Iowa Tea Party fiasco

There is an interesting soap opera developing with Sarah Palin and Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell over who will appear at some event in Iowa on Saturday.

So will they both show up on Saturday and exchange icy stares? Or will they both skip the event, leaving the organizers in the lurch? Tune in and see!

Samosas for Jesus?

samosa.jpegIn more samosa-related news, I learned from the latest issue of The New Humanist (with its provocative cover photo of comedian Ricky Gervais) that the Islamist group known as al-Shabaab has banned samosas in the regions of Somalia controlled by it.

Why, you ask? Because they feel that its triangular shape is suggestive of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

So there you have it. An Islamist group suspects that a food item originating in a Hindu culture is secretly promoting Christianity.

Who knew that people involved in a civil war in a country facing a famine still had time to ponder the subliminal religious messages embedded in food snacks?

Some entrepreneur should take advantage of this snack vacuum to make crescent-shaped samosas.

Samosas and the soul

samosa.jpegSamosas are a triangular shaped Indian pastry that can have any filling but usually consists of a spicy mixture of potatoes, peas, and other vegetables. Quite improbably, they became the focus of a recent legal case in New Jersey.

As part of an India Day celebration in 2009, the plaintiffs placed an order at the Indo-Pak restaurant for vegetarian samosas, informing the restaurant that the food was being purchased for a group of strict vegetarians. The restaurant filled the order and assured the plaintiffs that the food did not contain meat. After consuming some of the samosas, the plaintiffs returned the remaining samosas to the restaurant and were advised that the food was, in fact, filled with meat. As a result, the plaintiffs claimed spiritual damage and asserted a number of causes of action against the restaurant, including product liability and breach of express warranty.

A lower court judge ruled against the vegetarians on all counts but an appellate court reversed part of that decision, saying that the restaurant had in fact violated a warranty. But they rejected the claim that the diners, by unwittingly eating meat, had experienced “negligent infliction of emotional distress” and “become involved in the sinful cycle of pain, injury and death on God’s creatures, and that it affects the karma and dharma, or purity of the soul. Hindu scriptures teach that the souls of those who eat meat can never go to God after death, which is the ultimate goal for Hindus. The Hindu religion does not excuse accidental consumption of meat products. One who commits the religious violation of eating meat, knowingly or unknowingly, is required to participate in a religious ceremony at a site located along the Ganges River in Haridwar, Uttranchal, India, to purify himself. The damages sought by plaintiffs included compensation for the emotional distress they suffered, as well as economic damages they would incur by virtue of having to participate in the required religious cleansing ceremony in India.”

The court ruled that they did “not find any evidence of an ascertainable loss on plaintiffs’ part”. The court said that while they may have not got what they asked for, the product itself was “safe, edible, and fit for human consumption.”

This case raises some interesting points. One is how a restaurant that caters to an Indian clientele could make such a mistake, since vegetarian samosas are the norm. The answer to that was that on that same day there had been another order specifically for meat samosas and the two orders had got switched.

The more interesting one is whether one should be eligible for damages because of the harm that one believes one has done to one’s soul. I have some sympathy for the diners because I know plenty of people who have strong religious proscriptions against certain foods and would be very upset if a similar thing had happened to them. But the court’s ruling made some good arguments as to why the spiritual damage claim was unwarranted.

In the present matter, plaintiffs have not pled or provided evidence of any “loss of moneys or property.” Indeed, it would be difficult for them to do so, since unrefuted evidence demonstrates that, following recognition by the restaurant of its mistake, Moghul Express furnished an order of conforming samosas to plaintiffs without cost.

Plaintiffs claim that they have sufficiently plead ascertainable loss by seeking damages in the amount of the cost of a trip to India to undergo a purification ritual. However, what they are seeking is the cost of cure for an alleged spiritual injury that cannot be categorized as either a loss of moneys or property.

Here, an underlying loss of the value of property cannot be demonstrated.

The court said that violations of religious dietary laws did not rise to the standard needed to meet the claim of serious emotional injury, which requires that there must be “an especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.”

How far should we go to accommodate people’s religious beliefs? Should we take seriously the claims of religious people that their immortal souls have received damage and that as a result they will not go to heaven?

I don’t think so. After all, there is no evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as an immortal soul let alone a heaven for it to go to or any consensus on what standards should be met to gain entry.

I am not denying the fact that the people who strongly believe in these kinds of dietary proscriptions may feel a deep sense of anguish at having broken them even inadvertently. But it seems to me that their beef (if you’ll pardon the expression) is with god. The ultimate issue here is whether it is fair for god to punish them for such an infraction. If such people wish, they should plead their case in the heavenly courts or set up religious courts where they can argue their case before theologians and priests, and not use the secular ones which, rightly, have little use for evidence-free claims.

And the financial skullduggery continues…

Matt Taibbi describes how the Obama administration and the Fed are part of the group trying to put the screws on New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman to get him to agree to a sweetheart deal that will let the banksters escape with a slap on the wrist for all their mortgage-backed fraud.

David Atkins explains how the Obama administration and others had Schneiderman removed from a group of state attorneys general that were investigating mortgage abuses because he was not satisfied with the deal being offered. (Thanks to Peter G.)

I wrote about this before here.

A national weight problem?

A new study suggests that obesity is increasing in the US:

Currently, figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the prevalence of overweight and obesity in adults at about 66 percent. But lead study author Dr. Youfa Wang of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore says that if current overweight and obesity trends continue, 86 percent of Americans could be overweight or obese by the year 2030.

The standard measure used is the body mass index (BMI) that is obtained by diving your mass (measured in kilograms) by the square of your height (measured in meters). This website calculates it for those who use pounds and feet and inches. A BMI of 30 or over indicates obesity while 25 or over means overweight. The ‘normal’ (i.e., supposedly desirable) range lies between 18.5 and 25

The study’s authors also say that, “By 2048, all American adults would become overweight or obese.” I tend to be wary of this kind of extrapolation, especially when it involves human behavior. A self-correction usually sets in at some point.

Another study released around the same time projects figures that are not quite as high:

If obesity rates continue to climb in the U.S. as they’ve done in the past, about half of all men and women could be obese in 20 years, adding an extra 65 million obese adults to the country’s population.

The current figure of 66% of overweight and obese adults surprised me. Can it really be that two out of every three people are like that or is the cut-off for being overweight too low? One common comment I hear from overseas visitors is their initial surprise at the number of overweight people they see in the US. Have I simply got used to thinking of larger people as the norm after living in the US for so long?

One of the peculiar features of the coverage of people’s weight in the media is the appearance of headless torsos accompanying the stories. News stories on obesity will be accompanied by photos and videos of people from the neck down, an indication of the stigma associated with being overweight. In fact, overweight people are often subjected to gratuitously rude comments and made to feel as if they have some kind of moral failing.

Some are fighting back, saying that they do not see obesity as a disease or even a problem, and definitely not anything to be ashamed of or have to apologize for. They say that that is simply who they are and the rest of the population simply has to deal with it. They have rejected the idea that the word fat is some kind of slur requiring the use of euphemisms to soften it, and have embraced it and made it their own, the way that the gay community did with the word queer. They are fat and proud of it.

The Daily Show had a segment on the coverage of obesity some time ago, and interviewed some who see the campaigns against obesity and the drive to eat healthier as a sign of creeping fascism.

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Jerry Lieber (1933-2011)

I tend to not know the names of songwriters. So I did not know until he died recently that Jerry Lieber was behind the lyrics to so many of the greatest songs of my youth. An old interview on Fresh Air of Lieber with Mike Stoller, who wrote the music, played excerpts of one great hit after another. Here’s a sample showing their range.

The silly Yakety Yak by The Coasters:

The poignant On Broadway by The Drifters:

And the ultimate ennui song, Is that all there is? by Peggy Lee:

Important First Amendment ruling

Recently there has been a spate of events where police have prevented ordinary people from recording them and even public meetings of congresspeople.

In a ruling on Friday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals has now said that such prohibitions violate the First Amendment.

Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a young man on the Boston Common. The charges against Glik, which included violation of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute and two other state-law offenses, were subsequently judged baseless and were dismissed. Glik then brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his arrest for filming the officers constituted a violation of his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

In this interlocutory appeal, the defendant police officers challenge an order of the district court denying them qualified immunity on Glik’s constitutional claims. We conclude, based on the facts alleged, that Glik was exercising clearly-established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause.

It is firmly established that the First Amendment’s aegis extends further than the text’s proscription on laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information. As the Supreme Court has observed, “the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.” First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) (“It is . . . well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.”). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that “[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news ‘from any source by means within the law.’” Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681-82 (1972)).

The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966). Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’” First Nat’l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n.11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)). This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Cf. Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1035-36 (1991) (observing that “[t]he public has an interest in [the] responsible exercise” of the discretion granted police and prosecutors). Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, see id. at 1034-35 (recognizing a core First Amendment interest in “the dissemination of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct”), but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally, see Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 8 (1986) (noting that “many governmental processes operate best under public scrutiny”).

In line with these principles, we have previously recognized that the videotaping of public officials is an exercise of First Amendment liberties. (All emphases mine)

This is an important blow against the repressive use of the state apparatus.

Hurricane Irene

Cleveland was not in the path of Irene so we just observed it from afar but I am puzzled by those who now claim that it was over-hyped, merely because it caused less damage than expected.

It is quite extraordinary that the National Hurricane Center is able to predict the track and intensity of a swirling storm five days out with pretty good precision, enabling cities and people to take safety precautions. David Kurtz points out that there have been huge gains recently in the ability to predict the track of hurricanes, and less progress in our ability to predict the intensity, as was the case with Irene.

But it was still quite an impressive feat for which the people at the NHC deserve a lot of credit.