26 February 2010

I'll take "inure" for $200 please (Malaysia edition)


What do you think of? Anything? Nice beaches, just south of Thailand and north of Singapore and Indonesia, destination for visa runs for farang in Thailand, briefly home of the world's tallest building, sodomy, moderate majority Muslim nation, one party rule, growing high tech economy, ...

Well, yes, one of those does seem somewhat out of place. But this is just fantastic, and too good not to report on - sodomy seems to be all the rage in Malaysia these days, and everyone is talking about it.

Malaysia is a former British colony that inherited former British laws, meaning sodomy is illegal, even between two consenting adults. Unbelievably intrusive for the state to have this kind of control over people's private lives, but much of the world is like this. It nearly always gives police and the state a powerful means of controlling personal behavior, and a way to shame and manipulate and intimidate anyone they don't like. In Malaysia's case, how often has the law been enforced? As reported in the LA Times,

Legal records suggest that sodomy charges under Section 377 [the anti-sodomy law] have been leveled only seven times in Malaysia in 70 years, according to thenutgraph.com, an independent Malaysian news website, with four of those charges being against Anwar.

Who is Anwar? A particularly randy and exhibitionistic practitioner? A gay rave promoter?

No, and no - he is a 62 year old deputy former deputy prime minister. Married, with six children.

Anwar Ibrahim was at one time considered to be one of those in line for the Prime Minister's post in Malaysia, but in 1997 he went too far in criticizing his own party during the Asian currency crisis, publicly spoke of paralysis, incompetence and nepotism in the ruling party (United Malays National Organization, or UNMO), called for more economic liberalisation, and ran afoul of the ruling party. The sitting prime minister, then as now Mahatir Mohamad, decided he had heard enough - and that the thing to do would be to charge Anwar with the foulest crime he could think of. So, of course, Anwar was charged with sodomy, convicted in 2000, and exonerated in 2004. The plan was to cause abhorrence in the electorate and to end the challenge to the ruling party.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way.

Anwar, who is a slight man (and who has been charged in both cases of sodomizing a much larger "strapping" man), far from becoming less popular, has become a leader of the nascent opposition movement in Malaysia (New Yorker, May 18, 2009, subscription required). And while I disagree with his politics, how can you not like a man who has gone from being, essentially, a party hack to someone who was harangued in public in a show trial in which he was luridly accused (with stained mattresses, et al.) for weeks on end, thrown into solitary confinement, and emerged to be a unifying force for a riven multi-ethnic nation ruled by an increasingly out of touch and ossified one party system. Again from the LA Times:

Although he was banned from running for political office for five years, he helped energize the opposition, which in 2008 won five of Malaysia's 13 states, its best-ever showing, denying the ruling coalition the two-thirds parliamentary majority it had in effect held since 1969.

Since then, the opposition has won seven of nine by-elections, including one that put Anwar back into parliament, challenging the dominance that Malaysia's main ruling party has enjoyed since independence.
So, he's a friend of Paul Wolfowitz. You gotta admire the guy.

He's back in court, again on sodomy charges, again lurid, and again the Malaysian nation is getting treated to a very frank discussion of male-on-male sex. And in the last ten years, the internet has made the details of the trial much more accessible to the average Malaysian.

The effect of all of this? Well, some in Malaysia are concerned that the once-taboo topic has become inescapable (think Monica's blue dress times a factor of 20 - Google "Malaysia Sodomy" and see for yourself!), and that by attempting to "tar" Anwar with the charge of sodomy, when he clearly is innocent, the power of the taboo has been broken.

By bringing false, politically motivated charges against Anwar, Mahatir has made sodomy a proxy for a trumped up charge. Further, by making it a topic of general conversation, nationwide, Mahatir has accomplished what may have taken a generation of gay rights activists to do: make sodomy mundane, and boring. Quotidian. The boogie man under the bed loses his power once you turn on the light.

And if you hear of UNMO losing its post-independence grip on Malaysian politics and power, you can think of the falsified case against Col. Dreyfus which backfired, and lead to the secularization of France; and of the calumny of "religious leaders" in Colorado who lied and lied to get people to vote for the anti-gay Prop 2 which backfired, and ultimately lead to overturning all sodomy laws in the U.S. And you can smile to yourself knowing that, one more time, the powerful liars didn't get it all their way.

Watch this space. Should it come to pass, I'll definitely write about it. And I'll definitely gloat.


23 February 2010

I miss the paper

I've come to realize that a daily paper is my muse. I read the paper, the things in the paper make me crazy, and then I have lots of things to write about. Unfortunately the San Francisco Chronicle and I can't seem to get on the same page, so to speak, about when I am going to be in town and when I'm not, so that paper has been showing up when I'm gone and not appearing when I'm home. Since my roommates are philistines who don't read the paper and instead stack it neatly in my room in my absence, unread, it's a problem.

The last two days I've been travelling through LAX and have had access to the LA Times, my favorite American newspaper. And I've read yesterdays and todays, cover to cover, with my collective 7 hours of layover time in LAX and Santa Barbara (yes... Santa Barbara) airports. And I've got lots of things I'm fired up about. Here are just a few:

  1. JOBS BILL! As reported in the LA Times, Scott Brown (R-MA), the oft-though-not-always-clothed new Senator in the Lion's Seat, voted along with Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME); Susan Collins (R-ME); Christopher Bond (R-MO); and George Voinovich (R-OH) for President Obama's jobs bill, which passed 62-30 over GOP attempts to muster a filibuster. Really, Republicans? Filibustering a JOBS bill? The Filibuster is meant to be a tool of last resort to protect the Union in cases of grave crisis. In a week that saw the publication of stories about how it may take at least one decade for the jobs lost in the last three years to come back, you are using this tool of last resort to prevent a law that: waives the 6.2% Social Security Tax for the year for new hires, in an attempt to spur, you know, HIRING; reauthorizes the Highway Trust Fund that uses gas taxes to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; allows businesses to write off equipment as an expense all at once, now, instead of allowing it to depreciate over time; and expands a bonds program that will fund schools and energy projects. So let's review - reduce taxes (which Republicans should be able to get behind) and have giveaways to businesses (which Republicans should be able to get behind) and they threaten to FILIBUSTER! It's simply outrageous. And equally outrageous, and sickening, is that Harry Reid and other Senator Democrats (D-NV) are crowing and "ebullient" (which is a word you don't get to see often in print, and even less when it's connected to Senator Harry Reid). This bill is one TENTH the size of the Jobs Bill that the House passed. This bill creates 350,000 jobs, according to the CBO, but we've lost 8 million jobs! This is a drop in the bucket, and it was this hard to get? Stop rolling over! Change Senate rules to abolish the Filibuster, or make it 55 votes to get cloture, and get something done! But at least we got a jobs bill. And I was in Flint, Michigan last week. I'd say we need it.
  2. Keep the Faith - It might not seem like it, but at least one study is reporting that youth are less religious. An LA Times article reported the results of a recent Pew Charitable Trust study showing that Milennials are by far the least religious of any American generation. Ever. They still believe in some sort of higher power, and they still pray, but they are generally unfreighted with all of the knowledge dulling, democracy eroding, fear enabling attachment to organized religion that previous generations endured. Like so much else in American life, however, there is a polarization, with moderate religious organizations (i.e., ones that don't think every contradictory word in the Bible is to be taken literally) losing ground and Evangelical religious groups gaining ground. Great. Like we didn't have enough polarization (and concomitant ossification) in the Senate, now the kids are going to be moving to the ends on religion, too. But the fewer are religiously affiliated now, the better that augurs for rational public policy in a host of areas moving forward.
  3. What century is it? You might remember reading about a case from Recife, Brazil, last March, in which a nine-year-old girl in Brazil was raped by her stepfather. She got pregnant, with twins. She was nine, remember. Had she carried to term, she would have died, so doctors aborted the twin fetuses to save her life. The local Catholic bishop church excommunicated the doctor, the medical support team, and the girl's mother. The girl was not excommunicated because "The Church is benevolent when it comes to minors," and it need not be said that the rapist step-father was not excommunicated. C'mon, he's a dude, and he only raped his step-daughter, which is less grave than obtaining, performing, or assisting an abortion. Why is this back in the news? Because the chief Vatican bioethicist, Msgr. Renato Fisichella, has been recorded as saying that the doctor and the medical team don't deserve excommunication - they were trying to save the girl's life, after all. And there have been calls for his resignation for such outrageous remarks, which he has so far side-stepped. Story here.
  4. Wait, what? Oh, yeah, I forgot to nap! Researchers have conducted a study that would seem to indicate that not only do we feel better after napping, that our blood pressure drops and our long term risk of heart attack is lowered, but napping can help memory and new learning. As reported in, yup, the LA Times. Story here.

Thanks for bearing with the slower winter months on Bren's Left Coast - more soon!

22 February 2010

Sacred Heart, Fowler, Indiana - February, 2010

Below: Sacred Heart Church from US 52 north of Fowler, Indiana. Windmills in background.

Below: Interior, Sacred Heart Church, Fowler, Indiana.

Below: Front view of Sacred Heart Church, Fowler, Indiana, with steeple.

Below, interior of Sacred Heart Church, Fowler, Indiana, from choir loft.

Below, side view of Sacred Heart Church, Fowler, Indiana.

Below: Front view of Sacred Heart School and Church, looking south down IN-55/ Washington Street, Fowler, Indiana.

Below: Cornerstone, Sacred Heart Church, Fowler, Indiana.

Below: Interior, Sacred Heart School gym, Fowler, Indiana.

Below: Interior of Sacred Heart School gym, Fowler, Indiana, facing the stage.

Fowler, Indiana - February, 2010

Below: From US 52 looking east towards Sacred Heart Church (steeple), Fowler, Indiana; windmills in background.

Below: Looking south from the Fowler Park (Fowler, Indiana) across the pond; windmills in background.

Below: Looking SSE from the BP station in Fowler, Indiana, down US 52. The "new" grain elevator used to dominate the landscape as the most prominant human-made feature in the county. Then came the new water tower, and now it's the new windmills.

Looking NNE towards Fowler, Indiana, from Sacred Heart Cemetary on Windler Road. From left (west) to right: the old grain elevator, the new grain elevator, the new watertower and the smokestack from the old canning factory.

Below, Looking north across the Fowler Pool, Fowler, Indiana.

01 February 2010

What it costs to save a buck, part 1

Two friends who grew up in Long Beach, California, have asthma. The childhood asthma rate for Long Beach is 22%; the rate for the US as a whole is 14%. What do you think it costs Los Angeles County - in health care, in decreased productivity - to have large communities with asthma rates 50% higher than the national average? Even if all of those families in Long Beach, Wilmington, Lomita, Harbor City, Carson and San Pedro have insurance - and they don't, but let's say they do - their insurance carriers have to charge the entire pool of their policy holders higher rates to cover the costs of carrying health insurance on people who are far more likely to have asthma. Someone's gotta pay, and the premise behind insurance is that you spread that cost around a broad pool of policy holders - that's how it works - so everyone who has health insurance with a company that insures people in the Port of Long Beach and Los Angeles region pays more to cover their asthma related exposure and expenses.

According to the US Census, the poverty rate in Long Beach is over 19%, so we can assume that many of those folks don't have insurance. How do you treat your child's asthma if you don't have insurance? Think about that - if your three old can't breathe, what do you do? You go to the ER. They have to treat you. And someone has to pay for it. What if you have to take a day off work to take your little girl to the ER? You can take a vacation day or a sick day, if you get them, but more than likely you have only time off without pay. So now you're further behind financially.

Why is the asthma rate so high in Long Beach and Lomita and Carson? It's an area of high asthma rates because it has poor air quality. And it has poor air quality because of its largest employer, the Port of Long Beach (Above, from the LA Almanac, here.)

I love the Port. When I lived in Long Beach I used to love to go over and watch the cranes unload the cars from South Korea and Japan, and the forty foot containers of consumer goods from China. It's an amazing sight to see - the human will and ingenuity is on display everywhere; the scale of the ship and the mountains of goods was dwarfing; the wealth and interconnectedness of Pacific nations was just cool to witness first hand. There are good Union jobs at the ports, and that work sustains blue collar families in ways that good Union jobs sustained millions of Americans in previous decades, and allowed their kids to access the middle class.

But the ships that come into it burn bunker fuel,

...so dirty each particle of exhaust legally can be 3,000 times higher in sulfur than the fuel soon to be used by new diesel trucks. Even industry lobbyists have said international ship-fuel standards for sulfur, a primary component of acid rain, are ridiculously high.

And it's not just sulfur, though that's a good place to start:

International shipping accounts for eight percent of global sulphur emissions. This is unsurprising considering that the industry largely uses bunker fuel, which... contains the excess sulphur driven out by the distillation process, upwards of 2000 times that which is found in highway diesel fuel.

Think about how dirty a semi truck is, and now think about the fact that the oil that ships burn, from Hong Kong or Shanghai or Singapore or Yokohama to Long Beach or Los Angeles or Oakland, is one thousand times dirtier.

So when we buy stuff that's imported from China, or Bangladesh, or the Philippines, or the E.U., or from any country outside the NAFTA zone that delivers goods by sea, we are buying stuff that was shipped here in a forty foot container on a container ship. Everything we do to feel like we're making a difference in our daily emissions: all the newer, cleaner, more efficient private cars in the world, and all our work in changing every light bulb in the house to a high energy fluorescent; all the laws more tightly regulating diesel emissions in trucks and trains in the U.S., Canada and Mexico through NAFTA; all the additional taxes on air travel for carbon offsets; all the reduced trips on "Spare the Air Days" and all of the awareness of our carbon footprint - all of it doesn't matter if we still chase the "cheapest" consumer goods.

If we - the American consumer, you and I - insist on saving a dollar on a t-shirt that was made in China and shipped here in a forty foot container, then we are heavy, heavy polluters. No one thing would reduce our environmental impact - emissions, fuel consumption, carbon footprint - as much as not buying things shipped to us in bunker-fuel driven 40-foot container cargo vessels.

Do you feel good about recycling that cardboard box when you get home from the store? Good for you. But if it was packaged in China and shipped here in a 40-foot container, you are still deeply, deeply in the red, environmentally speaking.

When we save a buck on that t-shirt, we reward bad behavior, we shift costs to the public sphere (our taxes pay for harbor infrastructure and rail and highway distribution networks, and for higher public assistance costs related to health care and decreased productivity) and give profits to the private sphere (factory owners, ship owners, retail outlet owners). Do we really want to do that?

So look at the label when you go shopping, and stop saving thirty cents or a buck or three bucks on stuff that was made overseas.

When we "save" on cheap, sea-shipped imported goods, we are buying asthma for our neighbors and thus additional health care costs for ourselves, we are buying sulfur and heavy particulate pollution for our ecosystems, and we are overwhelming any good work that we do in other areas of our lives in terms of recycling or reducing our fuel consumption.

Doesn't seem like such a good deal, does it?