Saturday, October 28, 2006

San Francisco: Politics as usual....

I have always loved San Francisco. It's a beautiful, quirky city full of eclectic and interesting neighborhoods, amazing restaurants, funky foggy weather, and great shopping. There was a time when all I wanted to do was find a place to live in San Francisco and when my friend and I finally managed to squeeze our way into a multi-tenant house after searching for nearly 6 months I was overjoyed. But I only managed to live there for just under 2 years while going to school. Eventually it just got too expensive to live there - San Francisco is an incredibly expensive place to live, even if you are a fresh college grad with a steady job.

One of the interesting things about San Francisco that I remember very well are elections. The ballots were always a mess of wacky propositions, more than a few that made no sense at all. Sometimes reading them was an excercise in humor, and other times I just shook my head in disbelief.

This year's election is no different: according to the Chronicle, 6 of the 11 measures were placed on the ballot the last possible day, 4 within the last 5 minutes of closing time at the registrar of
voters office:

Of the 11 measures, six were slapped on it the last possible day by a minority of city supervisors.

No hearings, no economic analysis, no public notice. Four of the measures arrived less than five minutes before closing time at the registrar of voters office on deadline day.

Each proposition deserves a serious look by voters. But when a measure drops unannounced on the ballot, it should make a voter think: How thoroughly was this idea vetted?

How thoroughly indeed? As the article explains, in San Francisco only 4 out of the 11 supervisors are required in order to place a measure on the ballot. Here's what the voters of San Francisco get to vote on in this election:

Proposition A - $450,000,000 in bonds to to modernize and repair up to 64 additional school facilities. (Is this even necessary in a city where the number of households classified as families with children under 18 is only 16.6% and shrinking?)

Proposition B - A parental leave policy for Board of Supervisor members due to pregnancy, child birth, or a "related condition" that would allow them to participate in meetings by teleconference.

Proposition C - Raising the salaries of certain city employees (such as Mayor, City Attorney, Sheriff, etc.) based on the average salary paid to comparable officials in other Bay Area counties. Boo hoo. Other counties pay their officials more - we're jealous.

Proposition D - Measure to prohibit city and city contractor's from disclosing individuals private information.

Proposition E - To raise the parking tax from 25% to 35%. I'll quote the Chronicle from the same article linked above:
The city's 25 percent tax on parking rates is among the highest in the nation. This measure would push it to 35 percent but where will the money go? Backers say the new money will support transit, but that's not guaranteed. This measure was put on the ballot by four supervisors with no hearings. Vote NO.

Hey, come on now, those raises for city officials have to come from somewhere!

Proposition F - Sick Leave Ordinance - will require all employers to provide sick leave to their employees working in San Francisco. Again I quote the Chronicle:
This one's a stunner: required sick pay for all workers in the city. Were there hearings, negotiations, an assessment of the economic impact and a consensus buy-in like the city had when it approved universal health coverage this year? No.
This measure -- handed in at 4:58 p.m. on the last day possible -- could put the city at the forefront on an important issue. Or it could be an inflexible plan that spells failure.

Proposition G - This one's my favorite. It's a classic liberal elitist rejection of the free market economy: banning retail chain stores. (No! No! That's not true, we will simply require them to get special permission from the planning board before operating in a neighborhood that already has a retail chain store!) Don't worry. Most people vote with their pocketbooks and feet anyways, this will just drive more San Francisco shoppers to leave the city to get their Starbuck mocha lattes and shop at Target or WalMart; better yet, by being outside of the city, they can avoid that shameful embarassment of being seen by their friends as supporting the evil global corporate conspiracy!

Proposition H - Another classic. Requiring landlords to actually pay to relocate their tenants who are evicted "through no fault of their own". One of the reasons San Francisco is so freakin' expensive is because of all the ridiculous rent control laws. I have a question: how can someone be evicted through no fault of their own? You mean it's not their fault when they forget to repeatedly pay the rent? It's no fault of their own when they violate the rent agreement they signed? Oh, right, this is for those landlords that just kick people out to the street for no reason - and we all know how evil landlords are!

Proposition I - Where's the love? We miss our mayor. So we'll propose some bonehead measure that will require him to visit with us at least once a month. Why won't he love us??

Proposition J - My second favorite: a useless measure calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Yeah, San Francisco will get far with that one folks.

Proposition K - Adopting a policy that acknowledges the housing needs of seniors and disabled persons. No action, no plan, let's just acknowledge the problem. Come on, we need your vote otherwise we can't acknowledge there is a problem.

And some people wonder why San Francisco's population has fallen nearly 5% in the past 5 years, why families are leaving for cheaper cities and suburbs with better schools, and job creation is greatest outside of the city, not in it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Hot Air Interviews Mark Steyn

Part I here, get Part II here.

Absolute must watch internet TV. Also check out Mark Steyn's new book "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It." Here is an excerpt from Austin Bay's review at Strategy Page:

Steyn is an arch "Euro-pessimist," who backs his pessimism with numbers.

Europeans are reproducing below the "replacement rate" -- thus the average age of their populations is increasing sharply. If current trends continue, by 2050 one in three Germans and Italians will be over 65 years old. In the United States, only one in five will be so gray.

As a result, the Europe of the European Union (Steyn disdainfully calls it "Eutopia") faces economic decline and risks systemic change. Steyn writes: "Tax revenues that support the ever growing numbers of the elderly and retired have to be paid by equally growing numbers of the young and working. The design flaw of the radically secularist Eutopia is that it depend on a religious-society birth rate."

Japan faces the same "gray threat." Even China has a birthrate below the demographic replacement rate. Among the modern industrial nations, only the United States (and possibly India) has the knack for reproduction.

The United States also grows through immigration that includes political and cultural integration.

Europe's Muslims, however, are multiplying -- but they are not integrating culturally. Steyn argues that if European nations fail to culturally integrate Muslims, Europe faces profound political changes.

"As fertility dries up," he writes, "so do societies. Demography is the most obvious symptom of civilizational exhaustion, and the clearest indicator of where we're headed."

The rise of home-grown Muslim extremism in Australia

A couple of days ago we linked to a story about Australia's most senior Mulsim cleric, Sheikh Taj Din al-Hilali, blaming women for sexual attacks and likening them to meat. Today the Counterterrorism Blog has a detailed post profiling the rise of home-grown Mulsim extremism in Australia, where at least one Australian-born Muslim cleric has called for Australian Muslims to fight against coalition forces (which include their own Australian troops) in Afghanistan and Iraq:

While the radicals comprise only a small number of Australia’s 300,000 Muslims (who come from some 20 countries), their vociferous and intolerant discourse is disturbing. It also adds increasing light to the problem of home-grown Islamist militancy in Australia.

Last year, the firebrand imam, Abdul Nacer Benbrika, originally from Algeria but who eventually became an Australian citizen, went on national television and stated unequivocally that he could not tolerate any religion but Islam: "According to my religion, here, I don't accept all other religion except the religion of Islam… I am telling you that my religion doesn't tolerate other religion. It doesn't tolerate. The only one law which needs to spread, it can be here or anywhere else, has to be Islam."

Benbrika, who described Osama bin Laden as “great man,” also caused a stir by inciting Australian Muslims to go to Iraq and fight coalition – including Australian – troops; stating that it was a religious obligation for Muslims to do so.

Benbrika was arrested last November for being the ringleader of a terrorist plot. According to police officials from the State of Victoria, though the plot was in its "developmental stages,” Benbrika and his followers (two cells, one in Sydney, the other in Melbourne), were clearly inspired by the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London and were planning a major attack. In a telephone conversation intercepted by the police, Abdulla Merhi, said he "could wait months but not years" to carry out jihad. "You shouldn't kill just one, two or three," Mr Benbrika allegedly responded. "Do a big thing." "Like Madrid?" Mr Merhi allegedly inquired, to which Mr Benbrika was said to have replied: "That's it." He continued, "If you kill, we kill here 1000, because if you get large numbers here, the government will listen." Members of the Melbourne cell were allegedly filming the Australian Stock Exchange and Flinders Street Station, the main commuter rail terminus in Melbourne.

They also provide this tidbit of information on Al-Hilali, the cleric who likened women to meat:

Al-Hilali has been in the news before. He was nearly deported several times before gaining citizenship owing to his radical preaching and tirades. He called the 9/11 attacks "God's work against oppressors" and continues to astound people with his virulent anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. These statements got him expelled from the Prime Minister's Muslim Advisory Board.

Public school systems say charter schools unfair

Because, dammit, charter schools are able to use their entire budget to focus entirely on their schools and provide the education that their community demands:

"I think it's basically unfair to compare an entity that is able to take their entire budget and focus it entirely on their own schools," he said. "They have some real advantages over our schools in the flexibility of actually providing the type of education that a particular community wants, whereas we are trying to provide a curriculum that works for everyone all across the school district."

Via Cato-at-Liberty, who comments:

Yeah! Lauritzen is right! I mean, the nerve of people creating schools that can provide what parents and communities want!

It’s no wonder that, a few months ago, Mr. Lauritzen proposed a moratorium on charter schools, and that public schooling’s defenders fight even harder against reforms like vouchers and tax credits. After all, who could just sit by and watch parents get schools they want when an old, hopeless system is suffering?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Post-Trip Report: Observations on India

While the majority of my postings were basically just day-journals describing where I went and who I met, etc. I wanted to do a post-trip report detailing some of the things that I learned or discovered and thought were interesting, at least to me.

India's greatest export is human talent and they know it. Everyday I read the newspaper and managed to read the occasional local English language news magazine. They were chock-full of advertisements for private universities, colleges, and technical schools offering degrees in Medicine, Engineering, Computer Programming and Science, Advanced Chemistry, Physics, or Biology, Nursing, etc. The advertisements openly stated that their goal and purpose was to prepare their students for overseas positions in the U.S., Europe, and other developed nations, some even made dubious claims that guaranteed their students placement with a multinational firm. Despite India's "developing" status it is still an incredibly poor country with huge income disparity, massive poverty, barely functioning infrastrucure, mass pollution, and a rocky democracy. Anyone with enough education or money to immigrate has done so or is trying to do so. The few wealthy I met who were content to stay were those that owned factories and business and often had government or influential family connections. They lived in considerable luxury, driving Mercedes and BMWs, servants to take care of their every need, and took vacations all over the world, so they had little desire or need to move anywhere else. From what little I could gather, it was the middle class or somewhat upper middle class that was yearning for a new home elsewhere.

My agent had tried unsuccessfully to immigrate to the U.S., Germany, and France. He still had aspirations to move his family to another country, despite being fairly well off with what would be considered a very good job in India. A short time before I arrived he had gone to a farewell party for one of his close friends who had finally managed to find a way to immigrate to, if I remember correctly, Australia - after numerous attempts to European countries and the U.S. over a very long multi-year period. He had another friend who had spent a small fortune obtaining an engineering degree and several years of experience in a big Indian firm just so he would be considered for engineering positions overseas. After many months of searching, he finally got picked up by a firm in California willing to sponsor him for a work visa.

Bottom line, Indians are very well aware that the industrialized western world is short of skilled scientists, doctors, and technical workers such as engineers. There is a huge market for educating and developing skilled workers to supply developed countries and there is plenty of interest from the public.

The difference in our education emphasis was profound. Talk to most Indian parents and they will tell you their children are studying science, math, technology, finance, etc. Same goes for the students, who invariably end up studying whatever their parents want them to. While there are liberal arts colleges and classes, it seemed to me they were in the minority. When I told them that in the U.S. our students, for the most part, studied what they wanted to despite their parents' expectations, they were horrified that a child would even consider not fulfilling their parents' wishes. Keep in mind that this is a culture where some marriages are still arranged.

As can be imagined, many Indians are vegetarians, but what may be surprising to some is the militancy to which some Indians take it. For example, in Delhi some landowners refuse to rent to non-vegetarians. They will ask potential tenants if they eat meat or not - if the answer is meat, then they refuse to rent to them. This is obviously discriminatory and would never fly in the U.S., probably they even have an anti-discrimination law, but nobody follows it. In fact, that is a common feature of third world and developing countries: a lack of respect for the law and little enforcement of it. Many people just ignore the laws in place because they know there is little to no consequence for not following the law.

Another example of this is the concept of multiple wives, which from my understanding is forbidden by largely ignored laws. It is seen as a sign of affluency to have more than one wife. Of course, you can only be legally married to one wife, but often men will take a second or third "wife", just not legally marry them. Sometimes they all live happily together, sometimes the men will have several homes with a wife in each. Most of the time the first wives were fully aware of the situation and some were quoted as saying they had no problem with it - as long as their husbands took care of the family and the finances, then they were fine. However, I did read one story where they finally busted a guy after one of his newer wives complained - seemed he travelled a lot and was in the habit of marrying a girl in just about every province he visited. He even had homes and kids with these "wives" and somehow managed to keep it all in order without any of this wives realizing he had other families. He even used false identities in some cases to secure marriages. Eventually he was found out and they sorted through the guy's messy life. In most cases the men simply ignored or flaunted the law.

While many in the cities are well educated and live modern lifestyles, one only has to travel a short way outside the city limits to find dirt poor Indians living in the stone age. What middle class exists is thin, with most of society divided between urban and poor - you either live in a city in the modern world or eek out an existence in the rural country. As I stated in one of my India posts, it was not uncommon to see a shining gigantic mall and right across the street are farmers living in tin huts raising chickens and scratching out a living in the dirt. Often both sides were living smack dab next to each other.

The communist party has always enjoyed a fairly strong presence in Indian politics and from what I read it seemed they had taken good advantage of these "class" differences to bolster their numbers. I was alarmed to find that in one province the communists had won a large majority and was considered a major victory. Photos showed huge crowds of supporters in red shirts. My colleague could see I was surprised and told me not to worry, that the communists were a minority and not so bad. Yet one of the party organizers had named himself Stalin - legally changed his name to Stalin! - and it is an open secret that there is a growing Maoist insurgency wreaking havoc in different parts of India.

All the Indians I met were incredibly friendly, gracious, and polite. While certainly part of that is due to being on a business trip where I was the client, Indians are simply gracious hosts and value hospitality. They are also very proud of their history and culture, it only takes a few prodding questions about this or that landmark or building and they will eagerly provide you with a detailed history about it. Everywhere I went my Indian colleagues were eager to find out if I liked the food or pushed me to try something different. They went out of their way to ask if I was happy with the hotels or had any problems and seemed especially pleased when I complimented them about their offices or operations.

While we mostly avoided politics, the Indians I met seemed to genuinely like America and Americans, although many also expressed disappointment in our alliance with Pakistan, their old enemy. India has long been a victim of terrorism from a myriad group of enemies, long before the U.S., and those I spoke to expressed their strong opposition to any and all terrorist attacks and sympathized greatly with the U.S. during and after 9/11. Those I spoke to were avid supporters of the war on terrorism; some thought we weren't doing enough to kill terrorists and wondered why we showed so much restraint, and one gentleman even suggested we changed the wrong regime - he said we should have taken over Pakistan instead of Iraq.

While I thoroughly enjoyed all the wonderful people I met and found Indians to be incredibly friendly and gracious wherever I went, I can't say that it is a country I am looking forward to visiting again soon. I loved the food and have definitely made at least one good friend, but the entire country is basically broken - nothing really works. Sure, they have beautiful 5 star hotels with every amenity and modern air conditioned tour buses and cars that will take you to every major attraction you wish to see, but step outside that false comfort zone and you will find that all is not as it seems to be. Infrastructure is old and dated and unable to keep up with the pace of growth. If it weren't for the numerous generators installed at hotels and factories and major office buildings the electricity would be going out intermittently throughout the day. Litter was everywhere and in some cases piles of trash were found in the middle of fields or just on the side of the street. The pollution is almost unbearable and traffic is insane. Of course, it didn't help that I got horribly sick while I was there, that will put a damper on anyone's trip, but even when healthy I just saw a country trying to catch up with the industrialized world. Surely, they are making progress, and with such intelligent and hard working people I believe they will get there and become an economic powerhouse in the years to come. But that day is years away.

Next: Bali post-trip comments.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Australia's senior Muslim cleric: Women are to blame for sex attacks

Apparently, any woman who dresses immodestly (in his eyes) is simply "...uncovered meat..."

In the religious address on adultery to about 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, Sheik Hilali said: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?

"The uncovered meat is the problem."

The sheik then said: "If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."

He said women were "weapons" used by "Satan" to control men.

"It is said in the state of zina (adultery), the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement (igraa)."

Big hat tip to Hot Air.

It should be noted that many Muslim community leaders were outraged by the remarks:

Muslim community leaders were yesterday outraged and offended by Sheik Hilali's remarks, insisting the cleric was no longer worthy of his title as Australia's mufti.

Young Muslim adviser Iktimal Hage-Ali - who does not wear a hijab - said the Islamic headdress was not a "tool" worn to prevent rape and sexual harassment. "It's a symbol that readily identifies you as being Muslim, but just because you don't wear the headscarf doesn't mean that you're considered fresh meat for sale," the former member of John Howard's Muslim advisory board told The Australian. "The onus should not be on the female to not attract attention, it should be on males to learn how to control themselves."

Australia's most prominent female Muslim leader, Aziza Abdel-Halim, said the hijab did not "detract or add to a person's moral standards", while Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Ali said it was "ignorant and naive" for anyone to believe that a hijab could stop sexual assault.

"Anyone who is foolish enough to believe that there is a relationship between rape or unwelcome sexual interference and the failure to wear a hijab, clearly has no understanding of the nature of sexual crime," he said.

Ms Hage-Ali said she was "disgusted and offended" by Shiek Hilali's comments. "I find it very offensive that a man who considers himself as a mufti, a leader of Australia's Muslims, can give comment that lacks intelligence and common sense."

Monday, October 23, 2006

Eager to go home

This day was my last day with our agent and transportation rep, neither of which was local, both having travelled away from their families and homes on Java. Even though Bali is also a major vacation destination for local Indonesians from Java and other islands and provinces, being away from their families was taking its toll and I could tell they were itching to get this day done and head home.

Once again we headed up to Tampaksiring and by this time I was recognizing the roads and landmarks as we travelled into the hills. We visited a new supplier for my company who, like so many others in Bali, had simply located their "factory" in a residential area behind their house. They had about 20 workers busily carving and finishing different types of handicrafts in a large building constructed behind the main house. A small driveway connected their "Cargo loading area" to the main street outside. The owners were very young and had only started the business a couple of years prior. They were very proud of their accomplishments, although they seemed somewhat uneasy at their long term prospects, having only secured a handful of major accounts.

We then moved on to another factory located in yet another area we had been to before. This one consisted of several buildings thrown up amongst fields of rice paddies. They were substantially larger with a somewhat more traditional factory operation in the western sense, although I was confused as to why they had located in the middle of nowhere, I guess it was really cheap. The owners were interesting. They were a married couple, the husband a local Balinese and strict Hindu, and his wife a former Muslim from Java. I was a bit surprised as most of the married people I had met were either both Hindu or Muslim or Christian, never a mix of the two. The man's wife had since converted to Balinese Hinduism after marriage, mostly because her family and friends had denounced her decision to marry someone outside of the faith, declaring her "unfit" for Muslim membership. She explained that the decision to marry her husband was one of the toughest decisions of her life. A devout Muslim her entire life, it was expected that she would simply marry a fellow Muslim man, most likely arranged by her parents. She kept her relationship with her Hindu husband secret for awhile out of concern for her parents reaction. When she announced she wanted to get married to him, her family was very angry, with her parents threatening to disown her and receiving threats of bodily harm from so-called friends and relatives. She decided to stick with her decision and her parents basically cut off communication and refused to attend her wedding. She still maintained limited contact with some of her relatives, but the relationships were strained. While she had converted to Hinduism she explained that she still could not bring herself to eat pork, while her husband could not eat beef (Muslims don't eat pork because it is considered an unclean animal while Hindus don't eat beef because they consider cows to be sacred animals). She laughed, saying this made for some interesting dinner combinations, particularly when they went to her in-laws for dinner. Despite her family troubles, she seemed very happy and content with her new life in Bali. She took us out for lunch to a restaurant set amongst fields of rice paddies. It was very quiet and peaceful and kind of odd to be eating lunch while farmers worked the fields only yards away.

Later I asked our transportation rep, who was Muslim, what he felt about this woman's situation. He said it was not an uncommon reaction among the Muslim community to reject or threaten those that marry outside the faith or convert away from Islam, although he was quick to point out that reactions varied heavily depending on the family and situation, with some being more harsh or far more lenient than others. He said he was not surprised at her story but personally felt no ill will towards other religions or those that converted to other religions. I should point out that the management staff of the factory was of mixed Hindu and Muslim managers, and they all seemed to get along just fine. I doubt the owners would have hired them if they felt their managers would not get along or would look down at them for their inter-faith marriage.

The last factory visit of the trip was to busy Kuta, the commercialized, crowded, tourist area close to Denpasar, the main city. Here was a very large, western style industrial factory employing hundreds of workers. The owner was supposedly one of the richest men on Bali, who owned several factories and a score of hotels and restaurants in the Kuta area. I won't bore you with details, but on the drive back to the hotel the driver slowed down to point out each hotel and restaurant we passed that were either fully owned or partly owned by the factory owner.

Finally it was time to say goodbye to my wonderful agent and the transportation rep, who were happy that work was done and eager to head home to families. We promised to stay in touch and said our goodbyes.

I went back to the hotel and took a long shower and changed my clothes. This would be the first night I had been alone since my first day arriving. Seminyak, where the hotel was located, was a quieter residential area away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy areas of Legian and Kuta, although it was becoming well known for its many restaurants. I decided to just walk and find something to eat close to the hotel, which involved quite a bit of walking seeing as how the hotel was located right on the beach in the middle of a residential area.

I walked quite a ways as I wanted to get a good look at the restaurants. I finally settled on one of the quieter, smaller restaurants and sat down to eat. I ordered a fancy salmon appetizer, some sort of spicy noodle dish, fresh grilled fish, a vegetable dish, and tropical ice cream for dessert. Total price, including drinks and tip? A whopping USD 5.00!! I couldn't believe it and even asked the waiter to make sure he hadn't charged me in error. He smiled and assured me it was correct. The food was outstanding too, not just basic family-style stuff, but prepared brilliantly and presented like you would find in an upscale Manhattan restaurant.

I walked back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night sitting on a beach chair looking up at the stars and listening to the surf.

The next day I had the day off and decided to do absolutely nothing. Running around visiting factories all day every day for 2 weeks had worn me out and my hotel was so beautiful and the beach so inviting that I decided to just hang out there. I grabbed some newspapers and magazines and plopped myself down in a beach chair at the hotel with the sand at my feet and the ocean in front of me. When I got tired from reading I would take a nap or just take a swim in the ocean, which was incredibly warm. The beach was full of tourists and locals, but not crowded, and again I can't describe in words how beautiful Bali really is.

Later in the day I took a nice swim in the huge pool at the hotel to get all the saltwater off, took a quick shower, and then headed out to the same restaurant as the night before for another wonderful meal.

I woke up the next day feeling refreshed and happy and the hotel took me to the airport. I was eager to get home and see my wife and young son, but I would miss Bali.

To be continued......