Saturday, December 29, 2007

Irshad Manji on the late Benazir Bhutto

Irshad Manji hopes that in death, Bhutto can be "the catalyst for a deeper democracy than she ever advocated in life."

Plagiarism rampant in China

Excellent article on the lack of intellectual integrity in one of China's leading universities.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Obama, one week out

Read Barack Obama's excellent speech today in Iowa.

Benazir Bhutto is dead

Today, Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It is far soon to tell what the long term implications of this horrible event will be for Pakistan and for the rest of the world.

For developing coverage

New York Times

Wikipedia

The conservative Weekly Standard also has a piece suggestion that the Taliban were behind the assassination.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Edwards vs. Huckabee --> Bloomberg candidacy

What is the best scenario for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I) to run for president as an independent? Easy - if John Edwards and Mike Huckabee are the nominees. The reasons are:

1) Populism overlap: Edwards and Huckabee are the most similar on economic policy, or in some sense, counter-economic policy. Both want to do whatever possible to regulate and penalize American corporations, and both are extremely protectionist and would favor low and mid-skill American workers over any other interest group. The leaves the largest room for Bloomberg, as a pro-business, pro-globalization candidate.

2) Lack of executive experience: Edwards has never run anything larger than his own law office and his own non think tank; Huckabee has never run anything larger than a church or the small state of Arkansas (population 2 million, GDP $92 B). Bloomberg, by contrast, founded a built the company that bears his name (now with revenue of $4.7 B), in addition to running New York City itself (population 8 million, GDP $457 B).

3) Comparable lack of foreign policy experience: Huckabee has almost no foreign policy experience, whereas Edwards seems to have squandered his time in the Senate, and despite being on the Senate Intellignce Committee in 2002 (and thus having a front row seat to the serach for WMD in Iraq), still voted for the war. Recanting doesn't change his vote. Bloomberg, on the other hand, has visited several countries during his term as mayor, and so stacks up relatively well against Huckabee and Edwards.

4) Diversity: Both Edwards and Huckabee are white Protestant males, so Bloomberg stops being the guy who prevented the first black, female, or Hispanic (or Mormon) president. In fact, he almost becomes the diversity candidate as a Jew.

If Edwards is the Democratic nominee, look to a lot of Democrats to think seriously about voting for Bloomberg. If Huckabee is the Republican nominee, look to a lot of Republicans to think seriously about voting for Bloomberg. If both are their respective nominees, the perfect storm might actually exist to elect this country's first third party president since the Civil War.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Copy protection

A fascinating piece in today's NYT blogs about college student attitudes about copyright.

Hat tip to Publius.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Oops. Birth control and college students

Congress apparently forgot to include college student health centers on a list of those able to provide oral contraceptives at a deep discount. This has led to fewer prescriptions for birth control pills, and increased incidences of morning after pills and pregnancy tests.

Glad to see that Congress has college students' best interests in mind.

Best jazz albums of 2007

Slate.com has an excellent list of some of the best jazz of 2007. The Charles Mingus long-lost tapes, as well as Herbie Hancock's take on Joni Mitchell are quick fantastic.

Mistreatment of widows

British lawyer Cherie Blair (wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair) has an excellent piece in today's New York Times on the awful ways the widows are treated in many parts of the world.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Why no one will stand up to the Saudis

Anne Applebaum has a great piece on slate.com about the fact that there won't be a real international campaign against the despicable treatment of women in Saudi Arabia until the leading American feminist organizations get behind it.

Longing for Chuck Hagel

As the Republican primary becomes even murkier, one cannot help wondering whether there was once a Republican candidate who would have been the perfect mix of what the electorate is looking for.

In many ways, that candidate could have been retiring Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel. Hagel is a social conservative down the line, on abortion, gay rights, and on gun control. He supported President Bush on social (and economic) issues more than any other senator. Hagel would have none of the problems of Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney (or even Fred Thompson) on convincing the Republican base that he support them on social issues.

However, on the issue of the Iraq War is really where Hagel would have thrived. While Hagel is a Vietnam veteran, like Senator John McCain, he has been one of the most consistently critical Republican voices on the war. Hagel can say, in a way that no other Republican presidential candidate short of Congressman Ron Paul can, that on this issue he has stood up against President Bush.

Hagel is the only candidate who would keep both the socially conservative fringe and the increasingly anti-war center together in his party. Without him, the Republicans will have a difficult time in 2008.

Generic drugs: You get what you pay for

Excellent piece in today's L.A. Times about why generic drugs are all they're cracked up to be.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Boston Globe endorses Obama

The Boston Globe has a wonderful piece endorsing Senator Barack Obama in the democratic primary (it endorsed Senator John McCain in the republican primary).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fareed Zakaria on the power of personal experience

Zakaria explains why Obama's personal experience growing up abroad might make him just what this country needs.

Perhaps the fact that Obama will be the first president with arguably as much experience growing up aboard since John Quincy Adams is not lost on Zakaria.

Bob Reich's take on the Republican presidential primary

Read it here. His predication of Huckabee might just be right...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cats that glow in the dark

Amazing.

Paper or plastic?

The L.A. Times argues that the answer should be "Neither. I brought my own."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another honor killing

Irshad Manji shows once again that she is one of the few progressive Muslim voices (and one of the very few female Muslim voices) willing to speak out against the horrors going on in her community.

Who Fed FEMA?

Slate.com has an interesting comparison between the ineptitudes of FEMA and the Fed's current response to the mortgage crises.

Bob Reich on improving health insurance

Former Clinton Labor Secretary Bob Reich (and former MA governor primary candidate) has an excellent piece on his blog about the Democratic presidential candidates' health insurance plans. Reich correctly states that the debate over how to ensure everyone is covered is merely a small detail, and the much larger Democratic consensus is what's important.

Television Poker Stat

Most Texas Holdem TV programs show the odds of each player winning the game. This is likely based on a computer simulation of all the possible card combinations that could come in the flop, turn and river, and then, given the remaining players' hands, determining how often each player wins.

What is missing from television poker is the win percentage from the perspective of each player. This stat would be calculated the same way, except the computer would also run through the possibilities in the other player's hands. This would be especially useful when a player with a great hand thinks he or she has a large chance of winning, even though the actual odds are much lower because another player has an statistically unlikely even better hand.

This would be slightly mathematically more complicated than the current win probability calculations, but would not be too difficult, and would enhance the viewer's experience.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In defense of public circumcision on male infants

The New York Time health blog has a piece about a debate between two British scientists, where one is heavily critical of the practice of circumcision on infant males.

The article acknowledges that numerous studies have shown medical benefits to male circumcision, including reduced female to male H.I.V. transmission, reduced likelihood of carrying the human pap virus (which is harmless to men but can be transmitted to women and lead to cervical cancer), and a smaller chance of getting over sexually transmitted infections.

In light of the evidence that male circumcision decreases penal infections, which could have decreased fertility, it makes sense that ancient cultures took it upon themselves to circumcise all men as a precaution. This is in line with modern childhood vaccines - no one asks a child whether he or she would like to risk getting a terrible disease - the common wisdom is to do the prophylactic on everyone.

Furthermore, a Jewish bris (the Hebrew word for the covenant between Abraham and G-d, which included Abraham and all of his male decendent's circumcision) is a wonderful public ceremony welcoming a new boy into his community. Many religions have such a ceremony, and it is one of the most joyous.

However, the question remains that even if male circumcision is a medically sound idea, and if welcoming a new boy into his religious community is a wonderful ceremony, why must they be together? Why can't the circumcision be in private, and then the naming ceremony and party be in public? Why would a religion that in some sects is so Victorian about sexuality and modesty performs surgery on a boy's penis in public?

Perhaps in ancient times, the community needed to be sure that all of the men were circumcised. Otherwise, the first to find out might be the man's intimate partner, who might not be in a position to protest have intercourse with an uncircumcised man, despite her desire not to put herself at higher risk.

In this light, male circumcision becomes a conscious public health decision, done publicly to ensure compliance, and done on infants to avoid compromising the modesty of an older boy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How is housing different from other consumer goods

Daniel Weintraub, a columnist at the Sacramento Bee, seems to think housing isn't different from other goods:

"It is great news when the price of energy, food, transportation, health care and consumer electronics drops. But for some reason it is bad news when the price of shelter drops. . . . Shouldn't we be seeing stories filled with anecdotes about formerly priced-out middle-income families finally getting their chance at the American Dream?"

Weintraub is dead wrong. Housing (specifically, home ownership), is fundamentally different from energy, food, transportation, and electronics for three reasons:

First of all, unlike all of the other goods Weintraub mentions, housing is an appreciating durable good. Not only is designed to last a while, but consumers expect it to go up in value, as opposed to a car or a computer, which depreciate rapidly.

Secondly, consumers are both buyers and sellers of housing, whereas for the most part they are only buyers of the other goods mentioned above. While buying volume is greater than selling volume because of new home construction, and while there is a relatively small volume in used cars and electronic, the differences are still enourmous. Housing in this way is more like a stock investment than it is buying a car or food.

Finally, housing is really the only case where the average American can invest at significant leverage. Unlike corporations, which can borrow significant amounts of money for capital investments, the average American can not borrow without assets. In the case of a new homeowner, however, the new home is the collateral. This allows the homeowner to invest in a house when he or she only has the enough cash for 10% or 20% of the total value of the house. The homeowner gets to repay the mortgage over time, while capturing the upside as the value of the house increases. This is in stark contrast to other goods, where price increases only hurt the consumer.

As a result, housing price increases are vastly different from price increases in other consumer goods, because housing is a durable, often leveraged investment for the consumer, as opposed to a short or medium term purchase.

Why can't this man lead the United States?

Al Gore's new piece in The Nation.

Gore/Obama would still be a great ticket.

Two neat tools about electricity

This tool shows where power comes (i.e. oil, gas, nuclear, coal, hydro) for any area of the United States.

Another one goes through the average energy used by leaving appliances plugged in while they aren't being used.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The joys of insulting Turkishness

Mah Rabu's BZ proves once again why he is the wittiest blogger in the Middle East.

American can't even pay disability to those who need it

Horrifying New York Times piece today about Social Security disability appeals.

Harvard drastically changes aid policy

Harvard just announced a more than $20 million increase in financial aid.

Specifically:
  • Families that make between $120,000 and $180,000 per year will be asked to pay 10 percent of their yearly income in tuition
  • Families that make between $60,000 and $120,000 per year will pay between zero and ten percent of their yearly incomes in tuition
  • Home equity will also be eliminated from financial aid calculations
  • Financial aid will cease to include student loans, moving to only grants
This is pretty incredible. Let's see how Harvard's peers follow suit.

(For more info, see here.)

Religion in government

Excellent piece by Alyssa Rosenberg.

Ridiculous: Jumping out of a plane without a parachute

This is just really cool. If physics says it works, then it probably works. With just a few assumptions...

Shrinking China

Seems a measurement error in PPP has caused the world to overestimate the size of China's economy.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

What to call Bill?

The Washington Post's David Ignatius has an excellent suggestion for what this country should call former President Bill Clinton if his wife is elected president:

First Laddie

Facebook application idea

Someone should create a Facebook application that would tell users which friends they have the most friends in common with. It'd be really easy to create, but no one has done it yet. Perhaps its because it would required access to the internal Facebook data. It'll be interesting to see whether such an applications comes about in the near future.

Excellent New York Times piece on moderate Muslims

It's by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an amazing observant Muslim woman and former Dutch legislator. Find it here.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Freezing mortgage interest rates: net positive

Here are two excellent pieces on the subprime crisis about the government's plan to freeze interest rates on some subprime loans to prevent foreclosures.

In addition to helping borrowers (homeowners) keep their homes (since their be able to make their payments), the rate freeze will help investors in mortgage securities. In the short term, the rate freeze won't affect the coupon payments of their bonds (since those were never going to go up). In the long term, while the collateral pools may run out of cash flows to pay the coupons, the expected principal write-downs will be far lower.

Overall, while this fix will only affect a fraction of homeowners and investors, it will likely have a net positive effect.

It does, however, raise a few eyebrows when the ex-Goldman Sachs treasury secretary calls for rates to be halted just after Goldman Sachs announces not write-downs in the third quarter but begins to look skittish about fourth quarter write-downs, which may be halted by the freeze.

Sounds like a president

A new Iowa spot for IL Senator Barack Obama. It's footage from his incredible November 10 speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, and probably his best public speech since the 2004 Democratic convention.

Excellent piece about Romney's speech

Find it at slate.com here.

Why Joe Biden should run American foreign policy

In the wake of the NIE report on the Iran nuclear program (or lack there of), Delaware Senator Joe Biden has an excellent piece on the current situation and what to do going forward.

It's a shame Biden isn't doing better in the polls. He's be a great president (a Biden/Obama ticket would be quite incredible). Short of that, he'll be a great Secretary of State for whoever the next president is.

One nation, under Romney...

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finally gave his "Mormon" speech.

The frequent comparisons of this speech to then-Senator John F. Kennedy's "Catholic" speech in 1960 are misplaced. Kennedy's speech was about how he differed from Catholics on political issues, not on the general separation of religion and state. Romney, on the other hand, made no effort to distance himself from the more difficult parts of Mormonism, including its gross discrimination of African-Americans well into the 1970s. The entire point of JFK's speech was to clear up public issues with Catholic beliefs, and Romney ducked that effort entirely.

Furthermore, justifying why it is okay for a particular non-Protestant to be in national office is long outdated. Other recent non-Protestant candidates for president or vice president (e.g. John Kerry in '04, Joe Lieberman in '00 and '04, Geraldine Ferraro in '84) saw no need to justify their religion. Furthermore, there are several Mormons already in leadership positions in the federal government, including current Senators Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch from Utah, Harry Reid from Nevada, Mike Crapo from Idaho, and former Senator Paula Hawkins from Florida. Perhaps other most Mormon in presidential politics is Romney's father, a serious presidential candidate in 1968 while serving as governor of Michigan. Indeed Mormons have a long history of political involvement, and so Romney has no need to justify his religion to the country.

In the actual content of his speech, Romney chastises those who "seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God." Here, Romney is stating his approval for a monotheistic religion that is universal for all American. Romney is fundamentally wrong. The numerous references to G-d in public life qualify as an "establishment of religion," which Congress has no business acknowledging under the Constitution.

Romney's claim that "We are a nation 'Under God'" is simply his own opinion, to which he is entitled. As president, however, he is not entitled to public money to subject others to his particular religious preference.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Free trade with Peru

Today, the United States Senate passed the United States-Peru Trade Promotion agreement by a vote of 77-18 . (The House of Representatives passed it in November.)

Notable is that the five sitting senators happen to be the same sitting senators who are running for president (Obama, Clinton, Dodd, Biden, and McCain). It is interesting that while four of them were at the same place today (the Democratic radio debate in Iowa), no one asked them about it.

It's also interesting that many of the 18 senators (all Democrats) who voted nay include the several of the more protectionist senators (e.g. Brown, Casey, Tester) elected from purple states last November, largely on the votes of anti-globalization Reagan Democrats.

It will be interesting to see how this protectionist thread (embodied by Edwards and Kuchinich at the presidential candidate level) plays out for the Democrats in 2008.

Kleeb for senate?

In 2006, Scott Kleeb (D-NE) ran an incredible close race for Congress, in a district that had overwhelmingly voted for President George W. Bush (R) in 2004.

With Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's decision to retire, and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey D) and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D)'s decisions not to run for the seat, the most promising Democrat appears to be Kleeb.

Yesterday, Kleeb posted a video that shows that he is strongly considering jumping in the ring.

This is certainly a race to watch.

The high skill side of the immigration debate

In today's radio Democratic presidential candidate debate, sponsored by NPR, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards outlined his opposition to vastly expanding the number of H1-B visas for skilled workers in the United States. Edwards made it clear that the focus of his administration would be to fill high skill jobs with American workers first and to better train American workers.

While improved education for Americans, especially in science and mathematics, is always important, Edward's policy fundamentally misses the point. The number of brilliant, talented workers being denied visas to work in the United States is astounding. Adding insult to injury, many of these workers have spent years studying in the U.S., many at some of this country's finest universities. These individuals have a deep affiliation with the United States, and want to stay here.

Furthermore, since many of our undergraduate and graduate programs are at least partially publically funded (even at public universities), many of these students were funded partially at American taxpayers' expense. Despite the fact that the United States has already invested in the growth and development of these inidivduals, it routinely denies them working visas.

The consequences of this shortsighted policy are already beginning to take shape. One of the reasons that the world financial center is shifting away from New York toward London and Singapore is that many of these workers go there when they are denied access to the U.S. job market. They take their productivity (and their tax dollars) to another economy.

High skill job growth is not a zero sum game. The more brilliant, talented people working in the United States, the more opportunities there will be for other high skill workers, both American-born and foreign-born. The only question is whether the United States wants these individuals to work to improve its society, or take their productivity elsewhere.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Half baked war

There's an incredible essay in Rolling Stone detailing the United States' colossal failure in the War on Drugs, where we've managed to to fund death squads, prolong civil wars, overcrowd our prison system, prevent peaceful citizens from mitigating their physical pain, turn non-violent one-time-users into violent repeat-offenders, and use fighting drugs as an excuse to buy new expensive weapons.

It's time that this country got serious about legalizing medical marijuana (in the way that far more dangerous drugs are already legal), ending mandatory minimum sentences, promoting treatment over jail time, and sharply reducing our offensive actions abroad.

More than anything, we need to begin to heal our society from the cycle of violence that results from how we deal with drug addiction. It is a disease, and should be treated like one.

Cartoons, fatwas and bears, oh my!

There is a spectacular piece on slate.com listing the numerous cultural clashes between fundamentalist Muslims and Western society (Danish cartoons, the Pope's comments, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh's murder, Salmon Rushdie's controversial knighting). It ends with the most recent absurd situation of a teacher in Sudan whose elementary school students named a stuffed animal Mohamed, causing an angry mob to call for the teacher's execution.

Where is the outrage in the rest of the world? Don't these theocracies understand that this kind of xenophobic blindness to the world will only retard their development toward egalitarian societies? Where are the liberal Muslim thinkers standing up and saying publicly that this is not okay?

Dated Hillary, married Barack

NY Senator Hillary Clinton is using a line from the Kerry campaign (always a great place to crib campaign strategy from). Her line, used to a crowd of Iowans, is "I want a long term relationship....I don't want to just have a one night stand with all of you."

This line is reminisent of the "Dated Dean, Married Kerry" bumper stickers in '04, suggesting that after voters had gotten over their momentary fling with the firery former VT Governor Howard Dean, they were willing to settled down with a more electable nominee, MA Senator John Kerry.

The problem with using this line is that it doesn't apply at all. Numerous writers (the New York Times' Frank Rich being one of them), have suggested that Clinton is no more "electable" than Obama, and that "Clinton-bashing is the last shared article of faith...that could yet unite the fractured and dispirited conservative electorate."

Furthermore, the momemtum is moving in the other direction i.e. toward Obama, meaning that voters, for once, are deciding to marry a candidate who satisfies both their heart and their head.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Annapolis

Michael Oren (author of a great book on the 1967 Six Day War, and a more recent one on America in the Middle East throughout its history) has an excellent piece in today’s New York Times about the ongoing peace efforts in Annapolis.

Oren correctly argues that peace is not made by bureaucrats (Israel’s Olmert, the Palestinian’s Abu Mazen), elevated to positions of leadership not by their own inner strength and resolve but by the sheer historical weight of their mentors (Sharon and Arafat, respectively). There is little hope that Olmert and Abu Mazen can bring peace, safety, and security to their people before each reigns in the more radical elements of his people (the ultra Orthodox settlers for Israel and the terrorist Hamas for the Palestinians).

That said, the Israeli population is in many ways closer to peace than they’ve ever been. Olmert’s Kadima party was elected with the stated intention to continue removing Israeli settlements from within the 1948 British mandate, a policy advocated by no prior Israeli government. A majority of Israelis are legitimately ready for the kinds of serious concessions (leaving Gaza and most of the West Bank forever, significant settlement withdrawals, land swaps, reparations, shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, dismantling the security fence).

The Palestinians are a sadder story. They rejected Abu Mazen’s Fatah party in favor of Hamas, whose stance on peace and reconciliation brings them back to before 1993 when Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization did not recognize Israel’s existence. It’s ironic that in once sense Abu Mazen has more legitimacy then any prior Palestinians leader to actually make peace with Israel, since he seems to legitimately advocate for it. On the other hand, he cannot even claim to represent a majority of his people, let alone control the more radical elements of his society that want to murder ever Jew between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The best hope that will come out of Annapolis is what the Palestinian people will do when the next election arrives. They have now seen the effects of electing a recognized terrorist group to its leadership, and seen yet another opportunity for an end to the conflict squandered. They have also seen the next generation of real Palestinian leaders (Abu Mazen, perennial negotiator Saeb Erakat) who have begun to dismantle Arafat’s kleptocracy of lies and doublespeak.

For once, it appears the Palestinians are moving closer to a real “partner” for peace that Israel found in Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein. Hopefully, they will get there before it is too late to begin implementing a workable solution.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Time to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

In last Wednesday's CNN/Youtube debate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the military's policy of not inquiring about a soldier’s sexual orientation but discharging the solider if he or she is revealed to be gay, seemed to be working just fine. Several other Republican candidates agreed with him.

This is nonsense. This homophobic, discriminatory policy has done nothing except kick out qualified, vital American servicemen from this country’s military, and prevents others from joining the military. It’s embarrassing to be an American when this country still, in the 21st century, denies its citizens the right to serve in its armed forces because of something fundamental to their nature, over which they have no control. It has given the rest of the liberal world one more good reason to look down upon the United States.

It’s even more absurd that in the midst of fighting two wars in foreign countries, our military has dismissed hundreds of service members with critical language skills (e.g. Arabic) simply for being gay. This policy has continued to cripple a fighting force that can barely afford any more other handicaps.

Furthermore, the U.S. army is so short on people that it has decreased the restrictions on felons enlisting. Why is the American army so beholden to one religious group’s prejudice that we will trust criminals with our safety and security before gay people?

There is no easy answer to this question, as many of the practical arguments for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fall apart under scrutiny. Many other world renowned military forces (e.g. the Brits, the Israelis) have openly gay soldiers, with no issues.The argument about living in close quarters also fails, since we don’t bar openly gay people from living with straight people in other public institutions, like universities or prisons. The argument that servicemen can’t control themselves when living with someone they may be attracted is ridiculous, and insulting to the servicemen whom we trust to operate deadly weapons with maturity and good judgment.

There is a great quotation from the television show “The West Wing,” where the African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff draws a parallel between modern objections to gays serving openly in the military and 1950s objections to racial integrated units:

"The problem with that is that what they were saying to me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn't serve with Whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I'm an admiral in the U.S. Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

This country has to get over its hatred of gay people. It has to stop pandering to an ever shrinking minority of citizens who want to project their religious views onto secular society, at the cost of our safety.

The United States deserves the best and the brightest are serving this country. All the Democratic candidates for presidents support repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Where is the leadership from the Republican candidates who claim to care so deeply about the safety and security of this country?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How some Muslims treat rape victims

Fundamentalist Islam's mistreatment of women is unparalleled in any other major culture today. Specifically, no where else in the world are women physically punished and even murdered for being raped. Muslim societies need to get serious at a macro level about how to deal with this problem.

There are thousands of awful stories that fit this situation. Two, in particular, have made international headlines in the past few months.

In one case, a woman in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for meeting with an unrelated male friend. The fact that she met with this individual only came to light because the woman was gang raped by seven other men during that meeting, and wanted them prosecuted. Her initial sentence was 90 lashes, but the judge increased its severity because she contested that initial sentence.

The more heart wrenching case is of a young girl who was raped in Syria. Her cousin subsequently married her in an attempt to bring her back into the family and protect her from being murder because she was raped. Tragically, this protection was not sufficient, as her brother subsequently stabbed her multiple times in an attempt to restore honor to his family, though what is know as an "honor killing". The brother is facing trial (which is unusual for a "honor killing"), but his likely punishment is far less than what it would be in much of the rest of the world for premeditated murder.

This is barbaric. Human society has come too far to be violently mistreating rape victims. While there are fundamental in every religion, from puritans burning witches to ultra-orthodox Jews throwing feces at immodestly clad women and stones at women trying to wear traditionally male prayer shawls, these practices pale in comparison to murdering rape victims.

Despite the fact that Islam is a diverse religion with numerous sects of varying degrees of progressiveness and modernity, Islam has not had such a fundamental change to its core that would completely end practices like honor killings. Where is the outrage among fundamentalist Muslim leadership? Where are the imams saying that is it wrong to inflict further harm on women who have been sexually violated? It is long past time for fundamentalist Muslim leaders to take a stand against stop inflicting further harm on rape victims.

How the Yale Athletic Department embarrassed 30,000 Yalies

'Nuff said

Monday, November 26, 2007

Creationism and science education

The New York Times magazine recently had an article about creationist geologies, whose mission is to prove that the physical history of the Earth exactly matches that of Genesis, using whatever means necessary to justify it. This reasoning involves construing scenarios where the great flood of Noah’s time created many of the rocks and fossils that otherwise would have taken millions of years to form, since those who take Genesis literally believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

The problem is that this analysis masquerade as a legitimize scientific method. The conclusions are already foregone, with absolutely no room for modification based on new evidence (as rewriting Genesis is hubristic blasphemy).

This kind of reasoning, whether about biology or geology, has serious ramification for our secondary school educational system. Believing something is true because G-d said so isn’t wrong or shameful. Teaching it in a secondary school science class that is supposed to be about reasoning and logic and objectivity is. Once we teach young students that they can hold fast to their conclusions by faith alone, and then selectively choose evidence that can support their beliefs, we’ve stopped teaching science, and started teaching religion. How can students develop the critical reasoning skills that they need to survive today’s competitive world if they’re taught dogma instead of science?

The most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, used to say that G-d put fossils on the Earth to test our faith. While faith in G-d has brought much strength and comfort to Americans, one must not get in the way of science education. The United States has already fallen too far behind its peers in science education. Religion should not make it worse.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Britons and religion

The New York Times recently reported that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is about to join his wife in the Roman Catholic Church, after practicing as a High Anglican while Prime Minister. While this is historic in a country that helped created Protestantism in the 16th century and has been a major beacon for Protestantism ever since, Blair’s public religion while Prime Minister is even more significant.

During his term, then Prime Minister Blair mentioned G-d publicly far more than any other modern British prime minister. This was at odds with the general British population, which is far more secular than American population. (This analysis excludes the rapidly growing British Muslim population, which, as the New York Times article points, tend to be very religious.)

On the other hand, in the United States, presidents are expected to be religious figures. They go to church, believe in G-d, consult with religious leaders on all kinds of matters, atone for both their public and private sins, and routinely ask G-d to bless America. It’s even more telling that the first non-Christian nominated on a national ticket, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, is a devout Jew who frequently talks about his relationship with G-d. (Lieberman is also the first non-Christian with a serious chance of winning the presidential nomination, as he led national Democratic preference polls as late as September 2003.)

Until Blair, Britons saw none of this in their leaders. In some ways, it is no wonder that Britons are more secular than Americans, given the enormous amount of strife in their nation’s history along religious lines, from internal beheadings and burnings to civil war, regicide, and war with the continent, to the more recent history of colonizing non-Christians around the world and continual strife in Ireland. Britons have seen the uglier side of religion, and have long experience the kind of religious class of civilizations that Americans have only recently been exposure to.

The great contradiction here is that while Britons are relatively more secular than Americans, their country is fundamentally more religious that the United States. Whereas we have a formal separation of religion (church) and state, the British monarch is the formal head of the Church of England and must be a member of that sect. (Anyone member of the royal family married to a Catholic, regardless of his or her own religion, is barred from the line of succession.)

This innate Christianity extends to the great English universities, where terms are referred to as “Easter term”, “Michaelmas term” and “Lent term” (instead of summer, fall and spring). Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge have names like All Souls College, Christ Church, Trinity College, and even Jesus College. Despite Yale and Harvard’s religious origins, this kind of religion ingrained in British society is no where to be found in the United States.

Given all of this latent Christianity in such a secular country, it will be very interesting to see how Britain deals with its former prime minister’s new religion, or if it is only the American press and its more religious readers that seem to care.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a rather peculiar holiday. It is perhaps America’s most significant truly secular holiday, where millions of American of all faiths and creeds travel hundreds of miles to be with their families. Thanksgiving may have had religious origins in America’s early seventeenth century settlers, but today is no more religious than July 4 or Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday that’s just about eating and seeing family – a holiday that even agnostic Americans can enjoy without any guilt of what other observances their avoiding.

Some people link Thanksgiving with Christmas and Valentine’s Day as fundamentally secular, American holidays. In short, however, Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, an event that is not part of Jewish culture, just as Valentine’s Day comes from another Christian figure. No amount of American commercialization of either holiday can change either of those facts.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is celebrated in full force by Americans of all faiths and creeds, including Jews of every observance level. For traditionally observant Jews, Thanksgiving is a peek into how the rest of world observes holidays. There is no rush to getting to one’s destination by sunset, no mad dash to get all of the cooking and preparations done by a certain time, and no portal back into the early 19th century before video games and movies. It’s a holiday where shopping and football watching are permitted.

This doesn’t answer the question, though, of why Orthodox Jews, many of whom refrain from other forms of American modernity (e.g. television), still celebrate Thanksgiving. The best answer comes from Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, a leading Orthodox authority in the United States during the 20th century. Rabbi Soleveitchik lived though persecution in Europe, before immigrating to the United States. He celebrated Thanksgiving because he was thankful for the United States of America, his refuge and adopted new home. That is certainly something we can all be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Romney's new whiz kids

A recent TIME magazine piece about former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested that if he were elected president, he would hire consultants (likely the behemoth McKinsey or Bain, his old stomping ground) to "fix" the government. Romney would attempt to bring all of the models, slides, cost cutting, optimization, ROI calculations, and general business experience to fixing the federal government.

Romney would also bring the hordes of hyper ambitious, already overly successful brilliant twenty somethings that are the main workforce of elite management consulting firms to help fix the government. While fixing the government is not a new idea (it conjures up an image from another era of then-Vice President Al Gore with a forklift of government regulations, recruiting brilliant recent college graduates to do it is. Who better to pore over the hundreds of billions of dollars of waste in the federal budget than America's best and brightest? (Though without a line item veto, a President Romney would have to resort to more esoteric methods of eliminating the waste, such as embarrassing the congressman or senator sponsoring the item.)

Instead of paying the enormous consulting fees that McKinsey would charge, Romney could even recruit these people directly into his administration. One major problem with recruiting such young people into the government is the opportunity cost of working for the government instead of working for one of the top consulting firms is tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. On the one hand, older businessman for whom money is not a concern may be better financially suited for this job. On the other hand, providing these young people a benefit such as student loan repayments or scholarships to business or law school (in addition to a modest but livable salary) may be compensation enough.

Perhaps this is also a ploy to appeal to the young private sectors who at the moment tentatively supporting Illinois Senator Barak Obama, while holding out for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to enter the race. Many of these voters are looking for a non-politician to bring the kind of practical experience they see in their jobs to the government, and if Bloomberg won't do it, maybe Romney will.

The main problem with Romney is that while many business savvy voters like his style, his policies (at the least his presidential candidacy incarnation of them) are an anathema. As Jonathan Last wrote in sacbee.com last month, "The gentleman running as Mitt Romney looks and sounds like an android created by James Dobson and Grover Norquist." The question remains if Romney wins the primary election, will he drop the absurd fa├žade of a social conservative anti-government tax cutter and instead run the competence-over-values campaign that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has run and that has suited Romney better all along.

If this country does see a President Romney in January 2009, look for a horde of bright young consultants shaking up government. Creating the new incarnation of Robert McNamara's whiz kids may be just the thing this country needs.

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