Friday, February 23, 2007

Good and Bad News in Islam

Another day, another piece of idiocy from religious nutjobs in the UK. And a couple very welcome pronouncements for women from the Grand Mufti of Egypt, one of the most authoritative voices in Sunni Islam.

First the bad news

The Daily Express reports that the Muslim Council of Britain has slipped its cams and demanded strict Islamic standards for all schools in the UK. How strict? Well for example...

Everything from playground games, plays, parent meetings, sports and field trips would be single sex. Singing class would consist of the Quran. Muslim students would be exempt from learning about other religions, but non-Muslims students would be forced to learn Islamic doctrine. Girls would be subject to a dress code mandating that only hands and face would be uncovered. Vaccinations would be ended. Muslims children would be taught in Arabic. "Un-Islamic" activities would be banned. All schools would have special rooms for prayer and wudu. During Ramadan science classes would be modified, exams would be stopped and swimming would be forbidden in case students accidentally swallowed water.

This wouldn't normally be a cause for concern except that the report has the support of at least one senior Government adviser. Add that the MCB is a powerful political pressure group, and it is a bit worrying. I don't think that the recommendations are going to be implemented any time soon if we define "soon" as "before the Chassids make Porky Pig Bar Mitzvah". In light of the current Muslim/everyone else problems in the UK it's going to be a source of added aggravation. I'm taking odds, long odds but odds nonetheless, that we'll see anti-Muslim riots or non-governmental pogroms in Britain within five years.

Now the good news

Back in November the Grand Shaykh of Al Azhar and Aly Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, and two of the most prestigious scholars in the Sunni world issued a fatwa on female genital mutilation. Earlier rulings said that it was "not recommended" and "not obligatory". This one went much further. The two scholars announced that it was completely un-Islamic. In a country which has seen multiple secular prohibitions against the practice ignored or opposed this is a very welcome development.

This time Mr. Gomaa took on virginity. According to old custom in the area a woman's fitness for marriage was determined by the state of her hymen. In a country where honor murders still occur this is a very serious matter. The particular question was hymen-reconstruction surgery. Shaykh Gomaa stated that not only was it permissible, but that a husband had no more right to demand proof of virginity from his wife than she had to demand it from him. Shaykh Gindy went further saying "Islam does not care for the feelings of ignorant people, just as the law does not protect the idiots." They noted that women without hymens were subject to violence, which was the only justification for permitting the surgery. Further, if they were not virgins but truly repented their lack of chastity before G-d there was no need to tell their new husbands, particularly if they felt they would be in danger.

This extremely humane set of pronouncements is to be applauded. The Shaykhs have taken quite a risk in a country which is struggling with the relation between religion, ethnic customs and modernization.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

George Takei Slips the Ol' Pink (or Light Tan) Tentacle to Tim Hardaway

A few days back Tim Hardaway, NBA All-Star went on a rant about gay people. He hates them. He doesn't think the belong in America. America is for heterosexuals. He thinks gays are evil. He's proud to be a homophobe. The usual stuff. My immediate response would have been to say that I don't like porch monkeys, am a proud racist and think that America is for Covenant People, not muds. That would have been at about the same level but unworthy of a proud Amphibian-American. Back a few decades when Doonesbury was funny there was a pithy conversation between two characters that summed it up nicely:

"I hear you're gay."
"I hear you're Black."
"But that's normal!"
"Didn't use to be."

Hardaway seems to have lost his spot on the All-Stars this year and a number of endorsements for his remarks although he probably picked up the KKK and the AFA. The worst thing that happened to him has to be this video clip by George Takei. Warning: Do not watch if are drinking hot liquids or have easily dislocated ribs. May be hazardous to those suffering from chronic irony deficiency.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The SaniTest

There are web-based tests for everything, what Tarot card or superhero you are, which flavor of peanut butter you most resemble, or even how White and nerdy you are. The fine folks at the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society have a useful test. They will tell you how sane you are.

In the spirit of full disclosure...

Your SaniTest(TM) Results

Your score is: 159

For easier understanding, the HPLHS SaniTest assessment algorithm converts your raw score to a scale of 1 to 10. This number is your INSANITY INDEX.

INSANITY INDEX 9.41 This alarmingly high score suggests that you are moderately psychopathic: emotionally and behaviorally disordered. You seem to have a clear view of reality, but not of your own place in it. Your desire to lash out in violence might be kept in check by your deep-seated fears of other people. Other notable people who scored this high include Mark David Chapman, the assassin of singer John Lennon, and Aaron Spelling, producer of such TV hits as 'Beverly Hills 90210.'

The HPLHS has been trying for years to put on their delightfully eldritch musical A Shoggoth on the Roof. Unfortunately, the cock-sockets who own the copyright to Fiddler on the Roof always show up with corporate lawyers, cease-and-desists and huge lawsuits whenever anyone tries to do a production. Parody is protected by law.

That doesn't mean diddly when the big money guys can spend
whatever it takes to destroy a small community theater.

May their souls be devoured forever by the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua. And not in a good way.

Cult Classics - Old School and New School

Following along the lines of the last post, I've read a couple books recently which have much to say about fear, control and knowledge. One of them is a Cult Classic in the literal sense. There are cults and cultists. All the classic tropes get explored. I'm hoping the other one will become a cult classic the usual way, by selling lots of copies.

Anyone who has been around Your Humble Amphibian for more than about ten minutes will know that I like lots and lots of tentacles, especially when they are attached to shambling, hopping mind-blasting Eldritch Horrors. When I was just a tad my father read me H. P. Lovecraft stories at bedtime. People say this explains a lot. Dunno what they mean by that. In any case, for those who are mercifully innocent of sanity-shredding Reality and the Angles outside of Time, most of the stories of the Cthulhu Mythos have strange books of forbidden lore that tell Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know. Chief among these is the unspeakable Necronomicon written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. There have been about a thousand Necronomicons written. Most of them are dog-lame. Everyone knows HPL made up the book, so there's no need to pretend it's anything but fake. The authors should feel free to make up amusing interesting fakes. Almost none of them do.

A few months ago someone recommended Al-Hazred: Author of the Necronomicon by Donald Dyson. I have to admit, I was skeptical. Dyson is a long-time writer for the usually insipid New Age publisher Llewellyn Press. It's hard to imagine someone who write for the crystal-gazing bark-eater crowd appealing to the tentacle and unspeakable horror set.

It may be hard to imagine, but it's true. Dyson has done a fantastic job. I had no trouble turning every one of the 666 pages. Mythos stories are full of deranged cultists, evil necromancers, vile cultists and ravening ghouls. This is one of the very few I've seen that gets inside their head and lets you see the world from their admittedly wild eyes. We see Al-Hazred's origins as a stupid, self-absorbed young man horribly punished, mutilated and driven insane by the King (and he deserved every bit of it) and left in the desert to die. From there everything follows naturally. His adventures make sense once the reader decides to step over the edge and abandon humanity, conscience and a useless sanity. In fact, a couple hundred pages in I was beginning to be worried at just how reasonable it all seemed.

The author takes us through a lot of the classic elements of the genre. Cults hiding under the Sphinx. Hideous semi-human shamans. Elder horrors. Unspeakable deals with terrible gods. Murder. Cannibalism. Torture. Opposition to everything that is good, wholesome and human. Necromancy. Voluntary demonic possession. And it all follows completely naturally which makes for horror of an unusual sort.

It's an awfully fun and twisted ride.

Dyson has written his own Necronomicon. It's a summary of the other book and contains spoilers, so be sure to read Al-Hazred first. It's head and shoulders, or at least pseudopod and pale leprous polyp above most of them.

John Twelve Feathers' first novel, The Traveler, doesn't have any slithering shoggoths. Its horror is a little more early 21st century more of David Brin's Transparent Society and 1984 than alien monsters. The monsters are here. They are the forces which want the world to be predictable, controlled, under surveillance and efficient. Over the centuries they've come awfully close to that goal. The only really random factors left are those few who choose to live off the grid as well as the mysterious Travelers who can travel to levels of reality beyond this one and the nearly extinct secret society which protects them.

Most of the elements are all familiar to readers of science fiction and thrillers. Somehow Mr. Twelve Feathers presents them in a way which has immediacy. The message is nothing new. People need to wake up and open their eyes if they want even the hope of freedom. It suits those in power to keep the sheep stupid, distracted, afraid and unaware of just how badly they're being screwed. When everyone believes that he is being watched there really isn't much need to watch the people. The victims will do the heavy lifting themselves. The one thing that must be prevented is the knowledge that anything else is possible, that there are facets of existence outside of socially-approved authorized reality.

We have a powerful Conspiracy, genetically engineered monsters, a beautiful but emotionally stunted lady assassin, a roguish martial artist, a Magical Negro or two, amoral scientists, wise Native American Elders, a Good Girl who will almost certainly end up in bed with the roguish martial artist by book three, mysterious aliens from other dimensions, enchanted swords and astral travel. He makes it work and doesn't let the somewhat shop worn trappings detract from the story or the message. The Nobel Committee isn't going to be calling him soon, but the series is worth reading, even at cover price.

The TSA and Boiled Frogs

"Boil 'em Slow and They'll Never Know" goes the saying. It's not completely true. Frogs will hop out of water when it gets too hot. They are simple, straightforward creatures without enough brains for self-deception. Humans aren't as lucky. We have a nearly infinite capacity for, well, exploitation.

From the little bit I've learned about hypnosis and propaganda the most important key to success is to get the subject to do something. Once that has happened it becomes progressively easier to get him or her to do the next thing. Every Army in the world does this. Basic Training isn't about developing skills. It's a process of destroying the capacity to say "No" much less "Screw you. That's insane!" and replace it with immediate obedience to authority.

Since the middle of September in 2001 we've been subjected to an increasingly bizarre sequence of instructions and demands. First there was the cessation of all air travel. Then there was increased surveillance at the airport "Has anyone else touched your bags?" It became illegal to sell tickets (which pleased the airlines). Then there were explosive tests everywhere, random surveillance and searching of all luggage. Airport security kept growing although it was mostly pointless since they weren't hiring skilled investigators. They were loading the airports down with barely trained idiots. We went from metal detectors to shoes off, to partial strip searches in public to TSA drones groping women's breasts and having the victims arrested when they objected.

Restrictions on what we can carry started small. The hijackings may have been carried out with knives or box cutters. So they were banned. Then extra-sharp knitting needles, the tiniest of scissors, cigar cutters, screw drivers and an ever-growing list which we have learned to accept. Now flights get diverted when someone finds a utility knife left by maintenance workers. A sane person would just stick it in his pocket or point it out to the flight attendant. People have been arrested for trying to wear shirts with Arabic writing into departure gates. Then a scare about binary explosives allowed them to ban liquids. Even after the explosives experts repudiated it as utter bullshit the regulations remained. We were used to bowing to further limits which now extend to carrying food onto the plane. In the UK they've gone even further. Books, electronics, magazines, and toys are all forbidden. When one considers the prospect of a trans-Atlantic flight with two toddlers and a five year old with nothing to do, no snacks, and a government-mandated minimum of diapers the prospect of being blown up in mid-air begins to sound attractive.

The right to travel has become a privilege subject to arbitrary revocation by anonymous authorities. One need not be suspected of a crime. In fact, given the nature of Type I and Type II statistical errors it is inevitable that thousands of innocents will be wrongly detained or denied for every potential evil-doer who is stopped, not to mention the ones who slide through.

"Total Information Awareness" with its Eye in the Pyramid (I shit you not) logo was condemned as a totalitarian wet dream. When they changed the name to "Terrorism Information Awareness" last year the nation didn't even blink. They didn't even have to change the office stationary.

Now we are at a point where the Attorney General can say that habeas corpus isn't a right, the President can disappear, torture and kill anyone at his whim with no judicial review no matter what law Congress passes. The government has copped to secret prisons in Indiana for specifically for Muslims which almost certainly violate the Constitution. The Republican Lie Machine is saying quite literally that disagreement with the President is literally the crime of treason.

If any of this had been proposed even five years ago the person suggesting it would have been shown the door at least of his office if not the door to an asylum. Now we say nothing. Every time the head of the Department of Homeland Security, which translates nicely to Committee for State Security, reaches into his bag of M&Ms or the mantra "9/11! 9/11!" is bleated a few times we have been conditioned to submit and surrender a few more of our freedoms in the hope of a feeling of safety which we are never allowed to experience.

I'm convinced that Terry Pratchett is this generation's answer to Nasrudin, the Turkish mystic who was cursed with supreme Enlightenment but was only able to express it in jokes and pranks. Mr. Pratchett summed it up beautifully in his book "Interesting Times"

The Empire's got something worse than whips all right. It's got obedience. Whips in the soul. They obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Scott and Mushtaq Travelling Knife Show

A while back Mushtaq Ali Al-Ansari, wandering Dervish (semi-retired), martial artist, cook, knife-maker and many other things convinced us to go to the first PATH seminar run by our old Silat training bro' the writer Steve Barnes and Coach Scott Sonnon of RMAX. I have to admit we were skeptical. But we went, we learned a lot, and we were very impressed.

This time around Tiel had a shoulder injury and I was playing host, so we missed the seminar. We were able to make it to a special training event afterwards. Mushtaq and Coach Sonnon did what I hope will be the first of many knife workshops.

These days everyone has a knife workshop and a special secret sacred edged weapons combatives system along the lines of "Fear No Man. Add Inches To Your Penis." But Mushtaq is old and cunning and knows way too much about sharp things after decades of bumming around the world getting into trouble and learning local knife arts from the Mescalero Apache Reservation and Indonesia to Persia and South Africa. He's the embodiment of the Capoeira saying "Old holes have snakes in them." I'd never seen Scott's martial arts in person. On the other hand, he's a frickin' genius. His Sambo, Hardwork and other material are impressive. He's had the best training the old Big Red Soviet Sports Machine ever produced. It was worth a look.

I'm glad I took that look.

The first good thing was that there wasn't anything stupid. Ego just doesn't enter into what they do. It was simple (but not easy). It made sense. There wasn't any nonsense of the sort that can get you killed. It was lines of attack and defense, distance, timing, body mechanics and drills that you can build off of on your own. There were a few moments when I was afraid that the two very different backgrounds wouldn't mesh, but they did.

Mushtaq covered basic lines of motion, body mechanics and Silat knife fundamentals. Scott emphasized commonality of training, more body mechanics and the essentials of distance, timing and targeting. I found myself having saber and epee flashbacks which isn't surprising. Much of the Russian knife footwork is related to fencing. I learned a fair bit. Ideas like moving between rather than at the joints and sensitivity drills to minimize damage by moving with the attack were very thought-provoking. More to the point, people who have been and done like Terry and Bobbe left the seminar nodding their heads and smiling.

My only concerns were time and depth. Two hours wasn't nearly long enough for the material they were presenting. I've had a fair amount of exposure to Southeast Asian martial arts and Western fencing and was able to keep my head above water. Without the background it would have been hard to absorb that many important concepts in such a short time. And this stuff was deep. Some of the things they mentioned casually require a lot of time to bring out and mature. Without more time for explanation, demonstration and practice a beginner could get lost.

So yes. It's good. It's not perfect yet, but it was great for a first try. If they come to your area and you have an interest in bodywork, martial arts, or self protection you will find this valuable, especially if they expand the class to the length the material demands.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins, Requiescat in Pace

Molly Ivins, the sharp-tongued warm-hearted columnist who covered the Texas Legislature and national politics for years has died of breast cancer at the age of 62. Her satire was funny, humane and intelligent and her politics unabashedly liberal.

Goodbye and Godspeed, Molly. We'll miss you.