Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The revelation to the Persians

I was the lector in church last Sunday, and this is the passage I read:

Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron; And I will give thee the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.
For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

You can't truly understand how mysterious and striking this passage is until you realize who Cyrus was, and what Old Testament Judaism was. The Jews of the ancient world, for all their many unique virtues, were not a tolerant or inclusive culture: they believed that their God was the true God, and all others were heathen idols, and that they, the Jews, has a special and unique favor in God's eyes. That what makes this passage so inexplicable. Cyrus the Great ("Kourosh" in his native tongue) was not a Jew. He was a Persian, the emperor of the great and mighty state of Persia, the longest continuous political entity in world history. And in terms of religion, he was a Zoroastrian; unlike the Jews, he believed that there was not one God but two, a good God and an evil Counter-God, roughly equal in power and opposite in nature, and that this universe was the scene in which they would fight a nonstop battle that would not end till the Last Day. This dualistic conception, of course, was totally foreign to the Judaism of the time, who did not even think their Devil was much of an adversary for God.

Isaiah, as is true of many men inspired by God, recognized a truth that his culture, and even his religious authorities, did not. He recognized that Cyrus was one of history's greatest benefactors to the Jewish people. Cyrus was the one who had sacked the city of the oppressor, Babylon, on the very night that Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall foretelling Belshazzar's doom. He had allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. He was clearly a friend of the Jews, even if not a Jew himself, and Isaiah recognized in his good actions that God was working in Cyrus' life. In Isaiah's poetry there is the beginning of the recognition that God speaks in many ways to many people, and that one need not be of the 'Chosen People', or of the Visible Church, to be saved.

But it seems to me there's something deeper, too, a question that seems to run through Jewish and Christian history, and is never fully answered. What, exactly, was the Persians' relationship with God? Did they know God in something of the same way that the Jews, or the Platonists knew Him? There are strange parallels between Jewish and Persian religious belief. The ideas of a pantheon of angels and demons, of a great and evil Adversary opposed to God, of heaven and hell, everlasting life and everlasting punishment, and of history as a cosmic battlefield between opposed Powers, are important to Christianity today- but they weren't as important in original Judaism, and it's often said that they were borrowed into Jewish and subsequent Christian theology during the Jews' exile in Babylon. The Persians were, in their own way, monotheists: though they recognized two gods, they only held one of them as worthy of belief. The Persians, in contrast to many other peoples, held that repentance and forgiveness were an important aspect of salvation- God could forgive even the worst sin if the sinner was repentant. We owe to them our ideas of the devil and of the afterlife, without which Christianity would be gravely deficient. And last of all, in the moral and ethical field, Judeo-Christian and Persian morals have some strong similarities. Both upheld the importance of charity, caring for the poor, and that the content of a man's heart was as important as his deeds. Not least, the Jews and Persians were the only ancient peoples I know of to unequivocally condemn abortion.

In the books of Esther, and Daniel, and Isaiah, we see glimpses of a dim recognition that God spoke to the Persians as well as the Jews, and the Persians were not run of the mill 'idolaters'. Let's not forget, too, that the three Magi, the first human beings to recognize Jesus for Who and What He was- as is demonstrated by the gifts of gold (for kingship), incense (for divinity) and myrrh (for death)- were also Zoroastrian astronomers. How is it that they were able to recognize Jesus before any of his own people did so?

There are more questions than answers here. But I don't think these strange glimpses and hints of a deep mystery- of a relationship with God, and an ability to access hidden wisdom, that was possessed by the ancient Persians- is there by accident. Like everything else in the Gospels, the story of the Magi is there for a reason. It even seems to me that the Persians may have learned something about the nature of God and the universe that mainstream Jews and Christians did not. (I think, obviously, that Christianity is the truest religion, but that doesn't mean everything it has ever held is true- different religions have different unique insights to contribute to our understanding of God, even if I think Christianity has the most and greatest. I'd call myself a syncretist in the true and good sense.)

Zoroastrianism differed from Judaism and mainstream Christianity in that it was dualist, postulating a Devil that was co-eternal with God and almost as powerful. Jews and mainstream Christians did not share that belief, although it was a common, perhaps the commonest thread in Christian "heresies", from the Marcionites to the Albigensians. I don't wish that any of these heresies had succeeded- the Manichaeans, while they may have been right about some things, were deeply wrong about matter being inherently evil, and the world would not be a better place if they had won. But suppose they had gotten something right, out of the many things they got wrong? Suppose that they grasped the same insight that the Persians had grasped, and that this insight was true?

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that it seems to be there's a strong ontological argument for the existence of an evil power co-eternal with God. This is heretical, but it doesn't mean it's false. If pure logic seems to lead us to this conclusion, maybe a different and separate revelation led the Persians to the same conclusion. And maybe God decided that this revelation was too dark and terrible for humans to bear, and decided to let the heretics- and the Zoroastrians- fade away, and take that truth with them to the grave. Perhaps some truths are simply too much for us to know at this stage in our history. What history tells, us, however, is that it's perfectly possible to hold to a basically dualistic view of the world, and also to believe, fervently and passionately, that Christ was the only son of God, who lived to teach us and died to redeem us. In this sense one can be a follower of both Zoroaster and Christ.

As I said, more questions than answers. Plenty of room for speculation, but little for final conclusions. We must each look at secular and sacred history and come to our conclusions, as I have done above, and rest confident that there will come a day when the mysteries are solved, when we finally understand these strange hints and dim glimpses of a hidden reality, and in which we shall see, no longer through a glass darkly, but face to face.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever.

Nationalization of the banks

So, Paulson says that government part-ownership of banks is 'deeply upsetting to Americans' or some such nonsense.

What the hell? What a stupid statement. If it is upsetting, that's only because we hold to free-market ideology like a bunch of market fundamentalists. There is no reason why the banks should not be under state control permanently. Other countries have done it, and it works decently. Is Paulson aware that many of the most profitable companies in the world are state-owned oil companies? They seem to do decently under government management (e.g. Pemex, Petrobras, PDVSA). Socialized agriculture was very productive in Hungary, and socialist industry in Yugoslavia. There's nothing inherently wrong with state ownership of companies- was there anything wrong about the Tennessee Valley Authority? Oil, like credit, is too important to the functioning of society to be under the control of greedy oligarchs. Especially when the oligarchs, in this case, showed no more financial discipline or wisdom than a little boy in a candy store.

The government should bloody take over the banks in the United States, all of them. Not as a bailout, but as a long term acqusition. The current bank owners need to suffer for this, and they should suffer by having their property stripped from them. This nonsense about socialising costs and privatizing benefits has gone on too long.

Nonsense about Pakistan

I didn't expect much good from either Obama or McCain when I watched the last debate. But one thing really stood out. Barack Obama apparently thinks that we alienated the people of Pakistan by supporting General Musharraf, and that we should encourage liberal democracy in that country.

Excuse me? What the f--? I thought that democracy promotion was exactly what led to the train wreck that we are now engaged in in Iraq. At a moment when countries from Russia to most of Latin America are losing faith in the U.S. model of liberal "democracy", isn't it foolish to keep making it the centerpiece of our political strategy? And make no mistake, in the mouths of the American foreign policy establishment, promoting "democracy" really means promoting liberal capitalism, which looks like it is now headed for terminal crisis.

Simply put, the "democratic" parties in Pakistan are the creatures of a small, Westernized elite who are either corrupt, ineffectual, or both. There are only two powers that are willing and able to govern Pakistan effectively: the mullahs, and the army. To weaken one is to strengthen the other. Nawaz Sharif and the late Begum Benazir Bhutto were both renowned for phenomenal venalty and hypocrisy. They were overthrown for good reason- Sharif, for his part, was soft on the Taliban allies along the Northwest Frontier, launched an unsuccessful invasion of India, called for the establishment of Quranic Law in Pakistan, and was about to launch a purge of the military when he was overthrown. This scumbag is supposed to be the voice of freedom and the friend of America? No, no, no. Sharif and his allies- and the allies of the slimy Bhutto family- need to be in jail, not competing in elections (which are a luxury Pakistan cannot afford).

Pakistan badly needed to be ruled by the army in 2000, and it still needs to be ruled by the army today. The virtues that the military embodies in its members- discipline, nationalism, self-sacrifice- are the only thing that can save Pakistan from the corruption of the Westernized politicians, the oppressiveness of the feudal elite and the truly evil fanaticism of the Salafist clerics. Those reactionary classes are the reason Pakistan is in such dire straits today- with a moribund economy, an exploding population, and more than half the country illiterate and many of those 'literates' educated only in Quranic schools. Pervez Musharraf is arguably the most important soldier on the side of good, in the War on Terror today. America stabbed him in the back, in one of the truly filthy episodes of a filthy Bush presidency. If you thought our betrayal of Chiang Kai-Shek was bad, you ain't seen nothing else.

It's my hope that after seeing how inneffectual and greedy the civilian parties are, the Pakistanis will quickly end their flirtation with liberal 'democracy' which is simply ill-suited for Pakistan today and for any country in its position. I hope that Musharraf will realize the criminal irresponsibility, bordering on treason, of the 'democrats' when they forced him from power, and I hope the U.S. will realize that Musharraf is a good man, a modernizer and a moderate Muslim, and someone who represents Pakistan's best chance for a future in which Christians, Hindus, Ahmadiyyas, moderate Muslims, women, and the poor all have their interests respected. Pakistan today is a society in which Christians, Hindus and Ahmadiyyas are routinely hanged for 'insulting' the prophet Muhammed. If you don't think that is a good idea, then military rule is the only solution.

I hope that Musharraf launches another military coup- not for his good, but for the good of the nation- and does not shy away from his duty. And I hope that this time, whoever is the U.S. president will put hard-headed considerations of what we want to accomplish in that region, above airy and fluffy rhetoric about "democracy", "freedom" and "liberal values".

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The final crisis of capitalism.....

Who would have though ten years ago that the developed capitalist nations of the world would be in the process of nationalizing their major banks? That Russia would be bailing out a bankrupt Iceland? That the United States would be on the verge of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression?

Not everyone is entirely displeased about the financial crisis. A wide spectrum of people- from Hugo Chavez to James Kunstler- are rejoicing, because it looks like they are going to be proven right about the fundamental irrationality of the American system.

This looks more and more like something even bigger than the Great Depression. There is a decent chance that we may be entering into the death throes of capitalism. The final crisis of the capitalist system. I don't know what will come out of this- but I suspect that it won't be the liberal-capitalist world order as we know it today.

In a way it's poetic justice that the financial sector should turn out to be the Achilles' heel of capitalism. Ever since the Middle Ages, thoughtful and sensitive people have seen there was something seriously wrong, and morally unhealthy, about the idea of high finance. That some people should make money, not through producing physical or intellectual goods (bread, vegetables, iron implements, houses, medical care, scientific ideas) but by manipulating money, was widely seen as wrong, a form of usury. It continues to be wrong today. Tolstoy said that there were two kinds of work, mental and manual, and that both were equally honorable- but that the 'work' of the financier was neither. He was right. The financial profession got us to buy the idea that labor was separable from reward, and from the final product, and that there was no morally necessary tie between the two. From these it was a simple step to reifying money, giving it a value in itself, separating it from actual physical goods. And from there just another step to people making money out of more money, through deft paper shuffling that contributed nothing of real value to the world, but that made them more and more money.

And now comes the time to pay the piper. You can't get something for nothing, and labor can never be separated from reward, any more than eating can be separated from digestion. We are going to pay a long and cruel price, as a society and as a world, for buying into the myth of free money, for consuming rather than saving, for allowing the resources of the world to be monopolized by decadent oligarchies. It will be a terrible price- and we are all guilty, so we will all have to pay it. But we can make sure that the oligarchies that took responsibility for getting us into this mess, pay the biggest price of all, by being of their unearned power and wealth, once and for all.

Of course it isn't just the financial crisis that we are embroiled in today. We are running out of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) that have been the lifeblood of the world economy since the Industrial Revolution. The climate is rapidly changing for the worse- African deserts are getting drier, Arctic ice is melting, floods and hurricanes are becoming more common, tropical diseases are spreading north. There are warnings that we may be entering a vicious spiral in which the Amazon gradually receives less and less rainfall until it turns into a desert. World fisheries are rapidly being depleted. Forests are being cleared, our topsoil is being eroded. All these problems reinforce each other, and they all add up to a perfect storm. Any one of them alone could pose a big threat to a society- in concert, two or three of them have brought down societies before. Look at Easter Island.

But now we have all these multifarious threats to the ecological and biological support system on which human civilization, and so many of the other life forms that inhabit our world, depend. And on top of it, we have the financial crisis. We have new diseases that are coming out of the woodwork- nasty hemorrhagic fevers, drug-resistant TB, HIV. Islamic Jihadism is making its bid to conqer the world by force and reestablish the Caliphate. Russia is flexing its muscles once again, and one country after another- most recently in South America- is standing up to say No to the Washington Consensus.

Not all of these are bad things- I tend to think that the new assertiveness of leaders like Putin, Chavez and Correa are very good things. Eurasia needs a strong Russia with a strong leader, and Latin America needs socialism. But it all adds up to a crisis, and my own belief is that world capitalism won't be able to solve this crisis.

We are entering a new age, an age of hardship, sacrifice, and suffering. This will be an age in which we all need to pull together and ration our scarce natural and social resources in a just and humane way. We tolerated having most of society's wealth monopolized by a tiny oligarchy, because in the past most people in the powerful countries were at least well off enough that they had a decent share of the pie. But that won't be the case in future. We are entering an era in which society's resources will be too scarce and precious for people to tolerate them being concentrated in the hands of the rich, and used to make luxury goods. Hardship and rationing will be the words of the future. It will be, at least for a very long time, a permanent war economy, and it will call for a greatly expanded and authoritarian state to resist those elites who would take advantage of crises to make a profit.

It will be, in short, the death of capitalism. And like the phoenix, a new and better society will rise out of the ashes of the old. What that new society will look like, we can't yet say. But we can know for sure that it will be like nothing we ever dreamed of.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bloody absurd

There's no real word to describe last night other than 'absurd'.

I'd more or less written off yesterday evening, all of today, and Saturday morning in advance....I wasn't planning to do much other than finish my statistics problem set, which is a bear. I worked on it pretty late last night, then went to the apartment where i am currently staying, before I move back up to the main campus. this was the first night I'd actually slept there.

Wouldn't you know, I'm all settled into bed, when I decide to turn off the light in the stairwell. I step out into the stairwell, and of course the door closes and locks itself behind me. So I'm stuck outside my apartment with no wallet, no keys, no shoes, and no glasses. (I can't see jack squat without my glasses). It's 2 am, and the only spare keys are at the physical plant which won't open till 8 in the morning.

Wonderful, right? I've actually been locked out of my apartment a few times in the past. Once I slept on the balcony (that was pretty cold, even though it was in the tropics), once me and me friend scaled the fence (we got slightly scraped by the bits of shell that were embedded in the wall to deter thieves) and once I had to force the window with a crowbar. But no crowbar today- I wound up having to just curl up in the stairwell with a blanket. The whole situation was so absurd that I almost couldn't feel pissed about it- it reminded me of being stuck on one of those bush-taxi rides in Mada where the vehicle took 14 hours to travel about 75 miles.
Sleeping in the stairwell was pretty cold, again. I wouldn't really recommend it- you do risk getting trodden on in your sleep.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Scaling laws in biology

I should be asleep now, but I've been working on a statistics problem set, and the program is going to take a couple hours to run my power analysis. So plenty of time por bloguear.

As a graduate student on an NSF Education Fellowship, I work two days a week in a middle and high school in rural Michigan, trying to "integrate ecological literacy into the school curriculum" and generally offer support to science teachers. Sometimes I teach lessons, and sometimes I support teachers by spurring class discussion, team-teaching and so forth. I had a good time a few weeks ago teaching ninth-graders about osmosis by dunking potato slices into salt water of various concentrations, and seeing if they increased or decreased in mass. The kids liked that activity although they were kind of distracted and amused by the fact that the potato cores looked like French fries- some of them tried to eat them. If any of you are school teachers and want to share suggestions for science activities, write me.

Another activity that I did the week afterward was quite interesting. It was in a high school Ecology class (the high school offers ecology as a high school science elective, which is pretty cool for such a small rural high school). I was talking about survival vs. reproduction tradeoffs, R vs. K selection and so forth (which is kind of nice because it ties directly into my research, and I had a couple slides about my research). This is an "inquiry based" class so I needed an activity to go along with it, so what I did was have the kids see if there was a relationship between an animal's life span and its average yearly number of offspring. I picked seven mammals that I thought they would find interesting (to reduce taxonomic variability)- shrews, dolphins, elephants, gorillas, porcupines, black bears, and white-tailed deer, picking somewhat randomly off the top of my head. The lifespans I got from the all-powerful Wikipedia oracle, and the birth rate data from actual scientific papers to the extent possible. I had the kids calculate birth rates from the data (number of offspring, number of adult females, number of years in the study) and then get the average.

I didn't have them graph the results, but just for my own private interest, I made an Excel chart plotting the common log of annual birth rate over the common log of life span. As a side note, I use natural logs as much as the next man for anything involving the slightest bit of calculus, and for solving differential equations and that sort of thing. But for simple graphs, regressions, and transformation of variables, I much prefer common logs (base 10) or binary logs (base 2), or even logs in a rather arbitrary base 1.5. Maybe this is just me being contrarian and reactionary. But I find it much easier to do mental calculations, and to interpret results, when I know that a difference of one unit means an increase of a factor of 10, or a doubling, or a 50% increase. A difference of two unit resulting in a 739% increase is just not intuitive to me. Binary logs, all the way.

Anyway.....I got a perfect line with an R-squared of 0.99....that means almost perfect fit. With seven points, it's very impressive. Physiological theory suggests that life span and birth rate should be inversely related- and they are, almost perfectly, even for seven species I chose pretty much at random. The slope wasn't perfect- it was -1.5 instead of -1. Still, that's pretty shows how powerful some very simple scientific theories can be, even in a field as messy as mammalian biology. You can look at some truly outlandish examples of what life does in response to its environment.....but some basic but inexpicable and ubiquitous patterns bind them all together.

Enough for tonight. I'll post more tomorrow.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Correa and the constitution

For about the last 15 years, Ecuador's politics have been in a more or less constant state of instability. Rafael Correa, if he manages to stay in office for the next few years, will be the first national leader out of the last nine to actually finish a full term (one was removed for insanity, one was overthrown by a left-wing military coup, one was overthrown by a right-wing restoration, one was driven out by a popular rising.....) All in all, it reminds me a lot of how Hobsbawm described "government by pronunciamento" in 19th century Spain. The basic problem, as with Peru or Bolivia, is that the oligarchy and the people are each strong enough to keep the other from governing effectively, but neither are strong enough to govern effectively themselves. Now, Correa offers a chance to overcome that deadlock, by having the courage and vision to effectively confront the oligarchy, and plow away full steam ahead at stripping them of their power and privileges. He realizes that compromise, in today's climate, is no solution at all.

Mr. Correa looks to have, like most Ecuadorians, a good helping of indigenous blood. He is a devout Catholic, and spent some time in his youth working at a welfare center run by the Salesian order. He's fluent in Quechua, a staunch admirer of Hugo Chavez who doesn't shy away from using the word 'socialist', and has called for a socialist revolution to sweep the continent. His background is in economics, with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, and he served as finance minister under the last interim president, Palacios, before resigning after a disagreement over a free trade deal (Correa was against it).

I'm of course a big supporter of Correa and he strikes me as exactly what Ecuador, and the whole continent, direly need. For example, I think that his nationalization of the assets of a Brazilian company Odebrecht, a few days ago (irrigation projects, hydroelectric plants, and airport worth a total of $800 million) was a great move. That company was responsible for the shoddy construction of a dam built last year, which isn't even working any more; some top executives were arrested. It looks like some compensation may be paid, but the company is banned from working in Ecuador in future. This is as it should be. All this type of infrastructure should eventually be owned by the national government. Plants and infrastructure that are necessary to the smooth functioning and industrial development of the country should be made to serve the common good, and not private profit, and all capitalist ownership, in the end, should be eliminated from the Ecuadorian economy. Of course that isn't possible now and won't be for a long time, but this is a step forward towards a society where the means of production are owned by the people- that means by small producers, by cooperatives, and by the state- and that's a good thing. It should start with those companies that have been guilty of crimes, and Odebrecht certainly was. If you commit a crime, then your assets should be forfeit to the state.

Mr. Correa has been accused of authoritarianism, but in Ecuador today, a mild authoritarianism is necessary. The Ecuadorian constitutions have long had a provision banning the expression of contempt or libel against the president, like many other Latin American countries, and that is as it should be- Correa was right to call the press 'a bunch of wild beasts' and to sue the La Hora newspaper for saying that he intended to rule Ecuador through mob violence. That sort of propaganda poisons people's minds against the government and does nothing but destabilize society, and there is a reason it was illegal- Correa didn't make the law. The private media in Ecuador, of course, like elsewhere in the region, is little more than a willing tool of the wealthy and collaborators with foreign powers. They have never had a pretence to report the truth and they should not be able to invoke the 'freedom to speak the truth' now.

Correa's new constitution gives us a lot of evidence about what his vision for Ecuador is, and it's clear his vision is that of a Christian socialist who wants to build a society based on love, sharing and cooperation, not on individual greed and self-interest. Like many of today's left-wing leaders, Correa has abandoned the atheism and cultural liberalism of previous generations of socialists. The constitution explicitly outlaws abortion and gay marriage, saying that life begins from conception, but also encourages birth control and family planning.

Most importantly, in a largely agricultural country, is that Correa's new constitution opens the way not just to greater government control over the economy, but also to greater government control over the distribution of land. It outlaws large estates, dedicates the country to the goal of land reform and redistribution to peasants. It declares that all Ecuadorians have the right to free health care, clean water, and education through high school. And it calls for state control of sectors like telecommunications, water, petroleum, and infrastructure. Perhaps most inrtiguing of all, it says that 'Nature' is a juridical person with her own rights and needs.

All in all, this shows that Correa is simultaneously more sincere, more radical and more courageous than many of us had imagined. God bless him and his plans to reform Ecuador and turn it into a blazing fortress of justice.