Saturday, March 14, 2015

REPOST: Seneca: A Life review – absorbing account of the philosopher’s life

How should we handle life’s challenges? This article tells more about Seneca’s philosophy that might help you have an easier life.

Seneca: a shameless sycophant when he needed to be. | Image Source:

Should philosophers practise what they preach? The question is unavoidable when it comes to Seneca. Here is a man who said “being poor is not having too little but wanting more” while pocketing 300 million sestertii writing speeches for the monstrous Nero. Here is a man who said the wealthy should be generous with their money, while using his own sordid gains to become richer still as a landlord and lender. (Some historians believe the Boudican revolt was prompted by Seneca’s calling in the extortionately rated loans he had forced on subject Britons.)

Worse, as Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life makes clear, pretty much every one of Seneca’s works can be read as an explanation or an excuse for whatever he or Nero had been up to in the weeks preceding its composition. On Clemency, a paean to Nero’s non-violent nature, appeared mere months after the emperor had had his stepbrother murdered. On Leisure was composed just as Seneca was trying to sweet-talk Nero into letting him retire from an increasingly perilous court.

But even though Nero had just had his own mother offed, did Seneca (who had conspired in the murder) have any right to be fearful? After all, the founding principle of Seneca’s stoicism was that though there are many reasons for regretting living, there’s no point worrying about dying because you’re not going to be around once it happens. “We are in the power of nothing when death is in our power,” wrote Seneca. It’s a credo that’s hard to argue with – even if his own end was a farce that might have been designed to prove man’s impotence.

Forget the grand, muscular death depicted in that Rubens painting. Whatever else it was, this was no noble self-slaughter. Seneca might have slashed his own wrists, but since Nero had sentenced him to death he was hardly ending his life willingly. Alas, death didn’t come easily. Now an old man, Seneca’s blood flowed slowly, and even after slicing behind his knees and at his ankles it refused to debouch. He took a draft of hemlock, but this didn’t finish him off either. Eventually, Nero’s guards dumped him in a hot bath, in whose steamy heat this lifelong bronchitic finally breathed his last.

Not before time, you might think, though Wilson isn’t so judgmental. As skilled in the arts of exculpation as her subject, she would have you believe that “it is asking too much for any person, however philosophical, to rise above the culture of his or her own time”. This would have been news to Thomas More (whose story Wilson says is comparable with that of Seneca). More may or may not have risen above Henry’s court, but he certainly stood out from it. And anyway, if we are all mere products of our culture, there can be no exemplary lives – which rather does away with the need for biography.

Fortunately Wilson is no better at following her own diktats than her subject was. Though there is no getting around the fact that parts of her book read like the first draft of a schoolroom translation, she has nevertheless written a commendable life of a flawed man. Classicists of an earlier generation would have bemoaned her mixing of pronouns. Keith Waterhouse would have told her that meteors do not rise (they fall). Einstein would not have liked the way she confuses relativity with relativism. Endemic does not mean intrinsic, and making bricks from sand and lime is not a technology confined to antiquity. But these are cavils set against the bracing joys of learning how to cope with life Seneca-style.

We might not like people who tell us to do what they say and not what they do, but a man’s life doesn’t invalidate his thought – even if the thought invalidates the man. Seneca’s philosophy might not have helped him have an easeful death, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help you have an easier life.

Hi! I am Lou Habash, a philosophy professor at King's College in New York City. Follow me on Twitter to learn more about the teachings of other ancient Greek philosophers.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

REPOST: Where architecture reveals philosophies of life

Swiss American artist, Akim Mone gave the viewers a better understanding of God within us by his photographs.This article has the details. 

Akim Monet came up with the idea of this project while studying the practice in Islamic art of symbolising that which is beyond manifestation using abstract geometry | Image Source:

The Al Hambra palace and other Moorish monuments in Andalusia, Spain, are among the most photographed places in the world. Yet, Akim Monet manages to surprise viewers with his photographs of these marvels of Islamic architecture and design in his first solo show in Dubai, “Seeking Al Tawhid in AndalucĂ­a”. The Swiss American artist prints directly what is on his negatives rather than inverting them into positive images. The resulting pictures have an ethereal quality, with a painterly and heightened palette. His monumental photographs give viewers the experience of being inside the beautiful structures and feeling the energy of the spaces. They invite viewers to immerse themselves in the mesmerising symmetry and infinitely repeating patterns of the architecture and decorations, and to contemplate the profound philosophy behind them.

Monet began this project while contemplating the lack of human or animal imagery in Islamic art. While studying the practice of symbolising that which is beyond manifestation using abstract geometry, he also explored the parallels he noticed in using photography to represent the third dimension. The artist, who is also a leading gallerist and art dealer, spoke to Weekend Review about his journey on this project. Excerpts:

What was the idea behind this project?

The idea for this show came to me while thinking about the rejection of the depiction of living creatures in Islamic art, and the resulting development of the Arabesque in which abstract geometry and stylised organic motifs are used to symbolise within our manifest realm that which is beyond manifestation. I pondered over a possible connection between the invention of this visual language, which leads the eye back and forth between the second and third dimension, and photography, where the representation of three-dimensional subject matter is rendered on a flat surface. I discovered that the infinitely extensible designs in Islamic art, made up of self-replicating units, have been interpreted as visual demonstrations of the singleness of god and his presence everywhere. They represent ‘unity in multiplicity’ and ‘multiplicity in unity’. The term for this oneness and belief in god’s uncompromised unity and transcendence is Tawhid. With these thoughts, I embarked on a journey that began in Andalusia, where in the words of British orientalist and archaeologist Stanley Lane-Poole, “Whatever makes a kingdom great, whatever tends to refinement and civilisation was found in Moorish Spain.”

Why do you want to make your photographs look like negatives?

The reason goes back to a trip I made to India when I was in my thirties. I backpacked across the country and was deeply affected by the beauty and power of the ancient temples and monuments, which inspired me to take up photography. I really loved the fact that people still gather in these ancient spaces for worship and festivities, and they continue to be a part of everyday life. But when I looked at my photographs, I was disappointed because they just could not convey the essence of the continuum of time that I had experienced in these places. Instead, I found that the negatives were more vibrant and had that sense of timelessness that I had felt. Maybe, because a negative is actually a trace of the subject and the moment, and is the most direct transfer of how light of a particular place and time burns into sensitised film, it has that element which is missing in the photograph, which is merely a reproduction of the subject. So, I became obsessed with finding a way to print my pictures as negatives. Initially I projected my negatives on to a screen and took photographs of the projections to make prints that looked like the negatives. But now I use digital printing technology to get good quality prints of my 35mm negatives.

This look appeals to me aesthetically and conceptually. It gives the pictures a timeless feel. And I like the duality in the play between positive and negative in the pictures. The fact that we humans can only see a part of the visual spectrum brings into question what is reality, and how it can be depicted. Maybe the negative is more real because it is burned by the actual light that danced off the subject. So, it is another way of exploring existential questions.

How important was it for this project to be done in Andalusia?

It was very important, because these monuments represent a glorious moment in history and the embodiment of very refined ideas that give us a better understanding of god within us. Like all great art, they are timeless and speak to us always and give us a sense of belonging. I think there is a need at the moment for the West to understand that Islam is not another. It is a religion from within Europe, and its representations exist in every great city around the Western world. I want people to forget that these structures are old; and to bring them into the present and look at them for what they tell us today about unity, tolerance and peace.

Hi! I am Lou Habash. Please visit my blog for more articles on life’s philosophies.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Five key educational philosophies

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There are many different philosophies that can be applied in an academic setting and there are even those who integrate two or more philosophies inside the classroom. However, there are five distinct theories that collectively represent a broad spectrum of thought.


Perrenialism focuses on rationality and finding the reason for things. It teaches students to question the facts and that given information can be proven false. Perrenialists believe that what they teach or eternal truths or everlasting information. Its emphasis is in passing on the knowledge and information from the old to the new generation.


Essentialists approach to teaching is simply "going back to the basics." The fundamentals of math, science and history are taught to the students and they are given tests to mark their progress in these fields. The classroom setting of this kind of teaching is very rigid and disciplined but not conducive in developing a student's creativity. Essentialism focuses on molding ideal citizens out of their students.

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In contrast to essentialism, schools incorporating the existential approach promoted the creativity and individuality of its students. Existentialism lacks organization, allowing students to choose their own subjects, even providing vocational ones to prepare for their future. And while the idea of learning at your own pace sounds inviting, it is difficult for students to mature and to gain knowledge if they are given too much freedom.


Progressivism is based on the belief that in order for students to learn, the subjects and lessons taught to them must be relevant and relatable. They focus on the personal experiences, needs and interests of the students so that they may actively participate in class activities and take interest in learning.


The philosophy of behaviorism is that humans can be reprogrammed to acquire any skill. This method is often use to condition or recondition students with bad behavior, using negative stimuli to teach the student discipline. In the same way, positive stimuli can be used for students who do well. This is helpful in motivating ones students or handling those with special needs.

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Hi! I'm Lou Habash and I'm a professor of philosophy at King's College. Connect with me on Google+ for more insights on different philosophical studies.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

REPOST: Why A Philosopher Teaches Privacy

This Forbes article discusses why Evan Selinger  thinks that  privacy is an inherently philosophical issue.

Next week, the new term begins and I’ll be teaching an undergraduate philosophy course called, “Technology, Privacy, and the Law.” The first order of business will be to explain why thinking critically about privacy—determining what it is, deciding when it should be protected, and pinpointing how it ought to be safeguarded—means doing philosophy. Given the practical stakes of these issues, you might not realize that getting into them involves philosophical thinking. But if you’ve got a principled bone to pick with corporate, peer, or governmental surveillance, or if you’ve good reasons for being displeased with the activists who are taking stands against it, you’ve got your philosopher’s cap on.

Not too long ago, a privacy course in the humanities would be of limited interest. Many students were predisposed to believe that privacy issues mostly concerned bad things that happened to indiscreet blabbermouths or anxiety experienced by folks with skeletons in the closet—you know, people with something to hide.

But since privacy became a headline-grabbing issue, things have changed. Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA activity, fast-moving developments in surveillance and online information and communication technology, potent advances in data storage and analysis, and the emergence of powerful data brokers have all played a part in making privacy a matter of great daily concern for everyone. Students are especially interested in what the transition to a big data society riddled with privacy challenges means for them personally, civically, and professionally.

Philosophy needs to play a leading role in privacy education at because, at its core, privacy is an inherently philosophical issue. Yes, privacy concerns social norms, design choices, and legal procedures. But many of the thorny privacy debates revolve around normative disputes—disputes about the correct way to do things, like how to properly govern and treat each other fairly. Whereas lots of other disciplines specialize in obtaining and presenting empirical facts, normative claims are prime philosophical territory.

Once you really get deep into a privacy controversy, you find ideas related to “privacy harms” and “privacy rights” get invoked. But what, exactly, is a privacy harm? Is it something that can be measured? Is it a subjective or objective state? Can it exist in cases where nobody is psychologically traumatized or has their reputation compromised?

The idea of rights is even trickier. If rights exist, where do they come from, why aren’t they universally championed, and how absolute must they be? Can privacy rights be trumped by other goods society deems important? What about competing claims made in the same of security, individual responsibility, pluralism, and the promotion of viable markets that enhance growth and provide consumers with desired products and services?

I’m not interested per se in the answers my students give to these questions. After all, I’m their professor, not their dad. To do my job well, I’ve got to be open to all carefully considered perspectives that are underwritten by rational and rigorous exploration. Analyzing when normative arguments are properly justified and why normative conflicts arise are two of the things philosophy does best, and I just want my students to do their best when being philosophical.

Portrait of a Philosopher
Portrait of a Philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia) | Image Source:

There’s another reason why privacy is an inherently philosophical issue. As leading principals argue, the concepts used to discuss matters of both ‘private’ and ‘public’ concern are not always adequate for addressing the nuanced tensions that arise when technology disrupts social and institutional norms. In some cases, appeals to the very concept of ‘privacy’ may actually impede debate and get in the way of discovering productive solutions. In numerous articles, law professor Woodrow Hartzog and I have argued that the notion of ‘obscurity’ is preferable on both intellectual and practical grounds. This certainty isn’t the only new concept that’s needed to shake up the privacy lexicon.

While privacy education requires philosophical insight, relevant philosophical analysis must be applied to constantly shifting technological, social, legal, and political conditions. To try to keep pace, I’ve got great guest-speakers lined up—folks with different views who come from different fields and different professions. With their permission, in later posts I’ll fill you in what on they have to say. Until then, do me a favor. The next time someone rolls their eyes when philosophy is mentioned, let them know why it matters more than they think.

For more philosophical questions and discussions, follow this Lou Habash Twitter page.

Monday, June 30, 2014

REPOST: Past present: Calling all intellectuals

Moral degeneration is an affliction plaguing our society. Mubarak Ali of Dawn Sunday Magazine proposes a Socratic approach to deal with this issue in the article below.
Image Source: Dawn Sunday Magazine
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was well known in the city of Athens for his philosophical ideas and thoughts. He preferred to live a life of simplicity and modesty; wandering around on foot from one place to another to talk to people. He always remained humble and never tried to aggravate those with whom he discussed social and political issues. He would ask questions and involve people into discussions. For example, one day he met a young man and asked him: “Can you tell me where I can buy bread?” The young man told him that there was a shop round the corner of the street where he could get it. Socrates again asked him “Where can I buy some drinks from?” The response of the young man was that there was a shop next to it where he could buy some drinks of his choice. Socrates then asked him: “Young man, where can I buy virtue?” At this question, the young man flabbergasted; failed to reply. Whereupon Socrates told him “Come with me I will tell you about it”. Following this initial conversation, he explained moral values and virtues to the young fellow. That is how he would preach and share knowledge.
Socrates’ focus was on morality and how a society should become virtuous. He did not put his thoughts down in writing but convinced people logically by encouraging them to question. He never accepted any payment for his teaching even from his rich patrons and disciples. He disagreed with sophists who were relativists and did not believe in continuation of traditions; nor judged moral values as a product of time.
Socrates’ argument was that if human nature is well-informed and knowledgeable, it would always have a tendency for virtuous acts. His great contribution was to devote philosophy for the betterment of human society. However, the Athenian society could not tolerate Socrates and his questioning on moral and social issues. They accused him of corrupting the minds of young people and denying the existence of gods. He was condemned to death by majority of the jury. He accepted the verdict with dignity and died peacefully. Ironically, those who accused him have disappeared in the oblivion of history while Socrates exists beyond his death.

On the brink of social decline, we need a Socratic approach to think bigger

In the case of our society, we are presently facing moral degeneration and decline of all virtuous values. As a result, criminal activities have no check. Those capable of using dishonest ways and means; exploit, loot, plunder and ironically earn a high social status in the society. In the absence of moral values, there is no hesitation for fraud or violation of human respect and dignity.
People, who realise that the society is rapidly undergoing a process of decline, believe that society can be salvaged by conquerors like Muhammad Bin Qasim, Mahmood of Ghazni and Muhammad Ghauri. They believe that only conquerors could rescue society from all evils by imitating the past heroes and that by looting and plundering wealth, they will be able to cure the internal decay that they confront. Their desire to have a conqueror materialises again and again through political slogans and fiery speeches of politicians in our text books, to inspire young people to emulate them. The result of this teaching is that if there is no opportunity to conquer other countries and pledge them, they will conquer their own country and subdue their own people as in the case of military dictatorship and also feudal and tribal democracy when leaders appear as conquerors and the people are vanquished.
Sadly, there is no desire for a philosopher like Socrates who would enlighten them intellectually and inspire them to observe moral values in order to make the society peaceful and prosperous. When there is a comparison between conquerors and intellectuals, the preference of the society is the former. Since intellectuals have limited space to play their role, the society is degenerating day by day and rapidly losing its will to survive. If Socrates were to witness our present day situation, he would prefer to drink hemlock and die.
 Lou Habash teaches philosophy at King's College, New York. Learn more about the Socratic Approach and other philosophical thoughts by following him on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

REPOST: What It Means to Be Human: A Philosopher’s Argument Against Solitary Confinement

 Is solitary confinement a suitable punishment for criminals? Maclyn Willigan, a writer for, answers that question in the article below.
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In recent years, resistance to the widespread use of solitary confinement has gained significant traction in the United States. Opponents of the practice have drawn upon everything from psychology and neuroscience to criminology and economics to show the many harms caused by solitary.

Lisa Guenther, associate professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the new book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, draws upon her knowledge of philosophy to make a thought-provoking argument against the practice of isolating human beings for extended periods of time.

Guenther refers to the tenets of phenomenology, which deals primarily with the development of the consciousness through first-person experiences—the formative relationships we share with one another and the objects that surround us. Solitary confinement, she argues, eliminates the opportunity for incarcerated persons to form these meaningful connections. Although the necessities of survival may be provided, those held in solitary deteriorate nevertheless. She describes it as an unhinging of the person’s psyche.

In an AEON Magazine article, Guenther contests, “We do not exist as isolated individuals,” but rather as constantly changing and adapting reflections of our living environment. Phenomenology suggests that while we may believe ourselves to have intrinsic characteristics unique to us, at heart we are products of the environments we interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Solitary confinement effectively removes all meaningful stimulus from prisoners’ environments, rendering them unable to ground themselves in a reality created by sensory connections. Guenther, in an article published in the New York Times, explains these sensory phenomena in simple terms:

Think about it: Every time I hear a sound and see another person look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing tricks on me. Every time someone walks around the table rather than through it, I receive an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation that the table exists, and that my own way of relating to tables is shared by others.

While these may seem like insignificant interactions with one’s environment to an average person, a phenomenologist would say that these are reassuring occurrences that should not be taken for granted. Being deprived of these interactions, as people in solitary confinement are, leads them to question their reality and develop symptoms associated with extreme isolation such as paranoia, hallucinations, and introversion.

Five Mualimm-ak, who spent a total of five years in solitary confinement later reflected on the experience: “The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it.” Without these subtle yet countless affirmations we experience daily, we too would have trouble discerning what is grounded in reality and what is solely in our heads.

While we don’t have to undergo this questioning of reality that individuals subjected to solitary confinement must, we on the outside are not unaffected by its practice. From a phenomenological standpoint, the complete seclusion of these prisoners from our shared environments restricts our capacity to understand the world in which we live. Solitary confinement is purposefully concealed from the public eye—out of sight, out of mind—and because of this we are denied the first-person experience so important in forming our thoughts, feelings, and judgments.

More transparency in our prisons would allow the public to better understand the treatment that isolated inmates undergo, and give them a greater ability to critique and formulate alternatives to their practices. The absence of isolated prisoners from our common consciousness perpetuates their suffering and our ignorance, a dangerous combination.

Accepting that humans are relational beings, Guenther suggests that the sensory deprivation that people in solitary undergo is sufficient to unhinge their minds. They are forced to question everything with which they interact. And as they begin to reflect their morbid environment, they lose their sense of what it means to be human.

This phenomenological argument makes a strong case for the inclusion of human contact in the list of fundamental human needs—and for the use of solitary confinement to be seen as a violation of fundamental human rights.

To understand more about the philosophical side of issues such as this, follow this Lou Habash Twitter account.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

REPOST: Why don't we have statues of Michael Oakeshott?

Get to more about Michael Oakeshott, a man who has made a distinctive contribution in epistemology and political theory. Read more in this article

(Photo: LSE)
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Who or what was Michael Oakeshott? How many of our fellow citizens — how many even of the readers of this journal — could confidently answer the question? I guess, not many.

One of the paradoxes of Britain’s intellectual history is that a country which, alongside the Greeks and the Germans, has contributed more than any other to philosophical inquiry is extraordinarily uninterested in its own philosophers. A million people are said to have crowded the streets of Paris to see the funeral procession of Jean-Paul Sartre. In Scandanavia, Kierkegaard is a household name. In Germany, Heidegger is as well known as Thomas Mann. But in Britain no one has heard of Oakeshott — a philosopher who ranks with Sartre, Kierkegaard and Heidegger.

Like Wittgenstein, his even more intellectually powerful near-contemporary in Cambridge, Oakeshott’s idiosyncratic style matches an idiosyncratic (and truly interesting) cast of mind. His distinctive contribution came in two related insights — one in epistemology, the other in political theory.

In epistemology, he disdained dry inquiry into sense-data, truth-conditions and the rest of the usual apparatus of modern analytical philosophy, and concentrated instead on the ways in which knowledge is actually acquired — through history, science, poetry, practical wisdom and so forth. He argued that each of these points of view constitutes an ‘arrest’ from which the infinite, kaleidoscopic continuum of the universe can be seen in a partial way. It follows that none of these ‘modes of experience’ is intrinsically truer or less true than the others — and that truth is therefore a characteristic which can attach only to an utterance within a specific mode of thought.

Likewise, in political theory, he disdained the usual dry discussion of rights and duties, and asked instead what characteristics are required by the modern state if it is to enable people to live in liberty together. His answer is that the modern, liberal state must be conceived not as an ‘enterprise association’ with a specific concrete aim, but rather as a ‘civil association’, where conduct is governed by ‘adverbial conditions’, the sole purpose of which is to permit people to live together in liberty.

The Notebooks, whose recovery we owe to the admirably painstaking work of Luke O’Sullivan, do not — it has to be admitted — reveal much about Oakeshott’s philosophy that we did not already know. But, perhaps more importantly, they reveal quite a lot about the man.

Oakeshott’s philosophical eccentricity was matched by eccentricity in many other aspects of his life. He played mah-jong with enthusiasm but refused the winds (or was it the dragons?) because he idiosyncratically conceived them to be inferior. In the same vein, he refused all honours (including the very highest) on the grounds that honours should be awarded to those who want them most. He was as shrewd as the shrewdest street-trader when it came to things like running his beloved department at the LSE; but his private life was notably quixotic. In short, much of his charm lay in his capacity for unexpected romance.

The Notebooks bring out this quality, letting us into some of the smouldering passions that lay behind the extreme delicacy of his conversational manner. There is much reflection on God, and on the history of man’s relation to the numinous in nature. In 1923, we find Oakeshott pondering (over successive days) on the ‘experience of the Red Sea in the history of the Jews’ and on the sea as the symbol of the ‘mightiness of God’. ‘The stars have lost much of their mystery — but who would dare to say that he had discovered the secret of the sea?’

As well as bringing out the romance in Oakeshott’s soul, the Notebooks illustrate very clearly the persistent themes of his mind and the breadth of his interests. As early as 1925 (61 years before his last notebook), he sets out 17 ‘projected labours’, including:

The logic of political philosophy… A work on aesthetic… A work on the nature of religion… A work on historiography treated as a branch of epistemology… A life of Nelson… A work on Balzac.

The Notebooks also illustrate the capacity for aphorism that characterised both his writing and his conversation. Over the course of just a few days in 1958, we find: ‘the victims of activity’; ‘love is our high idea of courage’; ‘the horror of all compulsion’; and ‘the world of art — a world where only the unforeseen can happen and where conduct is understood only by children’.

Just occasionally, in the midst of these distinctive but somewhat inconsequential delights, a phrase emerges that crystallises a great stream of Oakeshott’s thought, reminding us that he was a seriously important protagonist in the history of ideas. In the last entry of 1963, his deepest thought — the concept of civil association — is pithily and memorably summarised: ‘Politics is the art not of imposing a way of life, but of organising a common life… the art of accommodating moralities to one another.’

These Notebooks are not like Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. They were not intended for others, still less for publication, and they do not constitute the record of an intellectual journey. But Oakeshott did not specialise in great voyages. He preferred instead to rest on what Housman (I think his favourite poet) once called the idle hill of summer. From this pleasing vantage point, he discerned with subtle charm significant features entirely missed by caravans of earnest travellers making their way solemnly but unseeingly across the landscape.

Find more links to philosophy articles by visiting this Lou Habash Facebook page.