Nov 18th, 2008 by ravi
George Bush and Jon Stewart explain Free Market Capitalism

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Nov 17th, 2008 by ravi
Luck and evolution

Here is a simple truth that you won’t hear from all the high priests and popularisers of science (in this case, biology):

“If you dissect the past, you can see that luck is a big part of everything in the grand scheme of evolution,” says lead author Stephen Brusatte, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History.

The researchers whose work is being commented upon above, examined the historical record of dinosaurs and crurotarsans:

[E]arly dinosaurs were contemporaries of crurotarsans, croc ancestors, during the late Triassic period about 230 to 200 million years ago. This reptilian group ranged from quick predators to two-legged vegetarians to leisurely grazers. Then, as the Triassic turned into the Jurassic, the creatures roaming the planet changed drastically. Most crurotarsans disappeared from the fossil record. But many dinosaurs survived—and flourished, diversifying into meat-eating giants, armored warriors and winged aviators.

But, they caution:

If dinosaurs were more fit for the environment, they should have had a higher rate of evolution and more diverse body types. Instead the researchers found that the two groups evolved at similar rates and that the crurotarsans had a wider range of body types, suggesting that they had actually adapted to more lifestyles and ecological niches.

The authors argue that because dinosaurs and crurotarsans were living parallel lives together for so long, it is unlikely the dinosaurs necessarily ruled. If you could travel back to the Triassic, Brusatte says, you would have guessed that the crocodilians would have won out. “There’s no way you could argue that dinosaurs were superior to them,” he says. Instead, he thinks an extinction event at the beginning of the Jurassic some 205 million years ago—like runaway global warming or an asteroid crash—may have just been bad luck for the crurotarsans.

The orthodoxy has objections:

“I think that the conclusions of the authors aren’t warranted,” says Kevin Padian, a dinosaur paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Good luck isn’t an evolutionary force…. Extinctions aren’t random.”

I am no evolutionary biologist or paleontologist, but this sort of response seems to miss the point, logically speaking. Properly understood, there is no implication that there is true randomness in evolution — or rather survival (after all, all events have causes). Rather, it seems to me, the parsimonious claim is that species flourish or perish not entirely due to their own adaptations in the constant presence of environmental pressures (and while we are at it, I thought multi-level selection was taboo and we are only to talk of individuals, not species?), but also often due to large environmental events that alter their fate. One could of course present these events as selective pressure and the pre-existing advantages of the organism as “adaptations” but I think such a tautology would rob the theory of much of its value.

[ Link: Was the Dinosaurs’ Long Reign on Earth a Fluke?: Scientific American ]

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Nov 17th, 2008 by ravi
From the NYRB: How Muslims Made Europe

Anthony Appiah’s NYRB article:

How Muslims Made Europe – The New York Review of Books


Later Christian historians assigned to the Battle of Poitiers an epochal significance. Gibbon remarked that if the Moors had covered again the distance they had traveled from Gibraltar, they could have reached Poland or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, he thought, if ‘Abd al-Rahman had won, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” For him, the fate of Christian Europe hung in the balance. After a week of battle, he wrote, “the Orientals were oppressed by the strength and stature of the Germans, who…asserted the civil and religious freedom of their posterity.”[2]

At the time, though, it would have been odd to regard Charles Martel’s victory as guaranteeing religious freedom. The small but influential Jewish community in Iberia had been tolerated in Spain when their Visigothic overlords were still Arian heretics ruling Catholic and Jewish subjects; but Jews began to be persecuted in 589, when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism. For the Jews, then, the Muslim Conquest, bringing rulers who practiced toleration toward them as well as toward Christians and Zoroastrians, was not unwelcome. During the first period of Muslim domination, Christians, too, discovered that they would have religious freedom, so long as they (like the Jews) did not seek to convert Muslims or criticize Islam. The contrast with Frankish rule could hardly have been more striking. The obsession of Catholic rulers with religious orthodoxy was one of the things that made the Dark Ages—as Petrarch was to dub the period from the fifth to the tenth centuries—so dark.


The original core of the Great Mosque at Córdoba, which stands to this day, was built for ‘Abd al-Rahman in an astonishing burst of architectural fervor, apparently between 785 and 786. With 152 columns, arranged in eleven aisles, it consisted of two parts: a large prayer hall, some two thirds of an acre in area, and an adjoining piazza of the same size, filled with rows of orange trees, which together made up a square whose sides measured about 240 feet. The results, added onto over the centuries, still amaze. Lewis writes:

Its builders devised the art and science of transmuting matter into light and form that medieval Christendom was the poorer for its general inability to comprehend…. The unprecedented innovation of the Great Mosque’s master builder was to loft the coffered ceiling to a height of forty feet by means of an upper tier of semicircular arches that appeared to be clamped to the bottom tier of horseshoe arches supported by columns…. Structurally ingenious, the visual effect of the double arches has been from the moment of completion one of the world’s distinctively edifying aesthetic experiences.

If the Great Mosque was the most evident material embodiment of the civilization of the Arabs in Spain, their intellectual achievements were even more astonishing. Starting in ‘Abd al-Rahman’s time, the Umayyads sought to compete with their Abbasid rivals in Baghdad for cultural bravura. Over the next few centuries, Córdoba alone acquired hundreds of mosques, thousands of palaces, scores of libraries. By the tenth century, those libraries had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, dwarfing the largest libraries of Christian Europe. The university of Córdoba predated Bologna, the first European university, by more than a century. And al-Andalus was a world of cities, not, like Europe, a world of country estates and small towns. By the end of the millennium, Córdoba’s population was 90,000, more than three times the size of any town in the territory once occupied by Charlemagne. In those cities, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Slavs, and countless others created the kind of cultural goulash—a spicy mixture of a variety of distinct components—that would generate a genuine cosmopolitanism.

There were no recognized rabbis or Muslim scholars at the court of Charlemagne; in the cities of al-Andalus there were bishops and synagogues. Racemondo, Catholic bishop of Elvira, was Córdoba’s ambassador to Constantinople and Aachen. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, leader of Córdoba’s Jewish community in the middle of the tenth century, was not only a great medical scholar but was also the chairman of the caliph’s medical council; and when the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII sent the caliph a copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, the caliph sent for a Greek monk to help translate it into Arabic. The knowledge that the caliph’s doctors acquired made Córdoba one of the great centers of medical expertise in Europe. By the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s successor and namesake, ‘Abd al-Rahman III, in the tenth century, the emir of al-Andalus had the confidence to declare himself caliph, successor or representative of the Prophet and, implicitly, leader of the Muslim world.

Like Charlemagne’s, the emir’s position was partly religious; he was supposed to be (and often was) pious. But piety for the emirs did not mean—as it did for the Holy Roman Emperor—imposing one’s religion on others. From the earliest times, the emirs of al-Andalus accepted conversion but did not demand it. There were, naturally, some pressures to convert: non-Muslim subjects—the so-called dhimmi—were required to pay special taxes; and non-Muslims could be enslaved while, at least in theory, Muslims could not. Still, it probably took about two centuries after ‘Abd al-Rahman’s death in 788 for Muslims to become a majority in al-Andalus.[4] In the cities of al-Andalus, scholars of all three faiths, with access to the learning of the classical world that the Arabs had inherited and brought to the West, gathered and transmitted the learning whose recovery in Europe created the Renaissance.


[ Link ]

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Nov 11th, 2008 by ravi
Monbiot on US politicians

How These Gibbering Numbskulls Came to Dominate Washington |

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind’s closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

There have been exceptions over the past century – Franklin Roosevelt, JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived – but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan’s response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter – stumbling a little, using long words – carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said: “There you go again.” His own health programme would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn’t always like this. The founding fathers of the republic – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others – were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?


[ Link ]

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Nov 11th, 2008 by ravi
The Way It Is

In light of the Obama phenomenon, take it as you wish:

The Way It Is
Bruce Hornsby & The Range

Standing in line marking time–
Waiting for the welfare dime
cause they cant buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old ladies eyes
Just for fun he says get a job

Thats just the way it is
Some things will never change
Thats just the way it is
But dont you believe them

They say hey little boy you cant go
Where the others go
cause you dont look like they do
Said hey old man how can you stand
To think that way
Did you really think about it
Before you made the rules
He said, son

Thats just the way it is
Some things will never change
Thats just the way it is
But dont you believe them

Well they passed a law in 64
To give those who aint got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don’t change another’s mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar

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Nov 11th, 2008 by ravi
McCain on immigration

Nobody should mistake McCain for a leftist, but I wonder if Obama would stand up to an angry crowd and defend basic decency (albeit with implicit caveats) as McCain does here, in a rally in Michigan, during his presidential bid:

But I will tell you this, ma’am. I am not going to call up a soldier that’s fighting in Iraq today and tell him that I am going to deport his mother. I am not going to do that. YOU can do it. Okay?

Two things struck me about this (apart from the pandering about ‘securing the border’ etc): his direct and clear rejection of the mob, and the positive reaction that the rejection drew from the crowd. Obama fans speak of his inspirational or transformative capacity, but I doubt I have seen him take a clear and unpopular stand such as this and use that clarity and integrity to turn the crowd around.

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Nov 7th, 2008 by ravi
Pankaj Mishra on the Zakaria/Friedman vision of India

Pankaj Mishra writes in The Guardian, about Fareed Zakaria, the latest intellectual empty suit of the talking heads circuit, his latest book, and the vision of India as a neo-liberal capitalist success:

In the past five years bomb attacks claimed by Islamist groups have killed hundreds across the Indian cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. An Indian Muslim was even involved in the failed assault on Glasgow airport in July last year. Yet George Bush reportedly introduced Manmohan Singh to his wife, Laura, as “the prime minister of India, a democracy which does not have a single al-Qaida member in a population of 150 million Muslims”.

To be fair to Bush, he was only repeating a cliche deployed by Indian politicians and American pundits such as Thomas Friedman to promote India as a squeaky-clean ally of the United States. However, Fareed Zakaria, the Indian-born Muslim editor of Newsweek International, ought to know better. In his new book, The Post-American World, he describes India as a “powerful package” and claims it has been “peaceful, stable, and prosperous” since 1997 – a decade in which India and Pakistan came close to nuclear war, tens of thousands of Indian farmers took their own lives, Maoist insurgencies erupted across large parts of the country, and Hindu nationalists in Gujarat murdered more than 2,000 Muslims.

Apparently, no inconvenient truths are allowed to mar what Foreign Affairs, the foreign policy journal of America’s elite, has declared a “roaring capitalist success story”. Add Bollywood’s singing and dancing stars, beauty queens and Booker prize-winning writers to the Tatas, the Mittals and the IT tycoons, and the picture of Indian confidence, vigour and felicity is complete.

The passive consumer of this image, already puzzled by recurring reports of explosions in Indian cities, may be startled to learn from the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) in Washington that the death toll from terrorist attacks in India between January 2004 and March 2007 was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq. (In the same period, 1,000 died as a result of such attacks in Pakistan, the “most dangerous place on earth” according to the Economist, Newsweek and other vendors of geopolitical insight.)

To put it in plain language – which the NCTC is unlikely to use – India is host to some of the fiercest conflicts in the world. Since 1989 more than 80,000 have died in insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeastern states.


The Indian elite’s obsession with the “foreign hand” obscures the fact that the roots of some of the violence lie in the previous two decades of traumatic political and economic change, particularly the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the related growth of ruthlessness towards those left behind by India’s expanding economy.

In 2006 a commission appointed by the government revealed that Muslims in India are worse educated and less likely to find employment than low-caste Hindus. Muslim isolation and despair is compounded by what B Raman, a hawkish security analyst, was moved after the most recent attacks to describe as the “inherent unfairness of the Indian criminal justice system”.

To take one example, the names of the politicians, businessmen, officials and policemen who colluded in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 are widely known. Some of them were caught on video, in a sting carried out last year by the weekly magazine Tehelka, proudly recalling how they murdered and raped Muslims. But, as Amnesty International pointed out in a recent report, justice continues to evade most victims and survivors of the violence. Tens of thousands still languish in refugee camps, too afraid to return to their homes.


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Nov 6th, 2008 by ravi
Suburban delights

Race and the Suburbs – Campaign Stops Blog –

Take Long Island, the most famous of post-World War II suburbs. About 70 percent of black elementary and secondary school students attend 10 percent of the school districts — most of which are the poorest and worst performing in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, according to research by the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

This situation would not be permitted under federal law if all the students attended the same school district, as in urban systems. But educational segregation on Long Island is immune from legal action because there are an astounding 124 districts. Most are majority white, and residents will tell you they want to keep things exactly the way they are.

Many Long Island towns and villages have property tax systems that punish poor minorities and protect wealthier whites because they don’t adequately recognize the lower property values in minority neighborhoods.

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Nov 6th, 2008 by ravi
Meanwhile back in the White House…

The NYT documents the final days shennanigans of BushCo:

Editorial – So Little Time, So Much Damage –

President Bush’s aides have been scrambling to change rules and regulations on the environment, civil liberties and abortion rights, among others — few for the good. Most presidents put on a last-minute policy stamp, but in Mr. Bush’s case it is more like a wrecking ball. We fear it could take months, or years, for the next president to identify and then undo all of the damage.


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