February 27, 2007

Supreme Court's long-worded ways.

The Supreme Court always brings to my mind high erudition and sophistication. Not necessarily in a good sense of course. It is not difficult to discern some sort of political biases at work in controversial decisions however prolix they might be. These days of intense political partisanship seem to add fuel to the fire.

One such recent decision of the Supreme Court was in Philip Morris USA v. Williams. The issue at conflict was the $80 million punitive damages awarded to representatives of Williams by Oregon Court of Appeals. Supreme Court rejected this by a vote of 5-4. The crucial concern of the jury in Oregon was the damage caused by Philip Morris to nonparties to the litigation. They held that this was huge and indicated "reprehensible behavior". But the Supreme Court explicitly rejected this argument, saying that, "[a] punitive damage award based in part on a jury's desire to punish a defendant for harming nonparties amounts to a taking of the property from the defendant without due process".

The merits of this argument are not germane. But the verbose and confusing way the Court delivered its judgment is. This is very nicely explained in this article by Douglas W. Kmiec in Slate.

It seems that the majority opinion of the court held that it is fine for a jury to consider damages to nonparties in determining whether the behavior of the defendant was reprehensible, but it is not OK for them to use this damage in punishing the defendant. Kmiec sums this up nicely:
This is not an example of clarity. It is, instead, what happens when you're lucky enough to be in a position to delegate to others the implementation of unworkable rules. As the Oregon Supreme Court had already noted, if a jury cannot punish for harm to people who aren't part of the litigation, then it is difficult to see why it may consider that harm at all. How, asked Oregon, could a jury consider harm to others and yet withhold that consideration from the punishment calculus? It's a good question. The Supremes, however, answered with a rather paternalistic "just do it."

The two Bush appointees to the court, Roberts and Alito, both voted with the majority. Kmieck also explains how this goes against their conservative credentials.

Democracy and Society.

Free exercise of dissent and standing up for one's own interests are key to healthy democracy. However reading things like Andhra Pradesh says it is neglected in rail budget leaves a bad taste. One can attempt to interpret this as a sign of active participation in the democratic process, but it is difficult to deny that the real motives behind such statements are not so pure. In the existing circumstances it is easy to denounce these maneuvers as meaningless vote grabbing ploys.

More interesting is the question of whether any democratic system, where winning popular vote is the ultimate litmus test, will end up being like the one we have in India now. Though it might appear that the answer must be a sad yes, I am more inclined to think otherwise. At the risk of sounding passe, I will say that political leaders are not made out of thin air. The health of the democratic system is not independent of the overall health of a country or society. On the contrary, quality of the political leaders and the health of the democratic system are determined largely by the health of the society. If we accept that our democratic system is sick, it is only a highly visible symptom of a more fundamental and insidious sickness, that of the wider society. A careful scrutiny reveals ample evidence to support this diagnosis.

The question then translates to whether sickness is the eventual plight of all societies. The answer is of course an obvious no. Sickness is a frequent but temporary condition. So however dire the situation might seem, it is not permanent.

Symptoms serve a useful purpose: they direct our attention to the real problems, provided we look beyond the symptoms. Treating symptoms will only give temporary relief. Lasting solutions require tackling the causes of the symptoms.

February 20, 2007

God Delusion - Some thoughts.

Reading God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was thoroughly enjoyable and immensely instructive. In the book Dawkins talks at length about knowledge of natural selection as a "consciousness raiser" regarding the origins of the universe. He says that this book is intended as a consciousness raiser regarding atheism: atheists can lead lives that are "happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled" and there is nothing to be apologetic about atheism.

This book certainly raised my consciousness, though in a slightly different way. I was never actively religious and I did not think being an atheist was a big deal. But I also never seriously confronted the idea of religion and tended to be agnostic about it. That meant I did not fully appreciate various shades of religiosity and their consequences. The first important lesson from the book for me is a clear realization of the poverty of religion in all of its roles: as an explainer, as a comforter, as a moralizer etc.

The second lesson is a clearer idea of the power of science to explain the universe. In a very vague and general sense I always knew that science is incredibly successful at explaining the nature. But this book made me see this in a very concrete way and gave me an intense desire to pursue this idea further. Dawkins quotes Richard Feynman, comparing the precision of quantum mechanics's predictions about real world, "to predicting a distance as great as the width of North America to an accuracy of one human hair's breadth". This is just an example of how powerful science is. It's clear in view of this realization how utterly ridiculous any recourse to religion is when attempting to explain nature.

Dawkins is pretty systematic in his treatment of religion. He takes as the contentious issue the very believable "God Hypothesis":
There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

He persuasively argues that we should treat this as a scientific hypothesis and then destroys it. He proposes an alternate view:
Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.

He covers a whole gamut of issues: supposed "proofs" of god's existence, religion's role in morality, evolutionary basis of religion's development etc. His writing is delightful and the points he raises provide lot of food for thought.

Aside from the incisive criticism of the content of religion, Dawkins also attacks the "methodology of religion". The fundamental premise of religion is belief without evidence. Religion systematizes this premise and compels people to live in happy ignorance. Dawkins forcefully reasons why this widespread practice of belief without evidence paves the way for fanatical application of religion that is becoming all too common today.

I initially intended to write a detailed review of the book to encompass all the key ideas. But then days of procrastination turned into weeks and the due date for the library is now upon me. I decided finally that such a review is not necessary. It can't in a million years substitute for the book and I can't do better than simply urge you to go read it.

February 19, 2007

Truth about Pythagoras.

It has always been difficult for me to decide about Pythagoras. Well till now. We all learned Pythagoras theorem in school and it is generally the first time we encounter a "proof" and it is all quite fascinating. When told that Pythagoras was the first to prove this theorem, it is hardly surprising that we are filled with respect for him. We are also told that he was indeed the first to introduce the notion of proof and was the precursor to later day trend setters like Euclid and Archimedes. And for those of us pursuing mathematics, Pythagoras is indeed a father figure.

But then you start reading independently and come across stuff saying that Pythagoras did not contribute much to mathematics. Then you console yourself saying that most of what goes under the name of Pythagoras was the work of "Pythagoreans", members of the secret society which was founded by Pythagoras.

Well, even that is dubious. Indeed, it is established quite well now that Pythagoreans were just a secret group created to achieve certain political ends, and genuine mathematical contribution from them was tiny. This history is very well summarized in this article in London Review of Books by M.F. Burnyeat.

Pythagoras was a political boss who managed to take control of parts of southern Italy through his secret society. Much of his commonly told story was made up almost two centuries after his death.
[T]he origins of the traditional picture of Pythagoras are to be sought, not during the sixth century BC, when he lived and fought his political battles, not during the fifth century, when democratic forces ousted his followers from power in various cities of southern Italy, but late in the fourth century. That was when Speusippus and Xenocrates, the dominant figures in Plato’s Academy, sought to devise ancient authority for certain aspects of their late master’s philosophy. Theirs was a conscious construction whereby Pythagoras became the apostle of mathematics and a highly mathematising philosophy, full of anticipations of Platonic metaphysics.

Starting from this Burnyeat recounts the actual story of Pythagoras and his society. He also mentions some very interesting details about Pythagoras's secret society.

It is amply clear that whatever Pythagoras and his followers were doing it was not laying the foundations for systematic and rigorous development of mathematics.

February 11, 2007

What doesn't cause terrorism?

Terrorism has complex and non-obvious causes. Just a moderate amount of contemplation and study make this evident. On the other hand, there are many "reasons" which seem quite plausible to many, but which turn out to be superficial.

Everybody knows about the madrassas in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. These are usually believed to strengthen the Islamic moorings in students, legitimize religious intolerance and the use of violence. It is hard to verify this belief. One needs to really study the inner workings of several madrasssas before reaching a conclusion.

As an implication, it widely held that the graduates of these madrassas usually go on to become terrorists. This seems to be definitely wrong. At least as far as many recent terror attacks are concerned. I came across this article in NYT by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey which address this question.

They look at the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists who participated in major terror attacks recently.
We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators' educational levels is available - the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 - 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.

Further only 9 of these 75 attended madrassas. All these 9 participated in the Bali attack. But even that attack was masterminded by 5 college-educated people.

It appears quite likely that madrassas, which may very well be breeding and nurturing violent hatred of the West, do not produce terrorists.

February 10, 2007

Israel's killing of children.

The nonchalance and moral rectitude with which Israel conducts its inhumane occupation are remarkable. The justification for the killing of 3,000 adults since the outbreak of the intifada is open to debate. However no part of that justification applies to the killing of 815 children and teenagers in the same period. Latest victim of this heartbreaking and unbelievable spate of targeting children is Taha Al-jawi, a 17-year old boy in Jerusalem. See this article of Gideon Levy on the affair.

An Israeli soldier shoots at the leg of an unarmed Taha from a distance simply because he was seen near the security fence. Granted that one is not allowed to touch the fence, the question remains how can one justify firing at the boy. The boy was then left to bleed to his death. The Israeli forces claimed to have reached him earlier, but an injury to the leg results in death only if there is lot of bleeding.

The scary part is that Israeli authorities do not even appear to concede that an unfortunate mistake has been committed. They firmly stand by the soldier involved, and proclaim that he is not at fault.

By any reasonable standard this story is very important in the overall situation of Israel-Palestine conflict. The tragic thing is that these stories rarely get reported widely (a Google News search resulted in only the above two articles of Gideon Levy in Haaretz).

February 9, 2007

As Garrison Keillor said in a recent episode of Prairie Home Companion, president Bush "flew Air Force 1, a 747, to Wilmington, Delaware, a distance of 98 miles, in order to give a speech on energy conservation". Keillor concluded "it's getting hard for satire ... how you can you compete with the news".

Another example is Rumsfeld's atrocious comment that everything looks fine when you fly over Iraq. Jon Stewart has lot of fun with it. The following is actually a very nice piece from the Daily Show. Stewart talks about the last days of Rumsfeld as the defense secretary.

Watch it!

February 8, 2007

"Moderate" allies of America in the Middle East.

The double standards of the West in its holier than thou assertions about freedom, democracy, tolerance etc are often clear. There are numerous examples. For instance, take the shrill claims by Bush regarding democracy promotion as an American virtue. A casual look at the history of the later half of the last century puts that myth to rest. As Gaurav writes, Britain and America were deliberate causes for the overthrow in 1953 of a democratic government in Iran. That was only the beginning. Much more followed. Guatemala, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Indonesia, Greece, Chile. The list goes on.

Another, more contemporary, illustration is the American support of the so-called "moderate" regimes in the Middle East. This Guardian piece talks about this. The prominent moderate allies of the US are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Most people reckon that these two countries practice worst forms of political suppression, authoritarianism and intolerance. Regardless, they remain trusted allies of the US, no doubt because of their willingness to cooperate against the wishes of the local population.

Whatever it's tactical advantages, this support of dictators is a strategic disaster for the United States. It makes these countries fertile breeding grounds for anti-Americanism. During the 80s and 90s, organized terror groups began to take shape in these countries, especially in Egypt. Many of these terrorists began their Jihadi careers after being tortured in Egyptian prisons. Jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet invasion was an extremely important unifying experience, but the Egyptian and Saudi dictatorships can't be discounted. The core of Al-Qaeda leadership comes predominantly from Egypt and Saudi Arabia (Ayman al-Zawahiri who is number two to bin Laden in al-Qaeda was tortured in Egypt and led several Jihadi groups there before joining bin Laden).

The reason why it is a strategic debacle for the US is because most of these terrorists were initially content to fight the "local infidels" and the "Zionist invaders". But American friendship toward these local infidels and Israel convinced them that they should in fact fight the "distant infidel" first.

February 5, 2007

Religious Dogma - Jewish Version.

Osama bin Laden said in 1998:
For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims.

What's wrong with this statement?

The first, and perhaps the most pernicious, one is the suggestion of an American plot against Islam. I will not go into an analysis of factual accuracy of the above statement. That is not my purpose here. My point is that painting this in religious colors is an extraordinarily effective thing. Whether bin Laden really sees it in those religious terms is also immaterial. For his purposes nothing works wonders like telling Muslims that America is at war with them. It serves to unite them as no other tactic will.

The subsequent tactics (terrorism) of bin Laden and others like him make it easy for the world to denounce him without really identifying the key component of his justification (yes, even bin Laden feels compelled to offer justifications, however spurious).

I have seen the same religious argument offered by many Jewish supporters of Israel. If they have their way, any critic of Israel is a priori influenced by anti-semitism. In long-winded words this is what almost all resort to. To be sure, some Israeli critics are anti-semite (just as some Americans supporting Iraq war hate Muslims). But these Jewish apologists conlude that everyone accusing Israel is anti-semite (a classic case of gulit by association).

In the present geo-political scenario this is turning out to be a fairly useful method of silencing the critics.

In this context it is refreshing to see a number of eminent British Jews raising their hands and spelling out the real issues. Their website is here. More articles here.

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