Thursday, December 30, 2004


I just spent the last three days in Boston. It was a lot of fun. Actually it wasn't. It was kind of dull. I discovered the decreasing marginal utility point of schmoozing - the point where it is no longer worth it for me to schmooze any longer. The talks were unexciting, as were the people.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Hotel Rwanda

I just got back from seeing Hotel Rwanda in the Angelika with "M". I have to say that this movie is one of the most heart-wrenching movies I have seen, perhaps ever. I was really moved.

Basically the movie centered on a man who became an accidental hero in the Rwandian genocide by saving some 1200 people, both Hutu and Tutsi.

The 10th anniversary of the genocide recently came and went, and I hope that the world has since learned a few lessons from this, though given the events in the Sudan, I suspect we have not.

One can learn lots of lessons from this story. The first is that many people are sub-human, whole countries-full, and we have to take that in to account when thinking about how we interact with other cultures. Second, the UN is both powerless and fairly racist. They will most likely never protect anyone. The world, until the Iraq conflicts, would never protect anyone being brutalized by a non-white. And even now, most of the world is still against protecting Iraqis from Ba'athists.

I left the movie wishing that I could be part of stopping the next genocidal maniac. Some things are just wrong, and there is nothing more poignant than this movie to show you what it might be like.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The freedom to play

There are two board games coming under fire this Christmas shopping season. The first is an old story, one we have heard about before: Ghettopoly. The second is a newer game called Grow-op.

The first is being seized by customs for various "legal infringements". The second has not yet been seized or banned, but is coming close.

Ghettopoly is basically being seized for being politically incorrect. This is a real farce. It is a protected parody of Monopoly(c) that is allowed and does not violate trademark law. Certainly there has been no court ruling to that effect. This is America. We don't seize board games because they make fun of the ghetto. Everyone in the ghetto makes fun of the ghetto. Why can't people outside the ghetto do the same? Pathetic.

Grow-op is a bit more insidious. Though it has not been banned, there is talk about getting it off shelves using anti-tobacco marketing laws, or whatever. People higher up are getting edgy. There are two problems with this. First, it definitely is protected speech. Talking about buying and selling fictitious drugs is certainly OK. Making something amusing out of it certainly is too. Secondly, this goes to the heart of legal reform. If we wanted to change the laws about Marijuana, which I certainly do, there must be as many legal platforms available as we can have. Banning this game is a last ditch effort on the part of the old-guard to keep marijuana and everything about it evil. It is not. The sooner we realize it as a society, the better off we will be.

Conspiracy theories imitating art

Iran TV recently broadcast a TV drama about Isrealis stealing Palestinian children's organs, and then they (and Syria) go and accuse the Americans of doing it to the Iraqis. Is it me or are they starting to confuse their fantasy TV life with the real world?

Monday, December 20, 2004

When I Watch’d the Resident Artist

When I watched the resident artist,
When the paint, the dots, were splattered on the canvas before me;
When I was shown the technique, the brushstroke, and judged distance and depth,
When I standing watch’d the artist, Where he painted to the oooohs and aaaaahs in the gallery
How soon, uncomprehending, I became bored and restless,
Till ducking and sliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In to the pure, glowing cacoon of a lab, and with deep thought
Stared intently at the equations that govern’d all

Isn't my poem better than Whitman's luddite touchy-feely stuff? It annoyed me that they just made a children's book out Whitman's "When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer". We are definitely teaching the wrong values to our kids. No wonder we are falling behind in science.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Nagel's "Bat paper" and Whitman Poem

In 1860 Walt Whitman wrote a two-line poem - Perfections:

Only themselves understand themselves and the like of themselves,
As souls only understand souls.

Does it remind anone else of Nagel's famous bat paper?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

How can 50-something million Americans be so dumb?

The famous Daily Mirror headline about 59,054,087 Americans bneing so dumb was definitely on to something. I am convinced now.

I know that I am coming to this quite late in the game, but I just saw Michael Moore's "documentary" Farenheit 9/11.

To call that movie "crap" would be to insult crap. I seriously have far less respect for the people who saw it and told me to see it. The movie is so beneath criticism that I am not sure why anyone would dignify it with a critique (though Christopher Hitchens does a perfect job.) Do people no longer believe in thinking? I mean, seriously, my fellow Americans, what is up?

This is the most egregious instance of Confirmation Bias I have ever seen. Confirmation Bias the the psychological condition whereby one takes an argument to be convincing because you already agree with the conclusion. You may not like George Bush, I can respect that. But if, for you, this film contributed to that, you have a sad, sorry, excuse for an intellect.

I really hope that in 100 years from now there will be no copies of this film left. I would be mortified to know that future historians will be laughing their asses off, judging us by this, wondering how 50-something million Americans thought that this movie made a point.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Born-agains: in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

Many years ago, I spent a very considerable chunk of time with Ba'alei Teshuvah; enough time so that I could have done a whole sociological study of them. I didn't, but I assume that someone has. I hope so. There is a lot that can be learned from such a study.

"Ba'alei Teshuvah" are "born again Jews" so to speak. They are Jews who have "repented", or "returned", usually to Orthodox Judaism.

There are many schools that seek out ba'alei teshuvah and they exist all over the world, though many are located in Jerusalem. There are all types. There was a school for the "thinking-rational" type of person, there was a school for the more "feeling/spiritual" type of person, and schools for those who took too much drugs. It is a rather large industry. There are even high school programs.

All this shows is that the type of person to go to these schools varies. However, what you do find in these schools, in a much larger concentration than you would find in the general population are "intense" people. What do I mean by that? It is hard to describe. You meet many people who get VERY into the programs. They become very committed to a radically different lifestyle, extremely quickly. They start to eat different foods, stop having sex (or even interacting with the opposite sex), some cut off communication with their families, some decide to settle in a country where they have no friends or family outside their new school friends, they adopt a new lingo, take on a new and difficult course of study, start learning hundreds of new Jewish legal regulations, adopting new political views, develop a disdain for secular culture, etc. People who do this very seriously, and very many do, suddenly become whole new people, and they are the most dedicated adherents of the group. They preach (regardless of how little they understand), they study, they often look down on those who are different in ways that are far more intense than those who, for example, were raised as Orthodox Jews.

For some there is a pendulum effect. Start in one far "spiritual corner" then go to the other, and then come and find a nice middle ground. That seems to be the normal pattern. Few people ease their way in this lifestyle to this gradually.

None of this is news - to Jews. For Christians it is a bit different. Jewish ba'alei Teshuvah make radical changes in their lives; so much so, that the institutions have often been compared to cults (though I would not endorse this too quickly). Christian born-agains, tend to have spiritual revelations that generally require less drastic behavior shifts than do shifts to Orthodox Judaism.

Anyone who has spent time with large numbers of ba'alei teshuvah can confirm any of this. The modern "ba'al teshuvah movement" started as a manifestation of all the movements of the 1960's, spurned on by the 1967 taking of Jerusalem after Israel's Six Day War.

But there is a new movement, that is just like the ba'al teshuvah movement, though it is not in Judaism. It is in Islam. There seems to be little doubt that Most radical Muslim Terrorists, most Islamic suicide bombers, most of the real fanatics that do the real crazy things, are Islamic Ba'alei Teshuvah. Islamic ba'alei teshuvah resemble Jewish ba'alei teshuvah in very many significant ways. 1) There is a belief that they are returning to something authentic. 2) It is something that comes from a dissatisfaction with establishment middle-class values. 3) It comes with the authority of tradition. 4) It has all the trappings of authenticity. 5) It provides a whole community. 6) It involves a radical change in lifestyle. 6) It provides a way to ignore your community and family in the guise of a higher and more important purpose. It allows you to devalue those things. 7) There are profound psychological effects of new sleep patters, new sexual habits, new eating habits, new peer groups, new authority figures, sudden changes of dress codes, shaving habits, and linguistic patterns. These need to be explored. 8) This one is rather important - one reason for the large amount of preaching that ba'alei teshuvah do is that they believe that the message that they started to believe in is incumbent on all - not just them. Everyone is obligated the same way that they were. Thus any sacrifice that they make is really a sacrifice that others should be making. If others don't it is OK to treat them with scorn, and in some cases make them do it without their consent.

All of this is manifested in radical Islam as much as it is in Orthodox Judaism. That is in the "born again" versions of both.

Muslim terrorists (like our 9/11 hijackers) are usually men who grow up in moderate Muslim households. They somehow fall in with radical groups or schools. They become religious, which involves returning to an "authentic" Muslim way of life. They do not trust their parents and former friends who "lost" the authentic way of life and start performing new rituals in the name of Islam. Some rituals are authentic to Islam, some are not. They wear strange clothing like tight socks, value certain burial rituals, shave or not depending on the situation, wear religious clothing, start reading the Koran intently and obsessively. Most importantly they believe that they are doing something that everyone ought to be doing. If they are obligated to die for some cause, then so are others. If my shooting the infidel from a hospital roof is endangering the people inside, . . . well it is their obligation to die for this too.

All this suggests that the newcomers to this are easy to manipulate. They take the word of the authority over what they know to be right and wrong. They take the word of their community and peer group over their former friends and close family. They can be told to do anything. And in the case of radical Islam, the "recruiters" know this, and it is deliberate.

This also give mainstream Islam some plausible deniability. "This is an extreme version of Islam" they say. "This is not mainstream." But this is disingenuous. These movements are generally funded from within mainstream orthodox Islam. The religious want the non-religious to come around. So they fund these movements in the name of religion. But they then express shock at what comes out of them.

This must stop.

Generally when Orthodox Jews try to get the non-Orthodox to become Orthodox the result is fairly benign. Many make a lifestyle change. Many make a radical lifestyle change, and those who do probably are not any worse off then they would have been otherwise. When radical Muslims do it they turn secular Muslims to human bombs. This is not benign. This is as malignant as it gets. Everyone in the Jewish community knows all the big Jewish institutions that do what I am talking about. Who is aware of the Islamic counterparts? Has this been studied? Have people been looking at these Sheikhs sitting in American prisons to see what their organizations, and those like them are up to? Have we put sociologists in place so we can see what is going on? Do we have psychologists working on this? Do we have good intelligence on these people? We need to know where these organizations are, who funds them, how they attract people, how they approach people, if they are interconnected in some financial way, if there is some way they centralize their education and training, etc. That will go a long way toward curbing the threat of radical Islam.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Flew recants

Every now and then philosophers change their minds about a position they hold. To most of us it is no big deal. From time to time it makes a tiny little splash in an already small pool of philosophical gossip. I remember a year or two ago Frank Jackson changed his mind about the Colorblind Mary argument, and a few Philosophy of Mind geeks had something to talk about for a week. I assume that there are less than 1000 people in the world who actually know what I am talking about, and less than 10 who care.

But when Anthony Flew does it, I think it is a big deal. Anthony Flew's Theology and falsification has been anthologized about fifty times. It is probably one of the most widely read piece of philosophy. He put forward one of the most standard argument for atheism ever. (I taught his paper in my class last week.) He now claims to believe in God. This is really big philosophy gossip. (Hat tip to Julian Sanchez.) Anthony Flew's name is almost synonymous with atheism (and libertarianism too).

Apparently his reasons are that he is becoming convinced by some fine tuning arguments, which I never bought, and I never understand people who do. Those arguments are designed to answer the question of "Why does the universe exist" or "Why does this particular universe exist. Presumably only certain universes are possible. That is to say that only certain kinds of universes can be supported by physics. There are a few answers to this question. God is one of them, though as many point out, it is hard to see how God answers the question in any real way. (Others, for example, involve the "many universes" answer.)

I wonder how much clarifying Flew plans on doing about this. According to one source he has not really changed his mind at all.

Now, although what Flew thinks at any given time makes no difference, it is interesting. It is the philosopher's equivelant of celebrity gossip. Flew's opinion is about as interesting as anyone elses, except that he has probably given this a lot of thought, but it is only the content of that thought, only his ability to give us his well thought out reasons and arguments, that matter in the end.

Orthodox Joke

The latest in our collection of Religious Jewish Jokes:

Why are Yeshiva guys not going to see The Passion of the Christ?

Becuase it is in Aramaic, and they are waiting for the Artscroll translation.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Upcoming vacation

"E" and I just booked tickets to Turkey and Israel. We will be in Istanbul, Izmir, and Jerusalem. Anyone know anything we should not miss in either of those places?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Review of Rabih Alameddine's I, the Divine

I decided to take a chance on Alameddine's other book, despite the fact that I really did not like his first one. This time persistence paid off. I, the Divine is a much better book.

It is a novel in first chapters. It is written from the standpoint of Sarah Nour el-din, a woman who keeps telling us the story of her life over and over. There is an anecdote in the story where Sara wants a particular painting she sees in a museum. So she decides to replicate the painting. It takes her 17 tries to get the painting right, and then the whole series gets exhibited as a history of the making of the painting, in chronological order. This book, written as her autobiography, is the same way. It is a collection of first chapters in her autobiography. Each time she has a new way of looking at her life, as if she can't make up her mind what is important. What sort of events should she tell about. Is her relationship to her mother most important, her brother, her first sexual encounter, her grandfather, her birth, her lovers, her child? So each time she writes the first chapter, we see a new angle of her life. The effect is rather good, and not nearly as pretentious as it sounds.

The book has no traditional plot, other than Sarah's life. Sara is Lebanese. She is a mother. She is a lover. She is part of a family, a friend, a player in a series of relationships, she exists in a social hierarchy, which is all conveyed well in the book. Her whole life is articulated, in a successive series of false starts in an attempt to convey her life.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Open Source Translation Project

I was talking to my friend "E" today and we came up with this great idea. The idea is Open Source translations.

Here is the plan. We ask everyone in the world who is bilingual (for now in English and something else) to take books, or whatever, in their language and translate it in to English. Of course this is a big undertaking, so what we really ask is if people can translate a page, or a paragraph, or a chapter. Ultimately the editor will colate all these pages and put them together.

We thought that there are tons of books out there, and we were thinking of Jewish books, but really, any books are useful to have, that should all be in English. Imagine if we took the complete responsa of Maimonides. There are probably a few hundred. If everyone with a spare hour or two did one responsa, we can have the whole thing translated. We put it up on line and ask people to check it for accuracy. Ultimately you have an editor who is fully competent in the language skim the whole thing, and you have a book. I was thinking that the complete poem of Yehudah Halevi might be useful too. Many have been translated, and many have not. If a hundred people each did one or two, we can have it done in no time, and it will be a great boon to the scholarly community, and look nice on academics' resumes.

This will of course take some web work, but it is ultimately doable, and I hope "E" and I can get to do this. If anyone wants to volunteer to do this, from any language to any other, be in touch. I think that open-source translations might be a good way to harness the talents of millions of bilingual people out there who only have a limited amount of time.

Computers have been doing this for a while. If we just chop the job up in to little parts and lewt everyine have a little part, we can get the whole thing done.

This is something that school children can get involved in, as can anyone who knows the language and can work a computer.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Review of Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing

Sometimes one has a learning experience that really changes one's perspective. Reading Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing is such an experience. I remember once reading a volume of David Halivni's Mekorot u' Mesorot and coming away transformed. The Talmud took on a whole new meaning. Each line of text was a different story than you originally suppose. It is right there in front of you waiting to be uncovered. Reading early biblical criticism, while not as easily convincing, is similar.

Persecution's goal is to teach us how to read in between the lines of certain texts. Those of us who study contemporary philosophy occasionally get a bit condescending when it comes to the medievals. (Unless he is reading too much in to them, which I doubt) Strauss reminds us that the medievals might have been backward, but they were not stupid. The medieval philosophers had to do their best work under the most adverse of conditions. Freedoms, such as we have now did not exist for most of recorded human history. To write and live one had to be careful. Censorship was ubiquitous. The geniuses who knew that they were writing for posterity needed to get certain messages out. Many of the subjects they needed to publicize might sound trivial now. But keep in mind that in the 16th century the soul's immortality was a VERY important topic of discussion for some of the top minds of the age.

Spinoza, Yehuda Halevi, and Maimonides all had things that they were trying desperately to say, but could not. Strauss shows us the secret to deciphering these authors. Strauss really reveals the genius of the authors he speaks about and renews my respect for their brilliance, and Strauss' too. Hume could not publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in his lifetime as what he said was too controversial. It was controversial despite the fact that Hume never really tips his hand and tells us what he is really thinking. With Hume we see the first light of free thought. Before that we have secret messages embedded in texts which we have to uncover. The methodology varies from author to author, and Strauss doesn't give away too many secrets, but he definitely give us a new way to look at old philosophers.

This book was published some 50 years ago, but it is still as relevant today as it was then. Strauss, is by the way, taken to be one of the godfathers of the neocon movement. I suppose if one were to read between some lines here, one can see in the essay on Yehuda Halevi, why.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Post-election "analysis": They're just not that in to you

I have seen now countless hours of c-span, colloquia, and discussion, zillions of pages of blogging, op-eding, and punditry - all on the analysis of why Kerry lost the election. Countless theories have been put forth. I am pretty sick of them. By now we all know them by heart: no clear message, not sufficient youth vote, gays, irrational fear of terror, . . . The whole thing bores me to tears.

The Democrats just need to face reality: The country is just not in to you. Move on.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Yet another backlash has begun

I recently complained about the lack of real diversity on my campus after an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education did the same for the average US campus. I have since discovered that the Columbia Spectator has complained about this two days before me, the New York Times did it a week later, and so has today's Wall Street Journal. Now there's diversity for you.

But the story gets worse. To democrats and liberals this lack of diversity is either a good thing or simply a joke. (See the famous Brandom quotes about liberals just being smarter. . .) However, it is the same kind of joke that got Bush elected, and will start coming back to bite these people in the butt pretty soon. Using the American university as a large liberal indoctrination center will encourage lots of blowback (unintended consequences). How so? Well, today's NY Times has a piece on Liberty School of Law. The school's founder the Rev. Jerry Falwell said that "If our graduates wind up in the government, they'll be social and political conservatives. If they wind up as judges, they'll be presiding under the Bible." This, frankly, scared the hell out of me. But they are attracting students and justifying their existence on the grounds that there are not two sides presented on campuses in any discussion on any issue. There is no liberal and conservative view, but rather just a liberal view, and they are providing the conservative one. So we will end up with two types, liberals and conservatives, and this country will get locked in to ever murkier battles about some fundamental issues and we will be so polarized that half the country will be essentially democratically disenfranchised.

Liberals would do well to realize what is going on and not react by becoming even more liberal. That has been the strategy till now, and all it got them is a very conservative Executive branch, a very conservative legislative branch, a soon-to-be very conservative judicial branch, and a very large chip on their shoulder. It is time for liberals to take stock of themselves and their causes.

Here is some advice:
1) As many of my friends would say: "Stop hatin'". Get over the fact that you lost and stop hating Bush and conservatives. Stop patronizing them as if you know better. Most likely you don't. If you do, you certainly aren't smart enough to convince conservatives of it.

2) Prioritize. Find out what is important and pursue it. Do not pursue every single cause you think goes with the liberal package. If you think the environment is really the most important thing on the national agenda, pursue it. Tell us clearly why it is so important and how you will fix it. Do not blame anyone for not doing it, just pursue those issues. Do not think you will win every battle though. Do not then go for the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the FCC, tort reform, gay marriage, socialized medicine, more money for everything, bigger government, smaller military, more museums, abortion promotion, feeding the whales, helping the Palestinians, ignoring the Sudanese, supporting the UN, ending globalization, and whatever else liberals are vigorously pursuing these days.

3) Compromise. Realize that if you have any long-term interests, there will be short term compromises that you will have to make. Moreover, you are already making them because you have no choice, so you might as well look magnanimous doing it. Pretend to talk about how silly the gay marriage idea was. Agree that the Patriot act might help prevent some terrorism. Realize that Saddam was not a good guy and should have been removed regardless of whether he actually was in bed with bin Laden, or he just gave large sums of money to suicide bombers.

4) Listen. In a non-patronizing way, take a conservative to lunch. Find out what he or she cares about. Do not read a pamphlet called something like "How to win a debate with a conservative" beforehand. Do not try to be right. You will just end up realizing you are right, and the person you had lunch with will realize why he hates you and wants to screw over everything you hold dear. You will come off as sanctimonious and arrogant, like you usually do. This time, really listen. Realize that you two share the same country, and right now, he is on top. One day you might be, but now he is. Even if you disagree, you must learn to respect his point of view. This is what we have been teaching liberals since J. S. Mill. It is about time liberals take their own advice.

5) Think. Think about a) why you are a liberal and b) what that means to you. You might just find that you have accepted a whole package of ideas just because they were bundled together by Ralph Nader, Howard Dean, or the Village Voice. How many people out there really believe in every last one of the liberal dogmas? I certainly do not. Nor could I possible believe in every conservative dogma, nor could any sane human. Allow yourself the freedom to have your own opinions about everything. Assume that there are some things you might agree to if you can make a conservative friend. It won't hurt, I promise.

All of these will win you points with conservatives, will not change much anyway in "their" favor, and might get you a concession or two on something important. Moreover it might stem the flow of people leaving liberal and Democratic camps in droves.

Universities like Falwell's thrive on being the "alternative viewpoint". If liberals wire a bit less to the left there would be no need for such strong alternatives, and they would loose momentum.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

As if you needed more reasons not to trust the UN

While I am sure the UN is doing important work in such important places as Namibia, it becomes clearer and clearer that when it come to real problems, it has an interest only in making gestures and sits around hoping that no one notices what it is really doing.

Three things in the news lately.

First, oil for food money (which was being embezzled left and right by the higher ups at the UN was going from Saddam Hussein to the families of suicide bombers. I wonder if anyone at the UN knew about this, or was it like everything else there - shrouded in secrecy and official cover-up?

Second, they have apparently asked anti-Semites to write the official UN report on anti-Semitism. I hear a literary version of Durban here. (For those of you who remember, Durban was where a major UN conference on racism pretty much turned in to a Jew-hating fest.) The UN might want to consider asking people who are familiar with the being a victim of anti-semitism, not a perpetrator, to write the report. I am sure they would never ask Sharon to write the report of the Palestinian problem.

Lastly, there is the month-old issue that the UN is knowingly employing Hamas members to help with various routine relief projects.

I want to talk about this last thing. We all know that the UN has been complicit in aiding Palestinian gunmen (famous ambulance video here.). But this is far more insidious. Why? Because Hamas in the territories, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, derives some of its street credibility from their suicide bombings and other terrorist operations. However, most of their popularity comes from the fact that they are a social institution. Hamas (and Hezbollah) operate schools, Mosques, and welfare programs of all sorts. It is THIS that makes them popular, and feeds their campaigns for "votes", funds, and probably most significantly, "martyrs" for the cause. Employing members of Hamas to do welfare activities puts them in higher profile places where Hamas can take partial credit for the work that the UN is doing. Thus the Hamas membership rises, and the UN can claim that they are politically neutral.

It is this sort of activity that perpetuates terrorist popularity. Classic bait-and-switch. They lure you in with free food and education, and then get you to blow yourself up "for the cause". The UN is providing much of the bait.

UNRWA is largely supported by American and Canadian tax dollars (40 percent). The US has supported many bad causes in its day. Some because there was a higher political goal, some out of bad judgment, and some out of ignorance. What is our excuse for this one, and where are the big complainers?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Arafat Legacy

Lately one reads a lot about the Arafat Legacy. To some he is a Hero, to others a murderous butcher. I am assuming that those who view him as a hero cannot understand those who view him as a terrorist, and vise versa.

I think that the reason for the divergence of attitudes is obvious. It is not that one side likes terrorism, and the other does not. It is also not that one side likes the keeping the Palestinians in the quandary that they are in and the other does not. (If you fall in to one of those categories, I probably do not like you, and this does not apply to you.)

It goes back to a difference that is the foundation of the theory of Just War, one that I have mentioned many times before.

Arafat is a terrorist. He is a murderer of school children. He violated every internationally agreed-upon norm of civility and human decency. He inspired the last 40 years of depraved anti-civilian barbarism, including the Sept 11 attacks. There are few words (in English, Arabic has some that come close) to describe the inhumanity of Arafat.

Arafat also has goals that one should be able to sympathize with. He wants to liberate his people from foreign rule. He wants political autonomy and national self-determination and independence.

Let us make believe that there were absolutely no political options that Arafat had for negotiating with Israel. Let us also pretend that Israel was mistreating and politically disenfranchising the Palestinians. And let us further stipulate that the Palestinians had a central negotiating body, and a whole bunch of other reasonable conditions were met. . . It would seem to me that he is then (under our hypothetical scenario)fighting something resembling a just war.

However, regardless of the justice of his cause, he is fighting the war unjustly.

Those who praise Arafat forget this distinction. They seem to think that if the cause is just then all means to achieve it are Ok. But it is not. If your cause is just, then you can still be a vile terrorist. All you need to do is to deliberately target one school bus. You still have a just cause, but you are a murderer.

One must not praise a man and forget how despicable he was, but of course one must not let the actions of terrorism make us forget that despite the abhorence of their ways, there is still a legitimate problem, and they have a grievance that needs to be resolved.

Arafat's legacy was that he managed to blur this distinction. He blurred it so bad that he got a Noble Prize from an organization that could not see past what they saw was his just cause, and his merely temporary decision to use just means to attempt to resolve it.

So the propaganda goes back and forth. One side recalls the oppression of the Palestinian people. The other side recalls Arafat's strategy: target the innocent.

Arafat was the wrong leader for the Palestinian people. Had there been someone else 40 years ago, to lead the Palestinians, who understood that one does not take a just cause and fight it unjustly, there likely would be a lot of messes that the world is not in today.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Stickers for all - a proposed compromise

In the latest set of battles between the religiously zealous and the scientifically zealous, we find the new sticker war. Creationists want a sticker on school textbooks claiming that evolution is not a fact but merely a theory. The scientists (and ACLU, et al) claim that 1) it is a fact, and 2) the stickers would violate the separation between church and state.

Now, everyone knows that evolution is not a fact, though it is about as close as scientists get to one. There is a LOT of evidence for it, though there are a lot of internal disputes about many details. And 2, it is clear that the only real challenge to the scientific story comes from religion, or religiously motivated thinkers.

(In some sense this is reminiscient of our last election.)

In the spirit of ecumenical harmony, I would like to propose a compromise that I suspect would make both sides upset. We allow the stickers to be put on every science book in Georgia. In exchange, the scientists get to put a corresponding sticker on each bible in Georgia that says “This Bible contains material on many topics, both scientific, historical and ethical. All of this is mythology, not a fact, regarding the origin of the cosmos, humanity, civilization, and ethics. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Thus we have some Church in the State and some State in the Church. Good idea, no?

Saturday Night in Cuba?

On Saturday night I went with a friend and his wife to a Cuban club in Union City/West New York, NJ. I had a lot of fun. It took me forever (and lots of drinks) to get up the courage to actually dance, but the food was good, and I had no idea what was going on, being the only person there who did not speak any Spanish. It was really interesting how friendly everyone was was. Strangers were trying really hard and being really tolerant in the process of teaching me salsa and merengue. I frankly suck. But everyone was great. I had a great time.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Lubavitchers in my life

On Friday night I went to the local synagogue in my neighborhood. I did this because I need to use a synagogues facilities on Wednesday for something my parents requested, and when I met the Rabbi he told me to come by on Friday night. So I thought the polite thing to do would be to show up. I did. The Rabbi was a Lubavitch rabbi, and the synagogue itself was a very mixed crowd of all sorts of people.

After the prayer, the rabbi insisted I stay for a meal afterward. Apparently there was a shabbaton of sorts. So before I could say no, I was already seated in front of a wrapped up chala and piece of gifelte fish at a table with about a half a dozen complete strangers. This was all fine. Everyone was pretty friendly.

There was a speaker there at dinner. She was a conservative woman who had written a bit about the Lubavitch community worldwide. She spoke really well. Her job was not to fawn over the community, but to talk about her experiences, which she did wonderfully. She obviously did not feel compelled to toe any line or hold back from saying anything, and yet the whole speech was full of praise, not the kind of praise you get from a fan, but rather from one who really has been well treated by the community, despite her status as an outsider. Her stories were fun and entertaining, talking about the different Chabad communities she visited and places she saw.

That got me to thinking about the various times in my life I have experiences the Chabad community. They have been actively doing outreach all my life. They started just after Israel's Six Day War, when there was 1) a strong pro-Israel feeling on the planet as a response to the war, and 2) when the counterculture zeitgeist was taking off, and Chabad was as counterculture as any hippy commune.

I remember two things from my childhood. The first was their "Army of Hashem" thing that they sent out. Everyone got their little newsletter, and I think everyone was able to get higher rank if they sent something in or did something. I forget what it was, but I do not think I was too involved, but I am pretty sure we all got their weekly or monthly newsletters.

The second thing I recall was their campaigns to have people purchase letters in torah scrolls. They had individuals go from door to door selling letters in torah scrolls. IT must have cost a dollar or a few dollars to sponsor the writing in a scroll, and you got to choose which letter you would be sponsoring. I remember my when one of these people came to my grandparents' home he bought letters for all of us. I think it was the first letter of our names.

As I grew up this all faded. Both of these things fell off my radar and I think fell off the radar of much of mainstream orthodoxy.

When I was in college Chabad took on other connotations. Chabad became rather obsessed with the Messiah. They were always rather obsessed with it, but then it took on a face, ie, the Rebbe, Schneerson. When he died, it looked for a moment like Chabad was going to become the new Christianity. At the time I had been taking a class with David Berger, the academic who wrote fiercely against the sect cautioning that they were breaking off from mainstream Judaism. I had a chat or two with him about it. He took this very seriously.

Ten years later this seems to have died down. One does not hear too many people too openly insist that the Rebbe never died, or is divine, or will be resurrected. . . Chabad has resumed, albeit without traditional leadership. There was never a new Rebbe appointed. One hopes that they do that soon.

I also remember rather fondly ending up in Gam Gam in Venice one Friday night. I had a quite pleasant meal there right on the water. Gam Gam is a Kosher restaurant operated by the Chabad community there. Again, I am not sure how I got there, but I it was fun.

I also recall the civilian rabbi who came in to Fort Knox for a little while each Sunday. He too was Lubavitch. He was not, to be hones, the most charismatic fellow, but he was nice, and he was there. This meant a lot to us there in Basic Combat Training. Basic Combat Training is brutal. The rabbi's presence each Sunday was comforting and reassuring, even if you are like me, one who is not too interested in God or religion or any such stuff.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

My very diverse school [sic]

The last issue of my university newpaper had the reports of a poll askingthe faculty members who they plan on voting for. There were not many respondents and I have no idea how representative the answers were, but here is what basically happened. Every respondednt wrote almost the same thing. They all were planning to vote for Kerry. They of course all offered the same disclaimer: They would rather vote for Nader, but given the way the 2000 election went, they were going to stick with Kerry.

I remember marvelling to myself two weeks ago when I read it that I am in the most diverse city on the planet, most likely in one of the most diverse educational institutions in the world, and still the faculty all manages to have the same opinion. I mean there were blacks who gave that answer, whites, hispanics, women, gays, you name it. What the hell is the point of diversity if everyone ends up with the same opinion at the end? Isn't diversity supposed to be about the clas of opinions. Isn't it supposed to force us to question our dogmas, instead of reenforcing them? According to Professor Bauerlein things are no different anywhere else, and moreover he thinks it is a bad idea. I, of course, could not agree more. Why tout diversity if you are not really diverse, but merely colorful. Walpaper can be colorful, but that does not make for a good university.

Man, I just wish I really believed all these academic, intellectual, cultural and religious dogmas that get thrown out. Life would be so much easier if I just hated Bush, loved Nader, believed in the labor theory of value, read Harry Potter and the Da Vinchy Code, watched football, ate in McDonalds, wore whatever happens to be fashionable at the moment, and was very superficial. But I do none of those things. So life just sucks for me, doesn't it?

Veterans Day Parade

Today I got to March in the Veteran's Day Parade. I hope I did not get on TV or anything. It was weird watching all these people videotape you and take pictures of you though. It was not a bad event and we even had some fun.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Review of Penelope Maddy's Realism in Mathematics

Maddy's Realism in Mathematics is a spirited defense of the position she calls “compromise Platonism” and “set theoretic realism” in the philosophy of mathematics. The position is that Mathematical objects, sets in particular, exist, just like ordinary medium size objects exist.

The book is really good, and I won’t really summarize it here. But basically what happens is that she defend this position on epistemological grounds. Maddy claims that we have the same epistemic access to mathematical objects as we do for any other. (This is a way of handling one of the famous Benacerraf problems.) That is we form beliefs about sets, from a psychological perspective, the same way we do about ordinary objects. We also perceive sets in the same way we perceive ordinary objects. There is also a section on defending the axioms of set theory. We need some intuitive grounds for choosing the axioms that set theory uses, as they are the other part of the problem. The sets are one thing, and the axioms for set theory another.

I have some problems with the book which I will outline below, however, despite the length of the critiques, the book was a good, and important read. It is definitely going to stay an important book in the philosophy of mathematics for a while.

Much of what follows are just random points that I wanted to make about the book.

My first problem with the book is that I really do not see the similarity between forming beliefs about objects and sets. They just seem way too different. The similarities are apparent, and I can’t help thinking that a question is being begged somewhere. We form beliefs about set, but that is if the sets exist. If not the beliefs we form are merely a convenient fiction, or a convenient way of talking.

What if all the sets disappeared and only their elements were left? What would the world look like? Maddy often jumps from elements to elements of a set. I find that jump a bit unintuitive.

Maddy often talks as if number supervenes on objects. (see for example on p 158.) As long as there are objects, there is number. I find that kind of talk odd.

On p 89 the following claim is made: “Knowledge of numbers is knowledge of sets because numbers are properties of sets.” Is that a valid inference? I do not see how that follows.

Axioms are not really all that intuitive. Their usefulness in math is not, contrary to Maddy’s claim, akin to indispensability arguments in physics. We would not loose arithmetic if the axiom of choice were forbidden. Mathematics would just be somewhat more impoverished. But we could still do much of it. There is nothing wrong with that. No one ever complained that there were too few fundamental forces or things that follow from them. The more axioms we have, the more robust our mathematics is. But adding an axiom because it is somewhat useful is not the same as adding something that fundamental that it is indispensable to the discipline.

Along with that, Maddy makes use of a notion of “intrinsic support” which seemed unclear. I thought the analogy with science was misleading too.

The sixth problem I had was that when talking about “extrinsic support” for axioms the phrase “verifiable consequences” is used in a very strange way. Maddy is using it to mean that an axiom can be said to have verifiable consequences if we show that the axiom that the theorem relies on can be proved without it. But as far the theorems that do not need the axiom, it shows us nothing, ie, at best the axiom is unnecessary, and at worst it is false. And what about the theorems that can’t be proved without the axiom? Are those the unverifiable ones? The existence of those theorems tells us that there are cases for which the axiom is “unverifiable.” And the verifiable ones tell us that the axiom is superfluous. Thus it seems that the condition is, at the very least, odd. So, in looking for “extrinsic conditions” for supporting a given axiom, being verifiable, is unhelpful. (And keep in mind that the way it appears, “verifiable” is only used as a partial analogy with science.)

“Natural” is also not used in the same way when assessing extrinsic support. Some mathematical consequences are considered “natural”. It is hard to say what that means though. The given example is the “zigzag pattern of separation properties in the projective hierarchy generated by projective determinacy (and hence SC) is considered more natural than the Pi-side pattern of V=L.” Without explaining what this means a pattern like: /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\. . . . seems more natural than /\__________. . . . I personally do not see this. Certainly there is a sense in which the former has a certain appeal, but I am not sure if it is a mathematically significant appeal. Here is why. There is a very simple analogue to our “unnatural” pattern. That is the distribution of primes among the even versus odd numbers. That pattern is /\___________, where the first (and only) “peak” is the number 2, the only even number. The rest lie with the odds. So I am not sure what to make of the “natural” criterion and why it is valuable as a guide to valuable intuitions.

Next, a problem I had with chapter 2 is that just because for some reason we form set in our head, and we can generate a coherent epistemology, that does not show we have a coherent metaphysics. Isn’t the whole epistemological discussion contingent on the metaphysics being correct? If not it is like having an epistemology about unicorns. I can tell you how we see them, but only if they are really there. I can even tell you how to see them if they are not, and that is a problem.

Finally, and this is no fault of Maddy’s, and to her credit she deals with a nascent theory, the penultimate section deals with issues of structuralism. The section seems like it would benefit from more work on structuralism. What may stem from Shapiro, and the promising work emerging from Koslow’s logic were not available when she wrote the book, though it might be worth rewriting the section given new developments.

Sorry these were really schetchy notes on the book. But it was definitely worth the effort reading it.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Day the Enlightenment Went Out?

The NY Times has a piece by some Professor, Gary Wills whose main point seems to be that the reason Bush got elected was because people are fairly uncritical and Faith, or misinformation triumphed over fact. Naturally he is wrong. That article was pathetic. The election does not symbolize a triumph of belief over fact. I would be willing to bet anything that your average redneck, if told by Bush himself that there was no connection between Quaida and Iraq would still vote for Bush. Could you see him going to church on Sunday in his pick-up truck saying that he no longer can vote for Bush because he found out this interesting fact, that Iraq and Qaida are not really connected? Or he is going hunting with his friend and he just shoots a deer, and in their quiet moment when they just got finishing gutting their kill, he tells his friend that he is not too sure about how much he actually believes in the BS that the good reverend Billy Bob spouts every Sunday. You think he will then decide, well, as long as I am having religious doubts, I will go back to standard working class values like socialized health care, legalization of weed, and gay marriage, and then go vote Democrat? These people do not vote for Bush because they believe in some nutty things. They believe in those nutty things because they are they type to vote for Bush.

This was a very pathetic article spouting the standard crappy lines that let the left keep feeling good about itself. It allows the left to retain its self-righteousness by saying that everyone who doesn't agree with them is a medieval, backward, racist, and that the reason why their country did not win is not because people evaluated the merits of the candidates and more people liked their opponents. But rather because there are more nuts out there than sane people. That happens to be true, but they forget that they are just as nutty for believing these political dogmas, as these other types are believeing academic dogmas. If you tell a Kerry supporter that Iraq did sponser terrorism to the tune of $25,000 per suicide bomber, thus make Saadam Heussain a major sponsor of terrorism he will simply counter that there was one terrorist group that we have no evidence that he supported, namely Quaid. Thus it is bad to want him ousted, because we have no evidence he supported our particular terrorist group. . . . The economic dogmas that lefties believe make even less sense.

I hate these fucking NY Times writers who have a mandate to write whatever sounds good to their lefty audience regardless of how little sense it makes, and what is even worse is that smart people read it and get suckered in to thinking it makes sense. This guy probably told the same thing to his history class back at Northwestern, and they all probably wrote it down, and it will probably be on their final exam, and we will see the rise of another stupid and uncritical generation of students.

However, and we see this in the end of Professor Wills' piece, I do suspect that now we will start seeing a lot of begging for favors. They will all take the same form: Bush is a miserable fanatic. BUT, to prove he is a uniter and not a divider, and to heal this country, he should really do what the democrats want him to do. Naturally he can't do that because he got elected precisely because he said he would not do those things.

So as much as I want Bush to change his backward ways about many things, the democrats put him in a corner where he had to appeal to those who would never let him change. I do take solace in the fact that it is usually the right who takes the bold and often unpopular steps toward Justice, and conciliation. (eg, Nixon going to China, signing Title IX, getting out of Vietnam. Reagan making MLK day a federal holiday, Begin making peace with Egypt. Sharon Pulling out of Gaza. . . ) The left never has a mandate to do these things. They are generally supported by the fanatics and strongly opposed by the right and the moderates. The right is generally unopposed except by people farther to the right than them, and NOONE will ever care what they think.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Let the healing begin

This whole election is really over. Finished. It is now time to heal and rebuild. The media tends to tell us that we are a divided nation. If that is true (and I am skeptical) then we must start to rebuild, with the Republicans toning down on their retrogressive religious agenda, and the Democrats getting rid of some of their rabid hate of anyone different then them.

But that is not the real healing I am talking about. The real healing we need in this country is not on a political party scale, but rather on a personal and individual one.

You may recall a scene toward the end of Orwell's 1984, after he was tortured and he finally loved big brother. There was a point when he could hold out no longer and he just gave in, despite what he really believed, and what he really felt.

I too remember that I was on the verge of caving, and I had many sane friends who actually did. In New York there was tremendous pressure to hate Big Brother. People expressing support for Bush were socially ostracized, talked about, vilified, isolated, condemned, shamed, and otherwise invited to feel like they were mediaeval simpletons. I personally experienced all of this. I was censured, insulted, yelled at, and made fun of.

In response I had to stop communicating with some of my more rabid friends. I spoke with exactly zero of my academic colleagues, as they were all flaming Nader-is-a-bit-too-far-to-the-Right types. I took to lashing out on my students for their poor and sloppy thinking about this, even though they were all just repeating what they had heard in their sociology classes. I had no meaningful discussions about this election, because those who stayed my friends tended to agree with me, and those who did not agree were impossible to talk to.

I became very close with those who agreed with me. We hunkered down and came to feel like it was us against the world - and that really built up a sense of camaraderie.

But it is over. Perhaps in a few days when the flow of Bush-really-stole-the-elections-again-.-.-.-I-saw-them-burning-Kerry-ballots!!!!!! emails dies down, we can start to rebuild our friendships.

I know it is easy to say this when you are the " winner". I like to think that I would have said this regardless of who won the election. But I really do want my New York back. I really want us to go back to the way things were. Bush got the votes of 40% of the state, and 25% of my county. That makes 1 in every 4 Brooklynites who probably feel like they won the election but lost their friends.

I am grateful to have had many friends who place friendship before politics, though few of them could stand to mix friendship with politics. I thank them.

I would like to make a public appeal to the good citizens (and visitors) of my beloved city: Can't we all just get along?

The time has come to make these next four years one of progress and coexistence. We can be bitter and hate each other and sit in wait for the next election so we can get another chance, we can continue to feel resentment, OR, we can work toward making New York a better place now. I think that it is time New York had a Take Your Formal Political Rival To Lunch week. Become friends again. Hook up. Forget politics for a bit. Talk about the future. We have three and a half years before we have to see another political campaign add that we care about. Relish it. Because, come 2008, you will not be on speaking terms.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Why this election sucks

I am so glad that the election season is over, and we can stop listening to all this election crap. Now I predict the courts will be doing battle for another few days and there will be fodder enough for countless books and angry Americans to complain to their grandchildren.

This has been a crappy campaign, and whoever wins should not be too proud of himself. Whoever the winner is, he failed to unite the American people. The electorate will be angry for the next four yeas.

This campaign saw the rewriting of all the election rules. Thanks to the internet, campaign donations were transparent, a very annoying fact. Second, all sort of loopholes were found to evade every campaing finance law and we saw the financing of campaigns by billionarires with juvenile agendas. Third, campaign propoganda hit an all time low with the likes of Michael Moore's junk, and all the partisian follow-up. Fourth, the debates made any sane person want to cry about the fact that one of the two debators will be the next president. Fifth, the number of lawyers involved in this election threatens to rewrite the nature of democracy itself, where elections are not decided by the people, and they are won by the side who can disqualify the most of their opponents votes. Sixth, third party candidates are increasingly marginalized. After the last election where it looked like there was a shot, now it will be a long time for a third part candidate to get any respect. Finally, thanks to the entertainment industry, we will most likely have the highest politically-illiterate number of people voting ever. The election can normally rely on the fact that people who know absolutely NOTHING about the candidates are just not all that interested in voting, so that the actual electorate is somewhat informed. This year, we all suspect that there will be a high number of people voting just for the sake of pressing the shiny buttons in the secret box. MTV did a great disservice in getting out the stoner vote. These people are neiter informed nor concerned about the fate of the nation. There is no need for them to vote .

Knowing that the winner will not change the face of this countryvery much, many Americans will look back on this elecetion and ask themselves "What was I thinking?" To them I answer "absolutely nothing".

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Most important election ever?

I am so sick of hearing people say that this is the most important elevtion ever. It is not at all. This election is rather trivial. The most important election in a long time was last election, though we really did not know it at the time.

Last election decided, in advance, how we were going to respond to the already planned events of 9/11. Last election decided that we would go in to Iraq. Last election decided what the US relationship to the world will be. Last election decided the US relationship to Israel. Last election decided whether or not the country would have a decent domestic policy, and how to respond to a wounded economy.

At this point, in the immediate future, the economy will not change dramatically regardless of who the US president is. This election cannot reverse the war on Terror or the war in Iraq. This election cannot reverse the precedent we set with the "Bush doctrine". This election will neither encourage nor discourage any great constitutional shifts.

This election will not change the patriot act. This election will not improve the plight of third party candidates. Actually it is already worse. This election already made a farce of our democracy by insisting that thousands of lawyers are needed to oversee the election - months before it happened.

This election might alter US environmental policy. I am not sure if it will be for the better or worse, but either way it is nothing urgent. This election might speed up funding on stem cells, but this is inevitable, it is just a question of "when it will happen".

This election has a good chance of deciding one or two supreme court Justices. There is also a good chance that the president will change the morale of the military for the worse. Taxes may go up a few hundred dollars for some.

So tell me why this is the most important election ever. This is one of those rediculous mantras that I wish people would stop repeating. An election in an important period in history, such as this most likely is, is not the same as an important election.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Review of The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza

I picked up Lawrence Block's The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza wondering if Spinoza's work might be involved there somehow. It was not. Spinoza's work was mentioned, not used.

But despite my disapointment with the complete lack of philosophy, it was a good quick novel. Wittgenstein was said to have an affinity for detective novels, and this is one he would probably have enjoyed.

There is this burglar, you see, who solves a burglary and a murder which he was somewhat deeply involved in.

The books is a rather quick read. Not overly memorable, but not bad either.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Good cause

Last night I hung out with "S" who is back from almost a year in Iraq on R and R. He has a lot to say about having been there. After a snack and beer in Yaffa on St. Mark's Place, we went to The Library for more Brooklyn Lagers, and then to that other bar on the corner of A and 2nd which was packed so we didn't stay. From there we went to Max Fish, but that too was too crowded, so we were off to Iggy's for more beer and White Russians. All good places, although none of them had Yingling taps that worked.

He told me about this program he is involved with that gets CDs for soldiers in Iraq. It seems like a worthy cause. It lets the troops know that they are thought about.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Review of Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is a good read. It is the more or less autobiographical story of Orwell's experience with the very-underclass of Paris and London.

In Paris we hear about what life is like for one who is forced to work as a plongeur or the lowest of the low in the resteraunt industry. The work, the sweat, the heat, the lack of sleep is all well described as is the life, accommodations, and frequent abuses of the individual.

The same is true of the life in London. We hear about what it is like to be a tramp. Much of the narrative is dedicated to describing the conditions in which these people were forced to endure. The final few chapters contain clear reformnist polemics about how to alleviate the plight of the tramp and the worker in England.

A few minor points. First: for those like me who speak no French, there are a few too many phrases that you will just not figure out. I hate missing the point of some line or paragraph because the author assumes I know another language. So in the first part of the book that takes place in Paris, there is a lot of local color added by throwing in many Frenchisms, there is also a bit lost because it got irritating.

Second, One sees the origins of Orwell's interest in language here. It is worth noting that Orwell has a section of Tramp Slang in the book, together with some etymological speculations.

Third, In this book, ones sees some early anti-Semitism on Orwell's part. In a 1945 anti-anti-Semitism Essay he writes that after 1934 anti-Semitism ceased alltogether to be respectable in literature and entertainment. Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, apparently just makes the cut. There are at least half-a-dozen anti-semetic remarks and statements in the book which maight make one feel uncomfortable, if those sorts of things make you uncomfortable. Orwell changed later, but the early Orwell still has certain prejudices unexamined. This is particularly queer given the liberal minded nature of the work - improving the lot of those affliced by societal prejudice.

Overall though the book was a good and quick read, and it is a good examination of poverty in England. The bookd did not have the impact of say Jacob Riis's book about poverty in New York, but it should hit a sympathetic chord with anyone who reads it.

Review of Smoke Over Golan

Uriel Ofek's Smoke Over Golan was written in the very immediate aftermath of Israel's Yom Kippur War. The war was a rather close call for Israel. Israel was surprised, and there were some rather large inital setbacks.

This is a children's novel. It is about a boy whose parents more to the then-uncharted Golan Heights to a farm where he becomes the only child in his school. There are a few adventures and a subplot about the boy's friendship with a Syrian who lives in the valley below the farm in the Golan Heights. The friendship transcends the politics which were hardly understood by the 10-year old.

The sub-plot should have been more well developed, but the story was good - for a children's book. This is not profound literature, but I am sure it has amused many 11-year olds.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

my week

So a bit of catching up on my week. I am on a three week mission. I am in New York and New Jersey almost the whole time, so I am not seeing any exotic locations or meeting really fascinating people, but I am doing something fairly OK, and working for good people. It is OK. I have to wake up really early every day, and I am pretty much with the same eight people all the time, but it is OK. The timing couldn't be worse though, getting me right in the middle of a semester.

I know things happened in the news, but I really did not have the time to see them. I heard Olive Drab this past Monday. They were good. I really like them live.

I got very little sleep lately.

I have had lots of conversations with lots of strangers on the subway lately. It is weird, quite a few strangers have started chatting with me. One was this gay guy who was really hitting me a lot. I was too polite, to the point of perhaps leading him on a bit. But then he got pretty obscene, and I felt a bit awkward. I wish women hit on me like that. Then there was this black guy who had been a military attache to various embassies. He was a pretty nice guy. I wish we had more time to chat. There were also these girls from my neighborhood who started to talk to me. On was interested in politics and the war in Iraq, and the other two were just weird. The list goes on.

I need sleep.

Friday, October 15, 2004

My Cereal Woes

I was in the supermarket mear my house the other day trying to get a few things I needed. One thing I really wanted was Alpha Bits cereal. I am a rather big fan. My supermarket carries - and I swear I counted - over 120 varieties of cereal, and there were no Alpha Bits. They did have the Alpha Bits with marshmallos, but I hate marshmallos. What is the world coming to? Over 120 varieties and no Alpha Bits!

Monday, October 11, 2004

Penn's self-righteous letter

By now we have all seen Sean Penn's arrogant letter to the makers of Team America World Police.

I still find it amazing that we let actors talk. I still find it amazing that actors are news. When we ask why the electorate is so uninformed, the answer seems so obvious. The media dedicates way too much space to what Sean Penn said about a movie.

Naturally, those who sit around and spend their time worrying about actors instead of politics should not vote. Who the heck wants semi-literate people who cannot distinguish reality from movies voting? I certainly don't.

(And for the Sean Penns out there I am one of those who may eventually be in harm's way in Iraq.)

Pick a zinger

An opinion piece in today's Columbia University Student Newspaper suggests that "It only takes one witty, original saying that will reach the undecided voters to determine this election". This is sadly true. The author actually seems to be endorsing that the candidates do this, ie, they pick a good line and ride it to victory.

It is sad that even those in our Ivy League have given up on political debate in favor of good one-liners.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Review of The Quark and the Jaguar

About 10 years ago, Murray Gell-Mann, the 1969 winner of the Noble Prize in Physics, wrote a rather interesting book: The Quark and the Jaguar. This book covers a whole variety of topics, but there seems to be two main points. The first point is scientific: that the universe is quite simple and from this simplicity all sorts of complex phenomena can emerge. The second point is polemical, namely that we should take care of the planet.

The author pretty much discusses or alludes to every famous scientific principle that is currently being talked about. Maxwell's Demon, genetic algorithms, Schrodinger's Cat, the theory of evolution, non-linear dynamics, market economies, Grand Unified Theories, and of course quantum mechanics, just to name a few. Gell-Mann clearly knows something about everything, and many of these things are interestingly discussed in the book, and a lot of them are even explained sufficiently so that you can get an idea of what it is.

(There is an interesting chapter on religious belief too, which I think might contain an early version of theories just coming out of cognitive science.)

Much of this sometimes seems disconnected, but the author is trying to describe the science of the simple and complex. Sometimes it seems to loose track of that. But the whole read, was, I thought, interesting.

At the end of the book it gets polemical. There is a slight nod toward explains the value of diversity on the planet. Both mostly there is a lot of discussion about how it should happen, what should be done, and what we would have to do to change. I thought that part of the book was weak, as I was not told why we should care about the rain forests, except that perhaps we might find some wonder drug there that some indigenous tribe has been using to cure cancer for millennia that noon picked up on yet. I would have liked to see some real good examples of what useful things ethnobotnists have found that we did not know about before. Also, I thought that the talk about the necessary change that would have to come about was very rough. I would have like some creative details.

But the book was a good read, and the style was sufficiently engaging. There were even a few interesting philosophical points along the way. It was definitely not time wasted in reading the book.

Thursday, September 30, 2004


The presidential debate just ended. Boy did they both just suck. I can't even bother to comment. They both sucked so bad. I can't believe I have to vote for one of these people.


I am totally behind on my music. But I am sure that Interpol has some great publicists, because, even though I do not read that many magazines, every one I picked up this week had a spread on them. They were in Details, Time Out New York, and New York Magazine. It was weird how often I saw their name this week. I think I will have to go out and hear what the're all about.

Monday, September 27, 2004

It's about time

It is about time that those racist Frenchies did this. They now have their first non-white newscaster. And for my money, she does not look too black. The French have been resisting dealing with non-whites forever. Most of Europe is like that. It is no wonder that they never want to go in and help free a country. The last time a European country sent in troops to help someone was in the Balkans, where everyone is white. They TALKED about the Sudan, they sighed in retrospect about the lack of US intervention in Rawanda, and they endlessly bitch about the Israelis and Arabs. But they have hardly lifed a finger in the support of non-whites. It is no wonder. Until now, it was supposed to be that the non-white were the news and the whites reported it. That must color (no pun intended) the way they see the world. They have not learned anything from World War II, have they?

Chechnya and the Russians

It dawned on me that in the struggle between the Chechnyans and the Russians, The russians are fighting an unjust war, though there is no indication that they are fighting it unjustly. The Chechnyans are fighting a just war, though they are fighting it unjustly.

It is hard to escape the feeling that the Chechnyans are more in the wrong here, but I suspect that that feeling comes from the fact that it is psychologically worse to see someone fighting and using children in the process.

I think that this is an entirely mistaken way of looking at it.

To the extent that the Chechnyans are worse off for being ruled by the Russians, the Russians are in the wrong in a very specific way. The Chechnyans are also in the wrong in a very different way. It seems that this is a very clear example of an unjust war versus a war fought unjustly.

Yellow Bracelets

What is the deal with these neon yellow foam bracelets that everyone is wearing? Are they symbolic or something, or are they a fashion statement? I actually kinda like them.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Asian rockers

Why are there so few Asian-American music figures, as compared to Whites, Blacks, Latinos, or even Jews?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Civil Wars

Lots of people are talking about civil wars. First there is the war in the Sudan. That is serious, and I will save that for another time. But the other two big discussions are about the possibility of civil war in Iraq, and the possible Jewish civil war in Israel. I suspect that there is a third that wought to be looked at.

First, the one in Iraq is happening. Mosques have been attacked by muslims almost since the beginning of the US overthrow of the regime. That is clearly a sign of an impending civil war, so I think that there is a chance that unless the US or Iraqi army takes strong control over Iraq, there will be a civil war. It is actually typical of Arab countries to have a civil war as soon as there is a power vaccuum. This is a way of life that goes way way back. After the prophet Mohammed, in a hurculean task, managed to unite the warring Arab tribes during his lifetime they reverted to fighting almost right after his death. That fued still goes on. That is the Sunni Shi'ite dispute. Mohammed left and there was a power vaccuum, and two groups wanted it filled.

We see the same thing in other places where there are/were power vaccuums. Take Lebanon. Lebanon's civil war was started essentially because there was no strong suppoirt for a central power, effectively creating a situation where no one group had power. Ther is much in Arab history that can support this.

Israel is different. I suspect that reports of a civil war in Israel are highly exaggerated. Israel had a civil war about 3000 years ago, but it would seem like the army would not go and attack Israelis today, even the settlers. There will no doubt be much tear gas, and perhaps even the occassional rubber bullet, but I suspect the body count in any confrontation will not come near the triple digits. The overwhelming majority of the settlers, for all their fanatacism, I would bet, could not bring themselves to open fire on the IDF. Not at all near it.

What we should all be concerned about is the impending civil war in Gaza. If Sharon pulls out, there will be a big power vaccuum in Gaza with the PLO, Hamas, and a whole plethora of religious groups, communists, moderates, and power junkies trying to wrest controll of Gaza. Currently no one has enough support to take controll and I do not see democracy emerging without a fight.

Naturally a civil war would be good for Israel in the short run, but probably not in the long run. Moreover, lots of Palestinians would get killed. Naturally someone would have to step in and do something. Either way Israel will get blamed for causing it.

It would behove the EU, UN, US, and Israel, before they rush to solve this problem, figure out how they will go about solving the one that will emerge. We do not need another Lebanon bordering Israel. We do not need another lebanon, period.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

I moved

I have recently moved to a new apartment. I am totally in love with my new neighborhood, and apartment too. I never knew that a simple purchase involved my signing so many documents, and at the end it was fairly unceremoniously over. There are so many things one has to do. It is odd how many things you initially need when moving in to a new place. This has taken up a ton of my time, and I expect it to take more. But it is a labor of love.

But, if anyone has any advice. . .

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Rosh Hashana

I would like to wish everyone out there a happy Rosh Hashana.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Ethics question about voting

I was wondering about the following ethics question. It is one of those questions that I see an ethicist writing a long drawn out paper with proofs and lemmas and lot of other stuff, but I really do not have a clear intuition about, so I am not sure where to start.

What if I am poorly informed about the electoral process and the candidates available in the election in which I am eligible to vote. Am I ethically obligated not to vote? We tend to take it for granted that voting is your right, but it is very plausible for one to have a legal right to do something which you have a moral right to refrain from doing.

I would think that it is fairly irresponsible to vote for someone you know little about, in an electoral process you barely understand. Moreover I would guess it is unethical.

Then again, perhaps one might say that if I chose to vote using a non-reliable procedure, such as heads I vote for Bush, Tails I vote for Kerry, I am not violating any ethical precepts. It may be silly, but not unethical.

Do I have any obligation to vote for someone who I believe would be 1)in my best interest 2) In the best interest of the country? 3) In the best interest of humanity 4) in the best interest of Jesus and his followers? 5) In the best interest of the least well off?

I can really see this one going either way. Perhaps in the same way that I feel I have personal obligations to myself or others, I can feel I have to use my influence to make the public to take on those obligations as well. On the other hand, I can see it being argued very well that I have personal obligations to myself, the poor, the Arab world, or whomever, but I have no right, or no obligation in any case, to attempt to sway the vote (with my personal vote) toward a candidate who will aid me in fulfilling my personal obligations. Perhaps I prefer to have the president elected by luck (Ie, the coin-toss).

This can get really involved. I think I need to think about this more.

on the old notion that Zionism is Racism

In the olden days (up until a few years ago) there was a standing UN resolution that Zionism was racism. Not like I care about UN resolutions, nor should you, but bare with me.

I think I now understand why all of Europe was able to take this resolution seriously, and even perhaps why they believed it independent of their antisemitism.

Nationalism means different things to different people. In Europe nationalism is a very bad thing. When you hear that say a Frenchman or a German is a nationalist, what you are supposed to think is that he believes in a whole bunch of things. First he believes in the inherent superiority of his local culture, race, language, ethnicity, and religion. He believes in removing all other traces of otherness from HIS land. He believes in a form of racial cleansing, and he believes that his language is the only accptable and pure language. He believes in a whole bunch of crap that no self-respecting human believes in anymore.

When an American calls himself a nationalist, he means none of this. An American means he believes in democracy and capitalism, and he happes to like his life in the U.S. Being a nationalist in the US has no racial connotations, or anything like that. SOMETIMES it means that you think everyone should learn English. That is about it.

So when Americans and Europeans fight over the the goods and evils of nationalism, they are generally not really understanding each other. Each thinks the other is talking about something the other is in fact not talking about. This is obvious to anyone who is American and has had a conversationa about natioanlaism with a European.

But on to my main point.

Zionism is clearly a form of nationalism. There are various forms of Zionism, but however you look at it, it has something to do with Jews building a nation, and a nationality. When you have nations and nationalities, you have nationalism.

So when Europeans heard that someone wanted to equate Zionism with racism, it was natural for them to agree. After all, Zionism is a nationalist movement. Nationalist movenents(in their world) tend to be racist, so Zionism is probably racism. Thus it was natural for them to support that.

Americans on the other hand, had no such notion. For us, nationalism is not associated racism, it is a naive patriotism, which is something we are generally comfortable with: if you have a good country, there is nothing wrong with liking it.

I think this explains how, whith a straight face, Europeans can insist that anything Zionist is inherently racist, and how with an equally straight face, Americans can think that Europeans are just being Antisemetic.

In reality, the Europeans are not being antisemetic, they are simply projecting, that is, they are assuming that since many Europeans are racist facists, and call it nationalism, so to are the Zionists.

Monday, September 13, 2004

9/11/04, and 9/12/04

Once again on September 11 I was in the Army. Last year I first checked in to my unit on September 11. This year I returned after training. There was a fire department ceremony on my base which I saw. It was a rather uninteresting traininig drill, but we actually did a bunch of semi-productive things.

Why modern moderate muslims should study the Talmud

According to this article new moderate muslims are fighting to change the shariah, or code of Islamic law. There are many things in Islamic law that need reform. Some things are doctrinal, such as the preaching of hate against infidels, and other things are legal, such as divorce law.

The doctrinal stuff are fairly unimportant. Anyone can preach anything, and call it anything. You can preach tolerance and call it Islam, or you can preach hate and call it Islam. Religions are like that. So some mosques will get more fanatical, some less, and others will stay the same. Any of those can happen, and the moderate enlightened Muslims can feel relatively free to do what they want.

The legal stuff is trickier. Judaism has had a ton of legal stuff that were very unpopular. Some legal requirements were not just unpopular, but burdensome and dangerous. Jews have dealt with this in two different ways, neither has been picked up by Islam, with dangerous results.

Here is how Jews have dealt with it. Jews have done two things. First, There have been demonational rifts, where some people develop a new theology within Judaism, but different. This should ideally keep everyone inside Judaism, but barely. But when you have a Jewish theology, it is hard to deny their Jewishness even if it is radically different than xorthodox theology. The second way Jews have dealt with the problems of modernity was through legal innovation. Jews have been doing this for over two thousand years. There is an old expression that goes something like "where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way". This is true, usually. When the Rabbis needed social change they looked right in to Jewish law, and found the loopholes they needed. As any lawyer will tell you, there is no such thing as a contract without a loophole. Neither is there a Jewish law that can't be bent or molded or gotten around.

Jewish law has countless examples. One of the oldest and most famous is the pruzbul, a document that allowed Jews to collect debts even after the sabbatical year passed. The collection of private debt after the sabbatical year, is prohibited by the bible. However at some point the rabbis saw an economic problem arise from people who were simply not loaning money out of fear that the debt will be dragged out until the sabbatical year and then be absolved. The rabbis found a legal way around it by developing a contract that transfers debts to the public sphere. Public debt were not absolved during the sabbatical year, and with this contract society benefitted in a much needed way.

Islam apparently, has two other ways of dealing with problems. 1) Ignore the problems and revert to a reactionary fundamentalism. 2) Those who want to change will change, and simply stop being accepted as real muslims.

There is unfortunately no middle ground. Again, middle ground is not compromise, but rather working within a system to show how it can be molded to suit today's needs. Moderate muslims need to learn how to use the legal system, instead of being used by it. The law of God should be taken precisely, and so should the exceptions. There must be clever enough Muslims out there to find some.

A process like this should be by people who have authority within the Islamic world. Many authors are calling for reform. Some are simply advocating for something akin to a protestant reformation. That is, chuch the old, and simply change. This might work for some, but it will just make a further rift in Islam. This is fine, but not enough. What Muslims need to do are find people who are respected in the community of Islamic law and justify and explain how some new reforms are within the confines of the will of Allah.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Perhaps he is running in the wrong country

According to this poll Kerry is much more popular in other countries than he is here. Perhaps he should run for office in the Dominican Republic, Kazakhstan, or Iran. I would certainly vote for him as the president of Lybia.

Poor Kerry. It must suck to be him and believe in democracy.

Past few days

The past few days have been rather hectic. I have been staying all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. I ate in all sorts of new retaraunts, and did not sleep enough. I am still readjusting to civilian life. I have not had much time to think about anything, but the news has been mildly depressing, and did not inspire me to write about it.

Yesterday was interesting. The subways were all jacked up. It took me forever to get where I was going. For half my trip I had this guy from Jersey who did not speak any English follow me around to get to 81st street. He was passed off to me by this MTA worker who didn't speak any English when I asked her how I could get to roughly the same place.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004


New York in now gripped with all this election stuff. The GOP convention is taking over my city. Manhattan was much less dense with people yesterday, as many were scared to go in to work in fear of the crowds. Sunday saw lots of protesters in the streets.

It dawned on me that it has been about three and a half decades since the immature, illiterate, ignorant, untutored, and unwashed masses took an interest in politics. It is about time that they started again.

In the Army I had a lot of discussions about politics. I mentioned in my last post that the Army is encouraging voting. Being the older and wiser one in my company, people often thought I had insight in to the electins. Many people simply came up to me and asked "who should I vote for?". I naturally did not answer the question straight out. I generally asked them about their social and economic beliefs and tried to fit a candidate in to that. Something I kept hearing was "Now that I am in the military, I have to look at things differently. NOW, which candidate is best for me?" I had to honestly tell many people that I did not know. There are so many factors to consider, that I am not sure who is working in the best interest of your average enlisted person in the Army.

There was a lot of genuine curiosity. Many of the people were 18 years old, and this rather polarized campaign is their introduction to politics. I feel bad for them. But, to be honest, the military is not known for being the most intellectual segment of the population, and nonetheless, the questions I heard were genuine and sometimes downright thoughtful. It was inspiring. Perhaps there is hope for the future.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

It's hard to play footsie when you're wearing combat boots

First of all, I have returned to the civilian world. I finished my Army training for this summer. Miraculously, the Army let me out about a week early. How it happened is weird, and it was a last minute thing that would not have happened if I had been informed a few hours later, but it happened. I wanted to leave a few hours early, but apparently the army does not do small favors, only big ones.

Second, I wanted to write a few things about the Army that I thought were worth mentioning. We were given a class on EO (equal opportunity) as the Army defines. I have to say I was impressed. Having spent my last ten years in universities, I have seen countless EO-type conferences, speeches, lectures, warnings, and admonitions. They were all stupid and boring, and made me want to physically harm the person who gave the talk. However, the Army has an interesting CD-Rom that was used, and I thought really made the point well. A drill instructor (hands-down the least popular one) led the discussion, and people came away with the point. It was also non-boring.

I remember last summer when I was in basic training, there was a film on the law of land warfare, and it had to be the cheesiest dumbest presentation I ever saw. It looks like it was made by soldiers-cum-actors in the early 70's when it was their duty to present it, regardless if anyone was supposed to take it seriously. Hopefully they are working on a better version of that. A few weeks ago, we had a pretty dumb class on how to deal with civilians in a combat zone. There was a powerpoint slide-show. That sucked. However, we did some actual practicing, where some of us were soldiers and others were angry Iraqis, and that part was OK.

The Army is getting a bit more practical in training soldiers. We did a few exercises that are brand new, but are designed to reflect the realities on today's battlefield. We learned about Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which are killing people all over Iraq (what every Israeli knows as a chefetz chashud). We also learned how to deal with convoys that are being attacked - especially when we are in them.

Third, the Army had all these rules about "fraternizing" between male and female trainees. There are all sorts of rules, most of which are useless because people do it all the time anyway. But I observed that given the way things were structured it is pretty hard "play footsie in combat boots". People tend to have these short intense flings on weekends. It is an interesting kind of relationship.

Fourth, The Army has been very in to voting. In theory the Drill Sergeants are supposd to encourage you to vote, though not influence them. I do remember though at one point a Drill Sergeant almost telling us to vote for Bush, and another a few days later almsot saying to vote against Bush. So that is that.

I also read three books this summer whihc I do not have time to comment on. 1) A More Elite Soldier: Pursuing a Life of Purpose by Chuck Holton, 2)A Time of Our Choosing: America's War in Iraq by Todd S. Purdum, and 3) Philosophy of Religion by William J. Wainwright.

That is all for now. I will get back to my civilian mode, and remind myself what the real world out here is like.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Tattoo place

So I wimped out of getting a tattoo yesterday. I went with 4 female soldiers yesterday to the Blue Horseshoe Tattoo place where three of them got tattoos. It was a fun military experience. Many soldiers get tatoos during training even though it is fairly discouraged, and they can likely get in to trouble for it. The tattoo artist for one of them was this guy with some interesting tattoos of his own. It was interesting watching it. It was the first time for one of them. The other two were vets.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Good training

My company spent most of this past week on an FTX (Field Training Exercize). It was pretty good if you don't mind not showering for a week or being eaten alive by eight different types of mosquitos, and six species of chiggers, etc. We had all sorts of classes that showed a little bit of how the Army is trying to adapt and give even us combat support troops a bit of practical training. We dealt with a lot of things that are typical of life in Iraq today. It was good. It has been a pretty good week overall. We got to play with even more heavy equiptment, and also shoot a lot of things. My squad really did well, and everyone was pleased.