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.

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.

The ‘feminine’ side?

I write this post for a tag I recently received from blabberblah. I believe IHM set this in motion with her post: My sins against gender stereotypes. We’ve all had stereotyping shoved down our throats. Getting pigeon-holed into whatever is becoming your sex isn’t uncommon. The assumption that certain jobs, skills and interests are meant for a particular gender stinks. As a response, many bloggers are outlining their transgressions of gender barriers.

Before I make my list public, I want to ponder something. A girl having boyish interests is called a tomboy. But people are less charitable to a guy who does something girly. I bet he hears sissy a lot. I don’t need to tell you which one is an acceptable insult. So, female bloggers don’t become the butt of jokes when they congregate to confess an interest in cricket, or declare the number of speeding tickets they’ve received, or know the difference between a carburetor and an accelerator (just an exaggeration!). On the other hand, a guy who confesses to liking chick-flicks or talks about the delicious sambhar he made last night or wears pink is not as well received. This  explains the negative responses from many male bloggers who were tagged. Most of them hid behind, “I can’t think of anything girly that I do.”

Here are some things I do or want to do that can be considered girly:

  1. I like a clean home. That includes a clean kitchen sink that should never be a storehouse for dirty dishes. I have gotten out of my bed at midnight just to vacuum more than once
  2. I like to cook. I like to try out new dishes now and then. (Somehow I have not been able to muster the confidence to invite friends over for a home-cooked meal)
  3. I can hem a pillow cover or the bottom of a trouser. I do take some pride in the fact that the stitches are of equal size and at an equal distance from each other
  4. I have enjoyed playing ‘teacher-teacher’ as a child. I was a bit of a tyrant though
  5. People say that I have very neat handwriting
  6. I don’t make much of an effort to remember roads and don’t have an impeccable sense of direction. I have never hesitated to ask for directions
  7. I almost never let my cellphone run out of power (more and more guys are getting on board with this concept)
  8. I can listen and give emotional counsel to friends. I might make inappropriate jokes as a defense mechanism
  9. In recent times, I have become more sensitive to clothes, sunglasses, spectacle frames and other parts of my appearance that might need enhancement.

Can’t think of any more now. My readers are free to add.

Often called selfishness, individualism gets a bad rap in society. What people don’t understand is that unless one is sure of what one wants and takes steps to get that, one can never be secure enough to do good without it validating their own self-esteem. I have, time and again, championed the cause of individualism and asked people to step out of the molds of religion, caste, language and even nationality. So why not gender? While there are some characteristics found more in men than women, they cannot be used as a tool to pigeon-hole people into pre-styled societal roles.

I am me first. Then a man. Then my parents’ son. Then an Indian. Then a Tamilian…and so on. I urge my readers and fellow bloggers to do what they want to do (as long as they don’t infringe on another person’s exercise of his own rights) and only that. We have only one life. Preset rules of how we should behave belong right where they came from: the past. Sadly, in the past, the people did not have the foundation, the knowledge, the strength and the support to stand alone. We don’t have that excuse.

Here goes: I tag buddy, rambuna, chembelle, swatimala and gradwolf to give some examples of their breaches of the gender barrier.

Social parachutes

We’ve all been there: there are so many awkward situations we face that it is impossible for us to think on our feet in all of them. We’re bound to slip up. We better come up with some cheat-sheets cataloging the prototypes of various awkward situations and the ways we can parachute out of them salvaging a smidgen of dignity. Of course, if you’re getting life lessons from a blogger of questionable social judgment and ethics, chances are that dignity isn’t a priority for you. There! I have insulted the minuscule readership I have. But wait, you’re still reading? What are you made of? Huhhh…lemme go on then. Looks like nothing will budge you. Okay. Here’s a list of some of the awkward situations I (or friends of mine) have faced, and dealt with to satisfaction. Now I know some of you out there have never had a faux pas, or know the perfect things to say in every situation, but the rest of us are fun! Sounds like something to think about on those lonely Saturday nights with a Haagen Dazs and an insufferable Meg Ryan movie.  But now that you’re here, read on…

Continue reading

Café speak

“A grande latte please, no cinnamon…”

“Boy! You’ve not changed a bit I see…”

“Hey, if old habits are allowed to die hard, I think coffee preferences deserve immortality”

“Double cappuccino, just a hint of cinnamon, less foam…”

“Wow…living on the wild side, I’ve never seen you order cinnamon…speaking of old spices I hate, there’s Sam…”

“Sam…surely you mean Sameer, don’t tell me he has Americanized his name too…he is just in his second semester…”

“I know, it is presumptuous of an international PhD student to become red, white & blue before he clears his comprehensives.”

“Ah! What the hell…I heard the NMR machine in his lab is a 600MHz! Is he using it now?”

“Not unless you count the new Taiwanese MS student being spread-eagled on it succumbing to his lecherous advances as research!”

“Well…chemistry manifests itself in weird ways!”

“That stab at humor was passé even for you”

“Hey…you should have ordered a decaf I guess…the last thing you need is more caffeine at your crabbiest best…I take it your animal protocol was turned down again?”

“I will never understand how a person who regularly endorses the slaughter of cows and pigs by sauntering into Burger King can cry like a baby if the protocol has a lower quantity of anesthesia than regarded as appropriate…for god’s sake I am researching pain management, how can I do that without causing the animals some pain…”

“Calm down, they are doing their job…we can’t have people being callous about animal handling in the name of research…so tell me do you get time to spend with your girlfriend at all?”

“Not really, between her trips to the polytechnic department for the gel filtrations and my constant bickering with the animal department and numerous protocol addenda…we manage to squeeze a phone call in every 3-4 days or so…”

“She lives three blocks away…her lab is three buildings away from yours…I think one or both of you might be consciously avoiding the other…”

“I need a refill…what about you?”

“Yeah…tell the waitress to repeat mine too…so I got lucky last night”

“God! I noticed that grin on your face ever since we sat down…I knew if I did not ask you, you would certainly rub in my face all the action you’ve been getting…so who is she?”

“Remember that cute ABCD biomed student of mine…well…she is not my student anymore, so I asked her out and she came in if you know what I mean”

“Your innuendoes never cease, do they?”

“Yeah whatever, while you spend your nights playing pocket-billiards mulling over doses of propofol, I am playing the game…did I mention I am up for an NIH grant?”

“F#$% you…all the fun and yet you get the laurels too…you cell culture waalahs get your own way on everything!”

“Well, not to sound too churlish, but animal research is like having a girl friend- lots of work and negotiation and not much scoring…cell culture is like my life…scoring all the time and no adjustment!”

“Hey…I have a lab meeting in half an hour…need to shave, shower and order pizza…”

“You are proving my point!”

“Same time, same place, next week?”

“Until then!”

“Bye bro…bye Sam (a little louder)”

“Bye…Hey Sam…guess who I banged last night…”

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy The Precipice