Saturday, May 31, 2008

What An Absolute Disgrace

Before I start, I have to confess that right now I am practically at the point of bursting into tears.

Readers of my blog will recall that just a couple of weeks ago I did a post titled "Honor Killings - The Ultimate Oxymoron" about a 17 year old girl named Rand Abdel-Qader in the southern Iraqi city of Basra who was brutally murdered by her father because she had a crush on a British soldier. After the girl's murder, her mother Leila Hussein left her monster of a husband, but not before being brutally beaten by him.

Just a moment ago, I was reading the online edition of the UK news publication The Guardian, when the headline for this article caught my eye. I was absolutely stunned and heartbroken. Leila Hussein is dead.

"Leila Hussein lived her last few weeks in terror. Moving constantly from safe house to safe house, she dared to stay no longer than four days at each. It was the price she was forced to pay after denouncing and divorcing her husband - the man she witnessed suffocate, stamp on, then stab their young daughter Rand in a brutal 'honour' killing for which he has shown no remorse.

Though she feared reprisals for speaking out, she really believed that she would soon be safe. Arrangements were well under way to smuggle her to the Jordanian capital, Amman. In fact, she was on her way to meet the person who would help her escape when a car drew up alongside her and two other women who were walking her to a taxi. Five bullets were fired: three of them hit Leila, 41. She died in hospital after futile attempts to save her."

Meanwhile, the worthless piece of shit ex-husband of hers who set this whole tragedy in motion is still a free man. This is the wonderful world of liberated Iraq.

Goodbye Training Wheels!

Today, my son reached an important milestone in a child's life, he rode his bicycle without the training wheels on. It was timed nicely, as he celebrated his seventh birthday yesterday.

Twice before in the last week or so I had taken him to the parking lot of his elementary school to practice riding without the training wheels in a relatively safe area. He was very nervous and wobbled from side to side as he pedalled. When he would pick up enough speed, I would let go of the bottom of his seat and for a few seconds he was riding on his own. But then he would look back and panic when he realized I had let go of him, and his feet would come off the pedals and scrape the pavement.

"Don't let go Daddy!" he would plead to me.

"But that defeats the whole reason we're here," I replied. "You were riding the bike on your own. You can do it."

On the second practice run, I tried a different tactic: deception. When he was pedalling, I would let go of the seat but I kept my hand close enough so that my son thought I was still holding on. Still, his performance on the second day was not noticeably better than the first.

This morning I took him to the school again for a third practice. After a few shaky starts, he got to a point where I felt confident enough to let go and then I just stood there and watched as he kept on going. After about ten seconds, he stopped as he realized I was no longer there.

"Why did you let go?" he asked me.

"Because you don't need me to hold on anymore. You were riding on your own. You can do it!" I exclaimed. I think it finally sunk in for him that he really knew how to ride his bicycle without the training wheels and that it gave a boost to his confidence.

After a couple of more times of holding on to get him started, I told him to start pedalling on his own. He had some trouble with this and had many false starts, but he started to get it and was eventually riding completely on his own. Then it was time to go home and share the good news with his mom.

Pet Peeve of the Day - May 31, 2008

Well, apart from having this prick's picture staring down at me almost every day, a frequent pet peeve of mine is Sarah Jessica Parker.

Whenever I can, I try to walk to my office from Penn Station and back, particularly when the weather is warm. Because Sex and the City is set in New York City, every time a new season of the show was set to roll out, Manhattan would be plastered with huge billboards of Sarah Jessica Parker dressed up as her character Carrie Bradshaw on the show.

Now I am sure that Sarah Jessica Parker is a nice person, but I don't find her remotely sexy. And it appears I am not alone in my opinion.

I'm not trying to be mean. It's just that she sets herself up for this kind of criticism because her image is practically shoved down our throats here in New York. And it never ends!

After the sixth and final season of Sex and the City ended several years ago, I figured, "Finally, I will be spared having to be surrounded by billboards of her." But alas, that was not to be the case, because the following year, the DVD boxed set of the show was released, which generated another wave of billboards. After that died out, again I thought I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Oh, but no, it was not to be. Because the powers that be decided they needed to make a Sex and the City movie, thus generating another series of promotional billboards featuring Parker's Carrie Bradshaw. Come on people! At least throw in a few billboards showing Kim Cattral, who is the only star of the show who has any sex appeal at all.

And while the movie will probably only be in the theaters for a few weeks and the Carrie Bradshaw billboards will eventually come down, I know my torment will not end there. Because I can just anticipate what will happen when the movie is released on DVD and Blu-ray disc in time for the holiday season. Maybe after then I can be free? I doubt it. As sure as the Earth turns, there will likely be a Sex and the City 2.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Veiled Face of Evil

Jihadist Playmate of the Month

Hello readers of Exercise in Futility. This dark robed lady is Malika El Aroud. Today I read a profile of her in The New York Times (registration required) that was quite disturbing.

"On the street, Malika El Aroud is anonymous in an Islamic black veil covering all but her eyes.

In her living room, Ms. El Aroud, a 48-year-old Belgian, wears the ordinary look of middle age: a plain black T-shirt and pants and curly brown hair. The only adornment is a pair of powder-blue slippers monogrammed in gold with the letters SEXY.

But it is on the Internet where Ms. El Aroud has distinguished herself. Writing in French under the name “Oum Obeyda,” she has transformed herself into one of the most prominent Internet jihadists in Europe."

At one point, she lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban with her first husband, who would participate in the attack on Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud just days before the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

After her husband’s mission, Ms. El Aroud was briefly detained by Mr. Massoud’s followers. Frightened, she was put in contact with Belgian authorities, who arranged for her safe passage home.

“We got her out and thought she’d cooperate with us,” said one senior Belgian intelligence official. “We were deceived.”

But here is the really outrageous part: "Now, even as Ms. El Aroud remains under constant surveillance, she is back home rallying militants on her main Internet forum and collecting more than $1,100 a month in government unemployment benefits."

I was so stunned by this revelation that I e-mailed someone at the Belgian Embassy to the United States asking how such a thing can be possible. Why is this woman collecting unemployment benefits?

It also bothered me that the reporter for the Times referred to Malika El Aroud as a "Belgian". She is not a Belgian, she is a Moroccan immigrant who happens to live in Belgium and who is having her pro-terrorist activities essentially subsidized by the very Belgian taxpayers that she so despises. I e-mailed the Times reporter asking her to explain why she designated Malika as a Belgian when she so clearly is a parasite who just happens to live in Belgium.

Another thing that annoyed me is a quote from a Claude Moniquet, president of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. The article quotes him saying that "Malika is a role model, an icon who is bold enough to identify herself. She plays a very important strategic role as a source of inspiration. She’s very clever — and extremely dangerous." I underlined the passage above, because when you look at the picture of her above, she obviously is not bold enough to identify herself, at least when she is out walking in public or having herself photographed.

That got me to thinking about the efficacy of Belgium enacting a mask law which would essentially outlaw the wearing of a veil in public. Mask laws are on the books on a number of states in the United States, including my home state of New York. In some states the laws were enacted in response to violence by masked members of the Ku Klux Klan. As it currently stands, Malika El Aroud is allowed to advocate jihad against non-Muslims, including presumably the people of Belgium, while being subsidized by the Belgian taxpayers in her nefarious activities, all the while her identity in public being kept anonymous. It would be nice if the public could identify her by face when she ventures outside of her apartment, though if such a law were enacted she would likely avoid going outside as much as possible and not allow pictures of her face to be taken.

Still, the Times article does provide some clues as to where she might be found: "Ms. El Aroud operates from her three-room apartment that sits above a clothing shop in a working-class Brussels neighborhood where she spends her time communicating with supporters, mainly on her own forum, Minbar-SOS." And the Times article also shows a picture of her husband. It might just be enough to go on for some determined individuals to provide a little pay back for Theo Van Gogh. Not murder of course. Maybe breaking the bones in her hands so she can't type hate messages on her Internet forums anymore.

Incidentally, I logged on to the Minbar-SOS site. Unfortunately, it was all in French, but I did get a login ID and left a message on one of the threads: "Votre dieu Allah n'est pas existe. Abandonnez Islam et embrasse secular humanisme!" If you need a translation, I wrote "Your god Allah does not exist. Abandon Islam and embrace secular humanism!"

Monday, May 26, 2008

Oil Prices, Plunging, May Not Have Hit Bottom

Thought that would catch your eye!

That is a headline from an article in The New York Times dated September 13, 1993. You need to register with the Times to read the full article, but here is an excerpt to remind you of the good "old" days:

Since June, oil prices have dropped more than $3 a barrel, bringing the average price late last week to about $15.50 a barrel on spot markets in London and about $16.75 a barrel in the United States.

Industry executives and analysts say oil markets are so flooded with oil that prices might slide to about $10 a barrel in the next few months, around the low point of the mid-80's, presenting the industrial economies with a welcomed lift and consumers around the world with a windfall.

For consumers, the drop in oil prices has brought unexpected benefits. Gasoline prices have fallen to less than a dollar a gallon in some parts of the United States this summer, though in a survey taken at about 10,000 stations on Sept. 10, the price of regular unleaded gas at self-service pumps was $106.7 a gallon, according to The Lundberg Letter, which tracks prices.

The Crystal Ball of James Dale Davidson

Today I was rummaging through some boxes around the house and came across a booklet I had received in the mail years ago ominously titled "The Plague of the Black Debt: How to Survive the Coming Depression" by a James Dale Davidson. The booklet describes Davidson as "a principal in Strategic Advisors Corporation, an asset management group for wealthy individuals" and touts his ability to predict events.

Davidson co-authored several books with a Lord William Rees-Mogg (he being a member of the British House of Lords), including The Sovereign Individual. I tried to find out more information about Davidson on the Internet. There does not seem to be much information about him. Apparently he founded the National Taxpayers Union.

Anyway, "The Plague of the Black Debt" has a copyright date of 1993, so I received it either that year or in 1994 at the latest. In the booklet, Davidson makes a number of ominous predictions, some that in hindsight were laughably wrong. In fact, I believe I held on to the booklet just so I could check the accuracy of its predictions years later.

My favorite is on page 58, where Davidson confidently claims that "Bill Clinton is going to be a one-term president. He is going to get clobbered in the '96 election, assuming his own party even renominates him. I am as sure of this as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow." (Emphasis mine). Granted, Clinton did suffer a major setback in the '94 congressional election, with the Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress. But Clinton handily defeated a lackluster Bob Dole in the 1996 election.

Davidson continues, "Bill Clinton's failure will take place against a background of deep depression, urban riots, and people losing their homes." None of these things happened on Clinton's watch, though many people are losing their homes under the current administration.

Another amusing little nugget, "[S]ome events I expect in the next few months: Boris Yeltsin will lose his job. Russia will come under the control of a nationalist, militarist regime - in effect, a fascist regime." In actual fact, Boris Yeltsin would be re-elected to a second term in 1996 and he would later voluntarily step down at the end of 1999.

Davidson also makes dire prognostications about how the national debt would increase by a trillion dollars during Clinton's "one-term" presidency. But as we all know, budget deficits turned into budget surpluses during Clinton's second term, and there were even perfunctory efforts to pay down the national debt.

There are a number of other "predictions" that Davidson makes about what Clinton would do that never happened in either of his two terms as president. And of course, all of these alarmist claims were pitched to gullible investors to get them to subscribe to Davidson's monthly STRATEGIC INVESTMENT newsletter.

Now to be fair, not all of Davidson's predictions or analyses in the booklet were wrong. One specter he raises in the booklet as happening "in just a few years from now" is of "millions of homeowners 'upside down' - with the mortgage bigger than the market value of the home. A lot of them will hand the key to the lender and walk away. There will be a lot of empty houses with 'For Sale' signs." And in fact, in recent months, this has indeed been happening. There are even companies now set up to help homeowners to indeed walk away from their houses.

But Davidson made so many specific predictions that were incredibly wrong that it makes me wonder if any investors got hosed in the Nineties following his advice. It just goes to show that a healthy skepticism applies to more than just the claims of religion and the supernatural.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Saudi Arabia Sucks

Since I've beat up on Malaysia enough for its religious intolerance with my Malaysia Sucks series, it's time to focus on another Muslim shithole, Saudi Arabia.

Via Human Rights Watch comes this latest outrage from the desert kingdom that sets the standard for misogyny and male chauvinism.

An appeals court should overturn a Riyadh court’s decision to drop charges against the Saudi employer who abused Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, so severely she required several surgeries, including amputation of her toes and fingers, Human Rights Watch said today. The judge awarded Nour Miyati 2,500 riyals as compensation, or approximately US$670, a small fraction of what such injuries would normally garner in Saudi Arabia.

In a previous ruling, all charges against Nour Miyati’s male employer were dropped. The female employer confessed to abusing Nour Miyati and was sentenced to 35 lashes. On Monday, a Riyadh general court judge reviewed the case and handed down a second verdict, ignoring compelling physical evidence and finding the female employer not guilty of abuse.

“This outrageous ruling sends a dangerous message to Saudi employers that they can beat domestic workers with impunity, and that victims have little hope of justice,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Instead of instilling confidence among migrant workers that they can seek redress through the Saudi justice system, this decision shows that even a case involving egregious abuse, ample evidence, and intense public scrutiny has not been given fair treatment.”

Contrast the treatment of Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia like Nour Miyati with how the justice system here in the United States deals with those who abuse their Indonesian maids.

One terrible irony in all of this is that over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has been spending large sums of money promoting its strict form of Islam in Indonesia, which is the world's most populous Muslim country where a generally more moderate form of the faith has traditionally prevailed. And yet while the Saudis seek to promote Wahabi Islam in Indonesia, they don't seem to mind abusing Muslim Indonesians who emigrate to Saudi Arabia to work. Why this hasn't sunk into the minds of the Muslims of Indonesia I cannot say. There is definitely a disconnect going on here.

The New York Times has an informative article here (registration required) about Saudi influence on Islamic education in Indonesia. Below is a salient excerpt from the article.

Until recently, Indonesia has been famously relaxed about its religion. But slowly Indonesians are becoming more devout and in the battle for the soul of Islam here the Saudis are playing an important though stealthy role, Indonesian scholars say.

But as the Indonesian state has become increasingly unable to look after basic needs -- the unemployment rate is about 20 percent -- growing numbers of Indonesians are finding some of the stricter tenets of Saudi Arabia's Islam more attractive.

The underlined portion is my emphasis, because as I have written several times before, one of the most important factors in the spread of fundamentalist Islam is the failure of secular governments to provide basic social services to its people. It leaves a vacuum that the fundamentalists cleverly exploit, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali described in the section of her book Infidel where she writes about her years in Nairobi, Kenya. Therefore, one of the best antidotes to Muslim fundamentalism is to try to deny it fertile ground in which to fluorish by promoting alternatives to faith based charities that serve as a means to give cover to religious proselytization. Unfortunately, that will not be easy to do with an administration here that seeks to funnel more tax dollars to faith based providers.

Another telling excerpt from The New York Times article is evidence of the disconnect in the minds of the Indonesian people:

Last month, [Please note this article dates from 2003] the Pew Global Attitudes Project, an international poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showed striking support among Indonesians for the Saudi leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, whom Indonesians rated as one of the three leaders they trusted the most, and a huge drop in support for the United States.

My advice to the U.S. State Department, keep playing up how Saudi Arabia treats its Indonesian domestic workers and contrast it with the punishment the Sabhanis received in the United States for abusing their Indonesian maids.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is This Really Necessary?

On Wednesday evening, I took my children and my Indonesian friend Sandra who was visiting us to eat dinner at a French restaurant in my neighborhood that recently opened called Brasserie Cassis.

The food is pretty good if you live in the Plainview area and would like to check it out, though I was disappointed that they changed their menu since the last time I was there and no longer have the crab cake appetizer that I really liked.

But what I find really odd about Brasserie Cassis is that it is the only place I think I have ever been to in this world that has mini flat screen televisions mounted on the wall over the urinals in the men's room! Yep, there are two urinals in the men's room and each one has its own television.

Maybe it is just me, but I fail to see why it is necessary to have television sets mounted on the wall above the urinals in a bathroom. It takes about thirty seconds to a minute at most (depending on how much you have had to drink, of course!) to take a piss. Throw in another minute to wash and dry your hands.

Now, the restaurant business is very competitive, and from what I understand, the proft margins for restaurants are rather low. You would think then that a restaurant owner would want to keep his electricity bill as low as possible. Televisions in a men's room seems like a rather gratuitous waste of electricity to me. I mean, it's not like guys are going to say, "Let's eat at Brasserie Cassis tonight. That way I can catch a few snippets of the Yankee game while I'm taking a whiz."

Mind you, there are two large television screens over the bar already, so it is not like the customers at Brasserie Cassis are deprived of their need to watch the ball game while they are dining on their frog's legs and roast duck. Oh, and I should add that they do not have televisions in the ladies room, as my friend Sandra confirmed for me.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Open Thread: Penis and Vagina Edition

First, here are a couple of funny clips. The first is clip of a very good scene from the movie Born on the Fourth of July wherein crippled Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, goes off on a drunken tirade against his strict Catholic mother. It just cracks me up that she is so uptight about human sexuality that she is horrified to hear her son say "penis."

The next clip is an informative and sensitive look at the rare but difficult female affliction known as Vagina Dentata.

After that, feel free to leave your comments about sex and human anatomy in the comments box. There's just one rule though. You have to use at least one word such as penis, vagina, testicles or clitoris in your comment.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

President Bush Gets It Right on the Status of Women in the Middle East

It's not often that I have anything good to say about President Bush. And I say that as someone who favored him over Al Gore in 2000. It took a Bush presidency and a Republican congress to turn me from a libertarian conservative into a libertarian liberal. I feared that his invasion of Iraq in 2003 was going to turn that country into a giant version of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and thus far the situation in Iraq continues to validate my reasons for opposing the war.

That being said, I read
President Bush's recent remarks to the World Economic Forum at Sharm El Sheik in Egypt this weekend. I thought he made some important statements about the need to extend equality to women in the Middle East. Below are the relevant portions of the president's speech, with several passages underlined by me for emphasis.

"Building powerful economies also requires expanding the role of women in society. This is a matter of morality and of basic math. No nation that cuts off half its population from opportunities will be as productive or prosperous as it could be. Women are a formidable force, as I have seen in my own family -- (laughter and applause) -- and my own administration. (Applause.) As the nations of the Middle East open up their laws and their societies to women, they are learning the same thing.

I applaud Egypt. Egypt is a model for the development of professional women. In Afghanistan, girls who were once denied even a basic education are now going to school, and a whole generation of Afghans will grow up with the intellectual tools to lead their nation toward prosperity. In Iraq and Kuwait, women are joining political parties and running campaigns and serving in public office. In some Gulf States, women entrepreneurs are making a living and a name for themselves in the business world.

Recently, I learned of a woman in Bahrain who owns her own shipping company. She started with a small office and two employees. When she first tried to register her business in her own name, she was turned down. She attended a business training class and was the only woman to participate. And when she applied for a customs license, officials expressed surprise because no woman had ever asked for one before. And yet with hard work and determination, she turned her small company into a $2 million enterprise. And this year, Huda Janahi was named one of the 50 most powerful businesswomen in the Arab world. (Applause.) Huda is an inspiring example for the whole region. And America's message to other women in the Middle East is this: You have a great deal to contribute, you should have a strong voice in leading your countries, and my nation looks to the day when you have the rights and privileges you deserve."

Sadly, as the results of this weekend's
parliamentary elections in the Gulf emirate of Kuwait demonstrate, the Middle East still has a long way to go with respect to expanding the role of women.

Of the 275 candidates running for the 50 seats in Kuwait's parliament, 27 were women. Not a single one of the women candidates was elected. Unfortunately, as the video clip below from al-Jazeera English demonstrates, not only are Arab women held in check by male conservative attitudes, but by brainwashed Arab women who believe that a woman "can't handle" the responsibilities of being an elected official. And to think this is a country that we helped to liberate.

The Elusive Quest for Objective Morality

During my religious phase, which lasted several years, and during the many years afterwards up to the present day as an atheist, I have tried to cultivate and abide by a moral code to guide my conduct. From my personal observations and experience, my interest in history, and my readings from various religious and philosophical texts, it became obvious to me that certain qualities in both individuals and society at large were beneficial if one values civilization. While acknowledging that I am a flawed human being who does not always live up to the standards he sets for himself, I took it for granted that overall I was a moral being and a good person.

It was much to my surprise then when approximately one and a half or two years ago a theist I had been having a back and forth with in the comments section of somebody's blog (I don't remember whose) told me that I had no standing to say that something was right or wrong because as an atheist my morality was subjective. In other words, I could only argue as to why I personally thought something was right or wrong and that my opinion as to why rape or murder was wrong was no more valid than another individual who might think that rape or murder was okay. The theist, on the other hand, took the position that since the god he believed in declared that rape and murder were wrong, his morality was objective.

Up until that moment, I don't believe I had ever heard that argument raised. Frankly, it struck me as rather ridiculous. Since as an atheist I did not (and of course still do not) believe in the existence of god, the theist's morals were just as subjective as mine. The difference between he and I was that my view of right and wrong and good and bad was a synthesis from various sources, while the theist derived his view of right and wrong by buying into an already prepackaged belief system that purported to offer an objective standard of right and wrong.

I would sum up the difference between theists and atheists over morals as this: a theist believes that our actions ultimately have some cosmic significance, whereas atheists tend to believe that an action is good or bad based upon the harm or benefit it brings. For example, a Christian believes that homosexual relations are an abomination in the eyes of god and that those who engage in such conduct as well as the society that condones it, are risking divine wrath. In contrast, most atheists do not consider homosexuality intrinsically wrong. Rather, there are certain degrees of risk to the act itself. As long as the participants in the act do not engage in reckless promiscuity and they are careful to use protection to reduce the risk of transmitting an infection, I fail to see why two consenting adults of the same gender giving each other sexual pleasure should be an issue for anybody. Nor does it seem remotely plausible to me that the act of Adam kissing Steve instead of Eve reverberates across the universe and causes some omniscient deity to engage in a furniture smashing tantrum in his celestial living room.

To be honest, I found it rather insulting to be told by some theists that my values were nothing more than my "personal preference." I felt it trivialized a value system I had developed through study and consideration as being akin to a consumer deciding they liked McDonalds over Burger King, Coke over Pepsi, or chocolate covered sprinkles over rainbow colored sprinkles. To dismiss someone's moral point of view as a mere preference, at least to me, is to attribute to it an almost whimsical flimsiness, as if an atheist who abhors the idea of child rape might one day decide, "Well, why not try it just once just to see what it is I am objecting too. Heck, I might even end up liking it!" And since I have no personal desire as a married, heterosexual man to have sexual relations with another man, I fail to see how my liberal views towards gays represents a "personal preference" for homosexuality.

Furthermore, my value system serves to act as a check on things that I would prefer to do. It would be great to lead an irresponsible life, drinking alcohol to excess, not showing up to work, maxing out my credit card, sleeping with whatever woman I desired. According to a theist, if I am a law unto myself, I might as well be doing these things. But I don't. Why? Because I am intelligent enough to recognize that there are consequences to these behaviors that can cause me irreparable harm. What would be more accurate to say is that we have hierarchical values. If one values having a house and amassing enough savings for retirement, for example, those values will serve as a check on one's baser desires to spend every penny on material things rather than socking money into a retirement account.

I would argue that my reasons for either engaging in or refraining from certain activities is not much different than a theist. We are both concerned with possible consequences. Where we part ways is over our differing beliefs as to what those consequences are. A Christian might desire to partake in certain activities but refrain from doing so because of a fear that he or she will commit a sin in the eyes of God and risk going to hell. I, on the other hand, will refrain from doing certain activities because I recognize they can have harmful activities in this life not only for myself, but possibly for others as well.

Another important thing to point out is that atheism itself is not a value system. Atheism is simply an absence of belief in a deity. It is not the source of one's values. Rather, by eliminating the possibility of a god as a source of morals, an atheist has to come up with other criteria for determining whether something is right or wrong. But as I wrote in the opening paragraph, an atheist does not simply make up these things from scratch. We are all shaped by a host of factors, such as culture, environment, and education. In other words, we draw upon whatever sources are available to us. Our values are not created in a vacuum.

I will concede that my value system is just that, mine. I would consider myself to be a humanist who believes that a society that upholds justice, fairness, and mutual respect and tolerance is, while not perfect, the best of all possible worlds. I also recognize that I do not have all the answers. Maybe some people cling to religion as their source of morality because they crave certainty in ther lives. If there is no god, then we really do have to figure things out for ourselves, stumbling and making mistakes along the way, and hopefully making refinements and improvements as we learn from experience. Perhaps it is easier to embrace the idea that a collection of books or texts such as the Bible or the Quran contains everything we need for determining what is right or wrong. But just because they purport to be the objective source of right and wrong does not make them so.

Back When I Was Your Age...

When I was a kid, every now and then some adult would tell me "Back when I was your age, [fill in the blank] only cost a nickel" or some variation on that.

I thought of that today when I went to a local card and gift shop. When I was paying for the greeting cards at the counter, I noticed one of those cartons filled with packs of baseball cards, specifically Upper Deck 2008. Out of curiosity, I grabbed a pack to see how much it cost. I was astonished to see that a pack of about 25 baseball cards was $3.99. Heck, I can get a gallon of gasoline (but not for much longer!) for the price of a pack of baseball cards.

My son is around the age I was when I first started collecting baseball cards, and I remember back then a similar wax pack of baseball cards cost a quarter. In the box there was also a wax pack of Topps 2008 cards containing 48 cards, which cost a whopping $9.99! I'm sorry, but that is totally absurd.

I used to be a baseball fan and card collector until my late teens. For some reason, I just stopped caring about sports in general and I sold my entire baseball card collection to an acquaintance of mine. The baseball card business was starting to get out of control by then anyway. When I was a kid, there was just Topps. Then in the 1980's, Fleer and Donruss came along, and one had three brands of baseball cards to choose from. But by the early 90's, it got even worse, with even more brands such as Upper Deck and Pinnacle. The basball card market had become saturated.

Recently, I had been considering buying baseball cards again partly because I wanted to reignite my interest in baseball, and I figured having a set of cards would be an easy way to familiarize myself with the players. But $3.99 for a pack of 25 cards is way too cost prohibitive. Maybe if I could find a way to make my car run on baseball cards, it might be worth it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Onward Gasoline Prices

Remember the good old days about 4 weeks ago when I filled up the tank of my car with gasoline that cost $3.60 per gallon?

Well, as I anticipated then, it didn't take long for the price of gasoline here on Long Island to pierce the $4.00 per gallon mark.

Long Island's Cable News 12 and newspaper Newsday have articles on the reaction of Long Islanders to the price rise here and here. Newsday's James Klurfeld has a column here, where he concludes glumly "I've begun to wonder if the suburban lifestyle, the Long Island lifestyle, will still be viable a generation from now."

As I wrote in my initial post linked to above, as well as this more recent one, some of the ways I have tried to respond constructively to the increase in the cost of gasoline include reducing my driving and to using my bicycle when possible for local errands.

I don't doubt that other people are responding in a similar fashion. It got me to thinking that among the many consequences of the rise in gasoline prices it seems certain that as more suburbanites switch to bike riding that we will begin to see an increase in (1) bicycle riders who are killed or injured riding on main roads, and (2) bicycle thefts. It also would not surprise me if owners of gas guzzling vehicles like Hummers® become victims of acts of vandalism by angry people looking to vent their misplaced rage against convenient scapegoats.

One thing for sure, there will be no quick fix to this situation. We have had cheap gas for so long that we began to think of it as an entitlement. Several years ago, when my wife used to work on weekends, I would sometimes pass the time on nice, sunny days by putting my kids in their booster seats and going for scenic drives. Those days, like the days of cheap oil, are over.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Helping Iraq's Women

With Iraq being such a clusterfuck, it is easy to fall prey to pessimism and despair when it comes to the deteriorating state of women's rights in that country.

One resource for at least prodding our own government to act is the U.S. State Department's Office of Women's Issues. I just sent them largely the same e-mail as I sent to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The Office does have an Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative. You can e-mail the Office of Women's Issues at Of course, I will post any reply I receive from them.

But if you are interested in helping women through organizations that work directly in Iraq, there is the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (or OWFI). The organization was founded by Yanar Mohammed, who is profiled in this CNN article. There is also a link to a video on CNN's web site about her, though be forewarned that it opens with footage of a 17 year old girl who was stoned to death by an angry mob.

OWFI is a sister organization of MADRE, which has a position paper on "honor killings" here. The organization is very left wing in its politics, which for some might be a turn off. It considers the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be illegal and that:

"US actions have caused a sharp rise in "honor crimes." The US destroyed the Iraqi state, leaving people more reliant on conservative tribal authorities to settle disputes and mete out "justice," including "honor killings." The occupation has empowered extreme social conservatives, who exploited both the power vacuum created by the invasion and a climate of rising poverty, violence, and insecurity to impose a reactionary social agenda, including support for "honor crimes." Although the US is obligated as the occupying power to protect Iraqis’ human rights, including the prevention and prosecution of "honor crimes," it has not done so. In fact, the US appointed reactionary leaders who condone "honor crimes" to the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003."

OWFI has five shelters throughout Iraq "to protect women whose lives are threatened by abuse, including women who have been targeted for murder in the name of “honor." If you would like to offer financial support for OWFI's efforts, you can do so here. As I come across any other organizations in Iraq and elsewhere that are dedicated to empowering women in reactionary Muslim countries and combatting "honor killings," I will bring them to your attention in future posts.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

UPDATED: My E-mail to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs re: Rand Abdel-Qader

Update: Wouldn't you know it, my e-mail was bounced back as undeliverable. However, if you go to this page, there is an electronic form you can submit, so I copied my e-mail message into it and submitted it.

Below is the e-mail I sent to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding Rand Abdel-Qader at

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you may know, it has been reported recently in the news that a 17 year old Iraqi girl named Rand Abdel-Qader was murdered by her father Abdel-Qader Ali in what is popularly known as an "honor killing." To the best of my knowledge, this man remains free and continues to draw a salary from his government job.

I wish to convey in the strongest terms possible my sense of outrage at this crime. To allow this reprehensible excuse of a man to remain free sends a message to Iraqis that their women and daughters are disposable objects whose lives are without any individual worth.

Therefore, I respectfully call upon the Iraqi National government to (1) bring Abdel-Qader Ali to justice for the murder of his daughter, and (2) to support grassroots organizations throughout Iraq to promote public information campaigns to fight against cultural attitudes that sanction "honor killings", a term which I might add is an oxymoron, as there is no honor in murdering a defenseless woman or teenage girl. Furthermore, assistance, including housing and security, must be provided for Iraqi females who are at risk from their family members.

I thank you for your consideration and eagerly look forward to your response.

Sincerely yours,

In addition, I will prepare a letter to be sent via snail mail to the Iraqi Embassy in the United States tomorrow night. As before, I will let you know if I receive any response. I will also do some research to see if there are any organizations in Iraq that exist that try to promote women's rights and speak out against honor killings and I will certainly share anything I find with my readers.

My E-mail to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad re: Rand Abdel-Qader

Below is the text of an e-mail I just sent to the U.S. Embassy at

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you may know, it has been reported recently in the news that a 17 year old Iraqi girl named Rand Abdel-Qader was murdered by her father Abdel-Qader Ali in what is popularly known as an "honor killing." To the best of my knowledge, this man remains free and continues to draw a salary from his government job.

As an American citizen who is outraged that this despicable behavior goes on, I strongly urge that Ambassador Crocker press the Iraqi government to bring Abdel-Qader Ali to justice. To allow this reprehensible excuse of a man to remain free sends a message to Iraqis that their women and daughters are disposable objects whose lives are without any individual worth. It also makes a mockery of President Bush's claims to be advancing the cause of freedom in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

In addition to bringing Abdel-Qader Ali to justice, I would be interested to know what, if anything, the United States government is currently doing in Iraq through the Embassy in Baghdad to combat this tribal mentality that devalues women. While I understand the situation is Iraq is rather volatile, there have to be some grassroots Iraqi organizations that the United States government can assist in campaigning against "honor killings" in the country. The cause of freedom in the Arab world cannot be achieved unless and until Arab women have achieved equality.

I thank you for your consideration and look forward to hearing from you. I will also attempt to contact various organs of the Iraqi government as well.

Sincerely yours,

I will let you all know if and when I receive a reply.

Honor Killings - The Ultimate Oxymoron

Several people in the atheist blogosphere have already posted about the "honor killing" of a 17 year old Iraqi girl named Rand Abdel-Qader by her father Abdel-Qader Ali, including this post at Pharyngula.

I imagine that a lot of people who read stories like this have the same reaction as me. There is an almost incandescent rage as one imagines the last moments of a terrified and defenseless girl having the life choked out of her by her father over something that most of us write off as just an episode of harmless puppy love.

The idea that the value of a woman's life is worthless in and of itself apart from upholding a family's sense of honor is an affront to civilization. It belongs on the ash heap of history along with slavery and communism.

True to his misogynist core, the murderous father blames the mother of his dead daughter:

He said his daughter's 'bad genes were passed on from her mother'. Rand's mother, 41, remains in hiding after divorcing her husband in the immediate aftermath of the killing, living in fear of retribution from his family. She also still bears the scars of the severe beating he inflicted on her, breaking her arm in the process, when she told him she was going. 'They cannot accept me leaving him. When I first left I went to a cousin's home, but every day they were delivering notes to my door saying I was a prostitute and deserved the same death as Rand,' she said.

It heartens me at least somewhat knowing that the mother did not stand for the killing and has left the bastard. I can only hope that she will remain safe.

As if being a murderer wasn't bad enough, the Guardian article to which I linked also reveals Abdel-Qader to be a vicious homophobe:

Homosexuality is punishable by death, a sentence Abdel-Qader approves of with a passion. 'I have alerted my two sons. They will have the same end [as Rand] if they become contaminated with any gay relationship. These crimes deserve death - death in the name of God,' he said.

It never ceases to amaze me how these religious fanatics worship a god that is supposed to be all powerful, and yet they feel the need to kill in this god's name rather than letting Mr. Big mete out justice Himself.

As for what to do in response to this and other honor killings, part of the problem is that we feel that expressions of impotent rage are all that we can do. I have to admit to wishing that there existed some paramilitary force to combat honor killings by murdering the family members who perpetrate them and then leaving their mutilated bodies in the town square to serve as a warning to others. If any ex-military guys want to organize such a group, I will be happy to send them a fat donation. After all, how can such a deeply ingrained cancer in a culture be combatted unless its members know that there will be deadly consequences for engaging in such conduct?

Of course, my revenge brigade idea will never be more than a fantasy. But there are things that you and I can do in response to this, however futile it may seem.

First, lodge a complaint with the United States Embassy in Iraq. At the very least, if they hear from enough of us, they can try to lean on the Iraqi government to address the issue.

Secondly, we can also complain to the Iraqi Embassy itself. Unfortunately, I perused the site and there does not seem to be an e-mail address. The contact page lists an address and a telephone number. I plan to write a letter, hopefully this evening, and will post it here. Rand Abdel-Qader and all of the other victims of "honor killings," which I call the ultimate oxymoron, deserve justice.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I Just Don't Get It

Right now on TBS, the screen is blacked out with a message that reads "Due to MLB Restrictions Today's Game Must Be Blocked Out on TBS."

Why don't they just show something else then instead of having a blacked out screen for the next 2 hours?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Pitfalls of Fuel Conservation

But first, the good news. After last filling up the tank of my Buick Century on April 18, I was able to hold out for almost three weeks before making another trip to the pump this morning. If I wasn't taking my kids to swimming lessons all the way out in East Meadow, I could have easily made it to this weekend.

And now for the bad news. When I last filled up my car with gasoline, the price at the local Amoco station was 3.60 per gallon (incidentally, I dispense with the 9/10ths of a cent crap and just round it off to the nearest penny!). Today it had risen to 3.92 per gallon. If I had filled up the tank this past weekend, when the price was 3.86 per gallon, I could have saved six cents per gallon. In other words, with gasoline prices continuing their steady march upwards, the longer I hold out going to the gas station, the more I end up paying.

In response to this dilemma, I have decided to try a new tactic. I will try to limit myself to using a quarter tank per week, and every week buy $10 worth of gasoline. That way, I will still be keeping my fuel costs low, but I won't be leaving myself vulnerable to sharp price increases. And of course, if gasoline prices should dip once in a while, I will be able to get a little more bang for the buck. I see it as working somewhat like the dollar cost averaging strategy that some stock investors employ.

I have also devised some other tactics to reduce fuel consumption. Idling at stop lights waiting for the light to turn green means that a vehicle is burning fuel while not going anywhere. I have discovered alternate routes to avoid some red lights at intersections. If I drive to stores and shopping malls, I park further away rather than closer. My house is close to an intersection, and I try to time when I start the car after the light has been red about thirty seconds to reduce idling time when I have to go that way. While these tactics will only save me a few drops of gasoline here and there, I figure every little bit helps.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Malaysia Comes to Its Senses

I was all prepared to do another post about why Malaysia Sucks when I read this article today on the BBC website.

In short, Rais Yatim, the Foreign Minister of Malaysia, was floating a plan that would require that Malaysian women seeking to travel alone abroad would need to obtain written consent from their family or employers.

"The Malaysian foreign minister said the move would prevent single women being used by gangs to smuggle drugs.

Foreign Minister Rais Yatim said 90% of cases where Malaysian women had been jailed by foreign courts involved drugs.

He told the New Sunday Times newspaper that a compulsory letter of consent to travel alone would enable women's families to make sure they were not being tricked by drug smuggling gangs."

But rather than impulsively doing a quickie post linking to the article, I decided to do a little more digging.

A short while ago I went on the web site of The Star, the on-line version of one of Malaysia's English language newspapers, to see if there were any updates to this story.

And, as it turns out, this article (excerpt below) reports that the proposal is being dropped.

"The proposal for women travelling out of the country alone to show a consent letter from their employer or family cannot be implemented, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said yesterday.

He said it was impossible to introduce such a regulation because thousands of Malaysian women travelled overseas annually on official duty or otherwise."

Also on the Star's site was this letter to the editor by an L. Taft in Kuala Lumpur. She points out that "It is outrageous to even consider this, just because of 119 women (out of a total population of nearly 12 million women in this country) got into trouble while abroad." I also got a good laugh out of this line, "Would you propose that all the men in Malaysia be castrated just because most of our rapists are men? " The whole letter is worth reading though and I recommend you check it out.

In the course of my research, I also discovered the existence of an Islamic feminist group in Malaysia called Sisters In Islam. They were mentioned in the BBC article at the top of this page as being one of the organizations in Malaysia that was outspoken against the proposed regulation.

Here in the West, a lot of us have a tendency to view the Islamic world as one big monolith, so it is refreshing to see that there are groups like Sisters In Islam that are standing up against misogyny and male chauvinism in Islam. But as their mission statement makes clear, the movement for women's rights in Muslim societies will occur within an Islamic framework. As much as the idea might clash with my idealism, it is not realistic to expect that secular and liberal values will be promoted in the Islamic world except in an Islamic context.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Rites of Spring

As a homeowner in the suburbs, one of the annual tasks I perform every spring around late April/early May is to prep the lawnmower for another season of cutting grass.

This entails a number of quick steps. Screwing in a new spark plug. Installing a new filter. Pouring in a quart of motor oil, and then filling up the gasoline tank. This year however entailed an additional step I had never done before. I replaced the old lawnmower blade with a new blade. Let me tell you, that blade bolt did not come loose easily! But I persevered, and finally removed the old blade and bolted on the new one. With the old blade in hand, I went up to my wife who was tending the garden out front, and gave her an imitiation of Karl Childers from Sling Blade.

After I had replaced the blade and completed the other aforementioned steps, it was time for the moment of truth. It is the same anxious moment I go through every year. Will the mower still work? I pushed the primer several times, squeezed down on the control bar, and tugged on the starter handle. The mower made a half-hearted roar and then sputtered out. I gave the starter handle another tug, but was met with silence. I grimaced a bit, but was not surprised. The mower never starts up on the first try of the year. So, I pushed the primer a few more times, jerked on the starter handle again, and this time was met with a mighty roar that did not subside. My Sears Craftsman mower was still alive and ready for action.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday Funnies - As Good As It Gets

Here is a great clip from the movie As Good As It Gets, wherein Jack Nicholsen's Melvin Udall tells off his severely injured neighbor's maid after she injects God-talk into the conversation.