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Hamilton has Big M. In Worcester I've been shopping at Big Y. And apparently while I was in Australia, I could have gone to BigW.
Screws Put On Saudis To Tackle Al-Qaeda Financiers

The United States is pressuring Saudi Arabia to crack down on terrorist financiers within 90 days or face unilateral American action to bring the suspects to justice.

The plan, devised before the recent row over allegations of Saudi involvement in terrorist financing, comes amid growing concern among some congressional leaders and US allies that the Administration has been unwilling to press Saudi Arabia for action for fear of alienating a key Arab ally ahead of a possible war with Iraq.

The officials would not say what US action might entail. But they said the US would first present the Saudis with intelligence and evidence against people and businesses suspected of backing al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, coupled with a demand they be put out of business. In return, one official said, the Administration will say: "We don't care how you deal with the problem; just do it or we will" after 90 days.

The ramifications of this are unclear, but if the government follows through, it will show some definite moral conviction and could even remove something from the list of liberal complaints against Bush. Of course, if the US action turns out to be putting King Fahd on the administration's hit list after Saddam, things might go downhill. Although I think a slap on the wrist is the more likely direction for the administration to err.
I just noticed one of the exciting features of BloggerPro:
"Better Archiving. We have an overhauled archiving engine that not only solves the dreaded "missing archives" problem, it gives various date-formatting options, as well as the choice to archive daily."

So basically, they have a fix for the dreaded nullpointer error that some of us have encountered, but they're only implementing it for people who pay them.
Low-Income Taxpayers: New Meat For The Right

Prepare yourself for the latest cause of the political right: You are about to hear a great deal about how working Americans at the bottom of the economy are not paying enough in taxes.

You'd think the tax-cutters on that page {Wall Street Journal editorial] would be happy with a policy begun under Ronald Reagan to lift the income tax burden from Americans struggling to get by on modest paychecks. But no, it seems that because of our tax structure, the favorite causes of supply-siders -- big tax cuts for wealthy Americans and investors -- are just not popular enough. "While we would opt for a perfect world in which everybody paid far less in taxes," the editors write, "our increasingly two-tiered tax system is undermining the political consensus for cutting taxes at all."

I think this would be a politically disastrous move for the Right -- the stereotype of the rich voting Republican and the poor voting Democrat, while true in a general sense, causes people to underestimate the number of poor conservatives out there. Low-income people who vote Republican because of social issues (school prayer, abortion, etc.) may think twice if the party is proposing to raise taxes on their already meager income (and this effect would be stronger on them than the reverse policy would be on rich Democrats, because they can more easily afford higher taxes and can look at it as a form of charity). Taking up a "tax the poor" position would play right into the hands of Democrats if they adopt the policy -- much touted in the blog world -- of ditching the highly regressive payroll tax and making up the difference by making the income tax more progressive.

But what I find interesting about the WSJ's rationale is how Marxist it sounds. In Marxist theory, the shift to communism is brought about by the contradictions within capitalism. The proletariat is so ground down by the system that they rise up against it. So extreme Marxists oppose policies like welfare and social security that alleviate the worst pains of capitalism, because they ease the pressure for revolution. The "tax the poor" plan works similarly -- we have to keep the hurt on the poor so that they'll support us with their votes when we want to get rid of the (taxation) system.
CalPundit suggests dropping the Fifth Amendment (right not to bear witness against yourself), because "If forced confessions and star chamber proceedings are outlawed -- as they are today -- why should suspects not be required to account for themselves in open court?"

I think the Fifth Amendment is important in keeping one prosecution from turning into another. Imagine, for example, someone's on trial for murder and the prosecutor demands to know where he was on the night of November 21. Now imagine the guy was nowhere near the scene of the murder on that night, because he was visiting his mistress. Should he be foreced to confess to this other wrongdoing because he's been mistakenly charged with something else?


In my continuing quest to bring you the weird side of the Microsoft Word spell checker, today it suggested I replace a word with "homothetic." But "homothetic" is not recognized by or Merriam-Webster. But they do recognize the word that Word thought was wrong -- "nomothetic."

[Update: Apparently "Two figures are homothetic if they are related by an expansion or geometric contraction," according to MathWorld.]
Telescope To Challenge Moon Doubters

Conspiracy theorists, you have a problem. In an effort to silence claims that the Apollo moon landings were faked, European scientists are to use the world's newest and largest telescope to see whether the spacecraft are still on the lunar surface.

And then they'll claim the telescope photos were faked. Heck, you could take some of these folks to the moon and they'd claim you just got them disoriented and took them to a secret fake-moon bunker with secret anti-gravity technology to make them feel lighter.
Are We Protecting Secrets Or Removing Safeguards?

The central trend in environmental protection today is managing information both to expedite regulatory processes and to provide the government and public with new levels of insight and participation. In balancing openness and security, neither advocates for the right to know nor those who stress security have a lock on patriotism. While no one wants to provide a blueprint for terrorists intent on disrupting our nation, the presumption should be one of continued openness, unless a real risk can be demonstrated. The protection of our nation's environment and public health -- through open access to information about toxic risks -- has become an essential American practice.

This article makes the point I was going for in my latest commentary in much clearer fashion. The benefits of freedom of information are greater than the risks for all but the most sensitive data. Terrorists and others who have dedicated their lives to destroying the US will have the time and resources to dig up the information they need. But concerned citizens do not. Hiding our weaknesses just delays terrorists' plotting. Openly acknowledging our weaknesses allows us to pessure government and corporations to eliminate them.

22.11.02 is getting pretty excited about the idea that moderate Republicans could pull a Jeffords II and hand control of the Senate back to the Democrats. But I think this is a non-starter of an idea for several reasons. Most obviously, it won't ever happen. Jeffords' defection was nearly unprecedented, so to expect three Senators to do it at once is unlikely in the extreme. But if it did happen, it would be likely to be disastrous for the new Democratic majority. The howling from the right when Jeffords switched is nothing compared with the reaction to three Senators doing it again. And Jeffords couldn't even be accused of compromising national security, as he switched before September 11. Regaining control through party switches would leave the Democrats open to accusations of sneaky underhanded ways of gaining power, a charge they're already trying to shake after Gore's refusal to concede in 2000, the Jeffords incident, and alleged voter fraud in South Dakota. Conventional wisdom (on both sides of the aisle) says the election was a vote of confidence in the Republican Party, so switches would be cast as a betrayal of that mandate. This image would be impossible to shake if Democrats take the advice of Steve Cobble, who encouraged Jeffords' switch, to offer leadership positions as enticements.

It would be politically disastrous for the switchers as well. Vermont's independent-mindedness cushioned Jeffords' loss of party support (though the proof will be in his next reelection campaign). But Snowe, Chafee, and Specter can ill afford to lose Republican backing. The White House would no doubt hand-pick a challenger from the right, while Democrats would nominate one of their own out of distrust and the switcher's continuing moderate conservatism. The switchers would have few resources to draw on in resistance.

What would make more sense is to encourage Republican moderates to nominate someone like John McCain as majority leader. McCain is a diehard Republican (a dissappointing reality for all those on the left who insist on thinking he's going to go independent or become a Democrat) and a leader within the party, which would make him appealing to those who desired moderation but were leery of anything that seemed like an overturning of the Republican majority. He's also liberals' favorite Republican, making him far preferrable to Trent Lott, who is expected to get the job without question. McCain has a real history of bipartisan work, which would be a refreshing change from the partisan extremism of the last few decades' congressional leaders of either party. And he has the guts to challenge the White House, rather than letting party loyalty turn Congress into W's rubber stamp committee.
Indian Royalties Case Official Retires

A top Interior Department official who a federal judge said deceived him about the agency's failure to reform a trust fund for Native Americans announced his retirement yesterday.

Neal A. McCaleb, 67, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said he was proud of a 35-year track record of trying to build "real and lasting economic opportunities for American Indian people."

But McCaleb said that his efforts during the Bush administration were hampered by a long-running class-action lawsuit filed by Indian plaintiffs to secure an accounting of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from Native American lands held in trust by the government. The suit began before his appointment to the department.

"Unfortunately, the litigation has taken first priority in too many activities, thus distracting attention from the other important goals that could provide more long-term benefits for Indian Country," said McCaleb, who will leave Dec. 31.

Yeah, those darn Indians keep mucking everything up by trying to make the US government keep its promises. I mean, why waste your time trying to reclaim the money the government stole from you when the government could be spending its time doing other things?


This week's commentary and comic now online: What is the Bush Administration Hiding? and White House Christmas.
Another year, another survey showing Americans don't know squat about geography. But there are some neat little tidbits behind the main story. Like the fact that more Americans than Europeans from various countries knew about El Niño. Probably because it's in the media over here so often, whereas it doesn't directly impact Europe, so their papers don't carry the story. And Mr. Plessl would be happy to hear that one of the questions with the best scores worldwide is Which continent has the highest percentage of its population infected with HIV?

I wish they gave you the percent who guessed each wrong answer. I want to know how many people thought Mexico was in Australia.


My commentaries and comics for the Scarlet so far this year are now online.


It's frustrating to see all our government officials lining up to support things like the Pledge and the "In God We Trust" motto that are blatantly unconstitutional. So it's tempting to hope the Supreme Court will take a case and strike all that nonsense down. But such a thing would be counterproductive, I think, because this country simply isn't ready for the concept of true religious freedom. You can't force a society to change against its will, no matter how just your cause. If the Supreme Court were to overturn the Pledge and motto, I can absolutely guarantee that be the end of that year we'd have a Constitutional Amendment making the US an officially Christian nation forever.
Postal Service To Put Up Motto Nationwide

Just recently, Frank Williamson was thwarted in his bid to display posters depicting the national motto, "In God We Trust," at Montgomery County post offices. Now, not only will he see the phrase in his local county; it will be placed in all 38,000 post offices across the country.

While he initially paid $80 to buy a few posters for his local post offices, the self-supporting U.S. Postal Service will now foot the bill for the national effort.

On Friday, Williamson received word from authorities in Washington that the U.S. Postal Service designed its own poster depicting the national motto and would cover the cost to distribute it to every post office in the country.

This is what they're wasting our stamp money on? I'm tempted to start writing anti-motto messages on all the envelopes I send (not that communicating my anger to the mail-sorting lackeys would accomplish anything).


Penn. Bill To Require Pledge In Schools

I'm glad we'll be teaching our kids that patriotism is a chore that consists mostly of rote recitation of unconstitutional liturgies. Seriously, does this benefit anyone besides the lawmakers that can go feel all self-righteous about how they made a token gesture instead of finding actual solutions to actual problems facing the state?
The Loyal Opposition: Lessons From Afghanistan

One Herat resident quoted in the report said, "[Afghan warlord] Ismail Khan and his followers ... their hands are bloody. For them, killing a bird is the same as killing a man." Yet when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited with Ismail Khan last spring, he called the warlord "an appealing person.... He’s thoughtful, measured and self-confident."

In many ways, Afghanistan seems to be sliding back to pre-Taliban conditions. And it's likely to get worse as the world turns its attention to Iraq and the early outpouring of aid dries up. And as the Guardian reports, if one of the many attempts to assassinate Hamid Karzai succeeds, the new Afghan government is toast.

The two most important ingredients in breeding terrorism are a failed government and an absolutist rallying cry. Combine this with the possible outpouring of Islamist anti-Americanism as a result of the war on Iraq, and you have a recipe for a return to the Taliban. The Taliban itself is not likely to come back any time soon, as their name is anathema to most everybody. But a conservative Islamic group with an anti-American agenda, and an openness to harboring terrorists, is not out of the question.


The readings for the History of Geographic Thought class that all first-year PhD students have to take come from a great variety of different books and journals, none of which are provided for us. As an alternative to everyone taking their reading list to the library and hunting down hundreds of sources, there is a set of photocopied readings passed down from class to class. I discovered today that someone inserted into one an ad for WOGAN, Worcester's branch of the anti-globalization movement. This is a step up from the last local ad I found inserted into class materials. In high school my world cultures textbook contained a bookmark with the slogan of a local band: "Dead girls don't say no."


Uzbeks Rewrite History

The Uzbek authorities are rewriting the history of their country's relations with the Russians to such an extent that independent scholars fear it may undermine ties between the two countries.

Uzbek president Islam Karimov told parliament in August that "the shadow of the USSR", which continued to weigh down on parts of Uzbek society, was a major reason for its problems. He hailed the new generation growing up free of "the totalitarian heritage" of the Soviet Union.

"Having visited one of the schools, I asked adolescents, if they knew who was Brezhnev? They answered, 'No, we don't'. Then I asked them, 'Who is Gorbachev?' They again said that they didn't know. And I told them that they are doing great," Karimov told parliament.

The Uzbek authorities are right about one thing. The legacy of Russian and Soviet rule is holding Uzbekistan back. An economy based on cotton monoculture, abysmal health standards in Karakalpakistan (the region near the Aral Sea), state control of farming, and an authoritarian government made up of ex-Soviet cronies are all crippling the nation. It would seem like the solution would be things like economic reform and democratization. But clearly, blaming the Russians and ignoring their past is the way to go.


skippy reccommends Eric Alterman's new book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias And The News. I haven't read it, but I can guess I'd probably agree with much of what it says, insofar as it debunks the "liberal media" myth. As far as I can tell, the media's primary bias is not located on the political spectrum. The media is biased toward personalities, simplistic confrontations, swallowing spin instead of doing real investigation, and reporting the same stories that every other media outlet is reporting.

But I have to take issue with a point made in Amazon's review of the book:
The contemporary argument over media bias features just two points of view. The right argues that the media is biased toward leftists. The center argues, in the words of "Dean" David Broder of The Washington Post, "There just isn't enough ideology in the average reporter to fill a thimble." The idea that the media might, for reasons of ownership, economics, class or outside pressure, actually be more sympathetic to conservative causes than to liberal ones is widely considered to be simply beyond the pale of civilized discourse.

Whoever wrote this has clearly not paid any attention to the Left recently. The theme of "the media is the tool of corporate elites" is as common among the anti-WTO set as the "liberal bias" argument is on the Right. The lecturer I mentioned in my last post, for example, made a big deal out of the conservative slant of the mainstream media, listing the New York Times in the same breath as the Wall Street Journal. I suppose it's understandable that the reviewer could have missed this, though, since the mainstream media rarely pays much attention to these accusations of conservative media bias.
I went to a lecture today on the anti-WTO-et-al movement. The speaker didn't say much that was very new (or very specific). There was a long question-and-answer period afterward. What struck me was that almost nobody questioned his overall attitude toward international free trade policy, despite it being such a controversial issue. Most questions were along the lines of "how should we begin fighting to make the WTO change its policies?" There were only two people who seemed to really question his conclusions -- one person who thought he wasn't anti-capitalist enough, and one (me) whose carefully-prepared question was based on a misunderstanding of an earlier statement about his feelings toward the World Court. I suspect he wouldn't get this kind of a reception at Colgate.
The usual Biblical analogy that's made to Marxism is the millennium. According to Marxist theory, capitalism is a self-destructive system that will eventually collapse on itself. Then the proletariat (led by Marxist intellectual planners in the Leninist version) can usher in an age of peace and prosperity that will put an end to the suffering of previous economic systems. Likewise, the Book of Revelation says that the rule of Earth by humans will eventually self-destruct, at which point Jesus will come and begin his 1000-year reign of peace. This reading is sympathetic to Marxism to the extent that Revelation reflects what Marxists think will happen (though it may be less sympathetic in the eyes of those who think Revelation is a fantasy).

But I think Noah's flood may be a better analogy. In Noah's time, the system was irredeemably corrupted. And like in Revelation, God resorted to wiping the slate clean, in order to reconstruct the system anew. But the notable thing about the Flood is that it failed. Noah's family was the best eight people that could be found. They rejected the sin of their day and wanted to build a new society on the clean earth they received. But before too long, humanity relapsed into corruption again. The idea that you could wipe out a bad system and start over from scratch proved not to be feasible.


Is Jesus' Language At Death's Door?

In the high mountains and plains of northern Iraq, a region above which U.S jets enforce the Kurdish "no-fly" zone, an ancient, minority Christian community still speaks the language once spoken by Jesus Christ.

Human rights groups say the Assyrians — like the Kurds — have suffered under Saddam's systematic attempts to "Arabize" the north, a process that includes driving ethnic minorities from their lands and seizing some of their properties, especially in the strategic, oil-rich northern region bordering the Kurdish enclave.

"The Iraqi government has also forced ethnic minorities such as the Assyrians, the Kurds and the Turkomen to sign 'national correction forms' that require them to renounce their ethnic identities and declare themselves to be Arabs," says Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch. "In a way, it is a form of ethnic cleansing by clearing an area of its ethnic minorities."

- via Stand Down

I'm not a huge fan of the hook ABC hung this story on -- are the Assyrians and their language only important because of the Jesus connection? But it's still important to draw attention to how convoluted the ethnic situation in the mideast really is -- it's not "us vs them" or "us and some of them vs the rest" by a long shot. I feel bad for overlooking the Assyrians in the commentary I wrote on the Kurds for this week's Scarlet.


Goodbye To All That

The "vital center" strategy has landed the [Democratic] party in the mushy middle, pitifully trolling around for illusive suburbanites, astonished that its subtle rhetorical dance wasn't enchanting busy voters. The middle should never be a destination for a political party. The middle is a byproduct of the tug-of-war of ideas. Politics has been trending conservative because the right has been tugging harder than the left. Political territory has to be created through argument and combat. It's not static space. Civil rights activists understood this when they started out in the 1940s. The founders of the modern environmental movement did, too, in the late 1960s, just as America's founders did almost 300 years ago.

- via Electrolite

This is an important point, which unfortunately isn't fully elaborated in the article. It points out the flaw in trying to apply (often quantitative) systems thinking to social and ecological problems: there are no independent variables. You can't assume one factor will stay static and then look at how other factors adjust to it. Democratic strategists were wrong because they assumed that the political opinions of the electorate were a given, and they could then adapt their message accordingly. But radical movements are often wrong as well, because they assume that the electorate will shift to accomodate their views.

The world would be a boring place if we could line up everything in a nice chain of causality, where each level adapts itself to the conditions dictated by the previous. Instead, we have everything constantly adjusting to everything else, only to find that everything else has re-adjusted to it.


Global Warmers Admit No Solutions

No treaty will prevent global warming, says a key scientist who believes manmade climate change is happening. That's bad news for the United Nations' bureaucrats who are meeting in New Dehli to conclude a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


On the other hand, Wigley et al.'s gloomy assessment of regulatory and technology-based solutions might just encourage policy makers to pay more attention to the junk science underlying the fantasy of manmade global warming.

The author misreads a study as saying that regulation isn't going to be enough to stop global warming. Then he uses that to demonstrate that the idea of global warming is based on junk science. Global warming is to big to stop, therefore it doesn't exist? Apparently any study that contradicts the mainstream view of global warming is proof of the opposite position, regardless of the actual content of the study. You'd think someone who prides himself on debunking junk science would be careful about unfounded leaps of logic like that. This may be more evidence for my theory that the amount a person claims to be objectively looking at facts and cutting through spin is directly proportional to the degree to which they're trying to prove an ideological point (this story appeared on Fox "we report, you decide" News -- coincidence?).


Apparently Tony is a little bitter about his loss. I just got an email from him declaring his opponent, Luis Gutierrez, to be a "confederate and sympathizer" of the Fuerzas Armadas de Revolución Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican terrorist group.


Evangelical Campaign Focuses On Environmental Awareness

The Rev. Jim Ball has come up with a question he hopes will make millions of church-going Americans think twice before buying another SUV.

It's: "What would Jesus drive?"

Ball, a native of Baton Rouge, La., directs the Evangelical Environmental Network, a "biblically orthodox" nonprofit working with groups including the large relief organization World Vision International and the International Bible Society. The organization is launching a barrage of ads, mostly on Christian radio stations and cable television, urging consumers and automakers to start thinking of gas mileage as an ethical statement, noting that auto emissions are significantly contributing to climate change.

I think the Bible's pretty clear on this one: Jesus would drive a donkey. So then the question becomes, to which part of the donkey would you attach your "Abortion is Murder" bumper sticker?

I also have a serious observation here. The polarized view of politics tends to see the Christian Right as simply the most extreme version of conservatism, an image boosted by the Christian Right's disproportionate power in setting the Republican agenda. But that ignores the real complexity of the Republican coalition. Granted, the polarized view shapes people's political opinions, especially on issues they don't care as much about -- you become more sympathetic to certain positions depending on if their label of "conservative" or "liberal" matches your own. But different types of conservatives approach things differently, so they come to different conclusions. For a while we've been seeing how Christian conservatives have been coming to different conclusions than hawks on the question of war. And here we have an example of them coming to a different conclusion than the business interests.


A month or so ago, Anthony "Tony" Lopez-Cisneros contacted me, asking if I would join his House of Representatives campaign in Illinois' 4th district. He found me because of a commentary I wrote a while back criticizing Bill Clinton for pardoning several Puerto Rican terrorists. Tony didn't seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer, since if he read a couple more of my commentaries he'd have noticed my political views tend to be pretty much the inverse of his own. And if he dug a little deeper he'd find that I didn't live in Illinois. I didn't reply, but he put me on his campaign mailing list, so I received periodic updates as well as inexplicable blank emails.

Alas, with 88% of precincts reporting, it looks like Democrat Luis Gutierrez has squashed poor Tony, 79%-16%. At least he can say he beat out the Libertarian.
Army Fires Arabic Linguists For Being Gay

Despite a shortage of qualified Arabic linguists in the intelligence and defense fields, the Army has fired a significant number of trained language specialists from the military's Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California because they are gay.

- via CalPundit

I knew they tested people who were joining the military, but I didn't know they had a maximum IQ limit for the folks in charge.
Atheist Says He's Been Booted From Boy Scouts

A teenage atheist said he has been kicked out of the Boy Scouts for refusing to declare a belief in a higher power.

Darrell Lambert said he was told of the decision earlier Monday by the Chief Seattle Council, the Scouts' regional governing body.

"Am I bitter? No. Disappointed? Yeah," he said. "We're in the 21st century. Our country was founded on religious freedom, and the Boy Scouts of America are still discriminating."

Lambert said he plans to appeal the decision within the Scouting council within the required 60 days. He is a top-ranked Eagle Scout with 37 merit badges.

So in other words, nobody won. Lambert was kicked out of an organization that meant a lot to him and stripped of an honor he had earned. The council avoided having to mature and learn to respect others' beliefs. And Scouting as a whole lost a good Scout.
More thoughts on the Goddess myth: it's interesting what Goddess writers tend to do with the idea of parenthood. They generally start from the assumption -- borrowed from early cultural evolutionary theory -- that the earliest societies (as well as the primitive people of today) were matrilineal because they didn't understand the father's role in reproduction. Women were the center of social organization -- and thus held both political and religious power -- because of this. Any power that men exercised was at the whim of their priestess-consort (interestingly similar to the position of mideval queens). The emergence of patrilieneal systems was then a plot by men to seize power for themselves. The concept of marital fidelity, enforced by strict laws governing women's promiscuity, was designed to ensure knowledge of paternity and thus make a patrilineal system possible.

I can understand these writers' critique of patriarchy, in particular regarding the double standard for fidelity. But the implicit praise of matrilineal systems seems odd. Though these writers always claim that matriarchy is a benevolent, gender-equitable system, the treatment of parenthood has the marks of patriarchy-in-reverse. The underlying theme seems to be a distrust of men, as if given any knowledge of their heirs men would seize power. The women of these Goddess cultures seem to guard their special privileges jealously, engaging in ritual promiscuity in order to make sure that paternity would never become an issue, thus enforcing a parthenogenic myth, a myth reflected in the praise of female Creator deities and the ridicule of male deities who presume to try to create. It also trivializes the possibility that a father could have some bond with his children. Women's greater biological bond with their children is polarized and extended to the social sphere, so that women have relationships with their children while men have none. These writers' purpose is to criticize inequitable gender relations justified by religion, so why is there not a word spoken against these Goddess cultures? Why is Goddess-worshipping women's rule presumed to be benevolent, in the same way that conservative Christians will defend traditional gender roles?


Comet Cursor has been in the Kiosk for quite a while now. Granted, there are no redeeming values to Comet Cursor, so in theory it could be in the Kisok eternally and never be denigrated adequately. However, since I no longer have to use Comet Cursor-equipped public computers, it is no longer actively grating on me.

What is actively grating on me is Idrisi, Clark's very own raster-based GIS. Now, in some ways I like Idrisi. It's certainly better than ArcView -- fewer bizarre quirks, more straightforward operation. And overall I can understand raster systems better than vector systems as analytical tools (though I like vector-based drawing tools). But the students in the class I TA have managed to uncover every possible way to break Idrisi. And when it does weird stuff, it doesn't give you any clues as to how it can be fixed. So I think Idrisi can spend a little time in the Kiosk.
Lately I've been reading a lot of stuff about Goddess spirituality, since I'm writing a paper about the myth of the Neolithic Mother Goddess among modern feminists. One of the persistent themes that the authors bring up is that women can't relate to the Judeo-Christian God, because he's male. Therefore, women need to find or construct a female divinity.

This line of reasoning never quite sat right with me, because I never really conceived of the Christian God as being particularly male. I'm not denying the church's continuing history of sexism, or ignoring that plenty of women have felt alienated from the Christian God due to their gender (though I also know many who haven't had a problem with it). But my personal experience, in a church that was neither particularly liberal nor particularly conservative, was of a being who had aquired a veneer of maleness only due to our language's lack of a gender-neutral/indeterminate pronoun that can apply to a person (which tempts me to adopt the Finnish hän, which does just that). There was nothing intrinsically male about God's attributes. Any resemblance of male social roles to God was due to ascribing God's characteristics to men, not giving men's characteristics to God.

The Goddess worshippers I've been reading clearly didn't see it that way. But instead of searching for a gender-neutral God, they chose to adopt one that was specifically female. In some ways the Goddess is simply a mirror image of how they saw God working -- it's just that the qualities they saw as being crucial to divinity were also ones they considered essentially feminine. But they went farther than that and suggested that the Goddess, rather than being appropriate for only women the way God was a strictly male affair, could encompass all of humanity. They proposed that holism -- which integrates everything -- is fundamentally female. And that femininity by its nature incorporates masculinity because a woman can give birth to a son, but a man can't give birth to anyone.

But this still leaves me wondering why God needs a gender. On the one hand, it seems like hän needs one inasmuch as religion is a human enterprise. Whether or not the divine exists, religion is a human construct. Religious beliefs, stories, and rituals represent ideas about how humans conceive of themselves and their place in the world. And gender is one of the major features that impact people's lives -- even the most egalitarian societies still have to confront the biological demands of reproductive systems. So it makes a certain kind of sense that, in order to speak to a human characteristic, the divine would need to participate in it. This means, of course, that God would also need a race, class, etc. -- and a rejection of the Judeo-Christian God similar to the Goddess worshippers' has occurred among people such as some Native Americans (who see him as too white) and practitioners of Asatru (who see him, with his Semitic roots, as not as white as the Norse pantheon).

At the same time, though, it seems like an important function of God is to link the worshipper to the larger world. And that world is, for the most part, not gendered. Sex (I'm blurring the sex/gender distinction here because both Goddess and God traditions tend to naturalize gender roles as deriving from biology) is an adaptation of a small portion of the animal and plant kingdoms to enable mixing of genes. So a gendered deity would be necessarily parochial, patterning the ultimate reality after a reproductive strategy that's irrelevant to rocks and walls and atoms. And it's that kind of an ecological God that I'm interested in.



It seems to me that materialism and over-consumption can be partially explained by the idea of "the tragedy of the commons." Tragedy of the commons is an idea generally employed to justify private property. The usual example begins with a sheep pasture held in common by a group of shepherds. (Technically what we are talking about here is not common property but "open access" property -- that is, property that belongs to no one. Use of common property, a form of ownership ignored by the classic "tragedy" theory, is regulated by an authority such as the government, traditional leadership, or cultural norms.) Each shepherd will want to graze as many sheep as he can, as his income depends on them. All the shepherds keep adding sheep to their flocks, and eventually the pasture becomes degraded. None of the shepherds will voluntarily limit the size of his flock, because if one of his sheep doesn't eat a patch of grass, one of the other shepherds will find a sheep to eat it. Grabbing for the largest share ultimately destroys the shepherds' resource base. However, this doesn't happen if each shepherd has his own private pasture. He can limit the size of his flock, thus avoiding overgrazing, because he knows that any grass his sheep don't eat won't be snapped up by his neighbor. Private property encourages conservation, because it allows the benefits of conservation to accrue to the conserver.

Now, let's think about the market for wool (as an analogy to any market characterized by overconsumption). The demand of the population for wool is in a sense a resource to be used by all the shepherds. They're raising money from it by selling wool products, just like they raise wool from the pasture by having the sheep eat grass. And that resource is held in common (open access, technically) -- no shepherd has a private set of consumers that only he may sell to. So each of the shepherds will try to use as much of the demand for wool as he can.

One aspect of the problem that the usual explanation of tragedy of the commons doesn't address is the two ways in which users of a common resource try to extract more from it: the expansive strategy and the intensive strategy. The extensive strategy involves users pressing against each other. Extensive pressure doesn't lead to degradation of the resource, it merely shifts what proportion of the land is being grazed by each flock. There are still the same number of sheep per acre. In the market context, extensive competition is what companies are doing when they're trying to capture a larger market share. Each shepherd knows that any money he doesn't earn through selling his product will be earned by some other salesman. He will, of course, push against his competitors to get more out of the market, and it's the beneficial consequences of this competition that explain why capitalist theory can advocate holding markets in common when all other resources are to be privatized.

Then there's intensive pressure. The shepherd will also press harder on the share of the resource he controls. In the grazing example, imagine sheep normally bite grass off an inch above the ground, and that that level of grazing is sustainable. If that's all the harder that one shepherd is grazing the part of the pasture he's using, it leaves an inch of grass behind that another shepherd can come along and use. So each shepherd is motivated to use every scrap of grass his sheep can scrounge up. In the market context, this means driving consumers to spend more. Sellers can exercise a considerable amount of influence in creating a culture of consumption, using advertsising and other strategies to encourage people to spend more. It would be too cutesy to say here that the consumer is thus degraded. From the resource user's perspective (which is how we determined degradation in the case of the pasture), the market's productivity isn't decreasing (at least as far as I can tell, although I'm not an economist). It does, however, create a phenomenon that's widely viewed as negative from another perspective.