An Understanding Gap

A number of years ago, I read an excellent book called From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman. In this book, he talks about one of the primary reasons that Middle-East peace is so elusive: the two sides do not understand each other, do not understand the other’s culture, do not speak the same language, and make no effort to do so. This was illustrated again in this week’s attacks (and in the predictable response to them).

This is made clear in a very nice article in the LA Times that talks about the differences in culture. We tend to forget that most Middle-East countries (perhaps all, with the exception of Israel) do not have free speech. They have a media that is heavily controlled by the government, and to them any statement made by a media outlet in a country is equal to a statement made by the government. They are in an environment where un-permitted speech can result in the offending item being removed forthwith, and the offending author likely being equally removed. Thus, when they see offensive speech posted in a Western country, they presume the same: it is a government statement, and the lack of action by the government against the speaker is tacit approval of what was said. The US notion of “free speech” is a completely unthinkable and inconceivable concept–so inconceivable, in fact, that they will not believe Government protestations to the contrary. Thus, when some clown posts an islamophobic video on YouTube, this is interpreted in those cultures as the US being against Islam.

What they don’t understand is the free speech is cherished in this country. Most people are not willing to stifle speech with which they do not agree,  just because the principal is so important. This is why groups such as the ACLU defend the rights of neo-Nazis to march, of the KKK to express hate speech… because if it is stifled in one venue, what prevents its stifling in another. Although there may be some small pockets that would like to suppress speech they disagree with (especially when that speech is sexual), I think a majority of the country would defend a citizen’s right to speak, even if they disagree with it or consider it stupid.

We have similar misunderstanding of other cultures. Many countries have religion dominating law and politics. We think we have it in the US, but we really do not. This is why Islamic law is supreme, why we see punishments that horrify us, why blasphemy is heavily prosecuted. Religious law is supreme.

This is a foreign concept to us in the US. Although many profess that they want a Christian nation, they don’t understand what that would really be (all they need do is look at England before the US split off). Many of the freedoms that are cherished wouldn’t be there. We are so used to our freedom here that we often just take it for granted, instead of fighting for it, even when that goes against a personal belief. Again, here we must be vigilant not to drop into a society where one religion’s views — even if they are in the majority — are not forced upon everyone. To me, the sanctity of freedom from a government-imposed religious morality is a strong reason why abortion must be legal, why women must be treated equally, and why there must not be discrimination based on sexual orientation (but not the only reason — the primary reason is that they are the right thing to do).

When faced with understanding gaps, our response must not be bravado and bluster (as some candidates have done), but calm and forceful reiteration and explanations of the differences (which other candidates have demonstrated). We must condemn violence in response, for an immediate jump to a violent response without understanding is never warranted.


Sunday Morning Musings: Space Shuttle Route, -Stan, Yelp, Vegas History, Porn, and More Politics

Sunday morning… everyone else in the house is asleep, so I thought I would share a few articles I discovered yesterday:

  • Space Shuttle Final Flight. You’ve probably seen this, but they’ve announced the route for the final flight of the space shuttle. The itinerary starts on 9/17 with flyovers of its former Florida home. Continuing west, Endeavour will make low flyovers of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly plant near New Orleans. As Endeavour approaches the Texas coast, it will fly over Houston, Galveston and Clearlake. The 747 carrying Endeavour will touch down at Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center. At sunrise on 9/19, Endeavour will depart Houston and refuel in El Paso at Biggs Army Airfield. The next low flyovers at 1,500-feet will take place over White Sands Tests Facility in New Mexico and the Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. After the Edwards flyover, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, SCA, will land at Dryden. On 9/20, the shuttle will overfly Northern California, passing nearAmes Research Center outside San Francisco. It will make numerous flyovers of landmarks, NASA says, in multiple cities including San Francisco and Sacramento.The final flyovers will take place over Los Angeles before landing at LAX around 11 a.m. Pacific time. I’m sure we’ll all be out to watch it from the Circle A parking lot. On 10/12, the shuttle will depart again, this time using surface streets (Westchester Parkway, Sepulveda Eastway, Manchester, Crenshaw, MLK Blvd) to get to the California ScienCenter. Over 400 trees are being cut down to clear the route for the shuttle’s wingspan.
  • Hi, Stan.  One of my favorite books is “How the States Got Their Shapes“. I read it again over vacation, and learning the history behind the various boundaries is fascinating. So naturally I loved a recent Mental Floss that explored why so many countries end in “-stan”. The proto-indo-european root root, stā, or “stand,” found its way into many words in the language’s various descendants. The Russian -stan means “settlement,” and other Slavic languages use it to mean “apartment” or “state.” In English, the root was borrowed to make “stand,” “state,” “stay” and other words. The ancient Indo-Iranian peoples — descendants of Proto-Indo-Europeans who moved east and south from the Eurasian steppe – used it to mean “place” or “place of.” It’s this meaning that’s used for the names of the modern -stan countries, which got it through linguistic descent (Urdu and Pashto, the respective official languages of Pakistan and Afghanistan, both descend from the Indo-Iranian language), or by adopting it (the former Soviet -stan countries have historically been mostly ethnically Turkic and speak languages from the Turkic family). Thus, a country such as “Afghanistan” means “Land of the Afghans”. Cool.
  • Impact of Yelp. With my daughter at UCB, naturally I’ve added the Daily Cal to my reading list. Last week there was a very interesting research report on the impact of Yelp on restaurants. Specifically, the research found that when you move up half a star, your probability of being sold out goes up by roughly 20 percent. Moving up from a 3 to a 3.5 star rating gives restaurants between a 20 and 40 percent chance of being sold out at peak hours, while moving up from a 3.5 to 4-star rating gives restaurants a 40 to 60 percent chance of being sold out. I’d be curious to see a similar impact of ratings on items at sale at Amazon, and on Amazon Marketplace sellers. I’d expect to see similar impacts.
  • Las Vegas History. One of my hobbies is the history of Las Vegas (and other areas with lots of development in the 40s and 50s). So naturally I found the article about the El Cortez Hotel seeking a historic designation interesting. Most hotels in Vegas (especially on the strip) want to get rid of their history. You’ll find very little of 1950s Vegas left on the strip: there is the original building at the heart of the Riviera, and the Circus area at Circus Circus. I’m not sure how much of the original building is left at Ceasars, but the rest of the original strip is either gone (El Rancho Vegas, Last Frontier, Dunes, Hacienda, Desert Inn, Sands, Thunderbird), due to come down (Sahara), or had the original portions remodelled away (Flamingo, Tropicana, Caesars). The El Cortez downtown has done none of that. Original walls, original signs, original everything.
  • Porn Changes. One of the people I read on FB posted a link to an interesting article from Time Magazine in 2005 that explored how porn has changed since the 1970s. It talked about the history of the porn movie, and how the early films at least had pretenses of being real movies with real stores… just more sex. Eventually, that trend died away, and we were left with the straight-to-Internet garbage of today. An interesting analysis, and one that begs an alternate history where the skin flick and mainstream movies merged, and it was violence in movies that died out and went underground.
  • A Political Closing Note. As you know, I’ve been following the election this year. One of my favorite sites is; if you don’t read it… you should. I’ve also got Facebook friends who post good political links. For example, Stephen Greenwald posted a link to a great piece on why it is so important that Our Side must win and the Wrong Side must absolutely lose. One of my favorites on FB is Gene Spafford (who, as he wrote, is looking to be put on a pedestal… he’s hoping that one day his plinth will come). Gene posted a link recently to his blog, where he wrote about all you need to know for this Presidental year. Well worth reading… and worth asking yourselves why the Republicans didn’t trot out a former president to recommend their candidate.

Meaningful Choice

Saturday’s a day where the mind gets to thinking. Today, I’ve been about religion and politics; in particular, I’ve been thinking about legislating morality. This is something the Republican platform wants to do; this is something the Democratic platform eschews. The Republican platform is driven in their position by the religious conservatives — many of them orthopractic in various ways. But assuming you do believe in Heaven and “The Other Place”, is legislating morality the way to get there? Is prohibiting abortion, gay marriage, contraception, &c the right thing to do.

I can’t speak to the Christian viewpoint. I do, however, remember a sermon at some point where the Rabbi talked about the phrase in Deut. about choosing live and death, good and evil, and pointing out that what was important was making the right choice — and in order to make the right choice, you need to have the ability to make the choice in the first place. This is also captured in the SCJ FAQ where the Jewish concept of ha-Satan is discussed:

The word satan means “challenger”, “difficulty”, or “distraction” (note that it is not a proper name). With the leading ha- to make haSatan, it refers to /the/ challenger. This describes Satan as the angel who is the embodiment of man’s challenges. HaSatan works for G-d. His job is to make choosing good over evil enough of a challenge so that it can be a meaningful choice. In other words, haSatan is an angel whose mission it is to add difficulty, challenges, and growth experiences to life. Contrast this to Christianity, which sees Satan as God’s opponent. In Jewish thought, the idea that there exists anything capable of setting itself up as God’s opponent would be considered overly polytheistic—you are setting up the devil to be a god or demigod.

Note the notion of meaningful choice. If in order to do good… in order to get into Heaven… one must make the right choice and it must be a meaningful choice, then you would think the Orthopractic would embrace legal abortion, legal same sex marriage, legal pornography, and such. By having those things legal and supported, they could then make the meaningful choice not to have an abortion and to raise a child… they could make the meaningful choice to have a traditional marriage. By making those items illegal, we would be placing man’s law above God’s law, and not exercising the ability to “do the right thing” on our own.

[Of course, not legislating morality also permits those with different beliefs to exercise their beliefs, which is also in accordance with the constitution. Legislating one particular religion’s prohibitions over those of another appears to be implicitly establishing a state religion… but of those in favor of such prohibitions fail to realize that, because it is their religion that is being implicitly established.]

Music: Diamond Girl (Seals & Crofts): Nine Houses


What You Stand Upon

While driving the van in this morning, I was thinking about the DNC last night… and wanted to jot down a few of those thoughts over lunch.  First and foremost, I believe that you should not vote against a candidate, you should vote for a candidate. By that, I mean you should determine who you want based on what they want to do and what they want to achieve, not what they are against. Unfortunately, much of the campaign this year has been why the other side is bad, with few specifics about what will be done. The second belief I have is that you will never agree 100% with a party, but you should determine which of your positions are important to you, and go with the candidate that goes with the majority of those positions. I will never have a beef with anyone who researches their candidates and parties and goes with their beliefs — it is voting without thinking that bothers me (and this is why I have friends across the political spectrum — I respect their right to hold their beliefs, and hope they respect me in return).

I mention this all because one thing both the RNC and DNC have brought us are their platforms. Although there have been last minute meaningless changes (and yes, I consider both the Jerusalem and God issues of the DNC to be meaningless–the first because neither party has ever acted upon the Jerusalem planks in their platforms, and the second because God belongs in a platform as much as it belongs in the Constitution (which it isn’t)). I’ve seen two nice summaries of the differences: the NY Times has one good summary; has the other. The platforms differ in more than just typography: there are fundamental differences of philosophy between the two parties that are as different as Keynes and Hayak.

I encourage you to read both platforms [Republican, Democratic] (or their summaries) and decide for yourself the party you align closest with. For me, that’s the positions of President Obama and the Democratic party, but YMMV. I read what the Republicans want to do — both in social issues and to some extent even in financial issues, and I just cannot support it. But that’s me. I encourage you to be an informed voter, and understand what your candidate wants to do, not just what he is against.



Friday News Chum: Ballot Letters, DNA Storage, Shelby Hot Rods, Shaving, Wilshire Ramps, and Mitt Romney

It’s Friday at lunch, and you know what that means: Time to clear out the links…

  • Ballot Letters. Have you ever wondered how propositions at the county and city level get assigned their letters. Zev Yaroslovsky provides the answer.
  • Storage. Harvard has cracked the code, and now has a form of DNA storage that can hold 700Tbytes in a single gram of DNA.
  • Hot Rodding. Galpin Motors, the gigantic network of dealers in North Hills, just got certified as a Shelby Hot Rod Shop.
  • Shaving. Now that I’ve changed my look a bit, I’m shaving again. Thus, a timely article from the WSJ about getting the perfect shave caught my eye.
  • Commuting News. Great news for those of us who commute on I-405: The Wilshire on-ramps will open three weeks early!
  • A Political Tidbit. In light of my post this morning… the LA Times has an analysis of the RNC and its results for Mitt. It notes how Mitt said:

    “‘Hope and change’ had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question. If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

    My question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, how do you feel towards a Congress and party that actively and consistently blocked any effort Obama made to bring about that hope and change, even going so far as to refuse to compromise even when Obama made changes to address the others side’s concerns and sensitivities? Is there something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as President, or is there something wrong with Congress and its attitude towards working with the President? Between changing Congress or changing the President, which will do a better job of removing the gridlock that has stymied government?



A Quick Political Thought: Who’s to Blame?

A thought I had this morning while driving the van to work: For everything thing people complain President Obama hasn’t done, every 2008 campaign promise unfulfilled, ask yourself: Did Obama make an attempt to do something? Did he propose an idea, and then have it introduced in some form to Congress. If Congress then fucked up the idea or didn’t pass it into law, then the blame for not getting things done should be on the portion of congress that prevented the solution from being implemented, not on the person that proposed the solution.

The GOP is trying to blame Obama for not getting things done, when it is the GOP contingent in Congress that made the decision to either vote down legislation, use procedural methods to prevent it getting passed, or force the administration to change the legislation in a way that would make it more palatable to the neo-conservative block… before it was voted down. There are numerous examples of this: budget cutting legislation that was not accepted by the Republican members of the bi-partisan supercommittee, jobs and stimulus bills that were vetoed by the house, the changes the Conservatives demanded of the Affordable Care Act that made it less effective than the President wanted (but he signed it because something was better than nothing).

The GOP should state the real reason they do not want Obama in office — and it has nothing to do with what he couldn’t get done, which they didn’t want done anyway. The voting populace should also be clear on the reason Obama had so much trouble — significant constituencies in Congress were not working for the benefit of the country, but for the benefit of their party with the specific goal of returning their party to power.

When components in Congress refuse to compromise for the benefit of the Country… when the middle ground cannot be found… when it is only one side that is willing to compromise… something is broken. Those problems are not the responsibility of the President. Rather, they are the responsibility of the Congressional leadership that promotes and encourages the partisanship, and the members of Congress that choose to place partisanship over doing good.

There. Now I’ve got this out of my head.


Thoughts on the Eve of the RNC

On this, the eve of the Republican National Convention, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, rhetoric, groups, and individuals. A number of articles have been spurring this thinking, from yesterday’s ElectoralVote talking about the R platform, to an article in today’s LA Times about the deepening divide within the Republican party, and how the party is not united by what they are for, but what they are against. Obama.

Let’s start with that hatred. Especially if you read comments on news articles, you’ll see there is a lot of hatred going around. People “hate” Obama and believe the Democrats are socialists. The Republicans “hate” women, and are waging “war” on them.  We are in this increasingly polarized name calling atmosphere. Well I hate it. :-). We need to tone down the rhetoric. We disagree with positions, but we shouldn’t take that to the personal level. I doubt that any individual Republican truly hates women — they have a different view and mindset (one with which I disagree), but I don’t think it goes to the level of hatred. When we use such rhetoric, we make it harder to make our case.

I’d rather talk about what I’m for, and I support the President because he mostly believes in what I am for. He doesn’t agree with it all, and Congress certainly does not agree, but I will support candidates that align with our views.

  1. I believe religion is a personal matter, and should not be legislated. In other words, government shouldn’t be making our moral decisions for us. If you believe in the Bible, look at Deut. God gives us the choice between good and evil, life and death, and it is our responsibility to do the right thing. Having government make that decision for us takes away our ability to do good. In other words, government shouldn’t be prohibiting things like abortion, contraception, or the types of relationships that people form — they must be legal, and it should be up to the individual to decide what they want to do for themselves. Further, freedom of religion means that I must be free to practice my religion, and your religious beliefs (which might differ from mine) shouldn’t be prohibiting me from acting in accordance with my beliefs (within the realms of public safety).
  2. I respect the hard-working immigrant, be they legal or not. Hard-working immigrants have formed this country, and we should encourage and provide an easy path to citizenship to those who work hard and follow the law (modulo, of course, immigration law where it has gotten stupid). Thus I support efforts to reform and correct our immigration laws that are along these lines.
  3. I strongly believe in the public school system — both K-12 and universities — and believe these are the foundation for a successful society. Our citizens must be able to think and think critically. They must know how to work with technology, and not be afraid or disbelieving of science. Efforts to prevent critical thinking are wrong.
  4. Although I believe we need to reduce (but not eliminate) the national debt, there is a time and place for everything. Sometimes, you need to spend a little to gain a lot, and in recessionary times, appropriate government investment in its people has shortened the recession as well as creating technologies that have permitted America to rebound. We need to do that again: putting people to work repairing infrastructure, doing research and development into new energy and scientific technologies. This short term spending will go a long way to bringing America back.
  5. I also believe in paying our fair share to keep society going. That means when you “have”, you sometimes give more (percentage-wise) than those who do not have to benefit all. This notion has been lost with the idea that we must keep cutting taxes. We either need to increase taxes on the wealthy, or the wealthy have to demonstrate that they don’t need taxes to use their money to do good and put people back to work.
  6. I believe there is a role for government in many areas: building infrastructure, providing national defense–defending our economy as well as our borders, providing directed investments to make our country better. I do not believe in minimal government, but I do not believe in maximal government either. Government needs to be balanced.

When I look at the positions in the Republican platform, I see positions that do not agree with my views. When I read about the divide in the Republican party, I realize that the overall position is something with which I cannot stand. While I might agree with a single position here and there, and I might find individual members of the GOP to be good people, I generally do not agree with their candidates. I find in their positions a desire for a simpler time (some have characterized it as the time of Taft and Roosevelt — Teddy, that is). I can certainly see that in the stances on women, gays, immigration, isolationism, robber barons, and the gold standard. We need candidates that focus on the future, not a past that is being viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

That’s my rant for this morning.



Belief in God, and Its Impact on Society

For the last couple of weeks, my mind has turned to God. Not anything particularly religious, mind-you, but the question of why we believe in God in the first place. As I pondered the subject, I could see two reasons for it.

First, a supernatural being provides an explanation for existence of the world. Our universe needs to come from somewhere, and to those lacking in scientific knowledge, God is as good as an explanation of anything else. Of course, there is disagreement on the actual mechanism, and I think many would agree that creation stories are just that — stories — used to illustrate larger points. Today, I don’t know of many people that believe in the literal creation stories (although there are, surprisingly, some); some hold on a modified version that the initial whatever that created the universe had to come from somewhere. Do we need God to explain the creation of the universe? Probably not; recent scientific findings (such as the recent Higgs Particle) indicate that the universe can indeed come from nothing.

So if we don’t need God to create the universe, why have the notion of God. I’ll posit that there is a more important reason to need the concept of God — as moral authority. Just like we need our parents as a moral authority to “lay down the law”, God serves a similar purpose. God provides the mechanism to reward good and punish bad for whatever moral system a particular society chooses to invent. Without this authority, people would succumb to their animalistic nature and just do what is best with them, and to hell with everyone else. God provides the authority to say — if you do right, you will be rewarded in some way, and if you do wrong, you’ll pay for making that choice. I think this notion of God is universal across the various religions, whether you see God as an old man on a throne or the determinant of your karma. Does this mean God actually exists? I’ll argue that’s irrelevant to the question; as long as we agree on the authority, that’s what is important.

This, of course, begs the question of what is right and wrong? Are there larger and smaller rights? If we look at the Torah, traditional thought is that all commandments are equal. But is that true? This is a debate that is playing out in the political arena, where some politicians place more importance in telling people what they can and can’t do (such as same-sex marriage or abortion) and others place more importance on doing good for society. Alas, we have no evidence that there is a God who punishes; it may happen, but those who are rewarded or punished have never come back to confirm it.

I was thinking about this again today as I read the papers over lunch. In particular, I was reading an article about the Republican and Democratic divides over society (in particular, the approaches to Catholicism from the two VP candidates). The Republican view seems to be moving to the Ayn Rand side of the argument overlain with certain moral precepts: it is our responsibility to look out for ourselves first and foremost; the only one responsible for our success is ourselves; government serves a minimal role in this process; and we select particular moral precepts from our religious doctrine to enforce on everyone. The particular moral doctrines were what we should “not” do: what government shouldn’t do, what people shouldn’t do. In many ways, this is a view from the turn of the 20th century (the time of Taft): government should stay out of the way; people should be the ones responsible for their success or failure; and government has the responsibility to impose morality (think prohibition). The LA Times has a nice editorial cartoon on this.

The Democratic view, as I see it, is actually the more “Christian” view: care about people first, do good for others and make society better, wealth for wealth’s sake is a bad thing, one should use wealth as a way to make society better. In doing this, they are making different selections about what God wants us to do. Politically, their view is reflective of the “Great Society” of the later 20th century: the approach taken by FDR, JFK, LBJ, and even folks like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The focus is on how to do good — how to be more accepting — how to be more accommodating. The only religious precept they seemed to want to enforce was the notion of doing good for others; each individual’s religion was free to dictate to that individual other moral aspects.

With the recent VP choice of Mr. Ryan, this distinction is becoming stronger. I think we need to be asking ourselves what our moral authority wants us to do: it is more important to do good for others, or is it more important to do good for our personal interest? Where do we want society to go in general?

It is important to remember this is not about the debt. Both sides want to reduce the debt (and trust me, you don’t want to pay off the debt completely). It is about what our priorities should be and what type of society we want.

[And if you want my opinion, I don’t believe we should return to the era of the Robber Barons, where power was concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, and where the financial goals were the exploitation of people and rules to gain more power. Your opinion may differ.]