City of Brass

City of Brass

Security when Kaaba door opens

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I received these astonishing photos as an email forward, so I am unaware of their origin, but they certainly look legitimate. These are allegedly a glimpse of the heavy security around the Kaaba when the doors are opened by the Saudi authorities. It’s an impressive show of brute force.

Kaaba security - 2Kaaba security - 1

First debate: yawn

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

There were really only two audiences for this debate – the people who know they are voting for McCain or Obama, and the people who haven’t decided yet. The former are essentially totally unmovable in their opinion, however much they may pretend to be persuadable (and I am unabashedly in this cohort). The second, are probably “low information” voters who simply haven’t had time to think about the election much and are looking to form a gut feeling about the candidates.

Let me state up front that I am firmly of the opinion that the average voter is a rational actor. I don’t think people are dumb or racist or gullible, as a rule. I do however subscribe to the GIGO principle – garbage in, garbage out – which means that a perfectly rational voter will come to an irrational decision if fed utter nonsense to digest. The thought process itself, not the end product, is the rational part.

This is why the McCain campaign is so hell-bent on propagating nonsense about Palin’s qualifications (“I can see Russia from my house!”), outright smearing of Obama (“he’s a pedophile!”), and other chicanery (“I will single-handedly save the nation by going to Washington and injecting presidential politics into solemn deliberations!”). In the software world this is referred to as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. In other words, the McCain strategy is to swamp the low-info, undecided voter with an avalanche of garbage and hope that some of it sticks long enough to taint their conclusions about Obama’s fitness to lead.

tina-fey-01-af.jpgIn a nutshell, then, McCain’s objective in this debate was to avoid the issues and disseminate more FUD about Obama. Obama’s objective was to stand firm and demonstrate that he belonged on the stage. I think both of them achieved their goals, but in so doing made for a very boring debate for all of us in the first group, for whom this debate was not intended.
Overall, if I were to criticize Obama I’d say that his answers were too comprehensive. He needs to boil down his ideas more succinctly. He tended to try and be comprehensive, linking everything and drawing a great web of connections, relating everything to everything else so as to assert his knowledge on everything in a reassuring way. But in so doing we sort of lost sight of the small picture. Obama needs to factoid-ify his basic positions on the issues (Afghanistan – the real front of the war on terror. Iraq – expensive boondoggle that made us less safe. Economy – a mess because of Republican rule and military spending. etc.) Not because I think the low-info voter is a fool, but rather because anything more complex can be more easily FUDded into torturous meanings and picked apart by McCain’s operation. What the low-info voter will see is not Obama’s two full minutes of response to a question, but a summary of the summary. The more simplistic he can be in conveying his ideas, the more fidelity with which he can get them across.

I know that CBS and CNN had some encouraging polls that suggest the independent voters who sat through the debate were generally pro-Obama. But for every focus group the networks setup, there are millions more voters who won’t know anything of the debate beyond tomorrow’s headlines and the capsule summary on the evening news. That summary will of course include (for “balance”) the McCain spin, and it’s hard to see how any nuance in Obama’s answers will be preserved.
Fundamentally, the partisan supporters (myself included) will assume they were unbiased but still in favor of their man. But we don’t count. The key is the swingy middle, and where they stand, we won’t really know until the next debate (if that even happens – McCain’s camp is reported to be in full-panic mode about Palin’s disastrous media appearances, especially the Katie Couric interviews, which make the Tina Fey portrayal on Saturday Night Live seem pretty tame).
Sure, Obama won. I’m an Obama guy after all. But who cares what i think? Or what RedState thinks?

McCain_Wins_Debate.JPGAnyway, according to web ads that the McCain campaign was running this afternoon, McCain won the debate even before it took place. Clearly, further debates are redundant. John McCain is altering the deal.. pray he doesn’t alter it any further.

(Why, yes, that is a picture of Tina Fey up there. No, it’s not really relevant to this post at all. Unless of course McCain dumps Palin and runs the McCain-Fey ticket, in which case I’m so aboard.)

fiscal crisis explained by stick figures

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This powerpoint of unknown authorship has been making the rounds of Wall Street brokers, so Barry Ritholz embedded it online in Google Docs for all to share (click it to begin slide show):

ace_mortgage.png

One thing worth noting, and emphasized in the above, is that the entire crisis arose because of the assumption that house prices would always rise. That, in a nutshell, is why the entire conservative argument that the market is all-knowing and all-wise is fundamentally nonsensical. True laissez-faire economic policy will always result in abuse and short-term greed taking priority over long-term prudence.

However tempting it is to place the blame on the system for the crisis, however, some measure of responsibility rests on the putative homeowners themselves, who sought mortgages beyond what they’d normally be able to afford. The reasoning went, instead of a regular mortgage for $X,000, I can get an adjustable rate mortgage for $2X,000. Then I can refinance the mortgage later and pay a lower rate! Of course as the housing bubble collapsed, the ARMs’ rates increased rather than decreased and these buyers were left with mortgages they could not even remotely afford as the interest payments ballooned. That’s why the value of the securities referred to in the powerpoint collapsed, because these purchasers were defaulting on their loans left and right. The point here is that the homebuyers let their fascination with large homes beyond their means tempt them into mortgages that under prudent fiscal planning would have been obviously unwise. The dream of a big house in suburbia – which also relies on the assumption of cheap gas for the long commute, but that’s another assumption and separate issue – proved unsustainable in every way.

It’s also worth pointing out that the crisis as a whole is a direct
consequence of the central role that interest plays in the economy. The
less reliant you are as a consumer on interest, the more you are
insulated from the effects of the crisis. Abiding by Islamic principles
and avoiding interest is easier said than done, but it is still
possible – for example, there are schemes whereby the lender actually
buys the home outright and then sells it back to the purchaser in a
rent-to-own kind of scenario. The truth of the matter is that it will take longer to own your own house this way, and you won’t get as big or fancy a (first) house as you’d like, either. But living frugally is a virtue in and of itself… at least until you outgrow the first home and trade up.

Autumn Equinox

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Allah
is He Who … has subjected the
sun and the moon (to his Law)! Each one runs (its course) for a term
appointed. — (Qur’an 13:2 – Yusufali)

I am reminded of this ayat by yesterday’s Astronomy Photo of the Day, depicting the Autumnal Equinox:

seasons_tezel

The phot shows the path of the Sun in winter (bottom band), summer (upper band) and the Autumn Equinox (middle band), when the length of the day and the night are exactly the same. To a fasting muslim, the Autumn Equinox has special relevance – in a nutshell, the fasts get shorter from here on out :) In two years most of Ramadan in the northern hemisphere will occur prior to the equinox. The Sun and the Moon follow their course, however, without regard to the inconveniences of the believers…

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