Archive for the ‘society’ Category

Woman appointed to Saudi Council of Ministers

The Saudi flag bears does not appear on the nation's military uniforms because it bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet") which it would be blasphemous to display while going to the bathroom

The Saudi flag bears does not appear on military uniforms because it bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet") which it would be blasphemous to display while going to the bathroom

This blog’s very first post concerned women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and we have since followed other developments in the desert kingdom, good, bad, and ugly.  This one is good: King Abdullah has appointed a woman to the Saudi Council of Ministers for the first time.  Noor Al-Fayez will serve as deputy minister for women’s education.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies.  The Council of Ministers is appointed by and responsible to the king and merely advises him on the formulation of general policy and assisted with managing the activities of the bureaucracy. The council consists of a prime minister, the first and second deputy prime ministers, 20 ministers (of whom the minister of defense also is the second deputy prime minister), two ministers of state, and a small number of advisers and heads of major, autonomous organizations.

King Abdullah (b. 1924) has a net worth of about $21 billion

King Abdullah (b. 1924) has a net worth of about $21 billion

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, called many of the other appointments in what is the council’s biggest shake-up since Abdullah became king in 2005 very “progressive”, which is a very good thing.

King Abdullah appears to be, very slowly, moving the country in a more liberal direction, but considering how reactionary the place is it’s still just about the most conservative place on the planet.  He is 84 years old and the Crown Prince is just two years younger.  Succession to the Saudi Monarchy can be a messy process and it will be interesting to see how things shake out in the next two decades when the last of the sons of Ibn Saud, the nation’s modern founder, pass on.

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California Supreme Court to hear Prop 8 case on March 5th

Flag of California

The Flag of California

The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to determine the validity of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment approved by 52% of the state’s voters last November.  Prop 8, which this blog is not a fan of, overturned a previous decision of the state’s high court that required the state to recognize and allow same-sex marriage.

The argument brought by opponents of the measure is that it violates not the Federal Constitution but certain provisions of the State Constitution, which contains several different amendment mechanisms including initiatives, which can be placed on the ballot by petition, and revisions, which can only be put on the ballot by a super majority of the state legislature.

The plaintiffs argue that a measure eliminating fundamental rights from a historically persecuted minority amounts to a revision of the Constitution and exceeds the power of initiatives.

A revision can be placed on the ballot only by a two-thirds legislative vote or by delegates to a state constitutional convention. The court has upheld such challenges to initiatives only twice in its history, in 1948 and 1990.

Opponents of Prop. 8 also argue that it violates the constitutional separation of powers by stripping the judiciary of its ability to protect a minority group. Attorney General Jerry Brown has sided with opponents of the measure and argues that it is invalid for another reason: that it abolishes “inalienable rights,” guaranteed by the state Constitution, without a compelling justification.

The plaintiffs clearly have a tough case to argue and, as a matter of law, I’m not sure if they’re correct about the measure constituting a serious revision.  I didn’t think they had a case at first, but now I think they may.  Imagine if a simple majority of the electorate could revoke the right of women or of African Americans to vote.  Or if 50% +1 could take away the presumption of innocence or freedom of religion.  (All of these are protected by the U.S. Bill of Rights, but the point remains.)

Keep in mind that the entire point of a Bill of Rights is to keep the majority from doing what it wants.  If it can be overturned by a simple majority, then what’s the point?  It’s just a speed bump, not any sort of true impediment to the mob or protection for political minorities.

Even if Proposition 8 is permissible under that wonderful document that is the California Constitution, it shouldn’t be.  Amending the Constitution should take more than a few signatures on a petition and then a simple majority of the electorate.  A simple majority to ratify an amendment proposed by a super majority of the legislature is fine; that’s what almost all, if not all states allow.  But an amendment proposed by petition, if allowed at all, should have to secure 60% of the vote, I think.

The lead case is Strauss vs. Horton, S168047.  The Court will also be hearing arguments concerning whether the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed prior to the amendment was approved are still valid.  I imagine they would be, but the state just couldn’t recognize them—if Proposition 8 is upheld.  The lead attorney for those seeking to overturn the amendment and limit marriage rights is Kenneth Starr, the former investigator of President Clinton.

Guys with uncommon names more likely to commit crimes

MSNBC has a story discussing a new study published in the journal Social Science Quarterly which indicates that guys with less common names are more likely to commit crimes than guys with more common names.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

Correcting for race is obviously needed; Hispanics, blacks, and whites often follow different naming conventions for their children.  However, the study would also need to be correct for income; wealthy people and poor people may well follow different conventions when naming kids and poverty often correlates with criminal activity.  The presence of a father also correlates with tendency towards criminality and it seems possible to me that whether a child is named only by his mother or by both his mother and father may influence the sort of name he is given.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that “they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent.”

“Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships,” according to a statement released by the journal’s publisher. “Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names.”

I am dubious about using a kid’s name to tell how likely he is to commit crimes.  Why not just look at socio-economic status and family situation itself to decide where to focus resources and aid?  Parents should definitely not worry about what name they give their son; just be good parents and he’ll probably turn out fine.

For my part, I would simply point out that according to the Social Security Administration Jacob has been the #1 name for baby boys in the United States for every year between 1999 and 2007 (the latest year for which data are presently available).  You could therefore say that I should be at low risk for committing crimes.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; it commemorates his birth on 15 January 1929.

A great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead of reading some inane comments by me about Dr. King, why don’t you read something from Dr. King instead?

Once you’ve done that, you may want to watch this video of King’s last speech, which was rather prophetic, given that he was assassinated just a few hours later.  It was just a few minutes long; here is the peroration:

To learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr., see his Wikipedia page and/or check out MLK Online.

Same-sex marriage bill introduced in Maine Legislature

The Maine State House in Augusta, where a battle over same-sex marriage is likely to be fought

The Maine State House in Augusta, where a battle over same-sex marriage is likely to be fought

Dennis Damon, a Democrat who serves in the 35-member Maine Senate, has introduced legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in that state.  The bill is entitled “An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedoms.”  Maine’s governor, Democrat John Baldacci, has opposed gay marriage in the past, but indicates he supports civil unions.  The state already has a form of domestic partnership available.

According to the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper, Equality Maine collected over 33,000 signatures to send to the legislature in favor of same-sex marriage.  A newly formed opposing group, the Maine Marriage Alliance, which wants to limit marriage rights, is advocating to make Maine the 31st state which prohibits same-sex marriage in its constitution; currently, marriage is limited only by statute.

New experiment shows indifference to racism

An interesting experiment reported on by MSNBC indicates that the way people react to overt acts of racism and the way people say they would act to such acts are two different things.

The study involved 120 non-black students from York University in Toronto who were recruited for a purported psychology study.

A participant was directed to a room where two actors posing as fellow participants — one black, one white — waited. The black person said he needed to retrieve a cell phone and left, gently bumping the white person’s leg on the way out. The white actor then did one of three things: Nothing. Said, “I hate when black people do that.” Or used the N-word.

Then a researcher entered and said the “psychology study” was starting and that the student should pick one of the two others as a partner for the testing.

Half the participants just read about that scene, and half actually experienced it.

Those asked to predict their reaction to either comment said they’d be highly upset and wouldn’t choose the white actor as their partner.

Yet students who actually experienced the event didn’t seem bothered by it — and nearly two-thirds chose the white actor as a partner, the researchers report Friday in the journal Science.

The lead author of the study, Kerry Kawakami, said the results indicate that “just because a black man has been elected as president doesn’t mean racism is no longer a problem or issue in the States.”

World’s oldest living person no longer living

The flag of Portugul, Maria de Jesus's home country

The flag of Portugul, Maria de Jesus's home country

The world’s oldest living person, Maria de Jesus dos Santos of Portugul, has passed on. She was born on 10 September 1893, making her 115 years 114 days old at her passing.  The cause of death has not been reported.

She only got to enjoy her title of World’s Oldest Person, bestowed on her by the Guinness Book of World Records, for 37 days; she inherited it from American Edna Parker, who died at the age of 115 years 220 days on 26 November 2008, and passes it to American Gertrude Baines, who is currently 114 years and 272 days old.  Ms. Baines, an African American woman, is reportedly in good health and living in a Los Angeles area nursing home.  However, the last 15 title holders lived only an average of 278 days after inheriting the title.  If Ms. Baines lives that long, she’d die on October 6th of this year.

But Jeanne Calment, who is the oldest verified person ever, who lived to be 122 years and 164 days old (44,724 days), held the title for 2363 days.   While it is seems somewhat odd to wish Ms. Baines a long and prosperous life, (she’s already had one!) this blog certainly wishes her the best and hopes that her remaining days, however many they are, are healthy and fulfilling.

If you are interested in super centenarians, check out Wikipedia’s article on the World’s Oldest People.

Gay adolescents effected by parents’ reactions to coming out

A new study released today in the journal Pediatrics indicates that gay adolescents are greatly impacted by how their parents react to them “coming out.”  In short, youths whose parents are loving and supportive have better outcomes than those whose parents react negatively.

Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.

More significantly, Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with composure instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth’s mental health outlook.

Check out the article (linked to above) for the definitions and methodology of the study along with more details on the findings.  The study was conducted by a team of researchers from San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute and was led by Caitlin Ryan, the director of adolescent health initiatives.  The study took three years to perform.

The story indicates that more gays and lesbians are coming out earlier in life, with the average age among those in the studies being about 16.

“So many families of children who are gay, bisexual or transgender, particularly families of gay male youth, think that if they are tough on the kid and tell him how unsatisfactory his gay lifestyle is to the family, he will have it knocked out of him,” Vermund said.

Vermund said he also was impressed by Ryan’s finding that a little bit of familial acceptance could go a long way in increasing a child’s chances for future happiness.

“The Southern Baptist doesn’t have to become a Unitarian,” he said. “Someone can still be uncomfortable with their child’s sexual orientation, but if they are somewhat more accepting and do the best the can, they will do the youth a lot of good. That to me is an important message.”

In the event that we want to prevent depression, the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and suicide, the results of the study are worth considering.   If the findings of this study are accurate and withstand further scrutiny, maybe they have something to tell us about the way we treat not just homosexual youths, but adult homosexuals in our society as well.

Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

Woman becomes mother at age 70, sets record

The Flag of India is a horizontal tricolor with the 24-spoke Ashoka Chakra wheel in the middle

The Flag of India is a horizontal tricolor with the 24-spoke Ashoka Chakra wheel in the middle

Rajo Devi of Alewa, India has become the oldest woman ever to give birth, as reported by Slate. She is 70 years old; the father, her husband, is 72.

Obviously, she is two decades past menopause and incapable of having children normally.  However, there are fertility treatments now by which a woman can have a child at virtually any age.  But just because we can do a thing does not mean that we must do that thing.  Or even that we should.  Rajo Devi and her husban will be octogenarians by the time the kid is 10.  I’m not sure what the age of majority is in India, but the mom will be 88 when the kid is 18.  How is this a good idea?

The desire to be parents is natural and understandable.  But if you can’t have children naturally, as Rajo Devi and her husband couldn’t, why not adopt?  There are surely enough orphans in the world (a lack of them would be a problem worth having). Why create a new child who will be deprived of parents while still young?  I think that maybe we should think a little bit more about this whole old people having babies after drastic medical intervention thing.