Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.I decided to post this because it fits in with another theme I have been pursuing, the intersection of personal religious beliefs with the nature of society. They cannot be kept separate.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
More on religion and society
Monday, December 29, 2008
I am retiring my 2008 wall calendar today. It was a collection of photographs by Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004), who used overlapping negatives to make pictures that look like traditional Chinese landscapes. Here is one. I find them quite moving.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
society and belief
It is perhaps the core tenet of liberalism that people can believe something strongly while not asking others to believe as they do. This is what tolerance means -- it means I think what I think, while accepting, even embracing, your right to believe something else. In practice, though, this is hard for most people to do. The Pew Research Center has been asking people for years, in differently worded questions, if people of other faiths can go to heaven, and no matter how they ask the question a majority of Americans answer yes.
One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.So the fact the American Christians are constantly exposed to Jews, atheists, Hindus, Indian traditionalists, and the like undermines their Christian faith -- because it is, after all, one of the core beliefs of Christianity that no one can be saved except by faith in Jesus.
Religious fanatics of every stripe have always understood this, which is why they have tried so hard to control what their people are exposed to. By some combination of separation of themselves from others (Catholic schools, Fundamentalist Mormon compounds) and control of the social discourse, they want to limit their people's knowledge of other beliefs. It is easier to believe something when everyone you know also believes it, and even easier if you can believe that there is something wrong with everyone who doesn't believe it. A tolerant society will be one with much less fundamentalism and much more wishy-washy belief.
This conflict has been most open in America lately in the struggle over gay marriage. Various religious figures (including Rick Warren) have argued that public tolerance of homosexuality undermines their religious freedom. The forces of tolerance say that this is silly, that they aren't asking fundamentalists to marry gays in their own churches. But I understand what they are saying. What is socially acceptable does influence what people believe. (Thus the great battle by liberals to make racism socially unacceptable.) People who are surrounded by married gay couples will be much less likely to condemn homosexuality. Sure, the strongest believers will only be made more certain by social opprobrium, but most people are not like that. Most people go with the flow.
I, of course, celebrate this. The more wishy-washyness the better, as far as I am concerned. But I do understand that making the world more to my liking will make it less to the liking of millions of believers.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
He said he wrote “The Taqwacores” to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.
After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.
One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called “Suicide Bomb the Gap,” which became Muslim punk rock’s first anthem.
“As Muslims, we’re not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves,” said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, “the Revolution” in Arabic.For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.
you are what you are
As a boy, he removed all pictures from his convent cell, keeping only a crucifix, and he scoffed at a fellow novice for reading a devotional poem about the Virgin.Here, already fully developed, were the characteristics that led him to the stake: contempt for orthodoxy, passion for his own beliefs, and a sarcastic tongue.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
A Critic after my own Heart
Time has killed off a lot of modernist art. College courses that teach Gertrude Stein must be awfully undersubscribed today, assuming they are offered. Modernist sculpture and painting still receive respectful attention, but this is largely because people have so much money invested in them. It will be surprising if Mark Rothko, Henry Moore, Josef Albers, and Andy Warhol are still preoccupying any serious person (let alone commanding top dollar) 50 years from now. People who don't like them (most people) can avoid them....-Cristopher Caldwell in the Weekly Standard
But the architectural remnants of the age cannot be avoided. They endure--with their windowless façades, their human-repelling scale, their masses of dirty concrete and their self-conscious wish to shock. Worse things happened in the 20th century, but few were more puzzling than the way Americans let their landscape be ravaged by architects and planners, particularly in the years between World War II and the 1980s. Here a neighborhood of elegant storefronts would be demolished "for parking." There a row of century-old trees would be uprooted so that cars could whiz by at 60 rather than 45 miles an hour. Josep Lluís Sert's ghastly Holyoke Center still occupies the spot in Harvard Square where Massachusetts Avenue's beautiful line of Victorian brick was ripped apart to make way for it in the 1960s. Gerhard Kallmann's Boston City Hall still sits like a Stalinist mausoleum on an empty, windswept plaza, for which dozens of ancient city blocks were razed.
Below, the Boston City Hall. One can only shudder. And it's worse in person.
Monday, December 22, 2008
So I sing to the sun, hail the turn of the year, and bless the light as it grows.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
torture doesn't work
U.S. Army interrogator Matthew Alexander describes his own experiences with Sunni captives in Iraq:
Violence was at its peak during my five-month tour in Iraq. In February 2006, the month before I arrived, Zarqawi's forces blew up the golden-domed Askariya mosque in Samarra, a shrine revered by Iraq's majority Shiites, and unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed. Reprisal killings became a daily occurrence, and suicide bombings were as common as car accidents. It felt as if the whole country was being blown to bits.
Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi. What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model: Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, the interrogators' bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules -- and often break them. I don't have to belabor the point; dozens of newspaper articles and books have been written about the misconduct that resulted. These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.
I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology -- one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they're listed in the unclassified Field Manual). . . . We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work. It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.
Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money. I pointed this out to Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, when he visited my prison in the summer of 2006. He did not respond.
Perhaps he should have. It turns out that my team was right to think that many disgruntled Sunnis could be peeled away from Zarqawi. A year later, Gen. David Petraeus helped boost the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces, cutting violence in the country dramatically.
Our new interrogation methods led to one of the war's biggest breakthroughs: We convinced one of Zarqawi's associates to give up the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader's location. . . .
But Zarqawi's death wasn't enough to convince the joint Special Operations task force for which I worked to change its attitude toward interrogations. The old methods continued. I came home from Iraq feeling as if my mission was far from accomplished. Soon after my return, the public learned that another part of our government, the CIA, had repeatedly used waterboarding to try to get information out of detainees.
I know the counter-argument well -- that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that's not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, "I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate."
Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there's the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.
I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.
More from Alexander here.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
This was my first time sitting in a studio talking into a microphone, and I was very nervous going in. My main impression looking back was how fast it went. We were "on" for an hour, but with the news and two breaks, it was more like 50 minutes. And every caller has to mention how much he loves the show before he asks his long-winded question. What's left was divided among three speakers, plus the host. So I guess I spoke for maybe 10 or 12 minutes. I feel like I said hardly anything. I never got around to acknowledging any of the other people who participated in the project, and I never used some of my best lines.
Kojo -- that's him in the picture -- was great. He is preternaturally calm, not a speck of anxiety or tension in any word or motion. He was a model of manners to everyone but kept things moving. I was impressed.
But I have so much more to say! so if there are any other reporters or hosts out there who want to do a story on the archaeology of Rock Creek Park, go ahead and call.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Dating? Did anybody ever do that?
Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.Every time I read something like this, I wonder, when did people ever date? In the 50s? The 1890s? I know that dating exists, and I even went on a few myself, but the whole institution is horrible and I don't know anyone who thinks otherwise. Why would you want to spend an evening in the company of someone you don't know?
The facts of the world, as I see them, are as follows:
- Humans reach sexual maturity in their teens. In our society they marry in their mid 20s, or even later. They are not going to wait for marriage to have sex.
- Grownups have no part in the process of meeting and mating. It's all up to the young people themselves.
- Nobody has thought of a good way for young men and women to meet in a way that is conducive to eventual marriage. The current model is that men and women hang out together and work together and become friends, and then somehow, magically, you are supposed to get interested in one of your friends, who is supposed to get interested in you. If so, great. If not -- and a lot of people have trouble developing romantic feelings for their friends -- well, a lot of people take care of their sexual needs by hooking up.
- If you want to "date," that is, scout around for a mate among people who are not your friends, how would you find such people? Thus the huge rise of internet dating services. But everyone I know who has done that has hated the process, and most of them have eventually given up, still mateless.
- Dating stinks.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Memories of China
I've been re-reading the journal from my trip to China, and reviewing my memories.
One of the things that stood out for me was how friendly and open all the people I met were, and how completely un-oppressed they acted. I was in Prague in 1986, when there were still Soviet tanks in the streets, and a cloud of fear hung over everything. People told me, in all seriousness, that they never jaywalk because they don't want to come to the attention of the police. Opposition was expressed in cynical, satirical jokes, which were very funny but conveyed a sense that the people were completely separate from the government that they hated and feared.
In China I saw nothing like that. Our guide in Beijing did lower his voice when he confirmed that we were standing in the square where protesters were killed in 1989, and he smiled a cynical little smile when he pointed out that the new headquarters of the Chinese FBI overlooks the spot. But Tienanmen Square was the only place we saw soldiers in China, and neither our guide nor anyone else we saw seemed to have any fear of the police. I saw people vociferously disputing with cops, I guess over traffic tickets, and in Beijing we saw a small protest against the demolition of a historic house. Outside the capital nobody seemed to give any thought to the government at all.
Despite the nationalism that I know is a real force in China, we never encountered anything that even hinted at anti-Americanism. Our guides were all great, willing to talk about anything, never prickly about Chinese problems or accomplishments. Of course that was their job, but everyone else was equally pleasant: shop keepers, people on the train, Chinese tourists at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City who all wanted to take pictures of their children posing with ours. I remember a few slightly suspicious looks as we went around with Zhen Zhen, but considering that foreigners have taken a hundred thousand or so little Chinese girls out of the country in the past 15 years, I was surprised there wasn't more hostility. I am sure many of the people we met mistrust the American government, but perhaps, living under a government that they know lies to them all the time, they understand that the Americans they meet don't control Washington and may even disagree with what the American government does.
Another thing that impressed me about China was how many Chinese people there are. Cities I never heard of have two or three million inhabitants. Even at the biggest tourist attractions, almost everyone you saw was Chinese. And though there are subtle differences between the people of north and south, all Han Chinese look pretty much the same. So walking down the street in Beijing is nothing like walking down the street in New York or London. Perhaps that is one reason the Chinese are so pleasant to small groups of Americans, since they can just look around and see how vastly they outnumber the round-eyed devils.
I would go back tomorrow, if I could. China is an exciting place, rapidly joining the rest of the world but in a very Chinese way. I saw many amazing things and met many delightful people. I imagine that when Zhen Zhen is older we will take her back to visit the land where she was born, and I am very much looking forward to it.
Monday, December 8, 2008
the wisdom of Cao
Joseph Cao, now the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Cao was one of the 1975 Vietnamese refugees from Saigon, and his father spent many years in Vietnamese prisons. Cao attended a Jesuit seminary for a while and worked in very poor parts of Mexico before getting a law degree and becoming an advocate for Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans. Cao ousted 9-term Democratic incumbent William Jefferson of New Orleans, who was indicted for money laundering last year after the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer but was favored to win anyway in his majority black, heavily Democratic district.
An amazing American story, even if Cao is a big fan of John McCain.
Today there are perhaps four million to five million book groups in the United States, and the number is thought to be rising. . . . And more clubs means more acrimony. Sometimes there is a rambler in the group, whose opinion far outlasts the natural interest of others, or a pedant, who never met a literary reference she did not yearn to sling. The most common cause of dissatisfaction and departures?
“It’s because there’s an ayatollah,” said Esther Bushell, a professional book-group facilitator who leads a dozen suburban New York groups and charges $250 to $300 a member annually for her services. “This person expects to choose all the books and to take over all the discussions. And when I come on board, the ayatollah is threatened and doesn’t say anything.” Like other facilitators, she is hired for the express purpose of bringing long-winded types in line.
Ah, life among the social primates; we can't live without each other, but we also can't stand each other.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
There is always something magical about the first snow, even when it is just a dusting like we got last night. Imagine trying to explain or describe it to someone who had never seen it: beautiful white powder falls from the sky, covering everything in a gleaming white blanket, making the hills slippery, and closing the schools so children get an unexpected holiday.
Friday, December 5, 2008
single-celled, inch-long, rolling sea creatures
The grape-like animal, tentatively named the Bahamian Gromia, is actually a single-celled organism, fully one inch long. But what makes it really fantastic is that it moves -- very slowly -- by rolling itself along the ocean floor....
"We watched the video over and over," Johnsen said. The trails couldn't be the result of currents because they went in several directions at the same spot, and sometimes they even changed course. And they weren't the result of rolling downhill. In fact, one trail was found that went down into a small depression and came back up the other side.
"We argued about it forever," Johnsen said. "These things can't possibly be moving!" But they are, at a rate too slow to be captured on the sub's video. Johnsen guesses they move maybe an inch a day or less.
The distinctive trail that the Gromias leave is identical to mud tracks found in the fossil record, which throws a big wrench into one long-standing argument in biology. The fossil tracks pre-date the so-called "Cambrian explosion" 530 million years ago, which was a blossoming of multicellular life and complex body plans from what had previously just been simple, blobby life forms. Many paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have argued that such a trail couldn't possibly have been made by a simple organism, meaning complex body plans were around before the Cambrian explosion. But the Gromia show that simple blobs can indeed move and make tracks in the light, silty bottom.
consider the octopus
Staff believe that the octopus called Otto had been annoyed by the bright light shining into his aquarium and had discovered he could extinguish it by climbing onto the rim of his tank and squirting a jet of water in its direction.
The short-circuit had baffled electricians as well as staff at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, who decided to take shifts sleeping on the floor to find out what caused the mysterious blackouts.
A spokesman said: "It was a serious matter because it shorted the electricity supply to the whole aquarium that threatened the lives of the other animals when water pumps ceased to work.
"It was on the third night that we found out that the octopus Otto was responsible for the chaos.
"We knew that he was bored as the aquarium is closed for winter, and at two feet, seven inches Otto had discovered he was big enough to swing onto the edge of his tank and shoot out the 2000 Watt spot light above him with a carefully directed jet of water."
Director Elfriede Kummer who witnessed the act said: "We've put the light a bit higher now so he shouldn't be able to reach it. But Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts so we have realised we will have to keep more careful eye on him - and also perhaps give him a few more toys to play with.
"Once we saw him juggling the hermit crabs in his tank, another time he threw stones against the glass damaging it. And from time to time he completely re-arranges his tank to make it suit his own taste better - much to the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants."
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
And this nightmarish creation:
How Much is Life Worth?
In Britain, where they take containing health care costs seriously, they have implementing a rigorous cost-benefit approach for new medical techniques:
RUISLIP, England — When Bruce Hardy’s kidney cancer spread to his lung, his doctor recommended an expensive new pill from Pfizer. But Mr. Hardy is British, and the British health authorities refused to buy the medicine. His wife has been distraught.I am not sure that this is the right decision, but at least the British are trying to make it instead of ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. We ought to have a public debate about how much to invest in health care. The problem with the American system is that the cost of everything we do is hidden behind a maze of payments and counter payments, insurance schemes and government subsidies. Neither the doctors recommending treatments nor the patients receiving them have much incentive to think about costs. Maybe in an ideal world they wouldn't, but we have reached the point that the more we spend on health care, the less we have to spend on other things, and we ought to face up to that.
“Everybody should be allowed to have as much life as they can,” Joy Hardy said in the couple’s modest home outside London.
If the Hardys lived in the United States or just about any European country other than Britain, Mr. Hardy would most likely get the drug, although he might have to pay part of the cost. A clinical trial showed that the pill, called Sutent, delays cancer progression for six months at an estimated treatment cost of $54,000.But at that price, Mr. Hardy’s life is not worth prolonging, according to a British government agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. The institute, known as NICE, has decided that Britain, except in rare cases, can afford only £15,000, or about $22,750, to save six months of a citizen’s life.
Consider the question of drugs for heart disease. A few years ago a major study was released showing that for most patients, the cheapest class of drugs, diuretics, worked better than newer drugs costing 20 times as much. And now another study has shown that the first study had only a minimal impact on which drugs patients are taking. Why? Well, the drug companies are constantly pushing the more expensive drugs, doctors are conservative, and nobody else has much incentive to think about how much would be saved by switching patients to diuretics. Only in a crazy system would be spend billions more on drugs that work less well.
To me, the real advantage of a single payer system like they have in Canada would be that we would have to face up to what health care costs and have a real discussion about what we think people are entitled to.
The Santorini Eruption and the limits of knowledge
Now nobody really expects radiocarbon dates to be exactly right all the time, so this discrepancy has been swept under the rug for years. But as the dates pile up it is really starting to seem that either the calibration curve we use for converting radiocarbon years to calendar years is out of whack, or there is something seriously wrong with the Egyptian king lists, which have been treated as a reliable source for centuries. One of the two pillars we use for dating events in the ancient Mediterranean is wrong.
I mention this because I have long been and remain a skeptic about our ability to have precise, accurate knowledge about the distant past. The further we look back in time, the more our vision is blurred, and the more we are dealing with probabilities rather than certainties. Radiocarbon dating is a wonderful tool, but it is subject to many limitations -- the changing level of C14 in the atmosphere (which is why we need the calibration curve), the possibility of local variations in the C14 level created by things like the ocean reservoir effect (the ocean is full of old carbon) or the outgassing of ancient carbon by volcanoes, the re-use of old wood, and the movement of charcoal through the soil because of worms, groundhogs, tree roots, and the like. I once submitted three charcoal samples from a single large pit and got back dates that translate to AD 1700, AD 650 (which matched the artifacts), and 2000 BC.