Giving religion the respect it deserves

If a religion finds a particular action offensive to its beliefs, shouldn’t we at least attempt to avoid the action, if only out of a show of respect?

In the wake of yesterday’s massacre at a Paris newspaper, the public’s answer tilts clearly towards “no” — at least for those who have adopted “Je suis Charlie” as a rallying cry. More precisely, people are proclaiming that potentially offensive free speech and free expression should not be censored — certainly not by the violent acts of a few. The people at Charlie Hebdo had every right to publish what they did — even if, by depicting satirical images of Muhammad, they were offending many Muslims.

Given the violence that occurred, this is a relatively easy call to make. If the alternative is to defend the terrorists, there isn’t much room for debate.

The question often becomes more nuanced, however, if you remove the violence and simply ask the question I posed at the top of this article.

For me, however, the answer remains the same: No.

Let me back up a bit. I am not advocating being gratuitously insulting to a religion. Nor am I in any way supporting behavior that could be viewed as discriminatory or racist. I also believe that unqualified respect should be expected in certain cases. For example, no matter how much you disagree with a particular religion, I believe you should be respectful when on their turf. In other words, if you are inside a synagogue, church or mosque, you should observe the customs of the institution, even if you disagree with them.

Beyond that, we should give and expect to receive respect in most interactions. But there are limits. In the context of public discussion, for example, we should be as free to be critical of religion — even to the point of being insulting or offensive — as we would be for any other entity. In the op-ed pages of a newspaper, it is acceptable to be hypercritical of politicians — or political groups as a whole. Similarly, movie reviewers are permitted (some might say encouraged) to say extremely negative things about a film, even things that will undoubtedly be hurtful to the people who made the movie. No one claims such writing should be off-limits, out of respect to the people who might otherwise be offended. Even if you believe a writer has gone beyond the limits of decency and good taste, you would still defend his right to state his opinions. At least I hope so. I see no reason why critical writing about religion should be an exception. Religion deserves no more or less respect than these other institutions.

More generally, you can be offensive to a religion even without the intention of being critical. Depicting (non-satirical) images of Muhammad potentially falls into this category. Attempting to avoid such actions is an especially slippery slope on which to embark. For example, suppose I told you that there is a religion that believes all paintings hung in public places, such as museums, should be hung upside down. This is out of respect to God, as it allows him to see the paintings properly oriented when he looks down on them from heaven. If you were the curator of a museum, would this knowledge lead to rehang all your paintings? I would hope not. Would you change your mind if I told you that that there were more than 10 million members of this religion and they all found your behavior to be extremely offensive? Again, I would hope not.

There is a limit to what we will or should do to accommodate others’ religions. We cannot allow free expression be held hostage by the myriad of odd beliefs of the hundreds of religions that exist in the world. I’m not advocating unnecessarily going out of your way to be provocative. But neither should you be fearful of being provocative if you feel it is justified. That is why I believe it is acceptable for publications to include images of Muhammad, whether or not members of the Muslim religion object. In Paris yesterday, we saw one horrific consequence of believing otherwise.

[For related coverage, see yesterday’s column.]

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Paris shooting and “extremist groups”

As reported in today’s New York Times, “masked gunmen burst into the Paris offices of a French satirical newspaper (Charlie Hebdo) and killed 12 people, including top journalists and two police officers.”

A cry of “Allahu akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great” — was heard among the gunshots.

The article goes on to note that “there was no immediate claim of responsibility, but several websites and Twitter accounts associated with extremist groups applauded the violence, calling it revenge for the newspaper’s satirical treatment of Islam and its prophet.”

The “satirical treatment” consists mainly of images of the prophet Muhammad posted in a humorous context.

Clearly, the shooting is an act of terrorism. I hope we can all agree that condemning this act does not make one Islamophobic or anti-Muslim or racist. These shootings have no justification. We would be condemning it just as strongly if the action had been taken by Christians, Jews, or any other group that falsely cited religion as justification.

Still, while it is all but certain that a majority of Muslims condemn this act, it also appears true that members of subsets of the religion praise it.

I know some people want to claim that such extremist groups are not “true” Muslims because they don’t represent the majority of the religion. I reject that idea. Otherwise it would be accurate to say that Hassidic Jews are not “true” Jews or Christian Scientists are not “true” Christians. At the same time, I recognize that it is not appropriate to paint the mainstream of a religion with the conflicting beliefs of an extremist sect.

Similarly, a significant, possibly majority, segment of the Muslim religion opposes the depiction of Muhammad in almost any context. This has led to the unfortunate result of numerous non-Muslim organizations self-censoring themselves and removing (even respectful) images of the prophet from their publications, displays etc. I say “unfortunate” because I believe that the removals were done primarily out of a fear of violence. At the same time, I recognize that most Muslim opposition does not threaten violence as potential retaliation for a refusal to comply.

Life is complicated and usually doesn’t divide into easy black and white distinctions.

One thing should be certain however: There should be no sympathy for those who murder a dozen people because of words or images published in a newspaper. If there are sects, Muslim or otherwise, that officially praise such actions or claim such actions are justified or even use silence to convey tacit approval, then we should similarly oppose those sects.

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Obamacare deserves better

On December 6, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana lost a run-off election to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy.  Time magazine explains why:

“Landrieu didn’t lose because of a superior opponent, but because of her association with a deeply unpopular President and his health-care law. Landrieu—the daughter of a former New Orleans mayor and the sister to the current one—lost more so than Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy won. Even Cassidy, who cruised to a win Saturday, acknowledges that to some extent. When asked to define the campaign’s turning point, he pointed to Landrieu’s support of the Affordable Care Act, which passed four years ago.”

There were other factors in her loss of course. But the idea that an otherwise good, probably superior, candidate lost primarily because of her support of Obamacare remains baffling to me. To be clear, I’m not naive. I understand the politics of the matter, so I am not baffled at that level. It’s just that I remain convinced that Obamacare is a fundamentally good idea — at least one that significantly improves the prior status quo. It doesn’t deserve the intense level of hostility and resistance in inspires among the opposition. Not even close.

The basic idea of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is this: There is an individual mandate, which means you must have health insurance. For those who can afford it, you (or your employer) pays for the insurance. For those too poor to afford it, government subsidies fill the gap.

What does the average citizen get in exchange for this?

You get guaranteed insurance coverage no matter what. Even if you lose your job and remain unemployed for an extended period of time, you remain covered. In fact, if your income drops significantly, your costs go down.

Plus, you are guaranteed that you cannot be turned down for insurance because of a pre-existing medical condition. No longer can an insurance company tell you that because you have a heart condition, or whatever, they won’t sell you insurance.

Additionally, there are more peripheral, but still important, benefits — such as allowing your children to be covered by their parents’ insurance until they are 26. This can save a family money at a time when their kids may be in school — or just getting started in a job — and unable to pay the cost on their own.

As for the people who are getting subsidized by the government, this will likely save taxpayers money in the long run. Why? Because poor people will no longer have to depend on emergency rooms in public hospitals as their primary source of health care. Seeing a general practitioner in their office (covered by Obamacare) is much less expensive than a uninsured visit to the emergency room. The overall savings here are likely to be huge.

Yes, it means that some people will be “forced” to pay for insurance that might otherwise have unwisely chosen to go without any. But it is essential that the system works this way. Otherwise, people will choose to get insurance only when they are sick (thus always getting more in benefits than they pay in) and the system would soon go bankrupt. In any case, people who already have insurance will be able to keep it, often at a lower rate than they were paying before.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Sure, I understand that this is a best-case-scenario vision of what Obamacare does. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And there are problems at the detail level. For example, for some individuals, the cost of insurance under Obamacare has turned out to be significantly more than they were paying before. In most cases, the reported problems are not intended consequences of the Act. They are the result of an imperfect implementation of the plan. No major legislation is ever perfect the first time around. Obamacare is no exception.

This doesn’t mean the solution is to repeal the act or gut its essential provisions. If Obamacare doesn’t work well in every instance, let’s improve it so it does. Let’s fix the legislation so it works as intended. In less contentious political times, this is exactly what would happen. But we do not live in such times.

It seems that the majority of those who oppose Obamacare do not view it even as a potentially good idea that needs fixing. Rather, they view it as a terrible idea that needs to be completely trashed. In many cases, I believe this is because the opposition has no clear idea what Obamacare does and does not do. They oppose it because they oppose everything President Obama does, or because they view it as an intrusion by a government that can’t be trusted, or as an expensive program that will raise taxes without any compensating benefit, or because its labeled as socialism. But these are sound-bite emotion-generating criticisms designed to get knee-jerk opposition from the Republican base.

Unfortunately, the attacks work. Which is is really frustrating — because I remain convinced that the vast majority of Americans, including most people who oppose Obamacare, would support the legislation if they could shed their political biases and really look at what it accomplishes. The truth is the vast majority of Americans will be better off, financially and healthfully, under Obamacare. It’s certainly a improvement over the pre-existing unfair and increasingly expensive system that still left millions uninsured. It’s not as if Obamacare is a case of “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Polls have shown that most people support the individual components of Obamacare — if the question is asked in a way that does not link the component to the legislation. Similarly, recall that the basic ideas behind Obamacare were originally proposed by Republicans. Heck, even health insurance companies now see Obamacare as a potential win. And yet, opposition to Obamacare remains so viscerally intense that it can be the determining factor in a Senate election in Louisiana. Obamacare deserves better.

Sadly, it may yet turn out that Obamacare never gets the chance to prove itself — thanks to the fear-mongering and distortions by a Republican Congress abetted by conservative political action groups, a conservative-friendly Supreme Court and talk radio hosts intent on using the issue for political gain. If that happens, it will be a loss for all of us.

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Apple’s hardware announcements: How odd

My reaction to the new hardware announced at today’s Apple media event was hardly a typical one. “How odd” pretty much sums it up. How so?

• Apple introduces the iPad Air 2. The first thing Apple wants you to know about the new iPad Air 2 is that it’s slightly thinner than last year’s model. At some point, increased thinness starts having diminishing returns. For me, we are now at that point. Last year’s Air is already thin enough. So I didn’t get excited by the .05 inches Apple managed to cut off.

Beyond that, the new Air’s dimensions and design are exactly the same as the previous model. Oh, it comes in gold, if that’s of any interest to you.

The new Air has an improved camera (8MP instead of 5MP). However, given that I never take photos with my iPad (I use my iPhone instead), this matters not at all to me.

The new Air has an improved “fused” display, 802.11ac support, a faster processor, TouchID and Apple Pay support. The cellular version also comes with a new Apple SIM that allows you to switch carriers whenever you want without needing to change SIMs. These are welcome additions, and they save the iPad from the doldrums I’ve just described. The end result is that the new iPad emerges as a significant upgrade. It’s not a major overhaul, but you can’t expect Apple to do that every year.

Overall, I don’t see the new iPad as a big enough change to justify upgrading from a prior iPad Air for most people. If you have a pre-Air iPad, or no iPad at all, that’s another story. The upgrade is definitely attractive. Kudos to Apple here.

By itself, we’re not yet in truly “odd” territory, but we’re just getting started.

• Apple announces the not-so-new iPad mini 3. Last year, the only difference in specs between the iPad Air and the iPad mini was the display size. Every other feature was identical. This meant, in deciding which model you preferred, all you had to consider was how big an iPad you wanted. This parity was greeted with unanimous praise by iPad owners.

That’s why it’s odd that Apple abandoned this parity with the new mini. The iPad mini 3 adds TouchID, Apple Pay support and the gold color option. As far as I can tell, that’s it. In every other way, including thinness, it remains the same as last year’s model.

• Apple keeps older models in the lineup. Apple has a history of maintaining older iPhones and iPads when a new model comes out. This allows it to offer lower price point models for those who shop primarily based on cost.

So it wasn’t odd to see Apple do that again this time around. But Apple has gone beyond its usual limits. You can now get last year’s iPad Air, last year’s iPad mini and even the original iPad mini from 2 years ago. This means Apple’s current iPad line-up includes 2 new models and three older ones. And among the two newer ones, only one (the Air) is significantly new. Very odd.

• 16 GB iPads. The storage on the new iPads follows the pattern of the iPhone 6 models: an entry-level 16GB model which bumps up to 64GB for $100 more. I really don’t see why Apple continues to sell the 16GB model. Given that, until this year, Apple has always offered double the storage for each $100 extra, why not start with 32GB? My cynical guess is that Apple expects most people to go for the 64GB model, making more money for Apple than if they had gotten a cheaper 32GB device. Obviously, Apple has not confirmed my speculation. Still, I find it all a bit odd.

[Note: You can compare the specs of all the iPad models here.]

• The Mac mini gets an uninspired upgrade. Apple introduced an entirely new line-up of Mac minis today. While it’s great to see support for Thunderbolt 2 and upgraded processors, this is not the Mac mini I was hoping for.

The top-of-the-line specs for the Mac mini still do not attain the levels available in the iMac. There seems no reason Apple could not do this. But they don’t. The internals of the mini are more like a MacBook than a desktop Mac.

If you were hoping that the Mac mini might evolve into a scaled-down cheaper alternative to the Mac Pro, for people who prefer a “headless” Mac, forget it. As Phil Schiller indicated at the event, Apple views the mini as a very low end model, targeted to first time Mac buyers or to those who want a server for a modest home network.

• Apple introduces the iMac with Retina display. This is the big one I was waiting for: a 27-inch iMac with a Retina display — a 5K display with 4x as many pixels as you get with a 4K television. Whoa!

It starts at $2499. Expensive. But considering what you get with it, that’s quite reasonable. As Apple points out, a comparable stand-alone display could cost $3000 — and that doesn’t include a computer! I expect to buy one in the coming months.

What’s a bit odd here is not the new iMac itself but that it’s the only new or upgraded iMac in the lineup. Apple continues to sell the same 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs from last year. There is no 21.5- or 24-inch Retina display model.

This is similar to what Apple did when it first introduced the MacBook Pro with Retina display. If Apple follows the same pattern here, we can expect to see an “all-Retina” iMac lineup within a year or so. Still, taken together with the new iPad line-up, I can’t recall a time when Apple continued to sell so many versions of older hardware, after new models were announced. Odd.

• No stand-alone Retina 5K display is announced. Apple did not announce a stand-alone 5K Retina display. I have read speculation that this is because current Mac hardware could not drive the display through a Thunderbolt port; it needs the custom direct connection of the iMac. This may be so.

Regardless, this means that Mac Pro users, despite having Apple’s most expensive and powerful machine, cannot get an Apple display that matches what is available with the iMac. Odd. Perhaps it too will come next year.

• Yosemite and iOS 8.1 arrive. Nothing especially new here. Apple had already announced the specs back in June at WWDC and in last month’s iPhone event. Still, it’s good to see that the OS versions are finally live (or will be by next week) — as are Apple Pay and new versions of iWork apps.

Personally, I find the new OS versions much more exciting than the new hardware announced today. I especially look forward to using iCloud Drive and other Continuity features, now that both iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite are out.

• The long view. More than anything else, I’m struck with how, despite the new iPads and iMac announced today, Apple kept older models in its lineups. I’m not sure what this means from a “big picture” perspective, but it certainly suggests that Apple is less motivated to push an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new marketing approach than it has in the past. When you consider that the remaining iMacs are basically 2012 models, Apple is sticking with “old” for an especially long time.

Perhaps we’ve gotten to a plateau where significant hardware advances don’t happen every year or two anymore. So major new hardware is not possible on an annual or even biannual basis. If so, Apple’s marketing has clearly adjusted to this new reality.

As for the new hardware: the iPad Air 2 is a worthy update; the iMac with Retina display is truly ground-breaking. As for the rest, it still strikes me as odd. Perhaps, in a few days, I’ll shake that feeling. But that’s where I am for now.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, Mac, Technology | 5 Comments