Friday, May 31, 2013

Titan is grumpier than usual, if that is possible

Our take on the world this week

Titan is back, grumpy and ranting even more than usual. Poor Cassini has to drop in on each revolution around Saturn for an orbit shift and has to put up with the old curmudgeon. You, of course, can tune out, but Titan thinks that you should pay a little attention to what is wrong in this nasty world of ours.

For starters, let us refer you to the Miriam Shlesinger Human Rights action blog. As the weeks and months go by without Miriam, we continue to realize what we have lost. She got us into the human rights struggle. Please act on behalf of people who are so much in need of support in their trials and tribulations at the hands of oppressive regimes and corporations.

We would like to start out with a complaint about the Neanderthal policies of the Conservative government of Canada vis a vis basic science.
NRC logo
Science is not about the bottom line.
Photo by NRC, modified by Phil Plait

 Phil Plait,writing in Slate in his Bad Astronomy blog,  has a few strong rants on this issue in which, he makes the valid claim that the shortsighted decisions of the Harper regime are doing major harm to science and to Canada as a whole. Fair disclosure, Titan has relatives who are adversely affected by the closing down of research that does not support business.  The tack that  the Canadian government is taking amounts to corporate welfare. It is shocking that a G8 country can conclude that science is only about the bottom line. If Ludwig Boltzmann, for example, were an employee of the Canadian NRC, our knowledge of physics would be much poorer. These clods to not understand that science is done for its own sake and that the benefits to society are long-term. The laser and the transistor are the fruits of basic research in spectroscopy and solid state physics respectively.  The people of Canada in their infinite wisdom chose to give the Conservative Party a majority in Parliament. We can see the results in many areas, but one of the worst is the attack on basic science by the government. For a G8 country to sell out its future or to expect the rest of the world to do science for it is criminal. Perhaps we should invoke Tallyrand, "this is worse than criminal, this is stupid."

It is good news to learn that the FARC and the Colombian government have reached an agreement on land reform as a step towards bringing to an end an insurgency that has flamed for over four decades and brought calamity to an entire nation. Let us quote Sarah Rainsford, the BBC correspondent at the talks in Havana:

" This is the first, significant milestone in the peace talks and a welcome advance for the Colombian government which initiated the process.

Rural reform was always going to be a tough issue, so closely entwined with the causes of the conflict. But there was pressure to show results after six months of discussion. So the teams worked late over the last few days, hammering out the deal.

Precise details have not been disclosed. Neither side took questions from journalists. Colombia's government wants to minimize outside pressure during the process, keen to avoid the fate of previous, failed talks: it argues that any final peace agreement will be put to a referendum.

But the agreement centers around "fair access" to land. Those closely involved say land will be reclaimed from those who seized it illegally and reallocated via a 'land bank' along with areas currently underused. The government's chief negotiator stressed that "legal landowners have nothing to fear".

Although reform is supposed to be going on in Burma, the country is still far from being anything similar to a democracy. It appears that the acceptance of the "New Burma" by the international community and the lifting of sanctions, up to even a White House visit, was premature.There are still hundreds of political prisoners who remain in jail two years after the reform process started. The Burmese government has used releases of political prisoners as public relations exercises to achieve good publicity, and to persuade the international community to lift sanctions. The persecution of the Muslim minority is a major scandal unto itself. As the Burma Campaign writes on its Web page: "Genuine political progress cannot be achieved while democracy activists remain behind bars and the rights of ethnic people continue to be ignored. The release of all political prisoners is an essential first step in a transition to democracy, but only a step. The international community must not be fooled by tactical releases of political prisoners that in reality may be a tried and tested ploy by the government to gain international credibility without introducing genuine democratic change."

A quarter of the children in the world suffer from malnutrition according to a report entitled Food for Thought put out by the UK charity Save the Children. The stunting of growth of body and brain causes these children to grow up with inhibited intellectual ability and their lack of capability to perform in the modern work place has a real cost. They could earn as much as 20% less in adulthood, and the global economic impact of  malnutrition could be up to $125bn (£83bn), Save the Children said. The G8 are being called to address this burning issue at their next summit conference. The UK government is holding a special nutrition summit in London on 8 June, ahead of the main G8 gathering, which is expected to look at issues such as food security and the need for more African countries to have their own national nutrition plans. One way to measure malnourishment is to look at the level of daily calorie intake per person. In an age when the world is producing more food than ever before it is a scandal to see that many people have a calorie intake that is below what is necessary for decent survival (2000 calories).
 Credit: T. Frank
The mean caloric intake is about 2800/day, but the distribution is most nonuniform.One might feel guilty over the thought that our dog Murphy probably enjoys a higher daily caloric intake than many children around the world.

 The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has released a heavy metal video in which he blasts the Chinese government and reconstructs his prison stay. Ai himself sings the lyrics, which include: "Stand on the frontline like a dumbass, in a country that puts out like a hooker... tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life's invincible." Here is the video for your edification.

The beloved painting by Jackson Pollock “One: Number 31, 1950,” has been restored by conservators at MOMA after 15 years of waiting and a year of work.

Last Tuesday, “One” was rehung in its place on the museum’s fourth floor, considerably cleaner and its conservators a bit wiser.Anyone of you in the New York area, hie thee to MOMA to see it. We look forward to our next visit.

Michelle Bachman has chosen not to seek reelection in 2014. Andy Borowitz predicts the result.Of course, the lady could move to Texas and raise the mean IQ of both states.

There is much to rant about in Israel this week, including the handcuffing of a wounded victim of a shooting in a bank out of pure racism (apparently the Bedouin victim was shot by the police) and political shenanigans that we will not even bother to link to you. We would like to focus this week on the fundamental dangers that are facing our society and our democracy. We refer you to a long, but fascinating article by Prof. Eva Illouz of the Hebrew University on the Trinity that rules Israel, settlers, religious and the wealthy. She invokes a 16th century French philosopher, Etienne de la Boétie. In 1548, at the age of 18, he wrote a slim book titled “Discours de la Servitude Volontaire” [Discourse on Voluntary Servitude], which managed to slip past the censors and attack the autocratic rule of Francois I. His bottom line is that people give up their freedoms because, under pressure of the regime, they forget that they are entitled to them. Prof.Illouz eventually lays the voluntary servitude of the public in Israel at the door of the Army, which is the main instrument that breaks the spirit of the young and keeps it broken throughout life. We find that her thesis makes sense since the willingness of Israeli soldiers and in particular officers to commit unspeakable crimes in the name of the "security needs of the state" can only be understood if their basic humanity has been stripped from them by the system. In Israel  the pressures to conform to a norm set down by the system also contribute to crushing theindependence of spirit and thought that is so badly needed.
Illustration by Yael Bogen
Illustration by Yael Bogen.

A factor that is often overlooked is the fact that Israel throughout its history has been an immigrant society in which the immigrants are regarded as less "Israeli" than the native-born. This results in even greater conformity pressures and the Army incurred praise as a framework in which the immigrants could be absorbed or integrated, i.e. repressed into a state of servitude possibly more pernicious than that of the natives. It worked as a machine grinding all down to the Israeli stereotype and causing you to deny your own past. The late cartoonist Friedl Stern depicted it well

Obviously not everyone is crushed as can be seen in the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrakh and elsewhere, in the refusals to serve in the army and in the voices of protest that are raised, albeit weakly. The so-called J14 protest movement, that started on July 14, 2011 and brought huge crowds out to protest, eventually fizzled and was put down by the regime with no real results except for Parliamentary seats for a few of the leaders. Prof. Lev Greenberg, of Ben-Gurion University, provides a penetrating analysis of the movement and why it failed.
Dan Almagor in Haaretz writes about the poet Nathan Alterman and the conscientious objector Nathan Blanc, of whom we have posted on this blog in the past.
Nathan Blanc, the Army blinked

Almagor's article which is not available in English (self-censorship by the newspaper?) compares Alterman's famous poem "About That" (we append a link for those who read Hebrew) in which he indicted the army of 1948 for war crimes, to the voice of protest of his young namesake. The military censor tried to suppress the poem, but Ben-Gurion, then PM, ordered it printed up in thousands of copies and distributed to soldiers. How times have changed.

Nathan Blanc was sentenced to prison ten times and but always refused to back down. His example is worthy of support from all of us. Almagor invokes the famous conversation between Thoreau (imprisoned for refusing to pay a poll tax to fund the unjust Mexican War)and Emerson, "Henry, what are you doing in jail?"--Ralph, what are you doing out of jail?" Blanc could have gotten out of jail and the army by taking the route of asking to be declared "psychologically unfit," but he declined to take that route.  Experience in our family has taught us that the reaction of the army to an unwillingness to commit war crimes is to send the young person to a psychologist since the person must be hallucinating if he/she thinks that the "holy moral army of Israel" would ever commit a war crime. To release Blanc amounts to an admission of war crimes. The Army, with characteristic arrogance and stupidity, painted itself into a corner. We are informed now that the Army blinked and Natan Blanc is to be  released next Thursday after 177 days behind bars. He  has great moral courage and did  not break.

Another person of great moral courage and integrity is Anat Kamm.
Anat Kamm
Anat Kamm at a Tel Aviv court before hearing the verdict of her trial, Oct. 2011
 She is serving a long prison sentence for leaking documents that showed high officers of the army to be in gross violation of Supreme Court decisions and to have issued orders to murder certain Palestinian leaders. The information was published and the chief criminal, her commander, was "punished" by promotion to an even higher position in the military hierarchy. Itzhak Laor, writing in Haaretz, compares her to Antigone, who, in Sophocles' eponymous play, chooses to violate the commands of the king in order to obey a higher law of ethics and decency. Laor goes on to berate the Israeli Left for its failure to stand up for Kamm. One might suspect that the weakness of the left support for Kamm derives from the slavish mentality described so well by de la Boetie.

Both Blanc and Kamm are alone in their struggle, although and maybe because they are in the right. Jules Renard once wrote, “If you are afraid of being lonely, don't try to be right." A few people of good will can write on their behalf and cheer from the sidelines, but as long as our society is run by the Israeli equivalent of the US Tea Party, there can be no real hope. To quote Martin Luther King, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

What can we do about this? Prof. Illouz comes up with an optimistic conclusion and ends her article with the following:
"Israeli society has long ago been hijacked by the holy trinity of settlers, religious and the wealthy. Can we oppose the tyrannies that have liquidated the democratic spirit of Israel? The 18-year-old Etienne de La Boétie gives us hope: “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.” La Boétie probably had not intended to write an anarchist call to resistance, but his book was later read as a
manifesto for civil disobedience (Ralph Waldo Emerson and possibly Henry Thoreau drew heavily on the book to articulate their ideas of civil disobedience). Today, too, we can and must say: Withdraw consent, and political power comes crumbling down like a house of cards."

Indeed "consent" is the operative word here. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the US Declaration of Independence as follows: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government..."

When people who live in the slums of South Tel Aviv or in the so-called development towns vote for their exploiters and oppressors, i.e. the right wing parties, they are giving their consent to their own poverty and lack of security. Until this fact and the destructive role of the settlers and the army become understood, we shall continue our downward spiral to the doom of Israel as we know and love it.

Both in Israel and in the Diaspora we are witnessing a takeover of the Jewish scene by fundamentalists, known as haredim. They are a minority but a well-organized minority can easily dominate an uncommitted, fragmented and ideologically weak majority. What is particularly sad, as pointed out by Jay Michaelson in The Forward, is the fact that we liberals are being conned into supporting them. In Israel, they have managed to manipulate themselves into power, to avoid military service and work (let the secular goyim support us...) and to divert millions into schools that do not provide a basic education, thus condemning the next generation to depend on handouts from their corrupt rabbis who milk the public treasury. In the US they have attached themselves to the public teat and are sucking away furiously For example, seventy-six percent of students at one of the most prominent yeshivas in the country, in Lakewood, New Jersey, are receiving Pell grants. Indeed, the top three institutional recipients of these grants are ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. The Chabad affiliated Michigan Jewish Institute scored $25 million in federal aid meant to go to low-income students, despite an appalling academic record and due largely to chicanery involving an online application mill.

Many well-meaning, but naive people, voted for Yair Lapid who promised to clean out the Augean stables. As Finance Minister, we see that he has the cojones of a Vestal Virgin. It is about time the public made its demands known in this area as well

 In view of budget cuts, the Army has announced that it is discontinuing all operational training for reserves until the end of the year. It has also come out that our great Chief of Staff Ganz negotiated a secret deal with the Finance Ministry to raise the salaries and benefits of the SENIOR officers. The oft-proclaimed aim of attracting bright young people to chose a military career by offering compensation for young officers that is  competitive with salaries in the civilian sector somehow got lost on the way to a general's bank account. What Dilbert says about a corporation can just as well be said of our Army.
Dilbert Cartoon for May/30/2013

We would like to move on to more pleasant things. Instead of a book review, we will give you a New Yorker review of a movie that we saw last week, the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. We enjoyed it greatly despite the nits that the reviewer picks at and then retracts. If you have not seen it, do so.

What If is interesting and amusing. It deals with alien astronomers looking our way. They would not see much. We wonder if anyone will ever trap a Voyager spacecraft and look at the  Golden Record on board.

With great empathy for the fathers of daughters everywhere--we have been through this.

Barney & Clyde Cartoon for May/29/2013

In Memory of our lovely Nikon camera that was stolen in Paris:
 Barney & Clyde Cartoon for May/27/2013

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