Cutting Edge Movie

November 30, 2006

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If you haven’t seen previews yet (or posters like this), a movie called Blood Diamond is coming out soon. Alberto over at GlobaLab brought my attention to an interesting controversy.

Apparently, the diamond industry claims the movie, which is set in Sierra Leone in the 90s, paints a dirty picture of a global industry that has really cleaned up their act. So they (the miners & distributors) set up a website to espouse their point of view: Diamond Facts.

However, Global Witness, the non-governmental organization that does the most to research and disseminate information about the origin of ‘conflict diamonds’ (which is an understandaby difficult, dangerous task) disagrees. Global Witness, along with Amnesty International and Warner Brothers (which is distributing Blood Diamond) have teamed up to make Blood Diamond Action, a website which counters the industry’s claims.

Call me a pessimist (or a realist), but when it comes to politics in the developing world, the dirtier answer is usually correct.


Letter to a Christian Nation

November 29, 2006

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That’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter, not Sam Harris’s.

So what would posess the President of Iran to write a letter to the American people? Maybe he knows enough about the American press to realize that he’ll get lots of media coverage. And maybe he’s deluded enough to think that coverage will be positive. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to read some of his letter and offer a little critique.

“Both our nations are God-fearing, truth loving and justice seeking, and both seek dignity, respect and perfection. Both greatly value and readily embrace the promotion of human ideals such as compassion, empathy, respect for the rights of human beings, securing justice and equity, and defending the innocent and the weak against oppressors and bullies.”

I’m not sure the U.S. is quite as God-fearing these days as Mr. Mahmoud thinks. A poll in 1999 showed that only 63% of Americans believe God is “very important” in their lives. And, as the actions of Ahmadinejad’s regime to lessen the rights of women in Iran have shown (undoing years of work by Iranian liberals), profession of ideals relating to human rights is no substitute for really defending them.

“You know well that the US administration has persistently provided blind and blanket support to the Zionist regime, has emboldened it to continue its crimes, and has prevented the UN Security Council from condemning it.”

True, though I would have worded it a bit different (one can and should criticize Israel, but calling it “the Zionist regime” just turns off your American readers…). Our veto on the UN Security Council has been used more than any other coutntry’s, almost exclusively in protecting Israel from (sometimes legitimate) criticism.

“Who can deny such broken promises and grave injustices towards humanity by the US administration?”

Err.. American conservatives? Oh wait, that’s rhetorical.

“The legitimacy, power and influence of a government do not emanate from its arsenals of tanks, fighter aircrafts, missiles or nuclear weapons. Legitimacy and influence reside in sound logic, quest for justice and compassion and empathy for all humanity. The global position of the United States is in all probability weakened because the administration has continued to resort to force, to conceal the truth, and to mislead the American people about its policies and practices.”

He’s right about legitimacy- it stems from justice and compassion. But power and influence stem from military, economic, and cultural power, all of which we’ve been happy to employ in our commonly realpolitik international relations. The illusion of American exceptionalism may convince many American citizens that their country’s actions are for the good of the world just as Muslim fanatics in Iran are convinced that forcing their religion on others is really what’s best for them.

“We all condemn terrorism, because its victims are the innocent.”

But Mr. Ahmadinejad, you do a decidely poor job of condemning terrorism.

“What have the Zionists done for the American people that the US administration considers itself obliged to blindly support these infamous aggressors? Is it not because they have imposed themselves on a substantial portion of the banking, financial, cultural and media sectors?”

Uh oh.. Here comes the whole worldwide Jewish conspiracy again. Powerful Jewish lobby? Sure. Overzealous, scary premillenial dispensationalists? Definitely. But worldwide Jewish conspiracy? Definitely not. (My friend Mr. Steinman told me so.)

And to the Democrats:

“Now that you control an important branch of the US Government, you will also be held to account by the people and by history.”

Thanks buddy. Glad you’re watching out for us.

“It is possible to lead the world towards the aspired perfection by adhering to unity, monotheism, morality and spirituality and drawing upon the teachings of the Divine Prophets. Then, the American people, who are God-fearing and followers of Divine religions, will overcome every difficulty.”

I’m not sure if the religious zealots in both our countries would very well in agreeing on which Prophets to follow. Unity and monotheism sound great, but when people can’t decide what to be unified about (look at denominationalism in Christianity and Islam) or which monotheistic God (and which book He wrote) to follow, unity is often another way of saying “my way is the only perfect way.”

Aspiring to perfection gives me mixed feelings. Yes, we should always try to improve, but the illusion that real perfection is possible is dangerous. It reminds me of a quote from the introduction to Francois Bizot’s The Gate, a first-hand account of his captivity in the killing fields of Cambodia. Bizot writes,

“I detest the notion of a new dawn in which Homo sapiens would live in harmony. The hope this Utopia engenders has justified the bloodiest exterminations in history.”

I think there is a middle ground, a way to envision a world that is better- more just, more peaceful, more free, more prosperous, more equal- without knowing that it is possible within one’s lifetime. But we should always strive to move closer to that ideal, even if the ideal may never be realized. Don’t let visions of revolutionary change- religious or not- stand in the way of gradual steps up.

Or, as Paul Farmer says, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”


The Speed of Meme

November 28, 2006

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A blogger over at Acephalous is doing a pop science experiment to measure the speed of a meme. As a student of social science, I am dutifully linking to the original article. Besides duty, there’s the interesting educational opportunity (though I’m not convinced that the ‘experiment’ will yield any usable data other than increasing Acephalous’s traffic), and the fact that “acephalous” has to be one of the funniest blog titles I’ve seen so far.

If you don’t already know, a meme is a “unit of cultural information transferable from one mind to another.” The term was coined by Richard Dawkins (the famous evolutionary biologist who recently wrote the bestseller The God Delusion, which I still haven’t read) and is intended to be analagous to the gene, which is the unit of selection in biological evolution (at least according to most evolutionary biologists- I’m currently reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene on this very subject).

From Wikipedia:

“Richard Dawkins introduced the term after writing that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplifies another self-replicating unit, and most importantly, one which he thought would prove useful in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

(On a side note, the picture above illustrates the linkings between webpages, and is from a page with interesting illustrations of different types of networks.)

The most prolific memes are probably the ones we don’t even notice. And of course, the concept of memes has proven to be a rather prolific meme, likely due to its flexibility and broad application. Pretty much anyone can make some sort of point using the concept of memes. Like this post.


Iran in Iraq & Iraq in Iran

November 27, 2006

For some time it’s been clear that Iran is more than peripherally involved in the violence in Iraq. The Bush administration has so far refused to talk to Tehran, but now Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani has basically said “if you’re not going to, I will.” That’s right- Talabani has accomplished what Saddam Hussein tried unsuccessfully to do for years: he’s finally arrived in the capital of Iran.

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Of course, it was by slightly different means than what Saddam always intended.

Al-Jazeera has a piece about Talabani’s visit, where he plans to meet with Holocaust-denying, nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with theocratic ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei . Interestingly, it seems that Khamenei and the many Islamic clerics who control much of Iran’s government serve as a necessary counterbalance to Ahmadinejad. In other words, despite what ole Mahmoud says, don’t expect Iran to nuke Israel any time soon.

An interesting note from the Al-Jazeera piece:

Analysts said Talabani, who speaks Farsi fluently after years of contacts with Iran when in opposition to Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, could press Iran to stop seeing Iraq as a battleground in its three-decade-old fight with Washington.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported leaks from the Iraq Study Group, which has advocated (not suprisingly) that America talk openly with Iran and Syria. As I noted in Why Both Parties Have it Wrong in Iraq, whether we acknowledge it or not, Iraq’s neighbors already have large stakes in Iraq’s future.

From the NYT:

“Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Mr. Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with nations like Iran and Syria.

“But senior administration officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either of those nations would go along, especially while Iran is locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program. ‘Talking isn’t a strategy,’ he said in an interview in October.

“‘The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180-degree turn, so that rather than undermining the Iraqi government, they will support it.’”

Apparently James A. Baker III is a big proponent of dialogue with Iran and Syria concerning security in Iraq. Hopefully Robert Gates (the former Iraq Study Group member nominated to replace Rumsfeld) will have similar opinions.

The main complaint against talking with Iran and Syria is that it will merely encourage them in their current paths. But I think we have to accept that Iran and Syria will continue to have strong influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region whether we like it or not, solely by nature of their proximity. The issue at hand is not what the ideological superior thing to do is (i.e., not talking to states that back terrorists) but what the best method for relieving their potential threat is, and in the long term, how to move the Middle East toward governments that are stable, not overly theocratic, and allow some form of a public input (a difficult balance).

It seems that the only loser in the talks between Iran and Iraq is the United States, as it will give Iran more leverage when we finally do get around to talking to them Thoughts?


A Nationalist Feeding Trough

November 27, 2006

(An extension of Rotten Cotton)

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While my full review of Bill Emmott’s book 20:21 Vision: Twentieth Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century is still forthcoming, I’ve been pleasantly suprised by some of his positions. As the editor of The Economist, Emmott espouses an interesting brand of economic libertarianism. He is no pure laissez-faire economist. Instead, he recognizes that in many areas government intervention is necessary in order to allow the market to function optimally. Key areas are in reasonable environmental regulation, responsible control of the money supply, and the restriction of monopolies.

So Emmott’s economic libertarianism seems to be driven more by practicality than ideological devotion to smaller government as necessary for the preservation of freedom. This is important because, in my view, government intervention is often necessary to protect individual’s freedom (and to promote justice) from those who are more powerful- be they individuals or corporations. Faith that the unregulated market would be the best of all possible worlds is akin to religous belief for some, but falls shorts of tests of pragmatism.

Similar to Stiglitz’s critique of farm subsidies in general, here’s Emmott’s pounding of the European Union’s farm subsidies:

“Despite being planned at a supranational level, the Common Agricultural Policy [of the European Union] has become a nationalist feeding trough. It is a case study of how a system of subsidies is almost impossible to dismantle once it has been created, for farmers in every country lobby their politicians to maintain subsidies, quotas and rules that favor them. It is also highly protectionist and throttles poor countries’ farm exports….”

I also just found this interest, sometimes productive discussion of Jeffrey Sach’s poverty-elimination scheme over here.

Elimination of farm subsidies by the U.S. and E.U seem to be a necessity for African farmers to really develop successful business models that could yield exports, and thus a more productive economic base then mere subsistence. The only serious issue remaining, in my estimation, is what incentives to offer developed-world farmers for them to abandon their subsidies. At the very least, fat pensions and re-education programs to help them find new careers would be required. But after that, my mind’s a blank.


You Are Here (The Circle of Phylogenetics)

November 26, 2006

Phylogenetics is the study of the relatedness of organisms. In other words, scientists look at physical traits (morphology) and (more recently) DNA sequences to determine which organisms have more in common that others. Even if you’ve never heard of phylogenetic taxonomy before, you’re already familiar with some basic separations, such as between animals and plants. The Tree of Life has some nice illustrations, but I thought this circular phylogenetic tree was especially cool:

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This circular tree, which was published in Science, Shows relationships between representatives of all species on Earth. It was developed by David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell at the University of Texas. As they state on their website (where the full pdf file is available- a really cool thing to zoom in and out on!) the tree is:

“an analysis of small subunit rRNA sequences sampled from about 3,000 species from throughout the Tree of Life. The species were chosen based on their availability, but we attempted to include most of the major groups, sampled very roughly in proportion to the number of known species in each group (although many groups remain over- or under-represented). The number of species represented is approximately the square-root of the number of species thought to exist on Earth (i.e., three thousand out of an estimated nine million species), or about 0.18% of the 1.7 million species that have been formally described and named.”

Here’s a closeup of the Animals section:
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The arrow below points to humans:

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And one final zoom in:

This reminds me of a quote from Tim Rice that ended up in my Developmental Biology textbook:

“It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all.”


Corinthian Columns

November 25, 2006

The city of Corinth sits on a thin little isthmus between the mainland of Attica and the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. The Temple of Apollo (pictured below) is typical ancient Greek fare, but ironically doesn’t use Corinthian capitals on its columns. The other pictures are of (and from) the Acrocorinth, a mountainous outcropping near the city that was heavily fortified during the Byzantine era. The Acrocorinth was best known for its temple of Aphrodite, which was mainly famous for being the home to a whole lot of women of ill repute.

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Patents and Patients (II)

November 25, 2006

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As an addendum to my previous post, I’ll offer these quotes from Bill Emmott’s 20:21 Vision: Twentieth Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century. Emmott is the chief editor for The Economist. I’ll be writing a review of this book briefly, but for now, here are some quotes that jive pretty well with Stiglitz’s take on pharmaceutical patents:

“Intellectual property (that is, patent) protection for rich-world firms enables them to keep their goods expensive in developing countries while preventing local firms from competing against them.

“This is particularly problematic in the pharmaceutical business. Medicines are cheaper in the third world than in the first, but they are still costly by local standards. Pharmaceutical firms argue that they need to make profits in order to maker their research into drugs worthwhile; without patents and profits, the drugs would not exist. Perhaps more pertinent, however, is a fear that if they sell drugs very cheaply in poor countries, traders will buy them up and export them back to the rich world, undercutting the drugs firms’ profits there.

“Both these arguments are sound. Without profit, the drugs would not be invented. But there remains a question of quite how much patent protection is really needed. And, most important, there remains a question of who should pay to help make drugs cheap in the third world: the drugs firms’ shareholders or rich-world taxpayers. There is a strong moral case for the second, for the use of aid money to bridge the gap between the need for profits to repay research and the difficulty the poor face in paying the bills. This is especially important for diseases that are prevalent only or mainly in poor countries, and thus provide no profits at all in the rich world. Such aid, targeted clearly at medicines and health care, especially for scourges such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, would come with risks. Over time, for instance, the drug firms might raise the prices charged to the donor governments, thus creaming off more of the aid money for themselves. The risk of smuggling back to the rich world would also persist. But it would still save millions of lives. And the moral point would be clear: it is not capitalism that is at fault in making drug prices too high and unaffordable in the third world, it is poverty.”


Failed Eschatology

November 25, 2006

I just read an interesting post over at dangerous idea about thinking of Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet. This is basically the view that Albert Schweitzer (who I wrote about in an earlier post) supported in his book, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, which I’ve been meaning to read. Basically, the idea is that Jesus predicted the end of the world would come very soon- within his disciples lifetimes- and most of the early writings of his disciples (such as Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians) contain this immanent eschatology. Because later writings (such as the Gospels and other letters) modify the idea of an immanent return, we are actually seeing the early church community in its first and second generations reshaping their eschatology in order to reconcile it with the fact that nothing big had happened.

A research paper I wrote as a freshman concerned the nature of the phrase Son of Man, which is Jesus’ primary way of describing himself. After reading buttloads of articles in theological journals regarding the phrase, my basic conclusion was that no one really knew what he meant when he used that phrase to describe himself, but that most concluded it was primarily a reference to Daniel 7:13. In other words, the main point of using this phrase was to portray himself as a herald of the impending apocalypse.

Some excerpts from a poster named exapologist:

“-Many (most?) of Jesus’ ‘Son of Man’ passages are most naturally interpreted as allusions to the Son of Man figure in Daniel. This figure was an end of the world arbiter of God’s justice, and Jesus kept preaching that he was on his way (‘From now on, you will see the Son of Man coming with the clouds…’). Jesus seems to identify himself with this apocalyptic figure in Daniel, but I’m not confident whether this identification is a later redaction. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for orthodox Christianity.

-Many passages attributed to Jesus have him predicting the end within his generation (‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent therefore, and believe the good news’; ‘this generation shall not pass away…’; ‘you won’t finish going through the cities of Israel before…’; ‘some of those standing here will not taste death until…’; ‘From now on, you shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds’)

-Jesus and Paul taught a radical “interim ethic”. This makes sense if they believed that the eschaton would occur within their generation.

-Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.

-The fact that virtually all the NT authors believed the end would occur in their generation makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims

-Sanders’ argument from the criteria of authenticity: the passages that attribute these predictions to Jesus pass the criteria of multiple attestation (and forms), embarrassment, earliest strata (Mark, Q, M, L, Paul’s earliest letters, the ancient “Maranatha” creed/hymn) etc.”

I think one of the most fascinating aspects of viewing Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet is the insight it brings to his ethics. The ethical principles presented in Jesus’ teachings, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, have been considered nearly unlivable by many Christians and other thinkers alike. The command to be perfect, to always work on behalf of others, and to live such a radical ethic of service are so demanding that they make more sense if an immanent end of the world is foreseen. That doesn’t mean that his ethic isn’t something to be admired, or even to be pursued. It simply means that falling short isn’t something to despair about. Instead, simply push on and try again.


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