Saturday, December 1, 2007

Weekly Secret


World War III

Ron Rosenbaum over at Slate muses about the potential of a nuclear World War III, especially with the current crisis in Pakistan.

I don't want to be alarmist (actually I do, or rather I'd like you to share my sense of alarm), but I'm surprised there isn't a greater sense of concern about those Pakistani nukes. Forget Iran and Israel (Bush's hypothetical route to World War III). Pakistani nukes now represent the quickest shortcut to a regional nuclear war that could escalate to a global nuclear war.
And consider this: In recent years entire regions of Pakistan have become safe havens for al-Qaida and (quite likely) Osama. Is it not possible that instead of pursuing elaborate schemes to buy nukes on the black market or smuggle an improvised radioactive "dirty bomb" into the United States, al-Qaida has been biding its time, burrowing its way into Pakistan, waiting for the Islamic bomb to drop into Bin Laden's lap? (I know: not a great choice of metaphor.) Because he thinks long term, he doesn't have to try to scrounge up some "loose nuke" from the former Soviet "stans"; he can just wait. He's one coup—or one bullet—away from being handed the keys to an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Scary thoughts.

Religion Fact of the Day

The Faylusufs were an Islamic group that arose in the ninth century. They attempted to blend Greek philosophy with Islamic theology in what became known as falsafah. The movement reached its pinnacle with Ibn Sina (Avicenna), a prodigy who was advising physicians when he was just sixteen. Ibn Sina believed that prophets and others who had mystical revelations had a better understanding of God, but that everyone could and should use reason to gain what knowledge they could of God. The movement only lasted a few hundred years as Greek philosophy and rationality began to fall out of favor with Muslims.

Congestion Pricing

I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we see this start appearing in large cities here in America. They are trying it in London with excellent results. No doubt there will much wailing and gnashing of teeth at first. We Americans don't like anything that seems to impinge on our freedoms, even if it is better for everyone in the long run.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Torture and the Common Man

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that torture is authorized and condoned by our government when average joes wholeheartedly support it.

Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. "I don't have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

The whole post is a fascinating insight into the minds of some average Republican voters. Anti-immigration. Anti-help for the poor. Pro-Iraq war. Pro-torture. One of many reasons I could never be President. I wouldn't feel inclined to lead these people so much as say, "You're batshiat crazy and would probably be happier living in another country. I hear China's nice this time of year. Here's a plane ticket."

"If math were a color..."

One more sign of how bad our education system is getting. A question from a fifth grade math test:

"If math were a color, it would be __, because__"

Wow. I don't what else to say. Just wow.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

A new study shows that we feel better about our own successes when others are not doing as well.

The study, by cognition experts and economists at the University of Bonn in Germany, looks at the brain regions that process reward. Nineteen pairs of subjects performed a series of tasks, estimating the number of dots on a screen, while their brains were scanned. Each time a subject answered correctly, he or she won a cash prize but the prizes were not always the same. Players could see whether their opponents had answered correctly, and how the prize money was distributed.

The researchers were especially interested in the set of outcomes where both players answered correctly. For any given prize value, the brain's reward response was bigger if the other player earned less. Players on average were more pleased with a 60 euro prize when the other player got just 30 euros, for example, than they were if both players earned 60 euros, or if the other player got more.

Very fascinating. Thinking about my own experiences, I do have to admit that it is true for me as well. I felt better about a good grade on a test when I knew that most of the class barely passed than when everyone did well. It sounds horrible and I suppose on a certain level it is. One more natural inclination to overcome in life, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Healthcare Beast

I definitely think that we need to rethink our healthcare in America, though, I'm not sure exactly how we should fix it. I'm not sure that mandatory healthcare is the best option. Perhaps tax incentives for employers who offer coverage...I don't know. I have not studied the problem enough to come to any concrete conclusions.

What got me thinking about this was that I found out today that I cannot put my Mom on my healthcare plan at work. She is not a "qualifying dependent." So, even though I claim her on my Federal Tax Return and could be considered her "primary caretaker" (even if I hate the phrase), I can't put her on my plan. That leaves her stuck with Medicare which costs far too much for the paltry coverage it provides. I have a great plan through my employer and my Mom could really use it. This really pisses me off.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Israel and Palestine

Today was the start of the major Mideast peace conference in Annapolis. Newsweek has an interview with one of the authors of the Roadmap, the outline for creating a lasting settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. He is skeptical of the notion that a settlement can be reached before the end of Bush's term of office.

It is possible, but not necessarily likely. In a way, you have three parties in the region. You have the peacemakers, who really want to resolve the issues and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. There are many Arab states in the region who will support and work for this. Then you have the peace breakers, who will say, "It's not in our interests to have this state, because our goal is push Israel into the sea." And they will use every means available to undermine this process. And then you have what I call the "conflict entrepreneurs," who thrive on keeping the conflict alive. What they believe is that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict will take away a weapon of ideology from their arsenal.

Time also has a story about this conference in the context of Bush's other attempts at diplomacy.

On all these fronts, however, Bush is making progress against those far-right interests. Bill Clinton's Palestinian negotiator, Rob Malley, argues that Bush stands a better chance than Clinton of creating a Palestinian state because he is starting nine months earlier, has full Arab buy-in and is one of the few people who could actually pressure Israel to make tough concessions if he chose to. On North Korea, Bush approved talks led by a top Clinton negotiator, Chris Hill, who promptly delivered a deal to dismantle the country's nuclear reactors. And through quiet discussions with the Democratic Congress, Bush has breathed life into Latin American trade deals most thought were dead after Democrats took over Congress in 2006.

It does seem that Condoleezza Rice has become much more influential in the White House over the past year, countering the rabid pro-war stance of Cheney. That is most certainly a good thing. I think it may be too little, too late, however. I do hope that Rice can guide the Israelis and the Palestinians to a settlement, but I agree with those that say trying to do it before Bush leaves office is hopelessly optimistic. This conflict has been going on for awhile and we've seen it on the verge of being settled a few times only to have it blow up. And it's not like the U.S. has a lot of credibility in the region right now.

I think the three most important steps that need to happen in order for peace to take effect is 1)Israel freezes all development of settlements, 2)Israel eases restrictions on Palestinians and fosters economic growth, 3)Palestinians cease all terrorist actions against Israelis. I believe the U.S. can apply pressure on Israel for the first two. In order to achieve the third objective, though, we need other countries in the area to stop their own terrorist activities and pressure the Palestinians to do the same. We are seen as too close to Israel to have a serious impact on Palestinian actions. We must have the support of other players in the region. I'm not sure we have the credibility or the diplomatic suave to gain this support.

We'll see how it goes. I am hoping for the best.

Computer Troubles

I think I'm going to have to buy a new laptop. The onboard power supply is acting up which means getting a new motherboard which means a new laptop would probably be much easier. My computer is not that old which makes this all the more aggravating. Ah, well. What's life without some things going wrong and making it all more exciting?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kids Are Great

My three-year old niece, Alexis, came into my room last week and told me, "Uncle Shane, I had a dream about the coolest." She grinned and held up the Batman ("the coolest" natch) action figure I bought for her. I grabbed my Superman action figure and we proceeded to play superheroes. These small moments are wonderful.

Islamic Extremism

The story of the school kids who named a teddy bear "Muhammad" is making the rounds. This incident highlights one of the key issues Muslims need to address if they want to move forward culturally. Some things, like kids naming a toy Muhammad, are a non-issue. It's obvious that the teacher and the kids did not mean anything blasphemous by it. Not everything that could be construed as such is an attack on their religion.

Of course, those things that are critical of Islam, such as the Danish cartoons that caused such an uproar must also be dealt with in a better manner (i.e. not rioting). These extreme reactions only engender negative attitudes and confirm people's suspicions that all Muslims are backwards and intolerant. Granted, U.S. policy has not been very helpful in fostering better attitudes amongst Muslims, but playing the game of "He Started It" is not only childish, but wildly counterproductive.

More Christians Against Torture

Everytime I read something like this, I feel very heartened.

It is indeed the obligation of the government to prevent another September 11.

But it is also the obligation of the government to do so without torturing people.

Maybe there is a glimmer of hope for us.

The Oprah Endorsement

Much has been made of the fact that Oprah is endorsing Obama and will be appearing with him at some upcoming rallies. Some have signaled that this could be a nail in the coffin for Clinton because Oprah's fans will blindly follow her wherever she goes (or votes). Some are skeptical, though, that she will be that big an asset for Obama.

So yes, expect loud, rousing rallies in all three early voting states when Oprah Winfrey comes to town with her friend Barack Obama in early December, with gobs of media attention, raucous crowds, emotion and great pictures. But don't expect those events to do anything productive to allow Obama to get over the biggest hurdle standing between him and the White House. American voters are not looking for a celebrity or talk show sidekick to lead them. Obama is an intelligent and thoughtful potential President, but Winfrey's imprimatur is unlikely to convey those traits to many undecided voters.

Some decry the influence famous people have on the thoughts of the masses and I can't say I think it is a good thing that most of us are sheeples, gladly being herded one way or another. I think, though, that some things are never going to change, one of them being the human desire to listen and follow someone. I don't think we are independent rebels at heart. I think that most of us want to be told what to do or how to think. It's easier.

A New Space Race

I hope this jars us out of our malaise toward space exploration.

According to Cheng, the Chinese are now embarking on a systematic space program the world has not seen since the 1960's and for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States is facing real competition. That may explain why the head of NASA, Michael Griffin, recently warned that "China will be back on the moon before we are . . . I think when that happens Americans will not like it."

I'm not holding my breath, though.

Emerging Adulthood

This is an interesting article about what the author dubs "emerging adulthood," the increasing gap between high school graduation and settling down with a family, and what it means to the Christian community.

There is a new and important stage in life in American culture, and it is not entirely clear that the Christian church understands or particularly knows what to do with it. I am talking about what scholars call "emerging adulthood." This is the time of life between ages 18 and 30, roughly, a phase which in recent decades has morphed into quite a new experience for many. Researchers in sociology, psychology, and human development have been investigating the contours of this new life stage and have recently published some fascinating books on the subject, whose findings are well worth pondering for their implications for church and culture.

To grasp the significance of emerging adulthood, it is necessary first to realize that life stages are not naturally given as immutable phases of existence. Rather, they are cultural constructions that interact with biology and material production, and are profoundly shaped by the social and institutional conditions that generate and sustain them. So, "teenager" and "adolescence" as representing a distinct stage of life were very much 20th-century inventions, brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization and suburbanization, mass consumerism, and the media. Similarly, a new, distinct, and important stage in life, situated between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood, has emerged in our culture in recent decades—reshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships, and life commitments as well as a variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young.

I'd go farther and say that as a society, we don't know what to do about this. Everyone seems quick to say that things are different these days for kids growing up, but no one seems able to posit any solutions. Smith gets into it a little at the end of his article, but I do think one of the biggest changes we need to make is foregoing the "Me first" attitude. When you teach your kids that they are beautiful, unique snowflakes that can have everything their little heart desires, they aren't going to be too happy when they grow up and join the "real world." Sadly, you can't always get what you want (thanks, Stones).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Shhhh...Don't Tell the Kids

Mitt Romney criticized Senator Obama for revealing that he used drugs in high school.

"I agree with the sentiment that nobody's perfect and most of us, if not all of us, in our youthful years have engaged in various indiscretions we wouldn't want to have paraded in the front of a newspaper," Romney said. "On the other hand if we're running for president, I think it's important for us not to go into details about the weaknesses and our own failings as young people for the concern that we open kids thinking that it's ok for them."

This is most definitely not the thing to do with kids. You don't need to glorify your indiscretions, but you do need to be open and honest. Kids are not stupid. They know that adults were kids at one point and they are going to wonder about mistakes their parents and other adults made. If you try to cover it up, you're going to end up looking like a holier-than-thou hypocrite because nothing stays hidden forever. I have tried to be open with my daughters about mistakes I made when I was young. In fact, I think it helps me bond with them because they can see that I am not that different from them in that I was young once and faced similar choices and that I wasn't always perfect.

Tell Me Your Secrets


Gravity vs. Evolution

Which one has more evidence to support it? Hint: it's not gravity according to Gordon J. Glover.

So it might come as quite a surprise to many folks that, mathematically speaking, we can be many times more certain of common descent than we can be of gravity. What was that? Yes - that’s right! To some, this might sound ridiculous. After all, we can directly observe and measure gravity! The law of gravity is testable and repeatable science! Evolution is mere speculation! Common descent is only a theory! How many time have you heard this? Now, in terms of being repeatable: gravity beats evolution. Sorry. There is simply no way to repeat something that takes 3.8 billion years to unfold and only happens once. But in terms of being testable and measurable, scientists can measure evolution.

The problem is, of course, that gravity isn't a heated issue that people feel threatens their faith. Most of the opponents of evolution (whichever version of it you feel like bringing up) really don't understand the theories of it (none of them say we are descended from apes). They worry, though, that evolution and science will make their beliefs go away so they attack them out of fear. Science may not have all the answers, but it's not going away. These people are going to have to learn to live with it.

Some people probably never will come to terms with science, though. Like people who don't even believe in gravity.

James Madison

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers comes up with some quotes from one of our Founding Fathers pertinent to our turbulent political times including this gem:

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”