What I saw at NECSS 2012

I was introduced to the skeptic community by Rationally Speaking, a podcast I found while wandering aimlessly on the iTunes Store. I also joined the New York City Skeptics Meetup group, which meets once a month to discuss issues related to science and skepticism. That’s where I learned about the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS, pronounced nexus.) On April 21 and 22, four hundred eager skeptics were packed into the auditorium of the Florence Gould Hall in Midtown Manhattan. The speakers, a veritable who’s who of science and skeptical inquiry, blended passion and humor as they discussed among other things the wonders of science and logical skepticism.

Even though his presentation was titled Dance your Ph.D., John Bohannon talked about war statistics for almost half his time. His presentation was interesting and informative, but the title led me to believe that his entire presentation was about videos of people describing their research through dance, which, to be fair, the other half was. PZ Myers, on the other hand, shafted us on Sunday morning by calling his presentation Cephaloporn, and then telling us why he loves biology.

Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox, all of 25 years, explained how she snuck around to read books during her cloistered Hasidic upbringing, complete with religious-only education, arranged marriage at 17, becoming a mother soon after (seems redundant, Hasidic Jews are hardly known for family planning), and leaving the fold to pursue an independent but undoubtedly intimidating life as a single mother shunned by the people she once called her own. I couldn’t even imagine kids growing up in Brooklyn, NY bereft of English and an egalitarian education.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is responsible for some cognitive dissonance. It blows my mind but I always feel there are better uses for that money, and Seth Shostak didn’t affect that position. Ethan Brown, the 12-year old genius, squared and cubed and cube-rooted numbers on stage, proving once more that some minds are phenomenal. At one point, he asked for four random numbers, to form a four-digit number that he would square on the fly. The fourth number called out was a zero. He replied, with a puzzled-expression like, “Could someone be this dumb?” that this would be like squaring a 3-digit number and multiplying by 100. He walked out, just like he walked in, our jaws near the floor during the whole thing. James Randi, the amazing one himself, was on on next. He spoke from the heart, if that expression has ever been true it was that day, about the vitriol he has for psychics, homeopaths and faith-healers who swindle people with anything from pseudoscience to plain trickery. He was followed by the physicist Debbie Berebichez, who appealed to us to encourage more young girls into the hard sciences, or at least, to convince them that they aren’t misfits in calculus class. I agree, although I disagreed when she expressed her disappointment that working women (but not men) who are competent are often less-liked. I’m sure men feel something similar, but it is possible that they have fewer affiliation needs at work.

Florence Gould Hall (Courtesy: nytb.org)

The highlight of the evening was a fundraising reception. For skeptics with means, this was one of the ways to support NECSS. So yours truly decided politely to sit this one out (Why? Please google means and then graduate student). Then our host, Jamy Ian Swiss, called out a seat number randomly for a free pass to the fundraising reception at Connolly’s pub. So there I was, one out of four hundred, with a dose-dumping of a life’s worth of luck and a chance to rub elbows with the luminaries of the weekend. What I learned later was that I also got a tête à tête with James Randi – who’s very approachable  and down-to-earth, thank you for asking – over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. What do you know, being randomly selected has positive connotations too.

With Randi at Connolly’s (Fundraising reception)

At the reception, Jay Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe invited me to watch as they recorded the show live (to be aired on May 6) at the Hilton hotel that night. Thanks Jay! The usual cast, with Seth Shostak and James Randi guest-starring, discussed a bunch of things, culminating in a powwow over whether sloths could swim. Apparently sloths climb down trees to crap at their base. I don’t remember much else, except my bladder being ready to burst.

“Seriously, I think we need to take a break before that guy in the corner wets the carpet.”

I took the elevator down 43 stories to pee when they took a 5-minute break. On my way back, guess what, the elevator needs a key-card to take you above the 39th floor, so I got some exercise. Well, the more you sweat, the less you want to pee. After the taping, which ended around midnight, I took an F train back to Queens and the real world.
Sunday morning, I was back at the venue at 10 am. After PZ Myers’ Cephaloporn, Joe Nickell, probably the only full-time investigator of strange occurrences told us about the case of the two Will Wests, the case that made fingerprinting official in the U.S. Robert Olsen is skeptical of how actually significant that case really is.
Then I watched a live recording of a special episode of Rationally Speaking in that they spoke about The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, but also that Massimo was out-worded by David Kyle Johnson.

Julia Galef, David Kyle Johnson and Massimo Pigliucci on The Simulation Hypothesis

George Hrab explained dealing with grief as an atheist. We non-believers vacillate between being tired and offended at being asked, “What do you think of when you’re sad?” or told that we will need god when we lose a loved one. Seriously, only a megalomaniac would foster complex relationships between people and then develop elaborate schemes to separate them, often with pain and suffering as by-products, just so they need his murderous shoulder to cry on. I don’t know how many logical fallacies believers help themselves to, but Hai-Ting Chinn mocked out a quite a few in her operatic solo and then a duet with George Hrab.

Probably the most awkward part of the conference was the pre-fist-fight between Massimo Pigliucci and J. Scott Armstrong on futurism and the ability of experts to predict outcomes better than laymen or a tossed coin. Good thing Michael Rogers was in the middle, really. Predicting the future does seem riddled with publication and confirmation biases, if you ask me. We remember successful predictions and successful predictors more often, and it’s possible by sheer probability that some people are right far more often than they are wrong. That doesn’t make them any better than the rest of us.

J. Scott Armstrong, Michael Rogers and Massimo Pigliucci on futurism

Brian Wecht came on next, and spoke about theoretical physics, bosons, fermions and particle accelerators to name a few topics. He ended his speech by calling string-theory haters d**ks, and I agree. There it was: a great conference, which brought together bright and insightful people to meditate, cogitate and debate questions of morality, spirituality and religion and to agree that people who hate string theory are d**ks.

“That’s all you’re taking from my presentation?”

Call me an atheist, a non-believer, a rationalist, a skeptic or really whatever but NECSS was the first place where I realized how not alone I am in this transgression. Attending a geek-fest is fun in itself, but the cherry on top was a shot at meeting some really impressive  people, and learning simply how much smarter than me they are. It is actually quite liberating. The weight on one’s shoulders gets considerably lighter knowing there are people far more significant. Skepticism, to me, has always been about not having an allegiance to anything except the truth. In so doing, skepticism sets the mind free, and I don’t ever want to be tethered again, no matter how comfortable, how reassured or secure it makes me, and those who disagree probably hate string theory.

What I saw at NECSS 2012

I was introduced to the skeptic community by Rationally Speaking, a podcast I found while wandering aimlessly on the iTunes Store. I also joined the New York City Skeptics Meetup group, which meets once a month to discuss issues related to science and skepticism. That’s where I learned about the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS, pronounced nexus.) On April 21 and 22, four hundred eager skeptics were packed into the auditorium of the Florence Gould Hall in Midtown Manhattan. The speakers, a veritable who’s who of science and skeptical inquiry, blended passion and humor as they discussed among other things the wonders of science and logical skepticism.

Even though his presentation was titled Dance your Ph.D., John Bohannon talked about war statistics for almost half his time. His presentation was interesting and informative, but the title led me to believe that his entire presentation was about videos of people describing their research through dance, which, to be fair, the other half was. PZ Myers, on the other hand, shafted us on Sunday morning by calling his presentation Cephaloporn, and then telling us why he loves biology.

Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox, all of 25 years, explained how she had to sneak around to read books during her cloistered Hasidic upbringing, complete with private, religious-only education, arranged marriage at 17, becoming a mother soon after (seems redundant, Hasidic Jews are hardly known for family planning), and leaving the fold to pursue an independent but undoubtedly intimidating life as a single mother shunned by the people she once called her own. I couldn’t even imagine kids growing up in Brooklyn, NY bereft of English and an egalitarian education.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is responsible for some cognitive dissonance. It blows my mind but I always feel there are better uses for that money, and Seth Shostak didn’t affect that position. Ethan Brown, the 12-year old genius, squared and cubed and cube-rooted numbers on stage, proving once more that some minds are phenomenal. At one point, he asked for four random numbers, to form a four-digit number that he would square on the fly. The fourth number called out was a zero. He replied, with a puzzled-expression like, “Could someone be this dumb?” that this would be like squaring a 3-digit number and multiplying by 100. He walked out, just like he walked in, our jaws near the floor during the whole thing. James Randi, the amazing one himself, was on on next. He spoke from the heart, if that expression has ever been true it was that day, about the vitriol he has for psychics, homeopaths and faith-healers who swindle people with anything from pseudoscience to plain trickery. He was followed by the physicist Debbie Berebichez, who appealed to us to encourage more young girls into the hard sciences, or at least, to convince them that they aren’t misfits in calculus class. I agree, although I disagreed when she expressed her disappointment that working women (but not men) who are competent are often less-liked. I’m sure men feel something similar, but it is possible that they have fewer affiliation needs at work.

Florence Gould Hall (Courtesy: nytb.org)

The highlight of the evening was a fundraising reception. For skeptics with means, this was one of the ways to support NECSS. So yours truly decided politely to sit this one out (Why? Please google means and then graduate student). Then our host, Jamy Ian Swiss, called out a seat number randomly for a free pass to the fundraising reception at Connolly’s pub. So there I was, one out of four hundred, with a dose-dumping of a life’s worth of luck and a chance to rub elbows with the luminaries of the weekend. What I learned later was that I also got a tête à tête with James Randi – who’s very approachable  and down-to-earth, thank you for asking – over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. What do you know, being randomly selected has positive connotations too.

With Randi at Connolly’s (Fundraising reception)

At the reception, Jay Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe invited me to watch as they recorded the show live (to be aired on May 6) at the Hilton hotel that night. Thanks Jay! The usual cast, with Seth Shostak and James Randi guest-starring, discussed a bunch of things, culminating in a powwow over whether sloths could swim. Apparently sloths climb down trees to crap at their base. I don’t remember much else, except my bladder being ready to burst.

“Seriously, I think we need to take a break before that guy in the corner wets the carpet.”

I took the elevator down 43 stories to pee when they took a 5-minute break. On my way back, guess what, the elevator needs a key-card to take you above the 39th floor, so I got some exercise. Well, the more you sweat, the less you want to pee. After the taping, which ended around midnight, I took an F train back to Queens and the real world.
Sunday morning, I was back at the venue at 10 am. After PZ Myers’ Cephaloporn, Joe Nickell, probably the only full-time investigator of strange occurrences told us about the case of the two Will Wests, the case that made fingerprinting official in the U.S. Robert Olsen is skeptical of how actually significant that case really is.
Then I watched a live recording of a special episode of Rationally Speaking in that they spoke about The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, but also that Massimo was out-worded by David Kyle Johnson.

Julia Galef, David Kyle Johnson and Massimo Pigliucci on The Simulation Hypothesis

George Hrab explained dealing with grief as an atheist. We non-believers vacillate between being tired and offended at being asked, “What do you think of when you’re sad?” or told that we will need god when we lose a loved one. Seriously, only a megalomaniac would foster complex relationships between people and then develop elaborate schemes to separate them, often with pain and suffering as by-products, just so they need his murderous shoulder to cry on. I don’t know how many logical fallacies believers help themselves to, but Hai-Ting Chinn mocked out a quite a few in her operatic solo and then a duet with George Hrab.

Probably the most awkward part of the conference was the pre-fist-fight between Massimo Pigliucci and J. Scott Armstrong on futurism and the ability of experts to predict outcomes better than laymen or a tossed coin. Good thing Michael Rogers was in the middle, really. Predicting the future does seem riddled with publication and confirmation biases, if you ask me. We remember successful predictions and successful predictors more often, and it’s possible by sheer probability that some people are right far more often than they are wrong. That doesn’t make them any better than the rest of us.

J. Scott Armstrong, Michael Rogers and Massimo Pigliucci on futurism

Brian Wecht came on next, and spoke about theoretical physics, bosons, fermions and particle accelerators to name a few topics. He ended his speech by calling string-theory haters d**ks, and I agree. There it was: a great conference, which brought together bright and insightful people to meditate, cogitate and debate questions of morality, spirituality and religion and to agree that people who hate string theory are d**ks.

“That’s all you’re taking from my presentation?”

Call me an atheist, a non-believer, a rationalist, a skeptic or really whatever but NECSS was the first place where I realized how not alone I am in this transgression. Attending a geek-fest is fun in itself, but the cherry on top was a shot at meeting some really impressive  people, and learning simply how much smarter than me they are. It is actually quite liberating. The weight on one’s shoulders gets considerably lighter knowing there are people far more significant. Skepticism, to me, has always been about not having an allegiance to anything except the truth. In so doing, skepticism sets the mind free, and I don’t ever want to be tethered again, no matter how comfortable, how reassured or secure it makes me, and those who disagree probably hate string theory.

GOP race to the bottom

And then they were four

So what by Miles Davis serenades me while writing about the Republican primaries. It’s always fun to watch presidential candidates coddle their bases during primaries by extolling the magnitude of their orientation, only to reach the general election and water down everything they said merely months ago, their chests still smarting from self-righteous thumping.

Mitt Romney needed to cruise through the primaries without any extreme right wing proclamations to take on Obama in November. He probably didn’t realize that the Republican base would sooner endorse a welfare-using pot-smoking mother-of-six than the ex-Governor, whose capacity for emotion would make a sociopath sit up and take notes. And they haven’t even played the Mormon card yet. Well, at least we can conclude that magic underwear can barely withstand the triumvirate of one wrinkled heartless crypt-keeper, one Christy senator whose main claim to fame is the guarantee of giggles upon googling his name and one shameless adulterer who was cheating on his wife while lampooning Bill Clinton for the same. The NIH budget is richer by a few thousands that can now go to fund illegal abortions.

Some people need to be sat down and explained to that making abortion legal doesn’t make it mandatory. Only that confusion can explain the outrage on this issue. Also, wide availability of contraception doesn’t mean that the high school lunch lady will sprinkle crushed Plan B over your daughter’s apple pie.

I think the employer-insurer nexus must go, but while it exists, insurance plans must cover contraception and abortion. An employer whose religious beliefs do not allow these interventions might be skittish about shopping for such a plan, but consider the alternative. Unwanted babies are less cared for and more prone to crime. Steven Levitt suggests that legalized abortion is responsible for half the drop in crime in the 90s. What if a Jehovah’s witness organization claims that forcing it to cover blood transfusions is religious persecution? Christian scientists do not believe in any medical intervention, and that disease is merely God’s will. Where does it end?

Pharmacists who believe that contraception is against their religion shouldn’t be forced to sell them, and at least one judge agrees. People should not be forced to engage in any transaction. No questions asked. This isn’t a matter of religious freedom. It’s freedom. Don’t worry about the supply of contraceptives drying up. There are plenty of sane pharmacists. But I must ask these pharmacists how they reconcile their faith and their professions. The Bible does not weigh in on melanoma or the common cold. It’s not a big leap of faith that some scientific information led to their career choice.

We live in a country where churches have automatic tax-exempt status. (Other religious organizations must file for this status if their gross annual receipts exceed $5000.) Everyone is forced by threat of state-funded violence, to subsidize Christianity in a country whose bill of rights begins with the words Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…etcRepublican politicians love saying that the U.S. Constitution is founded upon Christian principles. If a 4,543 word document is based on ten sentences that would fit on an index card, wouldn’t the founders have mentioned that as a footnote? Maybe they were being paid by the word.

What is exceptionally galling, is that a barely legitimate argument about gay marriage, immigration and abortion has descended to discussion of previously undoubted issues like contraception and mentioning Satan among adults (link to 2008 video).

This election was supposed to be about the economy. But the economy, to the right-wingers’ chagrin, is doing better. Nobody is breaking out the champagne just yet, but we are far from the train-wreck predicted most gleefully by the right. Now that that angle is out of the window, the right has gone back to what it does best: kiss up to Christ and call Obama a pansy on the international stage. Whatever your politics, you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t admit that as far as national security is concerned, this president does better with a scalpel than the previous one did with a sword. He has ridden us of Osama and al-Awlaki with minimal cost.

Mitt Romney cannot come out of this unscathed, and if he gets wounded enough, he won’t pose a real threat to Obama in November. The primaries have shown that Christ one-upmanship can reach ridiculous levels. The Christian death-grip on the right has sapped the traces of political discourse left in this country.

Coffee…and a defense (Part I)

“To be honest, I don’t remember that evening much. There are some things crystal clear in my mind, but most of it is kinda murky.”

“That’s a good thing. Witness memories tend to get murky too. That’s why their credibility drops exponentially with time. Delay and stall is a good tactic for you.”

“That would be true if I were guilty. I’m telling you there’s no way I would’ve touched her like that without permission. This is why I need this thing to be wrapped up as soon as possible.”

“Look pal, like it or not, this is a game of he said, she said. Circumstantial evidence has been enough to convict in many cases. Your DNA in her house is not a good thing. In fact—”

“I was in her house. I went there to pick her up. My DNA is bound to be there. What does that prove?”

“Nothing so far, but it does make it difficult for us to make this a clean sweep. If there wasn’t enough to link you to her apartment, this thing would’ve been open and shut.”

“In my opinion, the more I stall, the guiltier I look to people.”

“If your opinion was worth a rat’s ass, you wouldn’t be paying me $400 an hour for mine. So just listen—I don’t care how guilty you look to the public if you don’t get convicted. No one, I mean no one has emerged from a rape trial spotlessly clean. There will always be some people who think you did it, and others who’ll talk about it. Your image will improve over time, and nothing else.”

“I thought she was a good person. Why would she accuse me of such a terrible thing?”

“Good. At least you’re approaching this kinda rationally. Remember, the burden of proof is on them. They have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you did it. Based on the evidence they’re going to present, they don’t have it. While it might be tough, I think we can beat this if we keep our heads. Just tell me exactly what you remember, starting from when you picked her up.”

“I remember taking a cab from the corner of 95th and Amsterdam, and getting off near 34th and 1st. I buzzed her apartment, and got the wrong one as a sleepy Latina brusquely told me. I called her cell phone, and she buzzed me up. She told me to help myself to a drink while she got dressed. I did.”

“Sharp as a tack. Details are good. Remember, we can call the Latina to establish your credibility. Keep going, and avoid using words like brusquely.

“It had started to rain. She waited under the awning of her building while I spent five minutes trying to get a cab. We reached Bleecker and MacDougal around 12:30.”

“Do you have a credit card receipt for that cab ride?”

“I dry-cleaned those pants. Who knows where that receipt is.”

“Alright. How was her demeanor during all this? Had she already had a drink or two?”

“No. Not as far as I can remember. We entered some club. I ordered our drinks and took them to her. This was interesting. I was gonna have a Glenlivet neat, but she told the bartender to make two usuals.”

“What the hell’s her usual?”

“Something with white rum and mint and some other stuff. No, it didn’t taste like a mojito, but it was strong like hell.”

“And then?”

“We were chatting about how cold it had gotten recently, and how it was very unlike last October. She said something about the pool in her apartment complex, and how much she missed…”

“Missed what?”

“Well, it wasn’t really clear. We were in a club, you know. After asking her to pardon me a couple of times, I was too embarrassed to admit I still wasn’t sure what I heard. So, I just kept nodding and tried to furrow my eyebrows like I was considering what she was saying very deeply.”

“I bet she knew you were bullshitting too…anyway, did you order a second drink?”

“No. I think she refilled our glasses. It was the same thing. And then we danced.”

“Sure, how long was that?”

“Two or three songs. Then we left to go to another bar.”

“How were you feeling around this time?”

“Heavily buzzed. I remember I wasn’t walking perfectly straight. She seemed worse.”

“Yet, you went to another bar. This might be a problem.”

“How is it a problem? A man and a woman meet for drinks; it is in the best interest of the guy to get the woman as sozzled as possible. You can’t blame me for that.”

“Look, if she can find 12 jurors to think that you knew how drunk she was while making her drink even more, anything that happened between you could be construed as rape.”

“That is a god-awful law. And what if she had gotten into a car and driven over a bunch of homeless people? Would you still blame me for it?”

“Interesting question. But in this case, irrelevant. It’s good you’re getting indignant now. Get it over with here, so you’ll stay calm in court.”

“The remaining is a blur. I think we went to some after-hours place in Chelsea, I kinda remember sitting in a cab…”

“But you did wake up in her house. Did you slip out like a cat burglar or did you make conversation?”

“Well, she woke up as I was getting dressed. She seemed a little irritated as I was making morning-after small talk. She got up, and made scrambled eggs with toast. We spoke a little about the previous night. She said something to the tune of We really shouldn’t have…I’ve never done this before…looks like I had had too much to drink last night…

“And you left. That was Sunday morning right?”

“Wow, you catch on fast. Is my eye-rolling too quick for you?”

“I would get rid of all that sarcasm before I go to court dude, juries hate smug. Sarcastic righteous indignation often looks smug. Don’t forget that even though you’re chances are pretty good here, this might not be the end of the road.”

“What do you mean? I can’t be tried again if I’m acquitted right?”

“Yes…those hours of watching The Practice reruns have drummed some sense into you, but what you might’ve missed presumably while channel-surfing is that she can sue you in a civil court and inflict serious damage.”

“Civil rape trial? Does that even exist?”

“Yes. She can sue you in a civil court for sexual assault, and the smart money says she will. This whole criminal shakedown might just be a way to collect discovery for her civil case. A lot of people take this approach because the burden of proof on the accuser is a lot less than criminal trials. She can get you for a lot of money.”

“I don’t have a lot of money. No really, my profits are largely plowed back into the business and I take a small salary for myself. I’m looking to expand right now, and rolling in it is not the way to go.”

“Yeah whatever. I don’t mean liquid cash. If the jury finds for her in a civil case, they might ask you to pay a large sum, which you’ll end up paying in small parts for a long long time. Kinda like buying a boat, but without all the sailing and the tan and the obvious affluence.”

“So you’re saying that in spite of being innocent, I actually need to worry about losing everything I have and will work for?”

“Not really, right now I’m saying that you should worry about going to prison. If we successfully get you acquitted, I’ll refer you to a very capable friend of mine, who specializes in civil sexual assault defense.”

“It still doesn’t feel right. How could she do this?”

“I know you’re still on the clock but lemme venture an adverse opinion. Imagine her side of the story. She meets a guy who buys her drinks, and wakes up next to him not remembering exactly what happened. A lot of women take time to realize that their sexual encounters need not have been voluntary. Many still don’t pursue the matter. You just got unlucky.”

“You say it in such a cold way.”

“Come on man, at the last reunion you decided to regale us with the minutiae of a pancreaticduodenectomy…while stabbing hungrily at your steak…it’s just all in a day’s work. You get desensitized after some time. And for me it’s been 13 years. Anyway, let’s grab a bite to eat and we will hash it out further.”

“No you go ahead. I’m gonna go home. I’m not in the mood. We can do this some other time.”

“You’re sure? Hope you’re not too depressed. Do I have to follow you home and hide your razors or something?”

Benevolent dictatorship

English: india against corruption

Anna Hazare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The blogosphere and Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with support for Anna Hazare and his hunger strike against corruption. Thousands have signed up to show solidarity with this anti-establishment movement. So far, so good. After all, democracy allows us to voice unpopular opinions, be they against the government, its decisions, its policy or democracy itself. Democracy is the only system that tolerates criticism and even encourages it.

But what is Anna Hazare’s answer to the problems of the current establishment? More establishment. He and his supporters are asking for an independent body to oversee government actions and protect us from those who have a preferential access to government.

Before I go into why I believe Anna Hazare’s approach is flawed, let us tackle the fundamental question. What is corruption and why does it happen?

Now I’m sure that there are intellectuals out there who can define corruption better than I can imagine it, but let me rustle up a working explanation.

Corruption is government employees performing their duties and exercising their discretion for or against the law in exchange for compensation from the party directly benefiting from said duties or discretion. This ranges from a policeman pocketing Rs. 50 instead of a legal Rs. 500 fine to a stamp duty officer who won’t let your file move up until you put money on his table.

But why does this happen? Are all government employees inherently evil? Is there a special screening in these job interviews that ensures the exclusive entry of psychopaths and purges the system of all honest and responsible people? And what of these citizens, who encourage venality by rewarding it with bribes? Are they the cause or a symptom of this horrible situation?

The answer, of course, is a lot simpler, and depending on your perspective, either heartening or disheartening. People, as Steven Levitt often says, respond to incentives. A tiny, insignificant fraction of us actually do good or evil for its own sake. We do things that benefit us. Sometimes that benefit is obvious.

The problem with government officials who can be bribed is that they have powers to grant you permissions or hand you prohibitions regarding property that’s not their own. A policeman who ignores your speeding (for a small bribe) doesn’t personally stand to lose from its adverse consequences. So he barters his power to excuse your transgression against the importance you place on reaching where you want to on time (which can be correlated well with the amount of bribe you’re willing to offer). The same goes for the stamp duty officer, or the MTNL guy we had to bribe to get our dead telephone line working after an outage.

Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited

MTNL — We remind you of a time before phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more a person controls what you do over property he doesn’t own, the more the incentive for him to look the other way when you grease his palm. This principle can be applied for almost all but the very necessary functions of government. The solution to corruption is to check the growth of government, which first taxes you to establish organizations which control your actions, and then imposes a secret tax in the form of a bribe to remove those controls.

Let’s now take a look at Anna Hazare’s panacea. He believes that if we appoint a group of the right people with power to look over the government’s shoulder, we will achieve a corruption-free India. He also wants to dole out brutal punishments to strike fear in the hearts of the corruptible. Despite Arvind Kejriwal’s false equivalence of the Lokpal with the income tax department that oversees the finances of the nation’s top officials without — he believes — being influenced by them, I’m quite convinced that given enough time, the Lokpal can be corrupt too.

And then businesses will have more palms to grease than they do now. As Milton Friedman once reproached — and I paraphrase —  “What is business? Any costs that a business pays is borne by its stockholders, employees or its customers.” Have no doubt — we the customers of India Shining will pay for this extra red tape, probably more than any bribe.

Let’s take a look at our kind martyr, the genial old man supposedly on a Gandhian route to clear our national conscience. The village of Ralegaon Siddhi is Anna Hazare’s first claim to fame. It is not common knowledge that Anna Hazare endorsed the public flogging of alcoholics to shape them up, and he personally flogged some of them with his belt. When questioned about this, he nonchalantly replied that rural India was rough, and such measures were needed. Distillers who sold alcohol in the village were told to shut shop or else. This man fighting for freedom made his bones by curbing the free enterprise of people who did no bodily harm by threatening them with just that.

I’m glad that this man was instrumental in getting us the Right to Information Act, but it is worthwhile to note that many of his past collaborators don’t support him now.

While I’ve stated my case for the lack of justification for Anna Hazare’s ends in this situation, we must also examine his means. Make no mistake, fasting unto death is extremely violent. It is nothing but blackmail and coercion. This is where the comparison with Gandhi falls apart. Gandhi’s fasting was violent and coercive too, but it was violence against an imperialistic establishment, one that treated Indians as almost sub-human, subjected us to taxation without representation, and curbed our basic human rights. Anna Hazare is practicing coercion against a democratically elected government (however corrupt), which democracy has done almost nothing to curb his freedom. I say almost because I vigorously oppose his arrest, but when we put it in perspective, the matter was resolved quickly, and it gave him more publicity and sympathy.

Finally, we will truly be free, safe and democratic when we rid ourselves of the notion that the ‘right people’ in power will make things rosy. The benevolent dictator is, all said and done, a dictator, and that’s not what we signed up for.

Weird week update

I must disclose first and foremost, that this June is a month of relaxation for me. My sister’s visit from India means we’ll do most of the touristy things along with meeting family and seeing some understated NYC places that are familiar only to people who’ve lived here, breathed the air, experienced the essence of the city, or attempted a perfunctory glance of nymag.com.

Meeting family in DC

No visit with family is complete without beer, political arguments turned into shouting matches and ridiculously early bedtimes. My uncle and aunt took us bro and sis to the national arboretum, of which we saw a small part, namely the bonsai exhibits (there were trees as old as 500 years grown to an impressive height of two feet! Wait what? You know, bonsai is the Japanese art (or is it science?) of growing small trees and re-potting them so they live to impressive ages).

With some family members, you find yourself hunting for topics to talk about simply because while there is no dearth of love between people, conversational gelling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I am usually particularly handicapped in this department. With my uncle, however, there’s no such handicap. Usually our peaceful conversations that begin about the weather escalate to shouting matches that are tie-broken by a scream of “Zip it!” from my aunt. Thank god for her, because we are usually quite out of new material by then and are spouting opposing rhetoric at each other hoping to hose our adversary down with condescension and categorical theses instead of arguments.

Weinergate

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Just in case we might have run out of topics to talk about, our friendly New York Congressman Rep. Anthoy Weiner (D) showed us the true zenith of surname oriented jokes. In simple words, he tweeted to the public (accidentally of course) a picture of his crotch area (clothed) as opposed to sending it as a direct message to a 21 year old girl. No crime, so far. As usual with politician sex scandals, people start to gather and question the regularity with which these guys put their feet in their mouths (not literally, that would need some serious Yoga). Some of course, go on to make sweeping generalization about men.

My opinion on this is as amateurish as it is unsolicited. Good politicians are go getters, and it takes a certain pushiness to climb up to the top of any ladder. The characteristics that propel people to such heights also seem to correlate with predilections of deviance. As such, in a highly competitive society, the people that get ahead are those who think outside the box, interpret the rules differently, and any more cliches I could use that those winners wouldn’t ever. Of course, their real smartness lies in keeping their indiscretions secret, and never ever using a cent of public funds for any such activities. In the latest news, while various Democratic politicians are taking turns to throw Weiner under the bus, a stark difference between the Clinton era and today is revealed. A difference that is heartening, I might add. While Clinton was nearly put out of commission for getting oral appeasement from an intern, Weiner might just get away with a leave of absence for treatment. My whole sense of pride that comes from being a New Yorker (almost four years now!), stands to be blasted to smithereens at the edge of a cliff if the people of my current city start calling for Weiner to resign. What we need to respect, and this sounds like such a given that I’m exhausted just typing it, is that it is his personal life, and that he didn’t use government funds to do this, nor did he let his affair affect any political decisions he made. He did not use his position to obstruct any sort of investigation into his private life (something Clinton has been accused of doing).

(Update: Anthony Weiner has since resigned, the pressure from fellow Democrats being too much. I guess times haven’t changed that much since Clinton, except that people might have to resign for smaller sexual indiscretions than earlier!)

Tracing Morgan?

Courtesy: entertainmentrundown.com

Tracy Morgan, who plays Tracy Jordan in the super-hit NBC laugh-riot 30 Rock, recently made some seriously anti-gay remarks during a stand up act (yes I understand how stupid the use of serious and comedy in one sentence sounds, I am not back-spacing, forget about it). He said that the president should stop being soft on bullied gay kids, and that he would stab his own son should he be gay. I am paraphrasing of course, but you can see how this set of statements couldn’t be mangled no matter how poor the translation.

People like Chris Rock have made it clear that the freedom of speech is especially relevant to unpopular speech, and this should be protected as well. Other comedians like Wanda Sykes have openly chided Morgan for these statements. I don’t think this should be turned into a referendum on free speech simply because Morgan got carried away. It happens. Comedians all over are pushing the envelope of edginess in order to shock people into laughter, and the only test they’re supposed to satisfy is, “It better be funny.” This is why George Carlin and Chris Rock get away with some of their routines, while Joel Stein and Michael Richards get universally chastised. Some of these people are funny, and others aren’t. Comedy is a rough business, and sometimes they don’t laugh. You keep going, pushing the PC barrier harder and harder, till you realize that there’s nothing funny about your train-wreck of a bit, and that you’re gonna pay for this. While this Tracy business will blow over, it just makes me respect even more the comedians who are edgy and steadily funny. Tina Fey, the head honcho of 30 Rock has helped dispose of this issue with her recent comment.

That’s it for the week update. Maybe I should make this a regular thing?

Proportional responses

Whenever I write on a serious issue, I usually start by quoting an article written by a better writer and paraphrasing some of it before segueing into my own thoughts on the subject. What can I say, I’m a slave to routine: Here is the article by Kanchan Gupta on a topic that most people are passionate about, as it involves life and death. Our lives and the deaths of those who will not sit still until they decimate us.

Let me preface by saying that terrorism is never and can never be justifiable. Nothing, no kind of torture or enslavement, or infringement of any right whatever, gives one the right to kill innocent people. We have reached a point in evolution where we must be above killing someone’s loved ones to motivate or deter them. This, seems so obvious right?

What we face today is something no one has imagined before. Sure, the developed and developing world has faced threats to its life from various organizations before. The Nazis, the imperialist British juggernaut, and various separatist revolutions of individual nations come to mind. Many of such threats involved people who believed they were martyring themselves for a cause, for freedom, for independence or a life without persecution.

The extremist Muslim fundamentalist threat we face today is completely new. Before I go further, let me clarify some words and their meanings.

  • Fundamentalism refers to a belief in a strict adherence to specific set of theological doctrines typically in reaction against what are perceived as modern heresies of secularism
  • Extremism is a term used to describe the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived political center of a society; or otherwise claimed to violate common moral standards.

Both definitions are from Wikipedia, so you’re free to criticize their correctness, but I am including them here to indicate what I mean when I use these words.

Kanchan Gupta starts with exploring the meaning of targeted killing, and how legitimate they are. He swats like a fly the argument of apparent immorality of killing a terrorist by saying, “…since terrorism is neither morally right nor a legal expression of dissent…” Very well said. I would like to elaborate on this point more.

We cannot go eye for an eye against Islamic extremists. They believe they are in a cosmic war between good and evil, and their book tells them they’re on the good side. As Reza Aslan says (I don’t agree with him on most points, but I do on this one), “We cannot legitimize this viewpoint. We are not going to out-fanaticize these fanatics.”

That is what I say to all those who tell me that the correct response to Islamic terrorism is to go there and rampantly kill their civilians, show the wrath of the world, show what happens when the civilized world gets uncivilized. It won’t work. It might make us feel good, assuage our outrage when we see television footage of some Arab village getting blown up as our wounds of 9/11, 7/11, 26/11 are still raw. In reality, all it will do is motivate the ones remaining against us even further.

Let’s not forget that this is not a group willing to give its life for the betterment of the remaining members alone: it is a group that believes that they will be honored in the afterlife for every non-believer they kill. So, they aren’t just willing to die for their cause, they’re eager to.

We cannot use fear to motivate them; they have none. They want to die and take with them as many of us as possible. There is only one way to truly control this problem. Treat it as an infestation.

Taking a leaf out of Israel’s book

As and when terrorist groups are formed, we must find ways to kill their leaders. This will prevent them getting organized. Kanchan Gupta cites the example of the assassination of a Hamas leader in the end of his article. It is widely believed to be a Mossad operation (as intelligence agencies go, they are probably the best). The agents entered Dubai 24 hours before the leader reached there to make an arms deal. They checked into the room opposite his, choked him when they got the opportunity, and left the country that very afternoon. Amazing.

Remember Operation Wrath of God? A Palestinian terrorist outfit called Black September had killed 11 Israeli athletes after hijacking their plane. The Israeli Prime Minister had apparently said, “Send forth the boys.” A small group of agents were sent out to kill key leaders of the group. David Kimche, the former deputy head of Mossad said, “The aim was not so much revenge but mainly to make them [the militant Palestinians] frightened. We wanted to make them look over their shoulders and feel that we are upon them. And therefore we tried not to do things by just shooting a guy in the street – that’s easy … fairly.” The idea was to kill them in places where they felt most secure. What makes this approach brilliant is the clinical nature of it. There was a reason for every action. This wasn’t murder motivated by revenge or an animal desire for blood, but a surgical move based on cause and effect. They wanted to kill certain people, important people, the absence of whom would set a terrorist organization back and hence reduce the danger from them.

India Vs. The government of Pakistan

No one really doubts that our northwestern neighbor is sympathetic to the terrorists’ interests. The ISI has been linked to many groups responsible for acts of terrorism in India.

I titled this post based on an episode of The West Wing I had seen a long time ago. The newly elected Democrat president is required to authorize an American response to an act of Syrian terrorism. The president (in the show) is supposed to be a democrat and hence is afraid of being perceived as soft-on-terrorism, which is compounded by the fact that one of the American casualties was his own personal physician (who had a small baby at home). Martin Sheen, who plays the president, says, “Let the word go forth, from this time and place, gentlemen – you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response. We come back with total disaster!” Of course, in the show, he actually cools down and decides to adopt a proportional response, realizing that his earlier outrage was more personal than presidential.

We all go through that cycle. When the 26-11 happened, I wanted the Indian government to bomb Pakistan just like the US started bombing Afghanistan after 9-11. That was my belligerent knee-jerk response. After sobering up a little, and with more clear thinking, I realized that if we don’t maintain a clear distinction between us and those groups based on what we won’t stoop to no matter what, we will soon end up blurring the line between good and evil. Under no circumstances should we formulate a war plan that revolves around killing civilians. It is not worth it. It is a Pyrrhic victory at best and will germinate more terrorism at worst.

The youth

When Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University in 2007, the President of the university, Lee Bollinger, in his introduction, flamed the man so much that pundits predicted that it would end up endearing him to the youth of Iran. The young students and adults of Iran were impressionable, and introducing them to social liberalism would have been a much better idea, as it would have helped them distance themselves from the Islamic rule of the Shah and Ahmadinejad. Instead, the president of Columbia University, as well as a lot of the American people, insulted Ahmadinejad categorically and ended up insulting the pride of every Iranian. That is sooo not the way to approach this.

I bet the youth of these countries are interested in free speech, the right to do what one wants as long as he is not encroaching on others, the rights of women, the right not to be cruelly and unusually punished. We can engage them in friendly dialogue and develop lasting harmonious relationships with them. Of course, this is hard when you’re bombing their families to hell and back.

Conclusion

Islamic terrorism is unlike any enemy encountered before. They cannot be intimidated, or blackmailed. The only way to control them is to keep trimming their groups. The militant groups need to be spied upon more efficiently, and their leaders need to be neutralized as soon as possible. If they elect new leaders, they should be sanctioned promptly. As Dumbledore said to Harry about Voldemort in The Philosopher’s Stone, “[W]hile you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time – and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.”

This only seems like a losing battle. If every member of society put his two cents each time, and keeps doing so, we might be able to get a world as peaceful as possible.

DISCLAIMERS:

  1. While I think this goes without saying, let me make extremely clear the pain I feel for most of the Muslims in this world, who, like the rest of us, want peace more than anything else, and are unnecessary maligned by the few who use this religion to do harm. I apologize to any and all such non-violent Muslims for any affront they might have felt while reading this post.
  2. I must also make it clear that while all the evidence I have seen leads me to believe that the establishment in Pakistan is sympathetic to terrorism, I don’t believe for one moment that the entire population of Pakistan supports it. I am sure most of Pakistan is like most of India: people who want to go to work, make their money, enjoy their life, and mean something to the people who mean something to them.

 

 

The French Burqa Ban – My take

“I was a fan of Nicholas Sarkozy, but what he’s pushing for now is reprehensible,” said a friend – a Muslim who chooses to wear the head scarf. We tend to banter on religion, and for a religious person, she’s a good sport. My jibes and taunts are often well received, and now and then, when one remark steps innocently over the line, I am gently but curtly reminded of the distance we should maintain for an argument not to turn personal.

The French ban on the veil is famous, and has polarized the public. Let us exclude the opinions of devout Muslims from this analysis, for they can hardly be expected to be disinterested in this issue.

I myself find the burqa to be an abomination: a image of imprisonment that we should have evolved out of by now. Political correctness aside, Islam and women’s rights have always seemed like oil and water to me, but that’s a topic that requires a blog of its own.

Today, the issue is of liberty. People often view the Western (developed) world as a land of plenty, where the basic conditions are good enough, and hence our laws can favor the rights of the individual over the rights of the population as a whole. The idea of a government telling us what not to do is an indirect way for everyone else to control us – for a majority to determine what is good or necessary.

There are many reasonable arguments for this ban. Most people connect the overt religiosity of many Muslims to a refusal to assimilation. Wherever they go, they are Muslims first. Hence the wearing of the burqa is regarded as a slippery slope to madrassas proliferating and even to imposing Sharia law among the Muslim diaspora. Our bogeyman is the honor rape/murder that is a product of a conveniently literal interpretation of the Qur’an. There is no proof linking madrassas directly with terrorism. They do produce fundamentalists, but no one has proof of them breeding terrorists. Hence, I am not thoroughly convinced that the slope between legalizing the burqa and the festering of terrorism is slippery enough to ban such an important civil liberty. Frisk them as much as you want at airports, and select them for additional screening, but such a huge step is not warranted now.

Imagine a woman who wears salwar-kameez exclusively, and is forced by law to wear skirts. She would view this as violating her modesty. She would either wear the skirt grudgingly, or leave the country that legislates her wardrobe, or, worst of all, never leave the house; a giant leap in the backward direction. A woman who’s used to wearing the burqa all her adult life (regardless of whether she was brainwashed into doing so), would be even more skittish about showing her body to other men. Of course, there are various groups arguing that any woman who’s wearing a burqa is doing so out of compulsion or out of some kind of Stockholm-syndrome to a victimizing religion. Based on whatever I have read on this subject, and the arguments of Muslim women who’ve chosen to wear the burqa, I would agree. This doesn’t seem like complete free will.

However mean this might sound, emancipating Muslim women is not my problem, and I certainly don’t want the government to spend taxpayer money on researching which woman is acting out of her free will and which one has been brainwashed. Let the privately funded NGO’s do all that. I would even volunteer my services.

Forcing a Muslim woman to shed her religious attire is violating her free expression and the freedom of religion. Readers of this blog know what I think about religion. Freedom of expression, no matter what the expression, is sacrosanct to me, and curbing it using the might of the law needs more justification. The ban on the veil is unconstitutional, and does not behoove a free country.

I apologize for the offense any woman has felt while reading this post.

P.S: This topic was on my mind for a long time, but I decided to write a post on it only after reading this fine post by Greatbong. His arguments are different from mine, but we both seem to agree that the ban violates freedom.

Choices

It is often the choices we make
And not our abilities, which
Define who we truly are
So said a great wizard

While he meant it in a context of good vs evil, altruism vs selfishness, and in a realm of virtue over power, even he had not a measure of the magnitude of what he had said. To consider the other parts, when one makes a choice, completely unhindered by peer pressure, familial pressure and other forces which might steer one towards one of the options, (thus making the options more academic and less real) is considered normal, responsible and a person who believes in live and let live.

The ones that don’t, however, are those who are branded selfish, self-centered, egoistic and ungrateful. We are raised to be intelligent, knowledgeable, logical people, who, for the most part, think before they act. Yet, most of societies norms go against this very grain and anticipate the person to make decisions based on precedents. The whole purpose of decision making is defeated if one is told to move in a certain direction by others who claim superiority by position, experience, intelligence or ascendancy as an older relative.

Making one’s own decision in the face of advice to the contrary is not only one’s right, it is also the responsible and courageous way of leading one’s life. The idea of analyzing the situation, doing what one thinks is best, and standing by it whenever tenable, is the very essence of liberty.

I need some time

I need some time,

That is all I ask for

Some time to breathe

Some time to relax

Some time without competition

Some time without interaction

Some time without embarrassment

Some time to fold

I need to enter my shell

For some part of my life

I need not to be bothered

I need not to be tethered

Some time without judgment

Some time without relent

To life’s continuous annoyances

Some time to contemplate

I don’t want to achieve

The way you think I should

This is my life, my only life

I want to live it my style

Can’t life stop for a second?

Let me take stock of things

I am slower than others, but do I

Deserve to be rushed?

I don’t want to co-operate

I don’t want to co-exist

I want no comparison

No relative grading in life

Who sets these standards?

Why is good good and bad bad?

Nothing is predictable in life

So why should we be?

Freeze this world for a second

Put a stopper in jobs and tasks

So I may exhale

That is all I ask