Anirvan Chatterjee: March 2008 Archives

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Yum. City CarShare, our local carsharing coop, just got its first smart fortwo cars. I love the way they’ve maintained their values, working closely with community groups, supporting transit and livable cities, and investing in cars like the Prius, fortwo, Mini Cooper, and Toyota Yaris — all of which are on the government’s list of the most fuel-efficient cars.

(This, in light of the way carsharing industry behemoth Zipcar is rapidly moving away from its greener roots, and stocking earth-unfriendly cars like BMWs and Mustangs. What use market share, if you give up on your values getting there?)

Amber helped me catch some big mistakes in the way I understood Bishop Gianfranco Girotti’s recent interview regarding new “social sins.” I’d correctly picked up on the fact that the media was totally wrong in claiming that the “new” sins were endorsed by the Vatican, or the Pope, but I’d been totally misled into thinking that Girotti had been using the language of “mortal sin,” when that’s clearly not what was being suggested (c.f. original interview, PDF).

Catholic writers have been working overtime trying to clarify the widespread confusion.

That said, I agree with Liliana Segura, in that though I disagree with some of the list, I’m still a little bit disappointed that Girotti wasn’t putting forward the proposition that fostering social and economic inequality or environmental destruction might be a fundamental theological no-no, as opposed to just a really bad thing to do.

There’s a lot to be said for the evolution of core values. Take the US Constitution; I like the fact that we can edit the text to end slavery and guarantee voting rights (on paper, anyway). It can even evolve outside of the text, as in our emergent right of privacy, only indirectly mentioned in the Constitution but now a core American legal principle, critical in our winning cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence v. Texas.

Unfortunately, one can’t amend religious beliefs the way one can the Constitution. Thankfully, most sufficiently rich religious traditions are broad enough that followers can draw on one idealogical strain or the other, depending on changing cultural mores. Supporters and opponents of slavery read different parts of the Bible. Supporters and opponents of sati and untouchability had different understandings of Hindu values and traditions. But could you ever convince the Dalai Lama to withdraw the claim that people get reincarnated when they die? Some points of theology just seem to fundamental to edit.

But just because it’s difficult, or awkward, doesn’t mean it may not be a good idea. I’m glad virtually all American churches ignore literal readings of the Bible’s positions on slavery and the role of women. The LDS Church is better for accepting men of African descent. I admire the Episcopal Church for its acceptance of same-sex couples. The majority of Generation Y accepts the dignity and equal rights of LGBT people; religious groups will need to revisit homophobic doctrine and practices in decades to come. I wish it were possible to hardcode these directly into core doctrine, rather than treating them as changing interpretations (imagine one could delete the unpleasant bits about slavery and women’s servitude from the modern Bible-as-practiced).

Not all shared value systems are difficult to edit and revise to meet contemporary understandings of the world. The Humanist Manifestos, issued in 1933, 1973, and again in 2003, try to do exactly that.

I really like the first and second manifestos, particularly the way that the second begins with a very human cry of distress about Nazism. I don’t read these as universal values set in stone for the ages, but time capsules and discussion points, reflecting the best that people of goodwill know about the world and how to live in it at a certain point in time.

Unfortunately, the third, and latest, manifesto takes a different approach, focusing on six genuinely universal values potentially applicable at any point in time or space; as much as I admire the effort, the document comes off as dry and lifeless. By designing a kind of science fiction meta-ethics, it shrinks away from confronting the most important issues of its day, unlike the core tenets of most religious traditions at their birth.

Between that and Girotti’s list of new social sins, I’ll pick Girotti any time; I may not agree with everything on his list, but at least it tells me something about the world I live in.

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It depresses me that there exists a strong South Asian folk belief in black magic. I’ve had family members tell me about the reputed power of “tantriks,” even suggesting that my health problems may be linked to long-distance black magic caused by hostile tantriks.

Indian rationalist/humanist movements working to combat superstitious or irrational belief systems have been growing over the past several years (e.g. the Indian Rationalist Association, Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, Indian Skeptic, as well as the umbrella Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations).

I enjoyed reading about Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku taking on a tantrik on live TV. The challenge? “Pandit” Surinder Sharma, a high-profile tantrik, was asked to magically “destroy” Sanal on TV. Sharma apparently believed in his own powers; he made a fool of himself on TV, chanting mantras, engaging in complicated “magic” practices, utterly failing to harm his intended victim. The distressed pandit complained that the atheist Sanal must be secretly worshipping a powerful god, and suggesting that he could try using stronger magic at night. The TV station dutifully fulfilled his wishes by offering a nighttime rematch, where he failed again.

Read the whole story about the great Tantra challenge…

(via Sepia Mutiny News)

A senior official at the Vatican recently discussed his list of seven mortal “social” sins:

  • “bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research and DNA manipulation
  • drug abuse
  • polluting the environment
  • contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • excessive wealth
  • creating poverty

“A person that commits a mortal sin risks burning in hell unless absolved through confession and penitence,” (emphasis mine) per AP’s description of Catholic theology. The media’s been particularly fixated on the environmental angle.

While the list doesn’t carry the weight of the Pope or the Vatican as a whole, it’s interesting to see a massive 2000-year-old institution working to amend points of theology, particularly those of personal sin, to adapt to changing understandings of the world. Not all Church policy positions (e.g. opposition to the Iraq War) get dealt with at the level of God-will-condemn-your-soul-to-hell mortal sin.

(And isn’t it fun to be able to change God’s rules as you go, like when the LDS Church suddenly declared in 1978 that men of African descent—but not women of any race—could become priests?)

I received the latest Amnesty International Magazine in the mail, and was about to recycle it immediately (I have enough to read this week), when the cover story caught my eye: “Guantánamo / 5 Years of My Life: An Innocent Survivor’s Tale”

The article’s chilling. Murat Kurnaz, a 19-year-old Turkish-German ex-nightclub bouncer from Bremen, was visiting Pakistan in 2001. Shortly after 9/11, he was abducted by the Pakistani government, and sold to the U.S. military in return for a $3000 bounty. He spent months in a secret American prison in Afghanistan, where he was interrogated and tortured by American and German soldiers:

“They prepared me for interrogations by putting electric shocks through my feet. For hours on end they would hang me up by my hands, which were bound behind my back in different positions—and then a break, and then you would be hung up again. A doctor looked in to see if you were still alive. The interrogator came at midday every day, and then you would be taken down for a short while.”

Kurnaz heard that he might be taken home to Turkey; instead, he was transferred to Guantánamo, where he spent the next five years of his life, from ages 19 to 24, caged, interrogated, and tortured.

“Camp Delta consisted of container blocks, every block had 48 cells and the cages were made of chicken wire with a bed, toilet and washbasin at knee height…Shortly after the first visit from the Germans, new rules were put in place. For almost seven weeks, I was relocated every two hours. They did that so that you could not sleep…As soon as they saw that you were asleep, they shook the cell doors. On top of that came interrogations that lasted for more than 50 hours.”

The Department of Defense’s internal documents indicate that Kurnaz had been cleared of suspicion in 2002. He wasn’t released for another four years. What kind of justice…?

The Chronicle ran a story today about how the “Next big quake could be worse than 1906”, based on new predictions from seismologists and quake loss experts:

“The next major earthquake on the Hayward Fault - inevitable anytime now, experts say - will be the Bay Area’s own Hurricane Katrina, affecting more than 5 million people, causing losses to homes and businesses of at least $165 billion and total economic losses of more than $1.5 trillion, scientists warn. And that’s from ground shaking alone. If major fires break out - think 1906 in San Francisco - the total losses would be far higher, they said.”

B and I have been thinking a bit about earthquake safety, but we have some way to go. We’ve hit up our local earthquake safety guides (72 hours and Disaster Resistant Berkeley), and have the beginnings of a go bag ready, but we have some ways to go.

So far, we’ve prepped:

  • Store-bought first aid kit
  • Flashlight w/batteries
  • Battery-powered radio, w/batteries
  • Non-perishable food for each person, for three days
  • Scissors
  • Warm clothes
  • Hats
  • Hygiene products
  • Toilet paper
  • Facial tissue
  • Spare glasses
  • Plastic bags
  • Paper
  • Pen/pencils
  • 3 gallons of water per person
  • Rain gear

But per the safety guides, based on our needs, they still recommend:

  • Extra regular medication (replaced regularly)
  • Eye wash solution to flush the eyes or as general decontaminant
  • Dust mask
  • Pocket knife
  • Extra keys
  • Phone card
  • Cash
  • Quarters for pay phones
  • Aspirin and anti-diarrheal meds
  • Bedding or sleeping bags
  • Blanket
  • Tape
  • Whistle
  • Copies of insurance and ID cards
  • Written instructions for how to turn off gas, electricity, and water if authorities advise doing so
  • Written contact info for all family and family emergency contacts
  • Family plan for where to meet after a disaster if your home becomes unsafe.

Just looking at the list is depressing. Eye wash solution? No doubt I’d appreciate being able to wash out my eye when dust from my crumbling home gets in, but needing to put all this together makes me feel like a Y2K survivalist.

I don’t know what to say about this war that hasn’t been said before. I’ve been heartsick, ashamed, and angry for five years now.

By every measure, a majority of Americans realize that they were misled into the war, disapprove of the way it’s being fought, understand that it’s not “winnable,” and want to withdraw the troops. What kind of democracy makes obeying the will of its citizens on the most critical civic issue of the day politically unthinkable?

I’m going to talk to friends, show up on the streets, and call elected representatives today. What alternative do we have? Silence is consent.

I’m reading the Sarai Reader 05 which contains a fascinating paper on the legal status of the Ahmadiyya religious community in Pakistan, and how that may have been impacted by notions of intellectual property law.

The Ahmadiyyas are a small Muslim sect who believe that a man named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the Islamic messiah; most Muslims reject Ahmad, so the relationship of the Ahmadiyyas to mainstream Muslims is similar to that of Mormons and mainstream Protestant Christians. Pakistani Anti-Ahmadiyya legislation prevents them from using Muslim titles, building mosques, citing the Koran, etc. (I first learned of the community through my friend Naeem’s film Muslims or Heretics, which deals with anti-Ahmadi sentiment in Pakistan and Bangladesh.)

In her paper “Trespasses of the State: Ministering to Theological Dilemmas through the Copyright/Trademark” (PDF), Johns Hopkins anthropology professor Naveeda Khan shows how courts evaluating anti-Ahmadi legislation in Pakistan were influenced by notions of copyright and trademark, as they debated how best to protect mainline Islam from what they interpreted as brand piracy:

“It may appear that in calling for a legal structure analogous to copyright or trademark laws for the protection of shia’ir-e-Allah, the Supreme Court is simply actualising a potential for the use of the copyright/trademark against Ahmadis long simmering in earlier judgments. However, this Court does something slightly but significantly different. In harnessing the language of copyright/trademark to the Ahmadi question, the Court is making much more apparent that the intent of these transgressions, that is, the unlicenced use of titles, texts, modes and spaces of worship, is that of wilful deception…Neither Muslims nor the Islamic state is affectively constituted and legally armed to provide the necessary aura of protection around such objects, such that non-Muslims may recoil from using them. The judgment, in effect, calls for a feedback loop similar to copyright/trademark law, for only then will Muslims, in general, and the Islamic state, in particular, treat shia’ir-e-Allah in the appropriate manner so as to make unthinkable its improper appropriation and use.”

B and I are going to be hitting the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival again this weekend. We’re looking forward to watching:

Around? Text me if you can join us.

aideRSS_logo.gifI've been reading feeds since 2004, relying on my trusty Bloglines (and now, Bloglines Beta) to keep me up to date with what's going on in the world. I used to read over 600 feeds, but I keep keep getting smacked in the face by the obvious -- keeping up with that many feeds takes an incredibly log time. I've been working to limit my feed regimen to about 20-30 minutes a day, and have unsubscribed from over 150 feeds in the past year.

Unfortunately, feed subscriptions tend to be a binary, all-or-nothing sort of a thing. if a feed starts to get too high-volume, there's no obvious way to deal with it but to unsubscribe. AideRSS changes the equation.

AideRSS is an easy-to-use tool that allows end-users to filter feeds by PostRank, a proxy for post quality determined by the number of comments, del.icio.us bookmarkings, references on other blogs, etc. Users can choose to filter arbitrary feeds, seeing only "good" posts, "great", or "best" posts. Depending on which filter one chooses, it's possible to reduce the volume of posts by over 90% without a substantial reduction in quality.

The PostRank algorithm is finicky, and works best for blog content that's regularly commented on, linked to, etc.; it does a particularly poor job of dealing with relatively unpopular blogs, but that may be ok; in my experience, low-popularity blogs are more likely to be lower volume to begin with. I've been using AideRSS for several weeks now to reduce the impact of popular high-volume feeds, and it's been doing a great job. I'm reading some feeds again after a gap of years.

AideRSS is a reasonable tool for a smallish group of somewhat tech-savvy users, but I suspect the technology would be most effective integrated directly into feed reader software. Users should be able to dial down the volume of feeds directly from within their reader, instead of having to muck around with editing feed URLs. I could see that happening either via an outright acquisition by a feed reader business, or by AideRSS' transforming itself into an API that can be licensed by feed reader makers.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Anirvan Chatterjee in March 2008.

Anirvan Chatterjee: February 2008 is the previous archive.

Anirvan Chatterjee: April 2008 is the next archive.

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