City of Brass

The following is a guest post by my friend Aamer Jamali.

Having recently returned from Hajj, I am bombarded by that well meaning
question by all of my friends and loved ones… “How was it?” 
Unfortunately, all I can answer is an inadequate “fine”, or even
“great”.  Why?  Words can’t really describe the experience, especially
hastily chosen words in a usually hurried conversation.
How was
Hajj?  Was it awesome?  Was it a life changing experience?  Was it
spiritually fulfilling? Was it physically rigorous?  Yes.  All that for
sure… But even that seems to leave something out.  Not in the level
of superlative, but in the level of quality.
To me, Hajj was best described as a journey through death and back.  How would you describe that?  You simply can’t.
first thing you learn, even before you leave, is that your Hajj is your
own, and no one else’s.  Your experiences, your hardships, your
prayers, your choices are all unique to you alone.  So it makes sense
that this interpretation of Hajj is mine alone, and may not be
the experience of others.  It may not even be ‘correct’ in the
sense that I have not gleaned it (to the best of my knowledge) from any
sabaq or sanctioned text.  Yet to me, it is as plain as day.
in many ways like death, is a pinnacle, a climax of a Muslim’s life. 
Something to be looked at with equal parts excitement, respect, and
trepidation, mixed with a healthy dose of downright fear.  And yet you
realize that though you may fear it, your life is marching inevitably
towards it as a farz (required) act.  For me, I felt a call,
so clear it was almost physical, that this was my year to go.  And when
that hit, there really was no choice but for me to make the trek this
The first true act of Hajj is putting on Ehram clothes. 
For men, two simple pieces of unsewn, unadorned cloth, wrapped around
your body in much the same way as a traditional burial shroud.  You
shed every accoutrement and accessory of this world.  Everyone looks
the same.  The cardiologist from Los Angeles was sitting next to the
street sweeper from Bangladesh (really!), and nobody could tell one
from the other.  This was a powerful moment, saying goodbye to the
worldly station you have worked so hard to achieve.
The trip to Arafat is the climax of the act of Hajj.  You stand before the sun and pray.  Much like Muslim beliefs of qiyamat (the
day of judgement), you stand before Allah and you pray.  You pray with
an intensity you have never before experienced.  The most fitting
description I have read (but cannot take credit for) is that you stand
before your God naked.  Stripped naked of every crutch or protection
you have come to rely on.  There are no worldly accessories.  It
doesn’t matter how much you make, or what you own.  It doesn’t matter
who your dad is, or your mom.  You may stand next to your spouse, but
you are utterly and completely alone.  Standing there in your burial
shroud, praying before God, with only your Iman (faith) and your Amal (works)
to speak on your behalf, stripped of every conceivable comfort or
connection of the world.  This is an accurate description of Arafat
day, but it is also an accurate description of what Muslims are taught
will happen to each of us when we are called to account after death.
day is the most exhausting of Hajj.  Though it is not the most rigorous
day, the trip down from the mountain of Arafat is a mixture of feeble
jubilation with intense spiritual, psychological, and emotional
fatigue.  Your trip through death is over.  Your accounts have been
settled.  You have been cleansed of sin.  But you have been left with
nothing in this world, you sleep under the stars, exposed to the
elements.    It is time for rebirth.
On your return, you shave your head, just as we do for newly born babies.  You begin your new life with a tawaaf (a trip to the kaabah),
hopefully beginning things on the right foot.  What better way to start
off your new life than with an act of total obedience and submission to
God’s will?  You return home, and remove your (by now dusty and dirty) Ehram clothes to begin your life anew.
I finished, my number one feeling was one of traversing the plains of
death, facing its trials and tribulations, and returning reborn. 
do you sum that up in a hallway when a colleague asks “How was your
trip?” There’s only one realistic answer.  “Fine, thanks”.

Aamer H. Jamali, MD, FACC is a cardiologist in Los Angeles.

Partly because I just went to Africa and flew over (but did not have a chance to actually visit) the Great Rift Valley (also known as the Cradle of Mankind), I’ve been thinking a bit about evolutionary theory of late. I am a scientist, but not a biologist – my field is medical physics. Still, my background makes me biased towards the scientific establishment and I am an ardent believer in the scientific method. While technically as a deeply religious person I do believe in “intelligent design” (in the abstract) I don’t believe in Intelligent Design as promoted by the various evolution-denialists in the political arena. I am quite strictly against introducing religious theories such as ID into the science curriculum.

All that said, I still am unable to accept the blind assertion that genetic mutation is the sole source of speciation. Note that I am not talking about the origins of life, but rather the evolution of life afterwards from species to species. It strikes me that the evolutionary dogma can be reduced to the idea that DNA is “read-only”. Contrast this with the (discredited) ideas of Lamarck who argued that the environment can introduce changes to an organism that are then heritable by its progeny; given that DNA is indisputably the mechanism by which species reproduce, that implies that DNA is “read/write”.

From an engineering and aesthetic perspective, I have trouble with the idea that a system so complex as DNA and gene expression can be so rigid. My intuition is that DNA does not posess enough degrees of freedom to “encode” life as we know it. But how can I test that intuition without getting a PhD in genetics? I think I’ve come up with a way, though of course it is crude and rife with bland layman assumptions. Still, bear with me (and I hope to attract some attention to this from experts so we can refine it).

Let’s take some basic numbers. There are about 20,000 genes in the human genome, with an average size of 50 kilobases (ie, 50,000 base pairs. Remember DNA is a double-helix, unlike RNA). Also, we are often told that humans and chimpanzees differ in their genomes by only 1%. Actually, that figure is only for genes where humans and chimps totally differm but there are some genes where the variation between teh species might not be so absolute. I’ll use 5% instead. Finally, we know that according to best estimates, humand and chimpanzees diverged from their common ancestor about 5 million years ago.

Taking these bits of data, we can actually estimate the required rate of evolution in terms of point mutations in DNA needed to turn a chimp into an ape. Of course, humans did not evolve from chimps, so we would then halve the rate we calculate to get the change from the common ancestor of both to humans (or chimps). So, let’s do the math.

20,000 genes x 50,000 base pairs = 1 billion base pairs
5% difference between humans and chimps = 50 million base pairs
rate of change = 1/2 * 50 million base pairs / 5 million years = 5 base pairs per year

So, to go from the common ancestor of humans and chimps, to modern humans, the average rate of mutation required would be 5 base pairs per year. This seems like a very high rate to me; if we discretize into generations of 25 years each, then we are talking about 125 base pairs every generation.

It seems that this is a number that can be tested over time. You’d need to collect DNA data from thousands of people, over a few centuries, to get an idea of the actual rate of change. But it is definitely something that can be tested (and the exact number of people you’d need to test, and how many generations to test, is something that can be estimated by statistical theory to ensure that the results have statistical significance).

I am sure there are many objections to the methodology above – one that is immediate is that humankind has historically had very small populations, unlike other species like insects or rodents etc. That means that other species have a lot more raw genome floating around. But that kind of supports the contention that human evolution must be very rapid indeed to support the observed evolution over the past few million years, given our far smaller gene pool.

The implication of such rapid evolution is that we should actually notice it on human timescales. And that there is actually is some mechanism of action that is actually driving the mutations themselves – cosmic rays? transcription errors? normal statistical variance?

It seems that if we aren’t mutating at a rate comparable to above, then some sort of alternative mechanism must also be operating to accelerate the changes in DNA required to evolve from one species to another. There’s certainly some evidence that there are such “neo-Lamarckian” processes at work, The case of the humble water-flea certainly is not explicable by normal Darwinian processes.

You could go even further and compute the total information content of the human genome, and then try and see whether that is sufficient to describe a human being. But that is a task I’ll leave for later, or someone else. I think I’ve ventured far enough out on this limb for now 🙂

via Clammyc at Daily Kos, here is a partial list of what the House Republicans voted unanimously against in refusing to support the stimulus package that passed without them.

  • An increase in the maximum benefit under the former food stamp
    program (now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or
  • An expansion of broadband internet access to rural areas of America;
  • Programs to improve infrastructure and develop rural communities;
  • Improvements to the criminal justice system;
  • funding for science and technology research;
  • Funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services;
  • Funding to repair, maintain and renovate the Department of Defense (DoD) facilities;
  • Energy efficiency projects and modernization of heating/cooling and electrical systems at the DoD;
  • Improving Army barracks;
  • Energy related research and development (renewable energy programs and expansion of existing weatherization activites);
  • Funding for the Army Corps of Engineers (remember the levees in New Orleans that weren’t funded?;
  • Modernization of the nation’s electrical grid;
  • Construction and repair of Federal facilities;
  • Funding for clean water programs and water infrastructure projects;
  • Capital improvements and maintenance for Forest Service and
    National Park Service, the Superfund program and wildland fire
  • Funding for the Department of Health and Human Services;
  • Funding for labor and employment training programs/Department of Labor;
  • Renovations to elementary and secondary schools;
  • Pell Grants and other student financial assistance;
  • Educational programs aimed at elementary and secondary education;
  • Defense construction projects – including hospitals, barracks and day care centers;
  • funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to be used on maintaining VA medical facilities and cemeteries;
  • Funding for Information Technology projects at the State Department;
  • Funding for highway construction;
  • Funding for housing assistance programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development;
  • Grants to states and cities for community development;
  • Refundable tax credits for middle and lower income families;
  • Increase tax credit for higher education;
  • Extension of tax credit for renewable energy production;
  • Increase the earned income tax credit for lower income families with three or more qualifying children;
  • Increased funding for emergency unemployment benefits for those who exhaust the amount of benefits they collect;
  • Temporary increase in amount of unemployment benefits;
  • Assistance to states for spending on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program;
  • Extension of Medicaid coverage to certain unemployed workers;
  • Assistance with COBRA premium payments for certain unemployed workers; and
  • Incentives for health care providers to use “health information
    technology” which would reduce health care costs for providers and
    lower premiums.

All of the above is dismissed as “socialism” and “pork” by conservative ideologues, who are primarily to blame for the dilution of those terms of any meaning due to repeated overuse in the past decade. It is clear that modern-day conservatism needs to reinvent itself by reconciling its principles with the very real challenges that ordinary families as well as the nation as a whole face. Blind insistence that any spending on these challenges is tantamount to “socialism” is not only politically tone-deaf, but harmful to the nation’s self-interest. Rod Dreher actually points to a new conservatism that might fill the bill.

As Moe Lane says at RedState, the Democrats own the bill now. But that cuts both ways.

It is official – by unanimous vote, Rod Blagojevich is no longer the Governor of Illinois. In fact he has been barred from seeking public office in the State of Illinois forever.

The Chicago Tribune has a fantastic live-blog of the day’s impeachment proceedings that provide a wonderful example of government in action. I think one state Senator put it best:

Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) said she went through
today’s proceedings with a heavy heart. But not all the legislators
felt sad about the experience.

“I’m happy to have participated
in this process,” said Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago). “Yeah, it’s
unprecedented, but future generations will know that we have this thing
called impeachment, and whenever any of our leaders, who are human
beings like us, overstep the boundaries, the process is in place,”
Meeks said. “We have this thing called impeachment and it’s bleeping
and we’ve used it the right way.”

Brilliant. It stands to reason that a politician may be corrupt; but the impeachment shows that the system is not.

I will be driving home to Chicago this weekend; I plan to see whether Blago’s name is still on all the open-road toll plazas.

UPDATE: Svend asks whether the impeachment trial gave Blago his due process. It’s important to note that the impeachment is a political trial, not a criminal one – Blago does face criminal charges from federal prosecutors, and in that trial he will assuredly get his witnesses and whatnot. But also keep in mind that Blago missed the deadlines to file for subpoenas and then complained of due process after the fact. The prosecutor for the House was working under the same rules as Blago’s defense and did not miss those deadlines. The simple truth is that Illinois has a solid constitutional basis for impeachment and the power to impeach is not an arbitrary one that can be wielded as a political cudgel; Blago’s case really did meet the (quite high) standard. For more on the issue of due process, see this post by Cornell law professor Michael Dorf. I also want to note that Blago’s trial got international attention – including Al Jazeera – so it again showed the world how in America, rule of law is paramount. The value of impeaching Blago thus has national benefit as well as for the state of Illinois.