Church And School

Even when they get it right, they get it wrong. You've heard me complain about God in public schools before (Intelligent Design And Its Unintelligent Proponents). The Smoking Gun posted court documents regarding a school which prohibited the use of documents referring to God. The problem: the documents include American historical texts such as the Declaration of Independence and a speech of sitting president George II proclaiming a National Day of Prayer.

School Bars Declaration of Independence

The court filings posted to the Smoking Gun are for a lawsuit launched by teacher Stephen J Williams against Stevens Creek School, the District, and the Board. Williams seeks "declaratory relief, injunctive relief, nominal damages, costs and attorneys' fees." Seems reasonable. No similar restrictions regarding supplementary handouts were imposed upon his colleagues.

Granted, Williams is a self-stated orthodox Christian (para 50), and his focus on the role of belief in God in the founding of the nation may be a bit skewed. But you can't deny the references to God in the lives of the founding fathers or the establishment of the United States. Nor does Williams' lesson plan seem exclusively concerned with such references. Paragraph 43 alleges that only "five percent of all Mr Williams' supplemental handouts [...] contain references to God or Christianity." He also explains religious holidays like Ramadan, Hanakah, Diwali, and Chinese New Year.

Does God have a place in schools? I think the California Education Code (sec 51511, quoted in para 60) states that role eloquently:
"Nothing in this code shall be construed to prevent, or exclude from the public schools, references to religion [...] when such references or uses do not constitute instruction in religious principles or aid to any religious sect [...] and when such references or uses are incidental to or illustrative of matters properly included in the course of study."

Sometimes principals are cowed by overzealous parents to curb appropriate educational content. To wit, the challenge to including evolution in the biology curriculum. The injunctions Williams experienced apparently stemmed from a single parent complaint (para 36). While God has no place in biology class, He does have a place in history. To deny that is just as narrow-minded as creationists denying evolution.


Halliburton et al again...

MoJo reports of a billion dollar loophole to circumvent the competitive bidding process for defense contracts: Little Big Companies, by Michael Scherer.

Here's the scam. Federal law provisions allow the awarding of no-bid contracts to tribal businesses. While the rules of this program stipulate that between 15 and 50% of the work must be done by employees of the tribal company, the tribe can form joint ventures with third party companies and designate the non-native companies' employees as their own. Enter Halliburton et al.

Since 1999, government contracts to tribal companies have risen from $250m ($200m in single bid contracts) to $1.70b ($1.35b single bid) in 2003.

Chart: Government Contracts to Tribal Companies

So, What's the big deal? you may ask. The big deal is that companies like Halliburton are circumventing free market conventions at every opportunity. For example, Halliburton set up a sham offshore company in the Cayman's to allow them to do business in Iran. Halliburton's former CEO, Dick Cheney, is now in the White House. He appointed an old buddy of his, whom he worked for as an intern in the Nixon administration, to Defense secretary: Donald Rumsfeld. In the last four years, Halliburton has enjoyed unprecedented profitability, owing much to the award of no-competition contracts. The bidder has neither to demonstrate the economy or superiority of their bid as there are no competitors to supersede.

You can see my other posts on Halliburton from July:
Halliburton -- Building an Unsustainable Future
Sometimes, I Hate It When I'm Right


WAL-MART: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Deep Discount

Wal-Mart and China are a joint venture, and both are determined to dominate the U.S. economy

--Gary Gereffi
Professor of Sociology, Duke University

Wal-Mart was the subject of two documentaries this week: The Age of Wal-Mart appearing on CNBC, and Is Wal-Mart Good For America? appearing on PBS's Frontline. The quote above is from the Frontline piece. You can read a transcript of the entire interview with Professor Gereffi here. [As an aside, I am awestruck by the wealth of resources Frontline brings to the web. Complete transcripts of the documentary, transcripts of their interviews, additional readings, historical documents, annotated timelines, and streaming video of the entire documentary, the works.]

I will point you toward some other interesting reading in this vein:
The Wal-Mart You Don't Know, FastCompany
With a small-town culture, Wal-Mart dominates, CNBC
Don't Blame Wal-Mart for the Wal-Mart Economy, Slate
How big can it grow?, The Economist

Happy reading.


Branding The Populace

I used to think that branding was an apt description for the way companies emblazon their products with distinctive logos, colors, and styles. But it isn't just the products that are being branded, it is us. When I wear my Adidas fleece top or my Eddie Bauer khakis, when I whip out my Nikon Coolpix or my Toshiba Satellite, when I drink from a Pepsi can or eat from a Burger King bag, the company has scored a success by tagging me as their consumer. I become more than their customer, more than their billboard, I become their spokesman, a virtual employee. When I drink from that Pepsi can, I am unambiguously not drinking from a Coke can. And everything I do while conspicuously consuming, everything I am, becomes an extension of the company's ad campaign.

American advertisers pioneered the notion of lifestyle branding, then went a step further to associate emotions and primal desires with products and services. Can your running shoes reflect your perseverance? Can your cola reflect your politics? Of course they can.

Watch the Persuaders online at frontline.org, or get a fuller perspective on how advertisers manipulate us from Persuaders co-author Douglas Rushkoff in his book Coercion: Why We Listen To What "They" Say.

In fact, as Mecca Cola is proving, foreign marketers are just as adept at exploiting consumers' desire to reflect more than their thirst in their choice of beverage. In a rambling masthead on the corporate web site, I found some of the marginally coherent reasons for why there is a Mecca Cola:
• we considered the idea of launching a new concept, amely [sic] that of putting the economy to work in the interest of ideology

• One of the perversions of capitalism lies in the generation within oneself of the most brutal and the most inhumane part of oneself.

• The spirit which governed the creation of Mecca-Cola was to create a profit-making business which would help to relieve human suffering where action is still possible.

Now, to its credit, Mecca Cola does seem to be involved in humanitarian activity. However, it is at its heart a business, and an increasingly threatening one to American competitors like Coca-Cola and Pepsi who saw dramatic decreases in consumption in Arab markets after the introduction of Mecca Cola and similar 'prinicpled' soft drinks like British Qibla Cola, Iranian Zamzam Cola, and French Muslim Up. I swear I'm not making this up.

The threat is looming large enough that some American businesses have banded together to form an organization called Business for Diplomatic Action, described as "a nonprofit organization that mobilizes multinational corporations to build lasting, enriching partnerships with local communities around the world." Keith Reinhard, President of BDA, Inc, notes in an interview with the US Chamber of Commerce staff at the Centre for Corporate Citizenship, that a survey of international attitudes toward Americans and their business practices revealed two sentiments:
"...while people around the world admired many things about America and Americans—our diversity, our openness, our innovation and creativity, and our
freedoms—there were pronounced and consistent negatives, most of them related to U.S. business expansion."
Then he states paradoxically, and presumably without any irony: "It seemed obvious that, if business was the cause of some of the problems, business could be mobilized to address the issue." Ooh boy. He doesn't quite get it, does he? It's statements like that which cause steam to whistle comically from Naomi Klein's ears.

The bottom line is that we will never escape the onslaught of advertising clutter. So be alert, and be principled in your consumption. You've already heard me suggest that you avoid CanWest Global media outlets. You can do the same with foreign national megastores, companies that use excessive packaging, blood diamonds, Nazi sympathizers, etc. Choose your allegiances well, and bear those brands proudly.


self immol8 4 freedom

Appearing in this month's Harper's Magazine:


From a list of blocked words and phrases discovered by hackers in China's most popular instant-message software. Translated from the Chinese by Christopher G. Rea.

betray the nation
children of high officials
commie dogs
create turmoil
credit crisis
foreign affairs and the general plan
hold different political views
human rights
literary inquisition
mass movement
old men's politics
public funds
public opinion is against the system
reading prohibited
real people and real events
real sentiments of the people
real situation
student unrest
whitewashed peace and tranquillity
will of the people

Rat Neurons Pilot Jet

At once fascinating and disquieting, this research marks, as Wired puts it, "a great day for science ... and a terrible day for human pilots. How would you feel knowing that your job could be outsourced to cortical tissue from a rodent?"

Dr Thomas DeMarse, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida, released the results of a study in which 25,000 rat neurons configured in a network in tissue culture overlying a grid of 60 electrodes were trained to fly a simulated F-22 jet.

The CNN report can be found here. I also managed to find this University of Florida Press Release, Dr DeMarse's CV and web page.


Voting With Their Feet

This is not a post on how amputees made their opinions known last week. This is about Americans so frustrated with their myopic, bloodthirsty, xenophobic countrymen, that they are contemplating cutting their losses and moving to Canada:

Disenchanted Americans flood immigration website

This is a best case scenario phenomenon if true. Skilled, affluent, principled, left-leaning immigrants are hard to come by. But this immigration approach leads to so much paperwork and lawyer-fleecing. I have an alternate suggestion.

All the states that voted for Kerry either border Canada or are contiguous with states that do (except Hawaii). I propose that Canada simply annexes these states, and become a super-state, known perhaps as New Canafornida.

Yes, Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsyvania, New York, Maryland, DC, Deleware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachussets, Maine, and New Hampshire--Hawaii, too--join our nation. Join a nation (unlike the UK or Australia) that refused to embark on an immoral war to secure oil, predicated on lies. Join a nation that elects centrist parties, not extremists. Join a nation where God's place is in the church, mosque, or temple, not the legislature. Join a nation of boundless beauty, and natural riches. Join a nation that understands that guns do kill people. Join a nation that cares for each of its citizens when they become ill. Join a nation that is a friend to the world. We welcome you with open arms.

Thinking about moving to Canada, the best country in the world? Check out Citizenship and Immigration Canada. And dress warmly.


Lying With Statistics

My Dad used to teach a Statistics course. One of his lectures was called 'Lying With Statistics,' and the lecture covered misleading statistical representations to alert students to such deceptions.

This post is about a small point, but I think a telling one. In announcing Bush's victory last week, Andrew Card stated that:
In this election, President Bush received more votes than any presidential candidate in our nation's history.

This is true but misleading. The statement conceals the fact that John Kerry also received more votes than any other American President. It conceals the fact that Bush's margin of victory (3.5m) falls short of Clinton's (8.2m), Reagan's (16.9m), Nixon's (18.0m), Johnson's (16.0m), or Eisenhower's (9.6m) second-term victories in absolute votes, and represents an even narrower win in relative terms.

As far as I know, Bush II is the only presidential candidate to defeat his closest rival despite garnering fewer votes, as he did infamously in 2000 (Bush II: 50,456,002 to Gore: 50,999,897). I know nobody has since Dubya Dubya Two.

None of this alters the fact that Kerry lost and lost incontrovertibly. It does point out that political rhetoric must always be viewed skeptically. And so should the media. The fact that Kerry scored more votes this election than any previous President occurred to me immediately. Why has no journalist raised this refutation to Card's empty claim? Bush's victory has the illusion of a mandate, an illusion that is being strengthened by GOP disinformation and pleas from his challenger, during his concession speech, to rally behind the President. Astounding.

PS: My favorite electoral maps covering the election:
CBC Newsworld - the pop-ups on mouse-over are brilliant
BBC News - fascinating and detailed historical results
CNN - telling exit poll data

10x10: Cool Meets News

I love elegant design. The developers of 10x10 have created an elegant and useful interface to the latest news. This interface comes from way outside the box of traditional headline-plus-column, scrolling ticker, or precis list news presentation.

Every hour, 10x10 scans the RSS feeds of several leading international news sources, and performs an elaborate process of weighted linguistic analysis on the text contained in their top news stories. After this process, conclusions are automatically drawn about the hour's most important words. The top 100 words are chosen, along with 100 corresponding images, culled from the source news stories.

Move your mouse around the images and you'll see which words match which images. Move your mouse up and down the word list, and the corresponding images will light up. Click any word or image to zoom in and see the news headlines behind the word. Click the headline links to read the original news stories. Click the zoomed image a second time to see the image full screen.

Just check it out.

It'd be cool if you could customize the interface--My 10x10--selecting your favorite news sources from a list. I'd also like the images and text to be bigger, with an expandable matrix to maximize my screen res, or maybe a full screen mode. That would be cool.


An Election Haiku

Bush declared winner
Four more years of lies and war
Kerry, we lose too


Bush, Kerry, Nader
The choice is finally made
Democracy sucks, eh?


'What's it going to be then, eh?'

So begins Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, a disturbing look at the joy of the knife, penal reform, and aimless adolescent passions. We discussed the book for Pharos Book Club on Saturday in the screening room at the Cat's Meow in Kelowna, a sort of antithesis of the Korova milk bar being named for a cat not for milk, and being decked out in black with groovy accents rather than white.

Burgess arrests you immediately in his opening pages vividly describing the wanton ultraviolence perpetrated by the London youth of a not-too-distant future. And he relates the story as a memoir composed by Alexander--the most vicious of his small crew--in the language of Nadsat, a Slav-ified pidgin English with hints of rhyming slang thrown in. Burgess himself was an accomplished linguist and polyglot. Here's a taste, more than a mouthful, a passage describing some poor chelloveck's trip after imbibing 'a demi-litre of white [...] with a dollop of synthemesc', or similar milk-plus concoction:
The chelloveck sitting next to me [...] was well away with his glazzies glazed and sort of burbling slovos like ‘Aristotle wishy washy works outing cyclamen get forficu­late smartish’. He was in the land all right, well away, in orbit, and I knew what it was like, having tried it like everybody else had done, but at this time I’d got to think­ing it was a cowardly sort of a veshch, O my brothers. You’d lay there after you’d drunk the old moloko and then you got the messel that everything all round you was sort of in the past. You could viddy it all right, all of it, very clear—tables, the stereo, the lights, the sharps and the malchicks—but it was like some vesbch that used to be there but was not there not no more.
Each of the novel's three parts begins with the same phrase--'What's it going to be then, eh?'--communicating the ennui of the protagonist and youth in general. The book may have been inspired by an attack on Burgess and his wife, Lynne, in 1944, the book perhaps serving as a catharsis for the attack, and subsequent miscarriage and death his wife suffered.

Burgess becomes an apologist for the assailants, at least in his original version. Blake Morrison, in his introduction to the Penguin edition pictured above, describes the expurgated text as perhaps the only instance in which an artist was forced to alter his work to make it more pessimistic for an American audience. Burgess' original included a seventh and final chapter in Part Three; in the version I read for book club, I was blissfully unaware of this chapter, an epilogue that softens the despair of the American edition.

After Alex is finally captured during an ultimately fatal attack on a starry ptitsa, he is incarcerated in an unbearably overcrowded prison. To commute his sentence, he elects (a morally significant detail) to undergo Ludovico's treatment, a Pavlovian conditioning program in the same vein as Brave New World's hypnopaedia and 1984's Room 101. The procedure, horrifyingly and faithfully rendered in Kubrick's film adaptation, conditions its subject to associate the nausea and revulsion induced by an injected drug with the violent activity simultaneously portrayed on-screen in front of him. The subject is rendered harmless as his desire to halt his stomach-churning trumps his underlying desire to tolchock some starry veck, or get up to a little in-out-in-out with a horrorshow sharp.

Alex is released from prison and left to his own devices. He is the poster boy for the state, an embodiment of the solution to problems of overcrowded prisons and unsafe streets. Alex not only becomes a tool of the ruling rightist totalitarians, but the underground leftists, including the husband of one of his victims. He is induced by them to attempt suicide, deprogrammed, restored to his violent tendencies, and the American text ends with Alex declaring that he is cured.

Chapter 7, however, shows a subdued Alex, blunted as he attains the ripe age of 18. He has a paternal wistfulness as he chides his droogs and opts out of the night's fun. He muses on a future in which his son will be just as deaf to reason, and destined repeat the same folly of Alex's youth--perhaps even killing someone--and so on through the generations.

The seventh chapter transforms the book from a political diatribe, lashing out at leftists and rightists who treat their citizens as mere instruments of the State, to a coming of age story which explains and excuses violent teen passions as inevitable growing pains.

We had another wide-ranging discussion that exceeded our usual three-hour alotment. We observed the similarities between this book and two other dystopic visions we've encountered in book club: the aforementioned Brave New World and 1984. One of us anticipated that the story's vivid violence would be too much for her emotional constitution to bear, so she chose not to read the story but instead came for the discussion. We talked about the validity of Alex's choice to be programmed when the alternative was continued imprisonment, and about the concept of a 'Decision Tree': if Alex's decisions to that point were freely made, then he is ultimately responsible for the limited choices available to him and the choice is thus valid. We talked about parenting, corporate propaganda, public education, organized religion and the fuzzy distinction between programming and socializing youth.

A great book with a fresh voice and important things to say forty years after it was written, A Clockwork Orange however doesn't always hit the mark. The Slavic language influence would probably be more aptly replaced with a South Asian influence in the UK or Hispanic one in the US. I sometimes found myself trying to imagine just such a Hindglish or Spanglish bastard language. Burgess' dismissal of the hooligans' tendencies as a mere hormone-fueled phase misses the danger of true sociopaths who never grow up and demonstrate robust recidivism. The novel is nevertheless provocative, clever, direct, and succinct, and a winner in my books.