Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit

From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit
It is the story of a sexton in the synagogue in the Polish city of Oswiecim who buried most of the sacred scroll before the Germans stormed in and later renamed the city Auschwitz. It is the story of Jewish prisoners who sneaked the rest of it — four carefully chosen panels — into the concentration camp.

It is the story of a Polish Catholic priest to whom they entrusted the four panels before their deaths. It is the story of a Maryland rabbi who went looking for it...


He dug near the house and found the metal box. But when he opened it, he discovered the Torah was incomplete. “It was missing four panels,” he said. “The obvious question was, why would the sexton bury a scroll that’s missing four panels? I was convinced those four panels had a story themselves.”

They did, as he learned when he placed an ad in a Polish newspaper in the area “asking if anyone had parchment with Hebrew letters.”

“I said I would pay top dollar,” Rabbi Youlus said. “The response came the next day from a priest. He said, ‘I know exactly what you’re looking for, four panels of a Torah.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

He compared the lettering and the pagination, and paid the priest. ...

"priest to whom they entrusted the four panels" --> "and paid the priest"

The article doesn't say it was the same priest. It also doesn't say any number of other things that might bear on this, but I wonder if I would have accepted payment for returning something that had been entrusted to me.

It doesn't matter that the four people who had done the entrusting were long dead. Having determined that the four panels belonged to the torah, the return would have been to the torah where they belonged. Right?

Would it matter to me from where the payment came? Would donations from children be different from a fat cat's check?

I'm an athest. Why am I even thinking about the propriety of selling some religious artifact that was entrusted to me? Sacred? Nothing is "sacred" to an atheist, right? What do I care about some torah?

Maybe the priest who sold that which had been entrusted to him (assuming it was the same priest, but even if not, considering that the selling priest knew how and why these four panels landed in his keep), maybe this priest saw the money as a means to a worthy end (or maybe just to a worthy retirement). Does it matter?

Had I been the one to whom the four panels were entrusted by desperate condemned people, I'd like to think that I'd have returned them to the torah from which they came without hesitation or payment.

But I think I'd have probably have taken the money. Why not?

Another donation for Obama

I've been sending some money to the Obama campaign, and soon I'll be sporting a new Obama t-shirt and putting a couple of Obama signs up in front of my house.

But why? While Obama stands for change, I don't think it really matters. I'm an atheist while he's apparently a man of strong faith. I'm essentially hopeless while hope is central to Obama's theme. Why would I send him any money?

I remember the speech Obama gave at the last Democratic convention. What a contrast to Zell Miller's at the Republican convention that year. I remember both speeches, Obama's because it was very good, and Miller's because his spew left me clamping my nose in a deathgrip.

It's not that Obama's speech made me a fan (I didn't become one), and it wasn't because Obama is a Democrat (I'm not one). It's not because I agree with everything he says (I most certainly don't). So, why have I been sending Obama my money?

I guess it's because of little things here and there that I send some cash Obama's way. Lately, it's partly a reaction to swift-boaters and their use of the cleric Wright (I absolutely detest swift-boating or anything that smells like it). Part of my motivation is due to Obama's theme of changing the way politics is carried out. Part of it is his message of hope (I hope I'm wrong about the hopelessness of the situation we're in). Part of it is to encourage Obama's willingness to lay out unpalatable truths, such as in his race speech. I hope that, as President, he will do a lot more of that regarding so many other areas of urgency.

I think Obama represents the only hope for effective leadership at the moment.

The biggest reason I sent some more money today, though, is that Obama didn't go along with McCain and Clinton on the utterly contemptible idea of eliminating the federal gasoline tax for the summer driving season. What an empty and stupid proposal! Removing the federal tax on gasoline is exactly the wrong thing to do if you give a damn about the future. This is really annoying. McCain and Clinton can go screw themselves.

I might have to move the hands on my personal doomsday clock back a few seconds if Obama becomes the next President, but if McCain or Clinton get the job I'll just have to throw the damned thing away.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Moderate Muslim on Fitna

Islamization crept in a long time ago - Nahed Selim

Here is an interesting piece reacting to Geert Wilders' film, Fitna, from the perspective of a feminist of Muslim extraction. Nahed Selim is a Dutch writer and columnist.

In the piece, Selim mentions an organization called Muslims Against Sharia. It's called out here for further attention down the road. Also their blog.

More power to them all, but what I'm looking for is something like this from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other places where openly doing what these people are doing in Holland and the USA might just get them arrested or killed.

Selim's worthy piece:

Islamization crept in a long time ago
Geen routekaart beschikbaar
Talking about the islamization of society is apparently taboo in the Netherlands, according to Muslima Nahed Selim. Why is that? "I think many Dutch people do not fully understand the term." She hopes that many more warnings will follow Geert Wilders’ film.

In a broadcast by the Dutch Islamic Broadcasting organization (NIO) on March 30th we saw reactions to ‘Fitna’ from Egypt, one of them from a preacher. Apart from the usual talk about respect and causing offence he was also outraged about the title of the film. He wondered whether the ‘director’ realized what fitna meant.

The words of the director in Dutch newspaper Het Parool clearly showed that Geert Wilders does indeed know. Every Muslim knows the Arabic word fitna, says the leader of the Party fort Freedom (PVV). “It refers to situations in which the faith of the Muslims is put to the test. Everything that tests their faith is fitna: uncovered women, alcohol, non-Muslims, resistance against the authority of Islam. I use the term as a mirror image: to me the pernicious Islam is fitna.” Wilders was very pleased with his find “I was set on using a word from the Koran.”

The title is well-chosen for more than one reason. Fitna is a fascinating word. On the individual level it means ‘temptation’ and ‘testing of the faith’. Remarkably the temptation that emanates from women is also indicated as fitna. In addition the term is associated with unrest, civil war, and chaos. In classical-Islamic history there have been three great fitnas.

Between 656 and 661, following the assassination of the third caliph Uthman Ibn Affan, a power struggle erupted in which Muslims for the first time took up arms against each other. The second fitna occurred between 683 and 685. This time it was also a political battle between the dynasties of the Ummayads and the Abbassids for control of the Islamic empire. The third fitna refers to the battle between army commanders and rulers during the final period of Islamic rule in Cordoba.

The fear of the concept of fitna – with its associations ranging from chaos and civil war to temptation and testing – is enormous among Muslim scholars. Almost like the spectre of World War II is for Europeans.

The Egyptian preacher, although a Christian, concluded his statement in the NIO broadcast with a spontaneous prayer to God to protect our countries and our civilizations from all types of fitnas and from their instigators.

It is debatable whether Wilders was aware of this historical dimension of the title of his film. Gilles Kepel certainly was. This French Islamic studies scholar, political scientist and authority on radical Islam was the first to use the term in his book ‘Fitna: guerre au Coeur de l’Islam’ (The War for Muslim Minds, 2004). In this fascinating book he describes the interaction between jihad and fitna. Today, very few people have not heard of jihad. Fitna is an equally important concept for Muslims, but it is almost unknown among non-Muslims. Wilders has changed that. Thanks to his film millions of people around the world are introduced to this fascinating concept.

The leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) intended this film as a final warning to the Netherlands against Islamization. Why the final warning? I hope there will be many more. Every country that has seen total islamization has gone downhill. The more islamization, the more unrest, material and cultural poverty, civil conflicts, bloodshed and other woes. Look at Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia. The society we have now is much better; for everyone.

Talking about the islamization of society is apparently taboo in the Netherlands. I think many Dutch people do not fully understand the term. Islamization does not only mean the increase of the Muslim population, or the military conquest of the country by Muslims, or the founding of an Islamic state. Islamization is a process in which religion will insidiously start dominating all aspects of life.

Turkey is an Islamic country, the majority of the people are Muslims, but the country is not completely islamized. It has a substantial group of seculars, who are completely different in the way they live and think. It is a group that continues to refuse to bow to the Muslim majority. And it is a powerful group, as they are represented in the army and the elite. It remains to be seen how long the seculars will be able to hold onto that power.

A few months ago 140,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Turkey to protest. They id not want the ban on wearing headscarves at universities to be lifted. They feared the social pressure on all women to start wearing the scarf, when the ban was a support and great excuse for many women and their families. They could always say that the state did not allow it. They also feared that lifting the ban would be an important element in the process of islamization.

The seculars in Turkey understand much better than our government what islamization entails. Islamization is also the process, no matter how slow, that gradually leads to the islamization of thought. The islamization of thought will mean the end of all creativity, originality and creative power, for creation is a divine quality patented by Allah. He will not tolerate competition from man. Islamization is the process by which Islamic values eventually gain the upper hand over all other value systems, in all aspects of life.

This process has been going on in the Western world for quite a while. And it is demonstrated almost daily in a series of incidents.

For example when a Muslima pharmacist refuses to sell the morning-after pill or condoms, when a Muslim doctor refuses to treat aids patients or perform abortions, when medical students refuse to carry out those parts of their curriculum they claim are in conflict with their faith, when Muslim taxi drivers refuse to transport blind customers and their guide dogs because their faith tells them dogs are unclean, when it becomes almost impossible to criticize Islam or Muslims without being threatened; when youth welfare agencies have to enlist the help of imams to be able to do their job among Moroccan families, when municipal officers refuse to shake hands with women, when female teachers and other civil servants represent Islam during their work by wearing their headscarves when they should be representing the state; when Fortis bank scraps the little piggy bank they used to give to children as a present because it is an unclean animal to Muslims; when museums take down photographs and refuse paintings because they fear Muslim reactions, when it is no longer allowed to hang posters of classic nudes in the metro stations – and the list can be much longer.

These are all incidents that occurred in the Western world in recent years, also in the Netherlands. And they are all signs of the progressing process of islamization. Is a political party allowed to warn society against it? Of course it is. Indeed, it is part of their job to warn society about these dangers.

My criticism of the film ‘Fitna’ is that Wilders does not deal, or insufficiently, with this aspect of the gradual mental and institutional islamization while it poses a graver threat to the democratic, secular society than the terrorist danger.

Only one sentence in the film refers to this institutional islamization. Wilders presents a voice that says: “The mosque will become part of the Dutch system of government.”

I am afraid this has already started. What else does it mean when an official from the youth welfare services can only do his job when he is accompanied by an imam? In this way the state delegates part of its tasks to the mosque. This also proves that the loyalty of these Muslim families lies only with their clergy, not with the government or its officials.

It is a pity that Wilders did not focus more on these aspects. He would have been able to establish that the Muslims are not the only ones to blame. This institutional islamization is frequently enabled by native Dutchmen who already start self-islamizing because they do not have the faintest idea of the separation of church and state.

The most intense part of ‘Fitna’ is, of course, the first part where we are shown images of terrorist attacks, linked to sermons and verses from the Koran. Wilders wanted to demonstrate the link between the acts of the terrorists and their theological foundation – a link that is categorically denied by all commentators – Muslim or non-Muslim. However, I can still trace most of the sermons by those horrible imams, almost word for word, back to Koranic verses and statements by the prophet Mohammed. Every Muslim I have heard about it rightly distanced themselves, described them as radical and extremist interpretations. The point is, however, that these are not interpretations at all. They are literal quotations from authentic Islamic sources.

What is extremism?

Take Ramadan, for example. The normal principle of faith is that the fasting lasts one month. For that is what the Koran says. It is radical or extreme to fast all year round. Or take prayer. According to Islam prayers must be said five times a day. A religious movement that expects the believers to stay awake all night to pray continuously, can rightly be described as extremist or radical. It deviates too much from what is prescribed in the sources. A simple principle, I would think.

However. What if things were the other way around? I know Muslims who will not use certain medicines if they contain alcohol, because the Koran says you are not allowed to drink alcohol. Are they radical? Or is the Koran radical? The Koran also contains instructions for the believers to slaughter the unbelievers. This is too extreme for most Muslims. They refuse to carry out these prescriptions. It would seem to me that they are more sensible than their holy texts. But what if someone, for whatever reason, takes these commands seriously and acts upon them. Is he extreme or his text?

You don’t have to do everything the Koran says, I sometimes tell other Muslims, for example about the headscarf. The guaranteed answer is that you do, because these prescriptions are from a holy book.

There is a wonderful saying in English: You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

People want to believe that the texts revealed by God possess a level of wisdom and beauty that is unique. They feel they have the right to profess everything it says literally, even if it deviates from the rules and regulations of this society.

The film ‘Fitna’ confronts them with a few cruel texts that possess no wisdom, beauty or ethics whatsoever. If the book did not bear the name Koran, the court would have prohibited it immediately. For a sincere believer the film may lead to a fitna, a testing of the faith. Most believers avoid that confrontation, put the blame on the interpretation, on the cleric who recites the texts or the director who makes a film about them.

Of course every person is responsible for his own actions. No text, holy or unholy, may serve as a license to kill another person. As no film or cartoon may serve to justify riots and attacks. How many people will have the courage to endure this confrontation?

In a previous article I wrote that there are moderate Muslims, just no moderate Islam. But anything can happen.

In the meantime I found Muslims Against Sharia, started over a year ago in the United States. This is a Muslim organization for Islamic reform, with thousands of supporters all over the world. Their motto is: acknowledge mistakes, accept responsibility, move on.

The goal of this organization is to raise awareness among Muslims and non-Muslims about the dangers of some Islamic religious texts. And they are against – and this is unique – the introduction of sharia law. On their website you can find a list of verses that the movement describes as ‘morally problematic’. Some verses are even described as ‘ethically unacceptable’.

Mulsims Against Sharia want to publish a version of the Koran from which all those problematic verses have been removed. No actual tearing out pages from the Koran, but rational evaluation which verses are worth keeping.

And so Wilders gets what he wants after all.

Friday, April 25, 2008

H.B. 5843

Prompted by the Drug Policy Alliance, to whom I send some money from time to time, I sent the following to Arizona Representative Harry Mitchell, my Congressman. I would have been pleased to congratulate him had I seen his name in the list of co-sponsor (yes, singular), but since I didn't see it, this will have to do:
Dear Congressman Mitchell:

I am writing to ask that you fully support your colleagues, Representatives Barney Frank and Ron Paul, and their "Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults", H.R. 5843.

Our national drug policy is a complete disgrace, accomplishing nothing but to enrich criminals, corrupt and distract law enforcement, undermine civil liberties and promote disrespect for the law.

Ours is supposed to be the land of the free, but each passing day reduces the truth of that ideal. One of our most important institutions, the Supreme Court, became an object of well-deserved contempt a couple of years ago because of the way they ruled in Raich, a case that need never have come before them except for our stupid approach to marijuana (and drugs in general).

Please provide your full backing and support to Messrs. Paul and Frank in promoting H.R. 5843. Thank you.


Steve Sturgill
For what little it's worth...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Crisis in Egypt: The Daily Struggle for Food - International - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News

Crisis in Egypt: The Daily Struggle for Food - International - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News

This is scary stuff, and frustrating. Frustrating because the root cause is, at least in principle, manageable: human overpopulation.

I can see the eyes rolling among my imaginary audience. Oh, come on! Malthus this, green revolution that, problem of distribution the other. Biofuels evil, plenty of space, plenty of food, westerners waste and blah blah blah.
Hosmeia is bitterly poor, like the majority of the population. Her husband works "one day yes, 10 days not." He sweeps the streets, she helps him with that -- together they have five small children. Sometimes she can't buy bread for them all.
Five? Why? Never mind why. I think I know why, and I don't think there's much that can be done about it.

I think we're in for some very ugly surprises.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Your forest on drugs: America's cocaine habit destroys national parks Blogs Scientific American Community

Your forest on drugs: America's cocaine habit destroys national parks Blogs Scientific American Community:
'It is time for consumers in the U.S. to own up to the results and impacts of their activities,' McNab says. 'This is my forest on drugs.'
Mr. McNab, you are wrong.

The ones who have to own up to the results and impacts of their activities are not the millions of drug users in the United States. Rather, it is those in power, our leaders and decision makers, who should do so. It is they who create the conditions leading to destruction of the forests. It is they who, by refusing to place the burden of drug use squarely where it belongs - on the shoulders of drug users - who need to own up to the failure of their approach to achieving the impossible goal they champion.

While it is true that if there were no drug users there would be no clandestine landing strips, herbicide spraying and so on, it is also true that expecting drug users to stop using drugs because of damage to the forests, or for any other reason, is foolish and worse. Drug users will get their drugs, whether from from current sources tied to forest destruction, or from legal sources under which such devastation would not occur. They will get their drugs, so which approach to the problem makes more sense, devastating the forests or letting the druggies have what they want?

A new ethic is required regarding the problem of drugs. Prohibition and the War on Drugs represent, define, failure and stupidity. So you go on defending wildlife if you want to, but please reconsider your stance on the drug problem.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So Silly

Large Hadron Collider - Risk of a Black Hole - Dennis Overbye - Physics - New York Times

It seems so silly to me to be talking about keeping the risk that an experiment will wipe out the globe to less than the odds that a meteor will strike to much the same effect. Such odds for a given year are apparently something like one in 50 million.

As humanity's time progresses, we go on as though we don't give a collective rat's ass about other calamities that are nearly certain by comparison.

I think it's safe to say that the risks of insufficient energy for an industrialized world, for example, would work out to tens or hundreds of millions of times more expected deaths than the not-impossible scenarios presented by strangelets and mini-black-holes.

For that matter, its seems very likely that the expected deaths stemming from the incremental ignorance resultant from NOT pursuing these experiments vastly outweigh those that could come from running them.

That's why I don't care about the risk of calamity from operating the Large Hadron Collider. It's silly.

More power to Dr. Calogero for anticipating the risk posed by this silliness to the operation of the experiment. The silliness isn't his.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Reality-Based Community: Your tax dollars at work

The Reality-Based Community: Your tax dollars at work
It kind of pisses me off that Mr. Kleiman neglects to mention that Plan Columbia is a colossal failure, along with the rest of the War on Some Drugs.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Obama Under Fire After Fundraiser Remarks - New York Times

Obama Under Fire After Fundraiser Remarks - New York Times

Seven more months...

Obama said, in a wider context...
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama, an Illinois senator, said.

"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," he said.

Well, yeah, but then...
...Hillary Clinton, and ... John McCain both pounced ...
Isn't there a difference between pouncing and throwing spitballs?

Clinton's so-and-so
said in Philadelphia the comments showed Obama "looks down" on voters in Pennsylvania,... and that "They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families."

McCain's so-and-so
called the fundraiser comments "remarkable and extremely revealing."

"It shows an elitism and condescension toward hard-working Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to the Arizona senator. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."

Obama responded by insisting he was not out of touch with voters ...

So naturally
... Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement that "instead of apologizing for offending small town America, Senator Obama chose to repeat and embrace the comments he made earlier this week."

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama "arrogantly tried to spin his way out of his outrageous San Francisco remarks."

What jumps out at me is the well-studied language of the Clinton and McCain side. Formula stuff. Bullshit.

Arrogantly looking down with breathtaking condescension while outrageously refusing to apologize. Right.

Will people will be as hard on Mrs. Clinton as they were on Mr. Nader when Mr. McCain squeaks past Mr. Obama in November?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Single Page Click Hassle

I wonder if web designers have ever considered to what extent the articles they post are abandoned by readers because of the practice of needlessly splitting articles into multiple pages. Sure, web sites frequently make available a link to view the article on a single page, or a link to a more printer-friendly page, but that doesn't really change much.

I suppose the reason for dividing an article into multiple pages is so that more advertisements can be flashed up to the reader, but I wonder if that really works. If a reader abandons the article after the first page, then there certainly is no further opportunity for advertisements on that article.

When I start reading an article on the Web, only to to have to click another link to continue reading, I usually stop and ask myself whether I really want to continue reading this article. Frequently, the answer is No, and frequently it has less to do with the quality or content of the article than it does with the hassle of extra clicks forward and then back to where I was when I started reading the piece. Seems silly, but there you have it. I have no idea how widespread this article-abandonment thing is, but I think it must be common.

Now, it's really no big deal to make extra clicks, or so you'd think. One could also keep an eye out for the single-page option up front and select it right off the bat, which would lessen the click hassle. You could also view every article you read on a new browser tab or window, thus eliminating the multiple clicks back to where you were, or you could use the Back button drop-down option to jump directly back to where you were.

Given these easy options to (partially) address the click hassle, why do I find the click hassle annoying enough to let it affect whether I continue reading an article? I don't know why. It just is. It reminds me of how important a fractional-second wait was to drafters working on networked workstations. The wait between button click and action was less than a second, but it was extremely annoying to them and considered a serious impediment to productivity by their management.

If any web designers happen to read these lines, may I suggest that articles of typical length be presented in full right up front. Reserve the multiple-page format for long articles, those that might extend beyond five (?) pages under the current scheme.

Surely there must be some way to present more ads while avoiding the click hassle. Ads might be changed as a function of having scrolled beyond a certain point in the article, or as a function of time. You might float a button somewhere that allows the reader to change the ads. I think I'd use such a button, maybe a lot. The instant I'd see some skinny chick modeling a message tee-shirt I'd click the button. Boom, just like that you've flashed up another ad that I might be more likely to actually click, and the sadistics that could derive from clickage of such a button might have marketing value.

OK, that's enough.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

What he said!

Stayin' Alive: Rite and Wrong

Dirty War adoption couple jailed

BBC NEWS | Americas | Dirty War adoption couple jailed: "Maria Eugenia Sampallo"

Wow. A woman wants her parents sent to jail for 25 years.

Make that "parents", in quotes, since the legal reality is that, though this woman has known the jailed couple as her parents since infancy, her adoption was a fraud and her origins a tragedy.

I have always decoupled parenting and biology. Some biological fathers and mothers are parents, but genetic lineage is not a necessary component of parenthood. The status of "Parent" is established by love and affection, not by duty or genes.

So, as I read this piece, I had a strong feeling that this woman's upbringing must have been turbulent, stressful, chilly and distant. Otherwise, how could a person raised from infancy by surrogate "parents" wish them such punishment?

Sure enough, apparently.
As a child, María Eugenia Sampallo Barragán had a fiery relationship with her mother, who chose unusual ways of showing affection. Outbursts such as "If it wasn't for me you would have ended up in a ditch" and "Badly educated brat - only a child of a guerrilla could be so rebellious" were common, but would not be fully understood until years later.
She also told the court that, when she left home after finishing school, "I didn't take any photos of my past, with them, as it was something I preferred not to remember."
What a shame.
Not all of the children had such unhappy upbringings. Many were sent to good schools and were treated with love and affection. Some couples claim not to have known the true origins of the babies they raised, and many of the recovered grandchildren choose to believe that, remaining close to both their biological families and their adoptive parents.
It would probably be tough to deal with the knowledge that the people who raised you in a way that qualified them as real parents, and whom you unconditionally love as such, were guilty of kidnapping you as an infant. So maybe it's easier, emotionally, if you had to learn such a thing, to have had assholes for "parents".

Hmmm... Obviously, there's a whole lot more to this story, but this is about as far as I care to take it.