Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 19th, 2014

A scathing indictment of the (highly artificial) sports culture

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Somehow it reminds me of nothing so much as factory farming: playing music to the cows to increase milk production in the “whatever it takes” spirit. Or the way slaughterhouses are now designed by animal behaviorists to minimize problems due to the cattle becoming fearful or angry: soothing and reassuring environments right up until the hammer falls. Or how casinos have no windows, no clocks, and seating only at the game tables. Free/cheap booze, though…

All examples of how the behavior of animals must be managed to improve corporate profits.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 5:32 pm

What to say to your kids about their endeavors

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Great article, with some excellent advice for many soccer, Little League, music, dance, etc., parents. The remark provides support without restrictions or conditions.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 10:58 am

Posted in Daily life

It is not religion that is wrecking the Muslim world

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Take a look at what else is going on. Religion is often used as a kind of tarpaulin: it covers a bunch of disparate things, presenting only itself to view. Best to look under the tarp. Sean McElwee writes in Salon:

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. . .

Continue reading. One good point made later:

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 9:10 am

Factors affecting lifespan of a marriage

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 8:41 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

32 scifi novels you should read

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Interesting list and I’ve read all but one (and a secondhand copy of that is on its way to me). Philip K. Dick was indeed a force to be reckoned with, though I certainly would have included The Man in the High Castle. And why isn’t Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep included? Etc.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 8:40 am

Posted in Books, Science fiction

For your Thanksgiving-dinner consideration: Turchetta

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Here’s how to make it, including step-by-step photos. The Wife says that it was unbelievably delicious.

And, speaking of recipes, I’m making this one tomorrow: Peruvian Pork Stew with Chilies, Limes, and Apples.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 8:24 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

What is a (Catholic) family?

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Peter Manseau has an interesting essay on what constitutes a Catholic family, but the ideas are easily extended to serve as a platform for one’s own ideas of a family. He ends his essay on a provocative note:

What family is not wounded? As Cardinal Erdo read the bishops’ relatio in a Vatican conference hall last week, anyone watching carefully could see on the desk before him a small sculpture of the holy family: Mary, Joseph and Jesus. To Catholics it is a depiction of a woman who conceived a child before she was married, a chaste stepfather who nearly divorced her as a result, and that original sign of contradiction, the human son of God. A church that claims to descend from this most untraditional of domestic arrangements might ask itself: Was any family ever more irregular than that?

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 8:21 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Do all who oppose physician-assisted suicide also oppose the death penalty?

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The question is unavoidable when you encounter statements such as these:

On a website called Catholic Online, Chaplain Adele M. Gill writes, “I struggle to even think of this woman’s plan to end her own life prematurely, as courageous. Because it is not. Rather it is anything but. In fact, in my mind, it is a self-destructive act of selfish cowardice to end your own life before God’s perfect timing.”

Kara Tippetts, a 38-year-old woman with metastasized breast cancer, sent an email to website A Holy Experience, in which she urges Maynard to consider her loved ones before making the decision: “It was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”

FWIW, I fully support physician-assisted suicide so long as it is voluntary on the part of the person choosing suicide. I dislike non-voluntary death, such as war and the death penalty and murder. The idea that we die at “God’s perfect timing” is childish.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 6:51 am

Posted in Daily life

Thomas Frank takes a hard look at Paul Krugman’s defense of President Obama

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 6:43 am

Democracy in the Mideast will require participation of Muslim political parties

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Neil Thompson has an insightful essay at Informed Comment, worth thinking about:

When many Westerners think of the Middle East today they tend to see a region gripped by religious and sectarian violence. What all the many conflicts have in common is the participation of inflexible and fanatical groups of fighters dogmatically opposed to the further modernization and Westernization of their home countries. If they seize power, it is feared that they will impose a backwards-looking theocratic form of governance across the spaces that they dominate, and will trample on the human rights of vulnerable groups. The panacea for this in the eyes of many Western citizens is to temper religious fervour by separating it from politics and implementing a secular and liberal democratic system of government. However, no Middle Eastern state has yet to obtain such a system by its own efforts, while Western attempts to enact nation-building have so far ended in failure. Consequently, Western policymakers have tended to back authoritarian governments as a bulwark against fundamentalist rule.

The chronic weakness of state authority in the Middle East, coupled with the flourishing of extremist movements, once helped to maintain this ‘strongman’ model of governance. Yet, this strategy is now regarded at best as a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution to the region’s myriad problems. The default Western response to this double-sided problem has been to propose the transfer of functions performed by some religious organizations (for example healthcare) over to a stronger state. Under this scenario, religious groups would cease to perform political functions and the state would guarantee their freedom to practice their beliefs without interference.

Towards Religious Democracies

But what if the West’s secular state model is a merely a product of its own historically violent struggles with modernity in the 17th century? Up until this point in time, the very idea that religious authority should have no place in the political system of a European state would have been controversial to say the least – just as it is in parts of the modern day Middle East. But the creation of democratic systems in Indonesia and Turkey help to disprove the notion that Muslim or Middle Eastern cultures are incapable of living under democratic systems. But the ‘secularist’ price for Islamist participation in the political process was the promise not to pursue a theocratic or one-party model of government once in power.

While the Middle East’s secularists cannot keep the influence of Islamist organizations out of political life, Islamists are seemingly unable to monopolize power without resorting to the same type of oppression that discredited their republican or monarchical enemies. Democratic elections therefore offer a third path between two oppressive political systems. However, developing organic and sustainable democratic processes undoubtedly takes time; the collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing a dictator does not immediately create the conditions for political transformation. If anything, the ongoing travails within these countries helps to reinforce that the Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonization began a mere five or six decades ago.

Stop Taking Sides

The emergence of democratic states in other parts of the Islamic world suggests that they can also emerge in Arab and Middle Eastern states. It is also highly likely that any indigenous political group that attains significant popularity under these systems will be influenced by Islam. This is in much the same way as many Western political parties are influenced by Christian frameworks and assumptions, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. Just as Western politicians have to be in favor of ideals such as “freedom” or “democracy“, leaders in Muslim-majority countries also have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Invoking Islam is both a legitimizing measure and a short-cut to the communication of ideas.

Most Islamist movements also offer programs of action that do not necessarily threaten the West. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to secure power via democratic processes diverges with the aims of groups like IS or Al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. The West’s tolerance of the removal of elected Islamist political movements by force should be regarded as a strategic blunder that has helped to encourage jihadist narratives of victimization. The recent killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is a case in point. While this Somali militant group’s profile has undoubtedly increased over the past few years, its rise to prominence was facilitated by the overthrow of its more locally-focused predecessor in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. By being seen to take sides in inter-Muslim disputes and colluding against fundamentalists with their local enemies, the West has indirectly encouraged more extreme forms of Islamism. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 6:28 am

Obama Administration working hard to ensure that the US can continue to torture

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Also, the US embraces cruelty as a way to treat prisoners. It feels to me that the US has lost its way. Charlie Savage writes in the NY Times:

When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.

Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty, and now, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before theCommittee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency. . .

Continue reading.

You’ll notice Obama’s pattern: take one position in order achieve his goals, reverse his position once he’s gotten what he wants. For example, Obama’s solemn pledge to vote against telecom immunity from lawsuits regarding their illegal wiretaps stimulated a lot of support for him. Then he did vote in favor of telecom immunity. As the torture posturing shows, Obama cannot be trusted even to follow the law (the Convention Against Torture, which he ignores by not investigating and prosecuting those who authorized and delivered torture to prisoners held by the US).

Obviously, nowadays many believe that the US cannot survive as a free and democratic nation if we do not allow our law enforcement and military officials to torture prisoners and treat the untortured with cruelty. Such people have unreasonable confidence that those tactics will not be used on them.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 5:36 am

The Social Security office of judges who hear appeals for disability benefits is 990,399 cases behind

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One of the things that happens with a dysfunctional Congress is that government begins not working—services seize up, benefits fail to be delivered. Given that this is exactly what one party—the GOP—wants to happen, it’s hard to see how to fix it. For a long time, the role of Congress had been to make sure the government worked. Now a good part of Congress wants government not to work, and they strive mightily to that end. What’s weird is that they accept no responsibility for their own actions: they starve the CDC, for example, cutting its budget drastically over a decade, and then they blame the CDC when the cuts leave it unable to respond. This drives good employees from the government—but that’s the idea. The GOP is working continuously and with determination to destroy the American government because that government is the sole remaining obstacle to corporations being able to get away with whatever they want. We are assured that this state of nature for corporations will improve our lives, not because corporations care about anything other than profit but because the invisible hand of the market will clean up the toxic spills and oil pollution, it will ensure that insurance companies honor their contracts and do not sell deceptive plans, it will repair our roads and provide good schools for all citizens, and so on. Only in fact the invisible hand of the market seems to slap consumers and caress corporations.

David Fahrenthold writes in the Washington Post:

In an obscure corner of the federal bureaucracy, there is an office that is 990,399 cases behind.

That is Washington’s backlog of backlogs — a queue of waiting Americans larger than the populations of six different states. It is bigger even than the infamous backups at Veterans Affairs, where 526,000 people are waiting in line, and the patent office, where 606,000 applications are pending.

All of these people are waiting on a single office at the Social Security Administration.

Above: Patrick McGarvey, 48, pets his cat Marco at his house in Riegelsville, Pa. McGarvey, who has debilitating back pain, waited seven years, including appeals, to get approval for his Social Security disability benefits. “Some nights my back pain is so bad that my animals are the best company when I’m up,” he said. McGarvey has two cats and a dog. (Kevin Cook for The Washington Post)

Social Security is best-known for sending benefits to seniors. But it also pays out disability benefits to people who can’t work because of mental or physical ailments. And it runs an enormous decision-making bureaucracy to sort out who is truly disabled enough to get the checks — and who is trying to game the system.

Within Social Security, this backlogged office handles appeals of appeals. In most of its cases, the applicants have already been turned down twice by lower-rung officials who didn’t think they were disabled enough.

BREAKING POINTS:

WHERE GOVERNMENT FALLS APART

Fifth in a series examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems.

If they appeal to this office, they can plead their case in person, before a special kind of Social Security judge.

The judge is supposed to read the applicant’s medical records and ask questions about medications, limitations and levels of pain. There are 1,445 of these Social Security judges, which means its in-house legal system is larger than the entire regular federal court system — district and appeals courts and the Supreme Court put together.

When they make a ruling, they must decide whether someone is truly unable to hold any job.

That is slow work, made slower by a pileup of outdated rules and oddball procedures. The judges’ official list of jobs, for instance, is a Depression-era relic last updated in 1991. It still includes “telegram messenger” and “horse-and-wagon driver” — not exactly growth industries. It doesn’t mention the Internet at all.

These judges fell behind when Gerald Ford was president. And they never caught up. Along the way, their office has become a bureaucratic parable — about what happens when the machinery of government cannot keep up with its good intentions.

In this case, the system became, in effect, too big to fix: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 5:23 am

Posted in Congress, Government

Rep. Alan Grayson at least believes Congress should fix things

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Like he wants to fix the frequent flier programs run by airlines, programs that share some scam-like characteristics. Christopher Elliott reports in the Washington Post:

Frequent-flier programs are rigged to favor airlines, deceive passengers and cost consumers billions of dollars. At least that’s the contention of one Florida frequent traveler named Alan Grayson.

But it just so happens that Grayson is a member of Congress. And as such, he can ask the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to investigate airline loyalty programs.

That’s exactly what Grayson, a Democrat, did this summer, and now an audit is underway. It will take about a year for the inspector general to determine whether airline loyalty program practices are unfair and deceptive. But when the dust settles, the DOT might be closer to cracking down on one of America’s favorite addictions: collecting points and miles.

Public opinion on the issue is split. While some frustrated passengers side with the congressman, others vehemently disagree that the government ought to get involved in regulating their points and miles. A new survey by market research firm Colloquy reflects this deep division. It found that 54 percent of U.S. loyalty-program members are “unhappy” with their reward options. Also, 48 percent say that they’ve been “frustrated” by the reward redemption process.

Grayson didn’t respond to requests for a comment on the audit. But in a letter to DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel, he presented his arguments for tighter regulation. “Frequent flyer programs are prone to manipulation by the airlines that control them,” he wrote, likening the estimated $700 billion worth of miles to an unregulated currency. “Airlines establish the rules, the terms, the value, expiration dates, and the sales pitches.” To earn more money, airlines are constantly devaluing this de facto currency, which is “profitable for the airlines, and costly for the consumer,” wrote Grayson.

The congressman zeroed in on federal laws that seem to prohibit the kind of behavior airlines are engaging in, and correctly pointed out that the DOT has some authority to regulate them.

But some say that his critique misses the biggest problem with these schemes. Thanks to loyalty programs, airlines have completely separated their most valued customers from the rest. They lavish top spenders with perks while forcing the less valuable passengers to sit in shrinking seats and pay fees for services that should come with every ticket, such as a seat reservation and the ability to check one bag without paying extra for the privilege. Frequent-flier programs have widened the airborne caste system to the point where it’s hard to believe everyone’s on the same plane. They’re making air travel worse for all but a few privileged elites, according to critics. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 5:13 am

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