Thursday, November 30, 2006

A clue for the beginning of life on earth

How did life begin on earth? A fragment of a meteorite found in Canada may hold the clue. This from the CBC:
A meteorite that crashed in northwest Canada almost seven years ago might have been able to host the very earliest life forms, according to NASA researchers, which opens the door to the possibility that life could be present elsewhere in the universe.

Mike Zolensky, a cosmic minerologist at the NASA Space Centre in Texas, told CBC Radio the Tagish Lake meteorite is unlike any they have ever examined.

"We always knew it was a rare, very carbon- and water-rich meteorite — and they hardly ever fall on the Earth," said Zolensky. "But we've found since that it's even more unique than that. It's a totally unique meteorite."

Zolensky said tiny bubbles in the rock are organic globules where the universe's earliest life forms could have been able to live, an astonishing discovery from a meteorite thought to be 4.5 billion years old — older than the Earth.

"Perhaps these are like little condos arriving on earth and biology can move in later on," said Zolensky.

"They've survived somehow, intact on an asteroid for over four and a half billion years and where they come from, we don't know. But it's not from around here. It's from somewhere else."

Scientists have speculated life on earth began somewhere between 3.5 and 3.9 billion years ago.

The meteor first attracted attention when a dramatic fireball lit up the early morning skies of the Yukon, northern British Columbia, parts of Alaska, and the Northwest Territories on Jan. 18, 2000.

What if the Iraqi government collapses?

Rumors floating around Washington are that the Baker-Hamilton Commission will recommend a cut-back of troops in Iraq over time with a number remaining to train the Iraqi Army. President Bush rejects calls for any cut backs and insists Americans will stay until the job is done. What both positions have in common is the belief that the central government is strong and growing stronger. The news out of Iraq points to the opposite conclusion. What neither positions seems to take into account is what to do in case the government collapses – a real possibility. What then of the U.S. policy and the U.S. troops on the ground in the country?

Fred Kaplan contemplates the possibilities in Slate:
… What happens if the Iraqi government falls apart—in which case there would be no "Iraqi military" for the Americans to advise or supply?

Patrick Cockburn, the veteran Baghdad reporter of the London Independent, made the point in a BBC interview this morning: The key issue isn't so much the Iraqi army's training, but rather its loyalty. Nearly everyone except President Bush has conceded that the fighting has degenerated into a civil war. It has long been clear, in many towns and districts, that Iraqi soldiers—and, to a still greater extent, Iraqi police—are more loyal to a sect or tribe than to the national government. In other words, to an alarming degree, the so-called Iraqi army is in fact an array of competing militias; this will become increasingly the case if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's regime gets any weaker, and absolutely so if it crumbles.

What do we do if that happens? There are three options:

Get the hell out. This might be difficult amid sheer chaos. Personnel could be airlifted (most of those large bases are, in part, air bases), but heavy equipment—tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and so forth—would, for the most part, have to storm out on their treads and wheels or be left behind.

Take sides and fight. Earlier this year, when I interviewed some colonels and generals about U.S. military options in the event of civil war, they all said they couldn't imagine any president going this route. And yet the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have recently quoted U.S. officials floating the notion of abandoning the quest for national reconciliation and, instead, joining the civil war on the side of the Shiites. It's unclear how high these officials are (in both senses of the word). What is clear is that it's a terrible idea. There's no better way to alienate the region's Sunni governments, most of which happen to be allies of sorts
(Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and so forth), or to widen the conflict, perhaps beyond Iraq's borders. It's also hard to believe that many U.S. officials or politicians would tolerate such a move (though who knows, given what they've tolerated so far).

Hunker down and wait for the smoke to clear. This isn't a bad option, all told. The U.S. military has been steadily moving in this direction for a year or so already. Its larger bases in Iraq are quite secure, though protecting the supply lines to the bases might be tougher under the circumstances.

And here's where Baker, Hamilton, & Co.'s diplomatic proposal—to start talking with Syria, Iran, and the other regional powers—might have some impact. It's hard to justify keeping even 50,000 American troops in Iraq—even if they're just sitting there—unless they have a mission. One mission might be to serve as adjunct to a broader political initiative.

If Iraq falls apart, the bordering states will be tempted to rush into the vacuum, partly for their own security, partly for aggrandizement. If they do, their forces may brush up against one another (Iraq's internal sectarian borders are far from distinct). The United States could serve as a mediator to keep this from happening. To play this role, it helps to have troops on the ground and planes in the air.

This may be the only real purpose of a U.S. military presence in Iraq at this point—to keep the country and the region from erupting into flames. …

Is St. Nick a Nazi?

Santa Claus giving the Nazi salute? What’s next? Goose-stepping reindeer?

This from Der Spiegel:
Christmas shoppers in Germany are horrified. Across the country, models of Santa Claus in shop windows appear to be giving the Nazi salute. Some chains have already removed them from the shelves.

If Santa Claus were to move away from the North Pole to one of the more populated parts of the world, what political party would he support? His "peace on Earth" message might indicate a left-of-center stance. But what about his Big Brother ("He knows when you've been sleeping. He knows when you're awake) tendencies? Sounds a lot like the Republicans in the United States these days.

Or maybe he's a fascist? That, at least, is what a report in the Thursday issue of the tabloid Bild seems to indicate. Germans shopping for Christmas trinkets have been shocked recently to discover row upon row of Santa Clauses looking to all the world as if they are giving the Hitler salute -- right arm, straight as an arrow, raised skyward. Never mind that St. Nick is carrying a bag of toys and wearing a silly red hat complete with a white pom-pom. Shoppers were sure -- these Santas were Nazis.

Readers of Germany's largest-circulation paper have reported seeing the saluting St. Nicks in a number of shops around the country. Indeed, one of Germany's largest drug stores, Rossmann, even went so far as to take the offending Santas off the shelves.

But are they really giving the Hitler salute? In any other country, people likely wouldn't think twice about seeing jolly old St. Nick with a stiff right arm -- and to be fair, he looks more like he is pointing to his reindeer flying overhead than attending a neo-Nazi rally. Still, the design -- as an unscientific office poll at SPIEGEL ONLINE showed -- could easily be misinterpreted.

The toymaker behind the Nazi Santas is unimpressed with the unwanted attention their product is receiving. "We are surprised that a Santa pointing skyward has been associated with the Hitler salute," he told Bild.

Happy Birthday Mark Twain!

It’s the birthday of Samuel Clemens – a.k.a. Mark Twain.

This from Garrison Keillor at Writer’s Almanac:
It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name
Mark Twain, … Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Florida, Missouri (1835). He's best known to us today for his novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but in his own lifetime his best-selling books were his travel books, such as Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883).

He spent most of his life traveling. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, and he loved observing the people who flowed in from the river: the gamblers, confidence men, boat captains, pioneers, and slave traders. He traveled east to try to make a living as a printer, but eventually came back to Missouri and took a job as an apprentice pilot on a riverboat. He would later say that his years working on the Mississippi River were his happiest.

When Civil War broke out — and tied up traffic on the river — Clemens followed his brother west to Nevada. He rode out on a stagecoach. While his brother worked for the governor, Clemens loafed around, drinking and playing poker all night long. He tried his hand at mining, but it was hard work and he didn't like it. He was running out of money, so he started writing freelance stories for the Territorial Enterprise. They offered him a full-time job and he moved to Virginia City, Nevada.

He was supposed to cover the mining industry for the newspaper, but he found that he preferred writing about accidents, street fights, barroom shootings, and parties. Virginia City was a rough town. Clemens interrupted one of his letters to his mother to write, "I have just heard five pistol shots down the street. ... I will go and see about it." It turned out that two policemen had been murdered a few blocks away.

He had always written entertaining letters to his family, and he treated his newspaper work like those letters: humorous, exaggerated, entertaining, but always conversational. He took the name "Mark Twain" from his riverboat experience. The phrase "Mark Twain" means two fathoms deep, which for a riverboat captain is just deep enough water to navigate.

In 1867, Clemens persuaded a San Francisco newspaper to send him on a steamboat pleasure cruise to Europe, and he got paid 20 dollars for each letter he sent home. Those letters brought him significant recognition, and in 1868 he published them in a book called Innocents Abroad, and that was the book that made him famous.

Clemens wrote about his travels in Europe, his travels in the West, and his boating days on the Mississippi. But some of the most beautiful passages in his writing come from his descriptions of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the river with Jim. He wrote, "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest."

It the middle of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Clemens decided he needed to do some research on his hometown, so he traveled back to Hannibal, Missouri, for the first time since he was a teenager. It was the most depressing trip of his life, because all the romanticized ideas about the place where he'd grown up were shattered. He met old women who had been just young girls when he was a child. He saw how poverty-stricken the townspeople were.

Samuel Clemens said, "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven."

Was Gaidar poisoned?

Following the murder of critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, another critic, former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, has become violently ill – possibly from poisoning.

This from the BBC:
Former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar is being treated in a Moscow hospital after falling violently ill on a trip to Ireland on 24 November.

Speculation is rife that he may have been poisoned. He fell ill a day after former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in London.

Mr Gaidar's daughter Maria said "doctors incline towards the view that his symptoms... indicate poisoning".

Mr Gaidar was rushed to intensive care in Dublin, then flown to Moscow.

Mr Gaidar, 50, suffered from a nose bleed and vomiting before fainting in Dublin last Friday, during a visit to promote his book The Death of Empire: Lessons for Contemporary Russia.

He has criticised President Vladimir Putin's economic policies, but is not regarded as a prominent political opponent of the Russian leader.

His programme of economic "shock therapy" under Mr Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin angered many Russians who saw their savings devalued. The programme lifted price controls and launched large-scale privatisations.

Anatoly Chubais, who oversaw Boris Yeltsin's privatisation programme and now heads Russia's electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems, saw his illness as suspicious.

He linked the case to Mr Litvinenko's death and last month's murder of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya - both of whom were fierce critics of President Putin.

"The theory of attempted poisoning, attempted murder should undoubtedly be considered seriously," Mr Chubais told state-run Rossiya television.

"A chain of deaths of... Politkovskaya, Litvinenko and Gaidar would perfectly correspond to the interests and vision of those people who are openly talking about a forceful, unconstitutional change of power in Russia as a possible option."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

“Christmas in the Clouds” this Friday at the Byrd in Richmond

For those of you in the Richmond area, this coming Friday night you have the opportunity to attend a fundraiser for Refugee and Immigration Services and seeing the new movie, Christmas in the Clouds.

The movie is a romantic comedy starring a native American cast. You can read a review of it here in Style magazine.

The event will take place at Richmond’s Byrd Theater located at 2908 West Cary Street this coming Friday, December 1st. Doors will open at 6:00 for refreshments and holiday singing. The movie begins at 7:00. Tickets are $15 at the door.

Proceeds will go to the Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS) project of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. RIS assists refugee families by providing school success programs, adult English and citizenship programs, and acculturation outreach services to Richmond’s newcomers from other countries. It is a good program that deserves our support.

Virginia Appeals Court treats same sex union the same as it would a heterosexual marriage

The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned a local Virginia court and remanded back to Vermont a custody dispute between a lesbian couple who had entered into a civil union in that state. The ruling is a victory for gay and lesbian rights treating the dispute as it would for married heterosexual couple.

The couple had lived together in Virginia then moved to Vermont where they joined together in a civil union as allowed by Vermont law. They had a child by artificial insemination and raised the child together. However, the relationship fell apart. One partner took the child and moved to Virginia. The other partner filed for dissolution of the civil union and asked for custody of the child in a Vermont court. She was granted both but the partner in Virginia filed a motion in a Virginia court for sole custody of the child since Virginia does not recognize same sex unions as spelled out in the Virginia Marriage Affirmation Act. The local court had granted the motion.

From the L.A. Times:
A Virginia appellate court ruled Tuesday in a closely watched lesbian custody dispute that the biological mother must answer to the laws of Vermont, where she and her former partner entered into a civil union and raised a child together.
The ruling skirted a broader question key to the national debate: whether Virginia can be forced to recognize such a union sanctioned in another state.
But it was celebrated by gay and lesbian organizations across the country for treating the parental relationship as it would any heterosexual one.
Lisa Miller, who was ordered by the Vermont courts to grant her former partner visitation, is barred by the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act from turning to a different state to seek a more favorable outcome, the Virginia court ruled.
"It is a big deal," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed briefs in support of the non-biological parent, Janet Jenkins.
"The fact that the court would apply that rule of law objectively and fairly to a lesbian plaintiff is an enormously important victory for not only Janet Jenkins but for any lesbian or gay parent who may stand in her shoes," Kendell said.
Miller, who now lives in Virginia, was represented by faith-based Liberty Counsel, which opposes legal rights for same-sex unions and vowed to appeal.
The group's president, Mathew Staver, called the case "the tip of the iceberg of what's to come if one state cannot define its own marriage policy and must be subservient to the same-sex marriage policy of a sister state." He noted that 27 states — Virginia among them — had passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and that many states had passed "defense of marriage" acts.
“Ordinarily there would be no question that Vermont would retain jurisdiction in a case like this,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “There was no reason, other than bias against Vermont’s recognition of civil unions, for the Virginia courts to try to take over this case. This ruling, while simply a matter of following accepted law, is still an important step forward for gay and lesbian rights.”
The ruling can be read here.

The anti-contraception campaign

Believe it or not, here in America in the 21st century, there are people opposed to the use of any type of birth control -- even by married people.
I posted the entry below at 3:52 p.m. and at 4:40 p.m. received a response from Mr. Ruben Obregon, the president of the No Room for Contraception campaign (NRC). He wanted clarify the statement that NRC was associated with Tulsa for Life – the organization that sponsored the billboards. He wrote the same message to the Yellow Snapdragons blog – the source of my information.

NRC’s blog praises the billboards here, here and here. They credit the Diocese of Tulsa with putting them up which, if true, is not at all clear from the Tulsa for Life website.

Mr. Obregon also states, as does his website, that his organization is secular. It seems a bit odd to feel this is a point that is important to make. It reminds me of the intelligent design theory that has been presented as secular but is really just old fashioned creationism minus the quotes from scripture. I find this very suspicious. Anyway, you can check out the NRC links page and judge for yourself as to how secular this organization is.

While I totally disagree with those opposing abortion, I can understand their reasoning. However, the reasoning for the position in opposition to contraception of any type – even for married people -- is just beyond me. This is a pre-Enlightenment state of mind that basically sees women as “walking baby factories.” These are people obviously not comfortable with various expressions of sexuality and are organizing to spread their misery. While it is tempting to just dismiss them as rather odd people they do pose a threat to women’s health when they are able to convince physicians and pharmacists to not prescribe or disperse birth control.

You can find a good article about NRC and its founder, Mary Worthington, here at Salon.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Birth control is harmful

That’s what billboards in Tulsa say (via Andrew Sullivan and Yellow Snapdragons) . They promote an organization called Tulsa for Life that is associated with another group called No Room for Contraception. If you go to the Tulsa website you can find their reasoning for this conclusion. Below are portions from that site:
1. Birth control is harmful because it creates a sex on demand attitude.
2. It does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases.
3. It contributes to sexual addiction.
4. It causes abortions.
1. Birth control is harmful because it degrades women and makes them simply a sexual object.
2. It allows people to bond without a commitment.
3. It gives a false sense of safety in having promiscuous sex.
1. Birth control is harmful because it negates the wedding vows.
2. It does not honor the purpose of sex.
3. It decreases the natural consequence of a child from extra marital affairs, which has for a long time been a deterrent.
1. Birth control is harmful because it treats the body like an object, not a person- something just to be used for sexual pleasure.
2. It creates a sex on demand attitude, which can lead to sexual assaults and rape.
3. It has caused social chaos.
4. It treats children like accidents, or mistakes and creates an anti-child mentality in society.
1. Birth control is harmful because it treats the woman’s body and her fertility like some kind of disease.
2. It treats the body like it is just a machine- something to be used just for sexual pleasure.
3. It allows people to bond without a commitment.
4. It degrades women and makes them simply a sexual object.
1. Birth control is harmful because it does not respect the Creator’s purpose for our bodies and our sexuality.
2. It does not honor the purpose of sex.
3. It negates the wedding vows.
4. It treats the body like some kind of machine- something just to be used for sexual pleasure.

Increase in carbon emissions accelerating

The increase in carbon emissions has accelerated since 2000 according to the Global Carbon Project. This from the BBC:
The Global Carbon Project says that emissions were rising by less than 1% annually up to the year 2000, but are now rising at 2.5% per year.

It says the acceleration comes mainly from rise in charcoal consumption and a lack of new energy efficiency gains.

The Global Carbon Project draws its data from a wide range of sources, including measurements of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and studies on fossil fuel use. From that data, researchers have extracted two trends which they believe explain the sharp upturn found around the year 2000.

"There has been a change in the trend regarding fossil fuel intensity, which is basically the amount of carbon you need to burn for a given unit of wealth," explained Corinne Le Quere, a Global Carbon Project member who holds posts at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey.

"From about 1970 the intensity decreased - we became more efficient at using energy - but we've been getting slightly worse since the year 2000," she told the BBC News website.

"The other trend is that as oil becomes more expensive, we're seeing a switch from oil burning to charcoal which is more polluting in terms of carbon."

But, said Corinne Le Quere, the latest data showed this approach would not be enough to curb emissions in the future.

"Improvements that have been made in the last 30 years appear to be stalling," she said. "We are going to need a real decrease in emissions."

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Pope and condoms

Pope Benedict XVI has received a 200-page report on recommendations for the use of condoms. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico put together the document that will reportedly recommend easing the Vatican’s ban on condoms in a few exceptional cases. If the document passes the scrutiny of the Vatican then it could be transformed into a papal document in 2007.

According to Alexander Smoltczyk in Der Spiegel,
… On Tuesday, the United Nations released the latest World Report on AIDS in Geneva. The epidemic shows no signs of abating. There are now 39.5 million people infected with HIV and 8,000 people are dying every day from AIDS-related illnesses. Yet despite the seriousness of the problem, a local priest in Botswana or Swaziland cannot give a woman his blessing to use a condom even if her husband is a notorious womanizer, a junkie and infected with HIV. For the Vatican, using contraception is an act against the primacy of life.

Yet even within the church there is unease about this extreme doctrinaire approach. The Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels has been calling for a relaxation of the condom ban in exceptional cases for years. And he is now being joined by other colleagues who are dealing with the epidemic on the ground. According to Lozano Barragan, the report, which is yet to be published, is a learned compendium, including quotes from the fathers of the church as well as extracts from encyclicals and current statistics about the spread of AIDS. At its core the report is designed to avoid abandoning the principle of banning the use of condoms.

Just as before, "every conjugal act" is dedicated to the principle of life, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation "Familiaris consortio" in 1981. That means that condoms cannot be used apart from a few exceptional cases.

And these exceptions are strictly defined. A condom would be tolerated in cases of mortal danger -- as the "lesser of two evils". The handbook develops a sort of condom catechism in the best casuist tradition. Can a woman be allowed to protect herself if her husband has tested HIV positive? What about when one's spouse is injecting drugs? Or when both are living in a region with high incidence of AIDS? If a rule that is so far removed from reality cannot be fundamentally changed, then the exceptions need to be regulated.

If the text is accepted by the pope and made binding, then it will be used to help in the church's work with AIDS victims. Cardinal Lozano Barragan emphasized that it should not be interpreted as an invitation for "sexual libertinism".

So don't expect any liberalization in all but a few borderline cases. For the Catholic Church abstinence is still the one and only method of contraception. The church sees premarital sex, infidelity and promiscuity as the true causes of the AIDS catastrophe.

In October the same Cardinal Lozano Barragan implicitly differentiated between those infected people who are innocent and guilty. "If extra marital or premarital sexual relations leads to infection, then one must be allowed to speak of sin and guilt," he said.

But Barragan has also described condoms as weapons of self defense. Speaking at a conference in Cameroon last year he said "If someone wants to kill me with AIDS, I must defend myself from AIDS. How do I defend myself? With the most appropriate means. I must decide. If it is a club, with a club. If it is a pistol, with a pistol. And with a condom? Yes, if it is effective in defending me, in this case of unjust aggression."

Guns in national parks (again)

Stephen Chapman is a writer I always admire even when I disagree with him. He has published a piece in response to the New York Times editorial previously reprinted here regarding the issue of issuing concealed firearms permits to National Park visitors with a follow-up here. I quote from his column:
… since 1987, when Florida decided to let law-abiding citizens get concealed-carry permits, that has changed. Today, some 40 states have such "shall-issue" laws. They've become the norm, and the fears they inspired have proved unfounded.

As it happens, serious crime has waned in the intervening years. Murders are now at their lowest level since the 1960s. Violent crime has been cut by nearly 60 percent since the peak year of 1994. Gun crimes have plunged as well.

It may not be true, as some experts believe, that America has gotten safer because more people are legally packing heat. But it's impossible to claim that the change has made us less safe.

Why would these peaceable souls want to take their guns when hiking or camping in a national park? Same reason they might take them other places: a desire to protect themselves. Though federal lands are mostly safe, they sometimes play host to crime. In fact, park rangers are far more likely to be assaulted or killed than FBI agents.

The Times says, "If Americans want to feel safer in their national parks, the proper solution is to increase park funding, which has decayed steadily since the Bush administration took office." Maybe that would help, but we can't put a park ranger at every bend in the trail. And if you run into a thug deep in the backcountry, you can't expect the police or anyone else to come to the rescue.
For some people -- solitary women in particular -- having the means of self-defense in the woods can be not only a comfort but a lifesaver. It's fine to trust in one's fellow man. That doesn't mean it's paranoid to have a Plan B.

Judging from a wealth of experience, adopting this new policy would be a non-event, with no unwanted repercussions. The only danger it poses is to criminals, who would lose some easy prey, and anti-gun zealots, who would once again be proven wrong.
I don’t question that there are people who want to carry guns to defend themselves. Who wouldn’t want to defend themselves against a violent attack? I do question whether our national parks have become so ridden with violent crime that it is necessary for private citizens to arm themselves to the teeth before taking a hike in the woods. Isn’t there a little bit of hysteria about crime in the forest not taking into account the trade-offs?

So what is the trade offs? According to the Violence Policy Center:
Firearms are the second leading cause of traumatic death related to a consumer product in the United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall for Americans ages 15 to 24. Since 1960, more than a million Americans have died in firearm suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries. In 2003 alone, 30,136 Americans died by gunfire: 16,907 in firearm suicides, 11,920 in firearm homicides, 730 in unintentional shootings, and 232 in firearm deaths of unknown intent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Nearly three times that number are treated in emergency rooms each year for nonfatal firearm injuries.
So, according to the VPC statistics, the number firearm deaths and injuries are significant. That brings up the issue about the number of guns in circulation in the United States. No one knows. It is fair to assume many of the weapons in circulation are illegitimate and used by criminals. But then there are the perfectly legitimate weapons of law-abiding citizens which have to account for some portion of the above statistics.

Now, it appears, from a quick search on the internet, that the impact of these concealed weapons laws is pretty much of a wash – there is no evidence they either reduce crime or increase gun violence. In other words, if this proposed legislation were to pass we will likely be no better or worse off than before (statistically) and a lot of the arguments for and against will be anecdotal. So let me offer my anecdotes:

I know of two boys – one dead and the other suffering from permanent brain damage – who are victims of guns purchased for self-protection. In the first case, the kid visited a friend’s house and they found a loaded pistol in the bedroom kept for home protection. Not knowing it was loaded they played with it. It discharged and killed the kid instantly.

In the second case, a woman carried a small loaded handgun in her purse for self-protection at her husband’s urging although she didn’t know how to use the gun. It fell out of the purse at a family outing. A boy picked it up and assumed it was a toy because of its small size. He pointed it at his cousin, pulled the trigger and put a bullet in his brain, where it remains to this day.

My point? The consequences of our actions are not always as intended. The weapons above were perfectly legal yet the victims were not criminals but innocent kids just fooling around.

What does this have to do with concealed weapons legislation in national parks? Let’s not fool ourselves – there are people carrying guns in the parks now. However, the permit would give permission for more and more people to carry guns in our national parks which means more guns on trails and more guns lying around tents in campgrounds with lots of kids around. Has violent crime gotten so out of hand in our national parks that the trade-off is worth it?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Where do we go from here?

Was the conservative movement already becoming spent as a political force in the United States or did it sink with its embrace of George Bush? A reasonable answer is that it was a combination of both. The contemporary conservative movement has held power in either the White House or congress or the Supreme Court or some combination of the above since 1980. Under George Bush conservatives held control of all three branches of federal government.

Yet, with all that power they were able to do very little towards their own agenda in part because of incredibly inept leadership of Republicans in both the House and the Senate but also because a number of their big ideas were truly unpopular. The fait accompli was allowing George Bush to become the public spokesman for conservatism – a man who, in all fairness, is inarticulate and not very bright.

Where do we go from here? The only thing the mid-term elections have determined is the status quo will not stand. Will the Democrats use this momentum to build a new progressive era? Will the Democrats hold fast to the center? Will the Republicans shake off some of the intellectual dead weight that has held them back and make a come back?

Jacob Weisberg in Slate speculates about the possibilities:
Though George W. Bush is as right-wing as Reagan or Gingrich, he has managed to terminate the conservative era. Bush did this, first of all, by joining with congressional Republicans in treating the federal budget as a Christmas stocking for supporters. Rapidly accumulating deficits and growth in federal spending—from 18.3 percent of GDP in Clinton's final year to 20.3 percent in 2006—undermined the association of conservatism with limited government. On social, moral, and scientific issues, Bush tilted so far to the right that he scared away secular, socially moderate, and libertarian Republicans. Finally, Bush's feckless foreign policy discredited optional military intervention, much as Johnson and Nixon did in Vietnam.

Today, the conservative movement is not just reeling and dejected after a loss at the polls. It has reached a terminal point, much as American liberalism had in 1980. The dream may never die, as Ted Kennedy said at the Democratic convention in 1980, but the patient has. That's not to say that Republican candidates can't win elections, or that some other kind of conservative movement won't emerge as a potent force in the future. But the revolution is over. Its coalition is fractured, its energy is exhausted, and most of its remaining big ideas—school vouchers, the flat tax, and Social Security privatization—are so unpopular that they're not even part of the conversation anymore.

So, if I'm correct that the conservative era is kaput, what comes next? No one knows! But perhaps we can speculate about some of the candidates for successor. Here are four possibilities, moving from left to right:

1. A New Progressivism Many liberals interpret the 2006 election to mean that a new age of activism is at hand. By itself, the Democratic victory in the midterms is hardly a mandate for an expanded government role. Even if the new majority could get major legislation through the Senate, Bush still has a veto pen. But if the trend continues—if Democrats recapture the White House and increase their legislative gains in 2008—they will get an opportunity they haven't had since 1993. What would define a major progressive moment more than anything else would be passing national health-care reform. Beyond that, liberals would have to deal seriously with the negative side effects of globalization and new technology, including wage stagnation, income inequality, and the economic insecurity of the American middle class. …

2. Clintonism Continued Another possibility is that the conservative era yields not to its liberal antithesis, but to a Third Way synthesis. This would mean picking up where Clinton left off in terms of fiscal responsibility, governmental reform, and
global cooperation and engagement. In such an era, the momentum would come not from an energized left but from a vital center. …

3. The Muddled Middle We could be headed for a period in which no clear political direction emerges—imagine the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter period, which connects two eras but doesn't count as one itself. A muddled-middle interregnum would favor social, economic, and security moderates—Rockefeller Republicans, Southern Democrats, and idiosyncratic independents compromising on responsible, consensus policies. It would be a period of single terms, bipartisan commissions, and strange bedfellows. …

4. Bushism Without Bush If any hope exists for a conservative restoration, the best shot is probably the Bush formula of tax-cutting and security toughness—without Bush's excesses, errors and blatant religiosity. Such an era might be characterized by more-responsible Reaganomics, a refocused war on terror, and the continued march of conservative judicial activism. …
You may read his entire piece here.

Founder of LexisNexis dies at computer

This from today’s Washington Post obituary page:
H. Donald Wilson, 82, under whose leadership the commercial database service LexisNexis introduced electronic research to law firms and news organizations, died of a heart attack Nov. 12 in front of his computer at his home in Mitchellville.

Corporate America moving to the left of the GOP on global warming

Global warming is one of the greatest challenges facing us today. Movement towards solutions has been blocked by global-warming-deniers such as Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) who has chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and has referred to global warming as a hoax. However, change is underway not only as a result of the Democratic successes in the 2006 mid-term elections but also because corporate America is becoming convinced it is in their interest to acknowledge and address the issues. According to Talking Points Memo, “One of the least commented upon aspects of the so-called debate on global warming is the extent to which the business community has for some time now been to the left of the Republican Party on the science of climate change and even, to a certain extent, on the potential political solutions to the problem.”

This is from today’s Washington Post:
While the political debate over global warming continues, top executives at many of the nation's largest energy companies have accepted the scientific consensus about climate change and see federal regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable.

The Democratic takeover of Congress makes it more likely that the federal government will attempt to regulate emissions. The companies have been hiring new lobbyists who they hope can help fashion a national approach that would avert a patchwork of state plans now in the works. They are also working to change some company practices in anticipation of the regulation.

"We have to deal with greenhouse gases," John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., said in a recent speech at the National Press Club. "From Shell's point of view, the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who is Shell to say, 'Let's debate the science'?"

Hofmeister and other top energy company leaders, such as Duke Energy Corp.'s chief executive, James E. Rogers, back a proposal that would cap greenhouse gas emissions and allow firms to trade their quotas.

Paul M. Anderson, Duke Energy's chairman and a member of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, favors a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. His firm is the nation's third-largest burner of coal.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the highest-profile corporate skeptic about global warming, said in September that it was considering ending its funding of a think tank that has sought to cast doubts on climate change. And on Nov. 2, the company announced that it will contribute more than $1.25 million to a European Union study on how to store carbon dioxide in natural gas fields in the Norwegian North Sea, Algeria and Germany.

These changes come as Democratic leaders prepare to take over key committees on Capitol Hill. Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), who calls global warming "the greatest challenge of our generation," will take the place of Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe refers to global warming as a "hoax."

One reason companies are turning to Congress is to avert the multiplicity of regulations being drafted by various state governments. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a group of seven Northeastern states, is moving ahead with a proposed system that would set a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions, issue allowances to companies, and allow firms to trade those allowances to comply with regulations.

California is drawing up its program. Other states are also contemplating limits. Even the city of Boulder, Colo., has adopted its own plan -- a carbon tax based on electricity use.

"We cannot deal with 50 different policies," said Shell's Hofmeister. "We need a national approach to greenhouse gases."
You may read the whole article here.

The debt owed to (or rather, owned by) the Republicans

The Republicans in congress have not only had a pitiful record of balancing budgets but cannot even bring themselves to pass a budget for the current budget year. In place of a budget they are presenting the American public with continuing resolutions for temporary funding of our national defense as well as the rest of the federal government with continued deficit spending. This is from the party that had prided itself in the past for fiscal responsibility.

Yesterday’s New York Times put it this way:
The departing Republican majority in the U.S. Congress is about to leave the nation a memorial to its own shameful history as the grand enabler of record debt and deficits. Republican leaders are preparing to walk away from their most basic constitutional responsibility - passing a budget.

Instead of finishing work on government spending bills needed for the next year, they're reported to be planning nothing more than a cut- and-paste, short-term continuing resolution, leaving the mess to the incoming Democrats in January.

Stopgap resolutions create a budget autopilot that does not allow for shifting conditions and costs in education, housing and other major agencies. Conservative Republicans have the gall to portray themselves as principled budget hawks blocking pork- barrel spending "earmarks" - this after years of earmarking and rubber- stamping the upper-bracket tax cuts of President George W. Bush that tossed all budget discipline to the four winds. The Republicans depart leaving the nation in ever deeper hock to China and other potent bankers, with taxpayers stuck with the bill.

The Democratic majority will have more than enough to do in preparing the 2008 budget plan and dealing with an estimated $130 billion supplemental bill from the White House to continue the Iraq war. The new leadership must begin moving the government back toward the "pay- go" discipline that produced budget surpluses a decade ago. In a grim way, it's fitting that a dis-elected majority slink off in a final bit of the budgetary hubris that marked their incumbency. Far from budget hawks, they enter Capitol history as fiscal four-flushers.

Friday, November 24, 2006

IKEA 1, God 0

It seems the Swedes have more trust in the Swedish furniture company IKEA than in God according to a recent poll. However, God should be pleased that despite coming in second to IKEA he does place ahead of Sweden’s conservative party and foreign companies such as Coca-Cola.

According to Der Spiegel:
Perhaps the news shouldn't come as much of a surprise, coming as it does from a country best known for its meatballs and the bright blue and yellow warehouses selling cheap and cheerful furniture around the globe. Still, preacher men the world over must be reeling. A new poll taken of Swedes indicates that more people trust IKEA than the church in the largely Protestant country.

According to the poll, taken by the business weekly Dagens Industri, 80 percent of Swedes said they had "much or very much trust" in the world's largest furniture store chain, which was founded by Ingvar Kamprad. But only 46 percent of the 800 people surveyed said they trusted the Swedish church, which counts 80 percent of the 9 million residents living in Sweden as members.

IKEA isn't the only company Swedes trust more than the church -- the list also includes Volvo (69 percent), Ericsson (59), Saab (57) and pharmaceutical giant Astra Zeneca (47) as well as four other companies that beat out the church on the trust factor. Indeed, the church landed in slot 14, behind Sweden's public television station, its universities, small business, the central bank and the daily paper Dagens Nyheter.

There was, however, some positive news for the church: It got better marks than the conservative party of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (30 percent). And it fared better than foreign companies like Coca-Cola, which only 22 percent of Swedes said they trusted.

Guns in the national parks

As hard as Republicans work at it the Republican Party can never monopolize bad ideas. Granted they can claim ownership of most bad ideas but there are a few that have bipartisan appeal. I speak of course about legislation to allow individuals to carry concealed weapons in our national parks.

As pointed out here the day before yesterday, Senator George Allen has introduced legislation to permit the carrying of concealed firearms in our national parks. Today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried a story about the Allen proposal that mentioned Senator-elect Webb also favors such legislation. According to the article:
In a twist, an Oct. 30 campaign letter by Jim Webb -- the Democrat who narrowly defeated Allen -- shows that he promised to introduce similar legislation.

"And I intend to get it to the floor for a vote," added Webb, who also noted his possession for many years of a concealed-carry permit and his regular shooting activity. A spokesman for the senator-elect said Wednesday that Webb had not studied the Allen bill.
Of course, neither past nor future Virginia Senator has offered any reason in the press as to why this is necessary.

Concealed weapons would be less of a bad idea if everyone carrying a gun were trained in its use, was cautious and had a level headed personality, were not one to panic when the unexpected happens, were not one quick to anger when the unpleasant occurs, and strictly adhered to all safety rules. However, I can see campground disputes turning into shootouts, kids tossing bullets into campfires, certain people succumbing to the temptation for a little target practice while hiking in the woods, etc. Like Liberal Progressive, I just don’t see why Virginia’s representatives need to spend their political capital for something that will make our national parks less safe and desirable for the public at large.

It’s still a bad idea.

Sexual health in the Third World is something we should be promoting

Western self-righteousness on issues of sexuality is killing women in the Third World. The withholding of resources for reproductive health and blocking access to condoms and abortion services has real consequences, particularly in Africa. This from the Guardian's health editor, Sarah Boseley:
… how many of us secretly think that ricans have brought the devastation that Aids is doing to their countries upon themselves? There is a tacit assumption that Africans sleep around, that they are sexually abandoned and that they are reaping what they sowed.

But a courageous series on sexual and reproductive health, currently running over six weeks in the Lancet medical journal, proves that wrong. The papers show that we are more promiscuous than Africans. We in the rich world have more sexual partners than they in that benighted, disease-ridden continent. We have recreational sex; they are too busy trying to survive.

The consequences of such moral superiority are grave - not only in the fight against Aids but across the whole field of sexual and reproductive health. We have the US preaching abstinence from sex as the answer to Aids in Africa and refusing funds to any family-planning clinics across the world that provide abortions or even counsel women about them. This head-in-the-sand attitude towards abortion leads directly to women's deaths. Every year nearly 20 million unsafe abortions are carried out on desperate women in ill-lit rooms and illegal clinics. You don't stop that happening by refusing to talk about it.

It is extraordinary that not only unsafe abortion but sexually transmitted diseases are so controversial. One of the Lancet authors had to withdraw her name from a paper. Her employer, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the world's leading public-health bodies, considered that the journal had strayed too far over the political boundary.

Who knows how much else has not been written or done because of transatlantic pressures? The US government cut off all its $2.5m funding for the World Health Organisation's department of reproductive health and research in 2002, at roughly the same time that it cancelled its $34m funding of the UN's population fund, the UNFPA, which says women have a human right to contraception and reproductive health.

The US is not alone in blocking progress. At the UN general assembly special session on children in 2002, the US was part of a curious axis with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and the Vatican (which now appears to be considering a seismic shift to condone the use of condoms in Aids-hit countries) in agitating for redefinition of the phrase "reproductive health services" to exclude abortion. To our government's credit, on the other hand, Britain has publicly taken an unusual and impressive stand against the US on abortion and sexual health in developing countries.

Many think the US is a lost cause as long as President Bush is in office. It is up to Europe, led by Britain, to try to undo the damage. Safe abortion is vital, but the less controversial - yet apparently morally distasteful - problems of infections such as syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia need to be tackled because they are physically and socially damaging, particularly to women, and easily treatable. There is also a desperate need to address the issue of making pregnancy and childbirth safer: around 210 million women suffer life-threatening complications each year.

These things, just like unmentionable diseases, have to do with the dark side of sex, and those who suffer most are women - impoverished, low-status, voiceless women. It's time we really talked about sex. This is going to be a hard fight, but it's one we should be proud to take on.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Senator Allen's parting shot

Concealed weapons in national parks? Senator George Allen intends to end his Senatorial career with a bang by introducing legislation granting a right to park visitors to carry concealed weapons as they enjoy our nation's public recreational areas. Presumably park visitors need to be armed to protect themselves against terrorists, bears or park rangers. Regardless of the reasoning for this bill the result will only make our national parks dangerous for the public. It is a very bad idea.

This from today’s New York Times:
As a last little gift to America, Senator George Allen, who was narrowly defeated by James Webb this month, has introduced what may be his final piece of legislation: a bill that would allow the carrying of concealed weapons in national parks. The argument behind the bill is that national park regulations unfairly strip many Americans of a right they may enjoy outside the parks. The bill has passed to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where we hope it will die the miserable death it deserves.

America’s confusion about the Second Amendment is now nearly total. An amendment that ensures a collective right to bear arms has been misread in one legislature after another — often in the face of strong public disapproval — as a law guaranteeing an individual’s right to carry a weapon in public. And, in a perversion of monumental proportions, the battle to extend that right has largely succeeded in co-opting the language of the Civil Rights movement, so that depriving an American of the right to carry a gun in public sounds, to some, as offensive as stripping him of the right to vote. Senator Allen’s bill is, of course, being cheered by the gun lobby, which sees it not as an assault on public safety but as a way of nationalizing the armed paranoia that the National Rifle Association and its cohorts stand for.

If Americans want to feel safer in their national parks, the proper solution is to increase park funding, which has decayed steadily since the Bush administration took office. To zealots who believe that the Second Amendment trumps all others, the parks are merely another badland, like schools and church parking lots, that could be cleaned up if the carrying of private weapons were allowed. The concealed-weapon advocates are doing an excellent job of sounding terrified by “lonely wilderness trails.” But make no mistake. Senator Allen’s bill would make no one safer. It can only endanger the public.

Are we safer than we think?

How comparable is the current situation in regards to terrorist threats against the West to the threats of the Cold War?

During the Cold War there were seemingly non-stop low-level conflicts throughout the world, particularly in the Third World. In the background there was the constant threat of a high-level conflict of a nuclear exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations that would have ended civilization, as we knew it.

The 9-11 attacks were absolutely awful and the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in response absolutely necessary. Beyond that our civil liberties have been compromised, our armed forces and intelligence services have been given carte blanche in their treatment of those held in custody, we are mired in a war in Iraq as an indirect fight against terrorists, the “War on Terrorism” is used as a club in our domestic political conversations, and this “war” has skewed our relations with various members of the international community. Certainly, the gross incompetence of the Bush administration has succeeded in dividing our friends and uniting our enemies (just the opposite of what needs to be done) but aside from questions about how successful this effort is being prosecuted, is the overall reaction overblown? Not unnecessary, mind you, but overblown.

Compared to the threats of the Cold War, terrorists can wrack havoc and destruction on a small scale but cannot end civilization-as-we-know-it even though that may be their wish. We can be engaged in non-stop conflicts throughout the world but only if we unwisely fail to pick and choose our fights and allow the terrorists to bleed us to death. We have heard over and over again that the world changed on September 11th – but I dissent. We live in dangerous times and must respond appropriately to protect ourselves, as well as democratic nations around the world, but we have been through worse.

Here are some interesting thoughts from David Bell discussing John Mueller’s new book:
It's a pity that John Mueller's book Overblown isn't getting more attention. Its provocative--and certainly debatable--thesis is very simple: The threat to the United States from Islamic terrorism has been exaggerated, and may be close to non-existent. There is little evidence that Islamic terrorists have the capacity (as opposed to the desire) to carry out further attacks on the scale of 9/11 on U.S. soil, let alone anything more destructive. Anxieties about chemical, biological, and radiological weapons are particularly unjustified. There is little evidence that terrorists have access to such weapons, and in any case, they almost certainly could not use them in such a way as to kill large numbers of Americans. Nuclear weapons pose a much greater threat, but the difficulties involved in procuring and delivering them are far greater than most observers recognize. … He quotes endless "expert" predictions that terrorists would "definitely" strike the U.S. again in 2002,
2003, 2004 and 2005. He reminds us that even in the worst possible case--which is itself almost entirely unlikely--the terrorists do not pose anything like a threat to the existence of the United States, in the way the Soviet Union once did. And he concludes that our overreaction to 9/11 has done the U.S. far more harm than the terrorists themselves.

… at the present time it is clearly in the interest of almost everyone to maximize the threat that terrorism poses. It is in the interest of the administration, which can reap a political dividend, and is also desperate to cover its collective rear end, should another attack actually transpire. It is in the interest of what Mueller calls the "terrorism industry" of consultants, contractors and security companies. It is in the interest of the media, which thrives on fear. And it is in the interest of the terrorists themselves, whose reputation is thereby inflated, allowing them to recruit and raise money. Mueller does not dispute that there is an intense weight of hatred for America in much of the Muslim world. But how much does this hatred translate into an actual capacity to wreak harm?

… Might we actually be safer than we think? Is this something we can contemplate?

AIDS spreads while Vatican studies condoms

The United Nations and the World Health Organization have reported that the AIDS epidemic continues to grow throughout the world. According to today’s L.A. Times:
The AIDS epidemic has continued to grow in all regions of the world this year and surged back in some areas where there had been declines, according to the annual AIDS report issued Tuesday by the United Nations and World Health Organization.
Although the rate of growth has slowed since the early years of the epidemic, the AIDS toll for 2006 is expected to be 2.9 million people dead and 4.3 million infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Officials said 39.5 million people are living with HIV.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome has killed more than 25 million people since the first case was reported in 1981, making it one of the most destructive diseases in history.

The news of this growing AIDS threat coincides with a study conducted at the Vatican on the use of condoms to fight AIDS. This from yesterday’s Washington Post:
VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican's office for health care has concluded a study on the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, and a long-awaited report on it is now being examined by the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, a senior cardinal said Tuesday.

But the prelate gave no indication of the position the study takes or when a final pronouncement might be made.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against contraception. It advocates sexual abstinence as the best way to combat the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

But several leading churchmen have spoken out on the issue in recent years as the Vatican has come under increasing criticism for its position. Some _ such as a one-time papal contender, retired Milan Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini _ say that condoms were the "lesser evil" in combatting the spread of AIDS. Other cardinals, however, have rejected their argument _ an indication that the issue is still undecided at the Vatican.

As Carolyn O’Hara points out, Pope Benedict XVI is already on record as opposing the use of condoms even for use of preventing the spread of AIDS.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Science v. religion

For many years between the Scopes Trial and the past decade it has been something of a conventional wisdom among the general population that there was no real conflict between science and religion. One represented facts and the other truth. However, the fundamentalist reaction against secular society around the world and particularly its aggressive assault on public education in the U.S. with attempts to teach concepts such as creationism and intelligent design as science has triggered a backlash by atheists, agnostics and others who feel secular society is threatened. Some of the more outspoken members of this new movement have published best selling books in past year or so attacking religion. A recent conference sponsored by the Science Network a couple of weeks ago was a forum for scientists concerned about the negative influences of religion.

This is from George Johnson’s article in today’s New York Times:
Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,” or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for “progress in spiritual discoveries” to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book “The God Delusion” is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.


There has been no shortage of conferences in recent years, commonly organized by the Templeton Foundation, seeking to smooth over the differences between science and religion and ending in a metaphysical draw. Sponsored instead by the Science Network, an educational organization based in California, and underwritten by a San Diego investor, Robert Zeps (who acknowledged his role as a kind of “anti-Templeton”), the La Jolla meeting, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” rapidly escalated into an invigorating intellectual free-for-all. …

A presentation by Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University biologist, on using biblical metaphor to ease her fellow Christians into accepting evolution (a mutation is “a mustard seed of DNA”) was dismissed by Dr. Dawkins as “bad poetry,” while his own take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is “brainwashing” and “child abuse”) was condemned by the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner, who said he had “not a flicker” of religious faith, as simplistic and uninformed.
After enduring two days of talks in which the Templeton Foundation came under the gun as smudging the line between science and faith, Charles L. Harper Jr., its senior vice president, lashed back, denouncing what he called “pop conflict books” like Dr. Dawkins’s “God Delusion,” as “commercialized ideological scientism” — promoting for profit the philosophy that science has a monopoly on truth.

That brought an angry rejoinder from Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, who said his own book, “Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine,” was written to counter “garbage research” financed by Templeton on, for example, the healing effects of prayer.

With atheists and agnostics outnumbering the faithful (a few believing scientists, like Francis S. Collins, author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” were invited but could not attend), one speaker after another called on their colleagues to be less timid in challenging teachings about nature based only on scripture and belief. “The core of science is not a mathematical model; it is intellectual honesty,” said Sam Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience and the author of “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

“Every religion is making claims about the way the world is,” he said. “These are claims about the divine origin of certain books, about the virgin birth of certain people, about the survival of the human personality after death. These claims purport to be about reality.”

By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” he said.
You may read the entire article here.

The ups and downs of the stock market

There is an almost religious faith by many in the invisible hand of the market to guide us in the direction that is of benefit to the greater society. As this reasoning goes human involvement, whether through democratic institutions or totalitarian governments, always turns out for the worse. Collective decision-making is bad and laissez faire is good.

Is this true? Not really.

Michael Kinsley has some interesting observations on the pricing of stock in the Stock Market:
…. There are things capitalism does not do well, and other things that masquerade as capitalism at work, and claim its virtues, without being entitled to do so.
Capitalism is brilliant at setting the price of potatoes. But how good is it at setting the price of a large company? To all appearances, the stock market is capitalism operating under near-laboratory conditions. Financial markets deal almost entirely in electronic blips. Supply and demand can chase each other around the world with no actual goods to get in the way, and prices can adjust constantly and instantaneously. Yet the prices set in financial markets are patently wrong.
In America, most people now have money invested in the stock market, either directly or through their company or union or government-employee pension funds. President Bush famously wanted to put money from Social Security, America's public retirement system, into the stock market as well.
The website of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates stocks, offers the conventional explanation of why publicly traded stocks are a good thing. They are good for individuals because they allow people to share in the growth of the economy. They are good for society because, by creating a market and setting a value for corporate shares, they make it possible for corporations to raise money by issuing shares in the first place.
All of this depends, though, on the assumption that the stock market sets the right price for shares of big companies. But a whole separate part of corporate finance is based on the assumption that those prices are wrong. These special deals used to be called leveraged buy-outs. Now they're called "private equity". The details are different, but the principle is the same. Private investors buy a company from its public stockholders. They have a letter from an investment bank saying the price is a fair one. They usually have the support of management, or they actually are the management. The public stockholders have little choice. But time and again - surprise, surprise - the investment bank turns out to be wrong. The company is actually far more valuable! (And any bank that can't be counted on to get this wrong will not be in this profitable line of work for long.) Soon the company is sold at a large profit, either to another company or back to the public.
So free-market capitalism has decreed three different values for this company. One is set by the stock market: the value of all the company's outstanding shares or "market capitalization." One is what the private investors are offering - usually a bit more than the market cap. And one is what the private investors sell the company for a blink of an eye later - which is usually a lot more than the other two. Which of these numbers is the true capitalist price? Which one represents the most sublime interaction of supply and demand? Anyone? Anyone?
… the big question is this. Either the stock market is a fraud on the public or these deals that dominate the business pages are a fraud on the public. Which is it?

Monday, November 20, 2006

When in doubt, err on the side of freedom

Europe has a growing Muslin population and many Europeans are becoming less comfortable with that population. Conformity is always an issue in any society with a large immigrant population and most recently the specific issue of dress for women (the scarf, the veil, and the burqa) closely associated with Muslim culture has become a bone of contention most recently in France, Holland and the United Kingdom.

But how important is dress and culture to citizenship? Not very. In a democracy, what is important is loyalty to that democracy. Issues of culture v. citizenship can be tricky but the easiest rule of thumb is when in doubt; err on the side of freedom

Ian Buruma put it this way in yesterday’s London Times:
Imposing cultural conformity, or claiming that Islam is incompatible with European values, or denigrating it as “an inferior civilisation” is the best way to stoke up more defiance or, worse, to create more sympathy for the Islamist revolutionaries.

It would surely be better to rethink multiculturalism by saving the best bits of it and rejecting the cant. The United States has many flaws but one thing that works is the idea of the hyphenated citizen: the Chinese-American, the Iraqi-American. Being a devout Muslim does not stand in the way of being a patriotic American. This works because citizenship is not a matter of culture but of loyalty to institutions, the law, the constitution, the political system. This to me is the best legacy of the enlightenment.

Europeans, even those living in the most liberal societies, still find this difficult to accept. But Islam is now part of the European landscape. It is no betrayal of “our values” to be flexible towards habits and beliefs that not everyone shares.

Let people wear headscarves if they wish. Islam as such is not incompatible with citizenship of a liberal democracy. The violent imposition of a revolutionary faith is, but it will only be contained only if mainstream Muslims feel accepted as fellow citizens. The single demand we should make on immigrants and their offspring is respect for the law, including laws that guarantee the right to free speech. This is not a surrender to the Islamist revolution. On the contrary, it is the only way to combat it.

We have only bad choices in Iraq

The current policy in Iraq has led to a deteriorating situation that leaves us with a multitude of bad choices. Incompetence, corruption, poor planning and ideological driven refusal to acknowledge reality have squandered the initial victory toppling the Baathist regime. We have reached the point where there is no way around bloodshed. There are many related issues to contemplate but the big one is whether or not the presence of American troops is keeping a lid on violence that will only explode once the Americans leave or is the presence of American troops only making the situation worse.

The answer isn’t clear but there are a growing number of people convinced of the latter and feel it is time to get out.

Here is Kevin Drum’s assessment:
Conventional wisdom tacitly assumes that the worst that can happen in Iraq is a continuation of the current low-level civil war, resulting in the loss of thousands of Iraqi lives and dozens of U.S. soldiers each month. But as bad as that is, it's worth keeping in mind that the American occupation has actually made the Iraqi situation worse every single year since it began, and will probably continue to make things worse as long as we're there. And the worse the violence, the worse the Iraqi theocracy that eventually takes root in its wake is likely to be.

But that's not all. The dynamics of violence are nonlinear in the extreme, and the odds of an Archduke Ferdinand moment continue to rise inexorably as our occupation continues to make things ever worse and ever more unstable. A year from now, we could end up in the middle of a full-blown civil war costing a thousand American lives a month. We could end up taking sides in a shooting war against Turkey, a NATO ally. We could end up fighting off an armed invasion from Iran. We could end up on the receiving of an oil embargo led by Saudi Arabia. Who knows?

All of these developments may be individually unlikely, but you're not trying hard enough if you can't dream up plausible scenarios leading to each one of them. Pundits and policymakers alike should keep this in mind when they're mentally totting up the costs and benefits of staying in Iraq and concluding that we might as well try a Last Big Push because, heck, it can't do any harm to try. In fact, it can. The longer we stay in Iraq, the worse things are likely to get.
Suzanne Nossel sums up the poor choices here (and her whole piece is worth reading). She concludes:
So what do we do next:
In short, develop a withdrawal scenario that includes whatever steps can reasonably be taken to minimize the chaos in our wake. A regional conference, talks with Syria and Iran, improved training and reconstruction efforts, political mediation and efforts to bolster the security of less violent regions should all be part of the package. To the extent we can engage Iraq's neighbors as well as any other global powers who are willing to step up to the plate and help us and Iraq, we should. We should be honest with ourselves and with the Iraqis about what we are doing and why, acknowledging all of the above rather than pretending that we're handing off a country that's in better shape than it is. But we should commit to getting out of there regardless of how the diplomacy and mediation progress.

Our exit should be as responsible and forthright as our entrance was wanton and misleading. The best thing we can promise troops who are now being asked to put their lives at risk for an all-but-declared failure is that they are taking risks to enable the US to make the best out of a terrible situation, preserving what can be saved of both Iraqi stability (in geographic pockets) and of American credibility. Its by no means the mission they signed up for, but its an important one nonetheless.