Monday, February 27, 2006

Life, the Universe and Everything

The Rise of Auto-Catalysis

The National Geographic for March, 2006, has a single page, "The Origin of Life … Through Chemistry" that says we’re close to understanding the whole thing.

This is probably not what opponents … want to hear, but it seems that a kind of molecular natural selection applies even to the world of geochemistry. Some types of molecular chains outcompeted other molecular chains for the planet’s resources, and gradually they led to the kind of molecules that life depends upon – all this before the first living thing oozed forth. …

[L]ife wasn’t a freak accident at all, but the likely outcome … "Life is an elaboration of something very simple," …

But of course! We have really known this since The Selfish Gene was written. We have really known it since the 50’s, when amino acids were created in simulated versions of the early Earth’s environment. Loren Eiseley had thoughts on it. Heck, we have really known it since 1859. Everything since then has been a matter of digesting the meme. I myself use the term "auto-catalysis". I notice that Susan Blackmore uses the same word. I suspect she got it from Dawkins who got it from Heidegger by way of the daughter of Heidegger’s student.

Autocatalytic reactions proceed slowly at the start because there is a little product present, the rate of reaction increases progressively as the reaction proceeds then it again slows down as the reactant concentration decreases.

Imagine a world of rocks and sand, pitted and pockmarked, and hammered with asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, ice, storms and blistering sun. The chemical complexity has been increasing since the beginning, each puddle a composite of its history. Minerals leech into the water, acid rain and organic compounds rain down upon the rocks, interacting in strange ways. The environment amounts to a mass-produced chemical experiment. Each hole in the ground is a separate test-tube, subjected to different amounts of heat and radiation, different levels of exposure, evaporation cycles, drainage frequency, altitude, pressure, salinity, chemical constituency, molar concentration. The contents of one puddle flush unpredictably into other puddles and they all drain to the deep sea where hot smokers add more variations. As you cross the isopleths of the multiple control variables, you find that every possibility is tried – repeatedly over Deep Time. Strange things are bound to happen. We can only imagine.


Auto-catalysis, in my definition, is the property of a chemical, simple or complex, to foster its own production within a given environment. The consequence of that property is that there will be more of it. A byproduct of that property is that other, possibly similar, chemicals will also be promoted. I contend that this aspect serves one of Darwin’s requirements, the need for variation.

At some point, within the n-dimensional filtering mechanism represented by the early Earth, some mildly auto-catalytic chemical occurred by chance. Actually, given that the opportunities were so great, it’s hard to maintain that there was any chance involved. In my mind’s eye, the very color of the planet began to change as a new regime took over. Stagnant chemical bywaters were changed irreversibly by the infusion of small splashes of solution or contamination by peculiar motes of dust. Complexity increased. I suppose in some places complexity decreased, but the tendency of the auto-catalytic process to produce variants would eventually lead to competition among more and more alternatives. Scarce resources were used up and cannibalistic reactions were rewarded. Those chemicals resistant in any small way to being recycled would come to predominate.

I picture, in my fantasy, the calculating eyes of H.G. Wells’ Martians watching the planet Earth go through slow, but visible, changes. The rate of such changes, some subtle, some startling, increased in frequency and rapidity until some plateau of stability was attained. That was the beginning of Life, at least on Earth.

The article asks, "Did life begin in a small warm pond at the edge of a primordial sea …? Or deep beneath that sea …?" This is a false dichotomy. It probably began everywhere. Each environment contributed part of the process, subjecting auto-catalytic reactions to different chemical stresses. The puddle on the left contributed a twist and a proton; the puddle on the right contributed a curl and a radical. The significant action moved from sea to shore to desert and mountain slope. The different experiments merged and overlapped, influencing everything else. Chemicals were evolving and honing their "survival" skills. Darwin's theory requires inheritance, variation and natural selection. Auto-catalysis of chemicals in a complex environment exhibits these features. RNA came later.

Related Thoughts:

  • The Physics of Ice might give you some idea of how complex even the simplest seeming chemical process can be.
  • Kurt Vonnegut suggests that chemical evolution may not be finished, but it might not be good for us.
  • Mad Cow Disease represents a possible model for continued organic chemical evolution.
  • Natural Selection is postulated to be involved in the Origin of Universes. The related concept of the Anthropic Principle warns us that any generalizations we make about the Cosmos and our exclusive position in it are biased by the fact and nature of our existence. We don't get to look at all the other possibilities.

2/27/2006 12:41 PM

In terms of auto-catalysis, it is not even necessary for a single chemical to have that property. If a system of chemicals working together have a net auto-catalytic result, then the necessary environment has been established in order for evolution to commence.
3/06/2006 2:40PM

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Don't Hurt Us -- Take the Cartoonist

Doug Marlette, a political cartoonist, has an article in Salon (free for now). While many liberals are making excuses for Islam, noting that the Cartoon Jihadis represent an extremely small portion of the Muslim population, Marlette wonders why no one is standing up to condemn the violence. He blames the moderates, and he excoriates the Western media for cowardice and hypocrisy. They pretend that this is about redneck disregard for the feelings of others, when it is actually about high regard for their own necks and low regard for Danish necks.

... Danish cartoonists were not only exploring issues of self-censorship and intimidation but also depicting the hijacking of Islam by fanatics like the tormenters of Salman Rushdie and the murderers of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. I would further argue that publishing those cartoons was an act of democratic inclusiveness. In a society of laws, all are treated equally under the law. Law is "insensitive" that way, as is intellectual inquiry, as is satire. By engaging satirically with Islam, these brave artists included Muslims as peers in the tradition of satiric self-examination and irreverence that we have until recently taken for granted in the West. And Denmark's Muslims might have simply expressed their displeasure through the accepted democratic avenues of their adopted country if their unscrupulous imams and the corrupt Arab governments whose tyranny they serve hadn't manipulated the cartoons (by, for example, disseminating some offensive drawings that were not part of the original, rather tame, Danish package) to ignite riots across the Muslim world. ... [Emphasis added]

2/26/2006 12:06 AM

St. Petersburg Times has a human interest story about two reasonably unreasonable folks.

2/26/2006 12:25 AM

Here is a Somali Muslim who begins to understand the fundamentals of liberal democracy. I’m hoping it’s not a forgery.

2/26/2006 12:53 AM

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Support Denmark and Iraq

When I was young, I was exposed to Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American writer who wrote spare and simple prose celebrating the virtues of God and Life. His work, particularly The Prophet, is allegorical and deliberately vague. I assumed then that he was describing Mohammed. I recognized that it was not factually precise, but perhaps the message was meant to be the distilled essence of Islam, separated from the uncomfortable particularities of Mohammed's life.

It's true that I was not well acquainted with Islam. And it's true that I was wrong about Kahlil Gibran and his book. Gibran was ethnically Christian, but may have been closest to the Baha’i faith. He was, perhaps, describing Islam the way he wished it could be. Upon rereading The Prophet online, I was struck by the likelihood that this book could never have been published in a Muslim country. Maybe my empirical assessment of the Arab World is interfering with my ability to evaluate the true meaning of Islam. Let me show you an example and tell me what you think.

Then a lawyer said, "But what of our Laws, master?"
And he answered:
You delight in laying down laws,
Yet you delight more in breaking them.
Like children playing by the ocean who build sand-towers with constancy and then destroy them with laughter.
But while you build your sand-towers the ocean brings more sand to the shore,
And when you destroy them, the ocean laughs with you.
Verily the ocean laughs always with the innocent.
But what of those to whom life is not an ocean, and man-made laws are not sand-towers,
But to whom life is a rock, and the law a chisel with which they would carve it in their own likeness?
What of the cripple who hates dancers?
What of the ox who loves his yoke and deems the elk and deer of the forest stray and vagrant things?
What of the old serpent who cannot shed his skin, and calls all others naked and shameless?
And of him who comes early to the wedding-feast, and when over-fed and tired goes his way saying that all feasts are violation and all feasters law-breakers?
What shall I say of these save that they too stand in the sunlight, but with their backs to the sun?
They see only their shadows, and their shadows are their laws.
And what is the sun to them but a caster of shadows?
And what is it to acknowledge the laws but to stoop down and trace their shadows upon the earth?
But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?
You who travel with the wind, what weathervane shall direct your course?
What man's law shall bind you if you break your yoke but upon no man's prison door?
What laws shall you fear if you dance but stumble against no man's iron chains?
And who is he that shall bring you to judgment if you tear off your garment yet leave it in no man's path?
People of Orphalese, you can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing?

Yes. What of those who would use the Law as a chisel to carve their own likenesses? When the extended Middle East becomes more of an Islamic monoculture each year, I think I know who to blame. Did Gibran ever meet the Taliban? Did he know the Wahabis? The chiselers in the West have been relegated to the margins, but the chiselers of Islam are on the loose, chiseling away the beautiful images of the Buddha, chiseling away the home of the Mahdi, attempting with righteous fervor to strangle the skylark. No wonder Gibran was vague.

I was driving a lot yesterday. I dropped off the kids at school and went to Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. I'm uncomfortable with beautiful days in recent years, because ... well, you know why. My daughter wanted to know whether there would be any violence at the demonstration. I said there would not be, but in life nothing is certain. I told my wife that I felt a little silly, driving all the way to Washington for a short, non-productive demonstration of support that would be neither noted nor appreciated by more than a handful. My wife insisted that I was not being silly. Well, maybe I would not be wasting my time.

I was thinking a lot in the car. About Kahlil Gibran, and Denmark, and the appropriate tradeoff between free speech and diplomacy. I got to the site with minutes to spare beforethe demonstration, but was turned away by the police. Can't bring a car in here. Maybe things were out of control, I thought. I got lost a couple times looking for a parking spot. I was tempted to go to the zoo instead. I ended up on Rock Creek Parkway and finally found a spot off of Wisconsin, a few blocks uphill from the Danish Embassy. I don't walk as well as I used to, but I persisted and absorbed the small pleasures of the day. Big anchors at the Naval Observatory. The weather is warmer in D.C. The sun was bright. Embassies reflect the character of their parent countries. The Bolivian Embassy is spare and Spanish looking without ornamentation. The Brazilian Embassy is ambitious and modern, like Brasilia I thought. I didn't know what to expect of the Danes, and I didn't really get to see the Embassy itself. It is set back from the road and somewhat hidden, but there were a lot of people out front.

The place reeked of bloggers, and of Republicans. There were five times as many men as women. Maybe a hundred or two hundred people with a dozen placards, flags or symbolic devices of some sort. One guy had a poster that said "Submit to Havarti", which puzzled me for a while. Another guy had a quote from Hamlet about Elsinor. Conversational snatches were all fascinating. High IQ burbling. I'm shy, but I talked to a few people. Everyone was excited, and I was just happy to be there, among those few who believe in the Freedom of Speech as ardently as the Danes do. I saw Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, both busily engaged in multiple conversations. Bill Kristol was supposed to be there.

Hitchens gave a speech at the end, which was very nice. In particular he pointed out that we, those present, were capable of recognizing true blasphemy and sacrilege when we saw it. Needless destruction of a beautiful place of worship is blasphemy. Political cartoons favoring freedom, and pictures scolding the violent, are not. He suggested that we should be demonstrating at the Iraqi Embassy as well, supporting those who are sacrificing so much more for their freedom. People were ready to go right then, but it wasn't really that sort of crowd.

I stopped Andrew Sullivan and shook his hand before I left. That was something I'll remember. I might have driven to Washington just for that. In the end I just walked back to the car, said a few words to people walking the same direction. But as I walked I saw a beautiful, small pedestrian bridge, built unnecessarily over a grassy ditch. I diagnosed it as a concrete beam bridge with decorative stone facing that gave it the appearance of a slight arch. I crawled under it just to be sure and then crossed over it into the park. It turned out to be a tribute to Kahlil Gibran.

2/25/2006 7:34 PM

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Support Denmark

Christopher Hitchens, in Slate, is suggesting that we show our support for Denmark. Denmark represents the best traditions of freedom and decency. It is a small country suffering at the present time from unwarranted Islamic condemnation. Hitchen compares it to the Kristallnacht riots in Nazi Germany. There is also a very pointed cartoon, by Mike Luckovich, that does not mock the Prophet, although the same people might take offense.

You should buy Danish products (not the pastry), which are being boycotted in the Arab world. You should also consider going to a pro-democracy demonstration at the Danish embassy in Washington, D.C., on Friday at 12PM (noon). This information is from Frank Warner, who has more on his blog. Hitchens' e-mail is Christopher dot Hitchens at Yahoo. He probably won't respond, but Frank probably will if you comment on his blog.

2/23/2006 3:09 PM

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cane Tucky

The process of evolution by natural selection is taken for granted among scientists to such an extent that when they find an excellent example, they don't necessarily publicize it like they should. A good place to look for such examples occurs with introduced species, of which there are many these days. The challenge presented to native species can be severe. If the natives are able to survive, they may well be able to do so only by changing themselves.

Stephen J. Gould was able to convince a lot of people that the process of change could be a lot faster than previously imagined. His idea, which he called Punctuated Equilibrium, suggested that the customary state of nature was dynamic maintenance of the status quo, particularly in widespread populations. When the environment changes, he suggested, most species have a remarkably flexible genetic reservoir to call upon and adapt very quickly. How quickly? Well it turns out that there is one carefully evaluated change, a rather dramatic change, that has taken place within 70 years.

In 1935, the toxic cane toad was introduced from Hawaii into Queensland, Australia, for the purpose of fighting sugar cane beetles. Unfortunately, as you are probably anticipating, the experiment got out of hand and the species became a major pest in itself. Populations of native predators plummeted wherever the toad showed up, apparently due to poisonings. Snakes, birds, dingoes, monitor lizards and crocodiles were all effected. Presumably, competing species were also impacted by the cane toad invasion.

A couple of Australian scientists decided to document the evolutionary impact of this event. Looking at simple physical measurements in two species of vulnerable snake predators, they were able to identify statistically significant changes over time in body size, which increased, and relative head-to-body size, which decreased. Although they hedged their language very carefully, the scientists concluded that these "gape-limited" snakes were changing in response to the threat. Small snakes that eat large toads were being eliminated selectively from the population. The population means were moving in reaction to that environmental force.

Guess what? Evolution happens! If you have doubts, you can look it up in Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciences, Phillips and Shine, 12/7/2004. This result could be confirmed by doing a snake census on matched plots of land, one of each pair within the growing range of the cane toad, and one outside of it.

In all likelihood, this study represents the very small tip of a very large iceberg. We can presume that similar impacts are taking place on every relevant dimension of the snakes' genomes. Certainly their ability to metabolize the toxin is improving. The relative size of liver to body mass is increasing (do snakes have livers?). Their sensory faculties are changing too, probably to make such toads less appealing. Even though we might measure just a few attributes, natural selection does not have neat fences around it. The entire organism is tested by this insult, and the entire population responds in any way it can. Every other creature around them responds as well. Other prey of these snakes, for example, may respond by growing larger, as the cane toads themselves are undoubtedly doing.

In fact, scientists have already determined that the cane toads at the frontier have indeed changed. They are getting faster. Distance serves as a filter to segregate these toads by reproduction rate, speed, directional preference, and who knows what else. If we were to introduce yet another species to eat the cane toads, I imagine that only the fastest-moving toads, able to elude the range of the new predators, would remain. We would have the cane toad equivalent of a greyhound, a new species perhaps, quite unlike the original in Hawaii.

Now, the reason I raised this subject was not to needlessly educate you, but to annoy you with an outrageous assertion. I believe there is an analogous process taking place among humans. In particular, I believe that those in the West who have descended from the Old World Europeans are different from the original stock. Like the toads, maybe they have longer legs, or perhaps nastier tempers. I'm suggesting that Daniel Boone walked to Kentucky and Missouri with changes on board. Distance and difficulty have served as persistent filters, eliminating some characteristics and encouraging others. Certainly, the native peoples have changed in response. If nothing else they have learned to resist the new diseases, to digest new foods and to tolerate alcohol. Some changes must exist, simply because the filter is there, and I expect that, whatever the changes are, they increase in a gradient as you move west, especially toward the interfaces between the imported and native cultures.

OK. Those changes may be temporary, diluted after the introduction of automobiles and travelling salesmen, and they may not be all that significant. But they could be. Evolution happens! Personality tests might give you different results in Glasgow and Laramie. I'm talking genes. We'll get to memes in a later post.

2/21/2006 4:57 PM

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Religious Policeman

Religious Policeman

One of my new favorite blogs is the Religious Policeman, a Saudi expatriot living in London who likes to pour satire thickly over the rulers and fanatics in his homeland. (Oops, they weren't supposed to realize that.) Here is a post listing and debunking a series of arguments used to justify the widespread rioting over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Snippet follows:
... Still puzzled? Time for just one more.

Muslims will never accept this kind of humiliation. The article insulted every Muslim in the world.

At last. Someone is being open! It's not about the Prophet (PBUH) at all. It's all about us. Me, me, me! We are insulted. Why? Because we choose to be, it's our right. The cartoonists are mocking the present-day distortions of true Islam by the bigots and zealots and terrorists, and the bigots and zealots and terrorists don't like it. And they are telling the rest of the 1.3 billion that they feel insulted as well, even if they don't.

So what do they want to happen? This is where the toys and rattles and dummies go flying.

We demand a formal apology, said Hlayhel....The Saudi government recalled its ambassador for consultations in light of the Danish government's lack of attention....Saudi Arabia's top cleric has called on Denmark to punish a newspaper that ran cartoons portraying Prophet Mohammad....The two publications should apologize to Muslims around the world....WAMY also sought an unconditional apology from the governments of Denmark and Norway .... and punish the culprits who deliberately provoke over one billion Muslims as part of their hostile propaganda against Islam.

Wow! You get the picture. We expect punishments and apologies, in whatever order. And we ourselves are great believers in apologies, of course. Look how we apologized for all our citizens who flew into the World Trade Centre. And the great expression of regret to the "so-called "Booze Bombers" for their false imprisonment, torture, and extracted "confessions". Not to mention the apologies to the families of fifteen Makkah schoolgirls, killed in a fire by the actions of the Muttawa. And soon there'll be an apology to the families killed in.....

Sorry. I forgot. We're not supposed to talk about the Makkah stampede.

See also his version of the Homeland Security Threat Level. He also has a copy of the "bomb-hat Mohammed". I actually love that cartoon. It has a pointed message, I know, but I really love it for its artistry. It is much better than all the others and even beautiful. I suppose it reflects the two faces of Islam that fascinate and repel Westerners.

2/13/2006 3:40 PM

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hope It's Verified

I remember sitting in my apartment in 1981 when I read it. I'd just finished the crossword puzzle in the Washington Post. Was it '81? I think so. There was a short piece. A short piece. I don't even know whether it was on the front page, but it hit me like a lightning bolt. A number of patients in San Francisco had died from an ailment that attacked their immune systems. That's not good, I thought. Our Achille's Heel is the immune system. How can we ever develop an immunity to something that attacks our immune system. This is going to be trouble I thought, and I was right. I talked to people at work about it, but no one was worried. No one saw the implications. I was afraid. I felt like Cassandra. You see, I knew about exponential curves. The things we found out in the subsequent years were even more dreadful.

For a while, after we discovered it was a virus of some sort, we expected an easy solution -- just like a polio shot. But it didn't work out that way. We've learned a lot about evolution since then. I had studied it extensively, but the average person thought it was dinosaurs and Neanderthals. No one understood that evolution could take place in real time, within a single human body. Popular magazines and newspapers had explanations with wonderful color charts and graphs explaining the problems.

Then came the new drugs. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief and thought, we're on our way. If we can just keep my friend/son/daughter alive for another few years then we'll have a real cure. It never seemed to come but young people started taking it for granted. Denial set in. Old habits came back.

Well, it's possible that a real cure has been found. There was this short article in the Salt Lake Tribune, pointed out by Prairie Angel. Another one at the BBC.

Why is everyone so tentative? Why do we withhold our rejoicing? Sad experience I suppose. I'm also going to predict that, assuming we have a 100% cure going here, that we are going to screw it up.

Here's how it will happen. The drug will become widely available. Desperate measures will be taken to ramp up production. Third world nations will be producing it too. Maybe their version of the chemical will be pretty good, but a little bit different. An entire generation of Africa's best and brightest has been eviscerated by this disease. There are so many just hanging on to life. Doctors will fall over themselves trying to distribute it. Pretty soon they will start cutting the doses so that they can get more people treated. Pimps in Indian brothels will begin dosing their charges once a week as a prophylactic measure. Gay men in the US will be cured and go out to the bath houses to celebrate, only to be reinfected.

In short, the virus will be given every opportunity to evolve. This is basically what has happened to our best antibiotics. Misuse and irresponsibility have given the pathogens a chance to adapt, to change, to learn to live with the agent. Surely we understand this by now.

Our goal should be nothing less than total elimination of the disease. If we really want to do it, then we have to be supremely responsible. What should happen will require superhuman self-control. It is this: 1) The new drug should not be administered at all until we have at least two effective methods. 2) Patients should be given the two drugs simultaneously so that there is no chance of even the smallest remaining HIV population. 3) Patients should be required to provide credible assurances that their sexual activities will be strictly limited to marriage. Couples must be treated at the same time and refrain from sex until both are cured. 4) Patients must be made to understand that there will be no second treatment once a cure has been achieved. 5) Patients must be registered when cured and physically marked. 6) Possession of the drug by unlicensed individuals must be treated as a crime. -- All this is done to prevent the possibility that the virus will adapt.

I have thought, from the beginning, that HIV could be the end of civilization. I think it still could be. If we have some hope to rid ourselves of this thing, we should grab for it. We can't let half-measures ruin the opportunity.

2/12/2006 8:42PM

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Cartoon Viewpoints

The Cartoon Jihad doesn't seem to be dying down real fast. There is divided opinion in every country in the West, and I imagine in the Muslim World as well. My own feeling is that it's a matter of resisting intimidation. The level of violent protest has basically proven that point, originally made by Jyllands-Posten. Another telling detail is how quickly the cartoons seem to disappear from a site. At any rate, I think I've found a couple places where the cartoons might be permanently available, here and here.

There have been a lot of opinions worth quoting. Here are three recent ones that I liked. Varifrank has posted four points to ponder regarding the Cartoon Jihad.

… Anyone of any religion who is found by the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia to have taken part in any act remotely similar to burning a flag with an islamic symbol on it will also be executed for the crime. Yet when you burn the symbol of their country that contains an emblem of their religion, The Danes will simply ask you to not litter and to get a permit for your protests.

… They want blood. They want to be clear to anyone watching that they are dangerous, for that is their clearly stated message. You dont words like "Slay", Butcher" and "exterminate" if your interested in changing government policy. The use of violent public protest is on a par with the suicide bomber, its a weapon we havent quite figured out how to fight, and the Islamists know this. We assign automatic virtue to any protest and the Islamists also know this.

… Few countries in world history have shown themselves to be as tolerant and accepting of outsiders as the Danes, yet the Danes did not give in to the Nazis. In the mind of the fanatic, this cannot be tolerated. If you wish to take over Europe, this culture and this idea must be the first thing to go. If Denmark cannot stand against the Islamists, then can we expect other far more anti-semitic nations in Europe to stand in opposition to the Islamists desires?

… What next? This time its supposedly a protest against cartoons that they have interpreted as "blasphemous". So what will it be next time? The serving of alcohol? Pork? uncovered women?

… If Google will block certain words for access to Chinas market, what will Google agree to do for Islam?

… even if we were to decide that the "cartoon blasphemy" must stop, we also know it wont end there. This is not about cartoons, its about control.

Christopher Hitchens, a famous atheist among other things, has an essay in Slate talking about the Right to Offend and includes a choice piece of information about the Salman Rushdie fatwa that I was unaware of.

… For most of human history, religion and bigotry have been two sides of the same coin, and it still shows.

… You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken. Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. … in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

… In fact, Sunni Muslim leaders can't even seem to condemn the blowing-up of Shiite mosques and funeral processions, which even I would describe as sacrilege.

… Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions? … We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.

… When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, he did so in the hope of forwarding a discussion that was already opening in the Muslim world, between extreme Quranic literalists and those who hoped that the text could be interpreted. We know what his own reward was, and we sometimes forget that the fatwa was directed not just against him but against "all those involved in its publication," which led to the murder of the book's Japanese translator and the near-deaths of another translator and one publisher.

… civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts, and it is positively outrageous that the administration should have discarded them at the very first sign of a fight.

And just to point out that it is possible to argue another point of view rationally, here is an article in Slate by Reza Aslan, who is, I believe, a Shiite from Iran.

… there has never been any large-scale furor over them [traditional images of Mohammed] for the simple reason that although they depict the prophet, they do so in a positive light.

Not so, of course, in the case of the now infamous Danish cartoons. The fact is that Muslim anger over the caricatures derives not merely from their depiction of Mohammed. … Rather, most Muslims have objected so strongly because these cartoons promote stereotypes of Muslims that are prevalent throughout Europe:[e.a.] Mohammed dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse; Mohammed standing menacingly in front of two cowering, veiled women, unsheathing a long, curved sword; Mohammed on a cloud in heaven complaining that Paradise has run out of virgins. It is difficult to see how these drawings could have any purpose other than to offend

… they fly in the face of the tireless efforts of so many civic and religious leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord; because they play into the hands of those who preach extremism …

2/10/2006 1:48 PM

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Cartoon Jihad

The widely publicized anger expressed by certain Muslims toward the cartoons published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, has been cast as a battle between the liberal concept of Freedom of Expression and the fair treatment of an entire religion. I can only accept the first half of that matchup. The religion being weighed in the balance is not that of Islam, but of a small lunatic slice of Islam. That lunatic slice is waging a guerilla war of ideas, hoping that we will strike out at random, forcing others to take sides.

I have for months been waiting and dreading the confrontation. The internal logic of this Islamist extremism has dictated that the cartoon issue would eventually result in outrageous, theatrical displays of political violence. I think of Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both living strange semi-secret lives because of credible death threats, and I think of Theo Van Gogh, butchered in the streets for his exercising his rights to free expression. These are the martyrs to our cause. Think how many thousands of like-minded people there are in the Islamic nations who suffer in the grasp of the fanatics, intimidated, abused and murdered without recourse, or even the support of sympathetic officials.

The source of my dread has not been the confrontation itself, so much as the appeasement gestures that follow the outbreaks of violence. The U.S. State Department and the Pope, himself, have condemned what I consider a very mild and just reprimand of Islam for serving as an incubator of the extremist cause. I have been proud to see that others have supported the Jyllands-Posten position by reprinting the "offensive" cartoons. The risk is not trivial. I have been distressed that the response is not more widespread. In fact, it continues to be difficult to track down on-line copies of the cartoons, indicating that the charge of self-censorship and intimidation has some merit.

Here are some of the accusations addressed to the West regarding the cartoons, which depict various conceptions of Mohammed.

  • It is asserted that the cartoons are insulting to Muslims.
  • It is asserted that the images of humans are forbidden by Islam.
  • It is asserted that this cartoon insult has come at a very sensitive time for the relationship between the Islamic World and the West.
  • It is asserted that characterization of Mohammed or Muslims as prone to violence is false and discriminatory.
  • It is asserted that the intention of Jyllands-Posten was explicitly to insult Muslims, the Prophet and Islam.
  • It is asserted that Jyllands-Posten, the original publisher, has, in the past, refused to publish cartoons insulting to Christianity.
  • It is asserted that Jyllands-Posten was publishing pro-Nazi pieces before World War II.
  • Numerous public figures, including the Pope and the U.S. State Department, have denounced the cartoons as insulting and irresponsible.
  • There are laws in some European nations explicitly restricting freedom of speech in certain contexts, such as Holocaust denial and hate speech. Why not protect Islam as well?
  • The French, in particular, have banned hijabs in public schools, discriminating against Muslims.
  • It is asserted that the Danes and Europeans in general present a hateful atmosphere toward their Muslim citizens.
  • Mass protests by Muslims in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria show that the Islamic World is united in rejecting this cartoon blasphemy.
  • Islamic nations have sponsored boycotts against Denmark and Norway because of their culpability in the publication.
  • It is asserted, of course, that Jews are behind this and have turned the West against Islam.
  • Muslims have been "martyred" in the protests, showing just how much they have been wounded by the grave insult to Mohammed.
  • It is asserted that the West is preventing the nations of Islam from progressing economically.
  • It is asserted that the U.S. drops bags of money on Israel, but only bombs on Arab nations.
  • It is asserted that Islam is the Religion of Peace. Christianity is the Religion of the Crusade. Judaism is the Religion of Murder.

I like to think of myself as an enlightened and tolerant individual, willing to bend over backward to see another person’s point of view. Nevertheless, I take strong exception to every point listed above. I dispute the truth and/or relevance of each. I also have links to good arguments against every point. I will try to add some of them at a later time, but for now I would just like to point out this little gem, which will probably not be disappearing any time soon.

It is my assertion, that there is no requirement for any citizen of a free country to adhere to the strictures of Islam – nor any other religion for that matter. The only restriction I can accept on the freedom of speech is that there must be no malicious speech that calls for violence or leads by deceit to imminent violence.

2/9/2006 11:30 PM

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Blogging Trouble

I've got a lot to say about the whole cartoon jihad, but I haven't been able to get the words down for a number of reasons. One reason is that things have been happening so fast, papers have been publishing, riots, new viewpoints, etc. Also, my life has been a little busier than usual, but the most important problem I've been having is that my DSL service is very bad. I had Verizon at one time and switched to AOL. Now the AOL has been in the dumper for a week. I can't even bring up my Blogger site without timing out. I'm beginning to doubt whether I have things set up properly. I'm also suspecting AOL of doing nasty things to sabotage Blogger. In short, I'm getting paranoid. I've also been told that switching from Verizon to AOL has nothing to do with the connection. It's just an accounting change. Ooooo!

The broadband issue is apparently a big deal internationally. Other countries are doing better. Here's an excellent posting on Sunfell putting the blame on George Bush's penchant for cronyism.

The countries surpassing the United States in broadband deployment did so by using a combination of public entities and private firms. The Japanese built their world-class system by ensuring "open access" to residential telephone lines, meaning competitors paid the same wholesale price to use the wires. The country is also establishing a super-fast, nationwide fiber system via a combination of tax breaks, debt guarantees and subsidies. But of particular note, the Japanese government also encouraged municipalities to build their own networks, especially in rural areas. Towns and villages willing to set up their own ultra-high-speed fiber networks received government subsidies covering approximately one-third of their costs.

Unfortunately, the United States has pursued the opposite policy. President Bush has called for "universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007," and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin claims broadband deployment is his "highest priority." But they have made no progress toward these goals; in fact, they have rewarded their corporate cronies for maintaining high prices, low speeds and lackluster innovation. Federal policies have not merely failed to correct our broadband problems, they have made them worse. Instead of encouraging competition, the FCC has allowed DSL providers and cable companies to shut out competitors by denying access to their lines. And whereas the Japanese government encourages individual towns to set up their own "Community Internet," Washington has done nothing. Fourteen states in the United States now have laws on the books restricting cities and towns from building their own high-speed Internet networks. No wonder America is falling behind its Asian competitors.

I'm thinking of going with ComCast at this point. Or blogging from the library.

2/8/2006 7:58 PM

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Need for a Bright Line - Fact or Fiction

Gregg Easterbrook has an opinion about fictitious memoirs in TNR. Apparently a friend of his, Deborah Caulfield, exposed James "Lie" Frey as a fraud several years ago. He says publisher Nan Talese had to know, and she comes off looking pretty bad. On the other hand, Oprah comes off as an honest broker, burned by a bad client.

2/3/2006 9:00 PM

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Islamist Agitation Tactics

The cartoons of Mohammed, for which J-P recently apologized, showed up in the France Soir. The editor was fired the next day. Furthermore, according to a BBC broadcast I just watched, the German paper, Die Welt, has also printed them. The original publication was in September. Somebody has apparently kept the pot boiling long enough that others felt it necessary to make a statement about the Freedom of Speech.

According to The American Thinker, various Islamists in Denmark are fomenting a worldwide Muslim reaction, including a boycott of Denmark's products, despite the apology. One imam apparently tells broadcasters in Denmark that he is against the boycott while speaking Danish, but tells Al-Jazerra that it's a good idea, speaking, of course, Arabic. Another outrageous tactic that has been used is to add needlessly provocative images apparently intended to further inflame Muslim audiences, such as Mohammed as a pig. I can't understand why it is wicked to create the images, but OK to look at them. Nevertheless, I infer that some Muslim individual must have created the interpolated image(s), or commissioned their creation, for the specific purpose of agitation. I guess it's OK to sin for the greater glory of God. Furthermore, it seems that many Muslim nations, such as fanatical Iran, have always displayed and sold images of Mohammed as religious icons. It's really hard to pin this one down. The American Thinker believes that the long-term intent is to force Sharia law onto Denmark.

2/3/2006 12:24 AM

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sound of the Worm

My daughter in middle school had to answer question number 3, "Name eight ways in which humans depend on animals or humans and animals interact." She didn't quite understand the question or how to start. She was frustrated and talked it out with my wife for quite some time. Then she ripped off this feisty little essay, which I share here with her permission:

Chapter 4

Question Three

Humans depend enormously on earthworms, we depend on than for hundreds of things but most people are still unaware that they depend on earthworms at all.

  1. For millennia people have depended on worms to process the soil and leave it aerated so that agriculture can provide the food we need.
  2. We depend on worms to eat and recycle all of our waste, without worms the world would be overflowing with trash, but even so we are over working our worms and they can not keep up with our waste output. Most people take the eventual disappearance of trash as a given when in reality it takes generations of labor from earthworms to get rid of a mere trash can sized load of garbage.
  3. Without air we could not survive. Most people know that air comes from plants, mainly trees, but not many people know that trees and other plants depend on worms, to leave the soil loose and nutrient filled, just as much as we depend on trees and plants.
  4. The shelter that many people in the world go home to every night is a mere product of worms. Almost all houses have at least some wood in their structure, without wood, building would have come into existence until much later and perhaps not at all. Worms let tree’s roots find a place in the soil to absorb nutrients so they can grow strong and tall and be able to build parts of houses, schools, ballet barres, some beds, and even book cases.
  5. Literature, where would it be without paper? Without paper, literature would be nowhere, without worms there would not be paper. Even the papyrus that the ancient Egyptians used for paper could not survive without the help of worms. Without anything to write on, knowledge would make very little progress, the great wonders of history would be completely unknown and science would still be trying to discover whether or not the world was flat.
  6. We depend on cows for many things in our lives -- leather, cheese, milk, and meat -- to name a few. Cows eat grass as all musicians know (the mnemonic used for memorizing the bass clef is All Cows Eat Grass) and grass survives purely because of the endless labor that worms contribute to help society.
  7. Many people spend some of their most pleasurable hours working in their garden or sitting on a boat with good friends, children or parents, fishing. Gardeners need worms to fertilize the soil that they can plant flowers and vegetables and help them grow. Fishers need to use worms as bait, a completely thankless task that has taken the lives of many poor worms.
  8. Romance is a wonderful thing, but what would it be without roses? Without roses, how would Shakespeare’s famous line be remembered? A rock by any other name is still a rock? Without roses, what is poetry? Rosebushes thrive because of the help they receive from worms, but without worms, there would be no roses. Without worms, where could beauty be?

Next time you sit down to eat, watch a dance performance, put on a pair of leather shoes, start reading a book, or you simply take a breath of air, think of how much you owe the earthworms, because you would not be able to do any of those things, if not for them.

I was impressed. But them I'm her dad. Is she a chip off the old block or what? Last year she obsessed over Expo Markers.

2/2/2006 12:22 AM

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

We Apologize for Living

Apparently Jyllands-Posten has finally caved and apologized for their cartoon portrayals of Mohammed. It's a shame, but, well, they have made their point that Islam is impacting freedom of the press in Europe by means of intimidation. The prevalence of fanatics in Islam is a consequence of the terror-friendly attitude of the leaders of Islam. The leaders might not resort to terrorism themselves, but they are not reluctant to use the associated reputation in order to further their aims.

Israpundit points out three sad things. One is that Bill Clinton kowtows to Saudi money. Second, we are so weak at defending our free speech rights. The third is that the Islamic world can't take a punch, or even a stern look, without crying and throwing a temper tantrum.

I have to say, I haven't been this disappointed since Hillary supported an anti-flag-burning resolution.

2/1/2006 3:32 PM

Update: Amusing commentary from the red-state side of Blogopolis.

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