April 30, 2009

Watts Up?

Sorry, bad pun. ;) Just thought I'd throw on a Watts "Best of Zap" video before going to bed. Highlights on this video include: Patrick Helmes' (of the German national team) goal against England, Mr. Tennis Head, and Theo Walcott's (of Arsenal) assist against Liverpool. I also thought the clown act on the velodrome (bicycle) track was amusing too. (What can I say? I like slapstick. ;) )

April 29, 2009

The Irony of Satire

Several political blogs have noted an Ohio State University study about the TV show, The Colbert Report. The study has found, in essence, that Republicans lack a sense of humor:

...we found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups [liberals and conservatives] in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism. Finally, a post hoc analysis revealed that perceptions of Colbert's political opinions fully mediated the relationship between political ideology and individual-level opinion. (Emphasis mine.)

Of course, the fact that Republicans do indeed lack a sense of humor was seen in the unlamented Faux News program The 1/2 Hour News Hour.

But seriously, I'm not that surprised that conservatives might find programs like The Colbert Report difficult to understand. Two years ago, I commented about a Psychology Today article, The Ideological Animal, which reported, among other things, that "...conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity..." Is it, then, that conservatives live in an alternate reality (as Crooks & Liars suggests) or that they are unable to fully understand the world they live in?

The Hadith of the Whale

I was doing some research tonight on various foods that are halal, and came across some ahadith I was unfamiliar with. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had sent out a military expedition of three hundred men, led by Abu Ubaida, that came across a dead whale on a sea coast. While land animals that are already dead (maitah, not having been slaughtered) are haraam, animals from the water that happen to be dead are still considered halal. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said of the sea, "Its water is pure and its dead are permissible." Below is the most complete of the three ahadith:

Sahih Muslim, Book 021, Number 4756:

Jabir reported: Allah's Messenger (may peace he upon him) sent us (on an expedition) and appointed Abu 'Ubaida our chief that we might intercept a caravan of the Quraish and provided us with a bag of dates. And he found for us nothing besides it. Abu Ubaida gave each of us one date (everyday). I (Abu Zubair, one of the narrators) said: "What did you do with that?" He said: "We sucked that just as a baby sucks and then drank water over that, and it sufficed us for the day until night. We beat off leaves with the help of our staffs, then drenched them with water and ate them. We then went to the coast of the sea, and there rose before us on the coast of the sea something like a big mound. We came near that and we found that it was a beast, called al-'Anbar (spermaceti whale). Abu 'Ubaida said, 'It is dead.' He then said: 'No (but it does not matter), we have been sent by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) in the path of Allah and you are hard pressed (on account of the scarcity of food), so you eat that.' We three hundred in number stayed there for a month, until we grew bulky. He (Jabir) said: 'I saw how we extracted pitcher after pitcher full of fat from the cavity of its eye, and sliced from it compact piece of meat equal to a bull or like a bull.' Abu 'Ubaida called forth thirteen men from us and he made them sit in the cavity of its eye, and he took hold of one of the ribs of its chest and made it stand and then saddled the biggest of the camels we had with us and it passed under it (the arched rib), and we provided ourselves with pieces of boiled meat (especially for use in our journey). When we came back to Medina, we went to Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) and made a mention of that to him, whereupon he said: 'That was a provision which Allah had brought forth for you. Is there any piece of meat (left) with you, so that you give to us that?' He (Jabir) said: 'We sent to Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) some of that (a piece of meat) and he ate it.'"

Update: After I posted this hadith last night, it occurred to me that the story might appear in The Sealed Nectar. It is, on p. 289:

The invasion of Al-Khabat took place in the eighth year of Al-Hijra, i.e., before Al-Hudaibiyah Treaty. Abu 'Ubaidah bin Al-Jarrah led three hundred horsemen to observe a caravan belonging to Quraish.

Because of the lack of food supplies, they began to starve so much that they had to eat Khabat (leaves of trees), hence the appellation "The Army of Al-Khabat." One of the men slaughtered nine camels on three occasions, three each time at different stages of the mission. Abu 'Ubaidah, the leader of the campaign prohibited him from doing so. The sea presented them with a whale rich in fat and they subsisted on it for half a month.

When they came back home, they narrated the story to the Prophet (pbuh), who commented that it was provision granted by Allah (swt), and asked them to share [with] him some of its meat.

Chronologically this occurred before the Treaty of Al-Hudaibiyah, after which the Muslims stopped intercepting Quraishi caravans.

The whale in question is most likely that of a sperm whale, which is known for its large quantities (up to three tons) of spermaceti, a white, semi-liquid, waxy substance that is found in the sperm whale's head.

April 26, 2009

Jeremy Harding: The Money That Prays

Moon of Alabama linked to a longish essay on Islamic finance at the London Review of Books (LRB). That's an odd place, I thought, for an essay on this topic, so I read the article with a little fear (you know, expecting the usual Islamophobe's-got-an-axe-to-grind-type rant). However, the essay turned out to be rather fair, although, to be honest, I'm still not sure what the author's purpose was in writing the essay to begin with.

Below are three excerpts from the essay; while it may look rather long, this is only a small portion of the entire article, which prints out at 11 pages.

The prohibitions for Muslims are puzzling to the modern commercial mind. The first obstacle for a pious Muslim trading and banking in conventional economies is interest, the term I’ve been using for the Arabic riba, though its literal sense is closer to ‘excess’ and it is sometimes translated as ‘usury’. Often, in the Hadith and even more in recent proselytising on the internet, riba is said to be ‘eaten’. One of the objections to riba is its propensity to up-end the social order. A person who consumes riba bungles the proper management of need – his own and his debtor’s – whereupon the grand plan of give and take, sufficiency for rich and poor alike, begins to come apart. This, as Charles Tripp explains in Islam and the Moral Economy, is also a challenge to ‘the balance and proportion of God’s ordering of the universe’, which must be reflected in ‘human relations’. Islamic tradition warns that riba is likely to lead to injustice and exploitation.

There’s a categorical objection, too: that money may not be conjured up from money to generate like from like. The goods that served (we’re told) as currency in Islamic tradition – gold, silver, salt, grain and dates – can only be exchanged ‘hand to hand’, i.e. in a spot transaction, without deferment; and only at parity, one quantity for its exact equivalent, no more, no less. It’s not clear why you’d want to swap something – a gold weight, say – for its identical other, but the point here is probably that units of currency, unlike the shirt or the saddle for which they’re exchanged, must be beyond any cavilling with regard to value for the system to hold up: an Islamic marker set down 14 centuries ago against arbitrage. In a story told by Abu Said al Khudri, one of Muhammad’s younger companions, the Prophet describes the transaction of a greater number of low-grade dates for a smaller number of quality dates as riba.

The most famous chapter and verse on riba is in sura 2 of the Koran. It warns that dealing in riba will bring on madness or ‘torment’ (via ‘Satan’s touch’), and that if you’re not prepared to waive a mark-up on a debt, war will be waged against you by God and the Prophet. One sharia-compliant banker I met last year told me that’s about as bad as it gets. There is also an injunction to forgive debt in a broader sense: ‘If the debtor is in difficulty, then delay things . . . Still, if you were to write it off as an act of charity, that would be better for you, if only you knew’ (the rules followed by HSBC Amanah try to catch something of this). The charging of riba, it follows, is always a missed opportunity to act generously, to give where a gift is in order, a gesture highly prized in Islamic tradition. In a faith embodied by a trader prophet and espoused by an impressive trading community for which, at its height, knowledge was a key commodity, believers are admonished not to confuse riba with trade. From the second sura, again: ‘God has allowed trade and forbidden usury.’


Riba catches many non-Muslims out. After a long study of Islamic finance, the anthropologist Bill Maurer couldn’t settle on ‘interest’ as the perfect translation: it seemed clear at first but became streaky as he looked closer. ‘Usury’ is the obvious alternative, but are we to rely on the older sense of the term – any charge, however small, for the use of borrowed money – or on the way it’s understood today, as extortionate interest only? Wilson, a professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham who is intrigued by ‘the influences of religious belief on economic behaviour’, holds that riba is usury in the first sense. That’s the view of most practising Muslims; it seems to echo the meaning of the word in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the people of Israel not to lend to their own kith and kin at a rate: ‘Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.’ Very close to ‘interest’ after all then. Yet if, like Melanie Phillips, you believe Islamic banking in the UK merely hastens the day when a green flag is raised over Westminster, it’s important to think of ‘usury’ in the later sense, in order to insist that Muslim law is either deluded or deceitful: ‘The whole issue of sharia finance,’ Phillips wrote last year, ‘is based on a fabrication . . . sharia does not proscribe interest. It proscribes usury.’ Were riba just a term for exploitative lending, however, one or two countries might have shuffled nearer to a unitary sharia banking system. But the sharia has few attractions for exchequers and central banks in a modern economy, where the interest rate is a basic tool of monetary policy. The appeal of sharia-compliant banking and investing is in essence to the individual conscience.

The emphasis on risk-sharing in HSBC Amanah’s products – and all Islamic products – is related to the prohibition on interest: it’s obvious to the devout Muslim that collecting interest on a debt involves no risk worth the name; all that’s required, in this view, is for a creditor to sit back and wait. The exposure involved in the mere lending of money – self-evident to a non-Muslim – is an unticked box in Islamic tradition, while savings, for which non-Muslims see interest as a fair reward, give rise to worries about hoarding: money should be out there doing the work that enables trade to flourish. A Treasury expert would say Islamic tradition approves of narrow money; a historian would remember Bacon’s essay ‘Of Seditions and Troubles’ and his famous dictum that muck is ‘not good except it be spread’. (The essay goes on: ‘This is done chiefly by suppressing, or at the least keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury.’)

Risk-sharing, like generosity, puts human relations on an even keel in the Islamic view. A capitalist can weigh a risk but shouldn’t accept a promise from a partner to eliminate it: that would be ‘risk-transfer’, which denies the inherent truth of risk. (In the eyes of sharia scholars it also opens up a vista of potential exploitation, especially when risk is passed on in unknowable ways, say in the form of a mortgage-backed security with a dodgy rating.) No one must guarantee investors’ money, except against fraud.


Debt is a problem in its own right. Borrowing on a regular, matter-of-fact basis is open to question since sharia scholars are wary of conventional banking’s dependence on interbank borrowing. The ideal Islamic bank, Rodney Wilson told me, is financed entirely by its depositors’ money. In practice, there is plenty of imperfection, but a compliant bank will want to stay as close as possible to this model. Like riba, debt also raises fears about poverty and injustice (some Muslim NGOs are as evangelical about Third World debt as their Christian and secular counterparts). In the Hadith, debt presents a troubling face once the possibility of deferment arises, as it might with a debtor in difficulty. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to put off repayment? Does it matter whether the debtor is wealthy or poor? Bad faith is always threatening to break in on the relationship between a debtor and a creditor: a debtor says he can pay back a loan but how can he be sure? All this drags human relations into the realm of uncertainty – gharar – from which faith, the discourse of absolute certainty, was supposed to protect them. In commerce, gharar is best avoided. Whence the persistence of doubts about contracting for things that don’t (yet) exist: tradition might allow for a joiner taking orders on furniture he hadn’t yet made, but it disqualified the sale of a foal that was still in the body of the mare. Even the benign, textbook version of the forward contract – a farmer and a miller agreeing a grain price ahead of the harvest – brings a sense of uneasiness.

The concept of gharar doesn’t just apply to goods whose status is in doubt, but to bargains whose terms are ambiguous and contracting parties whose liability is vague. Though it’s often translated as ‘hazard’, it’s not the same as risk, which Muslim societies understand as well as anyone. Business risk is unavoidable and begins when a cargo plane taxis towards the runway. Gharar has more to do with the commercial imagination running ahead of itself: speculation still troubles Islamic scholars; many take a dim view not just of credit derivatives, the villains of the banking crisis, but of any instrument whose value is based on a contract for an underlying asset rather than the asset itself. This is changing, slowly, as a growing number of experts wrestle with intellectual tradition till they get to a place where derivatives, some in any case, appear acceptable. But no sharia adviser would approve of an Islamic financial institution bundling toxic mortgage debts into securities and packing them off to market, still less buying them up. To a conscientious Muslim, this is the perfect storm, in which opaque liabilities, the unknown nature of the underlying debt, fair-weather forecasts by ratings agencies, plus risk transfer and riba, conspire to wreck large parts of the fleet. Is there anyone clinging to the flotsam, post-9/15, who disagrees?

April 24, 2009

"Mrs. Han Solo" Roasts George Lucas

This video is old but funny! (Yeah, I never saw it before now.) Carrie Fisher roasted George Lucas at the latter's AFI Lifetime Achievement Award back in 2005. Classic lines included "Hi, I'm Mrs. Han Solo, and I'm an alcoholic," and "I mean I bet she [Natalie Portman] even got to wear a bra, even though you told me I couldn't, because there was no underwear in space!"

Messing with Texas!

Don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on your way out! ;)

Update: This is rich! Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who is prominently featured in the above video advocating for secession from the Union, has recently asked for federal funds to deal with a possible swine flu pandemic. If you're going to be even remotely serious about secession, Governor, pay your way. Failing that, try shutting up for a change!

April 19, 2009

US Unemployment Rates - March 2009

The March US regional and state unemployment figures were released on April 17th. The figures, overall, continue to worsen, although there was some slight signs of improvement in several states. One state, North Dakota, and the District of Columbia had declining unemployment rates, while three states recorded no change in the past month. On the other hand, Indiana has joined the ranks of states with double-digit unemployment rates, which now total eight. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Overall, the "official" national unemployment rate (U-3) increased by 0.4%, from 8.1% to 8.5%, over February's number. For the past twelve months, the national rate has increased by 3.4%.
  • For the most inclusive unemployment rate measured (U-6), the increase was 0.8%, from 14.8% to 15.6%. For the past twelve months, U-6 has increased by 6.5%.
  • In terms of monthly change, the state with the largest increase was Oregon, with an increase of 1.4%. Washington and West Virginia tied for the second largest increase, at 0.9%, while Wisconsin came in fourth with a 0.7% increase.
  • On an annual basis, four states have increases over 5.0%: Oregon at 6.6%, South Carolina at 5.5%, North Carolina at 5.5%, and Michigan at 5.0%.
  • The states with the lowest annual increases are North Dakota at 1.2%, Iowa at 1.3%, Nebraska at 1.5%, Louisiana and Wyoming at 1.6%, Arkansas at 1.7%, and Utah at 1.9%.
  • A total of eight states now have double-digit unemployment rates, up from seven in February. The state with the highest unemployment rate is Michigan, at 12.6%, up 0.6%. Oregon comes in second with a rate of 12.1% (up 1.4%), and South Carolina places third with a rate of 11.4% (up 0.5%). In fourth place is California with a rate of 11.2%, up 0.6%. In fifth place is North Carolina at 10.8% (up 0.1%); in sixth is Rhode Island at 10.5% (no change), and in seventh is Nevada at 10.4% (up 0.4%). The newest state in the ranks of the double-digit unemployment rates is Indiana, at 10.0%, up 0.6%.
  • The state of North Dakota and the District of Columbia both had positive (i.e., negative) changes in their unemployment rates. Both dropped down 0.1% each, from 4.3% to 4.2% for North Dakota, and from 9.9% to 9.8% for Washington D.C.
  • As mentioned above, Rhode Island (10.5%) had no change in its unemployment rate between February and March; the other two states with no change are Georgia (9.2%) and New York (7.8%).
  • The states with the lowest unemployment rates continue to be North Dakota (4.2%, down 0.1%), Wyoming (4.5%, up 0.6%), Nebraska (4.6%, up 0.3%), South Dakota (4.9%, up 0.3%) and Utah (5.2%, up 0.1%).
  • In terms of non-farm payroll employment (i.e., number of jobs), the states with the biggest decreases since February are California (-62,100), Florida (-51,900), and Texas (-47,100).
  • For annual changes in non-farm payroll employment, the states with the biggest decreases are California (-637,400), Florida (-424,300), Michigan (-270,500), and Illinois (-232,600).

The PDF version of the Bureau of Labor Statistics press release can be found here.

April 18, 2009

Ibrahim (pbuh) and the Birds

Hast thou not Turned thy vision to one who disputed with Abraham About his Lord, because God had granted him power? Abraham said: "My Lord is He Who Giveth life and death." He said: "I give life and death". Said Abraham: "But it is God that causeth the sun to rise from the east: Do thou then cause him to rise from the West." Thus was he confounded who (in arrogance) rejected faith. Nor doth God Give guidance to a people unjust.

Or (take) the similitude of one who passed by a hamlet, all in ruins to its roofs. He said: "Oh! how shall God bring it (ever) to life, after (this) its death?" but God caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him up (again). He said: "How long didst thou tarry (thus)?" He said: (Perhaps) a day or part of a day." He said: "Nay, thou hast tarried thus a hundred years; but look at thy food and thy drink; they show no signs of age; and look at thy donkey: And that We may make of thee a sign unto the people, Look further at the bones, how We bring them together and clothe them with flesh." When this was shown clearly to him, he said: "I know that God hath power over all things."

Behold! Abraham said: "My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead." He said: "Dost thou not then believe?" He said: "Yea! but to satisfy My own undertaking." He said: "Take four birds; Tame them to turn to thee; put a portion of them on every hill and call to them: They will come to thee (Flying) with speed. Then know that God is Exalted in Power, Wise."

2:258-260, Yusuf Ali Translation of the Qur'an

Jay Solomon, at The Zen of South Park, has been working his way through the Qur'an, trying to understand its meaning better. This week he focused on verses 2:258-260; the central point of his that I try to address is below:

It seems especially odd to me that someone speaking to God would then question matters that God says are so, like resurrection. It seems somewhat illogical since faith is believing without proof and Abraham already has proof of God since they’re chatting casually. Why would Abraham tell God that he has faith but that he just needs a little proof to lay his mind at ease. Needing proof is the essence of not having faith. As Jesus said, it is a wicked generation that needs signs. Not to go all Jesus quoting on anybody - I think it can be very annoying when people do that to make a point - but I do it to emphasize the notion of faith, which is Jesus’ point. You have to believe in things without being shown that they are so. Otherwise you don’t have faith.

This is my response:

I think your connection between verses 2:258 and 2:260 (faith vs. no faith) is very interesting. Personally, I don't see these two verses as being in such a black-and-white contrast; I do view them as a reaffirmation of Allah's (swt) power and ability in light of our niggling doubts.

Here's how I see these two verses. I think Ibrahim (pbuh) was an intelligent man, although he made occasional mistakes in judgment; for example, by associating the stars, moon and sun with Allah (swt) (6:74-79). In the end, he realized his errors and began worshiping Allah (swt) alone. Thus, by the time of his meeting with the king (Nimrod, according to Ibn Kathir) in 2:258, he correctly points out that the king's power is very limited, especially in comparison to that of Allah (swt).

However, as an intelligent man, he is beset by niggling doubts. I think this is a "curse" of intelligence, that we become so filled with facts and enamored with logic that our conscious and subconscious minds begin to fill us with questions about our faith. Some people lose that faith entirely; others (like me) battle time and time again with the questions. In this regard I see Ibrahim (pbuh) in a sympathetic light. I don't believe that I have no faith simply because I have doubts or questions. I believe my faith is tempered and strengthened through my internal jihad against the doubts and questions. In other words, despite the doubts and questions, my faith in Allah (swt) and Islam remains and grows stronger (and will continue to in the future, insha'allah).

So, by the time of verse 2:260, Ibrahim (pbuh) has his doubts and asks Allah (swt) for reassurance. Interestingly enough, Allah (swt) normally spurns providing such "proof," at least to unbelievers; for example:

If their spurning is hard on thy mind, yet if thou wert able to seek a tunnel in the ground or a ladder to the skies and bring them a sign,- (what good?). If it were God's will, He could gather them together unto true guidance: so be not thou amongst those who are swayed by ignorance (and impatience)! (6:35)

They say: "We shall not believe in thee, until thou cause a spring to gush forth for us from the earth, "Or (until) thou have a garden of date trees and vines, and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst, carrying abundant water; "Or thou cause the sky to fall in pieces, as thou sayest (will happen), against us; or thou bring God and the angels before (us) face to face: "Or thou have a house adorned with gold, or thou mount a ladder right into the skies. No, we shall not even believe in thy mounting until thou send down to us a book that we could read." Say: "Glory to my Lord! Am I aught but a man,- an apostle?"(17:90-93)

Ibrahim, however, is both a prophet (nabi) and a messenger (rasul) of Allah (swt), so Allah (swt) provides him with a miracle. Now the Qur'an mostly focuses on what I call lower-case miracles, the signs of Allah (swt) that permeate the universe to the point where we largely take them for granted. But in 2:260, we have an upper-case MIRACLE. Except, in Muhammad Asad's translation, you'd never know it.

In 2:259, the nameless traveler ('Uzayr/Ezra, according to Ibn Kathir) dies, is resurrected in 100 years, then is told to look at his food and drink, which remained fresh after all that time, and his donkey, which had died and was nothing more than bones. The donkey is resurrected in front of the traveller ("When this was shown clearly to him..."):

As-Suddi said, " `Uzayr observed the bones of his donkey, which were scattered all around him to his right and left, and Allah sent a wind that collected the bones from all over the area. Allah then brought every bone to its place, until they formed a full donkey made of fleshless bones. Allah then covered these bones with flesh, nerves, veins and skin. Allah sent an angel who blew life in the donkeys' nostrils, and the donkey started to bray by Allah's leave.'' All this occurred while `Uzayr was watching, and this is when he proclaimed,

(He said, "I know (now) that Allah is able to do all things,'') meaning, "I know that, and I did witness it with my own eyes. Therefore, I am the most knowledgeable in this matter among the people of my time.'' (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

Now the traveler knows the true power of Allah (swt). Likewise, with Ibrahim (pbuh). He says to the king in 2:258 that "My Lord is He Who Giveth life and death." But apparently he thought to himself afterwards, "Did I speak truly?" So he asks Allah (swt) for a similar demonstration in His power to resurrect the dead. Allah (swt) asks, "Don't you believe?" To which Ibrahim (pbuh) says, "Yes, Lord, but I wish to be stronger in faith."

Now Muhammad Asad's translation reads,

Said He: “Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee; then place them separately on every hill [around thee]; then summon them: they will come flying to thee.

Sounds simple enough. Train the birds, place them on different hills, then call them; they will all return to you. But every other translation that I've checked (Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Hilali & Khan, Ibn Kathir) all say that the birds were killed and dismembered first! Ibn Kathir:

And (remember) when Ibrahim said, "My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.'' He (Allah) said: "Do you not believe'' He (Ibrahim) said: "Yes (I believe), but to be stronger in faith.'' He said: "Take four birds, then cause them to incline towards you (then slaughter them, cut them into pieces), and then put a portion of them on every hill, and call them, they will come to you in haste. And know that Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise.''

(cause them to incline towards you) means, cut them to pieces. This is the explanation of Ibn `Abbas, `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Abu Malik, Abu Al-Aswad Ad-Dili, Wahb bin Munabbih, Al-Hasan and As-Suddi. Therefore, Ibrahim caught four birds, slaughtered them, removed the feathers, tore the birds to pieces and mixed the pieces together. He then placed parts of these mixed pieces on four or seven hills. Ibn `Abbas said, "Ibrahim kept the heads of these birds in his hand. Next, Allah commanded Ibrahim to call the birds to him, and he did as Allah commanded him. Ibrahim witnessed the feathers, blood and flesh of these birds fly to each other, and the parts flew each to their bodies, until every bird came back to life and came walking at a fast pace towards Ibrahim, so that the example that Ibrahim was witnessing would become more impressive. Each bird came to collect its head from Ibrahim's hand, and if he gave the bird another head the bird refused to accept it. When Ibrahim gave each bird its own head, the head was placed on its body by Allah's leave and power. ''

What more powerful demonstration of Allah's (swt) ability to resurrect the dead could there be? Ibn Abbas is reported to have said, "To me, there is no Ayah in the Qur'an that brings more hope than this Ayah.''

April 16, 2009

George Will, Snob

George Will shows how much of a snob he is today in a column devoted to demonizing (of all things) denim jeans. More comments below.

Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults ("Seinfeld," "Two and a Half Men") and cartoons for adults ("King of the Hill"). Seventy-five percent of American "gamers" -- people who play video games -- are older than 18 and nevertheless are allowed to vote. In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies (the six -- so far -- "Batman" adventures and "Indiana Jones and the Credit-Default Swaps," coming soon to a cineplex near you). Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.

Do not blame Levi Strauss for the misuse of Levi's. When the Gold Rush began, Strauss moved to San Francisco planning to sell strong fabric for the 49ers' tents and wagon covers. Eventually, however, he made tough pants, reinforced by copper rivets, for the tough men who knelt on the muddy, stony banks of Northern California creeks, panning for gold. Today it is silly for Americans whose closest approximation of physical labor consists of loading their bags of clubs into golf carts to go around in public dressed for driving steers up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Abilene.

This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don't wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.

I came across this article through the blog Moon of Alabama, where I made the following comment:

On the one hand, Will has a point about how badly most Americans dress. This point was driven home to me when I lived in South Korea; Koreans dress extremely well, even on occasions when one might not expect them to. In short, Koreans make most Americans look like slobs.

On the other hand, Will only shows himself to be out of touch with the public by writing such a column. Most people will give a rat's @$$ about why people like Will think they shouldn't wear jeans or what clothing Astaire and Kelly wore.

(And, for the record, I gave up jeans long ago, when I lived in Arizona, but that was because it's too hot there to wear denim; I prefer khakis, myself. ;) )

One other comment at M of A was very interesting, where anna missed wrote:

This is one of my favorite and insightful passages by Guy Debord:

The root of the spectacle is that oldest of all social specializations, the specialization of power. The spectacle plays the specialized role of speaking in the name of all the other activities. It is hierarchical society’s ambassador to itself, delivering its official messages at a court where no one else is allowed to speak. The most modern aspect of the spectacle is thus also the most archaic.

Of course what Will is ranting about is the "absurdity" of the elites masquerading as commoners wearing blue jeans as a signifier of our wonderful egalitarian society, when nobody, especially himself, really believes it. And, as the veneers of the great society of spectacle continue to delaminate like cheap plywood in the rain, people like Will gaze wistfully back to a 19th century Dickens world where instead, the poor imitated the rich, wearing filthy collars and threadbare top hats, and not the reverse - thus broadcasting their class. Nonetheless though, like Debord says the grand illusion of modernity is in fact archaic at its root - some of which we are now beginning to witness. And it ain't very pretty.

Update: BTW, did you notice this little gem in the first paragraph I quoted above?

Seventy-five percent of American "gamers" -- people who play video games -- are older than 18 and nevertheless are allowed to vote.

Apparently, in Will's Bizarro World, if you play video games, you're much too immature to be allowed to vote. I guess it's not only "George Will, Snob," but "George Will, Closet Aristocrat" as well.

George, why do you hate democracy?

April 14, 2009

Matrix Cow

I caught this video on Eurosport's Watts in a slightly shorter version. It's rather funny. Check it out!

April 13, 2009

Time: Updating the Mosque for the 21st Century

A couple days ago, I ran across a Time magazine article on how modern masajid are changing architecturally. Although the article mentions various masajid around the world, including Masjid Assyafaah above (in transliterated Arabic, Ash-Shafaah), located in the Sembawang neighborhood of Singapore, most of the discussion focuses on the controversies surrounding various proposed masajid in Europe.

One line in the article is bull$#|+, though, where a criticism about minarets is reported: "But they cost a lot, and there are others who argue that [economically,] they're a luxury Muslims can't afford." Minarets are
NOT a luxury. They may add to the cost of building the masjid, they may even be unnecessary, but the same criticisms also apply to church steeples. This argument is motivated solely by the Islamophobic desire to make a masjid look like any other secular building. Considering that masajid are normally built with all of the money raised before construction even begins, the notion that Muslims can't afford the "luxury" of one or more minarets is completely false.

One other comment: although there is a very nice (and large) picture of the interior of
Masjid Assyafaah in the print edition of Time, the website version of the article omits all but one of the photographs, using only a picture taken from the new Turkish mosque, Masjid Sakirin. However, the above photo of Masjid Assyafaah is my own picture, taken in October 2007, and shows the front of the building. The tall dark brown structure in front is the masjid's minaret.

Some quotations from the article:

A new generation of Muslim builders and designers, as well as non-Muslims designing for Muslim groups, often in Europe or North America, are updating the mosque for the 21st century, sparking not just a hugely creative period in Islamic design, but one riven by controversy. The disputes over modern mosques echo larger debates taking place in the Islamic world today about gender, power and, particularly in immigrant communities, Islam's place in Western societies. Even the simplest design decision can reflect questions that are crucial to Islam and its adherents: Should women be allowed in a mosque's main hall or confined to separate quarters? Are minarets necessary in the West, where laws on noise levels mean they are rarely used for the call to prayer? What should a mosque attended by Muslims from different parts of the world look like? The boldest of the new mosques try to answer such questions but are also powerful statements of intent. "Islam wants to proclaim itself," says Hasan-Uddin Khan, an architecture professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. "These new mosques are saying, 'We are here, and we want it to be known that we are here.'"


As Muslims get wealthier, more confident and more geographically diffuse — almost a third of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims live in non-Muslim-majority states — their mosques are no longer just monuments to the rulers whose names they bear. Increasingly, they symbolize the struggle to marry tradition with modernity and to set down roots in the West. The most daring buildings are dreamt up by second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants, who have the confidence and cash to build stone-and-glass symbols of Islam's growing strength in places like Europe. Simply importing traditional mosque architecture "doesn't express loyalty to your current surroundings," says Zulfiqar Husain, honorary secretary of an innovative new eco-mosque in Manchester, England. "It almost expresses that you want to be separate from the society you live in."

The designers behind the best of the mosques take the opposite view: they may be making statements but they are also sensitive to local concerns and aesthetics. The mosque that Husain helps administer, in a gritty working-class Manchester neighborhood, uses reclaimed wood and solar panels on the roof to power its under-floor heating. Inside, peach carpeting and plasma TVs give the air of a prosperous suburban English home, while the prayer hall has carvings inspired by the 10th century North African Fatimid dynasty.

In Singapore, the architects of the Assyafaah Mosque, which was finished in 2004, cater to the country's multicultural population by creating an aesthetically neutral space, sleek and futuristic, where the island's Malay and Chinese Muslims can both feel comfortable.


[On the new masjid about to be built in Cologne, Germany:] His plan for the complex, due to be completed in 2010, calls for a piazza with a fountain and a cafe, designed to draw non-Muslims to the site. The local Muslim elders hope that, once there, visitors will browse in the library, check out the art gallery or spend in the shopping mall, which Böhm envisions as "a modern souk with the quality of the traditional souk." The mosque's prayer hall consists of shells of textured concrete connected by glass panels, to create "ideological and architectural transparency," says Böhm. Far from a nod to tradition, the minarets are a declaration that the building is "not a sports hall, a concert hall or a museum, but a mosque."


[On the newly built Sakirin Mosque in Istanbul Turkey, designed by Zaynep Fadillioglu:] Fadillioglu's women's section is an expansive balcony overlooking the central hall and divided only by crisscrossed railings. An airy and luxurious sensibility pervades the building. The facilities for pre-prayer ablution have blond-wood and Plexiglas lockers. In the main hall hangs a bronze chandelier, dangling with hand-blown glass raindrops — a visual allusion to the Koranic verse that says Allah's light should fall on believers like drops of rain. The mihrab, which indicates the direction of prayer, is tulip-shaped and turquoise — "an opening to God," says Fadillioglu.

Update: In the comments, "Anonymous" left a link to a BBC report about a masjid being completed in Istanbul, this being the first mosque designed in Turkey by a woman. (Both the designer and the masjid are mentioned in the Time article; in fact, this is the masjid that the online version of the article features in its sole photo.) As you can see in the video below, the masjid is quite beautiful, and will probably look even more spectacular, insha'allah, when the final touches (such as the carpeting) are done.

April 9, 2009

Wanker of the Day: Texas State Representative Betty Brown

Think Progress has posted a story out of the Houston Chronicle about Texas state Representative Betty Brown (R-Terrell), who suggested to Asian-Americans that they change their names to something that is “easier for Americans to deal with.” Apparently, misanthropes like Ms. Brown can't find a more thoughtful solution to solving identification problems when Asian-Americans try to vote in elections:

Brown suggested that Asian-Americans should find a way to make their names more accessible.

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.

Brown later told Ko: “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”

Milady, of course, was pissed when she read the story. Personally, I'm not surprised at either the thoughtlessness of Rep. Brown for actually making the statement or her refusal to apologize for her comments, instead blaming the Democrats (naturally) for "using racial rhetoric to inflame partisan feelings against the bill."

Instead I will award Rep. Brown with my first "Wanker of the Day" award. Rep. Brown, I salute you!

Update: The Youtube video of Rep. Brown's comments is available, which I've added to this post below. The offensive comments start at the 0:30 mark:

Crooks & Liars had a good riposte to Rep. Brown's remarks:

Oy. I guess Rep. Brown should be grateful she was not facing Zbigniew Brzezinski. That might have made her look stupid.

Update #2: Rep. Brown has now apologized for her remarks. In The Dallas Morning News:

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, said that she "apologizes for her remark in the Elections Committee on Tuesday, April 7," in a statement issued late Thursday.

She said she appreciates testimony that made legislators aware of problems faced by Asian-Americans when acquiring identification and that she understands the "diversity of Texas" and the "enrichment" that Asian-Americans have brought to the state.


Brown, in the statement, said the controversial quote was one sentence from a conversation dealing with the difficulty in translating names. She pointed out that she was talking about the issue of transliteration and told Ko that she wasn't asking him to change his name.

John C. Liu, a New York City Councilman who had called on Brown to apologize, said Brown's statement is "a fair first step," but doesn't go far enough, in his statement. Liu noted that Brown's comments during the exchange with Ko went well beyond the concept of transliteration.

The Daily Show: Obey!

A number of classic zingers in this clip. I'm not sure which I like better, the one about "Potato Day" or the "$#|+ Taco." :)

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April 8, 2009

Soyjoy: Much Effort, Little Effort

Two very crazy commercials have started airing here in Singapore for a Japanese fruit bar product called Soyjoy. Although the ad campaign was developed locally, the commercials have a very Japanese feel to them. According to BrandRepublic-Asia:

Developed by Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, the campaign targets working women who are health and weight conscious. To appeal to them, the campaign takes on the biggest obstacle that women face when it comes to keeping the pounds off: the amount of ‘effort’ required.

Soyjoy was thus positioned as the secret to staying slim using minimal, or little effort.

Of course I don't buy that last claim for a second, but the commercials are certainly unique (at least to me).

April 7, 2009

Utah Jazz Dancer

Yeah, he's a fan alright! Can you imagine finding out that you're stuck sitting anywhere near this clown for the entire game? (Like that poor woman who's sitting right behind him? ;) ) For the guys, watching this clown dance will likely cause them to lose any lustful thoughts they may have for the female dancers, along with the rest of their dinners. ;)

April 6, 2009

Flying Around the International Space Station

An interesting video from NASA. The recent space shuttle mission STS-119 (Discovery) did a fly around of the International Space Station (ISS) after departure. The shuttle flies in an arc 180° around the ISS giving a unique view to both the space station and planet Earth. The video, which has been sped up, is a good reminder that in space there is no up or down. Also, if you watch carefully, you'll see two of the solar panels spin around on their axis by about 180°.

Remember folks, if you have a spare $20 million lying around, you too can fly up to the ISS for an out-of-this-world vacation (not sorry for the pun ;) ). NASA can surely use the money, so start saving your pennies today! ;)

Who is a Radical Muslim?

A few days ago, when I wrote my post CSM: Ten Terms Not to Use with Muslims, I had also cross-posted it to the website Street Prophets as well. The post there, not surprisingly, has generated a lot of commentary (44 comments so far). One person, "Sandbox" (an Islamophobe), has been trying to peddle their definition for a "Radical Muslim." I reject that definition, and I've explained why down below:

FYI, my definition of Radical Muslim is someone who wants to "legally" institute sharia law to govern the host country's Muslim community or who supports violent jihad as a way to settle international disputes.

First, I'm aware of your definition; you've written it before at DKos [Daily Kos]. I reject it. You paint Muslims with such an overly broad brush that, to us Muslims, your "definition" is meaningless. All Muslims would be "radical" by your definition. Here's why:

The notion that a Muslim is a "radical" if he or she wants to legally institute Shari'ah to help govern a country's Muslim community is patently absurd from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. First, as a Muslim jurist from Nigeria said in a BBC documentary, "Islam is Shari'ah; Shari'ah is Islam." This is true. The basis for Shari'ah is the Qur'an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). If one is a practicing Muslim, one will by definition be following Shari'ah. Much of Shari'ah is internalized, meaning that Muslims follow Shari'ah law in their own lives without sanction from the State (to give a Christian example, a person fasting during Lent is following the equivalent of "Christian Shari'ah"). In that regard, no one can stop Muslims from implementing some (probably most) aspects of Shari'ah. The aspects of Shari'ah that are externalized, i.e., need to be legally instituted, tend to be in the following areas: family law (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) and criminal punishments (hudud). Here in secular Singapore, Shari'ah with regard to family law has been part of the country's legal code since the beginning. The Shari'ah Court system here was started over 50 years ago. Muslims are governed by Shari'ah; non-Muslims have their own code of laws. The system works very well. Only hudud isn't implemented here, and there is no pressing claim by Singaporean Muslims to implement it. So, practically speaking, Shari'ah in Singapore works very well. No one is considered to be a "radical" Muslim if he or she supports Shari'ah law. But people like you have tried to transform Shari'ah into such a bogey monster word that, without understanding how Shari'ah really works in the real world, you perpetuate misunderstandings between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

With respect to your second qualification, once again, by not understanding the difference between jihad and qital and harb, you malign a word that is very dear to Muslims. The other day I attended a seminar on fundamentalist and extremist Muslims. One non-Muslim participant's statement was a much better definition (IMO) than yours. He said, "Fundamentalists are people who are just trying to figure things out, versus extremists, who want to hurt other people." That works much better for me. By your definition, you would have to condemn the United States for the war in Iraq and Israel for its wars in Gaza and Lebanon because both countries have used "violent jihad" as ways to settle their international disputes. Somehow, I don't expect to hear any denunciations from you anytime soon.

The irony is that the real extremist Muslims are those people who would seem to be most like non-Muslims. At that same seminar, the professor who led it pointed out that one of the surviving 7/7 (London) bombers (whom he interviewed) did not know the basics of Islam such as how to pray or even how to perform wudu, the ritual ablutions that are required before prayer. Likewise, it's well known that the 9/11 terrorists were known to go drinking, gamble and visit strip clubs. These are not the actions of Muslims, but it is what non-Muslims might do. Your so-called "secular Muslims," the ones who non-Muslims support, are more likely to be extremists than observant Muslims. But you'd never know because they've hidden themselves in plain sight by acting like the rest of non-Muslim society.

April 5, 2009

Summer School for Klingons

Cute video, especially the kids' birthday party scene. But as one who's taught for a number of years now I find the quotation near the end to be very true: The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book.

April 3, 2009

The Big Money: China's Stimulus is Working

A very short but interesting - and I dare say important - article from Slate's The Big Money. Important for two reasons: first, because it reinforces Paul Krugman's argument that the size of the stimulus package matters and that the recently passed economic stimulus bill is most likely too small; secondly, because it refutes the noise coming from the hysterical wing of the Republican party as to why the stimulus bill needed to be passed in the first place.

Many commenters, including TBM's Charles Wallace, have argued that the Chinese stimulus package is superior to America's. Partly that's because it represents a larger proportion of GDP and partly because it is more focused on housing and infrastructure, which can create jobs quickly and thereby circulate money through communities. Those points will continue to be debated.

But there's a case to be made that the Chinese stimulus package is now working, both on a psychological level and an economic level. A Reuters story yesterday pointed out that the mere promise that China will increase its stimulus if it needs to boosts confidence and might therefore paradoxically make more stimulus unnecessary. Now comes today's Wall Street Journal, reporting that both housing sales and construction starts are on a mild upswing in China. This is crucial because the world's metal and oil markets are dependent on Chinese demand; not surprisingly, reports the Financial Times, both experienced a jolt yesterday.

True, the Chinese economy will not grow in 2009 at the dizzying pace of the last decade or so. But it's also not going to shrink, and that will provide a needed cushion for the drops occurring elsewhere. The bottom line, as David Leonhardt wrote in yesterday's New York Times, is: "Yes, stimulus works." Critics can say it's too expensive or doesn't stimulate fast enough or deeply enough. But consider the alternatives.

HT: Economist's View

Update: Robert Reich's most recent post reinforces the message above, that the American government needs to work harder on the stimulus package, saying that the amount allocated so far, $787 billion (as huge a number as that may seem), is not enough. What makes Reich's post important is the second half, where he makes a number of very good concrete suggestions as to how the money should be spent:

All this means that the real economy will need a larger stimulus than the $787 billion already enacted. To be sure, only a small fraction of the $787 billion has been turned into new jobs so far. The money is still moving out the door. But today's bleak jobs report shows that the economy is so far below its productive capacity that much more money will be needed.

This is still not the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it is a Depression. And the only way out is government spending on a very large scale. We should stop worrying about Wall Street. Worry about American workers. Use money to build up Main Street, and the future capacities of our workforce.

Energy independence and a non-carbon economy should be the equivalent of a war mobilization. Hire Americans to weatherize and insulate homes across the land. Don't encourage General Motors or any other auto company to shrink. Use the auto makers' spare capacity to make busses, new wind turbines, and electric cars (why let the Chinese best us on this?). Enlarge public transit systems.

Meanwhile, extend our educational infrastructure. So many young people are out of work that they should be using this time to improve their skills and capacities. Expand community colleges. Enlarge Pell Grants. Extend job-training opportunities to the unemployed, so they can learn new skills while they're collecting unemployment benefits.

Finally, accelerate universal health care.

April 2, 2009

Stephen Colbert vs. NASA: Democracy in Orbit

I suppose this means we can call Stephen "a node" to his face and there's not a thing he can do about it. ;)

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Update: NASA decided to name the new node on the ISS "Tranquility," which is a little bit odd as it came in eighth in NASA's poll. As The Register, a British website, noted:

Tranquility wasn't the second most popular vote behind Colbert, or even the fourth. The chosen name was in fact a distant eighth in the list of public write-ins, begging the questions: what was the point of the poll anyway?

(The name "Serenity" came in second.)

As for Stephen Colbert's bid to have his name used for the node:

"We don't typically name US space station hardware after living people and this is no exception," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

However, NASA has shown it has a sense of humor by naming a new treadmill for the ISS "COLBERT," for "Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill." There's even a new patch for the treadmill:

NASA has invited Stephen to try out the treadmill for himself and to attend the launch when "COLBERT" goes into space aboard Endeavour in February 2010. Apparently Stephen is OK with the idea:

"I think a treadmill is better than a node, you know why? Because the node is just a box for the treadmill. Nobody says 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside."

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