Sunday, September 21, 2014

Penny Foolish

The US. Mint recently released a disheartening statistic: In 2013, the cost of making a penny exceeded its face value for the eighth year in a row. It now costs 1.83 cents, or about 2 cents, to make 1 cent.

Does this make sense? A newborn can tell you it doesn’t. (By the way, the story with the nickel is as bad but let’s stick with the penny for now. Besides, one step, or rather one cent, at a time!)

At a mass of 2.5 grams, the penny comprises 2.5% copper and 97.5% zinc. The total loss incurred by the penny in 2013 amounted to $55 million. A simple math (5,500,000,000/0.83) shows that the US Mint shipped about 6.63 billion pennies (over half a billion per month!) in the 2013 fiscal year.


Fifty-five million dollars, coming at the taxpayers’ expense, is small change for the government and for billionaires but it is more than a quarter of the annual budget of many community colleges.

So what explains the madness?

Political apathy, combined with the public’s supposedly sentimental attachment to the coin bearing the visage of our beloved President Lincoln. (The 16th President will continue to grace the $5 bill, so he will not disappear from our wallets and transactions anytime soon.)

What is often overlooked is that psychology and math also play a role in perpetuating the penny. As Alex Bellos, author of The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life, points out: “The practice of subtracting 1 from a round number conveys a potent message. When we read a number, we are more influenced by the leftmost digit than we are by the rightmost, since that is the order we read, and process, them. The number 799 feels significantly less than 800 because we see the former as 7-something and the latter as 8-something whereas 798 feels pretty much like 799. Since the nineteenth century, shopkeepers have taken advantage of this trick by choosing prices ending in a 9, to give the impression that a product is cheaper than it is. Surveys show that anything between a third and two-thirds of all retail prices now end in a 9.Though we are all seasoned shoppers, we are still fooled …”

But to pay for merchandise or food items or gas or anything that ends in a 9 requires, of course, that one or more pennies change hands, causing endless delays at counters and cash registers and billions of dollars in lost time and productivity.

What to do?

We must, with a will, overcome the perverse pull of psychology and send the penny to the dustbin of history. Make the last digit of the price of any item a 5 or a 0. (If the nickel is also consigned to oblivion, 0 and 5 will still be the only acceptable last digits to accommodate the quarter.)

One immediate benefit will be the rise in the aptitude for math among the public: counting and calculating in multiples of 5 will become second nature to most, since any digit that ends in a 5 or a 0 is divisible by 5. No need to count pennies anymore. Among some, this may even stir their latent fascination with the magic and mystery of numbers.

Ramanujan, anyone?

Still not convinced? Then you really need to watch this video.

President Obama recently included an intriguing provision to his 2015 budget to develop “alternative options for the penny and the nickel.” Since he hasn’t spelled out what exactly he means, and given the current state of a dysfunctional Washington, the penny may continue to live while choking the life out of our collective common sense.

Canada, our neighbor to the north, has badly beaten us to the punch and abolished the penny in early 2013. How can we allow the most advanced nation on earth become the laughingstock of the rest of the world, for sheer stupidity, no less?

We, the people, must refuse to “live lives of quiet desperation,” rise boldly against this dumb and cruel affront to our common sense, and bury the penny for good.

RIP, penny!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

American-Muslims Condemn the ISIL Extremists

During a recent Friday sermon in one of the biggest mosques in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Imam unequivocally condemned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) extremists whose gruesome slaying of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff (and of Syrian journalist Bassam Raies few weeks earlier) has shocked people of conscience everywhere.

“These people are hijacking our faith,” said the Imam. “We have to stop them. This conversation has to take place among Muslims!”

Such sermons are being heard in mosques throughout America.

Muslims are outraged by the nihilistic ideology of the ISIL. This fanatical group will kill anyone crossing its path as it tries to enforce its extremist interpretation of Islam in large swaths of Syria and Iraq. We agree with President Obama’s observation of the ISIL: They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different ­religion.”

One of the religious minorities targeted by the ISIL includes the Yazidis, practitioners of perhaps the oldest religion in the world. These peace-loving people, whose ancestry goes back 6,000 years, are now facing extermination through the barbarities of the organization.

American-Muslims vehemently oppose the ISIL. They would find their Utopian fantasy and Dystopian dream laughable, were they not so drenched in blood. They reject their distortion of Islam, a poisonous mix of misogyny, mayhem and intolerance. 

To defeat these zealots, who are not amenable to reason, will require the organized military forces of nations. We applaud the President in helping to form a 10-nation core coalition of NATO countries (United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Turkey, with Turkey expected to play a critical role) to defeat the ISIL, although differences remain on the details of the execution.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to devote most of his time and energy in the coming weeks to enlist Arab countries in this effort. We urge the Arab countries to leave politics aside and unite in supporting the NATO-alliance in uprooting the ISIL.

The ISIL will not fold at the first sign of defeat. The group consists of battle-hardened jihadists and media-savvy technologists, with ‘Jihadi Johns’ from Britain, Australia, Germany and America swelling its ranks.

But there is no question that ISIL is doomed. Mainstream Muslims have rejected the group’s extremism and intolerance, just as they rejected those of Al-Qaida in the wake of 9/11.
Islamic history offers an example.

From the 7th through the 9th-centuries, Muslims calling themselves Kharijites (literally, those who seceded) in mostly current-day Iraq rejected moderation and engaged in ‘takfir’: declaring those Muslims ‘kafirs’ (unbelievers) who rejected their inflexible interpretation of the faith and thus became, in their sight, deserving of death.

Initially the Kharijites made headway through their reign of terror but once the moderate Caliphs of the day were able to organize their forces, they were able to crush the fanatics.

Mutations of the Kharijites appear every now and then in Muslim countries. These are people who are drunk with certitude and who believe that they, and only they, know who is favored by God and who isn’t. Their rigid and exclusive view of faith and life ultimately become the cause of their defeat.

Such i sdestined to be the fate of the ISIL. But it will neither be easy nor quick. It will require the cooperation between the NATO coalition and Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the continued rejection of the extremist group by mainstream Muslims.