October 31, 2008

Ten Things You Don't Know About...

I came across an interesting three-part series of blog posts on astronomy over at Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy blog (the original Bad Astronomy is now hosted by Discovery). Anyhoo... the author, Phil Plait, talks about ten things you may or may not know about the Milky Way, the Earth and Black Holes. All of the posts are done in a humorous, irreverent style for those of you who can't take your astronomy straight. ;) For example:

The biggest is called Cruithne (pronounced MRPH-mmmph-glug, or something similar).

Be sure to check them out.

October 28, 2008

What Does This Look Like to You?

I took this photo last week with my handphone camera in a car park in Bedok (I won't be more specific as to the location). As you can see, this stuff, whatever it is, looks like a certain word we know. Regardless of what you, my readers, think, I will think of this as an ayah.

Verily in the heavens and the earth, are Signs for those who believe. (45:3)




On the earth are signs for those of assured Faith, (51:20)

A'ishah's First Eid

I've three more pics of A'ishah to share; the first two were taken during Ramadan, while the last was taken on Eid (October 1st). I don't think I have any other pictures of A'ishah that are more current.

This first photo is a continuation of the last two pictures from my last post; here, A'ishah has been burped and is now resting comfortably on Daddy's chest while Mommy takes her picture. This turned out quite nice.


"Eskimo baby." A'ishah being dried with a towel after one of her morning baths.


Finally, A'ishah on Eid over at Grandma's place. We had bought a very nice Eid outfit during Ramadan over at Geylang Serai, but it turned out that the fabric was waaay too rough for her skin. She cried horribly until we took it off her; fortunately, we had another outfit (bought by one of my sisters) that we could use instead. (Yeah, that's me holding her, again.)


Last time, I wrote that A'ishah had started developing a sense of humor; we've also learned that she's developing a temper. ;) A couple nights ago, Milady and I were too late in picking A'ishah up from the crib... at least according to her. ;) And so she threw a temper tantrum (the second of the day). Milady started giving A'ishah her evening bath, but A'ishah screamed throughout. I walked up and said something to the effect of "Good luck on getting her to bed." It frequently takes Milady about 40 minutes to get A'ishah to sleep in the evening. But Milady was unperturbed. "Oh, she'll go right to sleep after all this crying." Sure enough, Milady had A'ishah asleep in only ten-fifteen minutes that night. I wish she would go to sleep that fast every night.

Special note to my parents: Your photo set (of 33 photos) should be in the mail by tomorrow, insha'allah. :)

October 26, 2008

James Galbraith Interview with Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers recently interviewed economist James Galbraith (whom I wrote about earlier this month). The topic, of course, was on the financial crisis. To a degree, this interview is "$#|+ in your pants"-scary as it outlines not only the current problems we face, but some other potential problems that I haven't heard anyone else talk about (and I read four blogs devoted to economics on my RSS reader). The good news is that Galbraith remains optimistic that the problems can be overcome, although it will take some time (he estimates three years at a minimum). Below is most of the transcript; the video of the interview and the full transcript can be found here.

BILL MOYERS: How perilous is this situation?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Oh, very much so. This is the big one. I have been working on financial crises since the New York City rescue in 1975. And this is, by far and away, the biggest threat to the system as a whole that we've seen in my lifetime and I think the biggest threat since the late 1920s.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that the adrenaline of fear could push us over the brink into panic so that we stop acting rationally or deliberately?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Fear is a factor. But we have an enormous advantage over our predecessors in 1929. We have the fact that the New Deal happened. And we have the institutions of the New Deal, though they have been badly damaged in the last decade, they are still with us. We have deposit insurance. We have Social Security. We have a government which is capable of acting as the lender of last resort, which can borrow and spend as needed to deal with this crisis.

So here in the United States the capacity to handle the crisis exists. What we need is a government that's willing to use that capacity, that believes in it. And that's where the collapse of the old objectivism of Alan Greenspan is such a fundamental feature of the present situation, and very timely. With the collapse of that system of ideas perhaps the way will be cleared for thinking afresh and clearly about the problems that we face and how to solve them.

BILL MOYERS: Well, they have been acting as born-again believers in government intervention.

JAMES GALBRAITH: I think, though, that there's still a great deal still to be learned and still be to done. We are going to hear a great deal in the next few weeks about the need for a stimulus package. And a lot of people will be talking about how they will be conceding that the government should get involved short term.

But what needs to be stressed is that we've seen a breakdown of an entire system. The consequence of the failure of regulation, of supervision of the banking system over the past eight years, has been to cause a collapse of trust, a poisoning of the well.

BILL MOYERS: Trust?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Of trust, yes. Banks -

BILL MOYERS: Between?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Banks no longer trust each other because they no longer know whether their counterparties are solvent. Customers no longer trust the banking system. Banks no longer trust the people who would like to borrow from them for commercial purposes. This is a poisoned well. It is going to take a fair amount of time for it to be cleaned up.

BILL MOYERS: Fair amount of time? What do you mean?

JAMES GALBRAITH: My feeling is, if it is done correctly, aggressively, effectively, we could begin to work out of it in three years. But it is not a problem that's going to be solved with a six-month program.

BILL MOYERS: What scares you most right now?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, a week ago or two weeks ago I would have said the possibility that Phil Gramm might become Secretary of the Treasury.

BILL MOYERS: Your former Texas soul mate, right?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Yes, exactly. Yeah. We have a contest between a philosophy of deregulation, of de-supervision, a philosophy of anything goes. Gramm himself was the architect, a deep architect of the speculative markets that have just collapsed. And an alternative which says that there really has to be a pragmatic approach to these problems. And that's a choice the American public obviously is going to be making in a few days.

BILL MOYERS: What's the worst-case scenario you think about late at night?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Right now the thing that troubles me most is not the United States. The thing that troubles me most is that the same ideas of deregulation, of free markets, were applied in the construction of modern Europe. And the Europeans don't have the institutions of the New Deal, a central bank that can lend as necessary.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

JAMES GALBRAITH: Government that can borrow as necessary; that can take the initiative. They have expanded themselves into Eastern Europe in a way in which Communism was replaced by nothing. And a financial collapse is going on there now is, in many ways, more profound than the one we are experiencing here.

BILL MOYERS: But we've seen Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Britain, step forward in a way that our own government hasn't and try to orchestrate a European-wide response to this.

JAMES GALBRAITH: That is true. And that is, you know, collection of the finance ministers getting together over the weekend to try and do this on an ad hoc basis. Mercifully, we have the institutions of government in this country that can act. The Europeans are winging it. They have to go against their charter of the Central Bank, against the Maastricht Treaty and its restrictions on government spending, government deficits. They- that problem is a systemic problem. Our problem is a policy problem. We can solve our problem.

BILL MOYERS: Isn't our government winging it, too? I mean, the NEW YORK TIMES this week-

JAMES GALBRAITH: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Had a long story saying that Secretary of Treasury Paulson was behind the curve at almost every turn.

JAMES GALBRAITH: That's no doubt true. First of all, the crisis had been developing for a year. When it broke, he sent up a three-page bill to Congress. Many people said that's a power grab. My view was it was a punt. It said to the Congress, "You take this ball. You write the legislation," which Barney Frank and the other leadership of the Congress actually did do. And they came back. And eventually they passed a bill. And Paulson has been improvising ever since. He's done a number of things that actually I was recommending as early as the 25th of September in the "Washington Post". Guarantee all deposits in the banking system. Support the commercial paper market. Take out equity investment in the banks, effectively partially nationalizing them. All of these things which were unimaginable in mid-September are now policy, even though they were, strictly speaking, part of the bill.

So we are improvising very fast. The next problem is going to be that the economy needs to be dealt with, not just the financial sector. The fact is we have a million homes in foreclosure. That number's going to be rising. It could be two and a half or five million in a few months. We are going to have to take very significant steps to try and keep people in their homes, to try and minimize the amount of abandonment, the amount of blight, the amount of sort of permanent damage to the houses out there and to the people who live in them.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, that's one calamity I wanted to ask you about. You own a home on which the value of it is far less now than the mortgage that you have to pay off. What do we do about that?

JAMES GALBRAITH: You renegotiate the mortgage. And that is something that has to be done on a case-to-case-by-case basis with government help. That is what, in the 1930s, Roosevelt established a Home Owners' Loan Corporation to do. And we're going to need to go back to that model and do something similar. Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC-

BILL MOYERS: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

JAMES GALBRAITH: - has proposed something quite similar.

BILL MOYERS: And so has Governor John-

JAMES GALBRAITH: So we're-

BILL MOYERS: -Corzine of New Jersey is coming forward with something like that. Details to follow. But I know he's groping with that. Other governors are, too.

JAMES GALBRAITH: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Can they do it on their own at the state level?

JAMES GALBRAITH: No. It is going to require federal organization and federal funds. And the states have another problem, which is states and localities fund themselves from the property tax and the local economies.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

JAMES GALBRAITH: Those are collapsing. So they need support and help to maintain their public services, to keep their staff, their civil servants on payroll so that you don't complicate the housing problem, among other things.

BILL MOYERS: And since there's no private capital from that they can borrow now, where do they go?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, they have to - the federal government is going to have to provide both operating revenue and support for capital investment by state and local government.

BILL MOYERS: What about the other calamity? The other calamity is that people nearing retirement and the elderly, have really been hit hard in their pension plans. What happens to them?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, you can't make people whole individually because everybody made different portfolio choices. Some were more in the stock market, some less. Those who were more in the stock market have been hurt harder. What you can do is protect the population as a whole. And we have a system for doing that. It's called Social Security.

It supports today about 40% of the American elderly population has basically no other income. It's more than half of the retirement of maybe 50 or 60% of that population. Social Security benefits, except for inflation adjustment, haven't been raised in a generation. We ought to think about replacing the losses to some degree in the aggregate that have occurred in the markets by raising Social Security benefits and particularly raising them for the poorest and most vulnerable.

BILL MOYERS: For a temporary measure?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, I'm in favor of doing it on a permanent basis.

BILL MOYERS: But, you know, you and everybody else have been reading or talking to or calling for more spending, more spending because that's the only way you say to get capital into the system. But where's that money going to come from, Jamie?

JAMES GALBRAITH: The government has no problem with money. What we're learning, first of all, is that the dollar remains the anchor currency of the world. The euro is the one, is the currency that's collapsing right now, not the dollar.

Uncle Sam's credit is excellent. Uncle Sam can borrow short term for practically nothing these days. Everybody wants to have Treasury Bills and bonds because they're safe. Uncle Sam can borrow for 20 years at 4.3%. That's the same rate that the United States could borrow at for 20 years in the last month of the Eisenhower administration. So from our point of view, we're actually well placed, I mean, as the government of the United States is well placed to take the lead in pulling the country and the world out of this crisis.

BILL MOYERS: But even Barack Obama's website calls the deficit America's "Domestic Enemy." Even he's aware of the fact that the deficit's beyond sight.

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, the deficit isn't beyond sight. The deficits in the Bush administration in relation to the size of the economy were never all that large. They were certainly larger than they were under Clinton, but that was in part necessary because of the changed economic situation, the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2000.

The United States government's credit is good. The deficit is a financial number that people are going to have to get used to because there is no way in these circumstances of avoiding an increase in the deficit. One of two things can happen. The government can take action and help stabilize the economy in which case we will have more spending but also more employment.

Or the government cannot take action and let the economy collapse in which case we will have much less tax revenue. The deficit is going to be larger either way. There is no way of avoiding that. The only question is do you work to have a good economy or do you accept a terrible economy?

BILL MOYERS: What are the negative effects of a soaring deficit?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, the one thing I would have worried about is that we might not find lenders who are willing to provide funds to the U.S. government, that the Chinese or the Japanese might decide that they would rather be in some other currency and that we'd then have trouble with inflation. But that's not going to happen.

It's not going to happen because, as it turns out, the major alternative, the euro, simply isn't viable as a reserve asset for the rest of the world. It's the dollar or nothing. So the United States basically can finance itself to the extent necessary to deal with this crisis. And I'm right now quite sanguine about that, quite confident that we won't face a problem.

BILL MOYERS: You call your book THE PREDATOR STATE, what do you mean predator?

JAMES GALBRAITH: What I mean is the people who took over the government were not interested in reducing the government and having a small government, the conservative principle. They were interested in using these great institutions for private benefit, to place them in the control of their friends and to put them to the use of their clients. They wanted to privatize Social Security. They created a Medicare drug benefit in such a way as to create the maximum profit for pharmaceutical companies.

They used trade agreements to extend patent protections for various interests or to promote the expansion of the corporate agriculture's markets in the third world. A whole range of things that were basically political and clientelistic. That's the predator state.

BILL MOYERS: You call it a corporate republic.

JAMES GALBRAITH: It is a corporate republic.

BILL MOYERS: Which means that the purpose of government is to divert funds from the public sector to the private sector?

JAMES GALBRAITH: I think it's very clear. They also turned over the regulatory apparatus to the regulated industries. They turned over the henhouse to the foxes in every single case. And that is the source of the decline in, the abandonment of environmental responsibility, the source of the collapse of consumer protection, and the source of the collapse of the financial system, all trace back to a common root, which is the failure to maintain a public sector that works in the public interest, that provides discipline and standards, a framework within which the private sector can operate and compete. That's been abandoned.

BILL MOYERS: We saw what Alan Greenspan said yesterday. But did you see what the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox, said? I mean, it was one of the great recantings in modern American history. Quote, "The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work."

Now, we all know that the government can screw up, too. We all know that government can make serious mistakes. What kind of regulation do you think we should have that doesn't poison and punish entrepreneurial talent but protects the public interest?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, first of all, anyone who thought, up until six months ago, that voluntary regulation could work was either being dishonest or delusional. Voluntary regulation is regulation that, by its nature, you can evade. And what happens is that the people, who are most intent on evading it, on not respecting the standards, come to take over the process. Their profits are better. And so they drive the complying firms and businesses to the wall. They out-compete them.

You need to have a mandatory system so that the firms which are more technologically progressive, which are safer, which are more complaint, which provide, which are prudent in the financial sector, which maintain credit standards so that those firms have a competitive chance. That's the first purpose of regulation.

It is a framework which it favors, when it's done properly, it's a framework which favors the more efficient, the more progressive, the elements that are prepared to work within the guidelines set by a larger public purpose.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of regulation do you think might be most effective?

JAMES GALBRAITH: The, well first of all, we need to clean up the mess that's there. And that's going to include a fair amount of legal intervention, criminal prosecution, malfeasance. There was a lot of fraud in the housing sector, in the, amongst the loan originators, amongst the appraisers. This all needs to be investigated. And people need to be moved out of positions in the financial industry that they have abused.

The regulatory system going forward is going to have to be basically like a utility. It's going to have to treat banking like a utility with limitations on growth, on rate of return, and on credit in such a way as to be much more transparent, to make it much easier to evaluate financial products that are traded. None of this over-the-counter, occult, too complex to value stuff.

We need to end the offshore tax havens and other ways in which institutions have hid out from their responsibility to the country to pay their share of taxes. And we need to have a set of prudential standards that are reasonable and that basically can put the business of finance on a sustainable footing. It'll be a much less glamorous business going forward. But it will be more reliable for the country as a whole.

BILL MOYERS: You are such an experienced economist in your own right. But I hesitate to bring the spirit of your father to this table. He would have been 100 last week had he not died two years ago, right? And his classic book, of course, one of his classic books is "The Great Crash of 1929". Is the situation today comparable to what happened when your father was a young economist?

JAMES GALBRAITH: It is. The situation today is very similar to the moment of panic and collapse that we saw in 1929. And for very similar reasons. An abandonment of the supervisory responsibility that should have been applied to keep the speculation and the fraud and the abuse from getting out of control. So there's going to be a major period of correction. And dad, in writing this in 1955, talks about how memory fades and how eventually, although so long as people remembered '29 it wouldn't be repeated, eventually it would be forgotten and the underlying speculative impulse would come back. So the book, in addition to being a great read, is really prescient in a very balanced way. But I will say that we're not going to go back to 1929 because in 1929 we hadn't had Roosevelt. We hadn't had Kennedy and Johnson. We had had them now. So we have a body of history to work with.

BILL MOYERS: There's a precedent, you're saying, that there are tools there if people want to use them.

JAMES GALBRAITH: Tools, not only precedent, there are institutions. There's a government structure. And if we use them, we can avoid, we can't avoid '29. But we can avoid 1930 and 1931, 1932, when-

BILL MOYERS: When-

JAMES GALBRAITH: -output fell by a third, unemployment rose to 25 percent of the labor force and a third or more of the banks in the country closed and people lost their savings. In fact, we are already in a position of moving to take steps to prevent that from happening. We need to recognize, though, that we can never go back to a system of this kind of buccaneering finance driven, Wall Street-led economy in which a group of people who are profoundly unqualified to run the country are, in fact, dictating policy from perches here in Manhattan.

BILL MOYERS: But there are capitalists like Steve Forbes, I just read a long article by him in the current issue of "Forbes Magazine," who argue that people like you are going to go too far and that it was actually the government's excesses and failures in the '80s and '90s that contributed to what began to happen in 2007 with the meltdown. And that if you have your way, people like you have your way, you will criminalize business. You will raise taxes and dry up the economy. You will take government unchecked into the same kind of catastrophe that unchecked Wall Street has carried us. How do you answer a Steve Forbes?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, first of all, I very much agree with him, that it was failures of government that were responsible for this. It was the actual failure, the abandonment, the neglect of the supervisory regulatory responsibility. That's at the root of this.

Just as you cannot prosper without a private economy, you cannot prosper without an effective autonomous government capable of thinking for itself, capable of balancing things out, of standing for other interests, of standing for labor and consumers and for the public interest as a whole. If you don't have that, you're going to get these pyramids, these bubbles, these epidemics of fraud and abuse, and ultimately the collapse of trust and the collapse of the economy itself. That's what's happened in the predator state.

BILL MOYERS: I wrote down something you wrote elsewhere, that struck me. You wrote that after World War II our American system wasn't imperial. Quote, "We spoke instead of community, of freedom, of common purposes and common values. And the world took us seriously because we had paid our dues." What's happened to those values?

JAMES GALBRAITH: Well, it's clear that world has lost its confidence in the responsible role of the United States. Iraq is viewed by the world as reckless and self-serving rather than being a necessary step to protect the mutual security.

In the financial sector, the world viewed us as a safe haven because they believed we had effective systems for legality, transparency and security. That's taken a hard knock. But we are rescued for the moment by the fact that other people's systems turn out to be even worse. I believe that you can turn a page and that you can rebuild the position of the country in the world community if you do so in a way which is fully credible. New people, new philosophies, new policies.

8 Years Later

Vote!

October 24, 2008

The Economist: McCain's Last Stand

There's an interesting, short article on John McCain's campaign in the state of Pennsylvania over at The Economist. What really struck me about this article was two sections near the end. Based on these two paragraphs, is there any reason to think that McCain has any hope of winning Pennsylvania, let alone the country? Not in my mind.

Mr Obama also has an overwhelming advantage with his ground game. The Obama campaign has not just been content to produce huge turnouts in the big cities. It is fighting for every vote. Mr Obama has 81 field offices across the state, many in places where Democrats have never competed before, compared with Mr McCain’s three dozen. Mr Obama is also making clever use of affinity groups—getting nurses to organise meetings with other nurses and Catholics (a vital group in Pennsylvania, accounting for almost 25% of people) to organize meetings with other Catholics.

...

The McCain office only had a couple of people working the phones when The Economist visited. The young man who was in charge had no idea that Mr McCain was in the state that day. The Obama office, by contrast, was crammed to the brim and hyper-organized. There were plenty of older people sporting “Hillary sent me” badges as well as younger Obamaphiles. The walls were covered with charts telling people where they had to be and when. After dark, it was still buzzing with volunteers. The McCain office was closed.

Terry Tate vs. Sarah Palin

Make sure you don't have any drinks in your mouth as you watch these. ;)





October 23, 2008

Sarah Palin, Secret Democrat

This woman really is clueless.


"Oh, look! It has little donkeys on it and, see? It says 'Vote!' Nothing but the best for me at Neiman Marcus!"

Photo credit: Newsweek

October 22, 2008

A'ishah during Ramadan

Back in mid September, I had a post about A'ishah's BFF (Best Friend Forever), a bright, sunny cloth flower that we had bought from Toys "R" Us. A few days after I wrote that post, Milady took a picture of A'ishah smiling at the flower:


Since that time, we've also added a musical mobile and a small fan to the crib, the fan having several LED lights that makes colorful patterns as the blades spin. Those have attracted A'ishah's attention in recent weeks far better than the flower, which is more or less ignored now despite it still having a prominent space on the crib.

This next photo was taken by Milady with her brother Du@n holding A'ishah. The "glow" is due to the photo being taken in front of Arcadia doors on a bright day.


Finally, we have two more photos of A'ishah in all her "chipmunk cheek" glory. Both pictures were taken during Ramadan, very early in the morning, when everyone was eating breakfast before the start of fasting. The hand in both photos is mine. :)


"Daddy, I'm so tired!"


"Yeaah! Who keeps flashing that bright light in my face?"


I'm also pleased to say that A'ishah is developing a sense of humor. A couple of days ago, Milady was holding A'ishah in front of a mirror and making faces at her. Every few seconds A'ishah would then giggle ("ha ha"), which was really cute to watch. Later that day, we bought a small swing for A'ishah to sit in. As soon as she was placed in it and the swing began to rock, she giggled once more. Very cute!

Zakat vs. Sadaqah

There seems to be some confusion among non-Muslims about who's eligible to receive charity from Muslims. The quotation in question is from Al-Maqasid, the book on fiqh by Imam Nawawi (631 - 676 A.H. / 1234 - 1278 CE), who wrote:

"It is not permissible to give zakat to a non-Muslim." (Al-Maqasid, 4:13)

Not surprisingly, the quotation is being misused by Islamophobes such as Bobby Spencer and others. Their problem seems to be that they focus solely on zakat while ignoring the fact that there's also sadaqah, the voluntary charity that can be given by Muslims to anyone. What follows below is the thread of a conversation over at Daily Kos where this issue came up. The first comment was written by a person calling themselves "Berkeley Moon":

Do you know, for example, that Islam compares wealth in a society to blood in the body? It must be circulated in a healthy society/body. If too much blood is congealed in one place in the body, the body dies. The body also dies if there is too little blood in a part. It is the same with a society. Too little or too much wealth in a part of the society means the society sickens and may die.

To which "Old Man Mountain" wrote:

Interesting... Can you please quote the verse(s) that outline this concept? Thanks.

I responded:

There is no specific verse in the Qur'an... that mentions this concept; there may be some ahadith that do, although I couldn't find anything through an online search of the best of the hadith databases (USC's MSA website). However, you can find the concept fleshed out in The Secret of Islam, pp. 17-18.

To which "Old Man Mountain" replied:

That link appears to outline... the justification for zakat tax. Now I've done some reading up on this in the meantime, and it seems that although there are some exceptions (like if there is potential to make a convert), by and large...

"It is not permissible to give zakat to a non-Muslim" (Al-Maqasid, 4:13).

I'm just an old guy, sometimes grumpy, but I just don't see what is so "beautiful" about that - unless of course one is a Muslim. I must say the teacher above sure makes it sound flowery.

And here is my latest (and, insha'allah, last) response:

I think part of the problem... is that there's a lot more to this topic than what you've read. First, the passage I linked to used the analogy of wealth in a society to blood within one's body with respect to zakat; however, the passages where I'm familiar with this analogy are normally on the topic of Islamic business practices. The use of this analogy is applicable to both areas.

Next, the quotation you used, "It is not permissible to give zakat to a non-Muslim." (Al-Maqasid, 4:13), is from a book on fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. It's not a quotation from the Qur'an, if that's what you were thinking.

In Googling the quotation (because I was unfamiliar with it off-hand), I see that it's used in a negative manner by Islamophobes; what I don't see is that these same people don't have a more full understanding about charity within Islam. Zakat is merely one form of charity within Islam. Zakat is the compulsory charity that is required of Muslims; non-Muslims are not expected to pay any zakat whatsoever. In this regard, I don't have any problems with the idea that "it is not permissible to give zakat to a non-Muslim." It is a charity raised by and distributed back to the Muslim community.

However, zakat is only one type of charity in Islam; the voluntary, non-compulsory form of charity in Islam is known as sadaqah. Sadaqah can be given to anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. Whereas zakat is a prescribed amount (2.5% of one's wealth), sadaqah is limitless. In Islam, even a smile is sadaqah. :) So there's more to Islamic charity than just zakat.

October 19, 2008

Note to Self: Keep Mouth Closed When Looking Up!

Presumably it's good luck if a bird shits upon you. So how much good luck does this guy have?

October 16, 2008

Caddying

I'm not quite sure what my first job was, although I'd guess that it was my time as a caddy. "Job" isn't really the right word for being a caddy; I wasn't there because I had filled out an application or was hired by the country club. (They could have cared less.) Caddying was more like being an independent contractor: I'd show up, sit around the scoreboard (used for the occasional golf tournament), and hope that someone would ask me to carry their bag for them. Usually someone did; occasionally I went home having done nothing.

I don't know who first suggested I caddy; my mom, I think. I like golf, and my parents had given me some lessons on how to play the game. The country club where I caddied was located on the west side of town, but because I was too young to drive, I'd ride my bicycle over. I'd go to the caddymaster's room, tell them I was there to caddy, and then I'd sit at the scoreboard and chat with any other caddy who happened to be there. Caddies at that country club were almost all high school students. For the most part we were too young to get better jobs, which explains why, over two summers, I only met one college-aged caddy. So we'd sit and wait. Most club members didn't bother with caddies, using golf carts instead. (Bastards.) Most days I did get to carry someone's bags but, as I said above, not always. Those were the depressing days. Sitting around for a couple hours, getting a glimmer of hope when club members showed up to play golf, getting depressed when they took a cart. The one alternative to caddying was that occasionally we'd be hired to shag balls. Most members had a bunch of practice balls they kept in some type of bag or container, maybe fifty or so. Instead of your typical driving range where some vehicle runs around sweeping up balls, the caddy runs around chasing after the balls his golfer hits into the field. It wasn't terribly difficult work, but it wasn't always easy to see the ball in the sky as it came at you. Not that I ever got hit by a ball, thank God. It was relatively easy money. Twenty minutes worth of running around for $3.

But the "real" money to be made was in walking around the course ($9 for a round, IIRC). Those bags were freakin' humongous, but if you carried the bag with the center of the strap on your shoulder, instead of the end nearest the bag's mouth, you could balance the bag quite easily. The course itself was partially located on a hill. The first hole was flat, but holes Two and Three were uphill. Four was a short, level par three about two-thirds of the way up the hill, but Five was a long, steep monster. On hot, humid days, climbing up that hill was a bear. Everyone, golfers and caddies, would drink a couple of paper cups of water each at the dispenser at the sixth tee. Six through Nine went back downhill, which was nice. One incident at the sixth tee remains in my mind. One of the caddy's jobs is to help track the ball when the golfer hits it so that we can get to the ball as quickly as possible. This guy hit the ball and, just as he did, out soars this beautiful hawk. Magnificent! Of course, everyone lost sight of the ball. :)

At the bottom of the hill, at the ninth green, was a small refreshment stand. Golfers always had to buy their caddy a drink. We were lucky if they bought us a hot dog. The back nine was much easier than the front nine. Although Ten and Eleven went back up the hill, you never got as high up as on the front nine. By Fourteen you were back down on the plain, and then we'd start walking past the rich people's homes, those whose backyards bordered the golf course. By Fifteen, you were starting to feel good as you knew your job was almost over. Once you got back to the clubhouse, you'd give the bag back to the caddymaster who would clean and polish the clubs before putting everything into its slot. The members' clubs were stored in the caddymaster's room, each bag being stored in a cylinder with the member's name attached. I remember walking around one day looking at the names and realizing that my optometrist was a member.

For me, caddying wasn't anything like the movie Caddyshack. Most of the other caddy's were OK guys; one in particular became a friend that summer. He asked me once if I wanted to play golf at the course on a Tuesday morning (when caddies were allowed to play). He asked the caddymaster if he and I could play one week, and the caddymaster was like, "Who?" Obviously, I hadn't made much of an impression. I never did play golf there; I'm not sure how I would have gotten my own bag and clubs there while riding the three miles or so on my bicycle.

One of the more interesting jobs I had was caddying for a woman; every other round I did was with a man (and the appropriately macho humongo bag), but this one woman asked me one morning if I'd pull her bag around for her. (Most womens' bags at the time were squarish contraptions on wheels.) I'm not sure why she asked me to go with her. Pity? A status symbol? Someone to talk to on the course? Turns out she was the mother of one of the girls we caddies knew. The girl was slightly older than us, by a year or two, and was going to attend Duke that fall. But the girl ignored us caddies, and we resented that. None of us had parents who were members, and we felt she was being snobbish. Still, the mother was a nice woman, and the other caddies thought I was very lucky for having such an easy round. (It also helped soothe my ego when she asked me how old I was; she thought I was in college when I was still in high school, having just finished (I think) my sophomore year.)

The very last time I caddied was late in the summer of '77. I hadn't realized that there was a big golf tournament going on at the local college's golf course (where I learned to play golf). So I had been sitting at the scoreboard, very morose about the lack of work when the caddymaster called out, was I doing anything? Did I want to caddy up at the tournament? One of the members decided he needed a caddy, and I was the only one at the country club. So they drove me up to the course, and I did my round with him that day. In fact, he asked me if I would caddy for him the next day (this was a two-day tournament), but I had a prior commitment.

Caddying wasn't a great job; it was rather erratic and very dependent upon the whim of the golfer. Most club members were OK, and one guy I caddied for was a real character. But it provided a little bit of spending money that I earned for myself, and a lot of fresh air and exercise. And that made it nice.

October 14, 2008

"Spare Me the Sermon on Muslim Women"

Nice essay at the Washington Post on the benefits of being a Muslim woman, written by Mohja Kahf, author of the novel "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf." Below are a couple of brief excerpts; the entire essay can be read at the above link.

It irks me that I even have to say this: Being a Muslim woman is a joyful thing.

...

Blessings abound for me as a Muslim woman: The freshness of ablution is mine, and the daily meditation zone of five prayers that involve graceful, yoga-like movements, performed in prayer attire. Prayer scarves are a chapter in themselves, cool and comforting as bedsheets. They lie folded in the velveteen prayer rug when not in use: two lightweight muslin pieces, the long drapey headcover and the roomy gathered skirt. I fling open the top piece, and it billows like summer laundry, a lace-edged meadow. I slip into the bottom piece to cover my legs for prayer time because I am wearing shorts around the house today.

These create a tent of tranquility. The serene spirit sent from God is called by a feminine name, "sakinah," in the Quran, and I understand why some Muslim women like to wear their prayer clothes for more than prayer, to take that sakinah into the world with them. I, too, wear a (smaller) version of the veil when I go out. What a loss it would be for me not to have in my life this alternating structure, of covering outdoors and uncovering indoors. I take pleasure in preparing a clean, folded set for a houseguest, the way home-decor mavens lay elegant plump towels around a bathroom to give it a relaxing feel.

...

As beautiful as veils are, they are not the best part of being a Muslim woman -- and many Muslim women in Islamic countries don't veil. The central blessing of Islam to women is that it affirms their spiritual equality with men, a principle stated over and over in the Quran, on a plane believers hold to be untouched by the social or legalistic "women in Islam" concerns raised by other parts of the Scripture, in verses parsed endlessly by patriarchal interpreters as well as Muslim feminists and used by Islamophobes to "prove" Islam's sexism. This is how most believing Muslim women experience God: as the Friend who is beyond gender, not as the Father, not as the Son, not inhabiting a male form, or any form.

HT: Alajnabiya's Climbing Walls

October 13, 2008

The Great Arab Conquests: Why People Reverted to Islam


This is the ninth post in my series about Hugh Kennedy's book, The Great Arab Conquests. Here, Kennedy examines, at the very end of the book (pages 374-76), why people in the conquered lands chose to revert to Islam. His answer is that it was to their material benefit, that this was a way for people to become part of the new, dominant culture of the day. What's interesting is what Kennedy doesn't say, that the mass reversion of the native populations to Islam was not "by the sword," as Islamophobes mistakenly believe. Instead, the reversion to Islam was a very slow, gradual process that took centuries to complete.

Note: While this topic was originally set to be the last post in this series on Kennedy's book, I've decided to continue on, insha'allah, with a related series, focusing on some of the leaders and other people mentioned in The Great Arab Conquests, and descriptions about places, geographical and architectural, in Muslim lands. While I plan on using Kennedy's book in the future, I hope to use other research materials for these new posts.


As we have repeatedly seen, the Muslim conquerors put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility. As it was, the Muslim authorities established working relationships with the heads of the churches and other religious institutions that were now in their power. Conversion when it came was partly the result of fiscal pressures, the desire to escape the hated poll tax, but also because conversion provided an opportunity to escape from existing social constraints and to become a part of the new ruling class. Being a Muslim had always been essential for anyone who wanted a career in the military. By the tenth century, and before in some areas, it had become very difficult to have a successful career in the civil bureaucracy without becoming a Muslim. Attraction, not coercion, was the key to the appeal of the new faith.

During the first century, the Muslim Empire was a fairly open society. The elite of the new empire were the Muslims and Islam claimed to be a religion for all mankind. No would-be convert could be denied membership of this new elite. In contrast, Roman citizenship or membership of Persian aristocratic families was an exclusive, privileged position to be defended by those who enjoyed it. By converting to the new religion of Islam, conquered people could move to being conquerors, members of the new ruling class and, at least theoretically, equal to all other Muslims. Of course, problems soon arose and there were prolonged and violent clashes between old Muslims and new Arab and non-Arab Muslims, but this could not undermine the fact that Islam was open to all.

This is the other side of the collapse of the old social order and class boundaries lamented in aristocratic Persian sources of the period. There were some spectacular examples of this mobility. Nusayr was a prisoner of war, probably of humble Aramaean origin, captured in one of the early Arab campaigns in Iraq. He converted to Islam and his son Mūsā went on to become governor of North Africa and supreme commander of the Muslim forces in the conquest of Spain. At a humbler level, the peasants who refused to obey the orders of the Persian landowner in Iraq, the Copts who chose to stay in North Africa rather than being forced to return to their native Egypt, or the local men who served with the Arab armies in Transoxania may all have seen the coming of the Muslims as an opportunity to better themselves, taking advantage of the freedom and opportunities offered by the new order.

The early Muslims brought with them a great cultural self-confidence. God had spoken to them through His Prophet, in Arabic, and they were the bearers of true religion and God's own language. It is interesting to compare this with the Germanic invaders of western Europe in the fifth century. When they occupied the lands of the Roman Empire, they abandoned their old gods and converted to Christianity, the religion of the empire they had just conquered, and, as far as we know, no one claimed that God spoke German. This cultural self-confidence meant that Arabic became the language of administration and the language of the new high culture. Anyone who wished to participate fully in government or intellectual activity had to be literate in Arabic and preferably a Muslim. Again the contrast with the Germanic west is revealing. Here Latin remained the language of administration and high culture until at least the twelfth century, the new ruling class adopted Latin titles like duke (dux) and count (comes), and the Germanic languages survived only as vernaculars. The Muslim titles, caliph (khalīfa), amīr and wālī (governor) were all Arabic in origin.

Nonetheless, conquest was the prelude to conversion. It established the political and social framework within which the much slower, incremental processes of changing to Islam could take place. By the year 1000, it is likely that the majority of the population in all the different areas that had been conquered by 750 were Muslim. The conquest did not cause conversion but it was a major prerequisite: without it Islam would not have become the dominant faith in these areas.

The success of the Muslim conquests was the product of a unique set of circumstances and the preaching of a simple new monotheistic faith. There were many features of Islam that would have made it approachable to Christians and Jews. It had a Prophet, a Holy Book, established forms of prayer, dietary and family laws. Abraham and Jesus were both great prophets in the Muslim tradition. From the very beginning Islam established itself as a new faith, but it was one that claimed to perfect rather than destroy the older monotheistic ones. It had none of the strangeness of, say, Buddhism. These similarities, this common tradition, must have aided and encouraged conversion.

In many ways acceptance of Muslim rule was the result of Muslim policy toward the enemy: it was almost always preferable to surrender to the invaders and to make terms and pay the taxes rather than to resist to the last. The Islamization and Arabization that followed conquest over the next two or three centuries would not have occurred if political conquest had not already succeeded, but they were not a direct and inevitable consequence of that conquest. Instead, it was a gradual, almost entirely peaceful result of the fact that more and more people wanted to identify with and participate in the dominant culture of their time.

Photo credit: Wikipedia/Tawelsensei. La Mezquita, the former masjid of Cordoba, Spain. The architecture is notable for its giant arches, with over 1,000 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite.

October 12, 2008

Straight Talk About Islam: Muslims Fear Allah (swt)...

...not men, and certainly not Islamophobes.

Sheila Musaji at The American Muslim has responded to Bobby Spencer's "test" (sorry, I won't link to him) as to whether one is a "moderate" Muslim or not. While I respect Musaji's attempt to answer Spencer, this is not a test I'll ever take, insha'allah. Personally, I don't give a shit as to what Islamophobes think, whether I'm "moderate" enough for them or not. Their minds are already made up; I won't waste my time trying to persuade them otherwise. They're not worth the bother.

The problem with Islamophobes like Bobby Spencer and his ilk is that they think Muslims can be cowed from peer pressure; they don't understand that what mere men think about Islam or Muslims is largely irrelevant. Just because Islamic beliefs and attitudes don't fall lockstep with Western (or other) culture(s) doesn't mean that Islam and Muslims are in the wrong. Like the people at Hebrew National, we answer to a higher authority. Bobby Spencer hasn't grasped that yet. They think (hope, pray) that Muslims will fear them; instead, we fear only Allah (swt).

So from whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, Turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness; so fear them not, but fear Me; and that I may complete My favors on you, and ye May (consent to) be guided; (2:150)

It was We who revealed the law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to God's will, by the rabbis and the doctors of law: for to them was entrusted the protection of God's book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear Me, and sell not my signs for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what God hath revealed, they are (no better than) Unbelievers. (5:47)

The fact of the matter is, people like Bobby have no authority whatsoever to try to sit in judgment of Muslims. I accept judgment only from Allah (swt) and other Muslims, the latter who may help me to improve myself to become a better Muslim.* If you're not a Muslim, it doesn't really matter whether you approve of our beliefs and attitudes. You should really be worrying about yourselves.

In fact, I say to you, Bobby, your time is running out. Only Allah (swt) may judge you, but His judgment is final. You need to submit to the will of Allah (swt) before it is too late.

He [Ibrahim (pbuh)] said: "And who despairs of the mercy of his Lord, but such as go astray?" (15:56)

HT: Islamophobia Watch

* Private note: And that includes you too, Aaminah.

October 11, 2008

Muhammad Yunus: Casino Capitalism

The German magazine Der Spiegel has a short interview with Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Muhammad is asked about his take on the current financial crisis, but these two answers below are the real money quotes. You can read the entire interview here.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who do you think is guilty for the current financial meltdown?

Yunus: The market itself with its lack of adequate regulation. Today's capitalism has degenerated into a casino. The financial markets are propelled by greed. Speculation has reached catastrophic proportions. These are all things that have to end.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The current financial crisis began as a credit crisis -- homeowners in the US could no longer pay down their mortgages. At Grameen Bank, which provides microloans, the repayment rate is close to 100 percent. Do you think your bank could be a model for the entire finance world?

Yunus: The fundamental difference is that our business is very connected to the real economy. When we provide a loan of $200, that money will go to buy a cow somewhere. If we lend $100, someone will maybe buy some chickens. In other words, the money goes to something with concrete value. Finance and the real economy have to be connected. In the US, the financial system has completely split off from the real economy. Castles were built in the sky, and suddenly people realized that these castles don't exist at all. That was the point at which the financial system collapsed.

The latter answer is also addressed in another recent blog post of mine; see I Hate to Say I Told You So...

HT: Economist's View

October 10, 2008

Ayat 30:1-6 and the Wars Between Byzantium and Persia (II)


Alif Lam Mim

The Roman Empire has been defeated-

In a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious-

Within a few years. With God is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice-

With the help of God. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful.

(It is) the promise of God. Never does God depart from His promise: but most men understand not.
-- The Romans (30): 1-6

For many of us Muslims, the first six verses of the surah called The Romans are familiar, but we probably don't know much about the wars between Byzantium and the Persians that described the Byzantine defeat in the mid- to late-610s and the prophecy regarding the Byzantine victory over the Sasanian Empire in 627. This is the second half of a post (the first half is located here), the eighth in my series about Hugh Kennedy's book, The Great Arab Conquests.

Previously, we looked at a basic overview of the conflict between Persia and Byzantine Rome, and the problems Byzantium faced after the war had ended. In this section, from pages 101-03, we look at the aftermath to the Sasanian Empire after their defeat by Heraclius.


The great war between the Byzantines and the Persians which had so damaged the Roman Empire in the first three decades of the seventh century had also been a disaster for the Sasanians. At first Persian arms had been almost entirely successful. In 615 the Persian army had reached the Bosporus opposite Constantinople, and in 619 Persian troops entered Alexandria and completed the conquest of Egypt. The tide began to turn in March 624 when the emperor Heraclius took his fleet to the Black Sea and began the invasion of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Persians were now outflanked and were forced to withdraw their army from Anatolia to face the emperor, who was now attacking from the north. In 627 he swept through north-western Iran, before descending to the plains of northern Iraq and defeating the Persian army at Nineveh (12 December 627). It was the greatest military disaster that the Sasanian Empire had ever suffered. Chosroes retired to the capital at Ctesiphon, leaving his palace at Dastgard to be sacked by the Romans. Here he began the search for scapegoats to blame for the spectacular reversal of fortunes that had occurred. He seems to have decided on the execution of his most important military commander, Shahrbarāz, but before he could act there was a coup. Chosroes was assassinated early in 628 and his son, who had agreed to his father's murder, ascended the throne as Kavād II.

Kavād immediately set about negotiating a peace with Heraclius in which all prisoners were to be released and the pre-war frontiers restored. And all might yet have been well had the new king not died within the year, probably of the plague. He was succeeded by his infant son, Ardashīr III, but the general, Shāhrbarāz, refused to accept this and in June 629 siezed the throne. This was the first time in four centuries that a man who was not a member of the Sasanian family had tried to take the throne, and there was considerable resistance. After just two months, he, too, was murdered and, since Chosroes II had left no other sons, the throne passed to his daughter, Būrān, who, although apparently an effective ruler, died, of natural causes, after a year. There then followed a bewildering succession of short-lived rulers until finally Yazdgard III, a grandson of the great Chosroes, was elevated to the throne in 632.

The details of these intrigues are not in themselves important. The overall effect was decisive, however. The Sasanian Empire had been ravaged by an invading army and any idea of its invincibility had been destroyed. Archaeological evidence suggests that many settlements in the richest part of Iraq were abandoned as a result of the war. Furthermore the house of Sasan, the mainstay and raison d'être of the state, had been torn apart by feud and murder. It is more than likely that Yazdgard, if he had been given time, would have restored royal control and prestige. But the year of his accession was the year of the death of the Prophet Muhammad: Arab tribes were already taking advantage of the chaos to make inroads on the settled lands of Iraq, and Khālid b. Al-Walīd, the Muslim general, was on his way. In these circumstances, it is surprising not that the Persians were defeated by the Arabs but that they fought with such determination.

This last section, from pages 367-68, looks at the damage the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires inflicted upon each other and how neither were prepared for the oncoming Arab conquests.

Along with these long-term factors, there were the short-term effects of war and the dislocation it caused. There had been many conflicts between the Roman and Iranian empires since Crassus and his forces were defeated by the Parthians in 53 BC, but the war that broke out after the assassination of Emperor Maurice in 602 was the most far reaching and destructive. The effects of the Persian sweep through the lands of the Byzantine Empire affected society at many levels. It destroyed Byzantine imperial control over the lands of the Near East, it severed the links with Constantinople; governors were no longer appointed, armies were no longer dispatched and taxes were no longer paid. The Chalcedonian Orthodox Church lost its imperial patronage and became one Christian sect among many others. Many churchmen and other members of the elite fled to the comparative safety of North Africa or Italy. Archaeological work has suggested that, in Anatolia at least, the advance of the Persian armies did enormous damage to urban life and that people abandoned the spacious cities of the plains to take refuge in mountain-top fortresses. The restoration of Byzantine imperial control came only a year or two before the Arab armies marched from Medina, and in many areas there may have been no Byzantine military and political structures in place at all.

A distinguishing feature of this "last great war of antiquity" was that it devestated both of the great empires with even-handed brutality. Heraclius's invasion of the Persian Empire was as destructive as the Persian invasions of the Byzantine Empire had been; the great fire-temple at Shiz, where the Sasanian shahs had been inaugurated, was destroyed and the royal palace at Dastgard sacked. More crucially, the great king Chosroes II (591-628) was killed by his own generals. The Sasanian Empire, unlike the Byzantine, was formally a dynastic state; Heraclius's assault undermined the prestige of the dynasty and the confidence of the Persian ruling elite. Infighting among the members of the royal family caused a period of great instability. By the time that Yazdgard III (632-51) was wide accepted as shāh, the Arab armies were already attacking the Iraqi frontier.

The success of the conquest was also aided by the succession disputes that paralyzed the Byzantine state after the death of Heraclius in February 641. The power struggle at the Byzantine court seems to have been directly responsible for the otherwise inexplicable failure to mount an effective operation to defend Egypt. If Heraclius had been succeeded by a strong and energetic new emperor, the Byzantines might well have been able to mount a counter-attack in Syria or along the Mediterranean coasts, especially during the very disturbed period that followed the assassination of the caliph Uthmān in 656. The Muslims had a generation in which to consolidate their power and their hold over the lands won from the Byzantines.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Taq-i Kisra, the Great Arch of Ctesiphon; this is the only remaining visible structure of the Sasanian palace complex at Ctesiphon, in what is now Iraq. This photo was taken in 2007.

Perhaps She's Watched "Fargo" Once Too Often?

Sarah and her disappearing "accent." Sarah, does this mean that your persona is just as fake?

You betcha!

October 9, 2008

Baby Tudungs and Other Pics

Milady had a bunch of photos that she had taken with her handphone camera (in addition to the video that we posted on the blog earlier tonight). These were taken over the past few weeks.

To be honest, I'm not sure exactly when she took these first three photos; in the first, A'ishah has a bit of a chapped upper lip. This has been quite common for her these past two months, and they come off on their own in time.







This photo was taken over at Grandma's house (you can see her toes to the right of the picture ;) ). That's me holding A'ishah's head up as I try to burp her while she sits on my thigh. Milady thinks Mibaby looks cute in a chipmunkish sort of way when I burp her like this. ;)



These last two photos are our "baby tudung" photos. We had been thinking that it might be cute for mommy and baby to wear matching tudungs (or at least color-coordinated tudungs). As we were walking through a shopping mall last night, I suggested that we buy some bandannas for A'ishah to wear. This is A'ishah wearing an American flag bandanna (with me holding her)...



...and this is A'ishah wearing a white with pink and black print bandanna after we got back home from the hospital this afternoon.



BTW, if you're a friend of mine on Facebook, there's one extra photo of yours truly holding the munchkin on my album of A'ishah pics; here's the link to my profile.

Happy Baby

The video below was taken by Milady two days ago, on October 7th, using her handphone camera (which is the reason for the poor resolution). Still, we're pleased to show our happy baby as she lie upon the bed the other day. I'm about to download a bunch more photos (insha'allah) that we've taken over the past month, so we should have a few more posts about A'ishah fairly soon.

In the meantime, the kid is growing like a weed (this is not an exaggeration). When we went to the hospital this morning for some vaccinations, A'ishah weighed in at 6.33 kg (13 lbs, 15 oz.), which might seem like a lot for a 2.5-month old baby. But that weight is mostly bone; she's got very little baby fat on her so far as she's now 62.5 cm (24.6") long. Remember, she was 52 cm (20.5") at birth, so she's already picked up 10.5 cm (4.1"). Considering that both sides of the family are tall, I wouldn't be at all surprised if A'ishah grows up to rival both Milady and one of my sisters (TRtx) for tallest woman in the family, insha'allah. :)

video


Update: Milady and I had some of her extended family over for Eid yesterday (Oct. 12th). (Eid family visits among Milady's family often last the entire month of Shawwal.) Anyway, our guests brought their kids with them, and Milady and I were shocked to hear that one of the boys, eight-months-old, is a mere 7 kg, whereas A'ishah is almost as heavy when she's just five days shy of three months. So I downloaded some infant girls' height/weight charts last night. A'ishah is currently around the 90th percentile for both height and weight, although for height vs. weight, she's only at the 50th percentile. This is going to be a tall girl, insha'allah! Guess I'm gonna have to teach her basketball and volleyball when she gets older. ;)

An Engineer's Guide to Cats

An amusing video if you like cats. For the record, I was adopted by a cat in the mid-90s. (I was "just a guy who had a cat." :) ) Never did try the "cat yodeling," though. ;)

October 8, 2008

MESSENGER's Second Flyby of Mercury

Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Yesterday [6 October 2008], at 4:40 am EDT, MESSENGER successfully completed its second flyby of Mercury. ... The spectacular image shown here is one of the first to be returned and shows a WAC [Wide Angle Camera] image of the departing planet taken about 90 minutes after the spacecraft’s closest approach to Mercury. The bright crater just south of the center of the image is Kuiper, identified on images from the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s. For most of the terrain east of Kuiper, toward the limb (edge) of the planet, the departing images are the first spacecraft views of that portion of Mercury’s surface. A striking characteristic of this newly imaged area is the large pattern of rays that extend from the northern region of Mercury to regions south of Kuiper. This extensive ray system appears to emanate from a relatively young crater newly imaged by MESSENGER, providing a view of the planet distinctly unique from that obtained during MESSENGER’s first flyby. This young, extensively rayed crater, along with the prominent rayed crater to the southeast of Kuiper, near the limb of the planet, were both seen in Earth-based radar images of Mercury but not previously imaged by spacecraft. ...

But, Wait! There's More!

With the huge amount of satirical pictures and videos about Failin' Palin out on the Intertubes, I may have to make this into a daily feature.

Let the good times roll!
>:)


HT: WTF Is It Now?!?

October 7, 2008

Want a Strong Economy? Vote for a Democrat!

Yesterday, I highlighted a post over at Angry Bear that showed that every Democratic president since World War II has left office with a lower unemployment rate than the one he inherited from his predecessor, whereas only one Republican president, Ronald Reagan, could make the same claim. The moral of that story: if you want a job, you should vote for a Democrat.

Today, the folks at Angry Bear have ranked the last fourteen presidents (since Herbert Hoover) as to how the American economy did in
real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation) during each administration. Interestingly enough, five of the top seven presidents were Democrats, and only one Democratic president (Truman) was in the bottom seven. Below is the listing of presidents and the last two paragraphs of the essay; you can read the entire post here.

1. FDR
2. LBJ
3. JFK
4. Clinton
5. Reagan
6. Carter
7. Nixon
8. Ike
10. GW (that's 10 so far – don't be surprised if he sinks further into the mire)
11. Ford
12. Bush Sr.
13. Truman
14. Hoover

What the list shows us, is that, the top half of the spots are dominated by Democrats. Two Republicans, Reagan and Nixon, make it in (5th and 7th, respectively). It also shows us that the bottom half of the list is populated almost exclusively with Republicans. The one Democrat in the bottom half of the list, not incidentally, is the Democrat most beloved of Republicans today: Harry Truman. George Bush has compared himself to Truman, and a few weeks, Sarah Palin told us how she too was comparable to Truman. What are the odds that prominent Republicans would compare themselves with FDR or LBJ? (Snarky answer – probably about the same as the odds a Republican administration would produce a growth rate comparable to FDR or LBJ.)

Now, after 70 years of data, after observing what we've observed over all sorts of conditions, it is hard to conclude anything but this: one party advocates policies that produce rapid economic growth, and one part dismisses those policies with epithets like "socialism" and advocates instead policies that produce dismal economic growth. And dismal economic growth has consequences. Poor economic growth makes people worse off, and hits them in their pocketbook. And when people are hurting financially, their health suffers, the rate of divorce goes up, suicides increase, and the abortion rate increases. So those who advocate the policies that bring us lower incomes, poorer health, break up families, increase suicides, and increase the rate of abortions are doing us all a lot of harm. More, in fact, than Osama or Saddam could possibly have done. And yet, the folks who advocates those policies question the patriotism of the rest of us. It's very, very strange.

October 6, 2008

James Galbraith: Goodbye, Conservatives. Hello, Predators.

A very interesting article in Slate's The Big Money about the so-called "conservative" wing of the Republican party. Galbraith's thesis, in fact, is that the Republican party is beholden to a predatory class of politicians (who, IMO, aren't necessarily neocons) that practice crony capitalism. Galbraith's conclusion is that the presidential election really hinges on a single issue: Do Americans want a continuation of the predator state, or is it time to clean the government out?

Below is the meat of the article:


Real conservatives know that neither Bush nor McCain is one of them. Bush is a bread-and-circuses reactionary with a clientele of lobbies. McCain gets his economic ideas from Phil Gramm, the ultimate architect of the Enron culture, of libertine speculation and financial disaster. As for Sarah Palin, back in Alaska she took every dime of pork she could lay her hands on. This crowd deregulates and privatizes not because they think it might work out for the public but because they know it won't. What they care about is putting their friends in charge.

Under Bush, oil and gas, drug companies and defense contractors, insurers and usurers, banks and big media control the government of the United States. John McCain was a key member of the Keating Five and a lynchpin of the savings-and-loan debacle; then, as chair of the Senate commerce committee, he presided over Lobby Central; notoriously, his campaign is run by lobbyists to this day and until last week his policy could be summed up in slogans: he was a "free market" man, a "deregulator." Sarah Palin is an interesting case. What was she known for in Wasilla and Juneau? For trying to fire any public servant, from the town librarian to the state commissioner of public safety, who didn't toe her line. Bush and McCain are the predator state writ large, and she is the predator state writ small.

The predator state has no public purpose. Apart from a few empty slogans-smaller government, balance the budget, feel your pain-the connection between actual problems and actual policies has disappeared. It has become clear that, if the Republicans had their way, this election would not be about issues. It would be about anything else: personalities, associations, the politics of fear, and the life history of a long-ago prisoner of war.

But fate blew McCain's cover. On the morning that Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch fell, John McCain spoke the immortal words of Herbert Hoover: "The fundamentals of our economy are strong." He said it twice. It's a phrase with deep resonance in American politics. People understand it. No politician says "the fundamentals are strong" unless they know that they are not.

The Dow Jones average fell 504 points that day. As stocks crashed, suddenly people remembered that modern markets cannot exist without a cop on the beat. Every important market out there, from fresh food and safe drugs to autos and air travel to housing and health care, depends on government to maintain trust, and without it, none of them would survive. Without regulation, predators take over, and when they do, trust eventually collapses. Every important market is in peril now, precisely because of the predators in power these past eight years. And none more immediately than finance.

The Bush-Paulson bailout exposed the predator state in detail. Deregulation and desupervision were the origin of this crisis: the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealing Glass-Steagall, and the Gramm-authored loophole legitimating credit default swaps in 2000. Bush's financial regulators brought chainsaws to press conferences, a clear signal to sub-prime hustlers that "anything goes." "Liar's loans," "neutron loans" and "toxic waste" became financial terms of art. When the crash came, Paulson and Bernanke were plainly not up to the job. The original three-page Treasury bill was less a power grab than a punt; it said to Congress: "there's nobody home over here."

The crisis forces McCain back to issues and exposed the emptiness of his campaign. He resorted to theatrics, "suspending" his campaign to fly to Washington to "work" on a bailout bill, only to demonstrate that his leadership charms were lost on Republican members of the House. At the White House summit he had nothing to say. Later he attacked the morals and ethics of Wall Street, but backed a bill that was aimed to protect the stock prices of the Wall Street firms, while imposing no new discipline and doing nothing to stop the foreclosures. And when it came time to actually cast his vote, he couldn't be bothered even to speak from the Senate floor.

It seems unlikely that John McCain, the regulation-wrecker, will become, overnight, the man who would turn vice to virtue on Wall Street. But even suppose he were serious. Who would trust him? No one with money on the line.

This is McCain's deeper problem. If he is elected, under his leadership, trust cannot be restored. No one with his philosophy or record can do that. Restoring trust requires a government of trustworthy people. Team McCain doesn't have any, and some, especially Gramm, inspire the opposite. It wouldn't matter what their policies were or pretended to be. Nothing they attempted would work.

The Democrats did not do well in the crisis; they were conflicted, divided, unsure of their ground, and they got rolled on many details. Yet they nevertheless broke through politically; Nancy Pelosi's stinging speech last Monday was a rare statement of plain truth. And so the choice in this election is well-defined. One party believes that the government serves no public purpose. The other believes that it must. One party has turned the government over to lobbies, to cronies and to big donors. The other is beginning to realize that a real government must be rebuilt. One party would keep the same crowd in office; the other would have to begin by clearing them out. No one can say there is no difference between the parties this year, and the basic issue in this election is really just as simple as that.

The Economic Version of "Final Destination 3"

There is someone, walking behind you
Turn around, look at me

There is someone, watching your footsteps
Turn around, look at me

One more post on economics (for now), this time an unusual look at housing prices. The New York Times produced a graph of Robert Shiller's American housing price index, which shows what prices have been like from 1890 through 2006. For example, if a standard house cost $100,000 in 1890 (in 2006 dollars), a similar home would have sold for $199,000 in 2006. What's interesting, though, is that someone has taken Shiller's data and transformed it into a roller-coaster ride using Atari's RollerCoaster Tycoon (R)3 software. (Be sure to look at the bottom right corner to view the year.)



The problem with this video, though, is that it stops short of what's happened in the past two years. Back in late May, The Economist, which I do read (apparently this is a political joke now), produced a graph that shows this past year's plunge. To give an idea of what the end of the roller-coaster ride should look like, one wit at Angry Bear suggested the following video:



HT: Angry Bear