Big Ass Table

iMania over the iPhone is about to be unleashed. As many have pointed out [1], there hasn’t been this much hype ahead of something ultimately disappointing since Windows ’95. As people go nuts – N-V-T-S, NUTS! – over this hyped iPod/phone/web appliance hybrid, Microsoft has yet again advanced U.S. innovation with a computer the size of a table. That’s right: a table.

Will the iPhone really be as fast as the commercials suggest? The stories about the AT&T internet service suggests not, as it is reported to have disappointing bitrates for downloading data. The vendor lock-in to AT&T – oh, crap, sorry: at&t – has also been quite controversial. I’ve never approved a piece of hardware that I can’t just take to the lowest bidder for service. It’s called “capitalism”. Well, so is vendor lock-in, I guess.

In response to Microsoft’s attempt to fire a cannonball across the wrong bow, “The Sarcastic Gamer” has released this parody of the Microsoft table-top computing ad. Using the video from Microsoft’s own website, he overdubbed this hilarious script. Check it out at YouTube [2].

[1] TWiT Espisode 102
[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZrr7AZ9nCY

Double Bang

Since the big one, there have been few bangs as spectacular. In our frigid modern universe, two are still quite phenomenal. The first are gamma ray bursts, intense explosions that occur all the time and are largely believed to be the result of a massive rotating star experiencing a total collapse of its nuclear core into a black hole. The other are supernova, a phenomenon that is believed to occur at the end of a massive star’s life. Having burned its fuel, and no longer able to resist its own gravitational pressure, it implodes and blows it outer shell into space.

Supernovae occur about once, per century, per galaxy. Their explosions send heavy elements throughout the universe, and it is this death of stars which is believed to create all the iron and carbon that our earth, and our bodies, are made from. Today, I saw a story that fascinated me: two supernova occurring nearly at the same time in the same galaxy [1]. While there is nothing ground-breaking about this observation – it was bound to happen eventually – such cataclysm in the same host galaxy must make for spectacular viewing to any eyes looking out from a life-giving world in that galaxy. What a sight, to have your night lit bright by the death of two great stars. What might the people of that world think? What might they be led to believe about the meaning of these events?

[1] http://www.universetoday.com/2007/06/26/double-supernovae-discovered/

Solving AIDS with wishful thinking?

AIDS. It’s a great equalizer. Transmitted by body-fluid-to-body-fluid contact (by needle sharing, or sexual contact), the HIV virus can lay dormant for years before finally suppressing the human immune response and inducing AIDS. Typically, victims die from usually harmless diseases against which they have no defense. It is an entirely preventable disease, at least in theory; proper condom use cuts down AIDS transmission to nearly zero, and responsible needle swapping programs cut the infection rate among intravenous drug users. Abstinence programs are more controversial, largely because they appear to be based in a moral judgement and try to prevent an entire behavior rather than prevent the disease itself by altering that behavior. The CDC’s own website, however, touts the so-called “ABC” program: Abstience, Be faithful, Condoms. They recommend, as per administration policy, that you abstain from sex, but if you’re going to have sex be faithful (one partner), and if not then use condoms.

A lot of people in the AIDS prevention field all over the globe are frustrated that U.S. AIDS money is tied to this philosophy. Ask people to stop, then ask they just stick with one person, and then – oh yes – if you’re going to have it with multiple partners use condoms. Seems like condoms ought to enter at step 2, at least until both people can get a simple AIDS test. The ABC principle also fails to address drug use, bad handling of blood supplies, etc.  While these are not the primary causes of the spread of HIVin places like Africa, they certainly contribute in many places, as in China and in Europe and the U.S.

Recently, Laura Bush has gone to Africa to assess the AIDS prevention efforts there [1]. Her response to questions about the ABC philosophy illustrates the short-sightedness of the problem, in my opinion. “In countries where there are gender issues and where girls feel like
they have to comply with the wishes of men, I think abstinence [and
abstinence education] become even more important. We need to get the
message to girls everywhere, not just in Africa, that they have a
choice, that they can be abstinent and make choices for themselves that
keep themselves safe.” The reality is that the prevalence of rape in many parts of the world, or subjugation of women to the point where they are totally subservient, there is no choice. The idea that there is choice is a convenient fairytale that we in the West tell ourselves. The reality is that many cultures do not hold women as equals, and have policies or practices that keep them uneducated, or domesticated, and in some cases in the grip of sexual slavery. Without changing that culture, without getting the men to change their thinking, how do you actually give women a choice?

Abstinence education only works when the man, in this case, respects the woman’s wishes and when the woman knows she has a right to refuse. I suspect there are many places where men don’t care (even on U.S. college campuses, sadly) and where women also don’t actually have that right, or don’t think they do. In that sense, starting with “A” is the short-sighted part.

Empowering all people to take control of their bodies is clearly the most important thing to achieve. Abstinence is a reality only when you already have that control, by law or by force. Deployment of a female condom, along with education about how to use this, would be one step in that direction. Teaching men more respect, and teaching them to use prophylactics, is also critical to that. Teaching both to be exclusive is another important step.

Currently, 1/3 of the U.S. spending on AIDS prevention must, by law, go to abstinence education. The First Lady argues this is what African governments wanted. That’s a fine argument, but in reality there is a deeper philosophy of those with power which seems to be pervasive right now. The policy starts from the perspective that sex itself is somehow wrong, so abstinence becomes the clear leader of the policy. What is needed is a policy that accepts realities: the reality that not everybody thinks sex is evil, the reality that men and women are not equally empowered in all nations, and the reality that to stop a behavior is a hell of a lot harder than to modify it. Do we really want to gamble the fate of our species’ health on somebody’s moral judgement about the very act of procreation?

[1] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11291671

Faith-based dodge

Today, the Supreme Court ruled on a number of cases that have piled up as its current term comes to an end. One of the issues the court ruled on today was whether funding President Bush’s “faith-based programs initiative” is a constitutional use of taxpayer money. The court didn’t rule on the case, but instead ruled that taxpayers have no standing in the court to bring such a case. From a technical perspective, this is a useful ruling. If every taxpayer or taxpayer organization had standing, we could tie up the court with questions about every law on the books.

The larger question – whether organizations with religious affiliations should have a special program that gives them money to do their work – is left open. Let’s investigate this question by looking, if possible, at the rules of the program. We begin with the website for the President’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) [1]. The President’s vision of the program is summarized as follows: “Yet, all too often, the Federal government has put in place complicated
rules and regulations preventing FBCOs from competing for funds on an
equal footing with other organizations. President Bush believes that
besides being inherently unfair, such an approach can waste tax-payer
dollars and cut off the poor from successful programs” [2].  There are several principles on which the office is founded, but one of interest is the following: “The underlying premise of the President’s Initiative is that a more
open and competitive Federal grant-making process will increase the
delivery of effective social services to those whose needs are
greatest.”

What does the U.S. Constitution have to say about religion? A lot of people throw around the idea of “separation”; however, this word doesn’t appear explicitly in the Constitution. Instead, we must look to the language in Article 6 (Debts, Supremacy, Oaths).

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Of course, there is the most famous language in the first amendment – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

This is where things get gray. Is the OFBCI an instance of “establishment”, or it is, as the President states, a case of removing prohibition by “leveling the playing field”? This is, perhaps, the question that the Court could have addressed had the taxpayers had standing.

From my perspective, having such an office in the President’s own house, so close to the Executive, does smack of establishment. I don’t have a problem with religious organizations offering aid, even if I have noted in my own experience with such organizations that there are spiritual strings attached to that aid. If the President thought the playing field wasn’t level, why not just have an Office of Community Initiatives, dropping “Faith” from the name? If the idea is to just level the playing field, why not make it fair (at least, in name) for all kinds of organizations to do community work, holding all organizations to the same standards and offering no religious test of any kind which determines funding?

One question I had was, “Is a religious test required to apply for funding from OFBCI?” I learned a few things. First, the White House has an OFBCI, but so does Health and Human Services. As of March 2006, the Department of Homeland Security ALSO has an OFBCI. Why three are needed to “level the playing field” is really beyond me. This looks more like a pattern of infection than an concerted centralized effort to level a playing field.

It turns out be be quite hard to answer my question. I can find lots of short paragraphs guiding those unfamiliar with grant programs generally about how to proceed. To find the criteria applied to determine grant award winners, you have to read each grant’s rules. I tried going to some of the grant websites to get info. For instance, I tried to go to the Community Block Grants for HHS, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/csbg/, but it was unavailable. That was the first one I tried. I then tried a State Abstinence Education Program website, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fbci/progs/fbci_saep.html.  It was also unavailable. I then tried the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program website,
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/
.  This page also didn’t exist or wasn’t available. I then tried a Child Care and Development fund page,
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ccb/geninfo/ccdfdesc.htm
.  UNAVAILABLE.

At that point, I gave up trying. It seems that an honest citizen trying to learn the rules for getting a grant, as recommended by a given OFBCI, is blocked by a complete lack of actual information about the program. This gives me no faith in the Constitutionality of the faith-based programs. I want to give them a fair shake, but it seems like failing to supply information about the rules in a reliable way is a first small step for mis- for dis-information. Is OFBCI leveling the playing field, or creating a special opportunity for those only with ties to religious organizations to get federal money to do work? Is the grant application process a religious test, or not? Will the Supreme Court ever be given a chance to rule on this issue by a party with standing? I have faith, at least, that some of these might be answered.

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/president-initiative.html