the wake of the Bernie Madoff fraud, we hear of many people saying that they are 'financially ruined', that they have 'lost everything'. When looked at closely, though, some of those descriptions seem to be based on a relative rather than an absolute scale.

For example, take this article by someone named Alexandra Penney who was a Madoff victim and was so traumatized by the prospect of her loss that she did not leave her apartment for days. But when you read her piece, you realize that she lives in a nice New York apartment, has another studio for her work, a cottage in Florida, and employs a maid who comes in three times a week to, among other things, iron her 40 'classic white shirts' because she likes to wear a clean new one every day. Every year Penney travels to many exotic countries.

Penney will now have to give up some of these things, and she is so traumatized that she thinks of suicide.

I’ve lived a great and interesting life. I love beautiful things: high thread count sheets, old china, watches, jewelry, Hermes purses, and Louboutin shoes. I like expensive French milled soap, good wines, and white truffles. I have given extravagant gifts like diamond earrings. I traveled a lot. In this last year, I've been Laos, Cambodia, India, Russia, and Berlin for my first solo art show. Will I ever be able to explore exotic places again?

The article reeks with self-pity and in doing so betrays a certain lack of awareness and sensitivity of how it might be perceived by people for whom the words 'lost everything' or 'financial ruin' may mean becoming homeless or going hungry, and not the loss of a maid or a beach vacation home or trips to exotic locales.

In Penney's case, she seems devastated that she may have to give up her studio and her maid and that she has to learn how to take the subway in New York. (I had thought that all New Yorkers routinely took the subway but apparently there are some people for whom it is a totally foreign experience.) As the comments on her post indicate, she received some scorn from people who see her self-pity as signs of a self-absorbed and pampered life.

I do not doubt for a minute that Penney feels a genuine sense of loss and am not saying that she should not feel sorry for herself. Loss is loss and if, for example, it should turn out that some personal financial setback results in my being forced to give up my home and move into a small apartment in a cheaper location or have to carefully count pennies in order to meet the basic necessities of life, it would undoubtedly be difficult for me to adjust and I would feel as sorry for myself as Penney does.

But even in my loss I hope I would retain enough of a sense of proportion to realize that it is a relative loss and that, as long as I still had food and shelter, it is not ruin on any absolute scale. We need to always bear in mind that there are people who are in far worse straits than us and what to us may seem like an almost unbearable lowering of living standards may be luxury for them.

POST SCRIPT: Denis Leary remembers his own films

Leary is a really funny guy.

Denis Leary Remembers Denis Leary Movies - watch more funny videos

December 24, 2008

Betraying both principles and friends- the famous Milgram experiments.

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in February 2007.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to inform on their friends and colleagues and name names, refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, others felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more principled but risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment for this purpose. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. … This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one's friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo's letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: "How is it possible that … ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience … Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience." His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim's increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw actual footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The first segment (out of five) of is shown below but you really must see all five to get the full impact of it.

The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most had the normal aversion to inflicting gratuitous pain on others, were really anguished, and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and repeatedly sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

This is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

This explains why so many otherwise decent people are willing to condone the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture that are being carried out by the government. They have been reassured by the president, vice president, other high officials, and 'respectable' opinion makers, and that everything is fine and under control, that the victims are not really suffering any real harm and that these actions are necessary in order to achieve some greater good.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday's post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one's honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor. And 'tortured liberals' play important roles in this persuasion, providing an intellectual cover that makes people who instinctively revolt against violating their deeply held principles feel that they are somehow extremists and outside the norm.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state and its propaganda arms. We have to systematically create those resources.

The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what gives us the strength to challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource in this fight. I wonder what the result would have been if the people applying the shocks had had a friend with them.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A study found that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that "People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent." Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

"[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem."

December 23, 2008

Friends

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypothetical situations such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But such extreme hypothetical situations are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one's friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books and to obey, or at least cooperate with, the authorities charged with enforcing them.

But it is not that simple.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper's magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym "Robert Rich") even won an Academy Award in 1957 for the film The Brave One.

In his letter, Trumbo makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: "Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That's the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard."

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That's the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings - economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, - what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide range of jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on that journey.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: "Would you like a man who told on his friend?" – there would not be one among them who would answer, "Yes."

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
….
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won't fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo's letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

POST SCRIPT: The shoe hurled around the world

I have not written anything about the incident where an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at Bush. There was more than enough chatter about it elsewhere. The best commentary that I encountered was by Bob Garfield on the weekly radio program On the Media.


December 22, 2008

The problem of tipping

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in November 2005.)

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don't routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one's life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to repeatedly confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.

I feel that people should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers (which is what tipping is) to earn a living wage. Anyone who works full time should be able to make enough to live on, which in the US means roughly doubling the current minimum wage, although there is strong regional variation.

I hate tipping because it seems like it is meant to force people to be nice to me. In general, I find people to be nice and polite and helpful without the need for extrinsic motivators for such behavior. I think that almost all people are like that and do not need to be paid to extend the common courtesies of life to one another. People smile, greet each other, assist each other if necessary, all because we feel a sense of empathy and oneness with those around us, not because we expect some reward.

But when I tip someone, I feel as if I am implying that that person performed that act of kindness or service because of the expectation of payment. And to me this cheapens that human interaction, transforming it into a commercial transaction. Unfortunately, I don't know what to personally do about it. I tip people because I know they are not paid well and depend on tips to make ends meet. But if at all possible, I try to bury the tip so that it is not obviously an exchange of money between the person being tipped and me. In restaurants, I add it to the bill and pay by credit card so that no money directly changes hands between the server and me.

But in some cases, you cannot avoid a cash exchange so I try to avoid situations where the tip is the only money that exchanges hands, but instead is part of the overall cash payment. For taxis, for example, I can add it to the fare so that I am not due any change and so can act like I am paying just the fare. If that is unavoidable and I have to give a cash tip to a person that is not part of a payment for other goods and services, I try as much as possible to do it when the recipient is not there, like leaving it on a restaurant table when leaving, or leaving it in a hotel room when checking out.

But there are some situations, such as with porters and hotel doorpersons and bellhops, where the tip cannot be so disguised. I try as much as possible to avoid those situations by doing things myself as much as possible and if I cannot do so, tip as unobtrusively as I can.

We do not live in an egalitarian society. Society is stratified by class and wealth. But tips seem to rub everyone's noses in that reality in a particularly revolting way. The jobs that depend on tips seem to me to encourage servility and an almost feudal sensibility, throwing us back to a former age where the 'noble lords and ladies' dispense largesse to a fawning and grateful peasantry. Fortunately I do not spend time in places where wealthy people hang out and where there is an expectation that you will be waited on hand and foot and treated obsequiously. I live largely in a world where people carry their own bags, do their own chores, and open their own doors, or do so for others simply out of politeness.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what is 'normal' practice, seeing a deep social problem where none exists. But then I wonder how I would feel if the university did not pay me a living wage but instead had tip jars in each classroom and I had to depend upon satisfied students to give tips after each class supplement my income. A colleague tells me that in the old days of the Greek philosopher-teachers, students would pay them for each class if they were satisfied, so this is not an unheard of practice. What would that do to the student-teacher relationship? I cannot imagine that it would be good. So why is it good for other relationships?

What I would really like is for everyone to be paid a living wage.

POST SCRIPT: Sand sculpture

I have always been impressed with the time and effort that some people put into such temporary things as sand sculptures. Here is one in Italy where tons of sand was used to create a huge nativity scene which includes approximately 200 figures and 100 animals.

December 11, 2008

On being a contented loner

I have a confession to make: I am a bad Facebook friend. Although I have a Facebook account, I don't do anything with it. From time to time someone will request that I be their friend and I almost always say yes even if I know them just remotely or they are just a friend of a friend. But to accept them as a friend is about the only time that I even log into my Facebook account. I have the vague sense that I should be doing more with the site, that somehow I am neglecting my Facebook friends, but am not sure what I should be doing.

So why did I join Facebook at all if I was not going to do anything with it? It started long ago when I read about Facebook in an article, when it was still limited to a few ivy league schools. I was intrigued by the concept because I felt that there were not enough avenues for students at Case to meet and socialize and I felt that Facebook might be a good thing to get started here. Since I was not quite sure how it worked, when the opportunity arose for non-ivy leaguers to join up, I was one of the first to do so to check it out. It seemed like a good thing and I recommended to the computer and student affairs people here that we should consider promoting it strongly amongst our students.

Of course, Facebook exploded in popularity without any help from us, and so I let the matter drop and forgot about my account. But after some time people discovered that I had a Facebook account and I slowly started getting requests to be friends. It seemed to me that the polite thing to do was to say yes. After all, how can you say be so churlish as to say no to a request from someone to be your friend? And so my list of Facebook friends slowly grew. Of course, the total number of friends I have is still tiny, in the double digits, unlike some people who have thousands. But I still feel guilty that I am ignoring this small group of people who took the trouble to reach out to me and I sometimes wonder what they think of me ("What a jerk. He never calls. He never writes. He never tells us what he is doing or feeling at the moment.") I have thought of closing my account but that seems even ruder, like abruptly moving to another city and not giving people a forwarding address. So I am stuck.

(I am also puzzled by the occasional request to be a friend from people whom I do not know in the least, with whom I have no common Facebook friends, and who live in places I have never even been to. Why would they ask a stranger to be their friend? Is there some social networking dynamic that I am not aware of that is causing this?)

My problem is that I am somewhat of a loner. I do not actively seek out the company of people. (This is consistent with the post last week about how my writing pegs me down as an introvert.) I am perfectly content with my own thoughts and books and the internet. I do enjoy occasional socializing with friends, but even then I prefer conversations with a few people than large and noisy parties. If I do attend such a party, I try to find a few congenial companions and spend the entire evening in their company. I enjoy meetings with colleagues at work provided the meetings are not too frequent or go on for too long. After about an hour I start looking forward to going back to the solitude of my office where I can sort out my thoughts and put them into writing.

I also still do not own a cell phone, which shocks many people. When asked why, I reply truthfully that my job is such that emergencies do not arise and people do not need to contact me at short notice. Also my habits are fairly regular so that people can usually reach me at my office or at home. Furthermore, I have lived all my life quite happily without a cell phone and am not convinced that it has suddenly become a can't-do-without item. In short, a cell phone has not become a functional necessity for me and I try to not clutter up my life with things I don't need.

But there are two other major reasons that I usually leave unsaid. The first is that I hate talking on the phone. I am much more comfortable writing an email to someone or speaking with them face-to-face than picking up the phone and calling them. If I have to talk to people on the phone because the matter is too complicated to write about or requires a personal touch, I tend to get to the point quickly, and when the matter is settled, try to end the call as politely as I can.

I don't know why I dislike phone conversations but I know I am not alone in this. Recently on some blogs the discussion turned to this topic and almost all of the bloggers said that they hated talking on the phone too. This is perhaps not too surprising. Bloggers, after all, are people who like the written word and have chosen to express their thoughts in writing.

The other reason that I do not have a cell phone is that I like to be left alone. There are many times when I simply do not want to be contacted. Once you have a cell phone, the presumption becomes that it should always be on, that you should always have it with you, answer all calls immediately, or call back within a few minutes. I have noticed that people get annoyed and frustrated when they call someone's cell phone and it is not answered or they do not get an immediate callback.

There is an explosion of new ways of being in contact, social networking systems such as Twitter and Second Life being just two. I steadfastly refuse to join any of them unless I absolutely have to.

I did join Second Life out of curiosity when it first came out and because Case was getting deeply involved in it, but stopped doing anything with my avatar soon after, thus repeating my unfortunate Facebook experience. I am probably now as much a social pariah on Second Life as I am on Facebook.

I am not a total Luddite who rejects all new technology. If I need something I will use it. Recently I actually initiated a private social networking group on Ning (thanks to help from Heidi) to facilitate the organization of a college reunion, so I can and will use these devices if I feel the need.

I am well aware that I am fighting the tide on this one. Eventually, everyone will be on many social networks with everyone else, each person constantly aware of what other people are doing. And scattered here and there will be these isolated individuals like me who have no clue as to what is happening all around them.

That realization is a little disturbing. I like to think of myself as a social being and the thought that I am actively shunning avenues for being in touch with other people is troubling, suggesting that I am somewhat of a misanthrope. But not really. I do not hate or distrust humankind. And I am also not like Linus of Peanuts fame when he said, "I love humanity! It's people I can't stand!"

I really do like people and humanity. I just don't want to be in touch with a lot of them all the time and there does not seem to be any word other than 'loner' to describe people like me.

POST SCRIPT: Christmas cheer for the godless

British comedians like Ricky Gervais and Robin Ince have organized a program of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration of Christmas.

[Gervais's] motivation is as benign as it is pro-rationalist. "I wanted to do events around Christmas for people who don't have any belief, to show that they're not bitter, Scrooge-like characters. Everyone is going to be approaching the evening from a passionate scientific perspective rather than from a bashing-the-Bible slant."

For Ince and his missionary friends, the word that needs to be spread is that the universe is wondrous even without faith in a divine plan. Dawkins will read from his book Unweaving the Rainbow, "which is about how science makes things more beautiful and more exciting - not less".

But by holding this rationalist jamboree so close to Christmas, are they not guilty of provocation?

"If it riles people," says Ince, "it does so because they're fools. Anyone who feels we are 'stealing Christmas away' would just be half-witted. Some people are desperate to be offended."

For those who do not know Robin Ince, here is a clip that I have shown before where he compares evolution with creationism and intelligent design.


December 05, 2008

The internet is watching you

Recently I came across two sites that made me realize that the internet is getting too smart for its own good.

One is the site Typealyzer. You insert the URL of a blog and it does a Myers-Briggs type analysis of the personality of the author.

The results of a Myers-Briggs analysis places the subject along four axes:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

So I inserted the URL for this blog into Typealyzer and got the result that I am an INTP-type, broadly classified as 'The Thinker':

Private, intellectual, impersonal, analytical and reflective, the INTP appears to value ideas, principles and abstract thinking above all else. This logical type seeks to understand and explain the universe--not to control it! Higher education often holds a particular appeal to this type who tends to acquire degrees and amass knowledge over the entire course of life. Abstract or theoretical subjects are usually the INTP's cup of tea, and academic or research careers may seem attractive to this type. From science and math to economics and philosophy: just name the discipline, and you'll find INTPs perched on the loftiest rungs of theory and analysis. In whatever field they choose, INTPs take on the role of visionary, scientist or architect, and they usually prefer to make their contributions in relative solitude. The mundane details of life may be the INTP's undoing, since this type lives in a world guided by intuitive thinking. Often perceived to be arrogant and aloof, the quiet and sometimes reclusive INTP may have to struggle in the personal realm, as well, for feelings are not this type's natural forte.

I then compared this with one of the many quasi-Myers-Briggs assessments available on the internet for free (you have to pay for the real thing) and got the result that my personality type is INTJ.

Of course, each of the four axes is a continuum and few people are at the very extremes of each. The strengths of my individual preferences were given as 44% Introverted, 50% Intuitive, 25% Thinking, and 89% Judging. These can be expressed qualitatively as moderately expressed introvert, moderately expressed intuitive, moderately expressed thinking, and very expressed judging.

The Myers-Briggs site describes the two types in the following way:

INTP: Seek to develop logical explanations for everything that interests them. Theoretical and abstract, interested more in ideas than in social interaction. Quiet, contained, flexible, and adaptable. Have unusual ability to focus in depth to solve problems in their area of interest. Skeptical, sometimes critical, always analytical.

INTJ: Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.

The URL analyzer seems to be in pretty good agreement with the more detailed questionnaire-based analysis. The main difference is the last quality that switched from the T in the blog analyzer to the J, which switched me from the umbrella category 'Thinker' to the 'Scientist'.

Since I was in the mood for navel-gazing, I also tried GenderAnalyzer, that says it uses Artificial Intelligence to determine the gender of the author of the home page of a blog. I did it twice over a couple of weeks and the first time it returned 77% male and the second time 83% male.

I am not sure how to interpret the results since the basis of the algorithm used is not given. Presumably it does some kind of textual analysis of key words in comparison with a database of some sort.

But what would be a 'good' result? If for some reason a reader really wants to know the gender of the author, the closer you get to 100% accuracy the better. But from the view of the blog's author, that may also mean that you are highly gender-stereotypical in your language and/or choice of topics and/or views on them, depending on what the algorithm does. Should an author be aiming for 50% so that one is writing in ways that are free of gender bias?

Jesus' General (from whose site I first heard about this) who proudly claims that he is "an 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender" was horrified to find that he scored only 72%, lower than even some women bloggers, and he took the necessary steps to raise his manly score.

There also seem to have been a few anomalous results for some well-known people.

What all this tells me is that the internet knows us better than we think or may like.

The old cartoon joke "On the internet no one knows you are a dog" may no longer be true. It not only knows you are a dog, it can even tell the breed.

POST SCRIPT: Put down the duckie!

One of my favorite Sesame Street music segments.

November 28, 2008

The evil of the consumer economy

(Due to the holiday, I am reposting something from last year, updated and edited.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

One of the few silver linings in the bleak outlook caused by the current financial crisis is that people are likely to cut back on their purchases. I know that this is supposedly 'bad' for the economy but perhaps we need to change the basis of our economy, to one in which services, rather than goods, are the drivers. For example, we should be more willing to pay people to repair things rather than throw them away and buy replacements.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a 'consumer economy', and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don't get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don't see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the 'end-timers', the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive "must have" items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned pleasures of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: Ball jointed dolls

Speaking of consumption, NPR a few months ago had an extraordinary story about a new fad that is sweeping the country: ball-jointed dolls.

These are very expensive, customizable dolls for which people pay hundreds of dollars and then thousands more for outfits and even physical parts. The owners, mostly middle-aged women, dress their dolls up, make up stories and lives for them, and take them to BJD conventions where they compare their own "children" with others.

People spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. At the convention, BJD owners shelled out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coats, black wraparound pocket dresses and garnet jewelry for their dolls.

For BJD fans, the dolls are worth the expense. When Jennifer Kohn Murtha starts talking about her doll Kimora, it sound like she is talking about a child:

"I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love," she says. "I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist who will take good care of her. I've also ordered a vampire for her ... I couldn't resist."

November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving musings

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated. The series on the future of the Repubican party will be continued later.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn't repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War and began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick-off for that revolting shopping orgy, but not too close or people won't have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October, not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday's roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now mostly secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without worrying too much about the cost. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season" which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing this holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: Eddie Izzard on computers and Armageddon (language advisory)

October 30, 2008

Las Vegas musings

Towards the end of last week I spent three days in Las Vegas for the first time for a conference and stayed at one of the hotels on the infamous strip, the mile or so of road that has all the big hotels and gambling casinos. Since I do not gamble, such locations for conferences do not provide any special attraction for me. A monastery that has internet access would attract me more because I prefer peace and quiet and those two things are in very short supply on the Las Vegas strip.

I did spend an hour or so one evening wandering through the hotel casino watching people gamble. What struck me was how little fun people seemed to be having. They would sit staring intently at their slot machines or at the blackjack tables or at the roulette wheels. The casinos are deliberately designed to have few windows and no clocks so that the gamblers have little sense of the passage of time and can get into an almost trance-like state.

The gamblers I saw did not seem to be particularly well-to-do, just ordinary people, perhaps on their annual vacation from working ordinary jobs. There were some special closed-off rooms where I assume the high rollers gamble, away from the hoi polloi.

I spent the most time watching people play craps, a game I do not understand at all. It has this table that is covered with green baize cloth with patterns and markings and numbers. People would place chips of various colors and patterns at various places on the table, someone would throw a pair of dice, and based on the result the workers would move chips around or take them away or give some to the players. All of this was done solemnly and largely in silence and strongly reminded me of religious rituals, where everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and when, with the croupier as a kind of ersatz priest.

I felt really sorry for the workers in the casinos. They looked bored out of their minds. The constant bright flashing lights, the loud dinging noises from the slot machines, the cigarette smoke were all so aggravating that it drove me out of the room after an hour because I could not stand it any more. I cannot imagine how the workers tolerate it night after night.

It is also physically demanding work. I noticed that the workers at the various gambling tables had to stand all the time though they could easily have been given high stools to sit on and still do their jobs. Presumably the owners and management think that fatiguing their workers this way squeezes out a little more profit. I see this same thing happening with grocery and department store cashiers.

When I was eating at a restaurant in the hotel, a young woman would circle the rooms calling out 'Keno', another gambling game that seems to be some kind of scratch-card gamble that one can play while eating or doing something else. In the forty-five minutes that I was there she must have circled the room about twenty times and was always on the go. At one point, I stopped her and asked whether she had ever used one of those pedometers that would measure how far she walks during work. She said she hadn't but thought it a good idea. She must walk many, miles in the course of each shift and I suspect that she gets paid close to the minimum wage.

I also spent a couple of hours driving around the city with a friend looking at the sights. It is unbelievably tacky, with huge hotels based on various architectural styles, faux classical Roman and Greek and Egyptian being the most popular, all clashing with each other. The parts of the town that were away from the center had some of the traditional charm of the American southwest but the ubiquity of slot machines and other garish gambling venues invariably spoiled it.

It was a relief to leave Las Vegas. I will not be going back if I can help it.

POST SCRIPT: Living in two different worlds

One can understand why John McCain, despite his new-found admiration for Joe the Plumber, might find it hard to appreciate the life of a regular working person. The median household income in the US is $48,000 per year, 'median' meaning half the households make less than that, and half more. But John McCain spends over five times that amount ($273,000) on paying for his household staff alone!

That may explain why he thinks cutting taxes even further for the very wealthy is good policy because then the rich can create more jobs by hiring even more domestic help, in his case maybe someone to keep track of how many cars and homes he owns, so that he is not embarrassed by not knowing. It might also explain why he keeps talking about a capital gains tax cut as being good for the middle class. People like him have little idea of the kinds of concerns that everyday people have.

July 23, 2008

Are people in the US too sensitive?

British actor and writer Stephen Fry recently had an interesting take on the difference between arguments in social settings in England and the US.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn't understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed a statement he disagreed with and said something like "yes, but that's just arrant nonsense, isn't it? It doesn't make sense. It's self-contradictory." To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it's often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let's be honest the cultures are different, if they weren't how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don't seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I'm not talking about inter-family 'discussions' here, I don't doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I'm talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

I think Fry is on to something. There does seem to be a hypersensitivity in social settings in the US to not say anything that might be seen as contradictory to what someone else has said or might feel on highly charged topics, or if one does feel compelled to say something, to say it so carefully and genteelly that the listener sometimes does not even realize that she is being disagreed with, or if she does, takes it as a cue to drop the topic entirely and move onto something that is uncontroversial. I am guilty of this too. I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?

I am trying to overcome this tendency and more directly challenge people because being silent is not a good thing since this means that the ideas that people care about most passionately, and which may have important consequences, are never exposed to critical scrutiny. Readers may recall an earlier posting when at a dinner party I created a minor flap when I said to a group of very religious people that I was an atheist. At the end of the evening, I felt obliged to apologize to the hostess if I had caused any discomfort to those guests.

But looking back, why should I have felt bad about saying what I honestly felt and which was not a personal attack on any one? I had not called anyone an idiot or punched them in the face. All I had said to a group of religious people was that I did not believe that god existed.

If someone says something that I think is silly or wrong or bigoted, am I not doing the right thing in challenging that view? Surely social niceties should not trump honest expression of views? It is perhaps time to reject the conventional wisdom that one should not discuss politics and religion in social settings. Instead we should learn how to discuss those things calmly and reasonably.

I have quoted this passage titled Defend the right to be offended by Salman Rushdie before, and it is perhaps appropriate to do so again:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I am more and more inclined to think that we should follow the advice of Rushdie and Fry. One should not be rude or speak in anger or make ad hominem attacks on people. But I think one should express one's opinions on issues forthrightly, and people should learn to treat direct challenges to their views as the normal give-and-take of conversation.

POST SCRIPT: Synchronized motorcycling

The Italian police sometime in the 1950s.

(Thanks to Progressive Review.)

July 16, 2008

Natural and unnatural lifestyles

I recently had a discussion with someone whom I had known well growing up in Sri Lanka and who was visiting the US. She asked me my opinion about the recent highly publicized raid by the Texas Child Protective Services on the compound where polygamous Mormon families lived. All the children were separated from their parents by the Texas CPS on the basis of a single anonymous phone call alleging that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred. The decision by the CPS was first upheld in the lower court but an appeals court overthrew the verdict saying that you could not separate children from their parents without finding specific cause in each individual case. The CPS then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but they lost and were ordered to reunite the children with their parents.

I responded that I agreed with the appeals courts. In my view the child welfare authorities had gone completely overboard and had resorted to such drastic action because the targeted community was a polygamous one and thus was disapproved of by the authorities. They would not have dreamed of entering a village of monogamous, heterosexual couples and separated all the children from their parents on the basis of a single anonymous and unsubstantiated allegation of child abuse. I personally have no problem with the practice of polygamy and think it absurd that we are still trying to regulate by law those things that should be strictly the private concern of individuals.

My visitor from Sri Lanka also asked me my views about gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay people. I said that I had no problems with this practice either and that the kind of prejudice that exists against polygamists was also at play when people argued against the adoption of children by gay couples.

She made the point that the adopted children of gay couples or the children of polygamous families might suffer harm from the stigma associated with their families' nontraditional lifestyles, and thus such arrangements might not be in the best interests of the children. In addition, she suggested that the lifestyles of these people were not 'natural' and that was why it may be appropriate to discourage them by treating them differently.

One hears these arguments all the time, that the norm is that marriage is between one man and one woman and that anything else is deviant behavior, worthy of disapproval, if not outright banning.

To counter this, some people try to argue that such nontraditional lifestyles are 'natural' because parallels can be found to occur in nature, that nonhuman animals often practice homosexuality or have multiple partners. In addition, there is currently some evidence that homosexuality is at least partly genetic and thus influenced by biology and is thus not a free choice. Such studies are used by gay rights advocates to support the view that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

I frankly do not see the point of this argument. Whether some behavior is acceptable or not should not depend on whether it occurs 'naturally' (i.e., spontaneously) in nature or whether it is encoded in our genes. After all we, as humans, do any number of things that are not found in nature or are in defiance of our genetic drives. Practically our whole lives involve activities that do not have analogs in the animal kingdom. That is because we have developed language and culture and technology that enable us to be social animals capable of functioning at a highly abstract level and make collective decisions. Furthermore, there are lots of things going on in the animal kingdom (killing, cannibalism, forcible sex, infanticide, among others) that we consider unacceptable behavior. The idea that we should take our moral cues from the nonhuman animal world seems bizarre. We would not accept a defense of murder, for example, that argues that it is ok because animals do it to each other.

It seems to me that the evolved ability to converse and create culture enables us to transcend out biological drives, to be more than our instincts. Because of our ability to converse and arrive at agreed-upon norms of behavior, we can develop general principles as to what is acceptable and what is not that are independent of whether other animals do similar things. The principle of 'justice as fairness' advocated by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice seems like the kind of thing we should be seeking to order our lives and society, not borrowing from animal behavior.

So if it turns out that future research shows that there is no genetic basis whatsoever for homosexuality and that it is purely a matter of choice, so what? As long as they are not harming others, why is it of any concern to me if other people choose partners of the same sex or opposite sex? As for the argument that adopted children of gays or the children of polygamous families might suffer from the stigma, the only reason there is a stigma at all is because the rest of us have an intolerant view of such lifestyles. It is we who have a problem and who should change, not them.

Similarly, if a woman decides that she wants to marry three husbands and they all freely consent, why should I care? If for whatever reason, two men and three women decide that they would like to all be married to each other and live together as a single family unit, they won't get any objection from me.

I think my relative was a little startled by my views. Since I have lived in the US for about three decades, many of the people I grew up with in Sri Lanka have little idea of my thinking on many issues and these often come as a surprise to them. She did ask if my views have changed as I have got older and I had to agree. As I age, I have become more and more accepting of the lifestyle choices made by others. Perhaps it is because I have an increasing sense that life is a precious gift that we each possess for just a short time and thus people should not be denied the harmless pleasures that life affords.

As long as decisions are being freely made by consenting adults and do not harm others, people should be free to choose whatever lifestyles that suits their needs.

What surprises me is that such a viewpoint is not more universally held.

POST SCRIPT: Solar powered car

See the video of a completely solar-powered car that is on a round-the-world trip without using a single drop of gas. It has already been to 27 countries and the US is the 28th. Quite amazing.

(Thanks for the link to my daughter Dashi who was lucky enough to actually see the car in Berkeley, California and listen to a presentation by its inventor Lewis Palmer, a Swiss schoolteacher.)

July 11, 2008

Knowing when to say uncle

One of the advantages of living in more than one country is that one notices interesting differences. One of the differences with Sri Lanka that struck me is that in the US there is no standard system to deal with the question of how one should address elders in the category that can be described as 'friends once removed'. By this I mean the people who are the friends of one's parents or the parents of one's friends.

Take for example, the question of how young Billy should address John Smith, the good friend of his parents. In some households, Billy's parents encourage him to call him 'John' while in other families he is referred to as 'Mr. Smith'. Some adults find the familiarity of being called by their first name by a child to be acceptable or even welcome, while others find it uncomfortable and may even resent it. But given that there is no system in place to address this point of social etiquette, one simply has to deal with the idiosyncratic choices people make..

In Sri Lanka, there is a system to deal with this. Any male who is of the same generation as one's parents is called generically 'uncle' while females are called 'aunty'. The use of this honorary title is meant to signify respect for one's elders, while at the same time acknowledging that the person is not a stranger. This generic term also overcomes the awkwardness of meeting one's parents' friends that one has met before but whose name one has forgotten (which happens to me all the time in highly sociable societies like Sri Lanka). One simply refers to them as uncle or aunty and everything's fine.

If John and Jane are really close friends of the family, then they may be referred to more specifically as 'uncle John' or 'aunty Jane'. Such titles remain the same throughout one's life, never becoming more familiar, however old you and your 'uncle' gets. Even now, I refer to my friends' parents or my parents' friends as uncle and aunty although I have known some of them for nearly a half-century, am really close to them, and converse with them as equals. It would never occur to me to call them by their first name alone. Retaining the title is more than mere habit, it is a sign of the respect that I have for them as elders.

In such a system, how does one distinguish between one's biological uncles and aunts and the honorary ones? Usually the English terms uncle and aunty are reserved for the honorary relatives while the real ones are called by their vernacular equivalents. In Tamil, the term for uncle is 'mama' (rhymes with 'drama') while for aunt is 'mamy' (the same first syllable but the second pronounced as 'me'.) So 'Reggie mama' was how I referred to my father's brother while 'Uncle Amaradasa' was my friend's father.

It is also the case that within families in the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, relatives are often referred to not by their names but by a title that specifies their relationship to the speaker. For example, a father's younger brother would usually not be called merely uncle but the equivalent of 'small father' while the father's older brother would be called 'big father.' If your father had two older brothers, the eldest would be called 'big big father' while the other would be called 'small big father.' If he had two younger brothers, they would be 'big small father' and 'small small father', and so on. For grandparents, there were different titles for your father's father that distinguished him from your mother's father.

Similarly one's siblings would also be referred to by their titles 'older brother,' 'younger sister' and so on. If there are a lot of siblings, they would have their names prefaced by these titles. This would extend to cousins as well. Even now, I am called the equivalent of 'older brother Mano' by some cousins who are just a few years younger than me. A parallel system exists for female relatives.

Although all this may sound strange and complicated to someone not used to it, it is a very logical system that children easily learn. I am not sure how or why this system arose. It may be the benign byproduct of more class and caste conscious societies where it was important that everyone know their relative position in society.

In more westernized families in Sri Lanka, the awarding of titles to siblings and cousins has disappeared, especially for those younger than you. But the terms uncle and aunty for older adults remain. It is a sign of respect for age and I think it serves a useful role.

POST SCRIPT: Matching product to taste

Ira Glass, host of NPR's excellent program This American Life, offers some excellent advice to those who do any kind of creative work.


July 07, 2008

What motivates academics

Some time ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer had an article in the business pages that began by noting that when you visit the faculty parking lot of any college campus, you will find very few expensive cars such as Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, Porsches, Hummers, and BMWs. The writer made the inference that college professors, while perhaps very smart people in their fields of expertise, were not very smart when it came to managing their money.

The reporter was correct that college campus parking lots are not the places to find fancy cars. But her inference that this is because they are not good with money is wrong. Academics may or may not be smart about money but the cars they drive are not a good clue as to this ability. I have worked my whole life in such settings and I don't know a single academic who drives such expensive cars, even though many can afford them. When they do splurge on a car, college faculty tend to go for the low-end models of upscale car lines like Lexus or Volvo or Acura or Saab. I myself am now on my third successive Honda Accord, now four years old, which followed a Fiat, a Toyota Corolla, and a Subaru, all low-end cars. Our other family car is a 13-year old Civic.

Once my daughter asked me what car I would drive if I could have any car at all, and I told her that it was the car that I already had, the Accord. I had reached the peak of my automobile ambitions with a car that was reliable, reasonably priced, economical to run, comfortable, nice-looking, and easy to drive. Why would I want more? I don't think I am unusual in the kind of car I own or my attitude towards them. I think most academics are more likely to brag about how long they have owned their car or about how fuel-efficient it is, rather than its luxuriousness.

The Plain Dealer reporter had completely misunderstood the motivations of academics. Most academics do not go into the field to make a lot of money. They go into it because they love the subject they study and want to spend their lives doing it. This does not mean that they are ascetics. They have no objections to making money but that desire is not usually strong enough for them to forego other important things. They know that academia provides a comfortable life with good working conditions and that they can provide adequately for their families.

For example, writing a scholarly book takes years of time and effort and at the end you are lucky if you sell a few thousand copies, mostly to university libraries. You are never going to become rich writing scholarly books. So why do academics do it? They do it to advance knowledge in their field and to secure their reputation among the few dozens or at most a hundred or so people working in closely related areas, and to leave something of value behind for posterity.

For a physicist, to have a discovery associated with him or her or an equation or a principle named for them would bring little material benefit but be more precious to them than a fancy car ever would. If an academic were offered a deal whereby they would live in near poverty all their lives in exchange for making the kind of ground-breaking discovery that (say) a Charles Darwin or an Albert Einstein made, I suspect that must of them would unhesitatingly accept it. I know I would. In the world that academics inhabit, good ideas are a rare and precious commodity and the person who discovers one has found something far more valuable than discovering oil on her property.

This does not mean that academics are not ambitious or competitive. Many of them are fiercely so but the reward they seek is the respect they get from their colleagues when they make a major contribution to their field, and the fame that sometimes comes with it. This fame is not like that of a film star or politician. Except for a few like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, even famous academics are not immediately recognizable to the general public and their fame is limited to a small circle of peers but that does not matter to most of them. To be the keynote speaker at important conferences, to have one's work be cited approvingly by one's peers, and even to have it form the framework for further work, these are the heady heights which academics seek. Driving an expensive car is nothing compared to the pleasures that such things bring.

It may be that in the corporate world, the only way that people can advertise to others that they have become a 'success' is via tangible symbols like cars, fancy houses, Rolex watches, designer clothes, and so on. But the currency by which success is measured in academia is your reputation for being an excellent scholar. If you have that, then you don't need the other things. In fact, if you flaunt those other things, your colleagues may suspect that you are trying to compensate for your lack of meaningful intellectual achievement. Either way, the academic culture works against ostentatious displays of wealth.

POST SCRIPT: Only in America

For those who did not get a large enough dose of patriotic fervor over the weekend, here's Bruce McCulloch of the sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.


April 24, 2008

Podi Singham, 1925-2008

(My mother Gnaneswari Singham, universally known by her childhood pet name of Podi, died on March 23, 2008 at the age of 83. A thanksgiving service was held for her at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Thimbirigasyaya. Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 19, 2008, 5:30 pm. Below are two photographs of her, one taken in her late teens and the other in her mid-50s, followed by my tribute to her given during the service.)

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When my sisters Shanti and Rohini asked me to give one of the tributes to my mother, I wondered how I could condense a lifetime's relationship with someone so special into a few minutes. I decided not to talk about her international championship quality bridge playing, which you all know about. I also decided not to talk about the thousands upon thousands of hours she spent volunteering on behalf of so many organizations, trying to make the world a better place by helping others in need.

I decided that rather than tell you a lot of stories about my mother, stories that can be multiplied many times by all of the people here whose own lives have touched her and been touched by her, I would instead dwell on what I learned from her attitude about the big questions of life and death.

We are all familiar from childhood with Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper. During the summer, the grasshopper sings and has a good time while the ant is busily building a home and storing away food for the coming winter. When winter comes, the grasshopper is cold and hungry and goes to the ant for help but the ant turns him away saying, "You sang all summer so now you can dance all winter."

When children are told this story, they are supposed to admire the thrifty little ant and to deplore the grasshopper's careless ways. But I must say that I always thought that the ant was a highly unlikable character. After all, what kind of person would turn away someone in dire need?

My sympathy for the grasshopper comes from my parents. If we think of the ant and the grasshopper as representing two extremes of behavior, my parents were definitely closer to the grasshopper than the ant. While they were not wasteful, my parents were more concerned with living fully here and now than preparing for the distant future. They never seemed to be too concerned about accumulating material wealth. And, most importantly, they never turned away other grasshoppers that came to them for help. My mother would always be willing to listen to those in need and try to help in any way she could.

My mother was a voracious reader, of newspapers, books, and magazines dealing with a wide variety of things so that you could carry on a conversation with her on almost any topic. I am not sure if she ever read the works of the philosopher Robert Ingersoll, but I am certain that she would have agreed with his philosophy of life when he said: "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so." My mother lived according to that philosophy. She would try to help others be happy and then share in their joy.

I also learned from my mother the importance of being kind and friendly to others and treating everyone, without exception, with respect. It was a source of humor in our family that irrespective of what part of the world she was in, any time she was seated next to someone for more than five minutes, in a waiting room, on a train or bus or plane, whoever that person was or from whatever station in life, she would strike up a conversation and pretty soon they would be laughing together like old friends.

I learned from her that it is a waste of time whining to others about your own problems because they have problems too. It is better to just face up to whatever hand that life gives you, deal with it as best as you can, and then move on. Life is too precious to be spent on self-pity, and constantly complaining about your own misfortunes doesn't get you anywhere.

I think that it was this lack of self-absorption that attracted people to her. Here is one example. When I became seriously ill with polio at the age of six, my parents immediately set about trying to do the best for me which involved taking me to England for medical treatment as soon as possible. Since my father could not go immediately due to work demands, my mother by herself took my sisters and me to England to start my treatment. Imagine, back in the 1950s when overseas travel was a daunting challenge, here was a thirty year old woman setting off to a strange and distant country requiring a month long sea voyage, while taking care of three young children, one of whom was very sick and barely able to walk and another who was a one year old infant.

But almost immediately, my mother made many friends on that ship and pretty soon she had an army of volunteers eager to help her. For example, she told me that she would put our clothes in the washing machine in the laundry room and then go back to the cabin to take care of us. But when she returned later to complete the chore, she found that another passenger, a stranger, had taken all the clothes out of the washer, and dried, ironed, and neatly stacked them, because that person has seen that my mother had her hands full. Other people would volunteer to take care of her children for hours on end so that she could enjoy the voyage more, and my mother became a fixture at the captain's table. The friends she made on that trip remained friends all her life.

Just as she was always willing to help others, people helped her in all manner of ways. They did not do this out of pity. People enjoyed helping her because rather than being self-pitying or mournful, she faced up to life's challenges cheerfully. Her positive attitude to life, her graciousness, and her playful, even occasionally mischievous, good humor seemed to bring out the kindness and goodness in others.

Her attitude to death, like her attitude to life, was also very matter of fact. She saw death as part of the cycle of life and did not fear it. When I was in Sri Lanka in January, she and I spent many, many hours just talking. In most of our conversations, we recalled all the good times that we had shared. But we also spoke about death and she did not shy away from this topic that people tend to avoid, even though she sensed that it was imminent. My mother was a smart woman. She knew what the recurrence of her cancer meant. She knew that while surgery was unavoidable, it carried with it serious risks. But she reassured me many times that she was not afraid. She said that she had had a long and good life. She had done so much, traveled to so many places, seen so many things, had such good health until the very end, made so many friends, experienced so much of the richness of life that to wish for even more, to ask that it be extended indefinitely, was to be greedy and ungrateful. She said (using a metaphor from cricket, a sport of which she was a big fan) that she had had a very good innings and if the match was to end, then so be it.

Her faith in god undoubtedly played an important role in her ability to face death so matter-of-factly. She told me that she believed that god would not give her a challenge that she could not meet and so she had put her life in god's hands and was ready for anything.

Richard Dawkins begins his book Unweaving the Rainbow by saying: "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." My mother would have agreed with him that we, all of us, are lucky just by virtue of having experienced life.

My parents, the grasshoppers, did in the end accumulate a lot of wealth. But it was not in the form of money or possessions. Their wealth took the far more valuable form of rich life experiences, precious memories, and treasured friends.

To the end, my mother was preparing us to not be sad when she died, typically worrying more about our happiness and welfare than her own. I know that she would want us to celebrate her life, not to mourn her death.

I would like to thank all of you here for being a part of that life. I know that all of you meant a lot to her. Each one of our lives is a thread that she used to weave the glorious tapestry of her own life.

We are all lucky to be alive and to have lived. Although we miss her terribly, I know I also speak for my sisters when I say that that the three of us had an extra share of luck to have had such a kind, generous, fun-loving, and altogether wonderful person as our mother.

April 10, 2008

Food and energy

I am not a picky eater. There are things that I like and things that I don't like to eat, if given the choice and the opportunity to choose, but ultimately I don't really care. And of course I have no religious taboos about food. I am also somewhat casual about health factors. I tend to eat what I like without too much concern about what the latest medical research has said is good or bad for you. I figure that if I eat in moderation and have a varied diet, then the occasional heavy dose of transfats, sugar, salt, fat, and cholesterol are unlikely to do serious harm.

But some people are really careful and I am amazed at the amount of time and attention they devote to what they eat. A friend of mine knows the exact caloric value of everything she eats and if she exceeds her daily quota, will calculate how much exercise she needs to do that day to neutralize the balance sheet.

Other people go even further. At breakfast at one hotel I stayed in during a recent conference, the menu listed 'freshly squeezed orange juice' but this was not sufficient reassurance for the woman at the next table. She asked the waitress whether it really was fresh squeezed and was assured that it was. Still somewhat suspicious, the woman then got hold of another waitress and asked again, and this time the waitress admitted that they did not personally squeeze the oranges but got the juice from a vendor. The woman then called the manager and asked him the exact status of the orange juice and he assured her that although the oranges were not squeezed on the premises, he had every confidence that the vendor who supplied them was squeezing them.

I was frankly impressed at this woman's dedication to making sure that she was drinking nothing but freshly squeezed orange juice. But I was also baffled. Is there something really good about it that makes it worth all this effort? Conversely is the orange juice made from concentrate really bad for you?

One thing about food that I cannot stand is wasting it. And it frustrates me to see so much food wasted in the US. People here do not seem to realize how precious an item food is. Maybe my sensitivity to food waste became enhanced because I grew up in a developing country where the importance of food was manifest and governments could fall if they did not ensure adequate supply of basic food items.

Americans are used to the fact that if they have money, they can buy any thing they want. Underlying this is the fact that the US dollar is the world's reserve currency. Hence if the US runs a budget deficit, as it has for decades, it can always ways to fund it by various means, with the negative consequences not being felt until later. At the worst, it can simply print more money.

The governments of many countries do not have this luxury because their currency is not accepted in the world commodities markets. Their budgets are more like that of individual families. If your expenditure is more than your income, you have to cover the difference with loans or cut back your expenses.

During the time I was in college in Sri Lanka, the government decided to improve its balance of trade by severely restricting the imports of basic food items like rice, flour, and sugar. The goal was to stimulate local production of such staples which had a hard time competing against cheap imports. As a result of these restrictions, there were major shortages and rationing of all these items, which meant that we could not take food for granted. Although we never went hungry, we too were affected by food politics and had to be careful about its use. For these and other reasons, I now hate to see food wasted. In my home, I will eat leftover food that I really dislike or which has become stale rather than throw it away uneaten.

I also hate it when food is used for things other than consumption. I find abhorrent things like butter sculpture contests, or making the world's largest cake or contests where people compete to eat the most hot dogs, or even food fights. Wasting food for the sake of entertainment seems just wrong. Using grains to feed animals for slaughter is another hugely inefficient and wasteful use of food.

This is why I also have serious problems with the increasing popularity of ethanol and other grain-based fuels. The idea of using food to make fuel in order to enable our wasteful energy use is infuriating. We are currently witnessing a worldwide decline in the availability of grains and a corresponding rise in the price of basic foods like bread, pasta, and tortillas, because of the diversion of food away from human consumption to being a raw material for fuel production.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports: "In 2008, about 18 percent of grain in the US will go to make ethanol and, according to the Earth Policy Institute, such production over the past two years could have fed nearly 250 million people." Food riots have already occurred in Haiti, unrest is rising in many other countries, and analysts expect conflicts to erupt over the next year as the rapidly rising cost of basic staples of life rise steeply.

We are at present capable of producing enough food to feed a lot more people in the world and greatly reduce malnutrition from its current levels. What prevents us from doing so is purely economics, profits, and politics, and an insatiable demand for more energy. It is a scandal.

POST SCRIPT: William F. Buckley vs. Noam Chomsky

William F. Buckley, often referred to as a conservative icon, died recently. He used to have a public TV show called Firing Line. I found Buckley to be quite irritating. He had a sneering manner with a darting, snake-like tongue, would slouch languidly in his chair as if contemptuous of his guest, and speak in pompous language using esoteric, polysyllabic words. It seemed to me that he was trying to adopt the affectations of a stereotypical member of the British aristocracy. The thing I disliked most, though, was his habit of using verbal tricks, snide asides, and digressions to distract attention when he was losing a point.

He met his match when he had Noam Chomsky on his show during the Vietnam war. Chomsky had the facts at his fingertips and stuck doggedly to the main point, refusing to be sidetracked, and Buckley's frustration as all his tricks failed was evident.

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April 08, 2008

Strolling into geezerhood

I have noticed that slowly and surely I am becoming a geezer. Ok, I have not reached the stage where I go out in my bathrobe and shake a newspaper and yell at the neighborhood children to get off my lawn. In fact, the situation is the opposite. Children living on my block spend a lot of time on my lawn in the summers, since our dog Baxter has been adopted by all of them as their common pet and they come over to play with him.

No, what suggests to me that I am becoming a geezer is that I find myself increasingly unaware of popular culture celebrities. And what is more, I don't care. The change has been gradual. It used to be that I knew a lot about popular culture which made me a force to be reckoned with when playing Trivial Pursuit. Not any more. Since I stopped watching TV (except for the occasional special program), my knowledge of actors and performers has decreased dramatically.

This was brought home most forcefully by the Hannah Montana phenomenon. The local newspapers suddenly had a major front-page news story about the fight to get tickets for a show to be given by her in Cleveland. The news report seemed to assume that readers knew who she was but I had not even heard of her name until that day.

I used to read the celebrity 'news' (gossip, really) section and other items in the newspaper that described TV shows and programs, so I felt that I knew what was going on even if I had never seen the shows or the actors referred to. But now I read about people who are supposed to be 'stars' (except that title inflation has set in and now even journeymen performers are routinely referred to as 'superstars' or 'megastars') and I have never heard of them before, so I have stopped reading those sections of the paper. There was a time when I would be concerned that I was losing touch but now I don't care. I have no desire whatsoever to learn about celebrities and I am not in the least interested in the troubles they have with their parents, their children, their spouses or special friends, their sex lives, their fights, and their struggles with alcohol and drug addictions. In other words, Britney Spears' life is of no interest to me. Of course, I feel sorry for her in a general way, just as I would feel sorry for any person whose life seems to be spiraling out of control. But the fact that she is a celebrity does not make her troubles any more important than those of any other person, and I don't see why I should keep abreast of them.

I have also stopped following sports, except to occasionally take a quick look at the headlines and the standings.

Sherlock Holmes told Watson that the reason he did not spent time learning about whole areas of knowledge was that the brain could only store so much information and the more he filled it up with things that were not necessary for him to practice his detective skills, the less room he had to store the knowledge he needed.

Of course, that is rubbish. There is no reason to think that human brains are operating at anywhere close to capacity. But time is a zero sum entity and I find that the less time I spend on trivial things, the more I have for what is valuable. I must say that deciding these things are not worth reading about has released an enormous amount of time. I now zip though the daily newspaper in less than half the time I used to spend before.

The reason that I associate these things with geezerhood is that I think age plays such an important role in setting priorities about how time is used. When I was younger, I thought nothing of wasting time watching films that I knew would very likely be junk or watching hours and hours of sporting events that might contain at most a few minutes of genuine exciting athleticism. Now that I am older, I tend to be much more choosy about how I spend my time. I only watch films or read books for which there is a high probability that I will enjoy and hence am much more dependent on strong recommendations from people who share my tastes.

I don't regret the 'wasted' time of my youth however. It was fun. But there is no doubt that what gives me enjoyment has changed a lot with time and I have gone with the flow rather than try and preserve the past.

POST SCRIPT: An atheist call to arms

People tend to think of Richard Dawkins as militantly hostile to religion since the recent publication of his book The God Delusion. But in this Ted Talk he gave in 2002, he comes across even stronger. If anything, it seems like he has actually mellowed since then.


April 03, 2008

Hotels

I hate staying in hotels.

The worst experiences for me are work-related travel. In addition to this involving the discomfort of flying, one also usually has to stay in hotels. I have to do this to attend conferences and give talks but I hate it and try to minimize the number of occasions. After just one day of staying in hotels and eating out in restaurants, I become fed up and am eager to return home.

I find something vaguely alienating about hotels. The hotels I stay in on my travels are very clean and comfortable, sometimes even luxurious, and have all the amenities one needs. But it is not like staying in one's own home or the home of one's family and friends, where one feels freer, even if far less luxurious. I actually prefer to use a sleeping bag on the floor of a good friend or relative than stay in an elegant hotel.

Another problem that I have with staying at conference hotels is that one is stuck most of the time with eating at the hotel restaurants. These tend to be very expensive and limited in their menus. In particular, they have very few items that are suitable for light eaters like me, for whom appetizer-sized portions is sufficient for a meal. Sometimes all I want for a meal is a simple sandwich or some fruit but those things are almost impossible to get.

The hotels know that most people staying there are having their expenses paid by their employer and they try and force you to choose large, expensive entrees. Even though I am not personally paying for the food, I resent the waste that is being imposed on me. I don't mind paying high prices if I feel that a reasonable portion of it is going towards paying the employees reasonably well. But I know that the high prices being charged are not going towards paying good wages for the low-level employees, who are often working for minimum or even sub-minimum wages.

Part of my dislike of hotels may be due to my growing up in Sri Lanka, which is a small country and where everyone has wide network of friends and extended family. It was rare that one stayed in hotels. People were really hospitable and sociable and one almost always stayed with friends and family when one traveled. If friends or relatives knew that you were coming to their area, they would insist on you staying with them as their guests so that one could have long conversations well into the night. That was how we kept in touch with each other and got to know one another well.

Perhaps that is why even now, I rarely like to just travel for its own sake or to see places. For me, the best reason to travel is to visit friends and relatives.

POST SCRIPT: War, Inc

John Cusack is one of the most interesting actors around and he is the actor-writer-producer of a new film about the Iraq war called War, Inc, which looks like a dark comedy about the unholy alliance of politicians, the military, and war profiteers. Here is the trailer for it.

Bill Maher interviews Cusack, where he has strong words for the present administration and its actions.

April 01, 2008

Airports and plane travel

I hate traveling by plane. The only thing in its favor (and it is an admittedly big advantage) is that it enables one to travel enormous distances quickly.

There was a time when air travel was fairly pleasant but not anymore. Going to the airport hours early, parking in distant lots, dragging one's luggage around, standing in long lines to get checked in, the ridiculous process at security where one has to take off one's shoes and show your toothpaste in little baggies, all these make plane travel a tedious chore. And then one has to hang around in airport terminals where one is surrounded by TVs with their inane chatter, repeated announcements over the speakers, and where everyone around you seem to be constantly using their cell phones as a means of combating their boredom.

And after all that, when one gets on the plane, one sits in cramped seats where you cannot fully stretch out my legs, and where your arms are restricted by the arm rests on either side. And when the person in front reclines their seat fully, the sense of being trapped, hemmed in on all sides, is complete. I think that, as a small measure to improve flying comfort, planes should do away with reclining seats altogether, or greatly reduce the amount by which they can move back. The minor increase in comfort provided to the recliner seems to be far outweighed by the major annoyance caused to the person behind.

This is why I prefer to stay at home or if possible, drive to places, even if it takes longer. The silence of the car is conducive to quiet reflection in a way that plane travel is not. Unfortunately, I often have no choice but to travel by plane, often long distances to places like Sri Lanka and New Zealand just to visit family.

I have also noticed on my foreign travels that US airports seem to be the only places where one has to pay for the use of luggage carts. On my last trip, I noticed that the airports in Frankfurt, Germany and Colombo, Sri Lanka had plenty of free carts available all over the airport so one could always get one as needed. So one could take one right up to the security checkpoint, abandon it there as you go through the scanners, and then get another one on the other side. It looks kind of tacky in the US to charge people for this basic airport convenience.

Where the US comes out ahead is in airport bathrooms. They are easily the best in terms of the number of public toilets available and their cleanliness. I was surprised at how poorly the ones in Frankfurt, a major international hub, compared with almost any airport in the US.

US carriers on international flights tend to compare unfavorably to foreign carriers in amenities once on board the plane. In general, foreign carriers provide better food and free alcohol. They also have much more varied in-flight entertainment with little individual TVs embedded in each seatback to give individual choice. Their ability to provide these superior in-flight amenities may be because many of the foreign carriers are state run and thus may be more concerned about projecting a good image of their country and less concerned about squeezing maximum profit. Whatever the cause, when it comes to international travel, flying on a foreign national carrier is usually a better experience than traveling on a US carrier,

Some of these extra features are wasted on me, though, since I never watch the in-flight films and don't drink alcohol. The one thing I sometimes watch is the feature that I have found only on Sri Lankan Airlines, which is the view from a camera facing forward and mounted just below the cockpit. This gives you a view close to that seen by the pilots and is terrific, especially during landing and take off. It gives everyone a better view than even those fortunate enough to have a window seat.

When approaching Sri Lanka for example, because of this camera, you first see the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, then you cross over sandy yellow beaches and then you see the tops of coconut trees, which look like a continuous sea of waving green fronds, similar to the blue ocean waves you just left behind. The palm fronds get closer and larger and just as you get the feeling that you are going to land on the tops of the trees, suddenly there is a break in the canopy, the runway appears ahead, and you land. It is spectacular. I have experienced this many times and it is an exhilarating experience.

So maybe there are some advantages to plane travel after all.

POST SCRIPT: Stupid Design

Believers in god try to make the case that the universe looks like it was made with just the right conditions for life, especially human life, and that this is evidence for the existence of a designer god.

This is a very silly argument, as pointed out by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.


March 11, 2008

Technology guerilla warfare

One of the interesting things about technology is the way that it creates a kind of arms race between those who quickly adopt new technologies and those who feel that it impinges on their own freedom and want to thwart them. We know, for example, that the radar guns used by traffic police have spawned detectors that can tell drivers who like to speed when such devices are in use, leading to more sophisticated devices being developed for police, and so on. In this case, the radar detectors were being used by people who were trying to break the law for their own benefit and increasing the risk to other users of the road.

What we are seeing now is the rise of a kind of guerilla action by ordinary citizens who are not trying to break the law for some narrow interest but are instead reacting to the way their own private spaces are being violated by the use of technology by others.

Take cell-phone jammers. There are now devices that you can apparently purchase that will disrupt all cell phone transmissions within a limited area, ranging from a radius of about 30 feet up to a mile. Using these devices is illegal in the US.

We have all been subjected to involuntarily overhearing the private conversations of others because they insist on talking loudly into their cell phones in public places. At the very least it is annoying and sometimes it is downright uncomfortable. There is something about hearing a one-sided conversation that is very distracting, more so than overhearing a conversation between two real people where you can hear both sides. I wonder whether it is because when we hear only one side, we cannot help but try to figure out, like a puzzle, what the other person is saying in response, and that requires a higher level of mental engagement. I know that when I am trying to read, hearing the voices on a TV screen that I cannot see is more distracting than hearing a radio, and I think that it is because with TV there are information gaps in the audio that are filled by the unseen video and my mind cannot help but try to fill those gaps to make sense of what I am hearing.

(As an aside, I read somewhere that this practice of talking loudly into a cell phone in a public place is peculiar to the US and that in some other countries such as England people speak more softly. I don't know if this is generally true. I have only one data point. My cousin who lives in England visited the US recently and I called her on her cell phone. She seemed to be whispering into the phone and I asked her if she was losing her voice and she replied that she was speaking softly because she was using her cell phone in a public place. I advised her that since she was in America she should follow the local custom and yell into the phone so that people across the street, or even the next county, could hear what she had to say.)

The fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was considering allowing the use of cell phones on planes was something that struck many with horror because plane rides are already unpleasant experiences. They can be really boring unless you are a person who is comfortable having just your own mind for a companion, and I feared that almost everyone would use that time to chat loudly with others using their cell phones, resulting in a nightmare for people like me who dislike plane rides but at least see them as opportunities to read or write undisturbed. Fortunately, it seems like the FCC has shelved that plan.

The best part of my jury service was that the room where the jury pool waited until we were needed had a 'quiet room' which had no TVs and no cell phones were allowed, and people who spoke did so very briefly and quietly. I spent a lot of time there. We need more such spaces in public spaces where people have no choice but to be there.

Another guerilla technology device is one that turns off televisions in public places. TVs are now everywhere where people are forced to wait as advertisers try to grab the attention of captive audiences. I find this really annoying, almost on a par with cell-phone conversations. TV programmers try to grab your attention with rapid switches in sound level, music, and so on, so that you are constantly jarred into acknowledging their presence. I recall having to change planes in Chicago and I wanted a quiet place to read a book but I could not find a place nearby to sit and read that was outside the audio range of a TV monitor. It was infuriating. But there are now devices that you can use to turn off any TV between 20 and 50 feet away. Of course, these are illegal too.

As the use of cell phones and TVs in public places increase, there is bound to be a backlash against this increased noise pollution and the lack of quiet spaces. Already, one sees signs in buildings telling people that they are in a 'no cell phone zone'. Another possible development might parallel what happened with smoking. Just like restaurants and other public places adopted no-smoking areas, we might soon be asked whether we want to be in a cell-phone/TV or no cell phone/TV area. Even outright bans on cell phones in restaurants have been considered.

For those bothered by the fact that hidden cameras are all over the place recording our every movement, I now read that people can buy or construct a simple infra-red device that makes them unidentifiable by the ubiquitous spycams. (Thanks to The Progressive Review.)

If the issue of the proper level of respect for people's privacy is not addressed in some way, I predict that there will be an even greater rise in this kind of guerilla technology use, with people deciding that they have to take action themselves, even if illegal, to protect their privacy and their space.

POST SCRIPT: How the mighty are fallen

Last Saturday, a little-known physicist named Bill Foster won the special congressional election to fill former Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat when the latter abruptly decided to retire. Foster joins fellow physicists Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vern Ehlers (R-IL) in Congress. Foster made universal health care and praising the European and Canadian models a central feature of his campaign, opposed the plan to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies, and tied his opponent Republican James Oberweis to Bush's policies.

Sensing an embarrassing defeat in the offing for a high profile seat that had always been considered strongly Republican, the National Republican Congressional Committee poured $1.2 million into this race, almost 20% of their available funds, but their candidate still lost handily 53%-47%.

So the congressional seats of two people (Tom DeLay and Hastert), who as recently as 2006 were seen as really powerful figures in Washington, are now both in Democratic hands.

What alarms Republicans are these signs that the voters are completely disenchanted with them and this might spell disaster for the party in the November elections, in both houses of Congress and the presidency. It is also interesting that Obama made a campaign ad for Foster and McCain made one for Oberweis.

January 09, 2008

Improving the quality of our snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous post, I mentioned that my Race IAT results indicated that I had no automatic preference for black or white people. This surprised me, frankly. Although I am intellectually committed to thinking of people as equal, I am still subjected to the same kinds of images and stereotypes as everyone else in society so I expected to have at least a small automatic preference for white people. But the section on Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink on 'priming' experiments might give an explanation for the null result.

The priming experiments were done by psychologist John Bargh. What he did was give two randomly selected groups of undergraduate students a small test involving words. The results of the word test itself were not relevant. What was relevant was that the first set of students encountered words like "aggressively", "bold, "rude", "bother", etc. in their test while the second set encountered words like "respect", "considerate", "patiently", "polite", etc.

After they had done the word test, the students were asked to go down the hall to the person running the experiment to get their next assignment. This was the real experiment because it had been arranged to have a confederate blocking the doorway, carrying on an inane and seemingly endless conversation with the experimenter. The experiment was designed to see if the set of students who had been unknowingly 'primed' with aggressive words would take longer to interrupt this conversation than those who had been primed with polite words. Bargh expected to see a difference, but expected that difference to be measured in milliseconds. He said "I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren't going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most."

What he found was that the people primed to be rude eventually interrupted after an average of five minutes, but 82% of the people primed to be polite did not interrupt at all, even after ten minutes which was the cut-off time that had been pre-set for the experiment, thinking that no one would ever wait that long.

What these and other priming experiments suggest is that the kinds of experiences we have carry their effects subconsciously over to the next events, at least for some time.

This may explain my negative result because for some time now I have been studying the achievement gap between black and white students in the US. The more I looked at it, the more I became convinced that the concept of race is biologically indefensible, that it cannot be the cause of the gap, and that the reasons for the gap have to be looked for elsewhere.

Since my book on the subject called The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine came out in June 2005, I had been thinking a lot about these ideas at the same time as I took the test, and so I was probably 'primed' to think that there is no fundamental difference between the races, and hence my null result on the Race IAT test.

This ties in with other research that I quote in my book that deals with the role that teacher expectations of students play in student achievement. Teacher expectations are an important factor but a lot of the efforts to improve teacher expectations of low-achieving students have been along the lines "All children can learn!" sloganeering. But having teachers just saying this or plastering it on school walls may not help much, if they are not convinced of its truth. If people are conscious that they are being primed, then the priming effect disappears.

What is needed is for teachers to improve their overall expectations of students is for them to have opportunities to actually see for themselves traditionally underachieving students excelling. If they can have such experiences, then the inevitable snap judgments they make about students, and which can have an effect on student performance, may be more equitable than they are now.

I have long been in favor of diversity in our educational environments but my reasons were more social, because I felt that we all benefit from learning with, and from, those whose backgrounds and experiences differ from our own. But it seems that there is an added bonus as well. When we have a broader base of experience on which to base our judgments, our snap judgments tend to be better.

January 08, 2008

Snap judgments and prejudices

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In an earlier post, I described Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink about the way we instinctively make judgments about people. The way we make snap judgments is by 'thin-slicing' events. We take in a small slice of the phenomena we observe and associate the information in those slices with other measures. People who make good snap judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with valid predictors of behavior. People who make poor or prejudicial judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with poor predictors.

Think about what you observe about a person immediately as that person walks into your view. Gender, ethnicity, height, weight, color, gait, dress, hair, demeanor, eyes, looks, physique, gestures, voice, the list just goes on. We sweep up all these impressions in a flash. And based on them, whether we want to or not, we make a judgment about the person. Different people will weigh different elements in the mix differently.

If someone comes into my office wearing a suit, my initial impression of the person is different than if she had come in wearing jeans. (If you were mildly surprised by my using the pronoun 'she' towards the end of the last sentence, it is because, like me, you implicitly associate suits with male attire, so that the first part of the sentence made you conjure up a mental image of a man.)

A personal example of snap judgments occurs when I read Physics Today which I get every month. The obituary notices in have the magazine have a standard form. There is a head-shot of the person, with the name as the header, and one or two column inches describing the person.

Almost all of the obituaries are of old white men, not surprising for physicists of the generation that is now passing away. I found myself looking at the photo and immediately identifying whether the person was of English nationality or not. And I was right a surprising number of times. And I was not reasoning it through in any conscious way. As soon as I saw the picture came into view, I'd find myself thinking "English" or "not English". I don't know the basis of my judgments. But as I said, I was right surprisingly often.

Gladwell describes a very successful car salesman who over the years has realized that gender, ethnicity, clothes, etc. are not good predictors of whether the person is likely to buy a car or not. Someone who his fellow salespeople might ignore or dismiss because he looks like a rustic farmer, this salesman takes seriously. And because this salesman has been able to shape his intuition to ignore superficial or irrelevant things, his senses are better attuned to pick up on those cues that really matter.

Some of the strongest associations we make are those based on ethnicity, gender, and age. We immediately associate those qualities with generalizations associated with those groupings.

People are not always comfortable talking about their attitudes on race, gender, and other controversial topics. This is why surveys on such topics are unreliable, because people can 'psyche out' the tests, answering in the way they think they are expected to, the 'correct' way, rather than what they actually feel. This is why opinion polls on such matters, or in elections where the candidates are of different races or ethnicities, are hard to rely on.

There is a website, developed by researchers at Harvard University, that recognizes this problem. They have designed a survey instrument that tries to overcome this feature by essentially (as far as I can tell) measuring the time taken to answer their questions. In other words, they are measuring the time taken for you to psyche out the test. Since we have much less control over this, the researchers believe that this survey gives a better result. They claim that you cannot change your score by simply taking the test over and over again and becoming familiar with it.

If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on "Demonstration", then on "Go to Demonstration Tests", then on "I wish to proceed". This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IAT) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell's book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test "always leaves me feeling a bit creepy." He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

I can see why this kind of test is unnerving. It may shake our image of ourselves and reveal to us the presence of prejudices that we wish we did not have. But if we are unconsciously making associations of whatever kind, isn't it better to know this so that we can take steps to correct for them if necessary? The successful car salesman became so because he realized that people in his profession made a lot of the unconscious associations that were not valid and had to be rejected. And he used that knowledge in ways that benefited him and his customers.

Although you cannot change your Race IAT scores by simply redoing the test, there are other things that can change your score. When I took the Race IAT, the results indicated that I have no automatic preference for blacks or whites. In a later posting, I will talk about the effects that 'priming' might have on the test results, and how that might have affected my results.

POST SCRIPT: Saying Iraq and Iran

I noticed that President Bush pronounces Iran the same way that I do ("E-rahn") but pronounces Iraq as "Eye-rack" (instead of "E-rahk"), which really grates on me. He is not the only one who does this.

I don't know how the people who live in those two countries pronounce the names but it seems reasonable to me to pronounce the two names similarly except for the last letter. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, which provides audio as well, agrees with me on this.

January 07, 2008

Snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. It deals with how we all make snap judgments about people and things, sometimes within a couple of seconds or less. Gladwell reports on a whole slew of studies that suggest that we have the ability to 'thin-slice' events, to make major conclusions from just a narrow window of observations.

I first read about this as applied to teaching in an essay by Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker (May 29, 2000) where he described research by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal who found that by showing observers silent videoclips of teachers in action, the observers (who had never met the teachers before) were able to make judgments of teacher effectiveness that correlated strongly with the evaluations of students who had taken an entire course with that teacher. (Source: Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, vol. 64, No. 3, 431-441.)

This result is enough to give any teacher the heebie-jeebies. The thought that students have formed stable and robust judgments about you before you have even opened your mouth on the very first day of the very first class is unnerving. It seems so unfair that you are being judged before you can even begin to prove yourself. But, for good or bad, this seems to be supported by other studies, such as those done by Robert Boice in his book Advice for New Faculty Members.

The implication for this is that the cliché "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is all too true. And what Gladwell's New Yorker article and book seem to suggest is that this kind of thin-slicing is something that all of us do all the time. But not all of us do it well. Some people use thin-slicing to arrive at conclusions that are valid, others to arrive at completely erroneous judgments.

Those who do it well tend to be people who have considerable experience in that particular area. They have distilled that experience into some key variables that they then use to size up the situation at a glance, often without even consciously being aware of how they do it.

Seen in this way, the seemingly uncanny ability of people to identify at a glance who the good and bad teachers are might not seem that surprising. Most people have had lots of experience with many teachers in their lives, and along the way have unconsciously picked up subtle non-verbal cues that they use to correlate with good and bad teaching. They use these markers as predictors and seem to be quite good at it.

I was self-consciously reflecting on this last week when I ran two mock-seminars for visiting high-school seniors as part of "Experience Case " days. The idea was to have a seminar class for these students so that they could see what a seminar would be like if they chose to matriculate here. I found that just by glancing around the room at the assembled students at the beginning, I could tell who was likely to be an active participant in the seminar and who would not.

It was easy for me to make these predictions and I was pretty confident that I would be proven right, and I usually was. But how did I do it? Hard to tell. But I have taught for many years and encountered thousands of students and this wealth of experience undoubtedly played a role in my ability to make snap judgments. If pressed to explain my judgments I might say that it was the way the students sat, their body language, the way they made eye contact, the expression on their faces, and other things like that.

But while I am confident about my ability to predict the students' subsequent behavior in the seminar, I am not nearly as confident in the validity of the reasons I give. And this is consistent with what Gladwell reports in his book. Many of the experts who made good judgments did not know how they arrived at their conclusions or, when they did give reasons, the reasons could not stand up to close scrutiny.

He gives the example of veteran tennis pro and coach Vic Braden. Braden found that when watching tennis players about to make their second serve, he could predict with uncanny accuracy (close to 100%) when they would double fault. This is amazing because he was watching top players (who very rarely double fault) perform on television, and many of the players were people he had never seen play before. But what drove Braden crazy was that he could not say how he made his predictions. He just knew in a flash of insight that they would, and no amount of watching slow-motion replays enabled him to pinpoint the reasons.

But Gladwell points out that we use thin-slicing techniques even is situations where we do not have much experience or expertise and these judgments can lead us astray. In later postings, I will describe the kinds of situations where snap judgments are likely to lead us to shaky conclusions and where we should be alert.

POST SCRIPT: Charlie Wilson's War

The film with the above name tries to make a comedy out of the role that the US played in creating the Taleban in Afghanistan. Stanley Heller points out that this was no laughing matter for the million Afghans who died as a result of the geostrategic games played by the Soviet Union and the Carter-Reagan governments.

November 23, 2007

The evil of the consumer economy

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a 'consumer economy', and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don't get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water. Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don't see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the 'end-timers', the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive "must have" items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned art of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: High finance explained

I have to admit that the world of high finance baffles me by its seeming irrationality. Two British comedians give the best explanation I have heard so far about the volatile stock market and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving musings

(This is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, considerably added to and modified.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn't repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War, declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick off for the shopping orgy, but not too close or people won't have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October, not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday's roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is just a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season" which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: The power of prayer

American Dad goes to church and his prayers are answered.

October 18, 2007

Language and Evolution

I have always been fascinated by language. This is somewhat ironic since I have a really hard time learning a new language and almost did not make it into college in Sri Lanka because of extreme difficulty in passing the 10th-grade language requirement in my own mother tongue of Tamil! (How that happened is a long and not very interesting story.)

But language fascinates me. How words are used, their origins, how sentences are structured, are all things that I enjoy thinking and reading about. I like playing with words, and enjoy puns, cryptic crosswords, and other forms of wordplay.

All this background is to explain why I recommend an excellent book The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, who used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the book he discusses the complexity of language and points out that the evolution of language is very similar to that of biological life. He suggests that there was originally just one spoken, very primitive, language and as the people who spoke it fanned out across the globe, the various languages evolved as separated communities formed. And in the process the languages became more complex and sophisticated, and evolved intricate features in their vocabulary and grammar that now seem to have little functional purpose, in a manner very analogous to biological systems.

The precise origin of spoken language is hard to pin down. McWhorter argues that it probably arose with the evolution of the ability to form complex sounds and roughly synchronous with the arrival of homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago. Others have suggested a more recent date for the origins of language, about 12,000-15,000 years ago, but pinning this date down precisely is next to impossible given that spoken language leaves no traces. What we do know is that written language began about 5,000 years ago

McWhorter points out that purely spoken languages evolve and change very rapidly, resulting in an extremely rapid proliferation of language leaving us with the 6,000 or so languages that we have now. It was the origin of writing, and more importantly mass printing, that slowed down the evolution of language since now the fixed words on paper acted as a brake on further changes.

He also makes an important point that the distinction between standard and dialect forms of languages have no hierarchical value and is also a post-printing phenomenon. In other words, when we hear people (say) in rural Appalachia or in the poorer sectors of inner cities speak in an English that is different from that spoken by middle class, college-educated people, it is not the case that they are speaking a debased form of 'correct' or 'standard' English. He argues that dialects are all there is or ever was, because language was always mainly a local phenomenon. There are no good or bad dialects, there are just dialects.

We can, if we wish, bundle together a set of dialects that share a lot in common and call it a language (like English or French or Swahili) but no single strand in the bundle can justifiably lay any intrinsic claim to be the standard. What we identify as standard language arose due to factors such as politics and power. Standard English now is that dialect which was spoken in the politically influential areas near London. Since that area was then the hub of printing and copying, that version of language appeared in the written form more often than other forms and somewhere in the 1400s became seen as the standard. The same thing happened with standard French, which happened to be the dialect spoken in the Paris areas.

McWhorter points out that, like biological organisms, languages can and do go extinct in that people stop speaking them and they disappear or, in some cases like Latin, only appear in fossilized form. In fact, most of the world's languages that existed have already gone extinct, as is the case with biological species. He says that rapid globalization is making many languages disappear even more rapidly because as people become bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and as a few languages emerge as the preferred language of commerce, there is less chance of children learning the less-privileged language as their native tongue. This loss in the transmission of language to children as their primary language is the first stage leading to eventual extinction. He points out that currently 96 percent of the world's population speaks at least one of just twenty languages, in addition to their indigenous language. These languages are Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portugese, Japanese, German, French, Punjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Italian, Korean, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and Vietnamese and thus these are the languages most likely to survive extinction. It is noteworthy that the population of India is so large and diverse that seven of these languages originated there, and two others (English and Arabic) are also used extensively in that country.

He also points out that languages are never 'pure' and that this situation is the norm. Languages cross-fertilize with other languages to form language stews, so that language chauvinists who try to preserve some pure and original form of their language are engaged in a futile task. For example, of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, more than 99 percent were originally obtained from other languages. However, the remaining few that originated in Old English, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from turn out to be 62 percent of the words that are used most.

McWhorter is a very good writer, able to really bring the subject to life by drawing on everyday matters and popular culture. He has a breezy and humorous style and provides lots of very interesting bits of trivia that, while amusing, are also very instructive of the points he wishes to make. Regarding the ability of language to change and evolve new words, for example, he explains how the word 'nickname' came about. It started out as an 'ekename' because in old English, the word 'eke' meant also, so that an 'ekename' meant an 'also name' which makes sense. Over time, though, 'an ekename' changed to 'a nekename' and eventually to 'a nickname.' He gives many interesting examples of this sort.

Those who know more than one language well will likely appreciate his book even more than me. It is a book that is great fun to read and I can strongly recommend to anyone who loves words and language.

POST SCRIPT: Whipping up war frenzy

Jon Stewart show how it is done.

July 03, 2007

On the pursuit of happiness

On this day before independence day, I wanted to reflect on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence, and is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the inclusion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental goal to be quaint and appealing. One does not expect to see such pleasing and innocently worded sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who signed that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, Jefferson's suggestion that we should pursue happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other things. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better idea about what is would take to achieve it: "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so."

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is that we don't realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them.

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Good advice.

June 08, 2007

Highway merging and the theory of evolution

Some time ago, I wrote about the best way for traffic to merge on a highway, say when a lane is closed up ahead. There are those drivers who begin to merge as soon as the signs warning of impending closure appear, thus making their lanes clear. Others take advantage of this lane opening up to drive fast right up to the merge point and then try to squeeze into the other lane.

I said that although people who followed the latter strategy were looked upon disapprovingly as queue jumpers, it seemed to me like the most efficient thing to do to optimize traffic flow was to follow the lead of the seemingly anti-social people and stay in the closed lane until the last moment since that had the effect of minimizing the length of the restricted road. To merge earlier meant that one had effectively made the restricted portion longer.

Some commenters (Gregory Szorc, another Greg, and Jeremy Smith) disagreed with me, saying that what is important is not the length of the restricted road section but the ability of traffic to maintain speed. After all, a single lane of cars can travel quite smoothly at 60 mph for quite a distance, even if there is a lot of traffic. They said that the best thing to do is to merge into the other lane whenever you can do so without significantly losing speed. Clearly this means merging as soon as possible, when traffic is still light, rather than following my suggestion of waiting until the latest moment when traffic is heavier and merging has to be done at a low speed.

The last month I have been doing a lot of highway driving and have been observing this again and realize that I was wrong and the commenters right. When traffic is light, people can merge at any point and not back up traffic because the speed at which they merge is close to the normal speed. So it seems that the key feature is the ability to maintain speed and to merge when you can do so, which means when the traffic flow is light, which usually is well before the actual lane closing. In fact, I think that highway workers should post signs many, many miles ahead of the restriction and recommend that people merge as soon as possible.

But highway signs alone are not going to be enough to have the desired effect. What is needed is widespread public awareness of the benefits of merging well before you actually have to.

Of course, there will always be people who 'cheat' and try to go as far as possible along the closed lane and thus end up slowing traffic at the merge point and destroying the benefits for all. What can be done about this?

Interestingly, this phenomenon parallels the problem of explaining altruistic behavior using evolution by natural selection. It is easy to argue that a group benefits if all its members practice some particular trait, say by sharing food equally all the time so that everyone survives in both good times and bad. But the catch is that evolution by natural selection works on the basis of what is good for a single organism, not for groups, because it is an organism that has genes and propagates it. And that means that a cheater (i.e., someone who, when he has plenty, hides some of his food without being caught) benefits more than the others and is more likely to survive. If this tendency to cheat is an inherited trait, then over time cheaters will come to dominate in the population. Evolutionary biologists have developed theories on how to explain the evolution of altruistic behavior in the face of this seeming advantage for cheating.

In the case of highway merging, if everyone, without exception, follows the early highway merging rule, then long bottlenecks could be a thing of the past, unless traffic is so heavy that merging at normal speed is just impossible. But the occasional cheater will get a short-term benefit of getting a long stretch of open road, while the people behind him get the negative effects of having him slow down traffic at the merge point. So he gets the benefit of others merging early while others bear the cost of his cheating, making cheating an advantageous option to that single organism.

Of course, I am not suggesting that selfish and inconsiderate highway driving habits are inherited traits that will spread in the population by being passed down to the inconsiderate driver's children via his or her genes. But they could be like a 'meme', a mental virus that, like a gene, is a replicator that seeks to propagate and increase its incidence in the population, which in this case consists of the minds of people. This meme would encourage people to benefit themselves in the short-term at the expense of others, even though in the long term they too lose when someone else practicing the same behavior slows down traffic ahead of them.

April 23, 2007

The serious business of comics

I don't know what it says about me but the section of the paper I read most carefully is the funny pages. While I can zip through the rest of the paper quickly, gleaning the gist of articles by quickly scanning and skipping, I slow down and read carefully every word in the comics, even the ones I don't find funny.

I have always taken newspaper comic strips seriously. The papers in Sri Lanka when I was growing up did not have the multipage spreads that US papers have but they had enough comics to whet my appetite for the genre and I became an addict, faithfully reading them every day to this day. In those days there was a greater proportion of 'serious' strips, daily serialized versions of comic book stories. I recall The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Tarzan, which I enjoyed at that time, in addition to the gag strips (Mr. Abernathy, Bringing Up Father) which were not that funny. Peanuts was the exception, being consistently high quality, with Hi and Lois being fairly good.

Although I have severely criticized the way newspapers in the US cover news, there is no question that they generally provide you with a good selection of mainstream comics. Whenever I travel to another city, I always buy the local papers to see what comics they run, and while I am away the Plain Dealer copies at home are collected and kept for me so that on my return I can read the comics in sequence and get back up to date.

I know I am not alone in my devotion to comics. It is generally conceded that newspaper readers are most passionate about their comics and woe to the editor who drops a favored strip. I have heard editors say that the only time to make any changes to the comics page is just before you leave town to take another job, so that you can avoid the wrath of fans protesting the loss of their favorite strip.

This intense loyalty has the unfortunate tendency to make the comics pages static, with strips continuing long after their creators have run out of ideas, or even died, with their work being carried on by successors. In a shakeup a few years ago, the Plain Dealer dropped Spiderman and Judge Parker but there was such an outcry that they had to bring them back. Since they had no room anymore on the comics pages because of the replacements, they had to insert them into the classified ads section. As a result I don't read them anymore since Spiderman was an awful strip, with plots dragging on interminably. Judge Parker was better but not enough to make me rummage through the classified section to find it.

It is only when a cartoonist retires or dies that new trips tend to be introduced and this has happened recently with the retirement of Fox Trot creator Bill Amend. The paper said they would run four different strips for a month each and then get readers to vote for which of the four should be the permanent replacement strip. But for some reason, after three months, while the auditions for the Fox Trot replacement was still going on, they suddenly dropped Pre-Teena (which was not bad) and inserted one of the new candidate strips Pearls Before Swine (which is also not bad) in its place.

The death last week of Johnny Hart, creator of the painfully unfunny B.C. and Wizard of Id may provide opportunities for two new strips, once the backlog of his strips is completed.

In general I hate strips that feature children or animals acting 'cute'. It seems like their creators, rather than aiming for laughs, want their readers to say "Awwww, how sweet!" Family Circus, Marmaduke and Jump Start are the worst examples of this tendency. I also hate strips like Ziggy that are often simply sappy and repetitious, seemingly written as greeting cards.

Garfield, Get Fuzzy, Peanuts, and The Boondocks (the last via the internet) are examples of strips that have animals and children but where they have personalities and are interesting, even edgy. Peanuts is now running some of the early strips drawn in the 1950s and 60s and it amazing how laugh-out-loud funny they are, compared to Charles Shulz's later works when they became more focused on being heartwarming rather than funny. Linus especially is a hoot and my favorite character, along with everyone's favorite Snoopy.

Amongst the other current comics, the ones I like are Dilbert, Non Sequitur, Speed Bump, Bizarro, Real Life Adventures, Zits, and Doonesbury. Blondie, despite its age, still has the ability to occasionally be quite funny, as does The Born Loser.

The thing that has changed since my youth is the emergence of the semi-comic narrative strip, which has continuing story lines that do not always aim for a laugh. For Better or Worse and Funky Winkerbean are better examples of this genre, while Crankshaft is tiresome. Although Tom Batiuk is the creator of both Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft, the former benefits from having a larger ensemble of varied and interesting characters and story lines, while the latter's running gags of mothers chasing the bus (sorry for the pun) and Keesterman's mailbox being destroyed have long since ceased to be funny.

Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, and Sally Forth are also strips that I would not miss if they disappeared, being funny only on very rare occasions. Mary Worth is a soap-opera strip that also tends to drag the plot lines out and should be retired.

So what about the four candidates that are supposed to be auditioning to replace Fox Trot? One was Dog Eat Doug, which features a dog and a baby both acting cute, and hence was really awful. Another was Pearls Before Swine which seems to have already usurped the Pre-Teena slot. Another is called Diesel Sweeties about a robot and his human girl friend, which looks like it was drawn using an Etch-a-Sketch. This strip is quite weird and I just don't get some of the jokes or even the point. The fourth candidate was the first to run and I have forgotten it already.

The comic strip that I miss most is, of course, Calvin and Hobbes. What a brilliant strip that was. But I have to admire creator Bill Watterson for recognizing that after ten years, it was time to stop. It is always better to leave people wanting more than have them wish you would go away.

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Richard Dawkins will be interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on Monday, April 23, at 8.00pm Eastern time on FOX. The program will be rebroadcast at 11.00pm. (You may want to check your local listings for times.)

O'Reilly's shtick is to try and bully and badger those with whom he disagrees. But Dawkins is more than his match intellectually and does not suffer fools gladly.

I have seen many Dawkins interviews in which he is engaged by British TV interviewers who have been sharp in their questions but cordial and civil in their manner. I am not sure if Dawkins has ever been interviewed by someone as overbearing, self-absorbed, and obnoxious as O'Reilly, so this encounter will be like the proverbial unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

Unfortunately I do not have cable and am teaching a class until 9:00pm anyway. I hope the video appears on the internet soon after.

April 20, 2007

Reacting to other people's tragedies

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with is how to respond when tragedy strikes other people.

When tragedy strikes you personally, then any response by you is fine and no one else has the right to tell you how you should feel and what is appropriate behavior. I find it strange when others sit in judgment and look on disapprovingly if someone does things that they themselves would not do in a similar situation. For example, Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue with her life just as it was before her cancer struck again was her right to make and should not have been second-guessed by anyone. She said that the only alternative was preparing for death and she rejected that option.

It is a little harder to know how best to respond when the tragedy bereaves not you but someone you know personally or, in the case of the Virginia Tech shootings or the death of a much-loved and much admired figure like Martin Luther King, affects such a large enough number of people that we feel a collective sense of loss. But however close I am to the people who actually lost a loved one, I try to remember that what I feel empathetically can never be anywhere close to what they actually feel.

For example, on NPR earlier this week, they quoted a resident of Blacksburg who was attending the memorial service for the dead people at Virginia Tech out of a sense of solidarity. That was admirable but in trying to convey the depth of his sympathy, he said that he felt like one of his own children had been killed. I am sure he meant well, but I personally avoid that kind of sentiment. As I have said earlier, the reason people grieve so deeply over the loss of a loved one is because of the sense of yearning for the missing person, the loss of the relationship and companionship that they once enjoyed. If you never had that companionship to begin with, then the feelings you experience are unlikely to have the deep poignancy that the truly bereaved feel. We can try and imagine what it would be like to have that experience, but I doubt that it comes even close to matching the intensity of the real thing.

I see a lot of this generalized adoption of other people's grief these days. It strikes me as a little bit of verbal overkill. We seem to think that people will be comforted if we say that we are feeling the same emotions as they. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, some people around the world said "We are all Americans now." When major tragedies strike people in other countries, similar sentiments are expressed. I am not sure if this kind of thing really helps the people who are bereaved or instead strikes them as cheap and shallow sentiment. Perhaps the best thing to do in such situations is to express your sympathy for their loss, and simply support them as they work their way through it and not prescribe what they should or should not do. We have to realize that our words can never really capture the emotions that they feel.

It is odd how some people react to the Virginia Tech shootings. Dinesh D'Souza, who had already made a fool of himself on the Colbert Report for suggesting in his new book that the 9/11 attacks were partly due to actions of FDR (!) and the liberals in America (see the postscript to this post) emerges from wherever he obtains his hallucinations to make the strange argument that the response to the recent shooting reveals the deficiencies of atheism! He asserts that 'atheists were nowhere to be found' and advances the argument that because noted atheist Richard Dawkins (who has no connection to the university) was not invited to speak at the Virginia Tech convocation, this shows that atheism is of no use at these times and that therefore god is necessary.

If his appearance on Colbert left any doubt that D'Souza was a silly person not to be taken seriously, this latest evidence sealed the case. It takes an extraordinary level of obtuseness to suggest that events surrounding the cold-blooded slaughter of 32 innocent people are an argument against atheism and in favor of a providential god. Any junior varsity debater could demolish his arguments and the inimitable TBogg shows the way with a cartoon as a bonus. As the Carpetbagger Report says: "Honestly, one might think D'Souza was trying to sound like an idiot."

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings provides the definitive response, especially about D'Souza's statement that: "What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil."

Hilzoy points out "What's especially silly about this sentence is that the problem of evil is a problem specifically for Christians. It is, basically, the problem of how a good and loving God could have created a world with evil in it. Atheists do not have this problem at all. So I guess they don't "deal with it", in the sense in which they don't have to "deal with" the problem of how Christ's body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist."

D'Souza seems to be under the weird impression that to be an atheist is to not have emotions like love, sadness, grief, joy, etc., that to be an atheist is to be a machine. He points to poet Nikki Giovanni's speech at the convocation as "as heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning" and suggests that atheists have nothing similarly uplifting to offer at times like this.

But what is odd about this assertion is that Giovanni is reported to be a secular person (though I have not been able to confirm this). Here is the text of her speech in full:

We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we will be sad for quite awhile. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to know when to cry and sad enough to know we must laugh again. We are Virginia Tech. We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did not deserve it but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, but neither do the invisible children walking the night to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Appalachian infant in the killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. We are Virginia Tech. The Hokier Nation embraces our own with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.

I don't see any religious symbolism at all. What I do see in her words is a stirring affirmation of life and solidarity, linking the recent sorrow with that of suffering people and animals everywhere, and calling us to draw upon our reservoirs of strength and courage to be unbowed by the madness of the events and fight back to sanity through the tears.

It is an uplifting message for everyone, flying high above the petty divisions of private beliefs and the mud in which people like D'Souza wallow.

POST SCRIPT: Another new episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

In Episode #10, Mr. Deity tries to figure out why hell is so overcrowded.

The full set of clips can be seen here.

April 19, 2007

The Virginia Tech tragedy

What was your reaction when you first heard the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech? When someone in my office told me around noon on Monday that about twenty people had been shot dead on that campus, my first reaction was that this was probably another case of someone snapping under the pressure of something or other and setting off on a killing spree.

One thing that did not occur to me, despite the fear-mongering that has gone on under the guise of the so-called 'war on terror', was the possibility that this was a terrorist attack. After all, these kinds of killings happen periodically in America, though admittedly this was on a larger scale than usual. Although I checked the internet for news, I have long realized that you should never take seriously the initial news reports that emerge from such chaotic and fast-moving situations.

The first news that emerges almost always depend on reports, often second or third hand, originating from people having a slight connection with the incident, perhaps because of being nearby. But eyewitness reports given by most people in situations like this are notoriously unreliable. People often confuse what they actually observed with what they inferred, they re-order events, they confuse identities. Most of this is because they are not dispassionate observers, clinically taking notes. Instead they are trying to make sense of the events as they rapidly occur so that they can take action, often defensive action.

So I have found that it is usually after a few days, when the dust has settled and people have managed to get enough information from diverse sources, that reliable news about even the most basic aspects (how many people died, how many were injured, when and where the events occurred) can be gleaned. So I reserve judgment until that time.

Oddly enough, as even more time goes by, the story gets distorted again. This is because after awhile, an 'official' narrative starts to get constructed. People like to have a nice story line that fits a pattern and this official narrative begins to be constructed that tries to explain everything neatly. This is rarely an act of deliberate dishonesty. It can arise naturally, often out of good motives. The authorities want to get back a sense of normalcy, so they have a vested interested in acting as if everything is over and known. People want to get back to their lives and they can do that if they think there is nothing more to be learned. All these things conspire to pressure everyone to suppress discrepant data and discordant explanations and to produce an 'official' history of the events that then becomes 'fact'.

So my view is that it is in a small window of time after the events, not immediately during or after, and not too long afterwards, that we get the most accurate picture of what really happened, with all its seeming contradictions and loose ends. This is why historians go back to the contemporary records of events they are investigating, to primary sources, and are often surprised that the actual history of some event is often much more complicated than the official version that was subsequently passed on.

So not jumping to conclusions and waiting for a few days to draw conclusions has always seemed to me to be a wise move. But clearly not everyone agrees with that approach. Some people, on first hearing the Virginia Tech news, immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a terrorist attack by Muslims and then tried to fit all the details that emerged into that pre-determined narrative structure.

One of these people was someone called Debbie Schlussel, a Third-Tier Pundit. Her immediate suspicion was that the killer was a Muslim and that this was a terrorist attack. Her suspicions were fuelled by initial reports that the killer was Asian. She immediately looked around for likely Asian Muslims, although no data was available to support her speculations. She wrote: "The Virginia Tech campus has a very large Muslim community, many of which are from Pakistan" and added "Pakis are considered "Asian." " (She seems not to realize that while 'Pakistanis' is an acceptable description of people of that nation, and 'Paks' is also sometimes used, especially to describe their sports teams, the word 'Paki' is considered a racial slur, especially in England. When someone pointed this out in the comments she reacted angrily and defensively)

She went on obsessing about the possibility that the shooter was a Muslim: "So who is the shooter? What is the shooter's nationality? What is the shooter's religion? Waiting to find out. And wondering why the police and media are referring to the shooter as "Asian" and not by specific nationality.. . Why am I speculating that the "Asian" gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won't tell us more specifically who the gunman is. Why?"

She seems to have this bizarre idea that there is a vast conspiracy by the authorities to hide the killer's Muslim identity under the broad umbrella label of Asian, and she tries to enlist other Asians to her cause by appealing to a bogus sense of grievance: "If I were Asian, I'd be legitimately upset with this broad generalization of the mass murderer's identity." I am not sure why any Asian should be upset at this. If someone saw me on the street, they would not know if I was Indian or Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi or Pakistani. If you don’t know for sure, 'Asian' seems a much better description, though still having the potential to be wrong.

Perhaps suspecting that at this point she may be have gone too far, Schlussel tries to hedge her bets. "Even if it does not turn out that the shooter is Muslim, this is a demonstration to Muslim jihadists all over that it is extremely easy to shoot and kill multiple American college students." Really? She thinks that people don't know that college campuses in the US are open places where people wander around freely?

But then news emerged that the shooter was "Chinese," thus destroying her Muslim theory, so she jumps to another conclusion, to tackle another pet project which is exploiting xenophobic anti-immigrant feelings. "The shooter has now been identified as a Chinese national here on a student visa. Lovely. Yet another reason to stop letting in so many foreign students." Of course, that also turned out to be wrong. The student was from South Korea and had been here from the time he was eight, and did not need or have a student visa because he was a permanent resident.

So then what to do? One of her commenters tries to salvage her Muslim phobia by suggesting that the shooter might be a Chinese Muslim, helpfully providing a Wikipedia link to show the existence of such people. (When I read the angry tone and language of the comments on her blog and her responses to them, and compare them with the kinds of thoughtful and sophisticated discussions that go on here, it is like night and day.) Schlussel still tries to find a Muslim connection by referring to some other incident that happened elsewhere last year and adds darkly: "And remember: Just because this attacker was not Muslim, doesn't mean there aren't plenty of potential and hopeful ones among the thousands Muslim nations are sending here to "study" under Saudi King Abdullah's scholarships."

But meanwhile she is also hints that such a mass killing had to have greater planning and done by more than a lone lunatic, and also pushes other pet projects such as this atrocity proving the need to allow everyone to carry guns, and decrying the wimpiness of current American students who should have rushed and overpowered the gunman instead of hiding or running.

Then she struck pay dirt. A report came in that the student had the words "Ismail Ax" written on his arm! Ismail! A Muslim name! The smoking gun at last! This news has set off another furious round of feverish speculation in the blog world that the killer might secretly have been a Muslim. I find it curious that all these people seem to want a terrorist attack by Muslims to occur in the US. Why is this?

Was the shooter a Muslim? Who knows? That information will eventually come out. And if so, what of it? Maybe he was just a fan of Moby Dick. Maybe "Ismail Ax" was some literary creation of his highly disturbed psyche. We know he was an English major who had strange creative impulses.

I am spending so much space on a fairly obscure person's rantings because it provides a useful case study to indicate what can happen when you jump to conclusions right at the beginning of fast moving events and then try fit everything to meet that conclusion.

We all have some kind of immediate reaction to any event but the sensible thing, it seems to me, is to realize that our initial guess could be way off and wait until we have at least some reliable data before shooting off at the mouth. Otherwise you end up looking like an idiot. As Sherlock Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia: "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

Keith Olbermann takes to task the people who said the most idiotic and insensitive things about the Virginia Tech tragedy. Schlussel merely gets the bronze medal, which gives you an indication of how bad the others must be.

POST SCRIPT: New episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

Episode #9 is now available, where Mr. Deity is annoyed with having his name publicized as creator of the Bible.

The full set of clips can be seen here.

April 17, 2007

This is supposed to be funny?

When I was in my early teens, I was the proverbial 'good' boy. I was religious, didn't swear, didn't smoke or drink surreptitiously, and drugs were simply out of the question. But I had a neighbor of the same age who was much more worldly than I. And this youth used to tell coarse jokes. These jokes dealt with sex and bodily parts and bodily functions. They poked fun at gays and women and were outrageously sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic, although I did not know these words at that time.

As I recall, the jokes were mostly labored puns, and depended on a character having a highly improbable and contrived name that was essential for the working of the joke. So when the character was introduced by name in the set up, you pretty much could guess what the punch line was going to be. After all these years I can still recall one joke, not by remembering it entire, but because I can remember the name of the main character and thus can reconstruct the joke from that name.

Clever, these jokes were not. Even at that young age, I could see that they were labored and crude. But still I enjoyed hearing them and laughed along with the teller, feeding his ego that he was a witty raconteur, a veritable Lenny Bruce, so that he would tell more. I think that the appeal of these jokes for me was that they were a guilty pleasure, a way for me, the 'good' boy, to have an outlet for speaking about socially repressed topics like sex and yet preserve my self-image. After all, I wasn't saying any of these things, I was just a bystander.

But then I grew up. As an adult, I had the freedom to speak openly about these topics and didn’t need to giggle furtively at crude humor and language as a means of expression. I think that perhaps my experience was not uncommon. At the awkward adolescent age that young men go through, when they are trying to figure out their gender and ethnic identities in societies that are uncomfortable with openly discussing them, this kind of humor may for some be a necessary phase for trying out speculative ideas.

As an adult, if one is fortunate enough, one becomes more aware of the diversity of the world and the shared human values. One also encounters and makes friends with people of different ethnicities and religions and genders and sexual orientations and begins to realize that humor that is based on gratuitously insulting those groups is simply not funny.

Sometimes the lessons are learned painfully. I remember attending a World Student Christian Movement international conference as the Sri Lankan delegate in the early 1970s. The American delegation consisted mostly of women who were feminists and I remember making 'jokes' (of the 'there, there, little girl' type) that were condescending and patronizing to women and feminism, The women were, naturally enough, infuriated and did not hesitate to tell me why they thought I was an idiot. Although I brushed off their criticisms at the time, I think their comments worked on me slowly and I realized later that I had acted like a jerk. (I still cringe at the memory and in the highly unlikely event that decades later any of them are reading this blog, I apologize.).

This is not to say that humor based on gender or sex or sexual identity and ethnicity need to be avoided. We have to take pleasure in our differences and our diversity, and a rich vein of humor can be mined by playing off stereotypes. Dave Barry shows how it can be done well in his brilliantly funny essay on The Difference Between Men and Women. But there is a world of difference between clever and mean, between witty and crude. Depending upon insulting words and denigrating stereotypes means that you have no creativity and are simply desperate to get a laugh, any laugh..

This is what seems to be at the heart of the Don Imus episode. Although I have never watched or listened to his show (except for the occasional YouTube clips when it dealt with some political topic) what caused the furor seemed to me to be like the situation when I was young, laughing along with my neighbor's lame attempts at humor. All the celebrity guests, the so-called 'respectable' people, the movers and shakers in the political and media world, who repeatedly appeared on his show and indulged his alleged racist and sexist and homophobic humor seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to enjoy this forbidden pleasure, while still clinging to their respectability because they themselves did not say any of those things. They, like me, adopted the 'innocent bystander' defense. And this acceptance of his actions by them in turn enabled Imus to feel that what he was doing was just fine, even perhaps admirable.

The whole thing reminds me (as so many things do) of a Monty Python sketch. This one starts with Terry Jones as a little naughty schoolboy thinking that it is very funny to say the word 'bottom' while his 'good' friends giggle, and ends with the famous 'nudge, nudge' sketch where Eric Idle is satirizing grown men who never really became mature. They want to talk about sex but can only do so in innuendo.

What surprises me is one 'defense' that is being offered on Imus's behalf, that he was an equal-opportunity offender, insulting almost every possible minority group. When did that become a good thing?

I am not much in touch anymore with talk radio and talk TV (or even popular culture in general for that matter) and so have no idea if Imus was better or worse than others in those media or whether his summary firing was justified by those standards. I suspect that he was fired for business reasons and the defection of advertisers, the real arbiter of media content, and not due to a sudden increase in refinement in the sensibilities of his audience or of the corporate bigwigs who own the stations his show ran on.

But what I feel is that while the type of humor Imus got into trouble for is not funny, and the behavior as practiced by him and his associates and guests is perhaps understandable in callow youths as a temporary phase on the road to maturity, it looks sad and pathetic when practiced by old men.

POST SCRIPT: Parody of Parodies

While searching for the above video, I ran across this very funny clip that pokes fun at the church of Monty Python, of which I am a devout member, as I am sure that readers of this blog have figured out.

April 09, 2007

Cricket World Cup excitement

The vast numbers of cricket fans out there in my blog's readerland are no doubt anxiously wondering what is going on in the World Cup of cricket currently taking place in the West Indies. As I wrote earlier, the end of the first stage of group matches saw the shocking defeat of the strong Pakistani team by the lowly Irish, and the surprising elimination of the Indian team by the Bangladeshis. The murder of the Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer following his team's defeat still remains unsolved, with no arrests.

The tournament is currently about halfway through the second stage, called the Super Eights, where the eight teams that qualified for the second round (Australia, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Bangladesh, and the West Indies) all play each other at least once (unless they had played each other in the first round group matches). At the end of this stage, the top four teams go to the third and final round, which is in sudden death format.

There has been plenty of excitement in the second round. Sri Lanka was involved in two exciting finishes, losing one match to South Africa and winning the other against England.

To understand how exciting the two Sri Lanka games were, you need to understand the rules of the one-day form of cricket. Although the basic rules of the game remain the same as in the five-day international tests, the one-day format has certain rules to ensure both a faster-paced game and that a decision is reached.

The basic differences when compared with the five day game is that (1) each side of eleven players gets only one inning of batting, unlike two in the five-day game, (2) Each side gets to face a maximum of 300 'balls' (what pitches are called in cricket), consisting of 50 'overs' of six balls each, and (3) no bowler (pitcher) can bowl more than 10 overs, which implies that at least five bowlers must be used in a full inning. The last two restrictions do not exist in the five day game.

Each batting side tries to score as many runs as possible in its fifty overs, and the inning is over when either the fifty overs are completed or 10 'wickets' (outs) have occurred. The side scoring the most runs wins. A score of over 300 runs is almost always a winning score, while over 250 is respectable, 200-250 puts quite a burden on your bowling side to restrict the scoring of the opponents, and less than 200 means you are very likely to lose.

The biggest upset was on Saturday when the Bangladesh team (ranked seventh of the eight teams, just ahead of Ireland) easily defeated the top-ranked South Africans, showing that their previous defeat of India was no flash in the pan. Bangladesh scored 251 runs for eight wickets in its 50 overs, while South Africa was only able to score 184 runs before being all out in 48.5 overs.

This was undoubtedly a massive boost for cricket in Bangladesh and the streets of Dhaka immediately erupted in spontaneous parties even though the final result came in at 3:00 am in the morning local time. The South Africans are being criticized as perhaps being too cocky.

But the two most exciting games have involved Sri Lanka. In the game with favorites South Africa, Sri Lanka batted first and managed to score only 209 runs in 49.5 overs before having their tenth and last out, leaving an easy target for South Africa. The latter team seemed to be cruising to victory, reaching 206 for the loss of only five wickets while still having about 30 balls left with which to score the remaining four runs for victory. It seemed all over.

Then Lasith Malinga, a Sri Lankan fast bowler with an unorthodox delivery, did something unprecedented in international cricket, getting four outs in four consecutive balls, leaving the South Africans reeling at 207 for nine, suddenly facing the most dramatic 'defeat from the jaws of victory' ever. But after a period of incredible tension with no runs scored and no outs but with several close shaves, their last batsmen finally managed to score the winning runs with just 10 balls remaining. Although this would have been the most incredible win for Sri Lanka if they had managed to capture that last wicket, it was generally conceded that South Africa had played better overall and deserved to win.

The other dramatic game came when Sri Lanka played England. Sri Lanka again batted first and scored 235 in exactly 50 overs, with their tenth and last out occurring on the very last ball of their inning. When England batted, they seemed to be in trouble when they had scored only 133 runs while losing six wickets but a magnificent late rally by two batsmen saw them reaching 233 for seven wickets, needing only three runs to win, but with just one ball left of the fifty over allocation. In the attempt to score those winning runs off the last ball, the batsman was out, leaving Sri Lanka the victors of this thrilling game by just two runs.

According to the standings at this moment, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and South Africa seem likely to make it into the final four. But England, West Indies, Bangladesh, and Ireland are not as yet mathematically eliminated, although it would take a tremendous series of upsets for Bangladesh and Ireland to qualify for the final round.

POST SCRIPT: Traffic rules? We don't need no stinkin' traffic rules!

Here is a scene from a busy intersection in China where they seem to manage without stop lights, stop signs, or traffic circles.

For those unfamiliar with the allusion that gave rise to the title of this post script, here is a clip from the classic film Treasure of the Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart.

April 02, 2007

Driving notes

Why is that some drivers don't understand simple road courtesy that should be instinctively obvious to anyone? Here are some examples of what I mean.

1. I think it was Gregory Szorc who raised this driving peeve some time ago but I want to bring it up again. I drive to work along residential streets that allow for just one lane of traffic each way. But cars are allowed to park on one side of the street so sometimes you will find that a parked car is blocking your lane. If another car is approaching on the other side, it should be obvious to anyone that that car has the right of way and that you should remain behind the parked car and only pull out and go around the parked car once the road is clear. And yet I repeatedly find that cars swerve around the parked car and expect the oncoming traffic to stop and wait for them until they get back into their own lane. It seems as if the blocked lane car drivers have a sense of grievance that because they were blocked, others should move out of the way to accommodate them. A curious reaction.

2. Another peeve occurs when approaching Case along North Park at the point where it merges with MLK drive. At that point, North Park narrows from two lanes of traffic to just one with no indication as to which lane should yield. So it should be obvious that drivers in the two lanes should alternate while merging zipper-style. But very often, there is a driver who is determined to get ahead of the rightful car and so comes right up to the bumper of the car in front so that two cars from the same lane enter the narrow strip. On occasion I have seen even a third car try to creep in ahead of the rightful car.

What puzzles me is that there is so little to be gained by this act of petty road rudeness. The only time you have saved is the time taken to travel one car length, which is less than one second. So why do drivers do this?

3. Then there is the person who is scared to wear out their turn signals. On occasion I will see a car ahead of me in the adjacent lane wiggling back and forth sideways erratically. I usually assume that it is someone on a cell phone but they sometimes suddenly cut into my lane and I realize that what they were really trying to do was get into my lane and the wiggles were merely aborted attempts. All this angst on their part could have been avoided if they simply signaled their intent. Like many drivers, if I see someone indicating that they want to move into my lane in traffic, I drop back and flash my high beams to let them know they can. So why do people not even bother to signal their intentions and let other people make room for them?

4. When visibility is poor due to heavy rain or snow, it sometimes is of no help to you to put on your lights because it does not increase your own range of vision. But you should put them on anyway because it helps other people to see you. Why is this so hard to understand for some drivers, who insist on surprising other people by their sudden appearance out of the gloom?

5. The bank I use has two drive-up ATMs next to each other. Because they are close to each other, you cannot cut sharply enough to get close to the second one if there is a car at the first one. If both machines are being unused, you would think that the first car to arrive would move up to the farther machine so that the car behind would be able to drive up to the first one. And yet, time and again, I have seen the first car stop at the first machine, thus causing the second car to have to wait for them to finish their transaction, even though there is a vacant machine. I have to think that such people are simply oblivious to the world around them.

6. This is not a peeve but an observation. Traffic circles are a rarity in the US, reserved for major intersections. But I found that in Australia and New Zealand traffic circles are very common, replacing four-way stop signs even in residential areas. They work very well because a circle causes traffic to slow down without having to stop, the right of way is clear, and it makes for smooth driving. They use circles even for T-junctions.

I have even seen them used where there is no intersection at all, where they seem to serve as a speed control device in residential areas. A long uninterrupted road might tempt people to speed, even in a residential area. Having to slow down to go around the circle serves to moderate speeds without the jarring effect of speed bumps, the option most frequently used here. This is an idea worth adopting from those countries.

7. There is one thing that those countries could learn from the US and that is the use of the center yellow line to separate lanes of traffic going in opposite directions. They use a complicated system of solid, long-dashed, and short-dashed lines, all white, and on multiple lane roads it was sometimes not clear to me where the line separating opposing lines of traffic was. Given that I was having to be extra cautious because I was driving on the "wrong" side of the road, this was quite a concern. A yellow center line removes all the ambiguity.

POST SCRIPT: Interviews with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins

Terry Gross of Fresh Air had two in-depth interviews last week on the science religion issue. The first interview was with Richard Dawkins and the second was with Francis Collins.

Both people are eminent scientists who took quite different paths when it comes to religion. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who was mildly religious as a child but became an atheist in his teens when he discovered Darwin's ideas. Francis Collins was head of the Human Genome Project and was not religious as a child but became an evangelical Christian in his twenties.

Dawkins' views are quite well-known. Collins is a 'two-worlds' advocate (science deals with the material world, religion deals with the spiritual world) who thinks that god works though the laws of science like evolution.

Terry Gross does a good job of letting the two guests expand on their views. The interviews are each about 40 minutes in length. There are also supposed to be a downloadable podcasts but I could not find them.

March 26, 2007

Murder at the World Cup

March madness in the cricket-loving world is the World Cup currently being played in the West Indies. But the big story has not been the game itself but the murder of the coach of the Pakistan national team who was found dead in his hotel room the day after the shocking elimination of his team, which failed to qualify for the second round of the tournament.

Initial reports said that 58-year old Bob Woolmer, a diabetic who had once played for England, had died from a heart attack. But authorities started backing way from this and rumors began to swirl of suspicious circumstances, first of suicide, before the authorities said that he had been strangled. There was no sign of forcible entry into his room and nothing was stolen.

This news has stunned everyone and cast a serious pall over the event with some calling for the canceling of the tournament altogether. The authorities have decreed that it will continue but there is no doubt that this terrible event has destroyed the exuberant atmosphere that characterizes these quadrennial events.

The charge of murder naturally raises the question of the identity of the culprit. There are several motives possible. One is that Woolmer was killed by an enraged and disappointed fan of the Pakistani team. Another is that he was killed by angry gamblers who had lost a lot of money because of Pakistan's surprising early elimination from the tournament. And now there are allegations that he was killed because he was about to level serious charges of match fixing, where individual players are bribed to deliberately throw a game in order to benefit gambling interests.

In recent years five players (three from Pakistan, one from India, and one from South Africa) have received lifetime bans for throwing matches at the behest of gamblers, while other players have received lesser punishments for other infractions. Suspicions of players putting in sub-par performances in return for bribes are so pervasive that almost any string of surprisingly poor performances, or a poor performance in a crucial game, has come under suspicion.

To understand these charges, one has to realize that like most major sports competitions, international cricket now is a big business with lots of sponsorship money involved and players (at least from the major teams) earning huge amounts. Gone are the days when even international cricket was either a part-time or at most a seasonal occupation for players. Now they play year around all over the world and huge amounts of money are bet on the games. The games also arouse tremendous passions among the fans, sometimes leading to riots when home teams do badly. The South Asian subcontinent countries of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are particularly prone to having such over-enthusiastic fans, with people even committing suicide because of disappointment over their team's loss.

In the current tournament, 16 teams are taking part. They are split into four groups of four each in which each team plays every other team in their group with only the top two teams going to the second round. Of the 16 teams, only eight (England, West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and South Africa) are considered serious contenders for winning the championship. These eight teams were split equally into the four groups and thus were expected to be the teams to advance to the second round while the other eight (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ireland, Scotland, Bermuda, Netherlands, and Canada) were expected to head for the exits.

But Pakistan, a perennial powerhouse in international cricket (winning the World Cup in 1992) and one of the favorites to win the tournament, suffered an unbelievably shocking defeat to Ireland in their group, which was key to them failing to qualify for the second round. It was on the day following their elimination that their coach Woolmer was killed.

This loss is not the only surprise in the tournament. India, another cricket powerhouse and 1983 winner, suffered a surprising defeat to Bangladesh in their group match and now will also not make it to the second round either. But Bangladesh is the best team of the eight lower-ranked teams and so while this was a major upset, the result was not as sensational as the loss by Pakistan to the complete outsiders Ireland.

Sri Lanka (who won in 1996) has put in strong showings in its group matches, winning all of them, thus advancing to the second round of eight teams. Starting on March 27, these eight teams play six games each, after which the top four advance to the next round beginning April 24, which has a sudden-death format. The championship game is on April 28.

But hanging over the whole tournament will be the question: Why was Bob Woolmer killed and by whom?

POST SCRIPT: Physics demonstrations

No, not the kind a physics teacher does in class. These demonstrations are by students in Nepal who chanted "We want physics!" and clashed with riot police because they want to be allowed to enroll in physics classes, which is apparently severely restricted.

The thought that there are students in the world willing to go to the mat for the chance to study physics has to warm the heart of any physics teacher.

March 21, 2007

Charlatans of the paranormal

The magician James Randi (whose stage name is 'The Amazing Randi') is quite a remarkable person. In addition to his day job as a professional magician, he has a secondary career debunking those whom he sees as charlatans and who use ordinary magic trickery to enrich themselves by fooling gullible people into thinking that they have supernatural powers.

I saw Randi in person when I was in graduate school where he gave a performance of his magic to the student body, and then gave a colloquium in the physics department. In each case, he first did various impressive tricks such as bending spoons and changing the time on people's watches without seemingly touching them, and escaping after being chained and put into a sack. He ended with a talk warning everyone that what he did was due to pure sleight of hand and deception, and that anyone who claimed to be using powers such as telekinesis, spiritual energy, and the like to do such things was simply lying.

At that time, one of Randi's targets was Uri Geller who claimed that he had paranormal powers that enabled him to bend spoons without touching them, to see what was inside sealed envelopes, identify which of several closed identical containers had water inside, and so on. Geller had made quite a name for himself and was invited in 1973 to show his prowess on NBC's The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson. But Carson was no fool. He had started his own entertainer career at age 14 as a magician called "The Great Carsoni" and was well aware of the possibility of trickery. So Carson hired Randi as a consultant for the show and Randi advised him what he should do to make sure that if Geller did what he claimed he could do using paranormal powers, they were not due to simple trickery. You can see the clip of Geller's appearance here. Thanks to Randi's advice and Carson's vigilance, Geller's performance was a total bust. He could not do anything and ended up pleading that he was 'feeling weak' that day. He disappeared in disgrace for awhile but seems to be coming back again, hoping that people have forgotten that fiasco.

Another Randi/Carson expose in 1987 was that of preacher Peter Popoff who bilked gullible and poor religious believers out of millions of dollars by claiming that god spoke to him and told him things about them that enabled him to heal them. It turned out that the voice he heard was not that of god but that of his wife speaking through a receiver hidden in his ear who was telling him things that she had learned about the people Popoff was supposedly healing. After being exposed on Carson's show, Popoff too lay low for awhile but recently he is also back with the same swindle, preying on the gullible.

In his long-term quest to show that people's claims of having paranormal powers are a fraud, Randi has set up an educational foundation, and an anonymous donor has offered a $1 million reward to anyone who passed a test to identify the genders of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers, and getting at least 16 right. In 10 years, no one has succeeded with the best result being 12 right. Some prominent psychics have stayed away and one can understand why. Their fame and fortune depends on gullible people believing in them and they are unlikely to risk being exposed as frauds.

But suppose someone did come along who got 16 right? Would that prove that they had paranormal powers? No. Since there is a 50-50 chance of guessing right for each diary, the probability of getting at least 16 out of 20 right is 0.006 or 6 in 1,000 or about one chance in 167. This is unlikely but not that rare. To convince a skeptic like me to believe in the paranormal would require evidence that approaches certainty. To provide convincing proof of the paranormal, a person claiming to have such powers should be able to get everything right and be able to do it at any time.

This question of repeatability of such proofs is important. It is quite possible to have even an extremely unlikely event occur by chance and that would prove nothing. It is possible to get hit by lightning even if Zeus is not deliberately aiming thunderbolts at you.

What is interesting is that psychics around the world keep claiming to have supernatural powers but can never produce them under scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, we had our own rationalist champion named Abraham Kovoor who in his day also offered a monetary reward to the many 'god-men' in the region (people who claimed that they had supernatural powers because they were an incarnation of god) if they could read the serial number of a currency note in a sealed envelope. Kovoor went to his death at a ripe old age with his money safe.

Because of the lack of any confirmed positive evidence, I think that the logical and rational thing to do is to assume that every kind of paranormal phenomenon that has been postulated simply does not exist, just as an afterlife does not exist.

Of course, true believers in the existence of the supernatural will find all kinds of excuses for the absence of any evidence for it. For example, a common demonstration used by the 'god-men' in India and Sri Lanka to convince their devotees that they had supernatural powers was to wave their hands and produce, seemingly out of thin air, 'holy ash', the kind which devotees rub across their foreheads, similar to what some Christians do on Ash Wednesday. I have friends who believe in one of these 'god men' (famous in South Asia) called Sai Baba and they tell me stories like this to persuade me that their belief is rational. (See this site for exposes of Sai Baba.)

I recall a time when Kovoor staged a public demonstration where he did the very same thing that the 'god men' claimed they could do using divine powers. But true believers were unfazed. One person wrote to the newspaper that Kovoor's display did not prove anything at all because while the 'god-men' produce holy ash, Kovoor had only succeeded in producing ordinary ash!

As the old saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

POST SCRIPT: How the ten commandments came about

Sometime ago, I wrote that the ten commandments looked like something cobbled together by a frustrated committee struggling to come up with a round number of items. It turns out that this is exactly how they came about, with the committee consisting of god, his personal assistant Larry, and Jesus.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

February 12, 2007

Talking to those with whom you disagree

I watched the documentary What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism on Tuesday and Wednesday. Director Bassam Haddad, a professor of political science at St. Joseph's University, had a good mix of interviews from America, Europe and the Middle East. It was especially interesting to hear the views of a spectrum of regular people, intellectuals, journalists, and activists from the Middle East, since we rarely get to hear those voices here. Listening to them, you are made aware of the common humanity that binds us all and transcends ethnic and religious divides. You realized that there was strong agreement across the board on some basic ideas of what kinds of actions were justified and what were deplorable.

But Haddad also highlighted the fact that the nature of the discourse on the topic of terrorism is very different in the west from that in the rest of the world. It even starts with the lack of east-west consensus on what the word means. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for labeling an act as 'terrorism' and the perpetrators as 'terrorists'? Does it depend on who the perpetrators are? The nature of the victims? The nature of the act? The motive behind the act? In the absence of such agreement, the word 'terrorism' has become used to denote not some well-defined quality, but as a pejorative label to discredit the actions of those whom we dislike.

One important distinction that was highlighted was that in the west, terrorism is seen exclusively as the actions of individuals or sub-national groups, while elsewhere terrorism by nations is also included in the mix.

We know that many policymakers refuse to talk to people on the 'other' side, claiming that it would give them a legitimacy they do not deserve. Haddad used an interesting technique for creating a dialogue between sides that would not normally talk to each other. What he did was to use film as an intermediary to create a dialogue. He would interview someone, say a spokesperson from Hizballah or Hamas, then fly to the US and show that film interview to someone from (say) the American Enterprise Institute (a pro-war 'think tank') and then film their response. Then he would fly back and show the response to the original speaker and get the response to the response, and so on. As viewers of the final film, we could watch a person watch the interview of the 'other' person, then Haddad would stop the film, and then the person would respond.

Watching the two sides engage each other via film, even if they often spoke through each other and did not seem to, or want to, understand what the other person was saying, was the best thing about the documentary.

Watching it, I realized how impoverished the political dialogue is in the media here. I think everyone would understand much better what the issues were if the spokespersons for Hamas and Hizballeh were on the talk shows here, and had their writings published on the op-ed pages to present their positions, so that viewers and readers could judge for themselves what the merits or defects of their arguments were. Instead we are treated patronizingly, and get their positions second-hand, having other people tell us what Hamas and Hizballah represent. It is as if we had to be shielded from them.

al-Jazeera and other Middle Eastern news outlets routinely have high American officials such as the Secretary of State on their shows to give the American point of view directly to the population in that region. Why cannot the same thing be done here with those groups that represent important constituencies in the Middle East? And yet, even al-Jazeera English TV cannot get access to the basic cable services here. Clearly the news media here practice a form of self-censorship that hinders deeper understanding. Although it would be perfectly defensible for a news media outlet to have representatives of Hamas and Hizballah on their shows, this happens far too rarely for the views of those groups to be well understood by the American public.

The people in the documentary were willing to talk to the opposition via an intermediary even though they might not want to be in the same room and talk directly. This strikes me as a meaningless distinction. This unwillingness to talk directly to people with whom you disagree, especially concerning grave issues of war and peace, is something I find hard to understand.

I recall a time when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka when the students were agitated over an unresolved issue with the university administration. We were planning on striking over an issue and I was a proponent of this action. (Student strikes are not an unusual phenomenon in Sri Lankan universities.) Before the final vote on whether to strike, I suggested at an open meeting of the student body that we invite the University President to appear before the student body to make his case. Some student leaders opposed this suggestion, arguing that the President was a clever person, had a charming personality, and was a smooth talker (all of which was true), who might win over the students and convince them not to go on strike.

I responded that that was a ridiculous position to take. If we could be so easily swayed, that meant that our case was weak to begin with and we should not go on strike anyway. So a vote was taken as to whether to invite the President. The student body was overwhelmingly of the opinion that they could judge the President's arguments for themselves and did not need us as intermediaries, and the vote was yes. The President accepted our invitation, came and spoke, and we had a cordial debate on the pros and cons of the issue. Eventually the students voted to go on strike anyway. Soon after, the President and the University Senate accepted the student position and the issue was resolved peacefully and quickly, with both sides negotiating a compromise. I felt that this result was obtained partly due to the fact that the two opposing sides had listened to each other and understood the issues much better than before, and were thus able to better understand the other's position and arrive at a workable solution

I simply don't understand the basis for the position that you should keep certain people out of the discussion. While some people may disagree with the positions taken by Hamas and Hizballah, there is no question that they are major players in the Middle East and command the support of millions of people. They are also members of their respective governments. It is silly not to talk with them and listen to them. When you eliminate negotiations, when 'the other' is excluded from the discussion, violence becomes inevitable.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Today is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. To celebrate it, you can see the film A Flock of Dodos by filmmaker Randy Olson which looks at the debate in Kansas over evolution versus "intelligent-design." The link takes you to amusing trailer for the film.

When: Monday, February 12, 2007, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Goodyear Auditorium, Clapp Hall 108, Case Western Reserve University.

The film is free and open to the public. For more details, see here.

There is now a website containing Darwin's entire collection of works. (Thanks to Ross Duffin for telling me about this site). Here is a BBC news clip about this project.

February 09, 2007

The history of jury nullification

The history of juries nullifying laws is very interesting. In yesterday's post I discussed the celebrated case of John Peter Zenger. But there's lot's more. As Doug Linder writes:

Jury nullification appeared at other times in our history when the government has tried to enforce morally repugnant or unpopular laws. In the early 1800s, nullification was practiced in cases brought under the Alien and Sedition Act. In the mid 1800s, northern juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of harboring slaves in violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws. And in the Prohibition Era of the 1930s, many juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of violating alcohol control laws.

More recent examples of nullification might include acquittals of "mercy killers," including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and minor drug offenders.

Of course, not all nullifications advance justice and the rights of individuals. As Linder points out there are "negative applications including some notorious cases in which all-white southern juries in the 1950s and 1960s refused to convict white supremacists for killing blacks or civil rights workers despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt." I am not sure if this constitutes nullification since, as I understand it, true nullification involves refusal to convict because of a belief that the law is unjust, not because one simply wants, for whatever reason, to see the accused go free. But nonetheless, recognizing the rights of juries to nullify laws does carry with it the risk that juries will acquit for less noble reasons.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of jury nullification was back in 1670 in England when William Penn, the Quaker, was accused of preaching to an assembly in a public street, the building where they usually met having been closed by the authorities. William Mead was accused of conspiring with Penn to create a 'tumult' and thus both were accused of being in violation of the law prohibiting such actions. The proceedings at the Old Bailey, which were recorded in almost verbatim form by an observer, gives a fascinating account of the trial.

Penn's defense was that he was merely seeking to assemble with other believers to worship god, not seeking to create a riot, and he was unshakeable in asserting this. The fact that there were several hundred people in the street creating such noise that he could barely be heard was not questioned, so technically he had violated the law prohibiting creating 'tumults' in a public place. In terms of the law and the facts, the prosecution pretty much had a slam-dunk case.

It was clear from the start that the judge (who was the Mayor) and the court recorder (who is what we now call the prosecutor) were extremely hostile to the defendants, subjecting them to various indignities. It seems that the courtroom was crowded and the proceedings were boisterous, with both Penn and Mead conducting their own defense with so much vigor and cleverness that Penn was accused by the recorder of being a "saucy", "impertinent", and "troublesome fellow."

At one point Penn was ordered to be taken away because of his arguments irritated the prosecution, and while being led away made this stirring speech about the need to protect fundamental liberties: "[I]s this justice or true judgment? Must I therefore be taken away because I plead for the fundamental laws of England? However, this I leave upon your consciences, who are of the jury (and my sole judges,) that if these ancient fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, (and are not limited to particular persuasions in. matters of religion) must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who can say he hath right to the coat upon his back? Certainly our liberties are openly to be invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph, by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer, as their trophies, but our (pretended) forfeits for conscience sake."

After Penn had challenged the case made by the prosecution, the judge removed the prisoners and charged the jury to look at only the facts of the case. But Penn shouted out a final appeal to the jury as he was being led away: "I appeal to the jury who are my Judges, and this great assembly, whether the proceedings of the court are not most arbitrary, and void of all law, in offering to give the jury their charge in the absence of the prisoners; I say it is directly opposite to, and destructive of the undoubted right of every English prisoner, as Coke, in the 2 Instit. 29. on the chap. of Magna Charta."

Penn's appeals to the jury must have worked because despite pressure from the judge to achieve unanimity, the jury returned after about ninety minutes with what we would now call a hung verdict, in which eight found the defendants guilty but four wanted to acquit. After scolding the four dissenting jury members, the judge sent them back to their room with instructions to come up with a unanimous decision. After considerable time they did, and the verdict on Penn spoken by the foreman was "Guilty of speaking in Grace-church street." This was a mere statement of fact and not a guilty verdict of an actual offence. The judge wanted them to convict the prisoners of causing a riot and he was furious at the jury's seeming evasion but the foreman refused to say anything more than what he had said earlier.

The judge and recorder then scolded the jury and said that they could not accept their statement as a verdict and that the jury would not be released from duty until they came back with the verdict that they wanted. The jury was then sent them back to the deliberation room again but returned after half an hour with the same verdict: "We the jurors, hereafter named, do find William Penn to be Guilty of speaking or preaching to an assembly, met together in Gracechurch-street."

The judge and recorder were enraged and the recorder issued this threat: "Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco; you shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it."

The jurors were then locked up and not even allowed to have chamber pots or to go out to the bathroom so that they ended in their room for the night hungry and thirsty and cold and surrounded by their own excrement.

The next morning the jury was called in and the foreman gave the unanimous verdict: "William Penn is Guilty of speaking in Gracechurch-Street." The judge prompted: "To an unlawful assembly?" but the foreman refused to add anything to what he had said earlier. This caused an uproar in the court.

The judge and recorder again threatened the jury with starvation if they failed to bring in the "proper" verdict. The recorder was so disgusted with the jury that he wished that England could adopt the highly efficient Spanish Inquisition, then currently in vogue in the rest of Europe, saying: "Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish inquisition be in England." But the jury foreman would not be swayed and only said: "We have given in our Verdict, and all agreed to it; and if we give in another, it will be a force upon us to save our lives."

The judge ordered them locked up in prison again for another day under the same onerous conditions. The next day when the jury was brought in, they had a new verdict: Not guilty for both Penn and Mead.

Needless to say the judge and recorder were furious and fined both the defendants and the jury for contempt, telling the jury that they had "followed your own judgments and opinions, rather than the good and wholesome advice which was given you" and ordered them jailed for non-payment of the fines.

But the jury was released soon after on the basis of habeas corpus applications and their incarceration was ruled illegal by a higher court.

I recount this story to remind us that it was due to the fortitude of people like Penn and Mead and the members of that jury that we enjoy the freedoms that are written in the Bill of Rights. They were able to stand up to coercion. The jury felt that the law prohibiting assembly and association was unjust and despite the disgusting treatment they received and the awful conditions they were subjected to, they were unwilling to compromise. By nullifying the law, they gave us a fundamental right.

US Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone would have approved: "If a juror feels that the statute involved in any criminal offence is unfair, or that it infringes upon the defendant's natural god-given unalienable or constitutional rights, then it is his duty to affirm that the offending statute is really no law at all and that the violation of it is no crime at all, for no one is bound to obey an unjust law."

It is good to be reminded of the history of how hard won are those things that we now consider fundamental freedoms, especially these days when people seem to be so willing, even eager, to give them up for a false sense of security. The recent enactments of the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act, renditions, and the use of torture have stripped people of many of their rights. We tend to feel helpless in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government and a complaisant legislature. But we, the people, have the ultimate power as members of juries. If we consistently refuse to convict people on the basis of unjust laws, then the laws have no force.

But for this to have even a chance of happening, people have to be aware of the full rights of juries. I wonder, though, how many juries today, even if they knew of this right, would have the courage and fortitude of the William Penn jury and refuse to convict on the basis of unjust laws, whatever the facts of the case.

February 08, 2007

Jury nullification

In a democratic system, laws are created by the people as a means of maintaining order. Unlike in a police state, where compliance to laws is arrived at by using the force of the state security apparatus, democratic societies can only maintain their open nature because of voluntary compliance based on the belief that the laws are just and should be followed. This voluntary compliance is obtained because we believe that we ourselves are the architects of the laws that govern us.

But how do these laws come about?

We are all familiar with how the process works, at least on the Schoolhouse Rock level. We, the citizens, vote legislators into office. These legislators propose bills. Once passed by the legislature and signed by the elected executive, these bills become laws. So we tend to think that we, the people, have created the laws that govern us through the medium of representatives elected to act on our behalf.

But as has become increasingly clear, there is no guarantee that the elected representatives are, in fact, acting in our best interests. The influence of money and lobbyists has resulted in a system where the elected officials are far more likely to be swayed by those interests than they are by the wishes of their constituents. It should not be news to anyone that much of the language of current laws and, even more importantly, the regulations that spell out the implementation details of the laws, are being written by lobbyists who are not accountable to the voters but instead take their instructions from pressure groups.

So what can we do to regain our prerogatives as the people who ultimately get to decide on laws? We tend to think that the only option is to vote the miscreants out of office and vote in new people who are more in tune with voters. But this is not easy to do.

It turns out that there is one feature of the whole process by which laws are validated that has been carefully hidden from all of us and which we can invoke in some limited situations. The fact is that the signing of a passed bill by the chief executive is not the last step that determines the validity of a law. The last step is determined by juries who get to decide on whether or not to convict someone based on the law. In other words, juries, representing the common people, have the final say in determining if a law is just or not and whether it should be used to convict people or not.

This will come as a surprise to many. We have become accustomed to television and film courtroom dramas (and even experienced it ourselves if we have been members of juries) where juries are instructed by the judge on how the relevant law is to be interpreted and are told to judge the case only on the facts of the case. The validity of the law is not to be part of the discussion.

But it turns out that the right of juries to judge both the facts and the law is one of the oldest rights we have, and has been upheld time and time again. In fact, many of the fundamental rights that are cherished in the Bill of Rights came about because juries consistently refused to convict people under laws that they felt were unjust, ultimately forcing governments to repeal those laws. This phenomenon is called jury nullification a groups such as the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago are trying to inform people, and especially juries, of this aspect of their rights in the face of this official silence.

In the US, the earliest example of a jury exercising its right to nullify a law was in the case of John Peter Zenger in pre-revolutionary times.

[T]he power of jury nullification predates our Constitution. In November of 1734, a printer named John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel against his Majesty's government. At that time, a law of the Colony of New York forbid any publication without prior government approval. Freedom of the press was not enjoyed by the early colonialists! Zenger, however, defied this censorship and published articles strongly critical of New York colonial rule.

When brought to trial in August of 1735, Zenger admitted publishing the offending articles, but argued that the truth of the facts stated justified their publication. The judge instructed the jury that truth is not justification for libel. Rather, truth makes the libel more vicious, for public unrest is more likely to follow true, rather than false claims of bad governance. And since the defendant had admitted to the "fact" of publication, only a question of "law" remained.

Then, as now, the judge said the "issue of law" was for the court to determine, and he instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty. It took only ten minutes for the jury to disregard the judge's instructions on the law and find Zenger NOT GUILTY. (emphasis in original)

Note that there was no doubt that Zenger had violated a duly enacted law because he admitted as much. But the jury still acquitted him, in direct defiance of the facts of the case. This right of juries to nullify an unjust law by refusing to convict people under it has continued to be upheld in the US even after independence under the constitution that was later adopted. The above article continues:

At the time the Constitution was written, the definition of the term "jury" referred to a group of citizens empowered to judge both the law and the evidence in the case before it. Then, in the February term of 1794, the Supreme Court conducted a jury trial in the case of the State of Georgia vs. Brailsford (3 Dall 1). The instructions to the jury in the first jury trial before the Supreme Court of the United States illustrate the true power of the jury. Chief Justice John Jay said: "It is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your power of decision." (emphasis added) "...you have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy".

So you see, in an American courtroom there are in a sense twelve judges in attendance, not just one. And they are there with the power to review the "law" as well as the "facts"! Actually, the "judge" is there to conduct the proceedings in an orderly fashion and maintain the safety of all parties involved.

As recently as 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the jury has an "unreviewable and irreversible power... to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge.... (US vs Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

Sam Smith writes in the Progressive Review that while the right of juries to nullify a law they perceived as unjust has been upheld when challenged, courts have been increasingly reluctant to let juries know of this right and some have even struck jurors from the panel who asserted this right or even said they knew about it.

Those who have endorsed the right of a jury to judge both the law and the facts include Chief Justice John Jay, Samuel Chase, Dean Roscoe Pound, Learned Hand and Oliver Wendell Holmes. According to the Yale Law Journal in 1964, during the first third of the 19th century judges did inform juries of the right, forcing lawyers to argue "the law -- its interpretation and validity -- to the jury." By the latter part of the century, however, judges and state law were increasingly moving against nullification. In 1895 the US Supreme Court upheld the principle but ruled that juries were not to be informed of it by defense attorneys, nor were judges required to tell them about it. Stephen Barkan, writing in Social Problems (October 1983), noted that the attacks on nullification stemmed in part from juries acquitting strike organizers and other labor activists. And in 1892 the American Bar Review warned that jurors had "developed agrarian tendencies of an alarming character."

In other words, since juries tend to consist of 'ordinary' people, they are more likely to view as unjust laws that have been passed by the money-dominated legislatures to expand the privileges of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Hence the need by the powerful in society to suppress knowledge of this right of juries. But as Sam Smith says: "The nullification principle involves the power to say no to the excesses of government, and thus serves as a final defense against tyranny."

It should be understood that this right of juries does not mean that they can do anything they like. This right is a limited one, to save individuals from being deprived of life or liberty because of unjust laws. It cannot be used to arbitrarily convict someone or to declare a law unconstitutional.

This matter shows how important juries are to the very fabric of society. We should resist all attempts to reduce its influence or to abridge its rights. When we serve on a jury, we are engaging in the ultimate democratic act, sitting in judgment on the very laws that we are called upon to execute.

As Thomas Jefferson said in a 1789 letter to Tom Paine, "I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."

POST SCRIPT: Feingold again

At the risk of making this blog look like a Russ Feingold fan site, here is another clip of him speaking very clearly about what should be done in Iraq, and why even the Democratically-controlled Congress is so timid.

February 07, 2007

Betraying both principles and friends

(See here for the background to this post.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to name names and thus inform on their friends and colleagues refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, some felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment to fight them. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. . . . This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one's friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo's letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: "How is it possible that. . . ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience…Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience." His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim's increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw a television program which contains footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most were really anguished and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

And this is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday's post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one's honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state. We have to systematically create those resources. The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what makes us challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A recent study suggests that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that "People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent." Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

"[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem."

February 06, 2007

Friends

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypotheticals such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But while such extreme hypothetical situations are not very good predictors of behavior, they are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper's magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The recent film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studies and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym "Robert Rich") even won an Academy Award in 1957.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one's friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books.

In his letter, Trumbo says that it is not that simple. It is not about compulsion and he makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: "Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That's the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard."

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That's the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings - economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, - what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide ranging jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on those journeys.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: "Would you like a man who told on his friend?" – there would not be one among them who would answer, "Yes."

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
. . .
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won't fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo's letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

Next: More on friends

POST SCRIPT: Russ Feingold on the escalation in Iraq

Senator Russ Feingold once again speaks clearly to Keith Olbermann about what is at stake in Iraq. When listening to him one gets the impression that he is not carefully targeting his message to pander but is just saying what he really thinks, which is rare in a politician. Perhaps he is a very good actor, but I don't think that's it. He just happens to be a person with a sharp mind and the verbal fluency to express his ideas well.

I don't agree with everything Feingold says but it is definitely refreshing to listen to him.

February 02, 2007

Some reflections on this blog

Last Friday, January 26th was the second anniversary of this blog which I, of course, completely forgot about since I am not big on commemorating birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and the like. But such milestones are good occasions to pause and take stock and when I remembered this one later, I started reflecting on what this blog has and has not done during the past two years.

Some thoughts were triggered by the fact that within the last month, two very good bloggers decided to hang up their keyboards and ride away into the sunset. They were the anonymous Billmon at the blog Whiskey Bar (an excellent writer who combined sharp analysis with historical insight into contemporary political matters) and Michael Berube. Berube's last post reflects on what caused him to start blogging, and then to stop after exactly three years.

Like Berube, I have learned a lot about blogging while doing my own blog. The first thing I realized is that a blogger must have respect for the readers. Over the two years, this blog has received over two million hits and it is inevitable that whatever topic I might be writing about, there are always likely to be many readers who know more about the subject than I do, and also care about it more than I do.

The second thing I learned is that to be a blogger requires one to have skin that is not too thin (so that one always responds courteously to people and not take criticisms as insults, and also to be able to ignore actual insults and abuse and ad hominem comments) and not too thick (so that one does not dismiss or ignore other people's arguments and comments). The very fact that someone has bothered to take the trouble to read what you have written when they could have been doing something else has to evoke respect for that person. Quite a few of my posts were written to address points made by commenters.

Another important thing I learned is the necessity to provide evidence and sources for as much as possible without making the post an annoying jungle of hyperlinks. Readers have a right to know the basis for my assertions and be able to check them without doing too much tedious digging on their own.

What I have found interesting is that some professional journalists who are now either blogging or otherwise getting immediate feedback from their readers haven't quite absorbed these lessons. After sometimes making sweeping and inaccurate and unsourced statements, they respond with indignation when these missteps are pointed out by people who have checked up on them. It is as if they feel that the fact that they are the correspondent for a major news outlet gives them some kind of oracle powers that we mortals can only admire with awe.

Those days are gone. Nowadays, everyone can be a fact checker and let others know what they have found. As I have said before, the anonymity and speed that the internet provides does sometimes result in people making remarks in an intemperate way. The journalist (or blogger) has to simply recognize this as a fact of life and let it go. It is true that blogs can be, and have been, the source of much inaccurate information. But they can also serve a very important function of making lazy journalists aware that they need to be more careful about checking their information and the way they present it.

One of the principles I have used in my life is to not waste other people's time and I have tried to adhere to that for this blog as well. My hope is that readers who spend their valuable time reading it will find useful information, thought provoking ideas, and sometimes just fun stuff to amuse and laugh over.

One of the things about being a writer is that writing does reveal a lot about who you are and this took me some getting used to. I am by nature a private person but I quickly realized that even if I avoid directly talking about myself or my personal life and instead stick to public affairs and write in as objective a way as I can, I cannot help but reveal myself in my writings. I suspect that anyone who has read a varied sample of my postings will have a pretty good idea of who I am and what I value. Although I am not trying to hide who I am, I am also not used to having people whom I don't know, know me. When I meet someone for the first time and they say "Oh, I read your blog" I am pleased, of course, but also a little disconcerted. Public figures are accustomed to this imbalance in personal knowledge and take it in their stride but I do not consider myself a public figure.

How long will this blog last? I don't know. It is a labor of love. It does take time to write posts that I think are worth reading and are not sloppily written. In the course of doing so, I have learned a huge deal, often in responding to comments and answering questions. Writing the posts has helped me to sort out my ideas and served as first drafts of articles that have either appeared in print or been submitted for publication and will appear in press. More importantly, it has forced me to learn and present things in a systematic and organized way, instead of just leaving things as a shoe-box full of related ideas and information.

When will I know that it is time to stop? A clue that the time to quit blogging has arrived will be when I start to dread writing the posts and resent the time spent on it. So far that has not happened. I do most of my writing on the weekends and I still look forward to it.

Another clue that it may be time to stop will be when I start repeating myself, and I worry more about this. As the header indicates, I thought that this blog would deal with a wider range of topics than it has. For example, I have written much less than I thought I would about education and learning and science, subjects I care deeply about.

The shift was not caused by a narrowing of my interests but because issues of war and peace have seemed to me to be so urgent and occupy so much of my thoughts that I feel compelled to write about politics more than I perhaps should. I don't feel that I am repeating myself in terms of actual content but I do feel that I may be focusing too much on politics, especially Iraq and the Middle East. But a blog does also serve as an outlet for pent up feelings and so as long as I feel angry about the senseless death and destruction currently going on, and the dangerous policies advanced by the Bush administration, and its blatant disregard for the human rights, the constitution, and the law, politics will likely continue to dominate.

But in terms of actual content I have rough notes of lots of ideas on a whole variety of topics so there is no danger of running out of material. In fact new material keeps coming in faster than I can use them, and some interesting topics simply lose their timeliness and get shelved permanently, much to my regret.

So here's to another year of blogging. And thanks for reading.

POST SCRIPT: Voice mail rant

When I spot a grammatical or typographical error in a newspaper, I usually find it mildly amusing but do not get outraged. After all, newspapers are on a tight deadline and are bound to let the occasional mistake slip through. But some language purists get really upset. Listen to this rant that was left on a newspaper editor's voice mail.

February 01, 2007

Why I stopped watching football

Super Bowl number something or other is being played this coming Sunday. There was a time, even quite recently, when I would have looked forward to the event, and planned on seeing it with some friends. Nowadays I can barely muster up the interest to even turn on the TV towards the end to see the result.

My initially strong interest in football began immediately after I arrived in the US to do my doctorate in physics at the University of Pittsburgh. I was there during the period 1975-1980 when the famed Steelers "steel curtain" defense and spectacular offense led them to four Super Bowl titles in six years. Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris dazzled fans week after week. At the same time the University of Pittsburgh football team won the national championship and its running back Tony Dorsett won the Heisman trophy. And if that weren't enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. So the town went crazy, and it was all sports all the time.

I was a teaching assistant during my first year in graduate school and my students were eager to teach this cricket and rugby lover the rules of these strange American games, and I got hooked on football, perhaps because I arrived in the fall. I never quite got that same high level of interest in baseball for reasons I have discussed earlier and never got interested at all in basketball, since Pittsburgh did not have a franchise for that sport.

I maintained my interest in football even after I came to the US a second time from Sri Lanka in 1983 and would follow the games and the standings, spending many weekends in front of the TV, cheering for the Steelers. When I moved to Cleveland in 1989, I developed a fondness for the Browns too. Like the Steelers, they projected a simple working class image, a sense that the game was the most important thing and that all the rest of the glitz, cheerleaders and the like, were unimportant.

My interest in baseball disappeared completely with my arrival in Cleveland because I could never support the home team (the Indians) as long as they retained their ridiculous and offensive Chief Wahoo logo.

But my decline in interest in football was more gradual and resulted from an increasing dislike of the changing nature of the game and its increasingly businesslike aspects. I dislike the fact that team owners hold cities hostage, using their fan support to enrich themselves by gouging public subsidies for their facilities using the threat of leaving. I dislike the fact that much of the sports pages read like business pages with contract details and disputes dominating. I dislike the fact that teams rarely stick together any more and that the composition changes so fast that it is hard to keep track of who is playing for whom. These things have long ceased to be games played and watched for fun. They are business ventures and we are customers.

I also really dislike the almost non-stop boasting, grandstanding, and self-promotion by the players, 'celebrating' each and every minor achievement, and trash talking their opponents. I have this urge to shout at them: "Just shut up and play the game". It seemed like poetic justice when the OSU wide receiver was injured right at the beginning of the Bowl Championship game when he received an ankle injury as a result of the team 'celebration' after he had returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Without a star player, OSU then crashed to defeat despite having been favorites to win. I wonder if this will put a damper on such excesses in the future. Probably not.

But the last straw for me was instant replay. As if football was not slow and intermittent enough with the game stopping every few seconds, instant replay has dragged things out even more so that now the game stops for minutes on end as the referee goes to the booth and we are treated to the same play from all kinds of angles with the commentators blathering on. Just last week I turned on the TV to see one of the conference championship games and just at that moment a coach threw the challenge flag and everybody started hanging around waiting for a revised calling. I switched off.

What's the point of all this review? Why is it so important? It is quite impressive that despite the almost fanatical importance people place on these games, I have very rarely heard suspicions that the referees were crooked or pulling for a team. If we believe the referees are unbiased, then we should just let them make the call and get on with it. Sure they will make mistakes sometimes since they are human. But if they are fair, the breaks will even out in the long run. The only benefit of instant replay that I can think of is that it has shown that the referees are correct remarkably often.

The only reason for reviewing the calls is perhaps after each game, when league officials can study the tapes and rate the officials for how often their calls were correct, and look for possible bias. This could be used to ensure that the quality of refereeing improves and to determine who the best officials are to officiate at crucial games.

Getting rid of instant replay will probably not bring me back to watching the game. That moment has passed. But who knows how many others are slowly getting disenchanted as the game drags more and more. Football should take a cue from rugby where the game is truly fast moving, and try and find ways to speed things up rather than slowing things down. But it will not do so because as long as we keep watching, longer games and more wasted time means more time for advertisements and increased revenue.

But I still have a mild interest in who wins that Super Bowl, although this is based on factors that have little to do with the game itself. This year I hope that the Colts win, simply because I like their coach Tony Dungy. I first became aware of him when he was a good defensive coordinator for the Steelers but he spent a long time as an assistant before finally being given a chance at the top job with the perennially hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After making them into serious contenders for the championship, Dungy was let go and could only watch as the team he groomed won the Super Bowl under the new coach the following year (or the year after, I am not sure). But he took that obvious disappointment with grace and has now taken another team to the championship game.

Dungy has always been an understated and gracious man, not given to showy behavior or yelling or boasting or showing extreme emotion. The suicide of his son last year must have been a cruel blow but he handled that too with dignity. You get the sense that he realizes that football is not life and death, not war and peace. In the end, it is nothing of real significance. It is just a game.

You have to admire a person who can maintain that attitude in the face of all the hype and I feel that it is time that he gets the reward that people in football seek, of being part of the championship team.

My enthusiasm for Dungy and the Colts to win was diminished this week when it was revealed that he was being honored by a group in Indiana that has been actively promoting anti-gay legislation in that state. It is not clear at this time if Dungy's decision to accept such an award was made with a lack of awareness of the group's agenda, or because celebrities routinely get roped into appearing at such fund raising events, or whether he is actively hostile to gays. But if it turns out that he opposes the rights of gays to be treated like just any other people, then it does diminish my respect for him as a person.

POST SCRIPT: Defining normalcy down

ramadi-insurgent.jpgThis photograph of a street scene in the Iraqi town of Ramadi grabbed my attention. It seems like a normal busy city street, with people going about their business except that they are not paying any heed to a masked person in their midst carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder (at least that is what I think the weapon is). Behind the person with the scooter looks like another masked person carrying an automatic weapon.

I was really struck by these signs of normalcy in the midst of obvious signs of war. How sad that people have been reduced to treating armed masked gunmen on the streets as if they were just any other pedestrian.

January 12, 2007

Challenging the sacred

Author Salman Rushdie recently reflected on an aspect of his own education, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds."

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie thinks this is a good thing and he has the courage of his convictions, writing things in his novel The Satanic Verses that led to him receiving a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for blaspheming Islam. But it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. Some will enjoy the verbal swordplay, the cut and thrust and parry of ideas that the debating societies of Cambridge and Oxford are famous for, and which provide the training for future leaders of England who must excel at the parliamentary debating style. But such an approach is not for everyone since not everyone is comfortable exploring ideas in the context of a ferocious battle of wits.

I agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. But how one closely scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation. In a classroom, I think treating other people's ideas with derision or contempt is not appropriate and is likely to shut down thought rather than encourage it. People's ideas and their identities may be too closely intertwined to enable the neat separation between ideas and people that Rushdie envisages. I don't think you can be "savagely rude" about someone's ideas without also being seen as being savagely rude to that person. Perhaps it is possible with very carefully chosen words, but difficult to carry out in spontaneous conversation. If I say that an idea is stupid, am I not implying that the speaker must be stupid to have held that belief in the first place?

This is particularly the case where religion is involved. In my seminar class on the Evolution of Scientific Ideas, we discussed the Rushdie quote in the context of the science-religion conflict that we were discussing. If someone thought (as some in the class did) that all religious faith, or any specific religious faith, was irrational, could they say that without religious believers feeling that they were being labeled as irrational people? On the other hand, believing that religion is irrational is a perfectly legitimate point of view, so if the speaker feels constrained not to say such things because of the conventions of politeness, then he is effectively being censored. The range of views in the discussion become artificially narrowed, depriving all the participants of a growth opportunity.

In my class, we decided that the way out of this dilemma is to first establish a good atmosphere in the class so that people felt respected as individuals and think of the whole groups as their friends. In that situation, people are likely to word their ideas in ways that do not gratuitously offend (such as saying things like "that idea is stupid") while people did their best not to feel offended if their cherished ideas were critiqued and found wanting. In other words, we would try not to offend others or to be easily offended, while at the same time not avoid expressing unpopular or unpalatable ideas.

Achieving this requires that people assume good intentions on the part of others in the conversation. But establishing such a cordial atmosphere where people can speak frankly without causing offense is only possible in small groups where personal relationships can be established.

Things are different in public life and it is in this situation that I think Rushdie's position is wholly justified and even admirable. In addition, in public discourse there is necessarily a distance between ideas and people that can act as a kind of protective shield. If, for example, someone on TV ridicules Mormons and says that they are stupid, then although all Mormons are being attacked, any individual Mormon watching does not have the sense of being personally targeted as being stupid. They can console themselves with the notion that the speaker is mistaken because he has not met non-stupid Mormons like themselves.

Public figures like politicians and televangelists, of course, have put their own ideas out for public view and cannot separate themselves from them. Thus when their ideas and actions are directly criticized, they can justifiably feel that they are being personally attacked. But having their ideas and actions held up for public derision and scorn is part of the price they pay for entering the public arena and they go there willingly. It may be unpleasant but they are not forced into that position and they have to take their lumps.

For example, professional comedians depend on parody and satire and even ridicule and derision for their humor. (See comedian Craig Ferguson on TV evangelists like Pat Robertson.) One has to grant them this license, because humor is a powerful weapon for cutting though the fog of ideas and making points effectively. The humor of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report would be far less sharp and effective if they had to worry about the feelings of the public figures they skewer.

I have mixed feelings about Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G. and Borat) when he is working with ordinary people. Although he is obviously a gifted comic and I find him to be very funny, my amusement is mixed with some discomfort. However much I might dislike the views of the people who are ambushed by him, tricking ordinary people into looking foolish in front of a mass audience does not seem quite right somehow.

Again, Rushdie is perfectly right is saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism. But it seems to me that when doing so in the private sphere, one should be circumspect about how one says things. The more one is challenging someone's core beliefs, the more one should try to spare that person's feelings. There just seems to be no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration, while not avoiding the issues.

Next: Rudeness on the web.

November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, slightly changed and updated. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded, with the 'thanks' that are offered being just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up.

It is just a time to get together with family and friends and around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season." Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas "songs." The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Holly Jolly Christmas," and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements with "White Christmas" at the beginning and "Silver Bells" at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment to those two songs. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, just so that I can leave out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It's free to all Case people, and the staff there are very helpful.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

POST SCRIPT: Nielsen ratings as a referendum on torture

I mentioned before how absurd it was that people took their cues about the validity of torture from the fictional TV show 24. Now see this clip where some talk show host named Laura Ingraham uses the logic that 24 is very popular and that makes it as good as a referendum to demonstrate that people approve of the government using "tough tactics" against prisoners. Who are these people like Ingraham? Where did they come from that this kind of logic makes sense to them?

October 27, 2006

Stupid young men tricks

As readers of this blog must have gleaned by now, I tend to be very wary of blanket generalizations and stereotyping. These tend to be harmful because the differences within groups are usually vastly greater than the differences between groups, making comparisons between individuals in different groups largely meaningless. But there is one generalization of which I am getting more and more convinced and that is the following: All men between the ages of 15 and 25 are idiots.

Ok, that may be a little too strong. But it definitely seems to be the case that men within that age range they have very little idea of the possible negative consequences of their actions.

Recent events have cemented this view. Here are some examples:

Exhibit A:

Howard McFarland Fish, 21, a U.S. citizen from Connecticut and a college student LaFayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania "was detained Friday after customs agents found what they suspected was dynamite in his checked luggage."

He was returning from Buenos Aires. In addition to the dynamite, he had a blasting cap, a homemade fuse and a quarter-pound of ammonium nitrate. And why did he do this?

"The passenger said he had been exploring mines in Bolivia and purchased the dynamite as a souvenir." (my emphasis).

Although the authorities feel that Fish is not involved with terrorism, he has been charged with breaking security laws and could face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

How can any one in their right mind, in these days of almost paranoid fear and security, even think of taking dynamite on board a plane as a souvenir? The only explanation is that Fish is an idiot by virtue of age.

Exhibit B:

A 20-year-old grocery store clerk who authorities say amused himself by posting prank Internet warnings of terrorist attacks against NFL stadiums was arrested Friday on federal charges that could bring five years behind bars.

Jake Brahm of Wauwatosa, Wis., was accused of writing messages that said terrorists planned to set off radioactive "dirty bombs" this weekend at football stadiums in seven cities, including Cleveland. He admitted posting the threat about 40 times on various Web sites between September and Wednesday, authorities said.

Apparently Brahm was having some sort of contest with a friend to see who could post the most scary notice on the internet.

Exhibit C: Myself.

I cannot help but feel a sense of empathy with Fish and Brahm because when I was in that same age range, I was also an idiot. (Some might argue that I still am, but that does not negate the point I am making here.) I recall doing things at that age that now horrify me.

For example, when I was in high school, my friends and I repeatedly went out on a nearby lake in a small leaky rowboat. The boat did not have any life jackets and we could not swim. None of us were even experienced oarsmen and spent much of our time going around in circles. The lake also had snakes and alligator-like monitor lizards that could be up to five feet in length and there were occasions when some in the boat were alarmed by their presence nearby and rocked the boat violently, trying to get away. It would not have taken much to capsize the boat and we would all have been done for.

When I was in college, I also recall how three of us would ride on my friend's Vespa scooter, which barely had room for two, or two of us would ride on my other friend's moped which really could only seat one, with the passenger sitting on tiny rack over the rear wheel. We did not have helmets and Sri Lankan roads were notorious for being congested and full of bad drivers. An accident could have easily happened that could have either killed or maimed us.

Why did I do these things which, looking back, were indubitably crazy? I have no excuse to offer and can only plead insanity by virtue of age.

What is worse was that I did not even think of the things I did as particularly dangerous. I suspect that Fish and Brahm, like me, never gave the slightest thought to the possible dangers of their actions and its adverse consequences.

And the behavior gets worse when young men are in the company of other young men, which seems to have a multiplier effect on stupidity. As someone once said, if you look closely, just before a young man does something particularly stupid, his words are likely to be "Hey guys, watch this!"

Do men have a special idiocy gene that gets turned on at 15 and then gets turned off at about the age of 25?

Maybe this is why military recruiters target this age group. They are the ones who are willing, even eager, to sign on to risk death by being sent to wars at the whim of older men, and to even think of this as 'adventure'. If armies were restricted by international treaties to not have soldiers under the age of 25, we might have far smaller armies and fewer wars.

POST SCRIPT: Bizarro cartoon

The Tuesday Plain Dealer had this funny Bizarro cartoon, illustrating the point I was making on that very same day.

bizarro.jpg

August 11, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-4

(Continued from yesterday.)

Strong allegiance to a tribe, and the belief that one's tribe is better and more virtuous than others may actually cause members of your own tribe to act in worse ways than they might otherwise do. First of all, people who have a high sense of self-righteousness and an inflated sense of their own virtue are capable of committing the most heinous of crimes because they think that just because they belong to a good group, the acts they commit for the benefit of that group must be in the service of good too. They lack the questioning doubt and self-reflection that lies behind truly ethical behavior.

I am sure that the inquisitors of the Catholic Church who tortured and killed the alleged heretics, and the Puritans of New England who killed the alleged witches, were convinced that because they were high officials of religious groups, what they did was good. After all, they were serving god by advancing the interests of their group.

Furthermore, knowing that others will support them uncritically, and find all kinds of justifications for them whatever they do, will remove some of the restraints on people's behavior. Surely some of the reasons that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib behaved so abominably must be due to their feeling that as Americans, they were automatically the 'good guys' and their Iraqi charges were the 'bad guys' and that therefore anything done to the bad guys was acceptable. And further, as we have seen so many times before and is shown in the Vietnam cases, the fact that superior officers and colleagues are willing to cover up their actions and shield them from repercussions, and that their family and friends and communities would make excuses for them, can breed the mentality that they can do anything with impunity.

The only way that we are ever going to be rid of the kind of tribal warfare that we are seeing is if we stop idealizing some groups and demonizing others. The progress on this front is not encouraging.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the level of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the US has been nothing less than appalling. We thus have commentators like Michelle Malkin (who approves of the internment of US citizens of Japanese ethnicity during World War II) now advocating the profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and columnist John Podhoretz suggesting that the US may have been able to avoid the current insurgency in Iraq if only 'we' had just killed many more 18-35 year old Muslim males during the initial invasion of Iraq. Podhoretz says: "What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?" (His column uses the old device of phrasing things as questions so that he can later deny that he was actually advocating such a barbaric genocidal policy, but merely raising an issue.) Such people can say these things (and worse) against Muslims or Arabs and people do not recoil in horror. Instead they continue to be given high visibility platforms to voice their truly disgusting views.

The attitude towards Israel and the Jews in the US is more complex and ambivalent. As far as the elected representatives in Congress and the major mainstream media goes, there is hardly any serious criticism of the policies of the Israeli government or its military. The kinds of things said routinely about Arabs and Muslims would, if said about Jews, result in loss of either their positions or their public platforms. Spirited debates about the merits of Israeli policies are much more likely to be found in the Israeli press, in newspapers like Ha'aretz, than in the US.

But while there is strong official support in the US media and government for the policies of the governments of Israel, there has long been hostility to Jews as an ethnic or religious group. This used to be more overt in the past but is now latent. The recent incident involving Mel Gibson is an illustration of this. An even more disturbing example can be found in this video in which British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as his alter ego "Borat Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan" (his other famous alter ego is Ali G.), manages to get all the people in a bar somewhere in the US to join him in a rousing rendition of "Throw the Jews down the well." It is disturbing to see how easy it is for him to get the crowd to sing along with him.

Most well-meaning people do not want to feed this kind of anti-Jewish sentiment and thus are reluctant to criticize the actions of the Israeli government. This same reluctance can be found among well-meaning expatriates from Sri Lanka who hesitate to criticize the actions of the Tamil Tigers, even when they commit the most appalling acts of brutality against civilians, because they fear giving ammunition to the anti-Tamil Sinhala chauvinists.

But not criticizing the actions of a government or organized entity because of fears that this will embolden that group's enemies is not a good thing. The fact that Tamils have undoubtedly been discriminated against in the past does not, and should not, give the Tigers any immunity or absolution for committing atrocities against others.

We cannot overcome racism simply by praising the tribal groups who are discriminated against or avoiding criticizing them. We should recall that the way that people feel towards specific ethnic or religious or national groups is a very fickle thing. Being in the 'in' group now is no guarantee that one will not be in the 'out' group in the future. Admiration one day can easily turn to hate the next. Recall how American views towards Germans, Italians, Japanese, French, Poles, and Jews (to name just a few groups) have changed dramatically, and even see-sawed back and forth, over the past century.

The fundamental problem does not lie in the nature of our current attitude towards this or that particular tribe, but with the tribal mentality itself, the need to feel that one's group allegiance is paramount over everything else, even to the sense of shared humanity. We need to realize that we are not really all that different from others. The only way to do that is to realize that ethnicity, religion, and nationality differences are purely cultural and superficial, just accidents of birth. Making them out to be anything more than that is to help perpetuate the historical cycle of tribal warfare.

It is heartening that there are examples of people overcoming their tribal allegiances, even in the heat of tribal battles. I am reminded of American pilot Hugh Thompson who risked his life to save some Vietnamese from being murdered by his fellow troops. I think of those Iraqis who, in the heat of the invasion of Iraq, risked their lives to treat US soldier Jessica Lynch for her wounds and return her to her American unit. I think of the Israeli pilots who defied their orders and deliberately missed their targets in Lebanon because they did not trust that their superiors had given them correct targets which housed guerillas, and they feared killing civilians by mistake. Such people should be inspirations to us all, showing us that it is possible for us to see ourselves as human first, and as tribe members last or, better still, not at all.

The current conflicts in the Middle East undoubtedly have their roots in many long historical and secular causes. The political and government leaders who perpetuate these wars may well have cynical non-tribal reasons for doing so. But goals such as oil and land and power and geostrategic calculations are usually not enough to keep the general public supportive of wars over long periods. To keep the people willing to fight and die, you have to inflame their tribal instincts, and there is no doubt that tribal allegiances to such things as religion are the fuel that keeps the true believers perpetually up in arms.

In order to counteract the negative image of religion that arises from these religion-based conflicts, apologists for Christianity and Judaism and Islam (the religions at play in the Middle East, but the same applies to religions in general) often argue that each of these religions is inherently peaceful and that it is extremists who have distorted their message.

At one time I would have been sympathetic to this point of view and have even espoused it myself in the past. But this benign view of religion is becoming, at least for me, increasingly hard to sustain. There seem to be too many people, even the majority, in each of these religions who feel that their religion approves of the killing of people of other religions. There seem to be too many priests and rabbis and imams of each of these religions, even the majority, who are eager to trot out doctrines of 'just wars' that happen to conveniently justify the current war of 'their' side and are thus willing to condone and support and even encourage actions that at other times would be considered murder. As Voltaire said, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets." (See also Mark Twain's The War Prayer.)

Religious leaders often condemn wars in general and even criticize past wars and the wars conducted by other countries, but somehow find reasons to justify the current war engaged by their own country or religion or nationality. All these suggest that a good case can be made that these religions are actually enabling and even inducing wars.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg puts the dangers of tribal allegiances perfectly, at least in relation to religion. He says:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

I would also add unthinking allegiance to ethnicity and nationality as additional drivers that cause good people to do evil things.

We need to get beyond these tribal allegiances if we are to have peace in the world. If god existed, the best thing he/she could have done for us to further the goal of peace would have been to answer Robert Burns' appeal:

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

But since god does not exist, we have to learn to do this ourselves.

POST SCRIPT: V for Vendetta

Some time ago I wrote a very positive review for this film when it came out. It was just released on DVD last week and a kind reader of this blog sent me a copy as a gift. I do not often see films more than once but I found this one very enjoyable even the second time around. I was able to see more nuances and appreciate better the points it was trying to make. There is no question in my mind that it is an excellent political allegory for our times, a film not to be missed.

August 10, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-3

(Continued from yesterday)

Learning to apply the same standards of judgment to actions, whether done by 'them' or 'us', is important if we are to get beyond tribal ways of thinking.

Take the actions of Hezbollah. Since they are part of the 'them' group, their rocket attacks into Israel are portrayed as deliberate attempts to kill Israeli civilians. If this was indeed their goal, it has been a massive failure. After all, we are told that they have been firing rockets at a rate of over one hundred per day, which means that about three to four thousand have been fired so far. But National Public Radio reported on August 6, 2006 that the number of Israelis killed as of that date was 94, of whom 58 were soldiers and 36 were civilians. If the goal of Hezbollah is to kill Israeli civilians, then on a purely callous and cynical cost-benefit analysis, this is an extraordinarily ineffective way of doing so, since it works out to about a hundred missiles for each civilian death.

Lobbing low precision munitions into cities is not the best way of inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties because most of the time they will land in empty places causing property damage and perhaps fires but few deaths. It is more likely that the goal of this barrage is to terrorize the civilian population by showing them that the Israeli military cannot protect them. Of course, when some Israeli civilians inevitably die due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some Hezbollah supporters will rejoice, just as some of 'us' do when Arabs and Muslims are killed.

But what if a Hezbollah spokesperson were to say that they regretted the death of civilians, that it was an accident, that they were not targeting them but were merely trying to show that they had missiles that could reach these towns? Such an explanation would be rejected summarily, as it should be, because when you lob bombs into cities, you are displaying a callous disregard for civilian life. But why it is that we uncritically accept that same rationale when offered by US or Israeli government spokespersons?

Joseph Palermo makes as similar point, commenting on the fact that Fox News commentators like Michelle Malkin were saying that the Qana bombing was not such a big deal and the world-wide outrage over it was being deliberately manufactured by those seeking to discredit Israel:

What would be the response if Hezbollah fired a rocket into a shelter killing fifty-six Israeli civilians ranging in age from a ten-month-old baby to a 95-year-old woman as happened in Qana? What if Hezbollah apologized, saying it was a "mistake," but had made a similar "mistake" ten years earlier in the same Israeli village, killing 106 civilians? Would Ms. Malkin and others like her be on the public airwaves spewing forth such brutish views of the innocent dead?

In modern warfare, the majority of casualties are civilians. While this is perhaps not deliberate, it is also not an accident. This pervasive callous disregard for civilian lives has, I suspect, arisen as a result of the advent of air power and long-range missiles which enables governments to rain destruction on enemy populations with minimal risk to themselves.

There are ways in which civilian casualties can be minimized and that is by having ground troops engage in close-range combat, where you can actually see the person you are fighting against and are less likely to kill children and other innocents. Police forces, for example, are trained to never to fire their weapons until they are sure that the target is who they think it is, in order to minimize the risk to noncombatants.

But this approach has a cost. It puts your own soldiers in harm's way and runs the risk of having them being killed and injured. This might make the public less supportive of wars, which is what governments really fear the most. What government and other non-governmental warring agents have determined is that civilian casualties of the 'other' side are much preferable as a policy option to the deaths of 'our' soldiers, and so using air power and long-range missiles have become the preferred mode of warfare. A cynical calculation has been made that 'we' can live with casualties, as long as they are not 'ours'.

In order to do this and still retain a sense of 'our' own nobility, 'they' have to be dehumanized, made to look as if 'they' do not share the same noble values as 'we' do and thus either deserved to die or that their lives are somehow worth less than 'our' lives. And we see this happening over and over again. I remember General William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in Vietnam where about 500,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed. He downplayed these deaths and casually 'explained' in front of cameras why this was not so bad. He said, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." Once again, we see the 'we/they' formulation of tribalism, used to justify our actions but condemn the identical actions of the opponents.

(If you ever get the chance, see the Oscar winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds where the Westmoreland clip can be seen. I saw it decades ago and that chilling scene of casual racism still reverberates within me, especially since immediately afterwards the film cut away to a scene of a Vietnamese village woman sobbing uncontrollably over the death of a loved one.)

This is why I am skeptical of the regretful apologies that are made by 'our' leaders whenever 'their' civilians are killed, the pieties that 'we' do not target civilians, and the aggrieved attitude that is adopted if anyone should think otherwise. 'We' may not have targeted the particular individual civilians who happened to die as a result of 'our' actions, but the decision to wage long-range warfare by planes or missiles ensured that large numbers of civilians would die just as surely as deliberately lining them up and shooting them.

The idea that by dropping leaflets from the air urging civilians to leave an area (as Israel has sometimes done) one has absolved oneself from guilt for their subsequent deaths from bombing attacks is another argument that has no merit. For one thing, as the events of Hurricane Katrina showed, telling people they should leave their homes does not mean they can leave even if they want to. There are whole host of reasons why people, especially the poor, very old, very young, or infirm, do not leave, even if you accept the dubious morality that it is acceptable to order people to abandon their homes so that they can be bombed later. As Juan Cole points out:

The Israelis don't say, however, how desperately poor hardscrabble farmers including the aged and infirm and children are supposed to travel to Beirut over the roads and bridges that the Israelis have bombed out, and on what they are supposed to live when they get there.

Turning the argument around, what if Hezbollah said that all Israelis must leave Haifa and other cities in northern Israel because they are targeting the city with their missiles. Does that mean the deaths of Israeli civilians due to subsequent rocket attacks is justified? What if Hezbollah claims that since it is obvious by now that the northern towns of Israeli are targets of their rockets, that all civilians should leave those areas and that they are not responsible for the deaths of any civilians still remaining? Would we accept that? The answer to these questions is obviously no. Telling people who are living in their own homes, in their own communities, minding their own business, that they must leave or risk being killed is wrong, irrespective of who does it to whom.

The power of tribal allegiances is so strong that those who are determined to see their own side only in a virtuous light will not agree with me. Those with a tribal allegiance to Israel will find a way to justify the killing and displacement of Lebanese civilians, while similarly those with a tribal allegiance to Hezbollah will justify the killing and displacement of Israeli civilians.

I forget who it was that said that the hardest thing for any one of us to accept is that we are just like other people. This is not to deny that there exists diversity or certain distinguishing characteristics for individuals and even groups. But it is hard for many people to accept that no single individual or group has a monopoly on either the virtues or the vices. And yet, the sense of tribal allegiance is so strong that people desperately want to find some way to believe that their own tribe is morally superior to other tribes. It is as if they feel that their own sense of self-worth is inextricably linked with that of their tribe. They can feel good about themselves only if their tribe is also seen as good.

As examples, we find people who say that some things make them 'proud to be American' or 'proud to be an Arab' or 'proud to be an Israeli.' Statements such as these seem to me to be exceedingly meaningless. I am an ethnic Tamil and the nationality of my birth is Sri Lankan. Am I proud to be either? No. Conversely, am I ashamed to be either? No. Attaching those emotions to such labels is absurd, and is as meaningless as saying that I am proud to be brown-eyed. One's ethnicity, nationality, and religion are accidents of birth, and I could just as easily have been born a Tibetan or an Inuit or a Swede. These labels provide a shorthand description of one's history and all they indicate is which cultures one has grown up and is familiar with. There is no deeper significance, however much we may wish there was.

There is no particular virtue to be acquired because of the tribe one belongs to. It is what one does with one's life, how one treats others, what kind of steward one is for the Earth, that determines one's worth and value.

To be continued. . .

August 09, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-2

(Continued from yesterday.)

Examples of people's willingness to believe the best about their own tribe and the worst about the tribe opposing them are not hard to find.

For example, I remember when the Iranian airbus civilian plane was shot down by a US navy warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Some people in the US went so far as to suggest that this was a diabolical plan by the Iranians, that they actually ordered a plane full of civilians to pretend as if it were a fighter plane dive-bombing a US navy cruiser so that it would be shot down and thus cause the US to look bad. The only reason such a story would be believed (or even proposed) by anyone was if they started out with the view that Iranians were completely evil and diabolical and viewed their own citizens as expendable.

On the other side, some Iranians felt that the US deliberately shot down the plane, knowing full well that it was a civilian commercial flight, because in their view that's what Americans are like, a bloodthirsty and cruel people with a long history of violence, and who particularly dislike Muslims. This kind of we/they thinking is characteristic of tribal chauvinism.

For another example, in the current Israeli offensive in Lebanon, we recently had the killing of 28 people, mostly women and children, by an Israeli bomb while they were hiding in a shelter in Qana. Incredibly, there were those who suggested that the horrific pictures of dead children being pulled from the rubble were staged for the benefit of the foreign press or that the building may have been destroyed by Hezbollah itself to create sympathy for the Lebanese and antipathy towards Israel. Take this commentary:

The Palestinians, and by extension their rollicking sidekicks around the Muslim world, are the masters of dead-child porn. Looking at the recent releases from this sick culture is like watching a very unfunny Monty Python clip from the Holy Grail movie where the cart is pulled through the city with the chant, "Bring out your dead!"

And the dead are brought out -- once they are determined to be photo-op worthy. The Killed-Kids of the Palestinians film series, like all standard porn films or magazines, almost never varies in its presentation. What you see is almost always dead children presented to the world on a platter like some grim roasted entree to be grabbed up and consumed by the ever-voracious cameras of the media and played in an endless looping celebration of carnage to a world. . ."

Dead child porn? Only people who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to this sick narrative that 'our' side has to be good and the 'other' side has to be evil could take such a scenario seriously. The subsequent killing of 33 farm workers in northeastern Lebanon also resulted in further speculation that perhaps they might not be 'genuine' farmers and thus deserved to die. This is the kind of calculus that people like Alan Dershowitz indulge in, to show that some people are 'less civilian' than others and thus killing them is not so bad.

Let me be brutally frank. Modern warfare has civilian terror as a central part of its strategy. The idea that warring entities consider civilians to be an inconvenience, that they would prefer it if armies faced each other directly without bystanders around, the noble warriors fighting each other mano a mano, is a quaint throwback to the Napoleonic days, so well described by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Tolstoy describes soldiers fighting each other on open plains while civilian spectators observed the progress of the battles from the safety of hillsides. The idea that this is what modern day governments and armies would prefer but that pesky civilians get in the way is a bedtime story to lull the gulllible, so that they can sleep better at night while their government wages war, supposedly on their behalf.

The planners of modern warfare have the impact on civilians as central elements of their strategizing. It does not matter if it is the US, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government, India Pakistan, or any other entity that engages in war. They all do this and to think that only the 'bad' people do so is to indulge in wishful tribal thinking.

When Hezbollah sends in wave after wave of rockets into Israeli cities, their goal is to disrupt normal life in Israel, to show that they have the ability and will to strike inside Israel. By terrorizing the civilian populations of the towns in northern Israel (and there are now an estimated 300,000 Israeli refugees forced to flee their homes and head further south), they are trying to make the point that all the military might of the Israeli armed forces is incapable of protecting the Israeli people.

When Israel unleashed its massive air assault on Lebanese cities such as Beirut, Tyre, Sidon, when it deliberately destroys the Lebanese infrastructure such as roads, ports, bridges, hospitals, and power stations, they are deliberately punishing the people of Lebanon for the actions of a few amongst them, and hoping that their terror and severe hardship and deprivation will cause them to turn on the Hezbollah and disarm them.

Those who see things in tribal ways will find it hard to accept my contention that 'their' side is very much like the 'our' side when it comes to warfare, and will try and find ways to make discriminations. For example, one hears over and over again that 'we' do not target civilians and that when civilians do die as a result of some action taken by us, it is an 'accident' or 'collateral damage; or some such soothing bromide. It is the 'other' side that is deliberately targeting civilians.

There are clearly some cases, such as when bombs are set off in marketplaces and theaters and other places where people crowd, when civilians were obviously the targets. This charge can be validly applied to the daily killings that occur daily due to suicide bombers in crowded city centers in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, to the bombing by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, or to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But most events during wars cannot be the 'accidents' their apologists make for them. For me, 'accidental deaths' are where one or two people die due to an unfortunate and unexpected turn of events (such as a policeman inadvertently shooting a bystander during a robbery) or even when many people die in a single event due to an error (as often happens in airplane crashes). But when hundreds and thousands of people die or are injured due to a large number of separate events, then we are way past the point where "Oops, I'm sorry, my bad, I did not mean it." is a satisfactory explanation. As Auric Goldfinger says to James Bond in the film Goldfinger "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action."

Right now, nearly a thousand Lebanese are dead, one third of them children under 12 years of age, three thousand are injured, and a million people (about a quarter of the population) are refugees, fleeing their homes to escape the bombing. This cannot be excused as accidents or inadvertent.

I think it is true that the US and Israeli military does not deliberately target civilians. This is not because of the blatant immorality of such an action, since morality is not the deterrent that many people like to think it is when it comes to warfare engaged by governments or other state-like entities like Hezbollah. Governments are notoriously cynical and callous about the deaths of civilians. The reason I do not believe civilians are being deliberately targeted is because there would be no point in doing so. You do not have to actually kill people to produce the required terror in the civilian population, and it is only the terror that serves any strategic or tactical purpose. Killing civilians is also not desirable politically because it turns public opinion against you and weakens public support for wars.

What has happened is that civilians in modern wars have ceased be considered as human beings, each of whose lives are valuable, and are now merely public relations props. Consider this exchange between CNN's Howard Kurtz and Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks on August 6, 2006:

RICKS:. . . I think civilian casualties are also part of the battlefield play for both sides here. One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they're being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.

KURTZ: Hold on, you're suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of it's fire power, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public relations war here?

RICKS: Yes, that's what military analysts have told me. 


KURTZ: That's an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in that nobody wants to see your own citizens killed but it works to your benefit in terms of the battle of perceptions here. 


RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral high ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.

When people order the bombing of cities and buildings, they do so with full awareness that civilians are going to die and be injured. When Israel fires a missile at one apartment in an apartment building which supposedly is the residence on a Hezbollah official, they have to be aware that the subsequent collapse of the building is going to result in ordinary people being killed. When they bomb the suburbs of crowded cities like Beirut, it should be no surprise that civilians are going to die. When the US, in its 'shock and awe' invasion of Iraq, unleashed a massive assault on the cities and infrastructure of Iraq, they knew very well that they would kill many, many civilians, even if they were not deliberately targeting them.

The issue here is not whether there is deliberate targeting of civilians. That misses the point. What we have is the callous disregard for the deaths and injuries of civilians. All governments and other entities (like Hezbollah) that wage modern warfare, with no exceptions, are guilty of this. What we may argue over, if we are inclined to do so and are still concerned about having 'our' tribe be considered morally superior to 'their' tribe, are questions of the degree of callousness to the death of civilians. We may, if we wish to follow Dershowitz, construct an elaborate calculus to determine a scale of callousness. Dershowitz seems to have a follower in John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, who seems to hold the view that the deaths of Lebanese civilians are not morally equivalent to the deaths of Israeli civilians. To me, they are equally undeserving of dying and yet equally dead.

But such exercises in creating models of differential culpability are just cynical games of one-upmanship and self-justification, used to remove the shroud of guilt from one's own tribe and place it over the opposing tribe. In modern warfare, no one occupies the moral high ground anymore. That position, like the hills overlooking the battle plains of yesteryear, has long since been abandoned.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, on target as usual.

August 08, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-1

(I have been thinking a lot about the violence that is engulfing the Middle East and the horrific loss of life and homes and other property that is taking place. What follows is a long essay that reflects my thoughts and feelings on it. I have serialized it into four parts and will post one part each day for the rest of this week.)

As the ghastly events in the Middle East keep unfolding, it becomes imperative that we need to radically change the way we view ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of saving the world from an endless cycle of death and brutality.

Robert Burns' poem To a Louse contains a much-quoted passage that is a good starting point for such a transformative approach.

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An' foolish notion

(My feeble attempt at a translation into modern English that loses the charm, appeal and rhythm of the Scottish dialect of the original is:

O for a gift that God would give us
To see ourselves as others see us
It would from many a blunder save us
and foolish thoughts)

Truer words were never spoken. The hardest thing for us to do is to put ourselves in another person's shoes and see how we, and our actions, might look to them. Instead, as has often been pointed out, our tendency is to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. As a result, the bad actions of others are taken at face value and their protestations of good intentions are often dismissed as excuses and rationalizations, or even bad faith lies. But when others do the same thing to us, we are deeply offended and become aggrieved. Can't they understand that we meant well? Shouldn't our intentions count for something? Such unbalanced approaches cannot help but lead to conflict between people.

The tendency to have such a blinkered view becomes worse when the actions of entire groups of people are involved because the tribal instinct also then kicks in and those blinders provide an even narrower perspective. The worst examples occur when groups go to war against each other. When the 'we,' 'us,' or 'ourselves' becomes our clan or tribe (labeled by religion or ethnicity or nationality) and 'they' or 'others' becomes members of a different tribe with whom we are at war, the blindness to our own tribe's faults and mistakes, and the harshness of our judgments of the other side's actions become pronounced to the point of losing touch with reality.

Take as examples the many current conflicts going on in the Middle East region, be it the US forces battling the insurgency in Iraq or the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon or between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

If you live in the US, there is a dominant storyline that most people, especially elected officials and the media subscribe to for these conflicts. In this narrative, 'we' represent either the US or Israel, and 'they' are Muslims or Arabs. 'We' are intrinsically good people and 'they' are not as good as us, and harbor many bad people. '

'We' use force only when we have no alternative, and when we do so we are very judicious, careful to make sure that only the guilty are targeted. When innocent civilians are hurt or killed by 'our' actions, it is purely inadvertent and accidental. We are quick to express regret and expect that 'they' will immediately accept those apologies as genuine, because after all, we are good, humane, decent people.

At the very worst, when some massacre or other atrocity of 'their' civilians occurs because of some actions by 'our' people, and there seems to be no way of explaining it away as an accident, we are quick to say that these were gross aberrations, the work of a 'few bad apples' that in no way represent official policy, or our usual behavior. The actions are portrayed as deviations from our normal high ethical and moral standards. We insist that, as a matter of fair play, the accused must be given all the benefits of due process, be viewed as innocent until proven guilty, and strongly urge everyone to withhold judgment until 'all the fact are in.' We then hold extended inquiries and trials, find all kinds of mitigating factors for the actions of 'our' errant people, and give the culprits relatively minor punishments.

It is easy to find examples of this. The official responses to the My Lai massacres and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal immediately spring to mind.

The Los Angeles Times of August 6, 2006 has an explosive article by reporters Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson, based on recently declassified secret documents, that this kind of condoning of bad behavior by 'our' soldiers during the Vietnam war was much more widespread than originally thought. The long article goes into shocking details of the casual brutality perpetrated on the Vietnamese. Here is just a brief excerpt of the article but you have to read the full story with its details to appreciate the immensity of the crimes committed:

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators — not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam war crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. About 9,000 pages, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese — families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.
. . .
Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 23 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. The stiffest sentence went to a military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967.

He served seven months of a 20-year term, the records show.

Despite the fact that this kind of thing has happened repeatedly in the past and still continues to happen, 'we' are still amazed when 'they' see our behavior as approving of, if not condoning, the actions of the perpetrators.

But what happens if 'our' civilians are killed and hurt by 'them'? Then our perspective shifts by 180 degrees. The actions by 'them', even if by a few individuals, are not treated as aberrations, but instead are taken as official policy by the opposing government or group because, after all, they are not as good as we are, and are thus capable of not only committing the most heinous crimes, but actually desiring to do so. No apologies or expressions of regret are accepted. Judgment is not withheld but the actions are immediately condemned as wrong and the accused are assumed to be guilty. No calls for due process now. Instead, summarily killing the accused is seen as acceptable, if not desirable. Only swift revenge will appease us, either in the form of military action, quick and severe justice for the perpetrators, sanctions against the offending nations, or financial restitution.

Seeing the world and people in such a weirdly dualistic way is only possible if one values one's tribal allegiance above all other allegiances, and is willing to ignore reality to maintain the belief that 'we' must be inherently better then 'they.' Many people clearly think like this. So strong are people's tribal allegiances that they will hold onto the narrative of the essential goodness and purity of their own side, and the essential evil of the other side, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Even the starkest of facts will not shake their faith.

To be continued. . .

June 29, 2006

The strange game of cricket

I am a lifelong fan of cricket and spent an enormous amount of my youth devoted (many would say wasted) to the game. As a boy, much of my free time was spent playing it, reading about it, watching it, or listening to it on the radio. I was such a devoted fan that I would set the alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to listen to crackly and indistinct short wave radio commentary of the games from distant time zones in England, Australia, and West Indies. Such was my fanaticism towards the game that I was going to all this trouble to listen to games involving other countries, Sri Lanka achieving international Test playing status only in 1981. And now with the internet, I have been able to renew my interest in the game since the lack of coverage in the US media is no longer a hindrance, so the time wasting has begun anew.

But the game seems to leave Americans cold, just like baseball is hard to appreciate for those from countries that do not play the game. I have become convinced that indoctrination into the joys of slow games like cricket or baseball is something that must occur very early in childhood and is difficult to develop later in life.

To help Americans to understand the game (and thus appreciate the film Lagaan even more), I'll provide a brief description. For more details, see here.

It is easiest for Americans to understand the traditional form of the game by comparing its features with that of baseball, its closest relative.

The classical form of cricket consists of two teams of eleven players each (nine in baseball). Each team has two innings (nine in baseball). An inning ends when there are ten outs (three in baseball). As in baseball, the team that has the most runs at the end of the game wins.

There are two chief differences with baseball that give cricket its quirky features. The first is that, unlike baseball and like football, the game is time-limited. International games, called 'Tests', last for five consecutive days, six hours a day, with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea. Several shorter forms of the game also exist. In Lagaan, for example, the game is limited to three days and one inning for each side.

This time-limited feature means that even after five days, a game can (and often does) end in a no-decision because time has run out and the game ends before either or both teams have had a chance to complete their two innings. The thought that such a result is even possible, let alone not unusual, boggles the mind of Americans, who are used to obtaining a definite result.

The second distinctive feature is that the batsman (batter) who hits the ball is not obliged to run but has the option of choosing to stay put, running only if he is sure that he can complete the run safely. Because of this option, in theory it is possible for the first batsmen to stay out there for five full days, neither scoring runs nor getting out, and the game ending in a no-decision with no runs scored, no outs, and no innings completed by either side. This has never happened. This would be career suicide for the batsmen concerned. The crowds would riot if anyone tried this and their teammates would be incensed.

The reason this potentially possible scenario does not play out is a consequence of the combination of the natural competitive desire of players to win a contest, coupled with the time-limited nature of the game. In order to win, one side must score a high enough total of runs quickly so that they have sufficient time to get the other team out for fewer runs before time runs out. This requires each team to take chances to either score runs or to get the opponents out. It is this continuous balancing of risk with reward that gives the game most of its appeal and thrills.

It is only when winning is seen as a hopeless task for one side that it becomes a good (and even required) strategy to try and play safe for a no-decision. There have been many memorable games in which one side was hopelessly outscored in runs and had no chance to win but salvaged a no-decision by digging in and not trying to score runs but simply not allowing their opponents to get ten outs. That strategy is considered perfectly appropriate and in such situations those batsmen who successfully adopt this dour defensive strategy are hailed. Weather sometimes plays a role in creating no-decisions by reducing the time available for the game.

Paradoxically, the fact that batsmen are not obliged to run after hitting the ball results in cricket being a high scoring game (since they run only when it seems reasonably safe to do so) with a single innings by one team often lasting for more than a day and a five day game producing typically 1,500 runs or so.

A cricket field requires a large amount of land and consists of an elliptical shape about three to four times the size of a baseball field. Unlike in baseball, where the action takes place in one corner of the field where home plate is, cricket action takes place at the center of the field in a strip about 22 yards long, called the 'pitch.' There is no foul territory. At each end of the pitch are the 'wickets', three vertical sticks about knee high and spanning a width of about 9 inches. There are always two batsmen simultaneously on the pitch, with one batsman standing at each end. A bowler (pitcher) runs up and delivers the ball (with a straight arm delivery, no throwing allowed) from near the wickets at one end to the batsman guarding the wickets at the other end (the striker). If the ball hits the wicket, the batsman is out (said to be 'bowled'), and replaced by the next one.

If the batsman hits the ball away from a fielder and decides it is safe to run, he and the batsman at the other end (the non striker) run towards the opposite wickets, crossing paths. If the ball is returned to either end, and the wicket there broken before the batsman running towards it reaches it, then that batsman is out ('run out'). If the batsmen run an odd number (1,3,5) of runs safely then the non-striker becomes the striker. If an even number (2,4) of runs, then the same batsman retains the strike. Four runs are scored if the striker hits the ball so that it crosses the boundary of the field, and six runs are scored if it does so without first touching the ground. The boundary is not a high wall (as in baseball) but simply a line marked on the ground, usually by a rope.

In addition to getting out by being bowled or run out, a batsman is also out if a hit ball is caught by a fielder before it hits the ground. These are familiar forms of getting out to baseball fans but there are seven additional (and rarer) ways of getting out in cricket that are too complicated to get into here.

After one bowler has made six consecutive deliveries (called an 'over'), the ball is given to a different bowler, who bowls an over from the opposite end, while the batsmen stay put during the changeover. Thus the non-striker at the end of one over becomes the striker at the beginning of the next. (A fairly recent development has been that of one-day games where each team has just one inning that lasts for a maximum of 50 overs, with the team that scores the most runs winning. This format guarantees a result and aggressive batting, and has proven to be very popular with the general public, though cricket purists look down on it.)

To play cricket well requires developing a lot of technique (especially for batting) and thus fairly extensive coaching. Simply having raw talent is not sufficient to make it to the top. This is why the villagers in the film Lagaan, having never played the game before, faced such an uphill task in challenging the British team, who presumably had been playing the game since childhood.

I still enjoy watching cricket being played by good teams, although I no longer have the opportunity. There is no question that it is a strange game, and I can understand why newcomers to the game find its appeal highly elusive. It is slow moving and its delights are subtle. It is a game where good technique can give the spectator pleasure, even when displayed by the opponents. A batsman who hits the ball with style and grace, and a bowler whose run-up and delivery are fluid and skilful, and great fielding moves, tend to be appreciated by all spectators, not just those supporting that team.

Cricket is not a game that would have been invented in the modern age. It could only have been conceived in a different, more leisurely era, when people had the time and the money to while away whole days chasing after a ball on a grassy field. The fact that it has survived and even flourished in modern times, with more and more countries taking it seriously, is somewhat amazing.

POST SCRIPT: Class warfare in America

It always amazes me that it is the comedy shows that understand and report on policy best. Catch Stephen Colbert's look at the minimum wage and class warfare.

June 28, 2006

Cricket and the politics of class

Whenever I read the novels of (say) Jane Austen or P. G. Wodehouse, that deal with the life of the British upper classes around the dawn of the twentieth century, one thing that always strikes me is that the characters who inhabit those books never seem to do any work. Beneficiaries of a class-ridden feudal system, they seem to live on inherited income and property that enables them to spend their days not having to worry about actually making a living. There is rarely any description of people's jobs. Work seems to be something that the lower classes do and is vaguely disreputable. Even in Charles Dickens' novel, which often dealt with characters who were desperately poor, the happy ending usually took the form of the hero obtaining wealth by means of an inheritance or otherwise, and then promptly stopping work and hanging around at home, even if they were still young

These rich people seemed to spend all their time visiting each other's homes for weeks on end, go for walks, ride horses, write long letters to each other, play cards and board games, and throw elaborate parties. In short, these are rich idle people with plenty of time on their hands.

This kind of life was not entirely unproductive. Some of these people used their time to become amateur scientists, using their freedom from having to earn a living to devote their lives to studying scientific questions, often coming up with major discoveries. Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle was not a job. He was not paid to go to the Galapagos Islands. His was an unpaid expedition, made possible by his lack of financial need. Nobel-prize winning physicist Lord Rayleigh was also somewhat of an amateur scientist. Even now the idea of the 'gentleman scholar' is quite strong in England, with people developing very detailed expertise in areas of knowledge on their own purely for the love of it and using their own money.

But many members of the idle rich classes were preoccupied with purely recreational activities and only such a class of people could have enjoyed the game of cricket. After all, who else has the time to play or watch a game that goes on for days on end? International games, called 'Tests', last for five consecutive days, six hours a day, with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea. Furthermore, the cricket field requires a large amount of land (an elliptical shape about three to four times the size of a baseball field), with carefully tended turf, and the equipment required to play is expensive, again making it a rich person's game.

Despite the fact that the economics of the game and the time commitment it required made it hard for working people to play it, it gained in popularity and shortened versions of the game that lasted only one day enabled even working people to play it on Sundays, and eventually people even started being paid for playing the game. Such professionals were looked down upon by the amateurs, those who could play it without being paid to do so because they were independently wealthy. The latter learned the game at the exclusive private schools like Eton and Harrow and then later at prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and the ranks of the English national team tended to filled with the products of these elite institutions.

But the class system in England is very strong and even after professional players became part of cricket teams, some distinctions were maintained. In a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow laws in the US (although not nearly as severe in intent or implementation), until the mid twentieth century, the amateurs (who were called 'Gentlemen') and the professionals (who were called 'Players') had separate dressing rooms and entered and left the cricket field by different entrances. Teams were usually captained by an amateur, even if the amateur was the worst player in terms of skill, presumably so that an amateur would not have to take orders from a professional. (Unlike in American sports where the non-playing coach or manager controls the game and tells players what to do, in cricket it is the playing captain makes all the decisions on the field and his order must be obeyed unquestioningly.) Len Hutton was an exception in that he was a professional who captained the England national team in the 1950s.

This Wikipedia entry shows the state of affairs as late as 1950, in a story about Brian Close who came from a working class background and in 1966 became the first professional (i.e. Player) to captain England after the amateur/professional distinction was finally and formally abolished in the mid-1960s.

At that time class status was still important: professionals, known as Players, were expected to show deference to the amateurs, who were the Gentlemen. Gentlemen did not share changing rooms with Players, and cricket scorecards would differentiate between the two of them, with the names of Gentlemen being prefixed "Mr", the names of the professionals being styled by their surnames and then their initials. This was a time when it was considered necessary to announce on the tannoy errors such as "for F.J. Titmus read Titmus, F.J.".

Close did well for the Players and top-scored with 65. When he reached his fifty, he was congratulated by the Gentlemen's wicket-keeper, Billy Griffith, and in a conversation that now seems innocuous, Griffith congratulated Close by saying, "Well played, Brian", with Close replying, "Thank you, Billy". However, Close had not referred to Griffith as "Mister", and ten days later was called to see Brian Sellers, a former captain and member of the Yorkshire committee, who reprimanded Close for the effrontery.

In societies that practice domination by one class or ethnicity over another, we often forget the important role that seemingly petty indignities play. In order to achieve complete domination over someone, it is not sufficient to just have total legal or even physical control over that person. It is important to also have psychological power and this is done by destroying their sense of dignity and self-worth. The British imperialists understood this well and never missed an opportunity to rub their 'superiority' in to their 'inferiors,' whether it was the people of their colonies or the working classes at home. People who have little or no dignity or sense of personal self-worth are defeated right from the start and thus easy to control.

This is why developing pride in oneself and dignity-building are usually an important part of getting any group to rise up and organize to improve themselves

The petty practices that arose from such an approach seem bizarre now, and thankfully most of us have not encountered such behavior. But it is sobering to realize that the worst such features were commonplace just fifty years ago and subtle forms still exist.

Next: So what is cricket all about anyway?

May 08, 2006

Driving etiquette

Now that the summer driving season is upon us, and I am going to be on the highway today, here are some musings on driving.

Driving means never being able to say you're sorry

We need a non-verbal sign for drivers to say "I'm sorry." There have been times when I have inadvertently done something stupid or discourteous while driving, such as changing lanes without giving enough room and thus cutting someone off or accidentally blowing the horn or not stopping early enough at a stop sign or light and thus creating some doubt in the minds of other drivers as to whether I intended to stop. At such times, I have wanted to tell the other driver that I was sorry for unsettling them, but there is no universally recognized gesture to do so.

If we want to thank someone, the raised flat upturned palm works. And there are so many ways to show annoyance at others, ranging from blaring the horn, angry yells, and rude gestures. But there is nothing that says sorry. I think we need one.

Any suggestions?

Car friendliness

When I am walking along the street and pass someone, people almost always make eye-contact, nod, smile, and say "hello" or "how are you?" But when people are in cars, they studiously avoid giving any sign that other people exist. If you stop at a light next to another car, or are cruising along a highway parallel to another car, everyone stares straight ahead. If by chance you make eye-contact, people quickly look away. Why this difference?

It is as if the inside of a car is considered a zone of privacy, although it is almost as public as standing in the street. I am not sure why this is but it does explain why people do things in cars (eat, read, comb their hair, put on makeup, pick their teeth, check for zits, etc.) that they might not normally do in public.

The only exceptions to this rule seem to be if there are friendly-looking dogs or small children in the car. The owners of such dogs tend to welcome attention, and nods and smiles are exchanged. Small children will also wave cheerily to you.

I have been trying a small experiment these last few days. I decided that when I stop at lights or am in a traffic jam, I would glance around and if I make eye-contact with people in adjoining cars, I would smile and nod, just as if I were passing them in the street. Interestingly, only one person so far has made eye contact with me, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Everyone else stares straight ahead, sometimes rapidly turning away after a very brief look.

I hope no one reports me to the police as this weird guy who is smiling at them while driving.

Merging on highways

I am sure everyone has experienced this on highways. You are driving along and see a sign that says your lane is closed ahead and to merge into the adjacent lane. What you will observe is that traffic in your lane will slow down and even stop long before the actual merge point, as drivers seek to blend into the other lane.

It seems to me that the most efficient thing to do is to drive right up to the point where your lane ends and then merge. If you start merging earlier, you are effectively making the amount of highway that has a reduced number of lanes even longer than it is, and thus slowing down your journey even more. But although no one has explicitly told me this, I get the feeling that to do this is impolite, as if I am jumping the queue. So although I feel that the sensible thing to do is to cruise right up to the end and then merge, I succumb to this pressure and merge earlier. Of course, it increases travel time usually by just a few minutes so time is not primarily the issue. The issue is why it seems to be considered impolite to merge early.

Could we start spreading the word that it is actually more sensible for everyone to merge as late as possible?

April 06, 2006

Precision in language

Some time ago, a commenter to this blog sent me a private email expressing this view:

Have you ever noticed people say "Do you believe in evolution?" just as you would ask "Do you believe in God?" as if both schools of thought have equal footing? I respect others' religious beliefs as I realize I cannot disprove God just as anyone cannot prove His existence, but given the amount of evidence for evolution, shouldn't we insist on asking "Do you accept evolution?"

It may just be semantics, but I feel that the latter wording carries an implied affirmation just as "Do you accept that 2+2=4?" carries a different meaning than "Do you believe 2+2=4?"

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that by stating something as a belief, it opens the debate to the possibility that something is untrue. While this may fine for discussions of religion, shouldn't the scientific community be more insistent that a theory well supported by physical evidence, such as evolution, is not up for debate?

It's a good point. To be fair, scientists themselves are partly responsible for this confusion because we also say that we "believe" in this or that scientific theory, and one cannot blame the general public from picking up on that terminology. What is important to realize, though, is that the word 'believe' is being used by scientists in a different sense from the way it is used in religion.

The late and deeply lamented Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a "radical atheist" puts it nicely (thanks to onegoodmove):

First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don't see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don't believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn't make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don't know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it's the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance. . .

There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we'd got, and we've now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining…

Well, in history, even though the understanding of events, of cause and effect, is a matter of interpretation, and even though interpretation is in many ways a matter of opinion, nevertheless those opinions and interpretations are honed to within an inch of their lives in the withering crossfire of argument and counterargument, and those that are still standing are then subjected to a whole new round of challenges of fact and logic from the next generation of historians - and so on. All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.

When someone says that they believe in god, they mean that they believe something in the absence of, or even counter to, the evidence, and even to reason and logic. When scientists say they believe a particular theory, they mean that they believe that theory because of the evidence and reason and logic, and the more evidence there is, and the better the reasoning behind it, the more strongly they believe it. Scientists use the word 'belief' the way Adams says, as a kind of synonym for 'convinced,' because we know that no scientific theory can be proven with 100% certainty and so we have to accept things even in the face of this remaining doubt. But the word 'believe' definitely does not carry the same meaning in the two contexts.

This can lead to the generation of confusion as warned by the commenter but what can we do about it? One option is, as was suggested, to use different words, with scientists avoiding use of the word 'believe.' I would have agreed with this some years ago but I am becoming increasingly doubtful that we can control the way that words are used.

For example, there was a time when I used to be on a crusade against the erroneous use of the word 'unique'. The Oxford English Dictionary is pretty clear about what this word means:

  • Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary.
  • That is or forms the only one of its kind; having no like or equal; standing alone in comparison with others, freq. by reason of superior excellence; unequalled, unparalleled, unrivalled.
  • Formed or consisting of one or a single thing
  • A thing of which there is only one example, copy, or specimen; esp., in early use, a coin or medal of this class.
  • A thing, fact, or circumstance which by reason of exceptional or special qualities stands alone and is without equal or parallel in its kind.

It means, in short, one of a kind, so something is either unique or it is not. There are no in-betweens. And yet, you often find people saying things like "quite unique" or "very unique" or "almost unique." I used to try and correct this but have given up. Clearly, people in general think that unique means something like "rare" and I don't know that we can ever change this even if we all become annoying pedants, correcting people all the time, avoided at parties because of our pursuit of linguistic purity.

Some battles, such as with the word unique are, I believe, lost for good and I expect the OED to add the new meaning of 'rare' some time in the near future. It is a pity because then we would then be left with no word with the unique meaning of 'unique', but there we are. We would have to say something like 'absolutely unique' to convey the meaning once reserved for just 'unique.'

In science too we often use words with precise operational meanings while the same words are used in everyday language with much looser meanings. For example, in physics the word 'velocity' is defined operationally by the situation when you have an object moving along a ruler and, at two points along its motion, you take ruler readings and clock readings, where the clocks are located at the points where the ruler readings are taken, and have been previously synchronized. Then the velocity of the moving object is the number you get when you take the difference between the two ruler readings and divide by the difference between the two clock readings.

Most people (especially sports commentators) have no idea of this precise meaning when they use the word velocity in everyday language, and often use the word synonymously with speed or, even worse, acceleration, although those concepts have different operational meanings. Even students who have taken physics courses find it hard to use the word in its strict operational sense.

Take, for another example, the word 'theory'. By now, as a result of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) controversy, everyone should be aware that the way this word is used by scientists is quite different from its everyday use. In science, a theory is a powerful explanatory construct. Science depends crucially on its theories because they are the things that give it is predictive power. "There is nothing so practical as a good theory" as Kurt Lewin famously said. But in everyday language, the word theory is used as meaning 'not factual,' something that can be false or ignored.

I don't think that we can solve this problem by putting constraints on how words can be used. English is a wonderful language precisely because it grows and evolves and trying to fix the meanings of words too rigidly would perhaps be stultifying. I now think that we need to change our tactics.

I think that once the meanings of words enter mainstream consciousness we will not be successful in trying to restrict their meanings beyond their generally accepted usage. What we can do is to make people aware that all words have varying meanings depending on the context, and that scientific and other academic contexts tend to require very precise meanings in order to minimize ambiguity.

Heidi Cool has a nice entry where she talks about the importance of being aware of when you are using specialized vocabulary, and the need to know your audience when speaking or writing, so that some of the pitfalls arising from the imprecise use of words can be avoided.

We have to realize though that despite our best efforts, we can never be sure that the meaning that we intend to convey by our words is the same as the meaning constructed in the minds of the reader or listener. Words always contain an inherent ambiguity that allows the ideas expressed by them to be interpreted differently.

I used to be surprised when people read the stuff I wrote and got a different meaning than I had intended. No longer. I now realize that there is always some residual ambiguity in words that cannot be overcome. While we can and should strive for maximum precision, we can never be totally unambiguous.

I agree with philosopher Karl Popper when he said, "It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." The best we can hope for is to have some sort or negotiated consensus on the meanings of ideas.

March 31, 2006

Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase "valuing the culture of life" seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by 'our side.' To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a "culture of life."

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being 'effectively dead', that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism ("We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.") was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument "I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?" is acceptable?

Singer's point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a "culture of life," human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still 'alive', and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.

POST SCRIPT: Juggling

Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on "Watch Chris Bliss."

March 29, 2006

Changing notions of death-3: Doctors versus guardians

In part 1 and part 2 of this series of posts, we saw how the idea of when someone had died had shifted to the point where people in a persistent vegetative state could have their life support systems removed because they are considered to be 'effectively' dead. But even if the family is agreed on what action should be taken with a family member in a persistent vegetative state, there are already moves under way to shift the bar even lower. The question now being raised is as to what should be done if the doctors determine that further treatment is futile but the family does not want to remove life support.

In a recent case in England, doctors had recommended that an 18-month old infant (identified as just MB) who suffers from the severest form of spinal muscular atrophy - an incurable and progressively worsening condition leading to complete paralysis - be allowed to die. The parents objected and the matter went to trial.

On March 15, 2006, the judge ruled in the parents' favor, refusing to declare that it would be lawful to withdraw life-sustaining ventilation.

A momentary look of wistfulness passed over the face of MB’s mother as the judge listed five possible options, one of which was to allow the child to die peacefully in his parents’ arms - the one favoured by the paediatricians. The parents have fought long and hard against the received medical wisdom of the case, even though, as the judge said, they may be deluding themselves that their son has a future.

At long last, Mr Justice Holman gave his ruling that the boy shall live, if not perhaps for long.

In that case, the judge in England did not shift the goal posts on what constitutes death or the conditions under which people are 'allowed to die.'

But people might be surprised to know that a similar situation had occurred in the US and that doctors and hospitals were allowed to override the family's will. Remarkably, this little noticed event took place on March 15, 2006 during the high point of the events surrounding Terri Schiavo.

While Americans were riveted by dramatic events unfolding in Pinellas Park, Fla., a five-month-old Houston baby took his last breath after a hospital let him die despite his mother's objections.

Sun Hudson was born Sept. 25 with thanatophoric dysplasia, an incurable and fatal form of dwarfism. Doctors said his tiny lungs would never fully grow and that he would never breathe on his own.

Hudson's mother, Wanda, put up a fight when doctors advised removing Sun from a respirator. She said she did not believe in sickness or death. (my italics)

This was the first time that life support was removed over the objections of the legal guardian and without any advance directives from the patient, such as a living will. Perhaps the ultimate irony, if not outright hypocrisy, was that this Texas law was signed in 1999 by then Governor George W. Bush. The baby Sun Hudson was allowed to die in Texas against the wishes of his mother because of a state law then-Governor Bush signed, on the very same day that now-President Bush dramatically cut short his vacation and flew back to Washington to sign the federal law that supported the parents' right to keep life support continuing for Terri Schiavo.

The doctors were able to override the mother's wishes on March 15, 2005 because the case took place in Texas and that state has a law that authorizes doctors and hospitals to override the wishes of the patient's families. The hospital took this action under the The Texas Advance Directives Act (1999), also known as the Texas Futile Care Law, which according to Wikipedia, "describes certain provisions that are now Chapter 166 of the Texas Health & Safety Code. Controversy over these provisions mainly centers on Section 166.046, Subsection (e), which allows a health care facility to discontinue life-sustaining treatment against the wishes of the patient or guardian ten days after giving written notice."

As with the case of shifting the definition of death from heart dead to brain dead, serious ethical issues are raised by this act. There are concerns that this law was passed because hospitals did not want to shoulder the cost of maintaining life support for patients who cannot pay for it. Although the law (as I read it) does not explicitly say that the inability to pay for life support can be a reason for termination of services, it is easy to see that financial considerations are going to come into play.

It is unlikely that patients who have rich families who can pay the bills are going to have their wishes overridden and life support removed. But one can see why hospitals, which have become businesses, would not like the prospect of indefinitely providing expensive life support care if they have no hope of being reimbursed. What adds further suspicion to the view that commercial concerns are significant is that if another hospital is willing to accept the patient, then the patient can be shifted there. But it is unlikely that another hospital is going to accept a new patient who requires extensive life support when that patient is unable to pay.

This blatant hypocrisy and contradiction between Bush's behavior as governor of Texas and as President later did not go completely unnoticed, though it did not get the attention it warranted. In an editorial on March 22, 2005, the Concord Monitor voiced concern over the implications of the Texas law:

On the same day President Bush interrupted his vacation and rushed to Washington to sign the Schiavo bill, a Texas hospital removed the breathing tube keeping 6-month-old Sun Hudson alive. According to The Houston Chronicle, the hospital's action, the first of its kind, was made possible by a 1999 bill signed into law by Bush, then Texas's governor.

That law allows hospitals to discontinue life-sustaining care even when doing so runs counter to the wishes of the patient's guardians. Before ending the patient's life under the law Bush signed, however, two conditions must be met. Doctors must deem that there is no chance for recovery and the patient must be unable to pay the hospital bill for continuing care. (my italics)

Added John Paris, a medical ethicist at Boston College, told Newsday "The Texas statute that Bush signed authorized the ending of the life, even over the parents' protest. And what he's doing here is saying, 'The parents are protesting. You shouldn't stop [treatment]'"

Apart from this being another example of Bush subordinating principle to political expediency, it also clearly shows that society is steadily lowering the bar on death, first making it a judgment of whether someone is 'effectively dead' and who gets to make that decision, and now coming down to the question of whether someone is worth keeping alive and putting that decision (at least in Texas) in the hands of doctors and hospitals and not parents and guardians. While the judgment that further treatment is futile may be a medical and scientific judgment, the decision to withdraw life support will undoubtedly be also driven by financial considerations as to whether the patients and their families can pay the cost of continued treatment.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Canned bird hunts

When not shooting old friends in the face, 'Deadeye Dick' Cheney kills birds for fun, and has killed up to 70 pheasants in just one shooting session. What is more, the birds he shot were bred in captivity to make them easy targets and one wonders what kind of fascination he finds in personally slaughtering such a large number of tame birds.

The comic strip Doonesbury suggests one reason, and Nate Corddry from The Daily Show tries to find out what the thrill is by going on one such canned quail hunt and bringing back a report.

March 28, 2006

Changing notions of death-2: Persistent vegetative state

The next stage in the evolution of when death occurs (see part 1 on this topic) came with the tragic case of Nancy Cruzan.

In 1983, 25-year old Nancy Cruzan careened off the road, flipped over and was thrown from her car into a ditch. Nancy hadn’t breathed for at least 15 minutes before paramedics found and revived her - a triumph of modern medicine launching her family’s seven-year crusade to free Nancy from a persistent vegetative state.

Nancy Cruzan's sad fate launched a fresh examination of death, centering around whether a person in a particular kind of coma, known as a persistent vegetative state, could be considered to be 'effectively dead' even if they did not meet the legal conditions of being heart dead or brain dead.

A persistent vegetative state is related to a coma in the following way:

A coma is a profound or deep state of unconsciousness. The affected individual is alive but is not able to react or respond to life around him/her. Coma may occur as an expected progression or complication of an underlying illness, or as a result of an event such as head trauma.

A persistent vegetative state, which sometimes follows a coma, refers to a condition in which individuals have lost cognitive neurological function and awareness of the environment but retain noncognitive function and a perserved [sic] sleep-wake cycle.

It is sometimes described as when a person is technically alive, but his/her brain is dead. However, that description is not completely accurate. In persistent vegetative state the individual loses the higher cerebral powers of the brain, but the functions of the brainstem, such as respiration (breathing) and circulation, remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli, but the patient does not speak or obey commands. Patients in a vegetative state may appear somewhat normal. They may occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. (my italics)

So a person in a persistent vegetative state does not meet the legal definition of being brain dead. Nancy Cruzan's parents were faced with the difficult question of what to do.

After her accident, they worked tirelessly to help bring her back to consciousness, without success. After five years, the family finally accepted that Nancy's condition would never improve. Already worn out from losing the fight to bring Nancy back to life, the Cruzans began a painful, and very public, legal battle to have the state hospital remove her feeding tube and let her die.

But their attempts at removal were opposed at that time by the state of Missouri, which argued that life support should not be removed since Nancy Cruzan was not legally dead. It was only in 1990, after even losing in the US Supreme Court, that the family won in state court and was allowed to remove her life support systems. She then became legally dead.

Singer argued that this was another significant shift in our understanding of death, because Cruzan was neither brain dead nor heart dead. What she had lost was the sense of personhood, a sense of awareness of herself and of her past and her possible future, her 'higher cerebral powers of the brain.' In other words, she had ceased to exist as the person whom her family and friends had known, and had become instead just a living organism, one which was neither brain dead nor heart dead. Her tombstone marker says: "Born July 20, 1957 / Departed January 11, 1983/ At Peace December 26, 1990" suggesting the idea that she ceased to exist as a person in 1983, although she continued to exist as an organism until 1990.

Singer points out that the idea that someone like Cruzan who is in a persistent vegetative state could be 'allowed to die' by withdrawing life support systems raises serious ethical questions, because it lowers the bar on what we consider to be death, and puts us in the realm of making judgments about whether someone should live or die based on whether or not they have higher cognitive functions such as an awareness of self. In other words, we have to make a decision as to whether someone has died as a 'person' even though they may be legally alive. This raises the question of who is competent to make such a decision in such situations and it seems like society has decided that it should be the family and their doctors.

But even that did not end the question, as the recent case of Terry Schiavo illustrates. She was in a persistent vegetative state but different members of the family had different wishes as to whether life support should be removed, and this resulted in the legal and media and political circus as to who had the right to make that decision. The courts had to finally step in and rule that the husband had the legal rights of guardianship and could make the decision, and life support was removed. A new poll this week finds that 64% of Americans support that decision to remove the feeding tube, with 27% dissenting.

Interestingly, Singer argues that he does not see much of a major ethical distinction between withdrawing life support and actively causing death by, say, giving a lethal injection. He thinks that the argument that when we remove life support we are 'letting nature take its course' is a way of rationalizing our actions to make it palatable to us, but does not resolve the ethical dilemma. He said that hospitals and intensive care units are designed precisely to prevent nature taking its course, and to withdraw that service from some people is no different from euthanasia.

So it seems as if society, not legally but in an indirect way, has shifted the definition of death so that people in a persistent vegetative state are already considered to be effectively dead, at least as 'persons', and thus withdrawing life support so that they become legally dead, is acceptable.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Religious beliefs and torture

In a series of earlier posts (see part 1, part 2, and part 3), I argued for the complete ban on torture. A new survey finds that secular people are more likely than Christians to oppose the use of torture. Among Christians, Catholics are the most likely to support torture.

March 27, 2006

Changing notions of death-1: Brain death

There is nothing more bracing than starting a new week with the cheery topic of death. I have been thinking about it since listening to noted ethicist Peter Singer's excellent talk on The ethics of life and death on March 21. He pointed out that the answer to the question "When is someone dead?" is not simple.

Most of us know, by listening to the abortion debate in the US, how hard it is to get agreement on when life begins. Singer's talk highlighted the other problem, one that does not get nearly as much attention, and that is the question of how we decide that someone is dead.

(Caveat: I could only stay for the first 45 minutes of his talk and did not take notes, so my use of the ideas in his talk is based on my memory. Peter Singer is not to be blamed for any views that I may inadvertently ascribe to him. But his ideas were so provocative that I had to share and build on them. I can see why he is regarded as one of the premier ethical thinkers.)

It used to be that the definition of death was when the heart stopped beating and blood stopped flowing. But that definition was changed so that people whose hearts were still beating but whose brains had no activity were also deemed to be dead.

This change was implemented in 1980 by the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which was supported by the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This act asserts that: “An individual, who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

Why did this change come about? Singer says that the background to this change raises some serious ethical questions. Thinking about changes in the definition of death was triggered by the first heart transplant operation done in 1967 by Dr. Christian Barnard in South Africa. Suddenly, the possibility of harvesting human hearts and other organs of dead people for use by others became much more realistic and feasible. But if you waited for the heart to stop beating to determine death, then that left you very little time to get a useful organ (because organs decay rapidly once blood stops flowing), whereas if people were merely 'brain dead' than you could get organs while they were still fresh and warm, since the circulatory system was still functioning at the time of removal.

Thus the first heart transplant in 1967 was the main impetus for the formation in 1968 of an ad hoc committee on brain death at Harvard Medical School, which laid the foundation for the shift in the definition of death that occurred in 1980 which provided criteria that described determination of a condition known as “irreversible coma,” “cerebral death,” or brain death.

Note that the change in the definition of death was not due to purely better scientific knowledge of when people died. All that science could say was that from past experience, a person who was 'brain dead' had never ever come back to a functioning state. It seems like the decision to change the definition of death was (at least partly) inspired by somewhat more practical considerations involving the need of organs for transplants.

But while the circumstances behind the change in the definition of death raises serious ethical questions, the idea that someone who was 'brain dead' was truly dead was a defensible proposition, whatever the reasons for its adoption.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Quick! Get back in the closet!

Some time ago, I expressed surprise that some atheists felt uneasy about 'coming out of the closet.' But a new University of Minnesota study suggests that there may be good reason for their hesitancy.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry
. . .
Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

These results are quite amazing. Of course, such negative stereotypes usually arise from ignorance so maybe if people encountered more atheists and saw how ordinary they are, this view could be dispelled. But it is interesting how so many people feel that god is so integral to their "vision of American society." America seems to be a theocracy, in fact, if not legally.

March 07, 2006

Grace in sports

Although I did not watch any of the 2006 winter Olympics events on TV, I casually followed them in the press, and the front page headline in the Sunday Plain Dealer caught my attention. It said Grace eludes U.S. Olympians: Too many athletes at Torino Games live up to ‘ugly American’ image and listed the many ways in which some US athletes did not behave well at the games.

I must admit that I am increasingly turned off by the way people behave at sporting events. It irritates me when people do not behave with grace and courtesy and politeness. To see athletes boasting and gloating and taunting their opponents when they do something well, to get angry and belligerent when someone else gets the better of them, and to loudly and rudely protest when the referee or umpire makes a wrong call, are all things that I find really distasteful, so much so that I rarely watch major sporting events anymore. And it is not just players who behave like this, sometimes spectators are even worse.

I am sure that much of my attitude is due to the influence of Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the K-12 school I went to growing up. The Principal of the school strictly enforced the traditions of the school about behavior at school sporting events. Students had to wear school uniforms whenever we attended any function in which the school was involved, even if we were at the events purely as spectators, and even if they took place after school hours or on weekends.

We were only allowed to applaud spontaneously for any good play. There was to be no organized cheering of any kind. And we were strictly forbidden to boo or jeer or cheer any mistake by any player, whether on our side or the opponents. Only shouts of encouragement or groans or sounds of shock and surprise (again spontaneous) were allowed. We were prohibited from deliberately trying to distract opposing team players when they were doing something that required deep concentration. In fact, we were expected to clap (spontaneously of course) good plays by our opponents as well. It was kind of like the behavior that we now see in golf.

Violations of these policies would guarantee us getting an extended lecture from our Principal at school assembly the next day, while if an individual were identified for doing any of this, some sort of punishment was likely.

The idea behind this strict code of behavior was that this would instill in us the idea of 'good sportsmanship,' that the quality of the game and proper behavior was more important than the result. We were drilled repeatedly with Grantland Rice's famous couplet:

For when the One Great Scorer comes, to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game.

I admit that my school was unusual in enforcing such policies and during my school years, I chafed at all these restrictions that were not enforced by other schools in Sri Lanka.

While my school was undoubtedly extreme, looking back, I must say that I now feel grateful for that training. Even now, even when I am rooting for a particular team, and am pleased when the opponents make a mistake that creates an advantage for my preferred team, I cannot bring myself to cheer (at least openly) that mistake, and I even feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying the lapse by the opposing player.

I think that this attitude makes one enjoy sporting events a lot more on the purely technical level, because one appreciates good performances irrespective of who does them, although one's own team's successes add an extra zest to the pleasure. But on the other hand, I also feel a great sense of irritation with players and spectators alike who act ungraciously on and off the field, which has pretty much ruined watching sports for me, since this kind of ungracious behavior has become commonplace.

Of course, sports have become so professionalized, and winning so important and so related to money, that many players do these things simply to get noticed and to get some kind of psychological edge over their opponents. I find that international cricket has also descended into the pit with players now trash talking to each other, something that was highly exceptional in the past.

But although I understand the motivation, I cannot condone them and find them downright distasteful, so much so that I find myself instinctively hoping that showboating athletes will fail, whatever team they might be on, just so that they might learn a lesson in humility. And I cheered football players like the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders or the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton who, in their day, simply let their good playing speak for itself, without all that silly index finger raised "We're number one!" childishness.

I have heard it said that Muhammad Ali was the originator for this kind of strutting and gloating and grandstanding and taunting and goading of opponents in the US. I really admired the physical grace and athleticism of Ali, and his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam war. But his cruel treatment of opponents, especially Joe Frazier who by all accounts was an honorable person, was inexcusable.

But why do spectators also behave badly, booing and jeering and taunting? Are they just imitating the behavior of the players? Was it always like this in the US, or is it also a more recent post-Ali phenomenon?

March 06, 2006

Opinion polls and statistics

In the previous post and in many aspects of life these days, we get quoted the results of opinion polls. Many of our public policies are strongly influenced by these polls, with politicians paying close attention to them before speaking out.

But while people are inundated with opinion polls, there is still considerable misunderstanding about how they work. Especially during elections, when there are polls practically every day, one often hears people expressing skepticism about polls, saying that they feel the polls are not representative because they, personally, and all the people they know, have never been asked their opinion. Surely, they reason, if so many polls are done, every person should get a shot at answering these surveys? That fact that no pollster has contacted them or their friends and families seem to make the poll results suspect in their eyes, as if the pollsters are using some highly selective group of people to ask and leaving out 'ordinary' people.

This betrays a misunderstanding of statistics and the sampling size needed to get good results. The so-called "margin of error" quoted by statisticians is found by dividing 100 by the square root of the size of the sample. So if you have a sample of 100, then the margin of error is 10%. If you have a sample size of 625, then the margin of error drops sharply to 4%. If you have a sample size of 1111, the margin of error becomes 3%. To get to 2% requires a sample size of 2500.

Clearly you would like your margin of error to be as small as possible, which argues for large samples, but your sample sizes are limited by the cost and time involved in surveying people, so trade offs have to be made. Most pollsters use samples of about 1000, and quote margins of error of 3%.

One interesting point is that there are statistical theorems that say that the sample size needed to get a certain margin of error does not depend on the size of the whole population (for large enough populations, say over 100,000). So a sample size of 1000 is sufficient for Cuyahoga County, the state of Ohio, or the whole USA. This explains why any given individual is highly unlikely to be polled. Since the population of the US is close to 300 million, the probability of any one of the 1000 people I may personally know being contacted has only a 0.00033% chance.

We know that a poll tells us that 54% of Americans say that "I do not think human beings developed from earlier species." The sample size was 1000, which means a margin of error of about 3%. Statistically, this means that there is a 95% chance that the "true" number of people who agree with that statement lies somewhere between 51% and 57%.

Certain assumptions and precautions go into interpreting these results. The first assumption is that the people polled are a truly random sample of the population. If you randomly contact people, that may not be true. You may, for example, end up with more women than men, or you may have contacted more old people or registered Republicans than are in the general population. If, from census and other data, you know the correct proportions of the various subpopulations in your survey, then this kind of skewing can be adjusted for by changing the weight of the contributions from each subgroup to match the actual population distribution.

With political polls, sometimes people complain that the sample sizes of Democrats and Republicans are not equal and that thus the poll is biased. But that difference is usually because the number of people who are officially registered as belonging to those parties are not equal.

But sometimes pollsters also quote the results for the subpopulations in their samples, and since the subsamples are smaller, the breakdown data has greater margin of error than the results for the full sample, though you are often not explicitly told this. For example, the above-mentioned survey says that 59% of people who had high school education or less agreed that "I do not think human beings developed from earlier species." But the number of people in the sample who fit that description is 407, which means that there is a 5% uncertainty in the result for that subgroup, unlike the 3% for the full sample of 1000.

But a more serious source of uncertainty these days is that many people refuse to answer pollsters when they call and it is not possible to adjust for the views of those who refuse. So although the pollsters do have data on the numbers of persons who hang up on them or otherwise refuse to answer, they do not know if such people are more likely or less likely to think that humans developed from earlier species. So they cannot adjust for this factor. They have to simply assume that if those non-responders had answered, their responses would have been in line with those who actually did respond.

Then there may be people who do not answer honestly for whatever reason or are just playing the fool. They are also hard to adjust for. This is why I am somewhat more skeptical of surveys of teens on various topics. It seems to me that teenagers are just the right age to get enjoyment from deliberately answering questions in exotic ways.

These kinds of biases are hard, if not impossible, to compensate for, though in serious research the researchers try to put in extra questions that can help gauge whether people are answering honestly. But opinion polls, which have to be done quickly and cheaply, are not likely to go to all that trouble

Because of such reasons, polls like the Harris poll issue this disclaimer at the end:

In theory, with probability samples of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the overall results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points of what they would be if the entire U.S. adult population had been polled with complete accuracy. Sampling error for subsamples is higher and varies. Unfortunately, there are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. They include refusals to be interviewed (nonresponse), question wording and question order, and weighting. It is impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors.

For all these reasons, one should take the quoted margins of error, which are based purely on sample size, with a considerable amount of salt.

There is one last point I want to make concerning a popular misconception propagated by news reporters during elections. If an opinion poll says that a sample of 1000 voters has candidate A with 51% support and candidate B with 49%, then since the margin of error (3%) is greater than the percentage of votes separating the candidates (2%), the reporters will often say that the race is a "statistical dead heat," implying that the two candidates have equal chances of winning.

Actually, this is not true. What those numbers imply (using math that I won't give here) is that there is about a 75% chance that candidate A truly does lead candidate B, while candidate B has only a 25% chance of being ahead. So when one candidate is three times as likely as the other to win, it is highly misleading to say that the race is a "dead heat."

POST SCRIPT: Film: THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR

The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is hosting a special free screening of the documentary film THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR on Monday, March 6, 2006 (i.e., today) at 7:00pm. This documentary by Britain's Adam Curtis is a three-part series shown on the BBC as part of their series on THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and was broadcast in 2004. The program is 180 minutes long.

Admission is free but an $8 donation ($5 members) is requested. For directions and free parking information, see here.

An article in the Guardian titled The Making of the Terror Myth reviews the documentary, and says in part:

Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to describe the strategy of a government, the authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the 1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then members of the public during the 19th century, states have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists "to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism."

Here is information from the Cinematheque website.

Here's the most incendiary political documentary since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11! Adam Curtis' three-part essay, made for the BBC, dissects the war on terror by arguing that fear has come to dominate politics, and that the notion of a secret, organized, international terror network (e.g., Al Qaeda) is a bogeyman created by powerful interests to maintain control. Curtis, whom Entertainment Weekly has called "the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time," employs extensive scholarship, interviews, and revealing film clips to trace the parallel rise of Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism – mirror images of each other in Mr. Curtis' view. "A superbly eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism." –Variety.

March 01, 2006

Harry Belafonte

I went to the Harry Belafonte talk last night at Strosacker and he lived up to his reputation as a plain speaker who does not shy away from telling it like it is. He again called Bush a terrorist and added "traitor" as well. He also confirmed that the reason he did not speak at Coretta Scott King's funeral was that he had been disinvited when Bush said that he was attending, and confirmed the story that I wrote about on Monday about the splits in the King family about how to move forward.

But his talk was a lot more than that. It was a moving personal story about his life, the things he had done, and why he had done them. When he spoke of the people he had met with and worked with, it was a who's who of all the people around the world who have helped make this a better place - Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Malcolm X. Harry Belafonte spoke about how he was completely won over by Martin Luther King at the very first meeting they had together and how he immediately dedicated his life to helping him achieve his agenda.

But more significantly, his talk was also a self-criticism, a fear that somehow he and his generation had failed in their intention to hand on the baton to the next generation to fight for justice, to keep its flame alive.

He spoke of his sadness at the plight of young minorities who are filling up the ever-expanding prison system. As a result, far from being retired (today is his 79th birthday) he is going around talking to young people in prisons and in the gangs to see what he can do. He spoke of his deep belief that the right to vote is the most powerful weapon for justice that we have and it should not be wasted and trivialized.

In the question period, it was clear that he had inspired many people because, unlike so many celebrities, he had risked his career at its peak, by speaking out and acting so strongly for justice. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of his mentor, the great Paul Robeson.

Harry Belafonte looked and sounded terrific. Fighting for justice and speaking the truth has kept him vibrant and strong. He is a living legend.

POST SCRIPT: Film: THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR

The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is hosting a special free screening of the documentary film THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR on Monday, March 6, 2006 at 7:00pm. This documentary by Britain's Adam Curtis is a three-part series shown on the BBC as part of their series on THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and was broadcast in 2004. The program is 180 minutes long.

Admission is free but an $8 donation ($5 members) is requested. For directions and free parking information, see here.

An article in the Guardian titled The Making of the Terror Myth reviews the documentary, and says in part:

Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to describe the strategy of a government, the authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the 1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then members of the public during the 19th century, states have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists "to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism."

Here is information from the Cinematheque website.

Here's the most incendiary political documentary since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11! Adam Curtis' three-part essay, made for the BBC, dissects the war on terror by arguing that fear has come to dominate politics, and that the notion of a secret, organized, international terror network (e.g., Al Qaeda) is a bogeyman created by powerful interests to maintain control. Curtis, whom Entertainment Weekly has called "the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time," employs extensive scholarship, interviews, and revealing film clips to trace the parallel rise of Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism – mirror images of each other in Mr. Curtis' view. "A superbly eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism." –Variety.

February 27, 2006

The Harry Belafonte-Coretta Scott King funeral mystery

Harry Belafonte's talk at Case has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 28 at 7:00pm at Strosacker. The event is free and open to the public but tickets are required. The tickets issued for the earlier date will be honored at this event.

The original talk was postponed because Belafonte said he had to give a eulogy at Coretta Scott King's funeral. It is common knowledge that Belafonte's relationship with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King was strong and his involvement with them and the civil rights movement has been for more than half a century. (See here for my previous postings on Harry Belafonte.)

But he was not seen during the funeral ceremonies. So what happened?

What is clear is that there is a split in the King family with one daughter Rev. Bernice King, along with some other influential black pastors who are on Bush's "faith-based initiatives" gravy train, trying to take the movement along a direction quite different from that envisioned by her parents. And since she seems to have wrested control of the funeral arrangements, and President Bush had expressed interest in attending the funeral, Belafonte became an embarrassment since he has been outspoken in his criticisms of Bush, calling him a terrorist. Did the Bush administration demand that Belafonte be bumped from the roster of speakers as a condition for attending? No one is saying but suspicions abound that there was a quid pro quo.

This article in The Tennessean provides some background:

Could Belafonte have been asked not to show up at Mrs. King's funeral after supposedly being on the program? Could he have been excluded to ensure the presence of President George W. Bush at the "first lady'' of civil rights' funeral?

Earlier this year, Belafonte called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world'' while in Caracas, Venezuela, as he met with Venezuelan President (and Bush critic) Hugo Chavez, according to the Associated Press.

"I called Belafonte to find out for myself if it was true, and he said it was,'' the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a veteran civil rights activist, told me Friday after calling to see if I could find out why Belafonte was not at the funeral. "I asked were you disinvited, and he said, yes.

"The reason is that the president was not coming if Belafonte was going to be there. …''

That's just not true, according to a public relations spokesman who worked with the King family on services for Mrs. King.

"The rumor Harry Belafonte was disinvited to the King funeral is 100% inaccurate,'' Dan Rene, vice president of Impact Strategies, a Washington-based public relations firm, told me Friday over the telephone, and later in an e-mail. "The only individuals with the authority to take such action were the King family.

"The White House did not have that authority, nor did anyone else - again, only the family. It is ridiculous and insulting to suggest that they would treat someone so close to them and their mother in such a manner.

"It is up to Mr. Belafonte to answer the question of why he was not in attendance. The King children would have welcomed his presence. In fact, he was listed in the program as an honorary pallbearer.

"Additionally, the rumor is very suspect because no one, including Mr. Belafonte, can explain exactly who it was that supposedly disinvited him. The reason for this is, of course, the fact that he was always welcome.''

So, who and what do you believe?

I haven't been able to reach Harry Belafonte directly for comment, but Rev. Vivian told me it is unlikely he will respond publicly because he wants to maintain some relationship with the King children.

The issue was also raised Tuesday in a newsletter distributed by former Emerge magazine editor George Curry. "Evidently, the funeral organizers were more interested in not offending Bush than recognizing the person who had actually supported Dr. King and his work,'' Curry wrote.

And, in The Weekly Holla from the Web site, www.SeeingBlack.com, a reader asked Tuesday, "Are y'all going to run anything about the King children dis-inviting Harry Belafonte …?"

Vivian, meanwhile, told me that Belafonte is saddened and hurt by this turn of events. If this is true, who could blame him? And it makes you wonder about that freedom we call speech.

The excellent website The Black Commentator had this article by Dr. Donald H. Smith, Associate Provost and Professor (Emeritus), Bernard M. Baruch College, the City University of New York, that provides some important background into what happened, as well as the class divisions that exist in the black church community.

Importantly, we also cannot be fooled by the Black Faith-based, self-anointed "Bishops" of mega churches who seduce and beguile depressed, often defeated African Americans, whose largess allows them to fly their private jets, drive Rolls Royces and live baronial existences. Instead of advocating to their congregations that they should organize and take direct political action, even civil disobedience as Dr. King consistently urged to secure the "blessings of liberty" to which they are entitled, these "Bishops," whose already sizeable incomes are supplemented by the Republican government's Faith-based Initiative grants, use powerful propaganda oratory to convince their congregations that God will take care of their needs, and, not incidentally, to support President Bush and vote Republican.

"Bishop" Eddie Long, in whose New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia where Mrs. King's funeral was held is typical of the increasing number of money driven Black preachers. It is a cruel irony that the funeral was held in Long's church rather than Ebenezer where Coretta Scott King was a member, where Dr. King was pastor and where his funeral was held. Preacher Eddie Long is the very antithesis of what Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, stood for. In 2004, Bishop Long led a demonstration in Atlanta to the tomb of Dr. King to protest a woman's right to choose and to denounce the right of individuals to marry persons of the same sex. Among the thousands of supporters who marched with preacher Long was Dr. King's daughter, Bernice, a minister at New Birth. Instead of the social justice and freedom advocated by the Kings, preacher Long endorses the conservative mandates of the Republican government. Coretta Scott King opposed the march, and reaffirmed her stance for human rights and social justice.

"Bishop" T.D. Jakes, whose mega church in Dallas has a reputed congregation of 30,000 members, and who sells "blessings" for $50, $500 or whatever larger sum he can persuade, was also a speaker at Mrs. King's funeral, though his brief words were hollow, unlike the bombastic oratory for which he is well known. Like Bishop Long, Bishop Jakes is a friend and supporter of President Bush and the Republican government's Project for a New American Century.
. . .
Bernice King and the Republican Party sought to control the funeral discourse, denying the likes of civil rights veterans Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian the opportunity to speak, as well as preventing Reverend Al Sharpton and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, in whose district the funeral was held, from speaking and - the unkindest cut of all - disinviting Harry Belafonte who marched with Dr. King, who gave large amounts of money and who consoled Coretta Scott King when her husband was assassinated, nevertheless the truth was heard. As Dr. King said many times, "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again." And truth did emerge from the mouth of President Jimmy Carter who underscored the present controversy of wiretapping American citizens by reminding the mourners of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping of Dr. King, whom he had threatened with disclosure of intimate information. President Carter was the only one of the four presidents who spoke of the government's mishandling of the Katrina tragedy, and he stated that the nation has not yet "achieved equal opportunity for all Americans." And truth emerged from Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Coretta Scott King had criticized that money spent for the war should have been spent to fight poverty in America. And truth came from the poetry of Maya Angelou who made a point of saluting Harry Belafonte. The truth was told.

The most that can be said about the tortured, illogical eulogy/sermon delivered by Mrs. King's daughter, Bernice, is that those four King children deserve our pity and love for the tragic circumstances of their childhood. When Bernice King, possessor of three degrees, including degrees in divinity and law, said "God is not looking for another Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott, the old has passed away, there is a new order that is emerging," I hardly knew what to think, as many of the mourners must have been puzzled. Did Bernice King imply that she is the new emergent order, along with her "mentor" Eddie Long? Heaven help us.

Unless Harry Belafonte chooses to tell us, we probably will not know what silenced him at the funeral. But it is clear that he should have spoken and would have spoken and that his omission could not have been his own choice.

February 14, 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them-2

Continuing yesterday's posting, what I find most difficult to sympathize with are the other newspapers that later reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that have inflamed some Muslim sensitivities. Far from being free speech champions, they seemed to simply want to provoke anger in the Muslim world. They were not defending free speech rights because, as far as I can tell, those were not in any danger. It is true that some who opposed the publication of the cartoons were asking the government of Denmark to take action against Jyllands-Posten but there was no indication that this was a serious request or that there was any chance of the Danish government was doing so. And even if it made moves towards doing that, there are other ways to defend the rights of that paper.

In fact, the free speech claims spouted by these newspapers have a strong flavor of hypocrisy. Many western countries have compromised their free speech rights long ago by enforcing them selectively, reinforcing the sense in the Muslim world that only they can be targets of such humor. Some are quite brazen about the fact that Muslim sensitivities can be ignored while those of others are protected. And Muslims are told they must either accept this state of affairs or leave the country.

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. "Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don't talk about," he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.

At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. "Evenhandedness cannot be a goal," he says. "It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there."

This is an amazingly frank admission of the dirty little secret that the media picks and chooses whose feelings they wish to protect and whose they can ignore. It is also startlingly self-contradictory. On the one hand, Koeppel says that they were challenging a growing tendency to "self-censorship in delicate matters." On the other, he justifies the existence of "taboos, the things they don't talk about." What are such taboos if not topics that are self-censored?

What this proliferation of republication of the cartoons has done is to further strengthen the suspicion that there is a deliberate campaign going on to disparage the beliefs and sensibilities of Muslims. And there are those on all sides who are intent on promoting this so-called "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the west and see benefits to be gained from fanning this conflagration. On the one side, it makes it easier, for example, to build the case for a US attack on Syria or Iran, the enemies du jour of the US. On the other side, it may make it easier to portray the west as uniformly anti-Muslim and to justify attacks on any westerner and to strengthen the hands of those who seek to impose theocracies on predominantly Muslim countries.

So what can be learned from all this? For me, it reinforces my belief that while people have the right to be offensive if they choose, they should not expect to be admired for doing so. I do not admire the newspapers for what they did, even though they had every right to print the cartoons.

People have all kinds of hot buttons. It seems to be an ironclad rule of human nature that the more buttons you have and the hotter those buttons are, the more people who will be eager to push them just to see you explode. Any person who can remember their middle school years can recall the hapless students who could be counted on to react angrily to some particular slight, and how others would exploit this for easy amusement. The taunts directed at the parentage of someone is a schoolyard staple and you would think that by the time people reached adulthood, they would have wised up and got hardened to this tired ploy at provoking them.

But no. Even adults fall for this kind of provocation and it is worse because now they have the ability to wreak great damage in response, as we have seen with these riots. There is nothing you can do to prevent this except to stop being such an easy target. This means realizing when someone is deliberately trying to provoke you, and ignoring them. The more you react, the more they attack.

Practicing such restraint is not easy. All of us have our personal sacred cows and are prone to anger over some slight directed at them. It takes considerable self-control to not blow up in response. But there is something about religious sacred cows that make things worse. I think that this is because when people's religious sensitivities are slighted, their anger is fueled by a sense of righteous indignation, that they are defending the honor of god, and that god will look favorably on them for their outrage. A moment's reflection should convince any rational person that the idea of any mere mortal defending god's honor is laughable on its face since god can presumably take care of him/herself.

Now we are seeing that other publications have decided that they too can play the same game as Jyllands-Posten (the original publisher of the cartoons that caused the controversy). Syndicated cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall reports that:

A European Muslim website has posted a cartoon depicting Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. "If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines," the site explains, "we certainly do not want to fall behind."

And an Iranian newspaper has solicited cartoons about the holocaust of Jews and is challenging the newspapers that published and republished the Prophet Mohammed cartoons to show their true commitment to free speech and their religious impartiality by publishing the twelve "winning" cartoons as well.

"It will be an international cartoon contest about the Holocaust," said Farid Mortazavi, the graphics editor for Hamshahri newspaper - which is published by Teheran's conservative municipality.

He said the plan was to turn the tables on the assertion that newspapers can print offensive material in the name of freedom of expression.

"The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let's see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons," he said.

Jyllands-Posten has already said that they will not publish the holocaust cartoons, further reinforcing the belief in the Muslim world that it is only Islam that can serve as a target for religious skewering in the west.

As Justin Raimondo points out about the proposed holocaust cartoons:

Of course, the publication of such cartoons would be illegal in most states of the European Union, as well as Canada, and the publishers, as well as the artists, would probably be thrown in jail and forced to issue a groveling apology. Rose is supposedly against any religion demanding "special treatment," but apparently there is at least one exception.

This issue has nothing to do with "freedom of speech." The government of Denmark is not about to prosecute Jyllands-Posten, nor will the EU - although they could do so, given the existence of "hate speech" legislation signed into law in both cases.

The violent reaction is being portrayed as something that happens mainly with Muslims. But in becoming violent in their actions, the Muslims who were doing so were following in a long tradition of religious groups taking to the streets in response to seeming provocations. Juan Cole points out that such violent reactions were routine in the Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland.

It seems amazing to me that we have reverted to middle school playground behavior, where the taunting and goading of one child by another is repaid in kind. We are now in a race to the bottom of offensiveness, competing in a game of chicken to see which group can come up with religiously offensive cartoons that others will not publish.

It is not easy for people to take a detached view when their cherished beliefs are ridiculed. The people who like to push other people's buttons are often ingenious about finding out what works and don't hesitate to do use that information to create anger.

Which bring me to the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. More about him and his group tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Film Winter Soldier

The Cleveland Museum of Art is screening the film Winter Soldier on Wednesday, February 15 at 7:00pm and again on Sunday, February 19 at 1:30pm. A panel discussion with some Vietnam vets will follow the 2/15 screening.

Both screenings are being held at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, since the Museum of Art is closed during its major renovation. Tickets are $7.00 per person.

You can see the trailer of the film here from where I have also taken this background information, and which also gives screening information aroun d the country:

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. "The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners," goes one piece of testimony, "utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, 'This dude fell down some steps.'"

Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.

February 13, 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them

Like most people, I have been dismayed by the demonstrations, the arson, the boycott threats, etc. caused by the publication in Denmark of twelve cartoons that were seen as disrespectful to Islam. I have resisted commenting on it because there was so much coverage that anything I would say would seem superfluous.

But it seems some important aspects of the story are not being told. The coverage has settled into a familiar storyline: The countries of the Islamic world do not understand western concepts of free speech, not to mention western humor in which no sacred cow is immune from skewering. Furthermore those countries are full of irrational religious fanatics who respond with violence to things that offend them, rather than peaceful dialogue.

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the person who decided to publish the cartoons issued a statement that reinforces this view.

"This is about standing for fundamental values that have been the (foundation) for the development of Western democracies over several hundred years, and we are now in a situation where those values are being challenged," he said.

"I think some of the Muslims who have reacted very strongly to these cartoons are being driven by totalitarian and authoritarian impulses, and the nature of these impulses is that if you give in once they will just put forward new requirements."

Once the media finds a storyline that is congenial to its readers (and this one definitely reinforces a positive self-image of the west combined with a stereotype of Muslims who currently regarded with suspicion and hostility) it usually tends not to delve too deeply into more subtle issues. But in this case, when you do so, you find that the story is more complex than has been portrayed.

For instance, consider the timeline of this story that is presented. The cartoons were first published on September 30, 2005.

Approximately two weeks later, nearly 3,500 people demonstrated peacefully in Copenhagen. In November, several European newspapers re-published the images, triggering more protests."
...
On January 10, 2006, the cartoons were reprinted in the small Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet (circulation: 5.000).

On January 30, the Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten apologizes, saying "In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize."

So far, this story seems reasonable. A newspaper publishes something edgy, some people get upset and protest, and the newspaper apologizes for unwittingly causing offense but defends its rights to free speech. This kind of thing happens routinely.

But apparently some other newspapers saw this apology as some kind of free speech violation, and the Danish newspaper's apology as capitulation. In order to assert the right to free speech, on February 1, the cartoons were reprinted in the French daily France Soir, and many other European newspapers. And this is what has led to the big demonstrations that we see going on now, with some Muslim communities seeing this as a deliberate insult to their religion.

The main issue of rights seem to be fairly clear. The Danish newspaper had every right to publish the cartoons. People who find the cartoons offensive have every right to protest in non-violent forms, such as holding demonstrations, and even organizing boycotts and breaking off diplomatic relations.

In apologizing, the newspaper was not being censored by governments, it was just saying it was sorry for causing offense. Newspapers depend on advertisers and routinely avoid printing some things to avoid losing readers.

That is the standard storyline. But when you look underneath it, the division between right and wrong, good and bad, start getting blurry, and the motives of the people who published the cartoons become increasingly suspect.

For one thing, the cartoons about Prophet Mohammed were actually solicited by the cultural editor of the newspaper not for their humor but in order to test Muslim sensitivities. Flemming Rose is supposed to have done so because he had heard that cartoonists "were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children's biography of Islam's Prophet Muhammad," since depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, as they are considered idolatrous.

Furthermore, the very same Danish newspaper had rejected cartoons three years earlier that made fun of Christianity because they feared they would cause offense.

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.

The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten.

Zieler received an email back from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."

What this demonstrates is a certain level of hypocrisy because the editor felt that the sensitivities of Muslims were not worth considering but that of Christian were.

The story gets even murkier. Justin Raimondo points out that Flemming Rose seems to be an admirer of those in the US like Daniel Pipes who are "fanatically hostile to Islam." So the whole story of a somewhat naïve editor who innocently publishes cartoons that caused a surprising amount of offense starts becoming unraveled and becomes more and more like a case of deliberate provocation aimed at Muslims.

And it gets worse. More on this tomorrow. . .

POST SCRIPT: Mainstream Churches Fight Back

It looks like mainstream churches are getting fed up with fundamentalist attacks on evolution. Commenter Cathie points out this notice for "Evolution Sunday" organized by them (now past, unfortunately). But it is a good sign. Here is the introduction to their website. You can check if your own church is here, or encourage them to join for next year.

On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.

The New York Times reports that "more than 10,000 ministers from around the country had signed [An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science], which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is "a foundational scientific truth." To reject it, the letter continues, "is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children."

On the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin, ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached yesterday against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution, asserting that the opposition many Christians say exists between science and faith is false.

At St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, "A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all."

And don't forget, Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species both occur in 2009. Mark your calendars now for the big party that is sure to happen on February 12th of that year.

February 01, 2006

Sudoku and scientific research

I have always liked logic puzzles. They exercise a curious fascination for me, extending even to my choice of reading. From the time I was very young, I was drawn to mystery novels of the Agatha Christie variety, which are essentially logic puzzles where the identity of the culprit is unknown until the end and the author lays out clues which the careful reader can use to solve the puzzle.

Needless to say, this extended to my choice of board games too, Clue and Master Mind being some of my favorites at one time. I also enjoy chess and card games like bridge, both of which contain a considerable element of puzzle solving.

So it should be no surprise that I have recently become addicted to doing the daily sudoku puzzle in the Plain Dealer. For those of you unfamiliar with this new craze, it is basically a logic puzzle consisting of 81 squares arranged in a 9x9 square grid in which about one-third of the squares contain numbers 1 through 9 from already filled in. The reader is required to fill in the rest containing subject to rules that are simple and can be found here.

The daily newspaper puzzle is labeled gentle, moderate, or diabolical, to indicate the expected level of difficulty, although the labeling does not always match my experience with the occasional diabolical being quite easy and the moderate quite hard.

The sudoku puzzles do not require any mathematics or even arithmetic to arrive at a solution. One could just as well do the puzzle with nine different fruits or symbols or whatever. But there is a lot of interesting underlying mathematics, and Brian Hayes has an interesting article in the January-February, 2006 issue of the American Scientist with a fascinating discussion of the mathematics of sudoku. involving such questions as how many different puzzles there are (Answer: 3,546,146,300,288) and what is the minimum amount of filled squares that must be initially provided so that there is a unique solution. It turns out that the latter question remains unsolved. "[T]he minimum number of givens is unknown. Gordon Royle of the University of Western Australia has collected more than 24,000 examples of uniquely solvable grids with 17 givens, and he has found none with fewer than 17, but a proof is lacking." So there's a nice challenge for the mathematically ambitious. Published problems usually have between 25 and 30 givens, with no simple correlation between the number of givens and the advertised level of difficulty.

One interesting question that the article does not answer is how the constructors of the puzzles know when they have given enough information so that there exists a unique solution. Do they have to work through the puzzles themselves and keep adding initial data until they have a unique solution? That seems tedious. In yesterday's (January 31, 2005) Plain Dealer puzzle, it seemed to me that there were at least two solutions.

(The sudoku problems belong to a more general class of math problems associated with the term NP but there are some disagreements about whether it is NP or NP-hard or NP-complete, which I will leave to the more mathematically informed to figure out.)

After doing a few, it struck me that these puzzles are a good analogy for the way science research is done. Thomas Kuhn in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that normal scientific research within a paradigm is largely a puzzle solving exercise in which there is an assurance that a solution exists to the problem and that it is only the ingenuity of the scientist that stands between her and a solution. The sudoku problem is like that. We know that a solution of a particular form exists and it is this belief that makes people persevere until they arrive at a solution.

Most of the sudoku solution strategy is deductive. One starts by filling in those empty squares with numbers that can be arrived at deductively, by rigorously ruling out all but the correct number. But in the more difficult puzzles, one reaches a stage where there may be two (or rarely) three possibilities for a crucial square and deductive logic alone cannot determine it. At that point, one has to resort to 'hypothetico-deductive' or 'if-then' reasoning. This kind of reasoning is an essential element of the scientific process. In scientific research one never knows exactly all the information needed to solve some problem. Hence one has to make reasonable assumptions about some things in order to proceed further and arrive at conclusions. And those assumptions can change in the light of new information.

Sudoku provides an example of this in that when one reaches such an impasse, one simply chooses one of the possible options and proceed to fill in all the rest of the squares using the standard deductive reasoning until either the puzzle is completed satisfactorily, confirming the correctness of the initial choice, or one runs into an obvious contradiction, indicating that one's choice was mistaken and that one should have chosen the other option at the branch point.

In yet harder puzzles, one might encounter nested hypothetico-deductive situations, where after making one choice, one might encounter yet another impasse requiring another choice. Those are the hardest puzzles because they involve selecting between many possible options, each resulting in a different final solution. (As an aside, the mechanism of evolution by natural selection works similarly to this, with the choice options being provided by random genetic mutations and the choice being 'made' by natural selection.)

Scientific research is a lot like these harder sudoku puzzles, involving long chains of inferential reasoning, with assumptions being made along the way. One rarely arrives at solutions purely deductively, hence the popular notion of scientific truths being "proven" to be true is largely a mirage. There are always choices that have to be made at intervening stages. One has to make decisions as to what one assumes to be true and can be used as a basis for further investigations. Being able to do hypothetico-deductive reasoning is essential for science, and yet it is not skill we focus much on in our science teaching.

In doing this kind of hypothetico-deductive reasoning one also has to use one's judgment and select which of the various possibilities is likely to be the most fruitful. Science also requires one to make such judgments and good scientists are those who, over time, develop a good 'nose' for which situations are best suited.

The extra wrinkle in scientific research that is not present in sudoku puzzles is that the correctness of the choice is also time-dependent. What may be a satisfactory choice at one time may turn out, in the light of subsequent research in a related field, to have been the wrong choice later. It is this kind of thing that causes the scientific community to sometimes reverse itself and declare that what was considered wrong once is now right and vice versa.

The hardest problems in science are those that challenge the very paradigm itself because then one is not guaranteed that a solution even exists. It is like working on a sudoku puzzle in which the data given may not be sufficient to guarantee the existence of a unique solution, or one in which the rules have changed but you are not aware of it. It takes a strong will and a great deal of perseverance to take on such problems. But it is just that kind of problem that leads to scientific revolutions.

POST SCRIPT: Warrantless wiretapping

Tom Tomorrow's take on the NSA wiretapping story.

December 22, 2005

Miscellany

Due to the holiday season and to the fact that I need to write some articles for publication, this blog will be updated only sporadically over the next two weeks. The regular schedule of weekday postings will resume after the New Year, on Tuesday, January 3rd.

Today, here are some short items.

New member of the family

baxter1.JPG On the right is Baxter, the latest addition to our family. We brought him home on Monday, December 19. He was born on September 14, which makes him just 3 months old.

My op-ed published

The Plain Dealer has today published an op-ed by me titled Has the intelligent design movement passed its peak? dealing with the Dover IDC case. Thanks to the fact that I have been writing about these things on this blog, it only took me an hour or two to collect all the information together and write the piece. This was one of the benefits I foresaw in maintaining this blog, that it could serve as a repository for ideas that could serve as a first draft for publications.

What was strange is that when I write for online posting, I put in links to the original sources of quotes, facts, etc. I had to strip all those out for the op-ed piece, so newspaper readers have to take my word for it that I was not making stuff up. So although online material is still viewed with skepticism in some quarters, the printed stuff actually has less information.

Cheap laptops for the world

Read about the new $100 laptops that can be powered by a hand crank and can be used in poor areas where there is little electricity. The machines will run open-source software.

You can see an image of the laptop here.

This strikes me as a wonderful gift to the poor areas of the world, because the machines will be given free to poor schoolchildren. The inventors (MIT's Media Lab) should be credited for making their devices freely available. I think it is terrific when scientists, engineers, inventors, and universities use their tremendous skills for the benefit of those who do not have access to this kind of advanced knowledge.

Mona Lisa smile

From the BBC we learn that:

A computer has been used to decipher the enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, concluding that she was mainly happy.

The painting was analysed by a University of Amsterdam computer using "emotion recognition" software.

It concluded that the subject was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry, journal New Scientist was told."

When I read that I was 64% intrigued, 25% amused, and 11% surprised.

Podcasting

The always helpful and tech-savvy people at Case are slowly nudging me into the 21st century. First Jeremy Smith got me started on blogging and now Aaron Shaffer (Manager of the Freedman Center) interviewed me for my first podcast.

A podcast, which has just been declared 2005's Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, is defined as "a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the internet for downloading to a personal audio player". The word is derived from a combination of "broadcast" and "iPod". The chief benefit of a podcast is that once downloaded, it can be listened to at your convenience.

Aaron and I spoke about blogging and a lot of other things, lasting for about an hour, just so that I could get a sense of how podcasting works. I will try my hand at it some time in the future, if I can think of something that would benefit more from the spoken rather than the written word.

If you are curious about what Aaron and I spoke about, or are curious to hear what I sound like on radio (hint: terrible), the podcast has been posted on the Freedman Center blog here.

I am not sure what I would use a podcast for, at the moment. It would have to be for something where actual sounds were preferable or easier to create than the written word. A dramatic reading of a speech of the kind done by Harold Pinter or an interview would be appropriate, as would be anything involving music. But do not fear. There will be no podcasts of me singing.

Looking back on 2005

One of the things I dislike about the end of the year are the dreary "year in review" features in the media. But I will make an exception for Tom Tomorrow.

December 14, 2005

Harold Pinter's speech and the creative arts

Playwright Harold Pinter gave his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005. Because he has been operated for throat cancer and is not well, he delivered the televised speech from England. His voice was hoarse and he was in a wheelchair but the speech was riveting. It was a lesson in how to give a great talk with the minimum of motion, and people who are interested in developing good rhetorical skills could learn a lot from him. You see a master of words and pauses and inflection, the trademarks of his success on the stage, use them here to brilliant effect as he stares at the camera, occasionally gestures with one hand, and moves easily between art and politics. Once I started listening to his forty-five minute speech, I was riveted. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here but I strongly recommend watching it.)

The title of his talk was Art, Truth, and Politics and I will comment on each aspect in sequence. Today I want to reflect on the way that he said he creates his plays. Tomorrow will deal with the role that truth plays in art and politics and science and the day after I will write about his blistering analysis of US foreign policy since World War II and Britain's complicity in it, later. This starts about ten minutes into his speech. There was a lot of meaty stuff in his presentation, much food for thought, and much to be admired about his skill with words.

I have always been intrigued by the way extremely creative people, artists such as novelists, playwrights, painters, and sculptors especially, envisage and create entire works of art out of nothing. I am particularly intrigued by the works of novelists and playwrights, because they use words to achieve their ends.

I have read some writers say that they start by simply creating a few characters and a rudimentary plot and that the characters and novel develop a life of their own and the story evolves along with them. The writers say that they cannot predict how events will end. Pinter seems to start with even less. He seems to start with just a word or phrase or image, and take it from there. He says:

I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is 'What have you done with the scissors?' The first line of Old Times is 'Dark.'

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn't give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

'Dark' I took to be a description of someone's hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), 'Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don't you buy a dog? You're a dog cook. Honest. You think you're cooking for a lot of dogs.' So since B calls A 'Dad' it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn't know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.

'Dark.' A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. 'Fat or thin?' the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.

It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

This approach to writing totally boggles my mind because when I write I always have more or less the whole thing planned before I even start. Of course, the very act of writing and seeing your words on paper influences the work, but in my case all it does is perhaps change the order of things to make things clearer, choose words and sentences to make the points better or suggest new avenues to explore to fill in gaps in the sequence of the argument.

Of course, all my writing is non-fiction, and I have felt that my inability to start without such a clear map is why I have felt that I could never be a fiction writer. But why do I think I am unable to be one? Do I think that the world of writers is divided by some intrinsic qualities into those who can write without a map and those who can't? I used to think so but a little reflection persuades me that I am not being consistent in this view.

When I teach physics, I often find students not even begin to try and solve a problem if they cannot see all the way to the end. If after staring at a problem for about five minutes and not see a solution leap into their mind, many give up, feeling the problem is impossible for them. As a result, students often feel that they can either do physics or they can't, as if it is an intrinsic quality. I tell them that I don't think physicists are born like that. Instead they have learned that when confronted with a problem, they need to start out tentatively trying out an idea, seeing where it goes, backtracking, trying new avenues, and so on, until they arrive at a solution. The form that the final solution takes may be a surprise to them. In other words, it is important to start even if you cannot see the end.

If that is what I tell students who are learning physics, why am I not applying that same lesson to my own fiction writing? The reason is that with physics, I have done it and know it can be done but with fiction, I have no such successful experience to draw upon. And the reason for my lack of success is because I have never tried. In this respect, I am just like my physics students. Perhaps what I need to do is simply start a work of fiction and see where it goes, to take that leap into the unknown, and develop the experience.

I am reminded of the words of Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer, quoted on his 88th birthday in 2000.)

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I think Parks is right. We have to learn to be unafraid to take that first step into the unknown.

November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy it. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me cold.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is purely secular so no one need feel excluded. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or even dressing up. It is just a time to get together with family and friends and share food. And even the food menu of turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard menu for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season." Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas "songs." The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like "Silver Bells" "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" "Holly Jolly Christmas" and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements, with "White Christmas" at the beginning and "Silver Bells" at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the new Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, leaving out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It's free to all Case people. And the staff there are very helpful too.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

November 09, 2005

Taking advantage of people's poverty

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and this person offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear of it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.

But at some level, I feel that I am contradicting myself. In earlier postings I have said that we should not concern ourselves and interfere with what consenting adults do. And in this case we have what seems, at least on the surface, to be a purely consensual transaction between two adults. The homeless man was not forced to pour the soda over himself. He did so because he wanted to obtain $100. So one can view this as saying that he was paid for a job. And as things go, there are a lot more disgusting things that one can be asked to do than pour a soft drink over oneself. In fact, as a society, we pay lots of people do things for us that we would shrink from doing ourselves. We pay them to go into sewers, to execute people, clean public toilets, etc. and we do not feel repelled by this. So why did I find this particular story so repellent?

Perhaps it was because we consider the homeless man is in too weak a position to freely give consent. After all, $100 was a lot of money to him. To offer very poor people what is to them a lot of money in return for doing acts that we would not do seems to offend our sense of fairness. But it is not only poor people who can be tempted in this way.

Many years ago, I saw the film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with the former as a millionaire who enjoyed seeing what he could get people to do out of greed. What the film argued was that people at any level of society would do almost anything, even wading through a disgusting mixture of urine and excrement, provided the price was right.

At that time I thought that the film was an overly cynical representation of human motivation but now I am not so sure. Some of the shows currently on TV seem to indicate that money and fame (however fleeting) are enough for many people to overcome their normal sense of propriety and self-respect. It is a disturbing thing to ask oneself the question as to what one might be willing to do if the price were high enough. This is why I feel that it is so important that everyone be paid a living wage and have the minimum living requirements of food, clothing, and shelter, so that they are not forced to trade their dignity in exchange for these basic necessities of life. If they do have the basic necessities and are yet willing to do things in exchange for further riches, then that is up to them.

But clearly the homeless man was not in that position and perhaps the reason we are so repelled by this story is that there was no redeeming purpose at all for the action, unlike the situation where people do jobs that society requires but which we might find personally distasteful. Here the whole point seemed to be to flaunt rich people's power over the poor and to gain enjoyment from the humiliation of another human being.

But what constitutes humiliation is also tricky. What for one person is a humiliating act is for another person a chance to proudly flaunt their lack of concern for society's expectations and mores. If the homeless man thought there was a market for his actions and decided to be entrepreneurial and launch a career by offering to pour soda over himself to anyone who would pay, would the action now become respectable, just another job that many of us personally would not do but is otherwise acceptable? After all, some comedians are willing to have pies thrown in their face as part of their act. And reality shows like Fear Factor show that people are willing to do the grossest things just to be on TV. The only difference between these things and the homeless man story seems to be that the homeless man was poor and the event was spontaneous, not planned and scripted.

It seems like all these questions come back, in some essential way, to the issues of justice as fairness as the only sound basis for constructing society. Under those conditions, the only power that one person has over another is that freely given.

But the soda-pouring episode still angers me.

POST SCRIPT 1: End of the road for intelligent design creationism in Dover?

It seems like all the candidates for the Dover, PA school board who advocated teaching intelligent design in their science classes were swept out of office on election day yesterday, to be replaced by other candidates whose platform was to shift IDC into an elective comparative religion course.

POST SCRIPT 2: How we were lied into war

A recent episode of Hardball gives a summary of how the White House, together with Judith Miller of the New York Times, created the sense of fear that enabled them to sell the attack on Iraq. The video clips of the members of the administration brazenly fear-mongering by invoking mushroom clouds is something to see. These people are quite shameless.

POST SCRIPT 3: Telling the truth gets you in jail

Eli Stephens writes the story of two generals. One, Colin Powell, made a speech full of lies at the UN to justify the attack on Iraq. He now walks a free man, giving speeche,s and collecting huge fees.

Another Iraqi general Amer al-Saadi was put in solitary confinement in an Iraqi jail for nearly two years and it is not clear if he is still there. His crime? Telling the truth. He was the Iraqi scientist and liaison to the weapons inspectors who denied that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction or WMD programs.

Perhaps al-Saadi's biggest "crime" was that he called out Powell on his lies at a time when the US media was swooning over Powell's performance at the UN. As Stephens says:

In particular, he derided Powell's assertions that Iraq attempts to hide secret information by keeping it moving in vehicles driven around the country.
"'All of that is fiction,' he said. 'It is simply not true.'
"Saadi described Powell's approach as a 'a deliberate attempt to undermine the credibility and professionalism of the inspection bodies by making allegations which directly contradict their assessments or cast doubt on their credibility.'"

Calling Powell a liar? Unforgivable.

November 08, 2005

Against tipping

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don't routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one's life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of