18 Dec 2007

It arrived!

Me, in the dining room, with the ...?

The picture to the right was taken by a really cool and newly-arrived device. More soon.

Relatedly, there is something special about this blog post.

"DST has only been around for 90 years; it's understandable that the software hasn't caught up yet." --Jim Wong

Posted by blahedo at 12:58am | Comments (2)

12 Dec 2007

The four-state solution

I've been daydreaming about the Palestinian conflict again, and the following idea is insisting that I post it. I'm aware that there are pragmatic roadblocks, of course.

With all the recent stuff between Gaza and the West Bank, it's clear (if it wasn't before) that these two areas house populations that are not exactly the same, though they have a lot in common. Furthermore, one of the big problems with the so-called two-state solution is that there is no good transportation link between the two pieces, and any such link would necessarily cut through southern Israel. Some have half-jokingly referred to a "three-state solution", but of course that by itself is problematic because of the lower viability of a state the size of the Gaza strip with a population of 1.5 million.

Simultaneously, one of the big stoppers all around is the status of Jerusalem: the West Bank Palestinians insist on, at least, East Jerusalem, while Israel demands that Jerusalem remain whole (and that their capital be there). As a location of many holy sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, it's a place a lot of people want control over, and it's a sticky problem.

Meanwhile, in any solution there's the issue of Muslims in the Jewish side, Jews in the Muslim side, and Christians, Druze, and others on both sides. Israel is scared of any solution that might give non-Jews a majority in the Knesset, though with 20% of Israeli citizens being Arab and Muslim, there is some room for compromise. There is also fear for the status of Jews living in settlements in the West Bank, many of whom (at this point) were born, raised, and grew up there, and want to stay there, even at great cost.

So, here's the ("the") solution: four states, federated.* I've heard proposals for a federation of a Jewish and a Muslim state, but this version addresses several more of the issues. The fourth state, of course, would be the (entire) city of Jerusalem, a city-state of just under a million people, roughly 70% Jewish, serving also as the seat of federal government. Constituent states could, at their option, also use it as their capital (a situation not unknown in many parts of Europe, where a provincial or regional capital sits outside the region itself, in an adjacent city that comprises its own region). Israel would obviously make use of this; possibly the West Bank also, though presumably Gaza Strip would use Gaza City as its state capital.

Individuals would be citizens of one of the four states and thereby of the federation. The three outer states would not be required to give citizenship to just anyone, and could impose restrictions (e.g. "must be Jewish") on new citizens. The city-state of Jerusalem would not impose such restrictions, and otherwise unattached citizens of the federation would thus be citizens of the capital city-state. Here's the catch: although the outer states could restrict their citizenship, and thus their state parliaments, law-making authority, and judiciary, they would be constitutionally prohibited from restricting citizens from the other states in the federation from living, working, or travelling there. That cuts both ways: long-displaced Arabs with citizenship in West Bank, Gaza, or Jerusalem will be able to move into Israel, but Jews with Israel or Jerusalem citizenship will be able to (continue to) live in West Bank. (But, more about settlements in a second.)

Internally, each state would set up its own governmental structure. Federally, there would be a bicameral legislature, with one house being strictly proportional to citizenship counts, and if the state wants to do district-based allocation of its representatives, it has to allot (at least) one district for its citizens living elsewhere in the federation. The other house would allocate, say, fifteen seats per state, elected at-large, and work under additional restrictions: votes requiring a majority of the seats would also require at least 1/3 of the votes in each delegation, and votes requiring a supermajority overall would also require a majority within each delegation. This is very important, as it gives any one state a veto against unwanted legislation. Constitutional changes would require 3/4 within each delegation plus ratification by the legislatures of all four states, again as an extra-strong protection against abuse.

On to the settlements. As I understand it, several of the most-pressing concerns ostensibly about the settlements have already been dealt with in this solution: no more Israeli-only roads, no more ghetto wall, no more preventing villagers from getting to the lands they work. These, of course, were the "easy" part, because the claims were so lopsided. When it comes to the actual houses and villages of the settlements, though, the dual claim is stronger: "I've lived here my whole life" vs. "My ancestors had lived here for centuries before your ancestors kicked them out." The only thing that makes this any different from the situation with American Indians or the Australian Aborigines is that the initial kicking-out was a few years more recent. And what's more, there's even less of a difference between the West Bank settlements and more or less the entirety of Israel. Assuming you believe the State of Israel has some right to exist, you are on pretty shaky ground to let Israel keep Israel but draw some line that requires all the Israeli settlers to pull out; but for the descendants of the Arabs displaced both from West Bank settlements and from the current State of Israel itself, there is a recent claim that can't be completely dismissed either. This would be among the hardest sells in the solution, but it would have to be the case that A) descendants of any property-holder in British Mandate Palestine in 1948 would have to be able to make a claim on that property, either to reclaim the property itself or be paid some high percentage of market value for it, AND B) the choice of whether the payment was monetary or the property itself would have to be up to the current "owner" of the property. Some significant percentage of this cost would have to be covered by the State of Israel (and international donors, no doubt): either to subsidise the "owner" to pay the claimant, or to subsidise their move to somewhere else.

Security would also be an important concern, and a cornerstone of the solution is an integrated federal military. Having Jews and Arabs serving side-by-side will go a long way to furthering understanding and knocking down prejudices, much as the integration of the US military was a key precursor to the civil rights movement here. In a federated four-state situation, it would take some time to get this up to speed, of course, and likewise for integrating the federal police force, necessary for putting down the inevitable initial clashes. While the federal forces were integrating and retraining, the states would need to be protected and policed by an external force led by Canada and Japan. (Why those two? Most disinterested developed nations I could think of, with the former having small but significant and roughly equal minorities of Jewish and Muslim citizens, and the latter having vanishingly small percentages of either, and neither country having any compromising commitments to Israel or Arab countries that I know of.)

It's a pipe dream, of course, but any successful solution is going to have to include many of these elements. Separately, any of the various proposed states, including Israel, have limited viability on their own, and of course no sovereign state wants to entrust its security to another that it doesn't control—not to mention, the borders between any of the constituent states in any solution like this would be fundamentally indefensible. (That's what triggered the 1967 war, really.) Having separate Israeli and West Bank and/or Gaza militaries would inherently make for a very tense cold war at best; whereas with a unified and integrated military, all parties get to take comfort knowing that every single unit has a mix that includes citizens of all the states, a neat little insurance policy against rogue commanders, considerably more secure (for everyone) than most of the other solutions I've heard.

*This is radically different from the "four-state solution" you'll see if you google that phrase—in all of these, the Kingdom of Jordan is the fourth, setting up a three-against-one dynamic that's about as far from the above system as you can get. Jordan is more homogeneous, viable on its own, and doesn't need to be part of anything like this—there'd be no reason for them to want to commit to anything like this, and many reasons for the federation not to want them in. Likewise for neighbours Syria and Egypt, obviously, although I could imagine Lebanon eventually wanting in as a fifth state if the federation seemed to be working.

"The computer is simply a testing ground for a well-thought-out idea." --Natasha Chen

Posted by blahedo at 7:43pm | Comments (0)

2 Dec 2007

Random toys

I was getting caught up on the paper, and in last Thursday's had a column about a bunch of new DIY toys that range from the clever to the mind-blowingly cool.

The most "duh" one of them was something branded as "SquareOne", which bundles a tape measure together with a 90° square and a level, plus it has a writing surface and a place to clip a pencil if you're really lazy. I mean, of course you'd want to bundle a level and a tape measure! It makes perfect sense. And adding the square was really just a matter of changing the shape of the tape measure's enclosure—amazing nobody'd thought of it before.

Grip-Tite is another one that I wouldn't really use, but sounds neat if I could only understand how it worked. The idea is that it somehow uses cams to make a socket wrench that grips a nut well enough that they can guarantee it'll never round the corners. Even looking at their diagrams, it seems like there'd have to be a spring or something that would be a major point of failure; but in any case, good on them for improving on what is essentially ancient technology!

By far the coolest thing in this article, though (I'm skipping a couple things), was the "SeeSnake" inspection camera. The reason it's cool is it fills a niche I'd never really even thought of but which immediately seems like it'd make a good addition to more or less every home. The idea is simple: put a very small camera at the end of a 3' cable and a display on the other end. Suddenly you don't have to pull out the VCR, DVD, Tivo, and receiver just to see what's wired to what; you don't have to smoosh your head on the floor so that your eye can see under the couch; and it becomes possible to e.g. look around corners in pipes and such. I think the best tools are the ones that seem the most obvious in retrospect, and this one pretty well takes that cake.

"I'll pause now so you can catch your breath after choking on the idea that the office of governor of Illinois is dignified and respectful. Three of its last seven former occupants have ended up in prison, after all, and the current governor is less popular than staph infections." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 6:24pm | Comments (0)

1 Dec 2007

Much ado...

A couple of weeks ago, the following shrill notice appeared in the Sunday bulletin at St Pat's:

The movie, "The Golden Compass" is based on the trilogy of books by atheist, Philip Pullman and is geared towards kids. He wants kids to denounce God and heaven and does it in a subtle way...parents may not pick up on his true intentions. In a 2003 interview, Pullman said, "My books are about killing God." Please don't take your kids to see this movie! The following link gives more information : http://snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp

I was irritated at the idea that this movie would be too dangerous to see, that it would be such a good argument for atheism that we'd all smack our foreheads and go, "oh!" It's as though whoever wrote the noticed believed that just because Pullman said he was trying to kill God, that he'd be able to.

At the time, I hadn't read the books. I've now finished the first and am working my way through the second. Setting aside author's intent for the moment, I'd say that the books are an icy, stinging critique of corrupt secular power, especially of corrupt secular power wielded with the weight of (supposed) moral authority. He obviously has a great deal of real-world source material to draw from here; it's hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church has had its moments of deeply corrupt and evil activity, as have some other religious institutions. And it's clearly the case that some people see this as reason to reject the Church entirely. Back at Brown, Fr. Bodah was fond of saying "the only thing worse than a religious hypocrite is an irreligious hypocrite"—nobody has a monopoly on hypocrisy, and though hypocrisy and corruption can be found in the Church and among publicly religious people, they are hardly defining characteristics of religion. If Pullman's intent is to destroy religion and "kill God", he seems to be doing it by setting up a straw man to knock down.

Earlier this week, reviewers for the USCCB published a positive review that seems to understand this. It acknowledges the controversy but argues that the film "taken purely on its own cinematic terms" isn't even particularly questionable, much less dangerous. On the topic of the movie being some sort of bait to read the ever-so-dangerous books, the review also takes an eminently sensible stance against a ban or boycott: "parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens." A piece of advice that might well apply to any movie at all. Or book.

Of course, this review sent the Catholic crazies into orbit. The Catholic League is demanding that the USCCB revise the review to reflect the grave peril that the movie poses; in an interview, "the League warns that The Golden Compass is the least offensive of the three books and is bait for the books with 'sell atheism to kids in a stealth fashion.'" Stealth, eh? Isn't this exactly what every religiously-motivated fantasy author does? JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis might be said to "sell Christianity to kids in a stealth fashion", though that makes it sound needlessly shady and bad.

I'm a bit amused by their objection to the review's characterisation of the book's "very fictionalized church": "'Philip Pullman's books do not portray a "very fictionalized church," one that is "a stand-in for all organized religion." They portray the Catholic Church. That is why he uses the term "Magisterium," (for the evil empire),' said the League." So the highly corrupt, scary, evil church of the books isn't fictional? Um, try again, Catholic League. (That's not to say that it's not distantly based on the RCC. But a church where Pope John Calvin moved the See to Geneva, the papacy was later abolished, and governance is now distributed across several competing bodies including the bishops, the cardinals, and others... that's pretty fictional.)

A Jesuit blog raises many of the same concerns, complaining both that the movie's Church is too fictional and that it's not portraying the true Church, apparently. It particularly objects to the use of the word "magisterium", fretting that "some wildly imaginative children decide to look up 'magisterium' and somehow associate the great evil in 'The Golden Compass' with the Catholic Church." Evidently, one isn't allowed to write a book about a church gone bad that uses any of the words associated with any real church, because it might, in the hands of children, be interpreted as one and the same as reality. Of course, in this case that is more or less the author's intent, which is something all these panties-in-a-bunch bloggers are reiterating, but I hasten to remind everyone that the RCC is not one of the churches that asks you to check your brain at the door, and in fact doctrinally mandates that you evaluate the real world for yourself. Part of that is listening to the counterpoint; it gives you a much stronger understanding of the truth if you have heard the alternative.

I especially like the raft of comments on that page about how the bishops' conference is rife with schismatics. Those heretical hierarchs! Hee.

And then there are the even less-informed blogerati, raising the hue and cry while confessing, "I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the books." This one later justifies himself because "several good friends whom [he] trust[s] have read the book". The ranting here is more disjoint; for instance, one snarky criticism of the movie is an ad hominem regarding Ian McKellen (who voices Iorek) being a "homosexual-activist/anti-Catholic"; of course, later in the same review he lauds Lord of the Rings and uses Gandalf in particular as an emblem of good.

What is most disturbing in that review, among others, is the recurring idea that if the church's authority were undermined, we wouldn't have the same moral/ethical beliefs---i.e. that these aren't inherently the right things to believe. Now that's pernicious. This idea is implicit in statements like "'Thorny philosophical issues' are constantly the proximate cause of genuine crisis among youth, and sometimes it's best to nip them in the bud, not buy popcorn and absorb them in vivid technicolor dolby surround at a theater" and "Pullman is poised on the brink of entering into what has been so carefully assembled, and blast it to pieces"; unless you think Pullman is right in these criticisms, why are you so scared of them?

"What a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people's damnation---just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord's parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time." --Joseph Ratzinger, 1964

Posted by blahedo at 4:35pm | Comments (0)