On One Hand

July 16, 2007

Another Sad Death Penalty Case

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:20 pm
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A Georgia man will be executed at at 7 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow if a final review board does not grant him a repreive. Troy Anthony Davis, convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989, insists that he is innocent.

Among the board’s concerns is is that Davis’ trial offered no hard evidence, only witness testemony against him – and 7 of those 9 witnesses have since either recanted or changed their stories. Other witnesses have come forward to say they know that someone else committed the murder.

An Associated Press Story posted on MSNBC.com reports that the board could commute Davis’ sentence to life in prison, delay the execution to make time for more reviews, or allow the execution to proceed.

The defense team says a law passed in 1996 to limit the lengthy appeals processes that go on before executions has inhibited them from bringing all the evidence to courts. The law states that new evidence cannot be brought to the final review board; only evidence from the trial and subsequent appeals can be used to see if the conviction was wrongful based on the information available then. But many of the witnesses came forward to recant their testemony only recently. It is also the responsibility of the defendant to prove that “no reasonable juror” would convict him based on new evidence, which the defense team says is an impossibly high standard.

But last week a judge refused to grant a new trial, and so Davis has failed all appeals except for this one final review board.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representitive John Lewis, a Democrat from Atlanta, said “nobody should be put to death based on the evidence we now have on this case,” and said the execution would stain the country’s reputation at a time when “we are trying to convince the whole world that our way is best.”

Troy Davis is African-American, and has won the attention of some civil rights groups. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is among those who are speaking out on his behalf. Anti-death penatly groups have also rallied to Davis’ cause, along with some advocates of the death penatly who say that this case isn’t the right application of it.

***Update from July 18: The Georgia Paroles and Pardons Board has granted Davis a 90-day stay of execution so they can decide whether or not to commute Davis’ sentence to life in prison. But they cannot relase Davis or exhonorate him, only commute his sentence on the grounds that the sentence is too severe.

July 15, 2007

The Fat Girl

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:17 pm

when the two, in longing, touched
her thighs were one
carresing on the chair, moon beneath.

I watched as television light streaked
myrrh across her breasts;
the lovers lingered whistful
in its warmth.

she does not sing for me
oh dandylion, who seronades her spoon
serraphic rows through frozen milk.
stoic in the weight of prose, is she –
it takes more than words to move her.


Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:03 pm
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so melancholy
is this breath between us,
bittersweet. for we, in July
are melting snow.
already our frosted edges fused
and in every bit that draws together
suffocates a piece of what we were.

This time is best, someone told us
because it is new, and chemicals say
you will spin like daisies a while yet.
but it’s not easy knowing everything
has changed –
you will face loss,
and having gained the world
will bear it on your shoulders
until it oozes down like wax
and holds you.

July 13, 2007

Religion as a Social Construction

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:33 pm

Most people see a clear boundary between what is religion and what is not. They say religion is your view towards God and the afterlife, and different religions vary based on what God looks like and what the afterlife looks like. For Christians, then, God is the Trinity, and the afterlife is heaven or hell. For Hindus, then, there are many gods, and afterlife is reincarnation.

But there are fundamental differences in the kind of questions each religion answers. In Buddhism, the question is not the nature of God; there is no supreme God at all, just a bunch of lesser beings who used to be human but got good enough Karma to gain supernatural powers. Yet Buddhism is still very much a religion. If you are a Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, or one of myriad indigenous religions around the world, the question is not what happens after death; there is no clear depiction of an afterlife, or even assurance that one exists. The emphasis here is instead on community – but these groups are all still classified as religions.

As any student of Religion would tell you, religion is better seen as a set of ideas that many people share than as any kind of specific question-and-answer about existence. There are “six ways of being religious,” to borrow a famous concept from Dale Cannon, a prominent American religious studies scholar. Cannon’s six religious behaviors begin with “right action,” meaning performing any religion’s concept of “good deeds” and avoiding “sin.” There is “reasoned inquiry,” which is done by philosophers and clerics, and there is a “mystical quest,” which includes rights-of-passages most famous in the story of the American Indian boy’s journey through the woods at puberty. There is “shamanic mediation,” which involves a person speaking to spirits of gods or the dead, and “devotion,” such as a fast or pilgrimage. Finally, Cannon classified the “sacred rite,” which involves other coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings and sacraments. Different religions focus on different aspects of the six kinds of behavior, and most religions contain elements of each.

So we see that a person can be religious by performing a ritual, like a dance or circumcision; by praying alone or in groups; by offering food and gifts to the dead or to God in sacrifice; by studying scripture; by meditating; or by consulting a spiritual leader like a psychic medium, priest or shaman for advice. Many people do these things without believing in a god, without going to a church or temple, without having scripture or without having clergy. There is at least one undisputed world religion that lacks each one of these things that are commonly thought of as fundamentals of faith. Perhaps common superstitious activities, like crossing fingers or knocking on wood, are just as much religious acts as Last Rights or a pilgrimage to Mecca.

And we know how religions alter perception, bending the world to fit in a certain community worldview. A common Buddhist woman may look at scientific knowledge of the Big Bang and be in awe of how well it fits her religion’s ideas about the mysteries of the universe, becoming certain that it is evidence that her faith is true and bring her comfort that her dead loved ones have been reincarnated on a path to enlightenment. Meanwhile, an intellectually-brilliant Fundementalist Christian may see gaping holes in the theory of Evolution, reiterating his beleif that a old bearded man built a boat that carried two pairs of every species as a much more plausible history of the world. A Mexican woman might feel that God is reaching out to her when the silhouette of the Virgin Mary appears in burn marks on her tortilla, while an American Protestant man watches a human-interest story about that woman on the news and scoffs at what he calls a runaway imagination.

Here are some elements that many religions do share: first, there is some sort of cohesive moral system that governs right vs. wrong, good behavior vs. bad behavior. Second, there is often a single trusted source or system of acquiring knowledge. Third, there is a sense of community. Fourth, there is often some sort of prophecy or promise. Fifth, there are rituals. Sixth, there are symbolic objects or artifacts, which, for no rational reason, are held in higher esteem than other objects.

It’s easy to see how Christianity is a religion. The moral system is based on the guidance of scripture, and scripture or the wisdom of the Church is the trusted source of knowledge. The community is the congregation. The promise is salvation after death for all Christians, and the prophecy is the second coming of Christ and renewal of the world. Rituals are baptisms, funerals, and weddings. The revered artifacts are holywater, the cross, the church building, a crucifix, communion bread, or anything Christians call “holy.”

Thus, being an American is, in no small way, like a religion too. A moral system is based on the idea of individual rights and majority rule, and the trusted sources of knowledge are educated “experts” like doctors, lawyers, professors, psychologists, scientists or anyone with an advanced degree. The community is the neighborhood, school, office, city, town, state or nation. The promise is that any person can change or better himself at any time, and that hard work, skill and intelligence will lead to worldly success. The prophecy is the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world; that by whatever means, peaceful or violent, someday the rest of the world will share our deepest values. The rituals are fireworks on the Fourth of July, blowing out candles during birthday parties, marching down the isle during graduations, and tipping the waitress. Exalted objects are flags, wedding rings, antiques, diplomas, photographs, and anything we say to have “sentimental value.”

Even Americans who loathe their nation’s foreign policy or offer scathing critiques on its culture can admit to holding some, if not most, of these values; we all trust scientists and professors, we all celebrate birthdays, we all believe we can better ourselves and we all quietly think that someday every Third-world country will be rich and democratic.

The most interesting groups to view as religions are people who do not realize how much their value system resembles a religion. They range from atheists and agnostics who say they loathe religion and will have nothing to do with faith, to those who are indifferent to faith, to those who appreciate faith but do not say they have one, or do not realize how much their value system resembles a religion.

There is the religion of capitalism, of enthusiasts of Ayn Rand, where Free Market Capitalism and Individualism is exalted. The moral system is self-interest; acting to one’s own benefit is good, and anything that is “collectivist” is evil. The promise is that natural market forces will solve humanity’s problems and cheque all folly, that the market always punishes foolishness and always rewards prudence and ingenuity. The prophesy is that the market will perpetually increase humanity’s power over the natural environment, that capitalism and wealth will spread across the world, and that capitalist societies will always outperform non-capitalist societies to achieve a brilliant, beautiful future for the humanity. The trusted source of knowledge are capitalism’s philosophers, Ayn Rand, Henry Ford, Robert McNamara, and adherence to the principle of self-interest. Exalted objects are imperialistic-esque symbols of humanism, corporatism and democracy; symbols such as skyscrapers, public monuments, logos and corporate trademarks. Go to Capitalism.org or Capitalism.org/FAQ to see what I am talking about; compare that page to the Jehovah’s Witnesses homepage or this page from their site.

There is the religion of futurism, full of science fiction fans. Its promise is that the pursuit of technology will conquer Earth and space, extend our life spans indefinitely, and change the world as we know it. The community is of like-minded people communicating through novels and science books, movies, television shows, conventions, and the Internet. Its prophesy is that life as we know it will be perpetually transformed by technology; we will colonize alien planets, build great societies with sentient alien beings, have every physical need met by robots and that humanity as we know it will survive as long as the Universe does by expanding and spreading. Its prophesy is that Homo sapiens are done evolving and will look the same a billion years from now as they do today. The trusted source of knowledge is science, and exalted objects are living beings, who will someday be indistinguishable from machines but will still have some intrinsically superior value to artificial humans.

There is the religion of environmentalism, and the moral system is nonharm to living things that are not human – that individual organisms like plants and animals, that separate species, and that whole ecosystems have an independent right to exist. Its community is bonded by environmental magazines, the National Geographic channel, Natural History Museum fans and anyone under the age of 35 who went to a public school. Its promise is that human health and happiness is better served by natural things than by man-made things. Its prophecy is of danger to the well-being of humanity and society if human beings destroy the environment that sustains them. It’s trusted source of knowledge is the scientific process, ecology and evolutionary biology, evidence in the natural world, and an intuitive sense of harmony with nature. The rituals are hikes, planting trees, gardening, keeping pets and traveling to natural landmarks. Exalted objects or symbols are trees, animals, landscapes, ecosystems, Native American artifacts, other indigenous symbols or representations of natural things.

There is the religion of consumerism, and the moral system is conspicuity, and that social status is acquired through attractiveness and status-marking objects or wealth. It’s promise is that health, beauty and that a kind of personal betterment can be achieved through social couth or material goods. Its trusted source of knowledge is magazines and pamphlets, self-help books and the “fit” section of the local paper, designers, decorators, models, actors, authors, Oprah Winfrey and anyone on TV. Its prophecy is that novelty will not end or become tiresome. Rituals are trips to beauty salons, high school dances and pageants, getting a car on the 16th birthday, going to an elite college, and shopping in malls. Revered symbols and objects are brand names, prestigious college diplomas, Book Club books, cars, homes, “all natural” body wash with “avocado and essence of apple” in it, coffee table books, or any object or thing bought that is made to appear expensive or to be seen by others.

There is the religion of diversity, and the moral system is tolerance. Its community is of anyone who is a juxtaposition of things that are normally opposites; gay activist Muslims, Caucasian Buddhists, interracial children; as well as Democrats, Liberals, public high and middle school teachers and subscribers to National Geographic. Its promise is that if one society is increasingly tolerant, other societies will become increasingly tolerant toward it and follow its example. Its prophecy is that, one day, wars and racism will be implausible. Its trusted source of knowledge is sociology, anthropology, kindness, and any remnant of any culture that is very old or has been robbed of power. Its rituals are samplings from the rituals of other cultures. Its artifacts are colorful.

There is the religion of neoconservatism, and the moral system is that the ends justify the means. Its promise is that invasion can spread democracy, and its prophesy is that someday all nations will resemble the United States. Its trusted knowledge is intuition. Its revered artifacts are patriotic American symbols, military paraphanelia, corporate symbols, open highways and cars.

There is the religion of communism, and the moral system is that accumulated wealth is evil and all human beings are intrinsically equal, even if apparently unequal. Its promise is that social stratification and conflict will end with the abolition of corporations, and its prophesy is that corruption and capitalism will someday whither away in an enlightend society. Its trusted source of knowledge is science, the beleifs of the people who do manual labor and its philosphers. Its symbols of humanism are exactly the same humanistic monuments as the symbols of staunch capitalists, except this time they are publicly-funded, and minus the corporate logos.

These religions are not morally right or morally wrong; I adhere to several of these groups, and loathe others, and as much as I hate to admit it, I think everyone in the Western world is a consumerist no matter to what extent he or she hopes otherwise. There are as many different religious paradigms as there are people in the world, as each person puts the pieces together differently. Some of their prophesies that will be proven true, some will be proven false, and some come as warnings of things that may or may not be avoided. The important thing to realize is that no one, no matter how clever or intelligent, escapes the subjectivity and inherent fallability brought on by such worldviews; that’s why it took humanity thousands of years to develop scientific processes that take knowledge out of the mind and instead acquire it through objective, material experiments – and even then, we know that cultural factors lead different groups of scientists in different directions.

And no one need be completely of one religion, either; that’s another thing about religion that many people often miss. There is no definitive difference between a Buddhist and a Hindu, or a Hindu and a Sikh; each overlaps the views of the others, and though claiming separate identities, can have views more like each other than like some adherents of their own religion. One Christian may insist that a Mormon is not a Christian while a Mormon insists that he or she is, and a Jehovah’s Witness may say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only Christians but Catholics and Protestants obviously disagree.

Each of these worldviews acts as a lens, and all new bits of information will be processed through them and altered by them. That is why we can see a CATO think-tank member study the journals and still insist that Global Warming is a myth, a hippie become certain that the poisonous mushrooms he is eating are actually good for his digestive tract, a futurist think he can predict what robots will look like thirty years from now, or a businessman beleive that the family that lost their home to bankruptcy must have done something foolish or lazy while his own investment risks were commendable. They are every bit as gripping as faith, sometimes to the extent that they become invisible to us as anything but the most rational, logical, perfect way to look at things.

And everyone adheres to such worldviews, even the staunchest athiest or most educated intellectual. There is no way to escape religion; it encompasses everything we know.

Polls below 30

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 4:01 pm
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If you look at President Bush’s approval ratings from Pollingreport.com, you find that most of his scores from various polling agencies are under 30, and the “approve minus disapprove” category usually surpasses that score – meaning that more than twice as many people openly disapprove of the president as approve.

But something more interesting comes up in the trends. Some polls score Bush a few points higher in the “approve” column than the rest do, and they are usually the same polls that eliminate the “unsure” option from the survey. Meanwhile, those same polls are comparable in the “disapprove” column to the ones around them.

A drawn graph is necessary to really observe the trend with any kind of certainty, but it seems that allowing the “unsure” option cuts more deeply into “approve” than “disapprove.” It means that a pollster who likes the president can eliminate the option to make his score seem higher. But the more useful information is that someone who is ambivalent towards the president is more likely to like him, if forced to take sides, than dislike him.

Who do these ambivalent people represent? First, they could be conservatives who don’t like Bush’s occasional non-conservative position on immigration or spending, who don’t want to support him but don’t want to take a jab at a guy who they know is better than any Democrat at getting what they want.

But these ambivalent people might also represent Americans who don’t follow politics, to indicate that Americans would rather like their president than hate him, so they’ll support someone they don’t know much about. That rings true to past elections, when the mysterious outsider takes charge and wins popularity based on charisma or lack of bad press. That’s what happened with Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. in 2000, and in today’s race, Barack Obama and Fred Thompson. The novelty factor is well-known to political analysts; as Chris Matthews from MSNBC will say ad nauseum, “the person who wins each presidential election without an incumbent is the guy most unlike the last president.” People don’t want to be reminded of what they didn’t like in their leader. It’s why we would say Obama has a strikingly good chance in a final election, while Hillary’s chances are so-so and Mitt Romney’s are dismal.

But since Bush, if not in practice, then in theory, was above all else a Republican, Republican, Republican, I think any candidate the Democrats put forward will win in 2008. Democrats would be best to support, not someone they can get moderates and swing voters to vote for, but someone who moderates and swing voters will actually like, which will make for a better presidency, more profound policy change and a breeze past the 2012 elections for a second term.

July 11, 2007

Burj Dubai and Al Burj – the Two Towers

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:55 pm

In the world of architecture, new records are usually set by nibbling away at old ones. For example, when the Petronas Twin Towers became the tallest buildings in the world in 1998, their pinnacles were only slightly higher than the rooftop of the former recordholder, the Sears Tower, built 25 years earlier in 1973. The tip of each Petronas tower’s spire is 1,486 feet from the ground – just 9 feet higher than the spire of the Empire State Building, which was world record holder for over 40 years, from 1931 to 1972. In all of human history, no new recordholding tower has surpassed the previous recordholder by more than 500 feet.

That is, not until this year. The current world record holder, Tapei 101 in Tapei, Taiwan, stands at 1,671 feet tall. It is about to be beaten by the Burj Dubai (burj is Arabic for tower), currently under construction in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), by over 1,000 feet.

The height Burj Dubai will reach upon its compltetion is still secret, but the tower’s developers promise at least 2,700 feet – which is more than half a mile tall. And not only will the Burj Dubai be the tallest in the world by 1,000 feet; it will also be the tallest in Dubai by more than 1,500 feet, or over half its incredible height. The Burj Dubai is part of a massive development of canals, resorts, bridges and lakefronts constructed by a coalition of American and international real-estate and architecture corporations. The smaller midrises at the foot of the Burj Dubai will pale in comparison to the project’s centerpiece, leaving a naked and solitary tower in the center of a city of relative dwarfs. The layout contrasts the typical American city, where a cluster of several skyscrapers stands together amidst even more numerous mid-rises, for a cohesive appearence.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away from the Burj Dubai is the site for the proposed Al Burj, a skyscraper that is set to rival – or even dwarf – Burj Dubai. Al Burj is planned to be almost 4,000 feet tall, and the centerpiece of a waterfront development the size of an entire city.

The Dubai Waterfront (image) is a series of canals and man-made islands under construction on the coast of Dubai. The side of the development closest to the mainland will be composed of rectangular islands separated by canals, while the portion that extends into the Persian Gulf will be shaped like a gigantic star and crescent – the symbol of Islam – wrapping around another man-made island shaped like a palm tree. On the islands are mid-rise buildings, ranging from 1-3 story homes and mansions to 20 story midrises. Still, nothing will compare to Al Burj, which will stand thousands of feet above anything.

The result is a city dominated by two towers, miles apart but visible to each other as the tallest structures to be found. Each will be a panopticon-like pinnacle over a surrounding city, much like the towers in Lord of the Rings. Beneath the two towers will be a Sim-City like metropollis where everything was laid out, before the simultaneous contstruction of every building in the city, with waterfront property to maximize land value. Renderings of the new Dubai, seen from a birds-eye view, look like they should belong on the cover of a science fiction novel.

Dubai is the most modern and westernized city in the Middle East and quite possibly the most futuristic-looking city in the world. It is also among the most ethnically diverse; the super-wealthy investors who have built the city (including Donald Trump, who is building a tower in Dubai) import labor from India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and East Asia so that foreigners outnumber local Arabs by a ratio of 9 to 1 (men also outnumber women 2 to 1). That means that the Sunni Islamic goverment rules over huge numbers of Hindus, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and Buddhists. The city’s population doubled between 1995 and 2005, and is now more than ten times what it was in 1970, at a total of 1.3 million.

The United States is about to get a new record-holding tower, the Chicago Spire, a residential tower of unusual architecture that will resemble a gigantic drill bit on the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago. It’s name is of similar construction to Burj Dubai, which is Arabic for “Dubai Tower,” but Chicago’s new centerpiece at 2,000 feet tall will be dwarfed by the Burj by at least 600 feet. Chicago’s spire will also be the only building in the United States that is taller than the new World Trade Center tower in New York, which will consist of several smaller buildings surrounding the centerpiece, Freedom Tower, at 1,776 feet to the tip. The symbolic height of Freedom Tower represents the year the U.S. signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britian, and I would expect the eventual grand opening of the tower to occur sometime around July 4 several years from now.

Burj Dubai is long into its construction phase and is already 100 stories into the sky, with a pair of metal construction cranes attached to the top. Al Burj is only proposed, without an exact location announced, and the new WTC tower in New York has just broken ground. Preliminary groundbreaking has also begun on the Chicago Spire, but American towers tend to use slower construction periods than Dubaian counterparts. Burj Dubai is planned to open in 2009. Meanwhile, Freedom Tower is set to open in 2011 and the Chicago Spire is estimated to open in 2010.

July 6, 2007

Virginia Man Came Within a Hair’s Breath of a False Execution

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 3:38 pm

MSNBC reports that In 1985, Earl Washington Jr. was 9 days away from being executed for a murder he did not commit, when his execution was delayed. Virginia Governor Gim Gilmore released him from prison in 2002. He was just 22 when the murder occured in 1982, and spent his 30s in prison before being released after 10 years on death row.

Washington is midly retarded, and had been convicted based on a confession that a federal jury later called extortion because some of the details Washington gave about the murder had been fed to him earlier by one of his interrogators. In 2000, DNA determined that a convicted rapist, Kenneth Tinsley, had penetrated Rebecca Williams, the deceased woman Washington was convicted of killing. Since this was not part of the prosecutors case, it implied Washinton’s innocence, and this is part of the reason why Washinton was initially pardoned in 2002. But even in light of the new evidence it took two entire years before Washinton was released from prison, and if there hadn’t been any DNA evidence to put the case in question, Washinton likely would have eventually died for a crime he did not commit.

Washington is now 47 years old and has been released from prison for several years. His record has just been cleared by new Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine, and Washington won a $1.9 million settlement against the state for his false imprisonment. Kenneth Tinsley recently plead guilty to murdering Rebecca Williams.

The gross miscarraige of justice is well known now, and has already cast an eerie glow over the reality of capital punishment in the United States. Like all 4 men released from death row in Illinois in 2003 when it became known that their confessions were tortured out of them, Washinton is an African-American. In Illinois, the discovery prompted Republican governor George Ryan to communte the sentences of all 167 death row inmates in the state. In Virginia, there has been no such response.

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