January 26, 2007


Caption: These traditional enemies have achieved a diplomatic solution.

Sometimes it seems like the Bush administration has a haunting fear that it hasn't screwed up the world as much as humanly possible.

It is perhaps this fear which drives them to continually try to make whatever situation they are dealing with even worse.

The most recent case in point is a new Bush policy reported by the Washington Post which will allow US troops to kill Iranians in Iraq:

The Bush administration has authorized the U.S. military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of an aggressive new strategy to weaken Tehran's influence across the Middle East and compel it to give up its nuclear program, according to government and counterterrorism officials with direct knowledge of the effort.
Previously, the U.S. had a "catch and release" policy towards suspected Iranian agents as a way of both intimidating them and avoiding escalating tensions in the region.
The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war....

Senior administration officials said the policy is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders. But if Iran responds with escalation, it has the means to put U.S. citizens and national interests at greater risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

This looks like a calculated step along the path toward direct military conflict with Iran, a cherished dream in some administration circles. One can hardly wait to see what they think of next...

BY CONTRAST: Some people, however, El Cabrero among them, believe that the last few years have amply shown that shock and awe are pretty blunt instruments for dealing with terrorism and that arrogance might not be the best way to improve the international standing and security of the U.S.

Here's one example of a constructive approach from the Jan. 26 issue of The Week Magazine:

The 2,000 soldiers who constitute NATO's Italian detachment in Afghanistan are winning friends with their kinder, gentler approach to the occupation. In the Mushai Valley, the Italians, who are barred by their government from combat, listen to the resident's problems, offer food and medical care, and help recruit and train local police. Local residents say the Italian's sympathy and support is more effective in combatting the Taliban than military action, which has caused many civilian casualties. "The Italians behave very well with the people, and everyone likes them," said senior cleric Maulvi Shirin Agha. "The Taliban can only dream of coming back."

Gee, who would have guessed?


January 25, 2007

NOT COOL...MINIMUM WAGE AND THE SENATE and a word about Komodo dragons

Seamus is awake now...the Senate had better get its act together.

The U.S. Senate had its first vote on a clean minimum wage increase yesterday, where it was narrowly defeated. It needed 60 votes to pass and got 54. That included all the Democrats present and five Republicans.

We are not amused. However, it's not over. They are continuing to consider the bill, although now there will be all kinds of efforts to load the bill with amendments, most of which will be bad.

Here's what you can do today: use the American Friends Service Committee's toll-free number and ask for your senators to support as "clean" (i.e. not loaded with gibberish) a bill as possible and one which will not harm low-wage workers.

The number is: 1-800-459-1887.

BUT AT LEAST THERE'S THIS: a virgin Komodo dragon reportedly gave birth yesterday.

I guess you can't have everything...


January 24, 2007


This dog is very superstitious.

We will forgoe the opportunity to comment on the President's State of the Union address due to a much cooler New York Times article from yesterday.

The title is "Magical Thinking: Why Do People Cling to Odd Rituals?" by Benedict Carey.

(The connection between magical thinking and the SOTU is purely accidental.)

The writer of the Times article notes that social scientists often consult faith healers, tribal cultures, etc. to study magical or superstitious thinking although "they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists."

In other words, it's way more common than you might think.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

Magical thinking begins to develop in children at around 18 months and diminishes by about age 8. However, it's never too far away and many people who are otherwise very rational and scientific in orientation have residual superstitions.

El Cabrero feels sorry for all such people, having long rid himself of all superstitions but the following:

*Seeing a great blue heron is an omen of good luck. So is seeing praying mantis.

*If one sneezes, one should cross oneself twice each time.

*When about to undertake a difficult but righteous task, it is necessary to play Bob Marley music in order to gain the favor of His Imperial Majesty.

*Names of famous people who had famously bad luck are bad luck.

*Spilled salt really should be thrown over the left shoulder. If one is not sure one has spilled it, spill a little on purpose and then toss.

*A black cat crossing one's path is not necessarily bad luck. For example, it's OK if you know the cat. If the cat is strange, one should again cross oneself.

*It is bad luck to rock an empty rocking chair with one's foot. (I got that from my hillbilly grandmother.)

*Friday the 13th is a lucky day if one is left handed.

That's it. Otherwise I'm totally above such nonsense.

Here's to the Age of Reason!


January 23, 2007


Caption: Greek myths say Zeus was raised by a goat on the island of Crete. Venus is thus related by marriage to the gods.

Finally some cool news for a change. According to an Associated Press story this past weekend:

ATHENS, Greece - After all these centuries, Zeus may have a few thunderbolts left. A tiny group of worshippers plans a rare ceremony Sunday to honor the ancient Greek gods, at Athens' 1,800-year-old Temple of Olympian Zeus. Greece's Culture Ministry has declared the central Athens site off-limits, but worshippers say they will defy the decision.

While El Cabrero is officially a fairly almost orthodox and generally monotheistic Episcopalian, at least in months that contain the letter "R," I must admit to having a major thing for the ancient Greeks and a certain fondness for this Hairy Thunderer and his companions, especially Apollo.

And Artemis. And maybe Dionysus. Hera was kind of cool too. OK, I like em all.

Greek gods were kind of like a deck of playing cards. One by itself didn't make sense without the others.

For all the virtues of monotheistic religions, they do to be fairly, well, bloodthirsty. A while back, a rabbi who is a contributing columnist in the Charleston Gazette noted that these religions often do not play well with others.

The Greek gods, whatever their failings, were a bit more laid back. They wouldn't think of tormenting someone for eternity unless somebody really personally ticked them off (like Tantalus and Sisyphus did, for example). They are known more for their Olympian laughter.

The main difference between them and us was they they were stronger, more beautiful, and had a better time. Oh yeah, and they didn't age or die. Sometimes they were simply called something like the athanoi or "deathless ones."

In many respects, the Iliad is more compassionate than a lot of texts that pass as sacred. In that epic, the sufferings of Greeks and Trojans are depicted with equal compassion. Try to find that in the Book of Joshua...

Maybe pluralistic views of the universe are sometimes less likely to make people think they are in the exclusive possession of truth and are favored by Heaven to kill those who think differently.

But then in the myths the Greek gods cared less about people, even their favorites, than most people care about their pets. Call it benign neglect.

I have not seen further coverage to find out whether the latter-day Zeus worshippers carried out their ceremony, but I doubt that they killed too many people in his name. Or even banned very many books or condemned others to eternal damnation. That's a plus these days.


January 22, 2007


Caption: This man avenges slight by a toy monkey who stepped on his Nikes.

MINIMUM WAGE UPDATE: Before El Cabrero gets down to other business, here's a quick reminder to please call the U.S. Senate today if you haven't already to urge the passage of a "clean" minimum wage bill without fiscally irresponsible tax cuts and/or other measures to undermine workers rights.

The toll-free number provided by the American Friends Service Committee is 1-800-459-1887.

Also yours at no extra cost is a rant of mine on the subject from yesterday's Sunday Gazette-Mail

For more information on the vote in the Senate, scroll down to Friday's post.

REVENGE. OK, back to the headline topic. The Jan. 22 issue of Business Week's cover story had the delightful title, "Revenge: The power of retribution, spite, and loathing in the world of business." Short summary: it plays more of a role than you might think.

But then, why should business be any different from any other human endeavour? The theme of revenge is as old as Cain and Abel, the Iliad, Romulus and Remus, etc.

Lately scientists have been examining the physiology and psychology of vengeance. Here's an excerpt from the article:

Ernst Fehr, a behavioral economist at the University of Zurich, studies how our brains react when "social norms" are violated. In Fehr's research, two players are asked to exchange money according to various scenarios. When one player hoards the cash for himself, the other has an opportunity to punish him financially. The player who got burned is hooked up to a brain scan while he's considering whether to retaliate. Fehr found that the part of our brains associated with feeling satisfaction was more strongly activated while players contemplated getting even. "There is a hedonic force behind the punishment," says Fehr. Put simply: Revenge is biologically, scientifically sweet.

There's something delicious about getting back at someone who has hurt us. Or doing well as that person looks on. Savoring the balm of revenge does not require active stabs at retribution; it can also be a byproduct of success. "We hold the illusion that if the other person is as venomous as we think, [even] their knowledge of our success is psychologically damaging to them," says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management.

I don't know about you guys, but I was kind of glad to hear it wasn't all about greed.

Leaving aside specific cases, one problem about revenge is that it often tends to be out of all proportion to the original offense due to the what has been called the "magnitude gap." That's the difference in perception between offender and offended in just how big a deal the original offense was.

(Good thing that doesn't happen very often huh?)

Then there's the whole "collateral damage" thing.

I guess one function of a good social order is to limit the amount of damage we can do to each other, preferably sooner rather than later.