Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Bermuda Triangle is for Real!, Part II

As much as I would like believe that my plane got lost in the Bermuda Triangle, a little research on the interwebs has led me to the conclusion that, like pretty much every other urban legend or conspiracy theory, the Bermuda Triangle is an invention of book authors and other folks who are out to make a buck. There simply is no empirical evidence (aside from my personal experience!) suggesting that there is anything special about the Bermuda Triangle. Plus, there are all kinds of truly cacamamey ideas about aliens abducting ship captains and the like. What the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon basically boils down to, in my opinion, is that flying an airplane long distances over open water is no walk in the park. With zero land-based markers to use when navigating, it is easy to get disoriented and lost. And if navigation equipment malfunctions, as they are wont to do, then a pilot is in deep trouble. The Caribbean has a high density of air and ship traffic. This leads to a high number of accidents.

As a side note, there is a rather fascinating story about a squadron of fighter pilots getting lost over the Florida keys during a training mission and having to ditch into the ocean, never to be found. The piecing together of what might have happened to “Flight 19,” as it is now called, is worth checking out.

My Bermuda Triangle experience aside, I’ve been struck recently by the number of people I meet who buy into conspiracy theories. The most popular is the 9/11 theory that it was a missile that hit the pentagon and not an airplane. Another one I heard recently was from a Minnesota resident who tried to convince me that Paul Wellstone’s plane was taken down by a U.S. military fighter jet on orders from Dick Cheney. This was supposedly done because of Wellstone’s upcoming re-election and his strong opposition to Gulf War II. With all due respect to Mr. Wellstone, I’m hard pressed to believe that Cheney and Co. were really all that afraid of one Senator from Minnesota, however outspoken. The war train was well on its way to leaving the station at that point and Mr. Wellstone was not going to be able to stop it.

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they seem plausible at first glance and are usually impossible to definitively prove as false. (You can’t prove that something did NOT happen.) A useful way to immunize yourself from silly theories is to think about the conspiracy theories out there that you know are just plain wrong. My favorite is the idea, popular in the Middle East, that 9/11 was a conspiracy of the Israeli government. Didn’t you know that many of the Jews who worked in the twin towers got phone calls that morning not to go in to work? Clearly preposterous. But a lot of people believe in it for the simple reason that it fits into their framework for how the world works, plus it is impossible to know that, for sure, those calls were NOT made. The pentagon missile theory and the Paul Wellstone-Dick Cheney theory are popular here in the United States for the same reasons. Casting Cheney or the CIA as the evil doers fits nicely into the framework for how many people have looked at the world over the last 8 years. And hey, you can never know for sure that Cheney didn’t give that order.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Coinage: Gracism

A more extensive SXSW post is waiting in the wings, but in the meantime, its preeminent coinage: gracism, which means positive (or "good") racism. Still mostly racist, which is why "racist" gets the lion's share of the portmanteau.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Bermuda Triangle is for Real, People!

I was in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago celebrating my cousin Philippe’s wedding. On the flight home, my plane got lost in the Bermuda Triangle. No joking. Here’s what happened:

The American Airlines flight I was on from San Juan to JFK started off with some massive turbulence during the accent caused by some rough tropical weather near San Juan. Once we were up above most of the bumps, the plane seemed to continue to maneuver around more that usual, like we couldn't get our proper bearings. I figured we were just avoiding more choppy air. But then, about 90 minutes into a roughly 3.5 hour flight, the plane takes a very serious and prolonged left turn. A few minutes later, the captain announces over the intercom that “two of the three navigation systems on the aircraft have… ceased to function properly, so we will be flying back to San Juan.” We descended to 10,000 feet, which is the altitude at which a plane flies when it is in an emergency-type situation. And off we went towards what the pilot assured us was San Juan. But looking out the window there was absolutely nothing to see, only the deep dark ocean below. No land, no boats, no markers of any sort.

Naturally, my mind went to that unhappy place where I started imagining that the pilot was lying to us and that, in fact, we had NO working navigation equipment whatsoever and we were flying off into the wide blue yonder until we would eventually run out of fuel and crash into the ocean. I am usually a skeptic when it comes to urban legends like The Bermuda Triangle. But when suddenly thrust into a situation in which I am on an airplane with malfunctioning navigation equipment flying over the middle of nowhere Atlantic Ocean, I couldn’t help but think that maybe we really could be caught up in some sort of magnetic irregularity that occurs only in the Caribbean Atlantic. I happen to be an avid watcher of the TV show LOST, which no doubt contributed to my wild imaginings. Adding to my sorry state was the fact that I am very much afraid of flying even with all three navigation systems functioning properly. Needless to say, I was shitting bricks.

To make a very long story a tad shorter, the plane did land safely back in San Juan after going through that same awful storm on the way down that we had gone through on the up. But I didn’t care about another dose of terrible turbulence, I was just happy to see land and still have fuel in the tank. We then sat on the tarmac for three hours while they fixed the navigation systems. And then, after enduring a near rebellion by the passengers when we were informed that we would not be getting any food while we waited (eventually they gave us some sandwiches), and after waiting yet another hour for the crew to clean out the lavatory because some stressed out nicotine addict decided to smoke a cigarette, nearly getting himself arrested, we took off again and landed at JFK after an uneventful flight (aside from the third encounter with that storm hovering over San Juan). I took off (the first time) from San Juan at 10:30am New York time. I landed at JFK at 11pm, having never left the navigationally challenged plane.

So do I now believe in the Bermuda Triangle? Stay tuned for a post on my thought about the believability of urban legends and conspiracy theories.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Kristof and Sudan

Two weeks ago, The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir of Sudan, who responded by expelling many of the humanitarian organization that provide life-giving necessities to impoverished and war-ravaged Sudanese citizens. Here we are, a mere two weeks after the arrest warrant, and there is nary a peep in the press about Sudan or the ICC. Bashir remains recalcitrant and comfortably in power. What has the ICC action accomplished? The short answer is: nothing good, aside from making human rights activists (and Nicholas Kristof) feel better about themselves. We “tried our best.”

I may be too harsh in that indictment, but I have to say it really angers me when sensible people like Mr. Kristof allow their emotional response to atrocious behavior and their naïve faith in the power of the idea of human rights to cloud their judgment about what is the prudent action to take for the sake of the Sudanese people.

Let’s consider the actions Kristof proposes that the United States take to further pressure Bashir in the wake of the ICC arrest warrant. From his March 4th column:
The first step is to insist that aid groups be reinstated immediately to prevent this genocide in slow motion. A second step could be to destroy one of Mr. Bashir’s military planes with a warning that if he takes his genocide to a new level by depriving Darfuris of food and medical care, he will lose the rest of his air force.
Okay. Consider the “insistence” made. And when Bashir shrugs his shoulders in response to that insistence, what next? Well, bomb Sudan, of course!

No way in hell is Obama going to bomb Sudan. For starters, Sudan is a Muslim country—with oil! Bombing Sudan is not going to jibe too well with Obama’s carefully planned PR offensive in the Muslim world. And I’m no military expert, but I feel pretty confident that the generals in the Pentagon will not look kindly upon the idea of bombing even a single measly little plane in Sudan. What happens after you bomb one plane and Bashir doesn’t budge? Bomb 10 planes. Bashir still in power? What then, invade Sudan? Where does it end? And there is also the fragile peace in southern Sudan to consider when mulling the idea. Kristof is simply not thinking clearly about this issue.

But I don’t want to single out Kristof. He is only too typical of the short sighted thinking that goes on in human rights circles. At the core of the human rights community’s myopia is an obsession with justice that often comes at the expense of stability and peace and welfare for those we are trying to help.

The human rights movement was born out of the revolutionary—and noble—idea that individuals have a direct relationship with international law that is unmediated by the layering of a sovereign state. This revolutionary idea is championed by people who, not coincidentally, possess what could be called the revolutionary spirit. It is that spirit which drives Kristof and company recklessly and unthinkingly into the painful truths of reality. It is that revolutionary spirit that must be tempered, for the sake of the people of Sudan and for the greater cause of human rights.

Bashir has been in power for a long time now. I’m afraid that the issuing of an ICC arrest warrant plus some scolding and even some bombing will not change that painful reality.

UPDATE: in today's NYtimes there is an op-ed decrying the idea that Obama might talk to the Taliban. It documents many of the truly horrific deeds the Taliban perpetrate. But it also makes a slip up and reveals what lies at the core of the argument against talking with the Taliban. (This is also, I believe, what is at the core of the argument for bombing Sudan). The author says "And when I heard that the Taliban proceeded to shut down nearly 200 Swat Valley schools — well, it’s been keeping me up at night." Memo to those who don't want to talk to the Taliban and to those who want to bomb Sudan: it's not about YOU! Whether or not you can sleep at night is neither here nor there. The only relevant questions are: 1.) what is best, under the admittedly poor circumstances, for the Afghan or Pakistani or Sudanese people and 2.) what is best for the interests of the United States.

If talking to the Taliban or refraining from bombing Sudan will result in less death and more stability, then that is what should be done. Please don't talk to me about your insomnia. I'm sorry, but I don't care.

Jack and Diet

What are you saying to the world when you order a Jack and Diet Coke? It's a contradiction in a cup. Still, I will sometimes drink them, with an admittedly self-deceived eye towards, of all things, health. Taking this dumbness into account, along with the fact that, while it's no apple martini, it's a "girly" drink, here are two possible slang names:

Jack and Diane

Princess Jack (Diet --> Di --> Princess)
(and here I don't mean "princess" in the titular sense, i.e. that Jack himself is a princess, but rather in the adjectival sense, that this is the princess version of Jack, in the way that dungeness crab is a version of crab.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unedited Jim Cramer on The Daily Show

This interview is incredible. Stewart is a master, and credit to Cramer for agreeing to it and sticking through it with an even keel.

I do wish every now and then that Stewart would tell his audience to just relax with the clapping. Seems a little mobby.

Over the past few years, The Daily Show seems to have drifted away from the substantive satire of its heyday and towards the more abstract satire of the now more zeitgeisty Colbert Report. It's a pity, partly because its form doesn't lend itself to that kind of humor, but mostly because TDS is at its best when it mixes humor with a little bit of wonk. I can't help but think of this when Stewart holds Cramer's feet to the fire regarding where CNBC stands on the content vs. entertainment spectrum. Of course, whenever Stewart is asked about any sort of greater responsibility his show has to the public, he insists that it's merely a comedy show. Whether that's said with a wink or as a cop-out, I don't buy it. I'm not saying TDS is making the same compromise on the spectrum as CNBC, or is even in the vicinity, but maybe this CNBC experience will make them want to return home.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

NPR on the EFCA

I just had one of those "driveway moments" you hear about so much during NPR fundraising weeks. I was listening to an All Things Considered report on the Employee Free Choice Act, one of my favorite acts and just reintroduced into Congress, and even though I had already arrived home, I couldn't tear my ears away from the radio. Because the report troubled me.

As I explained in the post linked to above, the EFCA proposes a bypass of the National Labor Relations Board union certification process - instead, employees can just sign certification "cards" and if a majority wants to form a union, there you go. Proponents believe this is a necessary improvement due to employer abuses of the NLRB election process. There are plenty of good faith arguments available to opponents (challenging the allegations of abuse, say, or preferring an alternative such as sanctions against abusive employers), but it's not their primary objection. No, they "worry" that workers will get strongarmed by unions because of a lack of secret ballot, and out of concern for the workers oppose the EFCA.

It's fairly and rather obviously galling. But I knew that already, and it was not the reason I was dismayed into staying in my car for a couple minutes. That happened because NPR seems to buy this crock. When Michele Norris asks Ron Elving why businesses oppose the act, he just parrots back the patronizing secret ballot nonsense (and it is nonsense) instead of simply saying "They're businesses! Of course they're against anything that will help workers unionize!" Ok, realistically, he could have just said businesses believe they will lose a lot of money if they have to deal with a more unionized workforce. Also troubling was that there was also no mention of proponents reasons for the bill whatsoever - not even couched as allegations of abuse, which would have been fine by me.

The headline of the story was that the EFCA is launching a lobbying "spendathon" in the coming weeks. Thinking about this saddens me further, because if this is the story from ostensibly non-corporate NPR, what chance is there that any other outlet will call out the opponents on their silly argument? Furthermore, I think the ugly tone of the conversation about the mortgage bailout indicates a rough road ahead for pitching the EFCA during a recession. If only one of its Senate co-sponsors during the last Congress were now sitting in the Oval Office! Oh wait, one of them is. There may be hope yet.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dinga Dinga Dee

Look, Dan and Peter aren't the only ones who post things relating to India.

This is a promotional video created by Rafael, an Israeli government owned/operated defense contractor, trying to get India to gatt up with them. Please also note that the performers are dancing around missiles, and that Rafael may soon be sued by Shakira.

Monday, March 2, 2009

If You Would Be So Kind

To Angeleno would-be Pickle commenters: No Cussing Week is now officially observed in Los Angeles County the first week of March. Please comport yourselves accordingly.

What About Bobby, Episode 2

Luvh felt unmoved by "superficial fun stuff" as well as by identity-based objections (that Jindal is a "coconut," and also that he's a misleading representative of the South Asian community).

My objections are policy-based, but those are also probably the most well-voiced objections on your basic "South Asians Against Bobby Jindal" page. So the question is, why couch your policy objection in your ethnicity or his?

My primary policy objection is that Jindal is a quite stereotypical "shrink the government/privatize everything" guy. But that issue doesn't seem to have much resonance with South Asian-ness, from either side of the debate.

This is not true of two other areas of policy objections. One is immigration. Jindal votes for things like fences and diverting military forces to border protection, and he is rated 100% by U.S. Border Control. To be sure, South Asian-ness is front and center for this one, but in a peculiar way. At first glance, it seems awfully Clarence Thomasy for a first generation American to want to pull up the ladder behind him, so to speak, but that analogy, though seductive, doesn't exactly apply; it's more like he's pulling up a different ladder than the one he climbed.

As can be gleaned from the Rakhe family dinner table, immigration policy is a thorny area for South Asian Americans. It's hugely difficult for South Asians to immigrate. Visas are tightly capped, and the only way to do it illegally is to overstay a visitor visa, but the Man is onto that. Consequently, my family, like many other South Asian American families, has lots of relatives in the motherland who wanted to come here but couldn't. Naturally, this is a recipe for resentment and vehemently held anti-illegal immigration positions.

But I, and plenty of South Asian Americans, don't feel this way. I see the vehement anti-immigration position as a striking failure of imagination and empathy, especially when Jindal sponsors bills to have government services offered in English only. Yes, it just so happens that almost 100% of South Asian immigrants to the United States speaks English, but is it that hard to think of how difficult things would be if you can't? You're South Asian!

I think it comes down to a dispute over assimilation and breaking out of quasi-tribal thinking. And for that reason, when the audience of the Facebook group is actually fellow South Asian Americans, I do think it's appropriate and important to couch my objections to Jindal in terms of our shared ethnicity.

The second policy area is centered around Jindal's extreme religiosity, but I think in this case objections are best left UNcouched in ethnicity, or rather, in this case, once-shared religion. In fact, pairing an objection to, as an example, Jindal's curiously strong anti-choice position with a dismissive "no faith like the converted" sentiment, or worse, an embittered "why are you so Christian?" sentiment robs the objection of a lot of substance, and in fact might make it boil down to the charge that Jindal is a race-traitor or an infidel, which is not where I want to be.

That being said, I think I'll join the group and just be vigilant about rock throwing.