The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

This is what permanent war does to a nation

A Texas high school called the police yesterday when a kid brought a homemade alarm clock to school:

Ahmed Mohamed — who makes his own radios and repairs his own go-kart — hoped to impress his teachers when he brought a homemade clock to MacArthur High on Monday.

Instead, the school phoned police about Ahmed’s circuit-stuffed pencil case.

So the 14-year-old missed the student council meeting and took a trip in handcuffs to juvenile detention. His clock now sits in an evidence room. Police say they may yet charge him with making a hoax bomb — though they acknowledge he told everyone who would listen that it’s a clock.

Two questions have been circulating worldwide: Would a kid named Tim Smith have been arrested in similar circumstances? And just how stupid are these people?

Glenn Greenwald reminds us of the obvious:

There are all sorts of obvious, extreme harms that come from being a nation at permanent war. Your country ends up killing huge numbers of innocent people all over the world. Vast resources are drained away from individuals and programs of social good into the pockets of weapons manufacturers. Core freedoms are inexorably and inevitably eroded — seized — in its name. The groups being targeted are marginalized and demonized in order to maximize fear levels and tolerance for violence.

But perhaps the worst of all harms is how endless war degrades the culture and populace of the country that perpetrates it. You can’t have a government that has spent decades waging various forms of war against predominantly Muslim countries — bombing seven of them in the last six years alone — and then act surprised when a Muslim 14-year-old triggers vindictive fear and persecution because he makes a clock for school. That’s no more surprising than watching carrots sprout after you plant carrot seeds in fertile ground and then carefully water them. It’s natural and inevitable, not surprising or at all difficult to understand.

This kind of thing happened in Rome towards the end of the Republic, too.

Conducting intro programming classes

...sort of. But that's not important right now. I'm just spiking some articles to read later:

OK, time for a vendor phone call...

How Rand turned the US into a greedy and selfish nation

Excellent take-down of one of my least favorite historical figures by Bruce Levine:

Only rarely in U.S. history do writers transform us to become a more caring or less caring nation. In the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a strong force in making the United States a more humane nation, one that would abolish slavery of African Americans. A century later, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) helped make the United States into one of the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world, a neo-Dickensian society where healthcare is only for those who can afford it, and where young people are coerced into huge student-loan debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

For Rand, all altruists were manipulators. What could be more seductive to kids who discerned the motives of martyr parents, Christian missionaries and U.S. foreign aiders? Her champions, Nathaniel Branden still among them, feel that Rand’s view of “self-interest” has been horribly misrepresented. For them, self-interest is her hero architect Howard Roark turning down a commission because he couldn’t do it exactly his way. Some of Rand’s novel heroes did have integrity, however, for Rand there is no struggle to discover the distinction between true integrity and childish vanity. Rand’s integrity was her vanity, and it consisted of getting as much money and control as possible, copulating with whomever she wanted regardless of who would get hurt, and her always being right. To equate one’s selfishness, vanity, and egotism with one’s integrity liberates young people from the struggle to distinguish integrity from selfishness, vanity, and egotism.

The whole thing is a good Sunday afternoon read.

In the future, we will all be Mormon

The New Republic today looks into the Mormon practice of baptizing dead people, and the church's related efforts to preserve genealogical information:

“The core concept of why this church cares so much about genealogy stems back to the notion that families can be eternal organizations past death,” [Jay] Verkler, [CEO of Family Search, the Mormon organization that manages the vault's records and promotes genealogy throughout the world], explained. “Members of the church seek out their ancestors because we think we have a duty to them to help them understand this gospel that we understand, and we think we can actually be together.”

The church’s most ambitious project is its online tree. Anyone who logs in to Family Search may record and research his or her family history there, but what distinguishes this tree from all the other online services is that the church is trying to connect all the branches, using its massive records and the activities of users to build a big tree of all of humanity. The endeavor must be, to some extent, possible. If anyone has the records to create this structure—a family history of all of the documented individual members of the human race, this group does. But the distinctive element of the LDS tree is that it’s collaborative: People can log on and add names and link them to documents and write personal stories—and once they have done that, their fifth cousin once removed may also jump online and edit that information, changing a relative’s name, linking it to other documents, or deleting the story altogether. No one I spoke to at Family Search seemed to think this would be a problem, but surely everyone’s version of her own family is different from that of her cousins?

In the religion I'll someday build a church around—The Church of Latter-Day Atheists—people will be able to make a record of their ancestors and note that the ancestors truly don't care about the living, for the simple reason that the dead don't have anything to care with. But hey, if the Mormon church wants to spend tens of millions on building a complete genealogical database, mazel tov. A few centuries from now either everyone alive today will be Mormon or no one will. I'm not sure how either side of that divide will prove it, though.

Religion and aviation

The latest infliction of Haredi nonsense on innocent victims comes via Gulliver this week, as religious nutters apparently can't deal with sitting next to women on airplanes:

One flight last week, from New York’s JFK airport to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, descended into chaos according to passengers, after a large group of haredim, or ultra-orthodox Jews, refused to take their seats next to women, in accordance with strict religious customs.

Amit Ben-Natan, a passenger on last week’s El Al flight from New York, said take-off was delayed after numerous and repeated requests by ultra-orthodox men for female passengers to be moved.

“People stood in the aisles and refused to go forward,” she told the Ynet website. “Although everyone had tickets with seat numbers that they purchased in advance, they asked us to trade seats with them, and even offered to pay money, since they cannot sit next to a woman. It was obvious that the plane won’t take off as long as they keep standing in the aisles.”

All right, you clowns. In Israel, you're essentially parasites, contributing nothing to Israeli society except to push their foreign policy into conflict with every ally you've got, and your entire worldview is based on a literal reading of only some parts of a 3,000-year-old book of fables. If you want to participate in the real, 21st-century world—for example, by using air transport—then you can sit down and shut up.

</rant>

Institutional irrationality is fine, as long as it's private. As one of my college professors once said, "Hey, man, do anything you want, but don't push your trip on me." Good advice.

Report: Airman denied re-enlistment on religious grounds

The Air Force Times reported Thursday that an unnamed U.S. Air Force airman was denied re-enlistment because he refused to swear an oath "so help me God:"

Air Force Instruction 36-2606 spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment, which all airmen must take when they enlist or reenlist and ends with “so help me God.” The old version of that AFI included an exception: “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.”

That language was dropped in an Oct. 30, 2013, update to the AFI. The relevant section of that AFI now only lists the active-duty oath of enlistment, without giving airmen any option to choose not to swear an oath to a deity.

[American Humanist Association lawyer Monica] Miller pointed out that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits requiring religious tests to hold an office or public trust.

A few years ago I started hearing about the increasing religiosity of Air Force personnel at the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs. This made me nervous as I'm not sure I want people who can launch nuclear missiles to have a fundamentalist belief in an afterlife. It appears my discomfort was warranted.

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More later.

Religion, fish, and chips

Last week at my remote office, a man came to the bar to order the Duke's most excellent fish and chips for takeout. Then he asked a question: is the fish beer-battered? Well, yes, of course it is; it's a Scottish pub.

Unfortunately for the pub's sales and the customer's stomach pangs, he was an observant Muslim, and believes alcohol is haram. So we got into a conversation about whether beer-battered fish was in this category. (Pubs in London have many more Muslim customers than pubs in Chicago, so they generally don't use beer in their fish batter.)

I'm not religious, not even a tiny bit, but I understand some people keep strict dietary laws like halal. Some people in my own family are strictly Kosher too. But putting aside my feelings that dietary laws in the 21st century make no sense except as a way to keep the observant ethnic group separate from society, the question "is beer-battered fried fish haram" actually interested me.

Again, as a rational person, I would have assumed that the reason alcohol is haram has to do with its intoxicating effects. Since ethanol boils at 78°C, well below the oil's temperature (150-175°C or so), it pretty much evaporates completely when the fish is fried. People get intoxicated on fish-and-chip nights at the Duke (all you can eat Wednesdays and Fridays!), but from the 90 single malts and half-dozen beers on draught, not from the fish.

But it turns out, once it touches alcohol, it's haram:

Fire/cooking does not remove impurity, and the Shafi’i School considers alcohol, like beer, impure. Therefore, even when cooking removes all the alcohol, contamination with the impurity makes eating it problematic.

And Allah knows best.

In fact, most imams seem to agree that food becomes haram as soon as it touches impure oil, even if it is chemically purified by frying:

So long as we know that most of what is fried [with this oil] is impure [for the Muslims to eat] from dead [meat (of the animal which had died prior to slaughter)] or pig [meat], then it is imperative that we ask. However, if we do not know whether most of what is fried [with this oil] is impure [for the Muslims to eat] or other than that, then it is not obligatory to question. And Allaah has the complete knowledge [of all affairs].

But there may be an out:

Hanafi muftis allow the consumption of products containing alcohol from sources other than grapes or dates so long as: 1) it does not intoxicate and 2) it is not used in vain. Also, the amount of alcohol must not exceed 0.5%. Thus, if the amount of beer used is disproportional to the extent of more than 0.5%, then such a product would not be permitted. If the amount of alcohol is 0.5% or less, then they would allow it.

Why Allah decided on 1/200th as the magic amount, what "in vain" means, and how the Hanafi muftis in question learned these specifications, are beyond the scope of this blog post. And it seems to be an open question whether the 0.5% refers to the ethanol itself or to the beer as a whole, but I'm going with the actual alcohol content. I will endeavor to find out from Colin Cameron how much beer exactly gets used in the preparation of fish and chips, and what kind of beer, so that the guy who just wanted a chippie to take away can have it from the Duke without going to hell.

About this blog (v 4.2)

Parker, 14 weeksI'm David Braverman, this is my blog, and Parker is my 7½-year-old mutt. I last updated this About... page in September 2011, more than 1,300 posts back, so it's time for a refresh.

The Daily Parker is about:

  • Parker, my dog, whom I adopted on 1 September 2006.
  • Politics. I'm a moderate-lefty by international standards, which makes me a radical left-winger in today's United States.
  • The weather. I've operated a weather website for more than 13 years. That site deals with raw data and objective observations. Many weather posts also touch politics, given the political implications of addressing climate change, though happily we no longer have to do so under a president beholden to the oil industry.
  • Chicago (the greatest city in North America), and sometimes London, San Francisco, and the rest of the world.
  • Photography. I took tens of thousands of photos as a kid, then drifted away from making art until early 2011 when I finally got the first digital camera I've ever had whose photos were as good as film. That got me reading more, practicing more, and throwing more photos on the blog. In my initial burst of enthusiasm I posted a photo every day. I've pulled back from that a bit—it takes about 30 minutes to prep and post one of those puppies—but I'm still shooting and still learning.

I also write a lot of software, and will occasionally post about technology as well. I work for 10th Magnitude, a startup software consultancy in Chicago, I've got more than 20 years experience writing the stuff, and I continue to own a micro-sized software company. (I have an online resume, if you're curious.) I see a lot of code, and since I often get called in to projects in crisis, I see a lot of bad code, some of which may appear here.

I strive to write about these and other things with fluency and concision. "Fast, good, cheap: pick two" applies to writing as much as to any other creative process (cf: software). I hope to find an appropriate balance between the three, as streams of consciousness and literacy have always struggled against each other since the first blog twenty years ago.

If you like what you see here, you'll probably also like Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, Josh Marshall, and Bruce Schneier. Even if you don't like my politics, you probably agree that everyone ought to read Strunk and White, and you probably have an opinion about the Oxford comma—punctuation de rigeur in my opinion.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy The Daily Parker.